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'BioShock' creator's focus on digital heralds a new era

There was a dream that was Columbia, a dream that didn’t foresee digital downloads.

There was a dream that was Columbia, a dream that didn’t foresee digital downloads.

It seems there's an end to the story for the makers of BioShock Infinite. Studio head Ken Levine says his Irrational Games will be shutting down for good to focus on "a smaller, more entrepreneurial endeavor at Take-Two."

How much smaller? Only about 15 people out of a studio of about 200 were going to keep their jobs, the Feb. 18 announcement on the studio's website read. The more positive spin, however, is what Levine will be doing.

"In time we will announce a new endeavor with a new goal: To make narrative-driven games for the core gamer that are highly replayable. To foster the most direct relationship with our fans possible, we will focus exclusively on content delivered digitally," he wrote.

That's a tall order in today's AAA game market, where guaranteed franchises get the lion's share of the attention (and development and marketing budgets). Ironically, BioShock was one of those franchises, so it's interesting to see Levine shuttering Irrational to focus on a much smaller effort.

There were hints something like this was coming. Infinite's development was wracked with problems, with staff turnover and features being killed and rewritten as close to release day as the studio could muster. Not that the gaming public cared much on the way to forking over serious cash to make it the No. 1 console game during its first week of release in 2013, both on physical disc and digitally on Steam.

Levine obviously took note of that, apparently deciding to focus more on the excellent but rather scattershot story elements from Infinite and bringing it into the age of download-only media. For a man who spent his career refining a formula to near-cinematic quality, this move really shouldn't be a surprise.

A fellow tentpole mastermind, Gears of War designer Cliff Bleszinski, told Gamasutra that he left Epic because the industry wasn't headed where he wanted to go.

"The whole 'old guard,' where you get a Game Informer cover and an E3 reveal, is dead," he said. "I'll never make another disc-based game for the rest of my career, and (at E3) they're trying to woo buyers from Target and Walmart?"

That's compelling criticism coming from a guy who made his name selling games about "shooting f---ing lizard-men in the f---ing face with a f---ing chainsaw gun." But he may be on to something.

The best games coming out these days eschew the traditional format as Cliffy B describes it. The Fullbright Company's Gone Home, Telltale's The Walking Dead and Red Barrels' Outlast all are story-driven efforts with unusual mechanics that didn't rely on the typical mega-rollout big titles enjoy. All three of those (and many more) are easily better games than the majority of lackluster efforts churned out on a monthly basis, even if receipts don't readily show it.

That tack may not fly with Take Two, which will no doubt expect a return on its investment with Levine. But despite his insistence he will need "a long period of design," the publisher wanted to keep him in house. BioShock can live on at 2K Marin, in any event, so you can assume their efforts will eventually subsidize anything Levine wants to try.

It remains to be seen if the wider gaming audience will cotton to this approach, though. Evidence increasingly shows that while there are more gamers than ever, the casual experience of mobile entertainment is increasingly where the money will be at. For every untitled Levine project in the works for the home hardware of choice, there will be 100 Angry Birds raking in the microdough on mobile.

Levine isn't concerned about casual gamers, though, professing to be more intent on catering to the core gaming audience. That's a very broad definition, as Bleszinski can tell you, but Levine seems to know what he's doing. Anyone who can take the same design as his prior efforts and drape it over the mindbending quantum mechanics at the heart of Infinite to create an engaging experience is no slouch.

But it makes me wonder: Talk was big about Infinite years before its release, so much so that Irrational stayed out of BioShock 2's development. The same strength of the title, its repurposing of familiar themes, is also its greatest weakness.

Before anyone praises or damns Levine for his move, we all need to wait and see whether he comes up with something truly original. The driving factor of the advent of download-only gaming is just background noise until then.

— Joshua Gillin writes about video games for tbt*. Challenge his opinions at jgillin@tampabay.com.

'BioShock' creator's focus on digital heralds a new era 02/27/14 [Last modified: Thursday, February 27, 2014 11:30am]

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