Irrational Games, the video game development studio responsible for the best-selling “BioShock” series, has been doing pretty well for itself lately.
So it was “shocking,” so to speak, when on Feb. 18, the website for Irrational Games was plastered with an open letter from Ken Levine, Irrational’s creative director and co-founder. Levine has long been the face of the studio, serving as the mind behind the award-winning “BioShock” series, its spiritual predecessor “System Shock 2,” and the original “Thief.”
The message, still on the website’s main page, is simple. In a little over a month, Irrational will permanently close its doors.
Given that “BioShock Infinite,” the third and latest in the series, was one of the best-selling and most-awarded games of 2013, the international gaming community was understandably left somewhat flabbergasted by the sudden news. Comments across the Irrational Game’s online forum ranged from despondency to utter stupefaction.
“Seventeen years is a long time to do any job, even the best one,” said Levine in his statement. “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.”
Levine is planning to effectively downsize the studio, taking 15 of Irrational’s current staff–which is of between 51 and 200 employees, according to the company’s Linkedin page–with him to aid his future projects. In doing so, Levine hopes to begin developing smaller projects with an emphasis on storytelling, made exclusively for digital distribution.
This isn’t to say that Levine is leaving the rest of the staff out in the cold; he has made his intentions to provide for current employees clear. In the time between development on Irrational’s current projects and its closing, the studio will be available for current staff to prepare for interviews and update their resumes and portfolios. Meanwhile, arrangements will be made with 2K, Irrational’s parent company, and third-party developers to take on the departing staff.
“There’s no great way to lay people off,” said Levine, “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.”
Levine made it known in the open letter that all of the rights to the “BioShock” universe and related characters will be deferred to 2K Games, who have since announced their attention to continue making games within the franchise. In an interview with Polygon, a representative of 2K said, “The “BioShock” Universe remains a rich canvas for many untold stories, and we look forward to the next “BioShock” experience.”
As unexpected as the announcement was, it did not come without some amount of foreshadowing, at least with the benefit of hindsight. In an interview with Wired Magazine last December, Levine hinted at changing his drive toward game with a narrative focus. Additionally, Leigh Alexander of Gamasutra wrote an article following the closure, detailing the high turnover rate in Irrational Games and reported dissatisfaction in the working environment that she had encountered over the years.
Irrational Games will be officially defunct following the release of the “BioShock Infinite” expansion, “Burial At Sea: Episode 2,” on March 25.