Irrational’s Closing Highlights How Cult of Personality Hurts Developers
For those familiar with games news and the games industry, the name Ken Levine is synonymous in many ways with BioShock.
That’s somewhat unfair, however. Irrational Games, the developer behind the latest release in the BioShock series, BioShock Infinite, consisted of as many as 200 people when development was in full swing in 2012. Though it may have been Levine’s vision and writing that gave the game its overall direction, video games are so collaborative a process that downplaying the work of 199 other individuals in favor of one person does not tell the whole BioShock Infinite story.
Still, it hasn’t stopped Levine’s decision to move on in order to make smaller, digital-only, narrative-driven games from resulting in owner Take-Two shutting down Irrational Games. As Levine noted in his written statement about the closures the developer’s website, Irrational will be “winding down,” with Take-Two providing displaced developers time to get their affairs in order and their portfolios updated; there will also be opportunities for many of them to move on to other studios within the Take-Two umbrella.
Looking at the situation as a whole, it’s not particularly surprising that Take-Two would shutter Irrational without Levine. After all, the studio hasn’t produced many games since Take-Two acquired it: BioShock was released in 2008, and BioShock Infinite in 2013. Despite both games’ critical acclaim and both being profitable, neither seems to have been was a breakaway success.
Take-Two’s financial reports noted that BioShock Infinite had sold 3.7 million units at the end of the fiscal quarter ending on May 31, 2013 — about two months after the game’s release. By July 2013, Take-Two announced that BioShock Infinite had sold 4 million copies.
The quick and dirty math on those figures paints a picture of a game that was successful, earning as much as $240 million (at $60 per copy) by July. But that’s just the money from all sales taken together, not what eventually finds its way to the hands of Take-Two or Irrational Games.
Slice that $240 million up according to figures published by the LA Times Blog and originally sourced to streaming gaming service provider OnLive, and you have to leave off 11.666 percent for platform royalties and fully 25 percent for retailers. Even if we (somewhat generously) assume that half of BioShock Infinite’s sales were console sales, you’ll need to lop off roughly $44 million from that sum just in overhead for console sales. Of the other half, overhead is probably about 30 percent for Steam and other online download services. So subtract approximately $36 million, or $80 million altogether.
That brings the really, really rough estimate of what BioShock Infinite brought to Irrational and Take-Two down to $160 million, and that doesn’t account for discount sales of Infinite — the game hasn’t even been out a year and it’s sitting at half price on Steam, and it saw plenty of discounts even fairly soon after its launch.
You also have to take that rough figure against BioShock Infinite’s budget, which was undoubtedly high, especially due to repeated delays and a development process that, according to Levine, saw two full games’ worth of content cut in the process.
While a budget figure of $200 million was reported by The New York Times, Levine denied it was that high, and it seems Take-Two financial reports bear that out. Still, combine five years of development with marketing costs and it doesn’t seem unreasonable to think that BioShock Infinite’s budget concerns accounted for at least half of that $160 million estimate, and probably more. It’s likely balanced out by sales since July 2012, but we have no idea what those figures might be, especially with price cuts and sales for Infinite in the interim.