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.

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10 Comments on Irrational’s Closing Highlights How Cult of Personality Hurts Developers

Michael

On February 28, 2014 at 2:20 pm

No one is telling these companies to spend these countless millions on these games. That’s there choice. We the consumer should never be held accountable for flipping the bill on there negligence. If a company falls and has to lay off there employees its all the head honchos fault and they should be held accountable.

Ron Whitaker

On February 28, 2014 at 3:05 pm

@Michael – Actually, gamers everywhere are telling companies to spend this money on games. They’re demanding more graphics, more features, more everything – all of that costs money.

HOWEVER, it most certainly is not the fault of the gamers when said company fails. It’s up to them to manage their finances in such a way to deliver a game that will sell while still remaining profitable. That’s the point Phil is making. Irrational wasn’t a hugely profitable studio for Take Two, which is a huge part of why it is being closed up.

Evernessince

On February 28, 2014 at 5:33 pm

@Ron Whitaker

I would have to agree, more features = more money. In Bioshock infinite’s case it was more of having to redo so much content that cost them. Levine can take part of the blame and should have taken more time to pan the game out before starting full production. As phil said in his article, Levine was pretty much allowed to do whatever, including scrapping huge portions to get it perfect.

Bioshock infinite isn’t the most costly game ever made either. Most new p2p MMOs are reaching AAAA game territory(ESO). I believe it’s only a matter of time before we start seeing super premium $100 games.

pooleboy87

On February 28, 2014 at 6:44 pm

@Evernessince

“Only a matter of time”? We’re already seeing that, in the form of DLC. People like to harp on DLC, and point out what a rip-off it is, but few are willing to admit that it does help cover the cost of ballooning budgets and bigger games.

I don’t think we’re going to generally see a game that straight up starts at $100, because nearly doubling the cost of another game on a title that would presumably have a massive budget would be a gamble that I don’t think anybody would jump to take individually.

But, I think this is exactly the reason why more and more games are releasing DLC, and more and more companies are pushing season passes that cost nearly as much as the game in some instances.

Cranky Kong

On March 1, 2014 at 3:06 am

I don’t have a problem with DLC if it strikes a balance between being a worthwhile expansion while not seeming like something that was just taken away from the disk for a few extra dollars. Season passes are also acceptable, practical in fact. Online passes, though, are bull. I’m already paying PSN on Xbox Live to play online, I don’t expect to have to incur another cost for playing specific games. If it costs that much to host an online mode that you need to charge the player for it, just don’t include online in the first place. Not every game needs it, and many in fact have had the quality of the single-player mode severely compromised by development resources being spent on an online mode that is usually not particularly original or interesting and loses its popularity within three months.

Jbumi

On March 1, 2014 at 11:19 am

I think humans will always focus on an individual rather than the whole. On a ship they focus on the captain & ignore the oarsmen. I don’t necessarily agree with it, but it’s the way we are.

Squinty

On March 3, 2014 at 9:54 am

“Infinite could not exist in the same form if it weren’t a triple-A shooter; it would matter less to the landscape of video games, it would have sold fewer copies, and it would have been smaller in scope.”

I’m sorry, what? I bid you to try and recall where Levine’s prestige originated.
Scope has nothing to do with budget, and neither does prestige. The games with the longest surviving legacy, the greatest gameplay depth (and the source of Levine’s prestige) neither sold many copies nor were they funded on big budgets.
System Shock sold very few copies and it influenced everything, including the very existence of the Bioshock series.

Phil Hornshaw

On March 3, 2014 at 10:52 am

@Squinty

System Shock and System Shock 2 are obviously incredibly important, but I’d argue that BioShock was equally or perhaps more so, at least as relates to actual players (not developers taking inspiration). That game trades greatly on its art style and its characters — visuals are extremely important to making Rapture work. BioShock Infinite is crazy reliant on art and style for the exact same reasons. Both those games got in front of a lot more people than the early Shock games, and that’s where many more people know Levine from. So while I think you’re right about the early Shock games, I also think you’re downplaying the importance of the later-gen games significantly, especially after Infinite’s critical acclaim.

I also think you’re wrong about scope and budget. Do you think Bioshock Infinite would be possible without a serious investment? Or Bioshock itself? It’s a different game development world today.

Dan Miller

On March 3, 2014 at 8:12 pm

Bioshock Infinite sucked. Ludonarrative dissonance and whatever.

In regards to why we praise the writer/creative director of a game over others, I’ve got just 4 words. Metal Gear Solid: Revengeance. Okay, 3 words and some made up marketing bull word.

ConcernedGamer82

On March 12, 2014 at 3:18 pm

@Dan: I thought revengeance was made up, too. But, then, I found out that it’s actually a word that is so old that modern English speakers don’t use it any more.