As a proud first-generation gamer, being someone who has been gaming since the Golden Age in the mid-1980s, hearing about problems in the gaming industry is always disheartening. The gaming industry is very competitive. A lot of good studios are spending a lot of time and money fighting for our hard-earned dollars. Many are successful even if they have some bumps along the way, and many end up folding and closing up shop.
Today’s announcement that Irrational Studios, developers of the hit games Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite, is firing all but a handful of team members is one of the few examples of a profitable studio shutting down. It’s also a very infuriating announcement.
Ken Levine, who helped to found Irrational Games seventeen years ago, released a statement that says that following:
Seventeen years is a long time to do any job, even the best one. And working with the incredible team at Irrational Games is indeed the best job I’ve ever had. While I’m deeply proud of what we’ve accomplished together, my passion has turned to making a different kind of game than we’ve done before. To meet the challenge ahead, I need to refocus my energy on a smaller team with a flatter structure and a more direct relationship with gamers. In many ways, it will be a return to how we started: a small team making games for the core gaming audience.
I am winding down Irrational Games as you know it. I’ll be starting a smaller, more entrepreneurial endeavor at Take-Two. That is going to mean parting ways with all but about fifteen members of the Irrational team. There’s no great way to lay people off, and our first concern is to make sure that the people who are leaving have as much support as we can give them during this transition.
Besides financial support, the staff will have access to the studio for a period of time to say their goodbyes and put together their portfolios. Other Take-Two studios will be on hand to discuss opportunities within the company, and we’ll be hosting a recruiting day where we’ll be giving 3rd party studios and publishers a chance to hold interviews with departing Irrational staff.
My respect for Ken Levine has unfortunately plummeted with this announcement. I understand the desire for a change of pace after seventeen years. I understand wanting to try something different and moving in a new direction. However, deciding to fire the majority of employees just to keep the company name smacks of arrogant selfishness.
Ken Levine has every reason to be proud of what he’s done. Bioshock is one of the most beloved games in gaming history and Bioshock Infinite is an amazing game that successfully combined a great story with lots of action. Both games earned a lot of praise, deservedly so, and thus are inexorably linked in gamers’ minds to Irrational Games. That, however, is no excuse to fire all but a small handful of staff just to be able to keep the name.
One solution with the same goal without any loss of jobs is spinning off Irrational as its own company, rename what is left of the old Irrational, and give them a new CEO. Ken Levine could have his new lean, mean, Irrational Games machine, and the talent of the remaining team could stay intact with a chance to refocus on making great games. Instead, Ken Levine has decided to get a smaller team, which is not inherently a bad thing, by firing the majority of people at Irrational. That is a vain, selfish move.
Thankfully, most other game developers are offering assistance to those who are losing their jobs. Twitter is loaded with statements from game developers all over the world who are reaching out to those who will be affected by this decision. Hopefully, the folks at Irrational will have minimal (or even a complete lack of) time on the unemployment line, and my thoughts go out to them to get another paycheck soon.
I’ll still give the forthcoming games under the new, focused team the same chance that any new games have, but I’ll never look at Irrational or Ken Levine with the same level of respect that I once had. The people to be fired from Irrational are unfortunately the victims of a very irrational decision.