The Mind of a Game Developer: Inside Ken Levine’s Vassar College Q&A Panel

Ken Levine

On February 20, one of the most well-known figures in the videogame industry returned to his alma mater to share his knowledge and offer advice based on his experiences. Co-founder and creative director of Irrational Games, Ken Levine, visited Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, NY, where he graduated from in 1988, for a Q&A panel at the college’s tenth annual NonCon (No Such Convention). During the hour-long panel, Levine answered questions regarding his journey from Vassar to the videogame industry, his rough times trying to make it big with Looking Glass Studios and Irrational Games, his success, his feelings on the current state of the videogame industry, and more.

When Levine was in high school, he originally had no intention of actually going to college at all. But he changed his mind when Vassar College accepted his early admittance application. When he arrived, he became a drama major and had no intentions of getting into video games, as the industry was still in its infancy.

“When I came to Vassar, there was no gaming industry,” said Levine. “It didn’t exist. Well, maybe it existed in a ‘guys working in their own basement’ kind of way, but not in a business way. So I never even thought, when I came here I hadn’t really thought about the gaming industry. It wasn’t even a concept I had thought of.”

However, Levine still owes Vassar for his break into the videogame industry. After getting fired from working at the college’s alumni house one summer, he found himself stuck at the college without a source of income.

“So I was stuck here for the summer and a friend said, ‘Well why don’t you work as a carpenter in the summer theater,’ because I was a drama major,” Levine said. “And I went there and I was probably sort of like Jesus except I wasn’t a savior and I was terrible at carpentry.”

It was here that Levine found his connection that would eventually land him a gig in the gaming industry.

“I met a playwright named John Robin Bates,” he continued. “He read one of my plays…and he said, ‘Oh, Ken. I really like your writing. It’s really organic.’ And I’m like, ‘Well how do I make money doing this?’ He introduced me to his agent in Hollywood and when I was here I was getting flown out to LA to meet with agents and stuff. Then I got out of college and I went out and completely failed as a screenwriter.”

Levine went to New York City straight out of college and quickly realized he wasn’t going to make enough money as a screenwriter. He then toiled about from job to job, city to city until it finally occurred to him to combine his education with his favorite hobby.

“It occurred to me at some time, ‘Why don’t I try to get a job in that industry?'” Levine told the audience. “I didn’t know what it meant to get a job in that industry. So I saw an ad in the back of a magazine. There was an ad for this company, Looking Glass, and I was a big fan of theirs, for a designer job. And I didn’t know what that meant, but I applied.”

He credits the trips and time spent in Hollywood and in college as preparatory to being employed by Looking Glass Studios. He stated that in ’95 the game industry was trying to merge with Hollywood and he believes the company thought he may have known something about Hollywood that could have helped them.

Levine was working in New York City as a computer consultant when the offer from Looking Glass came through.

“The guy [I worked for] said to me, ‘Well what if we make you a partner?'” said Levine. “And I said, ‘There is nothing you can offer me that would make me not take this job.'”

However working for Looking Glass Studios and eventually forming Irrational Games did not turn Levine into an instant success. He began in the industry in 1995 and didn’t hit it big until BioShock released 12 years later in 2007.

“We did not have like a Taylor Swift kind of walk-in like rise to success,” forewarned Levine. “It took a very long period of time…Paying ourselves nothing, always running out of money; always in financial trouble…it was tough sledding. Really tough sledding”

He then continued to warn the audience about the stress and and hard work involved in being an entrepreneur and trying to make it in any industry, even if some are successful in the end.

“To be an entrepreneur, that’s a path some people take and it’s not a path for everyone,” he told those in attendance. “It’s very hard work and you have to live a very patient life…It is an all-consuming thing. And unless it’s something that you have to do or you can’t sleep at night, don’t do it…To get to that 30 percent that’s awesome that you’re an entrepreneur, you have to go through the 70 to 80 percent, if you’ll excuse my math, that absolutely sucks.”

Levine then went on to answer questions regarding how far the industry has come since he joined it in ’95. He spoke of how 15 years ago the average person didn’t care about stories in games because the graphics were terrible to them. Now though, he feels that things have definitely changed for the better.

“I think finally when we saw BioShock, the graphics and the storytelling had reached a point where we considered your average laymen could see that there was something happening there,” said Levine.

He also went on to talk about how fast the videogame industry evolves and how hard it can be to keep pace.

“The market is constantly changing,” stated Levine. “It evolves so quickly that it’s very hard to learn the practical elements in school.”

This isn’t just true for the practical elements. Levine continued by saying that because of this rapid evolution, games are released at an relentlessly frequent rate.

“I can’t even keep up,” he said. “Now it’s like you turn on your iPhone, you go to or something and there’s a new game. There’s no way to keep track of all the new games.”

Nevertheless, Levine feels that it is ultimately a positive thing for the industry and mainly for the gamers themselves.

“What I like about today, as a gamer, is that really any itch can be scratched,” he noted. “So I think it’s a really great time to be a gamer.”

When asked what games he himself plays Levine stated that with anyone who is involved in the game industry, diversity is the key.

“I play everything,” Levine answered. “I am the biggest game whore of all time. I’ll play everything. Some things I play for five minutes; some things I play ‘til the end. I play games all the time…I talk to a lot of people who want to be game developers and I ask them, one of the first things we ask them in the interview is, ‘What are you playing right now?’ And unless I hear diversity, unless I hear a passionate level of diversity, I’m just not interested in you. Because you have to be an omnivore to be a game developer, because there are ideas everywhere…You have to play everything.”

Levine illustrated that point by informing the audience of just how heavy and diverse he packs whenever and wherever he travels.

“In my backpack…I’ve got my iPhone, I’ve got my laptop, I’ve got my DS, and I’ve got my PSP,” he said. “‘Cause I can’t go anywhere without those.”

It isn’t just the best games Levine plays either. He talked about how he even makes sure that he experiences terrible games and that everyone who looks to get into the industry should as well.

“You learn [more] from some terrible games than you will from some great games,” he advised the crowd. “‘Cause there’s always, there’s usually some good ideas in there.”

When asked a pair of questions regarding cutscenes in games and Levine’s own technique of telling a story in a game, the Irrational Games head gave props and respect to those at Naughty Dog.

“I’m a big admirer of Uncharted 2,” he answered. “And frankly I think one of the reasons that works is because the cinematic portions are better than most, just a strictly non-interactive, are better acted and directed and performed than most movies… It’s not super-integrated with the game and it’s not really my kind of thing as a game maker, but I think they’re obviously the pinnacle of that right now.”

Levine also discussed in those questions how he tries to challenge himself to be different from studios like Naughty Dog and Metal Gear creator Hideo Kojima.

“That’s not the challenge that I put in front of myself and my team,” he said of cutscenes. “The challenge I put in front of myself and my team is how much of the story can we tell in the world? How do we integrate the experience of storytelling and the experience of the game as much as we can so you’re not sort of alternating between these two experiences of story, game, story, game? So you need an incredible amount of respect for what a game is…You have to have a very brutal editor in your head.”

A member of the audience then told Levine how he felt it was nice in BioShock and System Shock 2 to have the audio logs. Levine then pointed out how the logs were a way to include story and cater to the diversity of players that experienced the game.

“We talk about storytelling sort of in three levels,” stated Levine. “We have the people who want to, like, the mouth-breathers who are just going to go in. And I love the mouth-breathers…And that’s awesome. And they’re not going to care about objectivism and all this other nonsense. They just want to get through the game and want to shoot shit. And I support that so the game has to be, ‘Okay I’m doing this, I’m doing that, I’m doing that.’ And then you have the second level of people who want to engage on, ‘Okay. I care who Sandra Cohen is, I care who Andrew Ryan is. I know on some tertiary level. I don’t want to go out on a date with them.’ And then you have the people who are like archeologists who really wanna dig down deep and really wanna understand the motivations of the characters.”

He continued to discuss the difference between releases for games as compared to plays and movies, where, for instance, you are able to observe the audience as they view your product.

“You don’t have that opening night feeling,” he said. “You don’t have that connection with your audience. You have these lovely experiences like this where you get to meet people who have played your games and hopefully had an impact on them. But it’s weird because they have this whole experience with what you did and you’re just coming to that afterwards. You don’t get to see that experience like when you watch a play. When you do a play you can just sit back and watch it. It’s a real connection. And it’s real tough… Release day is a very weird, abstract experience.”

Levine then went on in a later question to divulge about his interest in ideologies and how the people behind them can be driven deeper and deeper into darkness and become blind and hypocritical thanks to it.

“You see a theme there, which is people who take ideas into the real world and don’t change course when the real world presents data that’s contrary to their ideas…That’s really interesting to me because I think it happens a lot. Because you forget what your original concerns were and the ideology becomes something unto itself.”

When an audience member asked Levine about the greater frequency with which videogames are turned into movies and vice-versa, he explained that the key thing most developers and Hollywood studios need to learn is how to transition the material from one media to the other. He then used his work on the novelization of BioShock as an example.

“I told [the guy writing the novel] like, having the splicer names and calling a guy nitrous splicer,” spoke Levine. “That’s a function of a video game. And in the world of Rapture, the real world of Rapture for a novel, probably nobody was called a nitrous splicer. It was, ‘That scary mother-fucker over there.'”

Late in the panel, Levine explained his views on “choice” and multiple dialogue options in videogames.

“To some degree there’s choice in games, which is you enter a combat situation and you plan out literally a million different ways of combat,” he answered. “But if you have some choices that are like, ‘Well you either say yes to him or say no to him,’ in a dialogue tree choice I think is a bit of, for me, a bit of a false choice. Because it’s still a choice between a couple of things. I mean the exciting thing about choice in life is like; the branching paths from this moment are infinite, right? I can do anything right now. You can do anything right now. There’s not a dialogue tree between us that somebody pre-supposed. So I could go build certain choices, ‘X, Y, Z’, or I could just primarily leave it with X…How you grow the character. How you play the game situations are interesting because we can provide infinite choice in that space. So I’ve always been kind of disappointed by choice…Because at the end of the day I see the cardboard cutout feature of it. And it is limited. So I’d rather do things that I can really do fully rather than sort of not to.”

As the panel wound down to its close, Levine was asked a final question on how he was able to come up with such convincing psychopathic characters in BioShock. He responded by saying that psychopaths are all about passions.

“If you want to write a psychopath…[it] is about finding a passion where nothing will get in the way of that passion,” Levine said. “And normal people have limits and they have boundaries. But we all have passions and that’s what we have in common with psychopaths. We have passions. We have boundaries also. They don’t have boundaries. So we just sort of take those passions, you find a real passion that I can relate to. Like beauty and economic utopia or a piece of art. And I have a huge passion about [it]. But at the end of the day am I going to kill somebody for that? No. I’m not gonna do those things. But if you remove those, those constraints, then you’re halfway to an interesting character.”

For more on Ken Levine, you can check out GamerNode’s story pieces on his views on motion control and violence and sex in games that were also taken from the Q&A panel. Or check out our exclusive one-on-one interview with the co-founder and creative director of Irrational Games that took place after the panel session.


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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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