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Ken Levine - Part Two

The 2K Boston boss on the evolution of online, the BioShock 2 decision, and age ratings

In part one of the interview with 2K Boston chief, Ken Levine, he talked about development costs, immersion in games, chaging audiences, and the team's goals for the next project.

Here in part two he addresses his decision not to work on BioShock 2, offers his thoughts on the evolution of online and connected consoles, and gives his views on the age ratings debate. There was an expectation that you'd automatically transition onto BioShock 2, given the work that you put into the first title - how hard a decision was it to go in a different direction?
Ken Levine

It was a fairly complicated process, and it was about us looking at how ambitious our goals were next time around. For us, and I think the company wanted us to do something extremely ambitious, it was a bittersweet thing.

When you open one door another closes, so it was a complicated and strange decision, but I think we're very comfortable about where we are right now. There was some news around your contract negotiations with the company - was that anything to do with that decision, or was it completely separate, perhaps more routine than maybe some people would have you think?
Ken Levine

Well, I don't talk about that, in the same way that I wouldn't ask you about your salary. But was it more of an issue than people made it out to be?
Ken Levine

What's really important to me - and this has always been important to me - is that the team is set up to realise their success, and has the resources to find success. That can be a substantial amount of resources, and a substantial amount of time.

If I'm going to ask these guys to go to bat for me, I have to go to bat for them - I have to make sure they have what they need. And sometimes people have different perspectives - and part of my job sometimes is to make sure that the company knows what they're getting into, as these guys let me know what I'm getting into. Aligning those thing is really important, bit it takes some time, and it takes some effort.

It's natural that a company wouldn't just throw money at you and say "Whatever you want," because they have fiduciary responsibility too. That's not always a ten minute task. [Take-Two CEO] Ben Feder told that he reminded everybody in the company regularly not to be distracted by wider events - has that been working, the way that the Take-Two management has handled it?
Ken Levine

I think the team understands that they're important to the company, and whatever Ben and Strauss [Zelnick] decide to do, it won't affect the team. They're working in the best interests of the company, so it's our job to make the game - and if you don't have any control over something, why worry about it too much?

So I let them do their thing, they let me and my guys do our thing, and we all go along. It comes back to the idea that successful teams should feel more comfortable than unsuccessful ones I guess?
Ken Levine

Certainly in any transition it's helpful to be a team that has had some success. Were you at E3 this year?
Ken Levine

No. Then, without asking you to comment on the event itself, what were the interesting things that you thought came out of the event? Anything that Microsoft, Nintendo or Sony said at their press conferences catch your eye?
Ken Levine

I think they're keeping their powder dry for other events, so there's not a huge amount of stuff coming out of this any more. And it's in a format that, as a hardcore gamer myself, it's not really the format I'm looking for. I'm looking for the previews and videos, and things like that - not really a sports star coming out to demo a product...I don't know if that actually happened, I'm just speculating...

But I want to know the details, get my hands dirty, so E3 for me? It's never been that interesting, it's never been a week I've followed the news particularly, because it's not about depth. One of the big focuses for Sony and Microsoft was the online side - it wasn't a key tenet of your last title, but the way the consoles are connected now must give you some ideas?
Ken Levine

The thing that's most interesting to me is the ongoing relationship with your audience, that products are no longer just launched, that they're in a phase of constantly being launched. And I think that we're just sort of catching up to that notion.

I think you have to think about products as more like services, more like a relationship between the audience and the world you're making, rather than just shipping this thing, then on to the next one.

But I think that requires - and we've thought about this - some sophistication in your thinking about your franchise, your business, and the industry isn't entirely set up for that yet. Some people are, but there's a lot of education that has to go on internally, we're all educating ourselves on this.

But it's exciting in every possible way - it's lets people build relationships with your products, gives products longer lifespans, lets you leverage aspects of the hardcore audience you can't leverage otherwise, lets you not have as many people involved in the transaction - there are benefits all around. In the UK at the moment there's an ongoing discussion about age ratings for games. Clearly there's an adult audience for videogames, but do you feel that sometimes that message doesn't roll out to society at large?
Ken Levine

Absolutely. I remember when BioShock came out - and we always intended it to be an M-rated game, never a game for kids - we had a local newspaper come and do a story on us. And without playing the game he goes off and writes that this is a game about paederasty...

And it's interesting, because the industry is so looking over its shoulder, that was the only negative story like that on BioShock, from a local newspaper - and the gaming press picked it up as the mainstream pressing going crazy over it. Most of the noise actually came out of the gaming press, talking about this one story.

And then a gamer actually wrote to the guy and complained about his article, and I saw his email back. And he said he'd played the game since and that he was wrong. He didn't bother with a retraction or anything like that, but they just don't understand. A lot of the mainstream press don't get what it is - it's like, until BioShock, my parents didn't really understand what I did, not because they didn't try, but because it's so alien to them.

It's another language, and I think that's scary - "What are our kids doing when their waggling their controllers around?" But it's the same language that was used about comics in the fifties, and look, it's a wonderful distraction for people instead of talking about real problems.

And they don't really get what it is, they sort of put its power in the wrong place, but for kids they really identify with the fantasy element, it's such a part of their lives now - the way they communicate with each other now, stuff that I'm getting too old for, like MySpace and all this community stuff. The webs that connect their lives - it's not just sharing with kids at school, it's sharing with kids across the world.

But it's just so hard for people of a certain age to understand that. I'm not sure the industry necessarily helps itself sometimes - it's not always been great at selling the positive side of videogames?
Ken Levine

Or just standing up for itself when it gets attacked. You saw that recently with the Mass Effect stuff - but I don't know if there's a bad intent, it's just a lack of understanding in what we do. It's so primal to us, but to others, they're sort of starting to get it now.

Ken Levine is the studio head at 2K Boston. Interview by Phil Elliott.

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