Following the critical and commercial success of last year's BioShock, 2K Boston's studio head Ken Levine is one person that everybody is watching very carefully.
Following his keynote at this year's Develop conference, GamesIndustry.biz spent some time with the man himself to talk about the rising costs of games, how to give players a sense of immersion, the changing nature of videogame audiences and what the team's goals are for its next project.
Q: Development costs - what's your view on that, where does it end?
Ken Levine: Too high. I think it levels a little bit. I think that graphics are plateauing a little bit - certainly the difference between this generation and last generation compared to previous generations. It's tough, it's a sort of mutually assured destruction situation, where you have to keep building on to be competitive.
But there are other ways to go - you have sort of a branching. When we started making games everybody was competing for the same space, everybody was making games for 1 or 2 million dollars. Now you have people making games for 15, 20, 30 million dollars - or people making something for 1 million on the Xbox Live side, the digital distribution side. And people making Wii games for a couple million bucks.
You know with franchises, if you want to be successful - with BioShock for example - you can build on that in a lot of different ways. It's going to be hard to on an Xbox Live Arcade title, because there isn't any kind of event behind it, but it's a different business model - both of which are valid.
I don't know if it ends.
Q: I guess it's partly down to the market, and if it keeps expanding - if it does, then costs can go up at the same goods price point, if not then the costs level off, or the goods price point goes up.
Ken Levine: Yeah - and will people continue to pay for those kind of things? I think there's graphics, but then there's also scope of gameplay. Take World of Warcraft, it's not particularly graphically detailed in the sense of shader work, but good God, the amount of stuff they have to think about and manage is huge.
Q: Does immersion in a game necessarily mean high costs? How do you go about putting that in?
Ken Levine: It's sort of the price of entry. In BioShock we basically spent the budget to make our art assets and the technology to render a lot of art assets at once to make a believable world - not "Is this the shiniest texture?" but "Do you buy into Rapture, is Rapture a character in the game?"
So I think we burned our polygons basically on selling that. And I think we burned them well. For us we really wanted to spend those resources to make the world feel real and populated, both the runtime resources of rendering polygons and the real art resources making all those polygons.
Without that, would it be immersive? I think System Shock 2 is a good example of the previous generation of that. As immersive as System Shock 2 is, just because of the keeping up with the Joneses, if you released it now it wouldn't be particularly immersive because of the simplicity of the graphics. I'm sure I'll have a million people on the Internet tell me that System Shock 2 is immersive, more immersive that BioShock...and that's cool, but I promise you that if we released that game today to a new audience, they'd have trouble getting past the graphics.
Q: Games that you've designed have been targeted at the growing traditional games audience - how are the tastes changing in that part of the market?
Ken Levine: I think in two ways. Firstly, that audience has already been through a lot with us - they've seen a lot, and have that experience of playing all these other games, so they're more sophisticated in a certain way.
But they're also jaded in a certain way - from a subject matter standpoint the Atari 2600 catalogue could not have included Air-Sea Battle, Gunslinger and BioShock, because those themes...that audience would not have understood how that works into a videogame.
So I think it definitely has evolved and grown - and it's broader too. So you can do a game like BioShock and before, whereas you'd have to get every single gamer in the world interested, now you don't have to do that. And that's especially true for the lower budget downloadable stuff because you can hit a really niche market with that.
Q: There's an expectation from gamers though that people presume certain things will be in games nowadays - particularly for your next project, following the success of BioShock, lots of eyes are on you. How do you manage the expectations of gamers in that respect?
Ken Levine: I think for us, we come out of our BioShock coma - from shipping that game, and how hard that was - and then making a determination. What's next for us, and how aggressive are we going to be? And we all looked at each other, and these guys have worked together for maybe six or ten years, all the senior creative guys on BioShock, and asked what do we want to do? Do we want to do something a little more straightforward next time, or do we want to swing for the fences again? To paraphrase, we decided to swing for the fences.
And we went to the company and said that, and they said "Alright, let's do that." I think that's why we work together, because we trust each other that we'll be there when we need that support, but also talked down when we're talking crazy. And that's really important when you are swinging for the fences...
We've had products like Swat 4, which I had very little to do with, that the guys executed exactly what that game should have been as far as I'm concerned. But the goal there was to make a sequel to Swat 3, to update that - a very particular goal, and they knocked that out of the park.
The goal for our next project is something very, very different, so it's a little scary - because we don't know what it is, exactly. We're getting a much clearer sense every single day in terms of what we're doing, deciding what's in and out of the game. But it's going to be aggressive.
Q: What are the sorts of things you're looking at focusing on?
Ken Levine: I actually can't talk about it, without talking about the game itself. There are things related to story, gameplay and...I don't know how to describe it...people's relationship with the game over the long term. That's what we're thinking about, but it's about as clear as I can be.
Q: When it came to pitching that into Take-Two, BioShock's success must have made it easier?
Ken Levine: I think for any company to look at the team to make BioShock and not have some faith in them doesn't make any sense. I think it would be crazy to say that we shouldn't try to do something awesome.
Ken Levine is the studio head at 2K Boston. Part two will be published later in the week. Interview by Phil Elliott.