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Friday, April 12, 2024
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Irrational Games shutdown exposes disappointing industry trend

When Irrational Games shut its door last week, the industry lost a prominent developer that placed a strict focus on narrative. While "Bioshock Infinite" may not have been the savior everyone hoped it might be, it shipped over four million copies and if nothing else, created a worthwhile dialogue about the nature of sustaining a compelling narrative within the context of a typical AAA shooter.

Regardless of the game's merits, the more startling storyline to emerge from the scenario is Ken Levine's abrupt departure from the studio he founded 17 years ago. Levine is one of my favorite creative minds, crafting intellectualism within the medium that's typically ignored in big budget development.

His talents may be put to better use in a lower stakes creation, but getting excited for Levine's future projects at this time seems wildly inappropriate. Although it seems Take-Two Interactive decided Irrational would close almost a year ago, this news put many developers suddenly out of work.

It's heartening how every time there are layoffs you can watch the industry band together on Twitter and start posting all the open positions. At the same time, it's disturbing that it's so easy to recall the many times this has happened. Layoffs obviously aren't exclusive to this industry, but it's become such an engrained part of the AAA culture it's distressing to so nonchalantly write it off as an inevitability.

I'm not really sure what this closure means for the state of experimentation in big budget games. "Infinite" development dragged on for five years, accruing a Hollywood blockbuster budget of nearly $200 million in the process. Did it balloon out of control into completely unrealistic expectations? Assuredly—but that's not necessarily the issue here.

Ken Levine will be able to get a publisher for his next project without any issue. It will be narrative focused, garner industry wide accolades before its release and probably be hailed as a pinnacle of achievement in the medium. It's strange to see a bleeding effect from the pristine days of auterism in television. Matthew Weiner basically acquired complete control over his show "Mad Men,” tying up AMC's hands in the process.

Levine didn't have that level of power within Take-Two's structure, but his grandiose vision may have spiraled out of control. Reports at one point said Levine basically forced entirely finished environments to be redone. The game was delayed numerous times. Levine wanted perfection and in the end put his fellow developers out of work one year after his achievement was released.

Managing scope is becoming an even greater problem in this industry. Indeed, with the continued release (or non-release in some instances) of Kickstarter games this year, expect mismanaged project scopes to become an even more distressing issue. It's financially irresponsible to bite off more than you can chew, particularly when grabbing that extra helping can so often lead to disastrous layoffs.

Whatever its merits, "Infinite" became a runaway train destined for financial failure unless it pulled a "Red Dead Redemption" and blew away expected sales figures. Whether developers are producing a tiny indie project or an AAA blockbuster, taking stock of your project's ambitions is an ever-important tool. I'm glad Levine is doing what he wants to now, but it’s disheartening to know he felt it had to come at the expense of so many developers' jobs after they spent five years polishing his hopeful magnum opus.

Agree with Adam's concerns over developer layoffs? Let him know at arparis@wisc.edu.

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