Jordan Thomas has left Take-Two Interactive. Speaking with GamesIndustry International, the creative director at 2K Marin said he is striking out on his own to pursue a passion project, likely supplemented by "some freelance game doctoring."
Though 2K Marin is currently readying The Bureau: XCOM Declassified for an August 20 release, the departure of the studio's creative director shouldn't impact the game. Thomas said he actually moved off the project early in 2012, and spent much of the last year helping Irrational Games get BioShock Infinite out the door. (Thomas was a designer on the original BioShock and creative director on 2K Marin's BioShock 2, so the series is familiar territory to him.)
As for why he decided to leave Take-Two, Thomas said there were a couple big moments to sway his thinking, the first of which happened when he returned to Irrational and saw the BioShock Infinite world of Columbia.
"It cemented for me that while BioShock spoke to me, it'll never be for me what it is for Ken," Thomas said. "I've expanded that legacy here and there, but I could never have created it from scratch. I need to build something that is, to me, what BioShock is to Ken. No matter how long it takes, I have to start now."
The other big moment was the game's ending, and its comfort with ambiguity.
"Without spoiling things for anybody, there are elements of the ending that spoke to me," Thomas said. "And I wanted to make something that evoked those feelings more consistently throughout. And that could be a niche within a niche. I have yet to complete that experiment, but it's something that's really driving me right now."
The plan now is for Thomas and a mystery partner to go indie and make a game that takes some principles of immersive sims like Thief and BioShock and puts them in a game "with a radically different focus." While he would love to make the operation a full-fledged indie studio, Thomas and his accomplice are going to start off small, making a project the two of them could theoretically finish on their own.
"And if there's interest, if it finds an audience, we might expand the vision and explore further dimensions of the same theme with more content producers," Thomas said. "But we'd love to keep it as lean as possible for now, in the hopes that we're not writing checks our asses can't cash. Indie ambition is its greatest strength and its greatest weakness."
While Thomas always knew he wanted to someday start a studio from scratch, he hadn't always envisioned it as being a two-developer operation.
"Indie ambition is its greatest strength and its greatest weakness."Jordan Thomas
"I thought that AAA was all I'd ever want to make, in the sense of production values," Thomas said. "I was such a fidelity whore for so long that I would refuse to engage with the meaning of more primitive-looking constructs, and I think that was my weakness. But quite the opposite is happening lately. The projects made by two or three auteurs, or sometimes just one, are the ones that are speaking to me and taking me out of my comfort zone. I feel like out of my comfort zone is where I'm forced to stay learning, to retain that student mind. And I think I was at my worst when I thought I knew it all, if that makes any sense."
Thomas pointed to Braid as one game that helped win him over from the AAA development scene.
"I didn't necessarily understand all of what Braid was getting at, but I did get the sense of a deep desire to turn back the clock," Thomas said. "And the fact that was in every twist of DNA in the game, down to its most prominent, most interesting mechanic, really worked for me and reinforced that I wanted a whole game to behave in that way. And I think that purity really demands first that you're willing to potentially compromise the size of your audience. And second, that you really only make as much of that game as the theme can cover, and once it's done, you should really let it go. Those are not necessarily the most commercial principles."
"The chain of intent from 'I wonder if I can' to 'Look what I just did' is shortening, and the number of successes for every failure is increasing."Jordan Thomas
Going indie has become a significantly more viable endeavor for developers in recent years with the advent of crowdfunding and more open platforms, but Thomas said advances in development tools have been more reassuring to him.
"I'm sure you've heard and read lots about Unity, but the truth is middleware as we understood it was still really prohibitive and really centered around corporations helping corporations," Thomas said. "And as staggering an achievement as various pieces of middleware might have been, relative to Unity, the toolset was really intimidating and the price point was a dealbreaker. I find working with that toolset liberating in a way I haven't felt since working with clay-animated models in my basement as a child. The chain of intent from 'I wonder if I can' to 'Look what I just did' is shortening, and the number of successes for every failure is increasing."
While Thomas will be able to share some more concrete details about his endeavor later, he'll likely continue speaking of his work and plans in less-than-concrete terms.
"Circling back, whether it's in game or out, my career in the AAA space has been defined by an escalating need to explain, to not leave anyone behind," Thomas said. "Audience and team aren't ultimately so different, in that regard. But so much of what I do is an attempt to speak to the player's subconscious, to leave them with a sense of mystery and wonder. That's about asking themed questions and participating in meaning rather than dictating it. As a result, some players may be lost in the mist, or stalk it forever trying to find me and bleed me for wasting their time."
He added, "I just want to stop telling and start asking."