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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 Previous Page 2 of 6 Next
You had to let some people leave to form 2K Marin to develop BioShock 2. Considering BioShock sprang from you -- how concerned are you that the Marin team has the tools it needs to be successful, and has the staff it needs, to do a thorough accounting of the property, too?

KL: Yeah, but, to some degree, when you're starting a new studio... There are two different goals in the maintenance of a good studio, and even building up of a good studio, versus starting a new studio.

The people who went to form the new studio mostly have been with the company... for just BioShock, except for Carlos [Cuello]. I think that to some degree the reason that worked very well for Marin is they all had an entrepreneurial hunger in them to go start something new, and build something new...

But they had the experience of working with us on BioShock, and then were like, "Okay!" And they weren't so cemented in our culture, and wanted to go form a culture of their own. And that's very important.

Because, look, if I'm not working on a project -- I'm not working on BioShock 2. I make no claim to anything on BioShock 2,and I think it's important that that's their product, and their culture. Because you can't just clone a studio.

And I think that their hunger to do something new will be very important to their success there. And it can't just be a clone of a 2K Boston or Irrational Games; 2K Marin has to be its own thing. And a very separate thing. They're working on BioShock, but it's got to be their project. They've got to put their stamp on it.

Your games have integral story elements. And there's already debate over how stories should be told in games. It's a subject of a lot of debate: how stories should be told, and if they should be told, what methods should be used. So, when you're hiring for that, and creating a game that has a really important story element, how does that affect your process of hiring?

KL: Well, I think one of the challenges is, when we make games, generally we don't make games that rely on the most traditional methodology of storytelling in games, which is cutscenes. That's not our thing, generally. Certainly it wasn't our thing on System Shock and BioShock.

And I'm a big proponent of that, because I'm a big believer that what games do well is immerse people in worlds, and put people in scenarios that feel like there's not a layer between them and the experience. Like in a movie, you're just sitting, watching this activity onscreen; with a cutscene you just sit back in your chair.

What is that moment that we want out of game playing? We want that moment we forget we're in front of the computer, in front of the Xbox 360, in front of the PS3. We want that moment where we're immersed, and we're in that thing. And so, if I can tell a story without that layer, without that, "Okay, now you're participating in entertainment" -- where you forget that you're participating in entertainment, where you just think you're having an experience. That's the golden ideal, right?

So, the challenge is that it's really, really, really hard to do, because it's so easy. Cutscenes are such shorthand [for telling] a story. It's so easy to tell a story because you control everything.

So when you bring people in, what you want to find out from them is: Are you really interested in making all this effort? Because it's so much effort to tell a story that way. Like, BioShock's story? Told in cutscenes? My, it would've been so much easier.

I'm working on the BioShock novel being done, with a writer named John Shirley, and I'm going to just sort of peek my nose in and write the prologue and the epilogue of that. And I'm sitting down to write it, and it's like, "Oh! I can just write about Tenenbaum! I can just say what she's saying! And she can talk! And the audience may not go off and, like, shoot her in the head while she's saying it!"

So to do that, to want to take that pain on for the audience? To do that work for the audience, and have that experience of being immersed? You say to the person you're thinking of hiring: "Are you ready to not take the easy way out?" And I think that's always the challenge with us, is how we develop software; how we develop games is, we want to take the work on so the audience doesn't have to. And sometimes that's painful.

And BioShock... It was a development cycle of lots of revision, and lots of thought and rethought, and going back and throwing stuff out. I threw out huge drafts of scripts and things like that; artists threw out whole sequences. And that's because we all, at the end of the day, said, "What is the audience going to think of this? How is the audience going to react to it?"

And I think if you just want to come in, and do your work, and just have it be sacrosanct, and have nobody touch it, then this probably isn't the right place for this. If you want to do something where you go home and you go, "I think that's absolutely the best way that itcould have possibly been done, and I'm satisfied with knowing that, I don't doubt that anymore," then this is the right place for you, because I think you'll walk away feeling that.

Article Start Previous Page 2 of 6 Next

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