Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Best Case Scenario With Irrational Games

Yesterday saw the surprise closing of Irrational Games, developers of the Bioshock series. I say surprise because, by all accounts, Irrational was a well-regarded, profitable entity in 2K Games' constellation of studios. Bioshock, of course, is considered one of the finest games of the past decade. Bioshock Infinite was almost as much of a critical success in the mainstream gaming press, though it was much less so on blogs and independent outlets, being criticized for some very unfortunate in-game racial commentary.

(It should be noted that I have not played either Bioshock nor do I intend to. My FPS adventures have always been limited to multiplayer PVP fests, and that was before I lost a noticeable step in my mid-30s.)

The commentary on twitter and elsewhere has been pretty pointed, primarily because studio head and Bioshock series creator, Ken Levine, has landed on his feet at Take Two. He wants to make smaller boutique games. Not small or boutique enough to start an indie studio, of course, and that's an important tell. Between his comments about storytelling blocks, a weird press release by 2K, and his desire to concentrate on "core gamers" (I'll give some easy odds on what gender, race, age, and class his "core gamer" is), it sure looks, from the outside, like a bored guy with an enormous amount of name recognition shutting the gate behind him. And it should be stressed that an awful lot of people were left behind; he's taking anywhere from 0 to 15 people with him, going by snippets, while an estimated 185 people lost their jobs.

Naturally, the conversation has centered on these dimensions. Essentially, the thinking is one of two things.

1) 2K didn't want to back Levine on his next project and told him no. Levine said, "screw this, I'm going on my own". Levine leaves, 2K reckons that Irrational is nothing without Levine, and everyone gets fired.

2) Levine really did get bored and restless. He still had a lot of control and basically just shuttered the studio on his way out.

I'm simplifying greatly, here, but the two most common takes are those. What I've seen less of is an examination of the third option: that Irrational Games was unprofitable and probably misrun.

Before we go further, I think it's vitally important to read two very good pieces on the situation, linked directly below. The politics of the aftermath of the closing are really important.

Games By Humans

Ken Levine Isn't Looking For a Job

On profitability, I'm leaning on my friend, Russ, who pointed out that Bioshock took six years to complete and was certainly over budget. Yes, it sold four million units, but that was maybe just enough to break even. 2K, when Levine started making noise about wanting to do something with narrative Legos or storytelling primitives or whatever pomo garbage he's considering doing, is naturally skittish about Bioshock Infinite's issues.

And what about those issues? Think about this for a moment, away from the politics. Bioshock Infinite moved four million copies and it wasn't profitable. Obviously not all of those were at the release price point of 60 bucks, but let's just say, for the sake of argument, that half were moved at that price and the other half were at an average of 30 (current price is about 15). That's 180 million dollars. And it wasn't profitable.

No matter how long it took or the size of the staff, the fact that 180m doesn't break even is insane. That is not a sustainable number, particularly when looked at in conjunction with Square Enix announcing a few weeks ago that the latest Tomb Raider only just now broke even... after 3.4 million sold in the first month and, presumably, reaching right around twice that overall.

There is no silver lining to those numbers and the unprofitable theory. These simply aren't sustainable numbers and they're a disastrous portent for the industry. Essentially, numbers like that are going to translate into a more rapid revolving door, as people are laid off in greater numbers as impossible targets aren't met, and more consolidation around the biggest players, as the medium studios are priced out of making anything.

The refrain is always that indie games are the savior here (that was said numerous times in response to my Jacobin piece). My response is always the same: they aren't. Indie games are the savior if and when they can provide a livable wage and decent benefits. That's not a slight on the quality of product which indie studios churn out; indie games are good or bad the same way major studio games are good or bad. It's simply an empiric observation that the long hours and terrible wages aren't any better at an indie and, according to Gamasutra's yearly survey data, are probably worse.

This is what we're left with, then: a critical darling which moved a whopping number of copies wasn't profitable. Around 200 people lost their jobs without warning. Ken Levine is going to be just fine.

There's no real answer here. The industry is going to have to implode before it changes. Or the social safety net in the US is going to have to be able to catch people like the ones who just got canned. But I do want to zero in on Ken Levine being fine again.

More than just about any other sector of the entertainment industry, video game creation is reliant on a lot of people. Your writing can be good but if your code is garbage, people will know and remember the shoddy code. Your animations can be great but your art can be terrible. Contrast with film, another team effort (I hate that term) but one where a good actor or director can carry a movie, or with writing, which is almost always an individual effort.

By all accounts, Bioshock Infinite was at least solid, possibly very good. Everyone did their jobs and did them well. Everyone but one person: Ken Levine. Levine's primary job, more than the writing, was to bring Infinite in on time and under budget. If Irrational had become unprofitable because of Bioshock Infinite's overrun, no matter how unfair and insane the budgetary bloat which has taken hold of the industry, that's on Levine's head.

And yet here we are, with an entire studio turned out on its collective ear for doing its job properly, while the one true failure in the story has not just landed on his feet but is poised to crank out vanity projects, post-Spore Will Wright style, for the rest of his life. The games press, for the most part, is salivating about what he's going to do next, thereby enabling this sort of behavior the next time. Hovering over it all is the vicious irony that a man who made his name by writing about a Randian dystopia is going to be just fine because we're currently living in one.

Like I said, I don't have any answers, at least not any which don't involve the industry as we know it completely collapsing. I am heartened that, in the comments sections of major industry news outlets, there seems to be scant patience, this time, for yet another rock star dev landing on his feet after a failure while hundreds go home with a severance check. Small as it is, cracking the myth of the video game auteur may be the first step in fixing the industry.