Myths busted: Who killed Irrational Games?

Last week in a shock announcement, Take-Two and Ken Levine announced that Irrational Games – the studio behind BioShock – was being closed.

It sent shockwaves around the industry, how could such a talented studio simply be destroyed? And then the opinions started to fly: It was Ken Levine’s fault. Take-Two’s fault. BioShock Infinite made a loss. It’s the death of the triple-A business model.

The truth is not so dramatic. This week MCV crunched the numbers, looked back at historical reports and spoke to a source close to the studio to uncover the truth and dispel the myths behind Irrational Games closure.

Myth 1: Irrational Games is closed because BioShock Infinite cost $200m to make and made a huge loss.
Both of these ‘facts’ are very wrong. The $200m figure actually came from an unnamed analyst, which was instantly refuted by Ken Levine at the time (Did someone send checks to the wrong address?” was his tweet). Also, BioShock Infinite was profitable, nicely so. Take-Two CEO Strauss Zelnick announced in an investor call in May last year that the game had sold 3.7m units and was already commercially successful. Less than a month later, sales passed 4m.

Myth 2: Ken Levine shut Irrational because he is selfish.
Ken Levine cannot shut Irrational because Ken Levine does not own Irrational. It belongs to publisher 2K Games and its parent company Take-Two. Ken Levine decided to leave Irrational – along with several senior members of staff – to build a replayable, narrative-driven video game. According to our source close to the situation, the project requires extensive research and development and not a 100-man strong development team. So he decided to leave his former studio.

Myth 3: Take-Two killed Irrational and put the blame on Ken to save face.
Again, a bit of a silly accusation as it is far better for a faceless corporate business to take the blame for any job losses than an individual creator who wants people to buy his games. However, it was ultimately Take-Two’s call. Irrational has quite a flat structure (unlike some other more hierarchical outfits, such as Infinity Ward), and so with Ken and a 15 others leaving, this effectively ripped the heart out of the developer. Take-Two could have kept the studio going with a new team – possibly as an outfit that supported other studios’ projects (or ‘developer purgatory’ as our source put it), but it ultimately decided to try and re-home the staff at other Take-Two studios and third party developers, instead. It was Ken Levine and Take-Two that caused the closure of Irrational Games.

Myth 4: 100s of staff face redundancy.
A lot of talented people are now facing an uncertain future, which is the real tragedy behind the news. Take-Two is already offering jobs to some staff to rehome them at sister studios such as Firaxis and the Rockstar outfits.

But it’s not ‘100s’ that face redundancy, as some reports suggest, it is 70 full-time members of staff and five contractors. A jobs fair is being held tomorrow (Wednesday) with 50 third-party companies visiting the studio hoping to secure some of the studio’s talent. Hopefully, they’ll all find new roles quickly. These are the people that made BioShock after all.

Myth 5: The death of Irrational means the death of triple-A games development.
A popular conclusion of the whole situation is that the death of Irrational Games means that the days of big-budget blockbuster games are at an end. There is a lot to be said about the risks of triple-A game development and its sustainability, but Irrational’s demise really does not have anything to do with it. Take-Two is one of the biggest publishers of triple-A games – this is the company that owns Rockstar after all. It is not about to reduce its triple-A game count and nor is it about to stop producing BioShock games. If you want an example of triple-A game development in crisis, Take-Two is a bad one.

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