BioShock series lead Ken Levine talks to Develop about his work on the franchise, Irrational's studio culture and being an industry icon
DEVELOP: By the time BioShock Infinite is released it will have been five years since the last game in the series came out, and far longer since you started. What’s changed for you over that time, having personally overseen one game series?
LEVINE: Over that time we’ve had to reimagine the company a little. We were originally working with the Australian team, and since then we’ve had to build up a much larger team. We’ve quadrupled the size of the studio in Boston and so we had to build a new office space and hire a lot of people.
We’re not a company that can hire a lot of people very quickly. We can’t just hire 400 people at once, because you’re going to get very mediocre people if you do that.
It took us a long time to build up the team. That’s one of the primary reasons our work on BioShock has taken so long. But also, our process at Irrational is really organic and slow. We’re like the slow food movement of games because we made a lot of mistakes, I think; I don’t know what better way to put it.
We did six months of prototyping on a product that we sort of abandoned. It still lives on and we used the assets from it in the game. But it all takes us a long time.
Originally we had an idea for this city in the sky and for a long time it looked a lot like Rapture. It was like dark clouds and purples and originally the conflict in the city was between technowadice and luddites. Lead characters Booker and Elizabeth didn’t exist.
It’s the same with the first release of BioShock. If you go back in the history of the game, it was set on a tropical island for a long time with former Nazis in a modern day setting and you played the role of a cult
I think that’s OK; it’s a very natural way to work. Fortunately, the team and I are allowed to experiment, and the company is behind that. Not everybody has that luxury so we try to leverage what we have the best we can.
How did you earn that kind of luxury? Is it the success of the first BioShock that affords you the time you need from Take-Two?
I can’t speak for Take-Two. They write the cheques and that’s great. No one comes in and hits me on the head with a frying pan and says ‘what the hell are you doing?’
The company in general understands that we’re not generally planning to annualise these franchises. You could do that, there is certainly a way to do that, and people can do that well, it’s just not how it works for us.
I think that’s the culture at the company, it’s a little more figuring out and making sure we deliver something that’s really, really good at the end of the day.
So why doesn’t Irrational go with the annualised method?
Obviously you look at Call of Duty go from one developer to another and they’re honing their craft and they’re really good at that, but with each BioShock we want to pop the stack completely and really start again.
I think even when we announced Infinite we still had that challenge, in that people were saying ‘Wait, what are you guys doing? I don’t understand.’ Even we didn’t understand for a while.
We had to figure out exactly what it was, and it was so interesting when we announced the game a year-and-a-half ago in New York.
The first event we did had people really scratching their heads over it. But by the time we got to Gamescom people had had enough time with it where they began just looking at it and getting really excited, so their reaction was so different.
The money guys at the company are wise enough to understand that’s the better way to make a product for us because that’s our skill set.
If you get a chance to play these annualised franchises – the Assassin’s Creeds and the Call of Dutys – what’s your take on them?
I hate those people that say ‘I think everyone should make games the way I make them because I know the secret.’ Seriously, fuck those guys. There’s room for everything out there.
There’s room for annualised franchises that continue to polish the gem. There’s room for people who pop the stack and really try and change things every time; the Rockstars and the Irrationals. I’m not comparing the quality of those two groups.
I say if they can do it and deliver quality, which I think they do, that’s great. I think the thing that made BioShock work to a large degree was the game’s environment and the experience of seeing something new. But If you were to keep going back to that place, you lose so much of that. I don’t think we had much choice, creatively.
Does it ever worry you in that you have in mind the emotions a player will feel, and if a player messes about and does contrary things, they won’t experience the game the way you want them to?
Yes, but look, I think you have to put trust in the player and I think the player generally rewards the trust you give them. Somebody once asked me about the scene in the first BioShock where you see the Big Daddy come down and drill that guy against the wall. They said ‘What if I didn’t look at it?’. Well, I think that people generally do look closely, and it’s our job to draw the eye as much as we can.
We understand that people may not be paying attention and we have a lot of systems in Infinite for dealing with that – content that, if it doesn’t play in one sequence, it’s always waiting for another opportunity to play again.
We can see that multiple times in a level and the player might not be paying attention the first time or be in a position to see it, perhaps because of a gunfight.
There’s all this opportunistic stuff that happens in our AI, but at the end of the day I think that players appreciate being trusted and they feel like ‘I caught that’. It’s almost better if they catch it out of the corner of their eye and turn to see it rather than the game locks up and a movie starts running.
But it’s hard to tell a story that way. We spend a lot of our time saying ‘Oh my god, how the hell are we going to get this across? How are we going make this so the player can’t break this but we still give them freedom?’ I think that at the end of the day, the player feels trusted and that’s important.
Moving on, what about the media attention and the status of being ‘Ken Levine’. You’ve become one of the more iconic developers. Are you conscious of that stuff, or do you try to ignore it? We interviewed Cliff Bleszinski and he’s really conscious of it and knows he can use his superstar status to inspire other people to do the same thing.
I’m a friend of Cliff’s, I like Cliff. He’s a much more social guy than I am and he really loves being in that space. I’m much more of a home body. I go to work and I go home and spend time with my wife.
That’s what I do, whilst Cliff is always jetting around all over the world.
So we’re different guys in that regard. What’s helpful to me is that I can get out there and talk about my work and the team’s work in a way where people are interested in hearing about it, so you have some credibility coming in.
I’m very fortunate to be able to do that because that allows me to talk about what we’re doing more easily.
I guess I don’t think about a lot of stuff. It’s very gratifying to meet fans and it’s charming when somebody recognises you on the street because it’s not like a situation where you’re like Beyoncé and you can’t even go out to dinner.
It’s very charming when it happens and it’s very flattering. The fact that people like what I do and what the team does is just very nice, but when you go back to the office the thing you have to do is remember that you have to prove yourself every time. I look at everything I write and everything the team does with the eyes of someone who has their hand on their wallet and going ‘Hmm, sixty bucks, huh?’ That’s a tough audience.
A bunch of journalists at E3, that’s a tough audience. They’re not my parents; they’ve no reason to be rooting for us. So you can’t let the fame go to your head because that’s how you become irrelevant. You start believing you can do no wrong.
What would you say to a young game developer looking to carve out a niche?
The best advice I can give is be willing to do anything. Come in and say ‘What can I do?’ That’s how I started when I got to Looking Glass. I’d be there and hang out all the time until one in the morning. Just asking ‘is anyone doing something cool, can I get involved in it somehow?’
You have to be incredibly hungry if you’re going to be successful in this industry. Making any game, the odds are stacked against you. It has to be great, it has to sell really well, it has to make big profit and it has to affect people’s lives. The odds of that happening are always remote.
Are the pressures of commercial success ones you’ve put on yourself, or is it the tension of knowing there is a publisher waiting for your work to pay off?
The way I deal with that is that I don’t really think of the specifics. I just try to be the audience all the time.
I’ll watch a level, like the E3 demo for example, and I will sit there as the audience and even when it’s in very rough shape very early on, I have to envision, as the creative director, I have to see things and where they are going and consider, as an audience member, am I going to like that?
I have to pretend I have no reason to like it. I really just position myself as a gamer playing the thing, thinking ‘is this going to be good? Do I have any reason why I want to go around the next corner?’ And that’s what I do and really how I deal with it.
Tablet devices and smartphones are now prevalent everywhere. What’s your take on making smaller games for these devices?
Well, the industry changes. Almost all the successful console developers started off developing small PC games, whether it’s Valve, Bioware or Bethesda. We took over that space, and I think we’ve come to own it. The kind of games that I was making when I started, the mid-range budget PC games, don’t really exist anymore.
Low budget games do along with iPhone and super high end games, so you have to be mindful of that.
But on the other hand, some ideas express themselves as big sixty dollar console games and some ideas express themselves as flipping some birds. There may be ideas that we have which express themselves that way, but at the end of the day it’s always about what’s the idea and what’s the best expression of that.
The third question you have to ask yourself is, if I’m taking someone’s money to make this, can I look them in the eye and say I think you’re going make your money back on this because I take that very seriously?
Would you ever make a mobile game? Do you have the time?
Not right now – I don’t really have the time to. We’re working on a Vita game and fortunately we don’t have a ‘this has to come out tomorrow’ pressure on that. We’re very open ended on that; it’ll be out when it’s ready to be released.
We’ve been kicking that idea around for a long time so it’s had some time in the cooker. That was an idea that expressed itself really well on a mobile platform where I don’t think BioShock Infinite necessarily is that game.
But look, you have to be mindful of these things because maybe in a few years there won’t be this kind of platform. Then you’ll find a new way to express yourself just like we did before with going from mid-range PC titles to what we’re doing now.