In 2014, Irrational Games, the creators of revered titles such as System Shock 2, SWAT 4, #BioShock and #BioShockInfinite, suddenly went from an enormous AAA development studio, boasting almost 100 staff members, to a more intimate office with just 15 individuals. It hurt a lot people.
Gamers everywhere were saddened by the news that so many talented video game industry personnel found themselves so abruptly out of a job, and we imagine that they themselves were deeply upset to be leaving such a renowned studio and their livelihoods behind.
We all have our theories as to why such a successful and beloved studio with Ken Levine at the helm was reduced to its current state, but one anonymous individual, who seems to have spent several years working for the company, claims to have all the answers.
How 2K Killed Irrational Games
Uploaded on Hackernoon.com last week, Anonymous (this'll be their name for the duration of the article) launched into a personal takedown of 2K, namely the HQ branch, citing how the company essentially forced the destruction of Irrational Games as they knew it. The piece is over 2,000 words in length and doesn't exactly paint the best picture of 2K and their managerial efforts. This, of course, is one person's perspective on the loss of their job, so read into it as much as you want.
With that aside, let's see what Anonymous has to say about 2K Games.
BioShock and the Golden Years
Proclaiming to be a life long video game developer and a member of Irrational Games even prior to their involvement with 2K, Anonymous recalls how the industry giant were the ones who made the best offer for Irrational Games after the developer had been offered out to several publishers.
They would provide us with the money and resources to run the Boston and Canberra studios to build a hit game (BioShock!), as well as provide marketing and publishing support. We were then left to our own devices to do what we do best — make kick-ass games. This proved to be the case for the first BioShock game. 2K kept mostly out of it.
Things seemed to be going well. During production, Irrational Games was renamed to 2K Boston and 2K Australia , a move that they were willing to accept seeing as 2K had essentially bought them. It was "a move by HQ to try and associate the 2K brand name with the pending BioShock series." And let's face it, who wouldn't want that?
Indeed it was.
Anonymous talks fondly of this period in time, stating that these were the best years of their career with 2K. Highs all around.
Then rumors started to circulate about key staff members leaving 2K shortly after the release of BioShock. Soon after, it was revealed that 2K Games had formed a new studio by the name of 2K Marin in Novato—staff members hadn't left, they'd formed a new home—in order to start work on the PS3 port of BioShock, and eventually the sequel, BioShock 2.
Then Studios Started To Close
In January 2010, one month prior to the release of BioShock 2, "Boston took control of its own destiny and renamed itself back to Irrational Games". However, 2K Australia was again renamed, this time by HQ, to "2K Marin, Australia". According to Anonymous, HQ wanted to curtail the studio's power in order to have more influence on the games they created.
The XCOM project was handed to 2K Marin and Australia was told to follow their lead. 2K HQ wanted to try their hand at game development — this was their chance.
If you're a fan of the XCOM franchise, you'll know well that The Bureau: XCOM Declassified was an absolute mess and failed to sell anywhere close to 2K's expectations. 2K Marin was allegedly blamed for this blunder and closed in October 2013.
2K Australia was also set to be closed. However, Ken Levine, the creative director behind BioShock and Irrational Games, managed to keep the studio afloat by bringing them on to his next project, BioShock Infinite. Marin also got their old Australia name back. Though sadly, half of the employees were let go during this transition.
There are a lot of complicated name changes in this story, huh?
Working together, Irrational Games, with 2K Australia in a support role, managed to finish BioShock Infinite, which released to critical acclaim in 2013, and has since sold more than 11 million copies worldwide. However, the apparent success of BioShock Infinite wasn't enough to keep all of these people in business.
On February 18, 2014 it was announced by Ken Levine via an open letter posted on the Irrational Games website that the vast majority of the studio would be laid off, with all but fifteen members of the staff losing their positions.
This seemed radical and unwarranted. Anonymous has their own theory about what exactly transpired here:
Basically what had happened was that Ken had been pushed past his limits with the stress of running BioShock Infinite — the team was so huge and unwieldy that he wanted to go back to basics and build a game with a skeleton crew like in the old days. He basically tried to quit, but 2K said “no, don’t go, you can do whatever you want — just stay with us."
The 2K Boston studio was disbanded, and a few months later, once they'd finished working on The Borderlands Pre-Sequel, 2K Australia followed despite the fact that the Pre-Sequel did rather well considering it was developed over 18 months.
In their official statement, 2K maintained that, “It [was] no longer economical for 2K to run game development operations in Australia”. Anonymous doesn't understand this particular move at all, and says the they were met with a typical response upon asking questions: “developers just don’t understand how the games business works.”
According To Anonymous, 2K HQ Shouldn't Be Making Games
Anonymous broke all of the work these studios did down like this:
Games worked on by 2K Boston/2K Marin/2K Australia:
BioShock — sold 5 million units
BioShock 2 — sold 4 million units
BioShock Infinite — sold 4.3 million units
The Bureau: XCOM Declassified — sold 0.5 million units
Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel — sold 1.7 million units
They state that XCOM Declassified is clearly the black sheep in all this. It sold terribly and reviewers tore it apart. They blame 2K HQ for this, based on how they stepped in and demanded more control over Marin. Anonymous claims that it is essentially HQ's own game, hence why it failed. The creative talent lay in the studios they closed:
out of the above titles, it is the only title where 2K HQ felt obliged to get their hands dirty with the development. They turned the product around several times for reboots, and completely took creative control out of the hands of the developers, even going so far as to change the name of the lead studio to '2K Marin, Australia'— just so the Australian studio knew they were no longer in charge.
Anonymous is saddened and embittered by how 2K HQ repeatedly interrupted the flow of these studios and sought creative control over products they, perhaps, didn't fully understand. They claim they know dozens of talented individuals who will never work for the company again. Anonymous acknowledges their talents, but tears apart their misguided deeds:
2K should do what they do best — stay in the business and marketing side of things. If they would keep their dirty mittens out of development and away from subsequently shutting down talented studios as a scapegoat for their leadership failures — they would be doing a lot better today.
Irrational Games and 2K as a whole are certainly very different entities because of their tumultuous relationship. The biggest impact sees a very different Irrational Games following the success of BioShock and the loss of so many talented people.
The 15 individuals that remain are undoubtedly working on something interesting, and 2K will continue to support them. But was everything that transpired to the hundreds of employees under the 2K name justified? Are we to believe Anonymous' take on events? That's up to you, but the story has no doubt changed how I personally look at the development of the BioShock franchise.