Amid claims of ‘development hell’, BioShock creator says giving up work should be seen as a ‘luxury’
Amid claims that his latest project is stuck in development hell, BioShock creator Ken Levine has discussed his approach to creating the game, including what he called the “luxury” of being able to ditch the work and start over.
Levine closed BioShock studio Irrational Games in 2014 to form a smaller group, initially made up of 15 employees, called Ghost Story Games.
In the years since very little has been revealed about the studio’s first project. However, earlier this month, Bloomberg reported that the game was supposed to be a BioShock-style shooter set on a space station, where three factions would interact with the player’s choices.
The game was allegedly originally targeted for a 2017 release, but has suffered a series of reboots and staff departures, including half of the original studio team.
BioShock: The Collection – Launch Trailer – Nintendo Switch
Bloomberg said it spoke to 15 current and former Ghost Story employees, many of whom described Levine as difficult to work for, and some claimed that it would isolate or intimidate those it didn’t see eye to eye.
Levin was criticized for what some saw as the inability to communicate his vision clearly and accused of making regular changes in direction which meant the project failed to progress and large amounts of work were thrown out.
While Levine declined to comment on the accusations when called for an interview with Bloomberg, he has now discussed his approach to game development – and what he called the “luxury” of being in a position to weed out work that doesn’t meet his goals – in an extensive Arcade Attack interview Posted on Wednesday.
It’s unclear when the interview took place, but it looked as if Levine might have been dealing with some of the criticism leveled at him in the Bloomberg report.
Discussing his early career at Looking Glass Studios, Levine detailed the process of writing Thief, which had him having to return to the drawing board on multiple occasions.
“The thief was a bunch of different game ideas before they became a thief, but they all shared a common element, which was the idea that it would be great to work around the world and listen to a talk about artificial intelligence in the world and say, ‘Is there someone out there?’ And that’s not something that actually exists in games – Metal Gear may have had the initial impulses to raise awareness of AI.
“We kind of took this concept of having AI systems, and their whole consciousness going up and down that was this whole cycle you were going through, and that was really good to sneak in because you were getting a lot of feedback. That element really stayed through all the ideas of This game.”
Levine wrote stadium documentation for games with titles like Better Red Than Undead, Dark Camelot, and Dark Elves Must Die. He said he built a different world and mechanics for each of them that eventually got rid of them.
“The guy I was working with, my mentor at the time, was Doug Church in Locking Glass, and we had been talking about them for a while, and he was going to end up saying it wasn’t going to work. I had to quickly learn how to come back from rejection and I think he was right. In all of those cases, just as I think the thief was the best of those ideas, he was the most unifying of them all.
But it was a very good lesson. I think it’s an important lesson for young developers to learn, because just because you wrote something, or created something, doesn’t mean it’s good or good enough.
“And I could go back and think about all of that stuff — it was good, it had its power, but we actually came up with something better, and it really gave me the most important lesson in games, which I think developers struggle with, which you have to get rid of with your work.
“As a writer, there is a saying: writing is rewriting,” he continued. “And it’s a luxury in the gaming industry to be able to do that. I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to have that luxury and I think most of the reason if the work I’m doing is good is because I’ve been able to say no, that doesn’t work and I go on forward and throw it outside.
“And that can sound hesitant and I can certainly see why people feel that way, but for me, I don’t know another way to get there, but it also requires being willing to pick up that pen again and start over, and I think it’s critical, so I consider it a luxury.”
A Ghost Story staffer told Bloomberg that the studio’s first game now appears to be on the right track, but it could still take a few years to release.
Levine wouldn’t comment on when the title will be released, but he did tell Arcade Attack that he’s careful to avoid the mistake of showing it too early, because he feels it did not make sense with BioShock Infinite.
“I think people will be surprised but not surprised by what they see on equal terms,” he said. “But it’s a very interesting thing and I’m looking forward to showing it to people.
“I don’t want to have a long period of having to ramp up the attention and the publicity because it will end up feeling a little bit dishonest and I think the players want to know what they are going to get and the only way to do that is to announce closer to launch.
“We don’t want to go out there and show something that won’t end up representing the final perfectly, as much as we can,” he added.
“And so it was hard because we haven’t been able to share any news with our fans for a very long time and I think a lot of people are like, ‘What are they doing there, are they just sitting around doing nothing?'” “And I understand that, but we are dealing with a very difficult product, but I can promise you that it is being worked on every day and we are very excited about it.”
Elsewhere in the interview, Levine confirmed he’s not involved in the next BioShock game, which is in development at 2K studio Cloud Chamber and is said to be targeting a 2022 release.
“Like [with] BioShock 2 – I don’t participate in it at all. I don’t want to do half-measures, I never want to be half-and-half, so I wish them the best and know as much about the game as basically anyone else and will play it as a player when it comes out.”