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Take-Two wins with Irrational Games closure

Wednesday, 19th February 2014 10:15 GMT By Matt Martin

The Bioshock publisher axes an unprofitable business but keeps the cherry-picked talent and the valuable brands – one of which is Ken Levine himself.

Ken-Levine1

When Ken Levine announced he was closing Irrational Games last night it came as a shock to everyone watching the games business. A creative like Levine is much-loved by fans and peers, and he and his team have produced an enviable collection of games over its seventeen years. Pulling the plug after the release of the critically divisive but 4 million plus-selling Bioshock Infinite seemed the last thing that he and his publishing partners at Take-Two would, or should, do.

“If Levine really had the influence at Take-Two that his actions are suggesting, he could have also had the pull to reorganise Irrational Games into a coherent and slimline development team that would exist following his departure.”

According to his statement, Levine is starting a new business with 15 members of the Irrational team, while the rest of the studio are let go. They will be well looked after in their bid to find new work; there are opportunities within 2K Games and other studios in the area – most of which are most likely scouring LinkedIn and hanging around local bars to grab the exceedingly talented staff in Boston right now.

But still, their boss just sacked them and started a new company with his old business partners.

The triple-A games business is increasingly tough and the period between current and new consoles leaves studios previously at the top of their game crushed in the transition. But this particular case doesn’t seem to be a result of market factors – at least not on the surface. According to Levine, this decision is his own. A move 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.”

The reality is that Irrational Games – which is wholly owned by Take-Two – isn’t closing down as Levine steps in to save 15 jobs. He’s not walking away to start afresh like Peter Molyneux did with Lionhead, or Greg Zeschuk and Ray Muzyka did when they left Bioware. Those moves were about going it alone but leaving a legacy business to continue creating games. They have become studios that exist and produce in their own right, they can function perfectly well after the departure of their founders. There’s no real mention of it, but Levine is implying that Irrational Games will not survive without him, so selfishly or selflessly, the studio must close.

If Levine really had the influence at Take-Two that his actions are suggesting – to be able to downsize the team and close the doors – he could have also had the pull to reorganise Irrational Games into a coherent and slimline development team that would exist following his departure. But no, Irrational was due to close regardless of its founder. Through some smart negotiation, Levine now gets his dream team and starts afresh.

He doesn’t even need to raise start-up funds because he’s being bankrolled by his old publisher.

It’s Take-Two that is the real winner here. The publisher gets to keep the Bioshock franchise, a brand that has generated $500 million in retail sales. There are questions about its viability in the triple-A market now, but it’s still a valuable name to hold on to. We can expect a reboot within the next couple of years.

“Take-Two gets to keep Ken Levine and his cherry-picked band of talent, and at the same time jettison the costly team at Irrational Games.”

Take-Two also gets to keep Ken Levine and his cherry-picked band of talent, and at the same time jettison the costly team at Irrational Games. Studios are expensive to run, especially those that take years to make a single-player first-person shooter. In the ruthless publishing business, closing unprofitable studios makes headlines, but more importantly raises stock prices.

Perhaps most importantly Take-Two also gets whatever it is Ken Levine and his team will work on next. For the publisher it’s too expensive to have a big studio like Irrational poncing around with new ideas and being creative when they could be churning out a sellable product and improving 2K Games’ bottom line. Much better for the business to axe what it sees as chaff and keep a smaller experimental team behind.

Take-Two gets to keeps Ken Levine and Bioshock, both of which are much more valuable brands than Irrational Games ever was.

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7 Comments

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  1. Dragon

    Cannot really argue with that logic. Well said.

    #1 5 months ago
  2. Edo

    Will carefully watch what his small team will do.

    #2 5 months ago
  3. NinjaMidget

    Indeed, good move by Take-Two and Levine. Although I wonder if all of the now jobless staff at Irrational will find it as easy as you say to get jobs.

    #3 5 months ago
  4. deathm00n

    Seeing this way, all makes sense now. Shame that Bioshock will probably be put on hold and Levine won’t touch it anymore…

    #4 5 months ago
  5. jon_

    Would be cool to read the point of view of somebody who actually has worked in a AAA studio

    #5 5 months ago
  6. briggstown

    I’m sorry, but the Bioshock franchise is absolutely worthless without Irrational games. Bioshock 2 is proof of that. There is way too much work to be done on that series going into next gen for someone to just be able to step in and piggy back off the work that Ken Levine and his staff did.

    #6 5 months ago
  7. karma

    @briggstown

    BS2 was a solid, if unnecessary sequel, and it was developed by some of the devs that did work on BS1. They were handpicked from some of the IG studio guys if I recall correctly and formed a new studio just for BS2.

    It was BS Infinite that utterly dropped the ball in many a core gamers opinion. Not sure why things went so wrong with that game, but it turned out just another generic shooter, albeit with unique artstyle and good storytelling. The gameplay was only a shadow of its former self though.

    I cant help but feel that Levine and his core group knew they had lost something along the way with Infinite. I dunno if it was a case of biting off more than they could chew or of too many cooks spoiling the broth, or whatever. Either way I think getting back to a much tougher core group of developers that are all on the same page and making games purely for the core gamers will be a much better place for Ken + team and their creative thinking. The only thing that worries me is the “It’ll be Digital Only” mention. Dont think I can be happy about any future games I might want to play going purely digital download. Most likely I just wont play them if they dont come on a disk.

    #7 5 months ago