All But 15 Staffers Laid Off
Now that the last DLC pack for BioShock Infinite has reached the end of its development cycle, Irrational Games co-founder Ken Levine shocked the gaming world yesterday by announcing that the 17 year-old studio is getting the axe. Citing a desire to create digital "narrative-driven games for the core gamer that are highly replayable," all but fifteen of the staffers now find themselves out of a job, with Levine now freed up to work as part of a small flexible team.
It's a sad day for the veteran studio, the fans and most of all the workforce, but ultimately, the decision might well be more rational than it first appears.
"Seventeen years is a long time to do any job, even the best one," Levine explained in a seemingly innocuous post on the Irrational Games blog. "And working with the incredible team at Irrational Games is indeed the best job I’ve ever had. While I’m deeply proud of what we’ve accomplished together, my passion has turned to making a different kind of game than we’ve done before. To meet the challenge ahead, I need to refocus my energy on a smaller team with a flatter structure and a more direct relationship with gamers. In many ways, it will be a return to how we started: a small team making games for the core gaming audience."
The upshot is, at face value, that all but Levine's "small team" are being thrown under the bus. "I am winding down Irrational Games as you know it," he contiued. "I’ll be starting a smaller, more entrepreneurial endeavor at Take-Two. That is going to mean parting ways with all but about fifteen members of the Irrational team. There’s no great way to lay people off, and our first concern is to make sure that the people who are leaving have as much support as we can give them during this transition."
As a studio that employed upwards of 200 staffers, this decision washed over Twitter, LinkedIn and the development community, but we suspect that they won't be out of a job for long. Many studios are already extending offers, including the Disney Infinity creators Avalanche Software, while Take-Two will be looking to bolster its other internal teams and host a career day attended by third party recruiters. It's still not what you'd call ideal, and we wish them all the very best of luck.
Our first response was shock, in all honesty, followed by a soupçon of anger. Major studio layoffs following development completion is a common occurrence in the AAA sector, but to witness it on such a massive scale... seemingly just so Levine can indulge his personal whims... is quite another thing entirely. Surely this is an awful decision, and a truly irrational one to boot?
Not quite. After we simmered down and took (Com)stock, there's a case to be made that this move is eminently rational, and one that Levine and 2K probably had to take.
BioShock Infinite was generally hailed as a superb game (though a fierce debate still rages over whether it was somewhat over-rated), but its torturous development cycle revealed how unwieldy, cumbersome and bureaucratic Irrational Games had become. As the years and delays rolled on, $200 million was reportedly sunk into the project, while we continually heard how numerous compromises were made to the story and themes as various staffers came and went, resulting in a game that was ultimately designed by committee. Key developers left the team midway to form their own ventures (see also: The Fullbright Company), forcing others to join an in-progress project with their own perspectives and viewpoints.
While we enjoyed BioShock Infinite, we can't ignore its convoluted storyline and some odd inconsistencies, such as the bizarre implementation of Vigors that made no sense in context and the disappointingly limited role of the Songbird, while the role of religion was ostensibly stripped down to address complaints from various team members. Numerous features were announced, then cut or recycled, all as the project remained stuck in limbo for half a decade. The overused term "development hell" has rarely been more appropriate.
As development costs continue to rise and even the biggest publishers are feeling the squeeze, it's small wonder that both Levine and 2K are keen to radically streamline a studio that became too hefty to function effectively, to start afresh, and to support more agile development teams across multiple projects; embracing the lower overheads and greater creative freedom offered by boutique development. While letting Levine directly translate his vision into gameplay without going through the mill.
Whether that's ultimately worth the graceless dismissal of so many employees, however, remains to be seen. Streamlining is one thing, but time will tell whether a wholesale cull was the right way to go. For 2K and Levine - and the BioShock label - it probably will be.
That said, and if you're still eagerly awaiting that BioShock Vita game promised several years ago, there's arguably more chance of it happening now, since 2K retains the rights to BioShock and has the freedom to put a dedicated team together. Don't hold your breath though.
As always, let us know what you make of Irrational's shutdown and Levine's decision in the comments.