The Irrational decision
Does the shutdown of Irrational Games make sense? [UPDATE: Take-Two has finally issued a statement]
Update: Following our publication of this piece, GamesIndustry International has now received a new statement from Take-Two: “We've enjoyed a long and productive working relationship with Ken and are thrilled that he is pursuing his new creative endeavor with Take-Two. Given Ken's plans for this exciting new project, Take-Two determined that the best approach for the remaining Irrational Games staff would be to find internal career opportunities for as many as possible, and to provide placement assistance to those who would be leaving our Company.”
The news that Irrational Games is closing struck gamers and the game industry like a bombshell yesterday. The studio's founder Ken Levine announced the closure in a post on the company's web site, explaining that he's moving in a new direction and as a consequence Irrational Games is closing down. The two main responses have been a fear this means no more BioShock games or content in the future, and outrage at the loss of more than 100 jobs at Irrational Games, as reported by The Boston Globe (note: Take-Two isn't confirming a number). What's really going on?
Take-Two, when reached for comment, said merely "We're not commenting beyond Ken's posted statement." At some point, perhaps, we'll hear more details from Ken Levine and from Take-Two. There's plenty of information contained in Ken Levine's statement for us to draw some conclusions, though.
First of all, it's important to be clear about authority and responsibility. While Ken Levine founded Irrational Games in 1997 along with fellow Looking Glass alums Jonathan Chey and Robert Ferrier, Take-Two bought the company in 2006. Ken Levine has been the public face of Irrational Games, and has been running the studio, but it's not his company anymore. Take-Two is in charge, and bears the ultimate authority and responsibility for a decision to close the studio.
Ken Levine's decision isn't that hard to understand when you look at the key part of what he said - he's looking to create something that will take a very long period of design. If you're going to be spending months, or perhaps even years, working on fundamental design issues, it doesn't make sense to keep a large staff around with nothing to do until you've reached the right stage in your design. It's better to give that staff the best chance to find a good job somewhere else rather than keeping them without something productive to do for an indeterminate period of time.
"Performing a heart transplant on a game studio is rarely successful. It may be that Take-Two just doesn't believe Irrational Games could really replace those employees who are leaving and still be the same great studio in the future"
It's not clear why Take-Two isn't just forming a group from Irrational staffers to produce more BioShock content going forward, but perhaps this is a signal that Take-Two doesn't see a lot of DLC ahead for the BioShock franchise. New games could certainly be built, but Take-Two doesn't seem to be committing to that right now, which is puzzling. If there's not a strong case for a new BioShock game, surely there are some other projects that these talented people could be put onto, as Take-Two works to put new and existing franchises on next-gen consoles. Finding good people is difficult, and Take-Two should be keeping as many as it can. The publisher's obviously had time to think about this, and its rather weak response to the situation seems like a poor choice.
However, we don't know enough of the underlying facts to really decide how reasonable a studio shutdown is from Take-Two's perspective. Maybe the staffing wouldn't be supported by the projected sales of BioShock DLC that's planned, or a new BioShock title is not planned. There's also the issue of replacing the 15 staffers that are leaving with Levine. It seems logical to assume that these would be key personnel, the ones most difficult to replace. These employees may well be the key drivers behind the studio's creativity and ability to get great products made, and performing a heart transplant on a game studio is rarely successful. It may be that Take-Two just doesn't believe Irrational Games could really replace those employees who are leaving and still be the same great studio in the future.
On the other side of it is Levine's decision to try something new. Apparently he was ready to leave Take-Two and form a new company, but Take-Two convinced him to create a startup inside of the company. Why is a new studio needed? For one thing, Levine is tackling a difficult problem - "narrative-driven games for the core gamer that are highly replayable" - that may not have a best-selling answer. It may take years to get to a game created from a standing start. We don't even know what platform Levine is aiming at, although he gives a broad hint when he says they will "focus exclusively on content delivered digitally." Whether it's on PC or console or mobile, going exclusively digital means a game can change more swiftly. More content can be delivered quickly, and a design can change based on customer feedback. Levine will need an entirely different company organizationally to pull this off, as well as a variety of skills that may or may not be present amongst a staff built around creating disc-based console content.
Levine's decision to start over without most of the Irrational Games staff makes sense given his goals. He's obliged to follow his muse, not to keep cranking out the same type of game again and again. While no one likes to see people put out of work, the manner in which that is carried out matters a great deal. If Levine and Take-Two can make the transition a smooth one for staffers, that will rebound to their credit. From what Levine says in his posting, and from what we've observed of his Twitter feed, he's trying hard to find positions for everyone wherever he can.
Take-Two would seem to have the capability to offer those staffers roles at other studios, especially with the company looking to launch new IPs and bring its current slate of games to next-generation consoles. With all of the cash rolling in from GTA V, Take-Two could form a new studio around the remaining Irrational staffers and hand them something to work on, couldn't they? The company's seeming reticence about the fate of Irrational staffers is, at the least, a bad PR move. Long term, the best investment a game company can make is in quality employees with demonstrated skills, and Take-Two shouldn't just let that asset wander away.
Levine is going to forge a new studio and a new game, leaving most of Irrational Games behind for Take-Two to deal with. Hopefully there will be enough time granted to Irrational staffers to be able to land good positions elsewhere, whether at Take-Two or with other companies. Both Levine and Take-Two should recognize the long-term benefits of managing this change as gracefully as possible.