Irrational Behavior: Was Laying Off The Bulk Of The Bioshock Team Really Necessary?

By Jared Cornelius

This week's biggest news story was undoubtedly the, "Winding down" of Irrational Games.  If I may take a moment to eulogize a wonderful studio that created amazing games. Irrational Games was a developer of incredible value.  I say that not only as a gamer, but financially, the BioShock series Ken Levine created, generated over $500 million in revenue for 2K Games. To a company's value, that's immense.  Not only was the BioShock series a financial success, but critical as well. The original scoring was a whopping 96 on Metacritic, while BioShock Infinite, scored a 94.  In combination, BioShock and Infinite were reviewed 112 times, and all reviews posted were seen as positive by Metacritic.  A staggering feat by any developer, but numbers don't really tell the whole story of BioShock.

Imagined as a spiritual successor to the PC System Shock franchise created by studio head Ken Levine almost a decade earlier. BioShock was set to be one of the Xbox 360's biggest releases to date.  In August of 2007 BioShock was released to huge critical and commercial success.  Gaming scholars hailed its mix of fun gameplay, challenging Big Daddy battles, an amazing setting, along with story undertones of George Orwell and Aye Rand, in a society made by men, with no limits.

BioShock's undersea setting, creepy splicers, and authentic mid-century atmosphere, all made for an experience the young console had been calling out for.  BioShock was seen as such a huge success, and Levine was given a tremendous amount of free reign with the follow-up BioShock Infinite.  Released in February of 2013, Infinite was hailed as a joyous return to the franchise, scoring almost as well as the original.  Taking place in the floating city of Columbia, Infinite explored elements of racism, classism, and inter-dimensional travel, as rough lived detective Booker Dewitt.  Both titles earned numerous Game of the Year awards and nominations, far too many for me to list.

Both series spawned merchandise from toys, t-shirts, pins, to actual props from the game.  Walking into my local comic shop, (Conquest Comics in Bayville New Jersey) a BioShock replica skyhook can be seen nesting over the graphic novels while packs of BioShock Heroclix sit behind the counter, it reminds me the series was able to reach all different kinds of fandom.  The original was such a critical hit at one point, Gore Verbinski wanted to direct a BioShock film.  I have no doubt that BioShock will go down as one of last generations' most popular series, and will be remembered fondly in the future.  So it is with a heavy heart that I end my eulogy and direct my gaze upon Levine.

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Levine made the shocking announcement on the Irrational Games website. "I am winding down Irrational Games as you know it." These grim words led to further announcements that the studio would be trimming down to a 15 person operation, "To make narrative-driven games for the core gamer that are highly re-playable, to foster the most direct relationship with our fans possible, we will focus exclusively on content, delivered digitally."  Levine sounds like he is putting his full effort behind this new endeavor, and I would support any creative person doing what their creativity drives them to.  However, the biggest problem is that Irrational Games, in its new endeavor, laid off a huge chunk of the BioShock team.  At one point the studio was operating at 200 people strong. How many are left at this point I don't know.

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Levine's departure means arguably that the most creative and interesting franchise developed in the last generation, is now being turned over to 2K Games with no oversight.  No real transition, no passing of the torch, no assurances that the franchise will remain with a creative studio or gaming luminary.  It's also strange that Levine didn't pass the torch.  Out of a studio that once housed 200 people, did Levine think no one was worthy of leading the group that made Infinite after he left?  Perhaps Levine is taking the best and brightest for the new Irrational Games, but was there no one who he worked with for the last 6 years he trusted to shepherd the franchise?  Lastly, I worry about the potential to be exploited by 2K Games. No one asked for a direct BioShock sequel, but it didn't stop 2K from assigning another developer to make BioShock 2.  A direct sequel didn't feel needed and was never in the spirit of the original game. Without a strong creative lead, I worry about the integrity of the franchise.

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I'm sad for BioShock as a series I really loved. It was the first great experience I had on the Xbox 360.  But the one's I'm saddest for are the good people at Irrational Games that were laid off.  In Levine's blog post, he noted that some would be shifted to other studios. They'd be holding a 2K open house and giving access to 3rd party developers.  I'm sure a reference from Ken Levine goes along way, but it doesn't replace the job they had.  With all that said, I'm not mad at Levine, not disappointed either.  He's a creative man, who's being pulled in a different direction by his creativity.  Anyone who creates content should be able to understand that choice.  Perhaps as time goes on we'll know the whole truth behind the studios sudden change. I wish all those affected by the layoffs well, you're an extremely talented group of people and hope this leads to greener pastures.

Goodbye Irrational Games proper.  You were a fine developer and you changed gaming for the better.  No matter what happens next, I'll always remember you as you were, a creative developer who prized quality over quantity.

Jared Cornelius is some guy New Jersey's coast who thinks he's sad.  If you'd like to cheer him up or hire him to compose your loved one's eulogy contact him @John_Laryngitis on Twitter.

About Hannah Means Shannon

Editor-in-Chief at Bleeding Cool. Independent comics scholar and former English Professor. Writing books on magic in the works of Alan Moore and the early works of Neil Gaiman.

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