Bioshock Creator Irrational Games Shuts its Doors

Bioshock Creator Irrational Games Shuts its Doors

Bioshock Infinite-smallThe tumult in the computer entertainment industry continued this week, with word that A-list game studio Irrational Games is shutting down, effective immediately.

Irrational Games was formed in 1997 from the wreckage of legendary Looking Glass Studios (Ultima Underworld, System Shock, Thief) by three ex-Looking Glass employees: Jonathan Chey, Robert Fermier, and Ken Levine. Never an exceptionally prolific studio, they nonetheless released three excellent games over the next seven years: System Shock 2 (1999), Freedom Force (2002), and Tribes: Vengeance (2004).

Irrational Games was acquired by one of the largest distributors in the industry,Take-Two Interactive (publishers of Grand Theft Auto and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, among many others); for several years after that, their games appeared under the 2K Games label. They had perhaps their greatest hit in 2007 with the worldwide success of Bioshock, a first-person shooter set in the beautiful and mysterious underwater city of Rapture (which offered, incidentally, one of the finest and most touching endings I’ve ever seen in a video game). Bioshock eventually sold over four million copies and won almost universal critical acclaim, winning PC Game of the Year from IGN and the top spot on their Top 25 Modern PC Games list in 2012. Time magazine named it one of the greatest video games of all time in November 2012. The game inspired two sequels: Bioshock 2 (developed by 2K Marin) and Bioshock Infinite (from Irrational Games.)

In a message posted on the Irrational Games website yesterday, co-founder Ken Levine announced the studio was closing its doors. No explanation was given, although Levine did confirm that 15 employees (out of an estimated 150) will be retained “To make narrative-driven games for the core gamer that are highly replayable.” It’s no secret that Bioshock Infinite‘s development was highly troubled, but the game was considered a major success, selling over 3.7 million copies in the first two months.

It’s been a troubled time for games studios — the much-loved LucasArts was shuttered by Disney just last year, and other developers have moved away from big-budget releases to focus on smaller games for mobile environments. It reminds me of the gradual move to consoles from PCs, which cost us such storied developers as Interplay, Origin Systems, SSI, Microprose, Sierra Entertainment, and of course, the brilliant Black Isle. I’m certain there will be plenty of great games on many new platforms in my future, but for now I’m still mourning what might have been.

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Nick Ozment

Are these casualties of the problem of scale? With conglomeration by umbrella parent companies, what would be considered an amazing success for a smaller company just doesn’t cut it for the big corporate numbers crunchers.

I’ve been shocked over the years to see magazine titles canceled because the numbers just weren’t there — and the numbers were in the tens of thousands, enough to make any small-press publisher drool with envy. Likewise with books, films, games (how much pressure has Wizards of the Coast had to “produce the numbers” since it was bought by Hasbro?). What would be an unadulterated success by most of our standards doesn’t make a blip on the radar of the likes of Disney; hence, projects are canceled, titles are dropped, doors are closed.

andy

I guess this dashes my hopes for a Freedom Force revival.

The gaming industry absolutely has that problem of scale. I remember reading somewhere that Square-Enix’s projections for the Tomb Raider reboot basically required that it sell historical numbers to meet expectations. It didn’t quite make it. The influx of the “money men”, many of whom wouldn’t be caught dead playing video games, has not been good for the industry, I think. Lots of good studios have been killed not because they didn’t sell (e.g., all those point and click adventure outfits), but because they didn’t sell enough for the suits who were after those vast FPS/EA Sports profit margins. There’s no longer a “mid-list” for gaming – it’s become either indie or blockbuster, and not too long ago the indies didn’t exist in a meaningful sense, so I guess that’s a positive development.

Jackson Kuhl

Levine said he wants to focus on “narrative-driven games for the core gamer that are highly replayable” and “delivered digitally,” which makes me suspect he wants to move away from consoles to PC gaming via Steam. So John, you may be seeing a Renaissance here.

I think you’re onto something Nick. That said, Irrational is a company of about 150 whose only project for the past few years was BioShock Infinite, and only after many delays and subtractions. So even with BI’s success, I still have to wonder if it ended up in the red. In any event Levine’s statement goes a long way to explaining why they didn’t produce a full-length Burial at Sea, which I would have thrown my silver eagles at before Andrew Ryan could say, “A is A.”

Though keep in mind Levine also said he’s given the BioShock IP to 2K, so we may not have seen the last of Rapture or Columbia.

Joe H.

It’s partially scale. It’s definitely the money men. But it’s also advancing technology — actually producing all of the high-definition art assets for a triple-A title in this day & age is really, really expensive.

Joe H.

It’s a struggle. Speaking as someone who played Bioshock Infinite on a really expensive gaming PC (and thought it looked and sounded great) and who’s currently playing Witcher 2, I hope they come up with a way to make the economics work for these big titles.

GreenGestalt

I’ve said a lot about, negatively, “Political Correctness” and I do think it applies here.

In this case we have a studio being closed that’s doing well but not a “Wild success” and its noted it happens a lot these days. Well it happened in the past, too.

Anyone remember the “Comic Boom” of the 90s? For a while Marvel released a “Razorline” comics imprint that had lots of edgy comics, also a “Barkerverse” where Clive Barker worked out his own twisted comics world. This was to tap the “Indie” market and also to DC’s “Vertigo” market. This had a lot of neat titles from the superhero mythology “Hyperkind” to the dark occult “Saint Sinner”. They did sell well, never not making a profit. But Marvel seemed to think they’d instantly take some of Sandman’s sales, then rivaling Superman even… Nope, things like that need to brew a couple years. So Marvel just cancelled them, leaving a brand new fanbase choking in the dust with a betrayed taste in their mouth, of course coveting the copyrights so nobody in an Indie studio could take them up without paying millions and millions to buy them.

My main issue with PC is that – well this is a best ‘in a nutshell’ I’ve come up with –

“Political Correctness is like being on a ship, and noticing they are jamming shut the pressure release valve on the boiler because someone’s ears were too sensitive for the whistle.”

But an even worse aspect, and the main reason Corporate America loves it is that it tends toward “Mass Appealing” stuff. Why waste time managing many many tiny things in your monopolized market when you can put out a few BIG things. Just file off all those rough edges so well it might be boring to many but offensive to fewer? Who cares about the writer, if you are even doing business with him he’s signed away all rights to you in exchange for a fistful of dollars and maybe a job, it’s YOUR property now. And keep out of the market anything with a dark, hard edge! Block it from the stores, from the magazine racks, and with the end of Net Neutrality soon if they even sell it on their own website, nobody will be able to look it up if you don’t like it! Even if that edge isn’t “Offensive” per se to any “Group” it still raises the bar for everything else since we’ve spent so much time filing off its edges… Filing off the edges gives, literally an “Edge” to anything that is not boring, bland, mass appealing, surface only PC garbage… But “The Spirit of Competition” is something they only care about when it works their way.

Wild Ape

It sounds like the same thing that happened to the publishing industry is happening to the game makers. The costs are climbing and so there are fewer markets now.

I’m not a big fan of Disney largely because whatever is good for “the Mouse” is what shapes Disney. You won’t see the edgy stories and they are a very powerful entity who can throw their weight around and make others follow suite.

Tyr

I think a lot of this has to do with opportunity costs. Making great games at a narrow profit margin might be fun when you are young, but when you need to purchase a home, support a family, etc, then profit becomes more important and people look for ways to make more money with their time. Yes, in some cases, its corporate greed but a lot of people would simply like to have a comfortable life for their family – and that also requires money, whether you are an owner, programmer, or investor.

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