Interview with Ken Levine, Creative Director of Irrational Games

At Vassar College’s NonCon (No Such Convention), held in Poughkeepsie, NY on February 20th, GamerNode had a chance to chat with Irrational Games’ co-founder and creative director, Ken Levine. Levine was visiting his alma mater, which he graduated from in 1988, to host a Q&A panel regarding his success in the videogame industry. Mike Murphy managed to catch up with Ken after the event and ask him a few questions that had not been covered during the main attraction. Read on or listen to the audio version below.

Mike Murphy, GamerNode: So first, in January, Irrational [Games] had their name changed back from 2K Boston. I just wanted to know how exactly that came about. Did you have to talk to people? Did you ask for permission or did 2K just suggest it themselves?

Ken Levine, Irrational Games: You know we’re owned by Take Two [Interactive] so obviously we had to get them on board for anything we do. So I think we had talked about it for a while and you know I think that there was a lot of passion at the company about the name Irrational Games. You know, there’s a lot of legacy in that company. And I think that they were able to sort of share with them our reasons for wanting to go back. And I think with a little talk and a little discussion they saw the wisdom of it and we changed it back.

GN: Back in a July 2009 interview with Gamasutra you said that Irrational Games had never laid off anybody in their history and that you were very proud of that.

KL: Yep.

GN: And you also said that it’s because you guys at Irrational plan well and stay small, based on the projects. With so many more studios in the past six months or so shutting down, mainly like what happened to Red Octane with, I believe it was Activision, a couple of weeks ago; do you still feel that way? Do you still feel very strongly about not having to lay off anybody? And are you afraid about Irrational maybe sometime in the future having to lay off people?

KL: Yeah. Look, there’s no magic in the universe. You can only do your best. And you put — you build — you make choices along the way that makes some things more likely and some things less likely. But there are no absolute guarantees in the universe. So the reason you staff up a lot is you see opportunity and you go, “Oh my god! We can make a lot of money here!” Or, “We can do a lot of big things here. Let’s staff up.” And you staff up. And we miss some opportunities because we’ve chosen not to grow past where we’re comfortable with. It’s not a guarantee that we’ll always make the right choices or always be as cautious as we need to be. But we really try. It’s part of our culture. And it’s the reason I think we haven’t had to do that. And hopefully we won’t ever have to do that.

GN: I know you said in the lecture that you haven’t played BioShock 2 yet. But a lot of reviews, including my own which I wrote for [GamerNode], say that while it’s a good game and it improved upon problems that BioShock had that it really can’t compare with what you guys did with the original. I just wanted to get your thoughts and feelings about how people still hold the original in such high regard and still feel that it just can’t compare to the sequel.

KL: Well as I said not having played it I can’t make a judgment as a gamer. Look, Rapture was a very fresh place and environment for people I think in the beginning. And when you’re gonna do a follow up to that, the advantages are that you inherit a lot of ideas. You know people are going to care about the city. When we were making the first one we didn’t know that anybody would care about Rapture, right? We didn’t know they would care about Andrew Ryan. We didn’t know if they would care about anything. So you go into the second one. You already have this guaranteed caring. But then it’s a challenge to amaze and surprise people as much as the first one. So I think it’s a mixed blessing to take on that challenge. You get some advantages and you get some challenges. It seems from what I’ve read that they did a good job sort of addressing some of the issues we had with the first game, some of the learning challenges we had with the first game. And they didn’t have to come up with a new engine. They didn’t have to come up with the world. So they got to focus on some of the challenges that we had in the first game. But it sounds like they tried to make the best possible sequel that they could.

GN: Obviously you were the creative director of the first BioShock. You had a lot to do with how the story came about. In the sequel, the main antagonist is Sophia Lamb. She is presented as the antithesis to Andrew Ryan. She is all about bringing people together, bringing the splicers together as part of a collective for the betterment of society. How do you feel what 2K Marin did by taking Andrew Ryan’s philosophy and flipping it upside-down as the new premise for the antagonist of the second game?

KL: Well I think that there’s two ways you can progress writing that story. There’s sort of two ways to go about it. Either you sort of flip it around like they did or you go in a completely new direction. And I’m not sure which, if I were to do it, what I would have done. But I think what you don’t want to do is have Andrew Ryan junior. Because then you really have a problem. And the question is do you figure out the right thing to do or do you go, “What? What am I seeing here?” You know, completely different. And I think that’s another one of the hard parts when you’re dealing with other people’s expectations. It has to be like the first one to some degree. You also want it to be pretty different in a lot of ways. So it’s a hard question to answer.

GN: Since BioShock 2 is so huge and so many critics held BioShock 2 with good scores, what do you think of the possibility of the BioShock franchise or series going on and continuing? And when you finish the project that Irrational is working on, how would you feel about 2K possibly asking you guys to do another BioShock game?

KL: The easiest thing for me to say is that I can’t comment on any future games because any time I say anything it just opens up that floodgate. So I just can’t comment on any future games.

GN: Okay. I know you’re working on the unannounced project and 2K is going to be at PAX East. Do you guys have anything planned to show off at all?

KL: No, no, no. We’ll be at PAX East. I’m on a couple of panels and all my guys are gonna be there because we’re in Boston, so we’re sending out entire team. We’ll have some fun things for our fans there I think. On our website too. On our new website we have a lot of cool things. But we’re not planning on showing product there.

GN: Okay. That’s all. Thank you very much.

KL: Thank you.


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Author: Mike Murphy View all posts by
Mike has been playing games for over two decades. His earliest memories are of shooting ducks and stomping goombas on NES, and over the years, the hobby became one of his biggest passions. Mike has worked with GamerNode as a writer and editor since 2009, giving you news, reviews, previews, a voice on the VS Node Podcast, and much more.

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