An irrational industry

The closure of the studio behind Bioshock ignites concern that the game industry is drowning itself.

There was a time when Bioshock felt like a post-millenium turning point for video games.

In 2007, when it was released by Irrational Games, it offered something deeper than many console games: time-sucking survival instincts and a story spearheading political discourse via a dystopian, libertarian underwater nightmare.

Last year a divergent sequel, Bioshock Infinite, about a floating jingoistic American kingdom, received a lot of attention when it came out. Many marvelled at the gorgeous world into which players were dropped, many took issue with how the racial themes were handled and some still make infographics to dissect the mind-warping conclusion. It was one of the most talked about games of 2013.

In 2014, most of the people who worked on it will need to find new jobs.

“I am winding down Irrational Games as you know it,” said Bioshock creator Ken Levine in an open letter.

“That means parting ways with all but about 15 members of the Irrational team. There’s no great way to lay people off, and our first concern is to make sure that the people who are leaving have as much support as we can give them during this transition.”

The letter does not say whether the layoffs are for financial reasons. Levine’s speeches in the past show him to be led by his heart, but it’s hard not to hear a wallet as an excuse when the majority of a team packs up their desks.

Moreover, the move is consistent with industry trends. Bioshock Infinite was a troubled, grandiose production with a bloated budget.

It’s a hurt being felt by the entertainment industry: higher demands for technical wizardry puts a lot of necks on the line. As that becomes the new standard, many game studios are at risk. For years we’ve seen layoffs on a regular basis, and studios liquidated by the publishers who own them when a game doesn’t bring enough return on investment.

Team Bondi, the studio behind L.A. Noire, was shuttered after the game’s profits were weak. Rockstar shut down their Vancouver studio, the team behind Max Payne 3, another title in the shadow of Grand Theft Auto’s success. Rockstar is a subsidiary of Take-Two Interactive, the same parent company as Irrational, and has a tradition of demanding expansive games like Borderlands and The Darkness.

“We exist in dynamic times within the game industry,” says Kate Edwards, executive director of the International Game Developers Association, “which is primarily the result of rapid technological change as well as the continued evolution of our medium. I cannot claim empirically whether the industry is experiencing a net gain or loss of jobs, but the news about studios closing certainly deserves attention whenever it happens.”

Bioshock is a special case, since it was seen as a franchise that had made it. Not quite of the magnitude of Call Of Duty or Grand Theft Auto, but one rung away from the top of the ladder. It’s an eerie premonition if even iconic games can’t guarantee employment.

It’s creepier still that mere hours before Levine’s announcement, an interview with industry celeb and Gears Of War creator Cliff Bleszinski revealed he has lost interest in major games, and feels the industry is chasing its own tail for profits.

“The whole ‘old guard,’ where you get a Game Informer cover and an E3 reveal, is dead,” Bleszinski told Leigh Alexander. “I’ll never make another disc-based game for the rest of my career, and [at E3] they’re trying to woo buyers from Target and Walmart?”

If Levine’s letter, with uncannily similar sentiments to Bleszinski, is to be taken at face value, then indie-structured games and smaller teams are going to become more prevalent. Major companies seem enthusiastic to give the tiny model a try. Ubisoft is dipping its usually AAA toe into that system, with Valiant Hearts and Child of Light, while Square-Enix has gone so far as to start their own crowd-sourced/funded model. Great news for some, but an omen for those with specified skills for blockbuster developments.

“The current state of the industry demands flexibility and agility,” says Edwards, “so I encourage developers to be ready to adapt. This applies to their own skill sets and being well-versed in multiple methods and technologies as well as keeping abreast of broader developments in their company and the industry. That’s one reason the IGDA exists, so that developers can continue to network and connect with their peers and stay informed.”

There will always be major games – they’re the killer apps for home consoles. But profiled developers, like Levine, seem to be fleeing a strained system while they can, working on their own self-published way out. But going the indie route is not going to be the golden ticket solution for everyone.

A smaller risk is still a risk. At this rate, a big risk appears insurmountable.

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