Irrational’s Closing Highlights How Cult of Personality Hurts Developers
The point of all this loose math is just to illustrate that Irrational Games’ closing isn’t necessarily so insane a notion, even despite BioShock Infinite’s critical reception. For Take-Two, Irrational was much more a prestige studio than a profit driver.
So when Levine wanted to move onto a new kind of project, one that might fit his style and his ideas better, with 15 choice staffers picked from Irrational, it seems less and less crazy that Take-Two would opt to shutter the studio and spread out its talent.
That still puts an awful lot of focus on Levine (and those other 15 or so people) at the expense of probably as many as 100 or more (according to LinkedIn, 109 people self-identify as working at Irrational Games; Take-Two has refused to comment on how many people are actually being laid off by Irrational shutting down). It seems absurd to attribute building a triple-A game of the magnitude of Infinite to one man, while more or less ignoring the other 200 people toiling away on its various elements and systems in the background.
And yet, there’s a cult of personality surrounding Levine and other developers like him — people who have been in the creative driving seat to a large degree (though it’s always impossible to tell just how high a degree) of beloved games. It seems as though part of that cult of personality is responsible for the fact that without Levine and his smaller team, Take-Two executives doesn’t see Irrational as being worth maintaining in its current form. (It’s worth noting also that Rod Fergusson, Epic Games’ former executive producer and director of production who worked on Gears of War, briefly joined Irrational before Infinite shipped, and was hired away by Microsoft at the end of January.)
That Take-Two is spending the time to help Irrational’s staff find new jobs is quite admirable — it’s much, much more than developers get at most studios — and it makes sense that with Infinite’s numbers (even those that are speculative), Irrational as a 100-plus-person company might be too big.
At the same time, 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. It needed a studio of its size to create the game it did, and earn the acclaim Infinite acquired.
Yet the games industry continues to focus its attention on single people or small groups, even as many games become bigger and more expensive, and require more and more hands along the way to complete them. Huge layoffs at the end of a project are business as usual — partially because teams are grown during heavy development, but also because game sales targets seem unreasonably high on plenty of projects as relates to their budgets.
When Take-Two looked at Irrational Games, the value they saw was in Levine, its leader — despite that by Levine’s reckoning, BioShock as a series has earned $500 million over three games and eight years. The real value in Irrational isn’t Irrational itself, but in having Levine in Take-Two’s stable — and that’s why Irrational Games is closing.
But much of what makes Levine valuable is ascribed to him by executives, games media and players — he’s the visionary, and we tend to ignore the people who actually execute on the vision. The big drawback of that mindset is that while games developers are often treated like replaceable cogs, the truth is that a team that works well together is more valuable than one person dictating a game’s development.
I can’t help but wonder if teams like Irrational might have better job security if so much focus wasn’t placed on people like Levine, with the other 199 developers that helped make his critically acclaimed game going somewhat overlooked and, likely, under-appreciated.