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Ken Levine on Studio Culture: From Looking Glass to 2K Boston
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Ken Levine on Studio Culture: From Looking Glass to 2K Boston

July 17, 2009 Article Start Page 1 of 6 Next

What's the key ingredient to make a game as polished, creative, and unusual as BioShock was? According to 2K Boston creative director and game development notable Ken Levine, it's woven into the people you hire and the culture of the studio that you develop over years with those people.

Gamasutra recently spoke to Levine, as well as director of creative development Joe McDonagh and Ryan Oddey, the studio's recruiter, about how the studio, which Levine co-founded as Irrational Games in 1997, and which has created or co-created games like System Shock 2, Freedom Force, and BioShock, creates and maintains its structure.

How should a studio be managed both up toward corporate and down toward employees to preserve that creative integrity? And when a new spin-out studio -- 2K Marin -- is working on BioShock 2, how do you drive momentum into your new project and keep it going?

These are difficult questions, but they're part of this extensive interview, conducted as Levine's studio continues to grow in the production of its as-yet unannounced title, which Levine calls "more ambitious than anything we've ever done... substantially more ambitious than BioShock."

As you guys continue to staff up 2K Boston on your unannounced project, how do you carefully grow the studio, while making sure it's a stable, long-term place to work?

Ken Levine: We've never had a layoff in the history of our company. And I'm very proud of that. When we were a private company, and now we're part of a public company. And, you know, I can't make predictions for the future, but I think culturally we've always felt it was very important to hire the right people -- and not hire too many people so things get out of control -- and think about a plan.

One of the reasons, I think, that you see a lot of layoffs in this industry is that you have these huge products, and you don't have a plan for what you do afterward. So the product ends, and -- you see this day after day, you know -- teams get cut in half or shut down after the product ships, because there's no plan to move on for the future.

We've fortunately planned well. And that was very tricky when we were a private company, but it was very important to me. And, frankly, I think that's one of the reasons we've always been relatively small. It's because if you get a huge staff, that makes you feel good, and you sit out there, and you go, "Oh, look at my domain, here. I've got 200 people working on this product." But that's a tough number to carry at the end of a project.

So I think the way you convince your bosses is, you go and make the case. You say, "Look, here's the game. Here's what it's going to be like. Here's why I think it's going to be successful. Here's what I need you to do. And here's why I think you need to do it." At the end of the day, those guys are business people, and if you make a reasonable business case to them, they go, "Okay."

Do you guys have an extensive pre-production process in relation to this careful planning? I'm going to guess "yes". Could you talk about it?

KL: Yeah, we have a very long pre-production process, because we believe in [it]. If you go back and look at our ads and stuff, we've been recruiting for how many years now? For this product? A couple of years?

Ryan Oddey: It was a couple of years ago.

KL: Almost two years for this product. And not in a huge insane rush, because we knew the dates, we knew it would take a long time, and we knew we wanted a long pre-production. And we weren't like,"Okay, let's get all hands on deck!" Games are like snowballs: they accrete people over time; they grow in size slowly over time.

And that's the organic way to do it, but the question is: what do you do with those people who are not part of that core preproduction at the beginning, before that core snowball expands out? Well, one is you don't hire those people. But two: if they're there, I think the way the economics have developed in the industry -- we did a piece of DLC for BioShock PS3, and we did some tiny bit of DLC for the Xbox 360 stuff, that we did after the game was done.

And that was a passion for me. Finding those opportunities for not-full-scale projects, but these smaller projects, I think, is a really good transitional thing. It's a good way to bring people into experiences they wouldn't have had before, in terms of seniority.

The guys who did the DLC, none of them had done lead roles on previous projects, so they got that experience [being] leads there, while the core creative team was doing the pre-production work on the product that we're working on now.

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