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.


Phil Hornshaw is deputy editor at Game Front. Read more of his work here, and follow him and Game Front on Twitter: @philhornshaw and @gamefrontcom.

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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.