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Interview: Ken Levine talks Irrational site, next game announcement and BioShock 2 relationship


Irrational Games' head-honcho Ken Levine spoke to us today about the developer's new website and stronger community focus -- but of course, we wanted more. We tried to get an answer on when the studio's new project will finally be announced, asked him what the company's plans are for PAX East, and finally got to the bottom of what his actual involvement is with BioShock 2 -- which isn't much.

Joystiq: Why does a studio that's well-known for focused single-player experiences need such a robust community site?

Ken Levine: I don't think that single player ... I don't think community is just for multiplayer. People like talking about the games. You go to Cult of Rapture, BioShock was a single player game and there's a lot of people on that site. People want to learn about us, they want to learn about other people playing the game, they want to learn what's happening at the studio. They want to know about the the integration behind stuff we did. Maybe I'm high, I just don't make the connection between multiplayer titles and a web page.

We've known this change has been in the works since last March during GDC, where members of your studio were wearing shirts that hinted toward this name change. What was the impetus for putting so much effort into trying to create a community around Irrational with the site? Why was that so important?

We've had a big community, back in the day when we did Freedom Force. We had a huge website that supported them. It kinda broke our heart a little bit when that went away and we converted to 2K Boston. When we took the name back, Take-Two was kind enough to agree and allow us to build our community. ... I really wanted a website that was about interacting with fans. I don't really care about the marketing stuff, that's handled elsewhere. This is not a site where you get five flash videos selling you a product. This is a site about the audience and about the audience getting a better understanding of what it's like to work here, be here and getting us a better understanding of what they like and don't like about our games.

Does the name change also represent a change in the way the studio operates? Will there be logistical changes in addition to philosophical ones?

No, no, I think the name change is about community. I think the change in name, I think a lot of people here wanted to go back to the original name. I think the press, I'm not trying to be presumptuous here, but a lot of people would write about us as Irrational Games or "formerly known as Irrational Games," and we definitely got that from the fans as well. So, we kinda looked at ourselves and said, "Maybe we should go back to the old name?" To Take-Two's credit, they said "OK." So we wanted to make sure we had a forum to connect with everybody and given this is the year we're going to start talking about our next product. It's very important we have that connection.

Is the plan to reveal upcoming news on your studio/games via the website first?

I don't know if we're revealing it first, but the website is the 'coming out' of the studio again in terms of being in radio contact with the press and the fans.

Well, considering you're so much about the community now: What are your PAX East plans?

Yeah, one thing is, we're giving a bunch of people here cameras and stuff and they're going to be recording from the PAX floor as fans, primarily. We won't be showing our product at PAX this year, that'll come later. But I think that, one thing that's important about being a game development studio is showing what we're interested in. We're going to have guys just going around and checking stuff out and we'll be on panels at PAX, we'll be involved in that way. We're just psyched about PAX this year, I'm a huge fan, I did the keynote a couple years ago. I'm just psyched not to get on an airplane. I can just go here, everybody from the studio is going to PAX.

The new game isn't being shown at PAX East, it's not being shown at GDC. Are we talking E3? When's the reveal?

It is sometime after PAX and GDC.

Is 2K Australia getting rebranded as well under the Irrational Games renaming? If you go to 2K Australia's site, under "press" it says "coming soon." "Meet the Crew" says nothing. It used to be part of Irrational, can you explain that relationship is now?

When we sold the company, the goal was ... we were small before, we had to work together on the basis of a lot more ... you know, we only had about 50 people between the two studios. Now the goal was to grow into groups that could produce products on their own. They are staying 2K Australia and doing their thing. And we're working on our thing. We know all those guys, we love all those guys, but the goal was for everybody to do their own thing.

So, they aren't Irrational anymore?


Is Division 9 totally dead? Does Vivendi own the rights? That came out of nowhere, what is that?

We own that, that's ours. We're not currently pursuing that. It's something that we always thought got away from us. We just thought it would be a really fun thing to show some content for it, what people don't understand is ... I think we made it in about a week. We actually had some success selling it, but it came up just at the same time we were selling the company. We had to choose between selling the company or doing Division 9 and we chose selling the company.

And that was how many years before Left 4 Dead?

That was in 2004. And we had a lot of publishers telling us, "Zombies? Nobody wants to play a game with zombies."

Will we hear details surrounding the unreleased (in the United States, at least) game The Lost in your "From The Vault" feature? Why? When? How?

Some form of The Lost that we didn't make was released, but we never released it. We will be talking more about that. That's one of the functions of the website, right? We had all this content that fans might be interested in, just great stories. Especially when we were independent, we had a lot of crazy stuff that happens; lots of twists and turns. I asked my assistant to start putting together all our stuff. Archiving our old concept art, projects we made, projects we didn't make, projects that didn't really work out. And we kept looking at all this stuff that people might be interested in, certainly we were interested in it, so that's one of the purposes of the website is to give people not just our finest moments, but our not-so-finest moments.

So, this "From the Vault" feature is going to have Division 9 and The Lost; any more you want to share?

It'll have stuff from things we actually made and shipped, like System Shock 2 and BioShock. And some other ones ... I think we'll talk about another one pretty soon that we made a demo for, but not the game. We did a lot of that when we were independent ... we had to do a lot of that.

You wanna tell us what it is, what it was about?

I don't want to take Shawn Elliott's thunder away on this one. I'll hold off, it's nerdy. It's pretty fucking nerdy.

How nerdy?

It's pretty ... it's super nerdy, that was one of its problems, actually. It was something that guys like you and me would really, really, really dig. I think the concern was if joe six-pack was going to dig it.

What was the best game you played in 2009? What games are you most looking forward to in this jam-packed 2010?

I really loved Red Faction: Guerrilla, that was probably my favorite game of the year. I really enjoyed that. I really enjoyed Torchlight. King's Bounty: Armored Princess was really good. I enjoyed Assassin's Creed 2, I play everything. Um, there's Dragon's Age ... it was a really good year. Borderlands. This year I'm interested in checking out BioShock 2, Mass Effect 2 ... I'm interested in checking out Elemental, which is sort of a Master's of Magic kinda game. I'd like to check out Sid Meier's Facebook experiment, the Civilization thing. Seems like a really interesting year.

It's been kind of weird, nobody can seem to really pinpoint what your relationship is with BioShock 2. Your name was all over the first one, do you want to clarify: What is your relationship with BioShock 2?

I don't have ... except for being the studio that created the world and the franchise. You know: Andrew Ryan, Big Daddies and Little Sisters and all those things. We don't have a connection with BioShock 2. I haven't really seen it.

You haven't seen it?

I've seen a few minutes of it. I haven't really played it.

Wow, are they going to send you a copy early?

I'm waiting for it to be done. I want to play it as a fan. If I'm going to work on something ... either I work on something or I don't work on something. I'm in for a penny, I'm in for a pound. If I'm not going to work on it, I just want to play what's there as a fan. I don't play betas. Except for stuff I'm actually working on, I hate playing betas because I just want to play it when it's done. We started with them, we were working on BioShock 2, then I just said well, "I'll play it as a fan when it comes out."

Thanks for your time!

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