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Ken Levine on Studio Culture: From Looking Glass to 2K Boston

In a major new interview, BioShock creator Ken Levine talks to Gamasutra about staffing up 2K Boston for his "substantially more ambitious" next project, studio culture, philosophy, and more.

What's the key ingredient to make a game as polished, creative, and unusual as BioShock was? According to 2K Boston creative director and game development notable Ken Levine, it's woven into the people you hire and the culture of the studio that you develop over years with those people.

Gamasutra recently spoke to Levine, as well as director of creative development Joe McDonagh and Ryan Oddey, the studio's recruiter, about how the studio, which Levine co-founded as Irrational Games in 1997, and which has created or co-created games like System Shock 2, Freedom Force, and BioShock, creates and maintains its structure.

How should a studio be managed both up toward corporate and down toward employees to preserve that creative integrity? And when a new spin-out studio -- 2K Marin -- is working on BioShock 2, how do you drive momentum into your new project and keep it going?

These are difficult questions, but they're part of this extensive interview, conducted as Levine's studio continues to grow in the production of its as-yet unannounced title, which Levine calls "more ambitious than anything we've ever done... substantially more ambitious than BioShock."

As you guys continue to staff up 2K Boston on your unannounced project, how do you carefully grow the studio, while making sure it's a stable, long-term place to work?

Ken Levine: We've never had a layoff in the history of our company. And I'm very proud of that. When we were a private company, and now we're part of a public company. And, you know, I can't make predictions for the future, but I think culturally we've always felt it was very important to hire the right people -- and not hire too many people so things get out of control -- and think about a plan.

One of the reasons, I think, that you see a lot of layoffs in this industry is that you have these huge products, and you don't have a plan for what you do afterward. So the product ends, and -- you see this day after day, you know -- teams get cut in half or shut down after the product ships, because there's no plan to move on for the future.

We've fortunately planned well. And that was very tricky when we were a private company, but it was very important to me. And, frankly, I think that's one of the reasons we've always been relatively small. It's because if you get a huge staff, that makes you feel good, and you sit out there, and you go, "Oh, look at my domain, here. I've got 200 people working on this product." But that's a tough number to carry at the end of a project.

So I think the way you convince your bosses is, you go and make the case. You say, "Look, here's the game. Here's what it's going to be like. Here's why I think it's going to be successful. Here's what I need you to do. And here's why I think you need to do it." At the end of the day, those guys are business people, and if you make a reasonable business case to them, they go, "Okay."

Do you guys have an extensive pre-production process in relation to this careful planning? I'm going to guess "yes". Could you talk about it?

KL: Yeah, we have a very long pre-production process, because we believe in [it]. If you go back and look at our ads and stuff, we've been recruiting for how many years now? For this product? A couple of years?

Ryan Oddey: It was a couple of years ago.

KL: Almost two years for this product. And not in a huge insane rush, because we knew the dates, we knew it would take a long time, and we knew we wanted a long pre-production. And we weren't like,"Okay, let's get all hands on deck!" Games are like snowballs: they accrete people over time; they grow in size slowly over time.

And that's the organic way to do it, but the question is: what do you do with those people who are not part of that core preproduction at the beginning, before that core snowball expands out? Well, one is you don't hire those people. But two: if they're there, I think the way the economics have developed in the industry -- we did a piece of DLC for BioShock PS3, and we did some tiny bit of DLC for the Xbox 360 stuff, that we did after the game was done.

And that was a passion for me. Finding those opportunities for not-full-scale projects, but these smaller projects, I think, is a really good transitional thing. It's a good way to bring people into experiences they wouldn't have had before, in terms of seniority.

The guys who did the DLC, none of them had done lead roles on previous projects, so they got that experience [being] leads there, while the core creative team was doing the pre-production work on the product that we're working on now.


You had to let some people leave to form 2K Marin to develop BioShock 2. Considering BioShock sprang from you -- how concerned are you that the Marin team has the tools it needs to be successful, and has the staff it needs, to do a thorough accounting of the property, too?

KL: Yeah, but, to some degree, when you're starting a new studio... There are two different goals in the maintenance of a good studio, and even building up of a good studio, versus starting a new studio.

The people who went to form the new studio mostly have been with the company... for just BioShock, except for Carlos [Cuello]. I think that to some degree the reason that worked very well for Marin is they all had an entrepreneurial hunger in them to go start something new, and build something new...

But they had the experience of working with us on BioShock, and then were like, "Okay!" And they weren't so cemented in our culture, and wanted to go form a culture of their own. And that's very important.

Because, look, if I'm not working on a project -- I'm not working on BioShock 2. I make no claim to anything on BioShock 2,and I think it's important that that's their product, and their culture. Because you can't just clone a studio.

And I think that their hunger to do something new will be very important to their success there. And it can't just be a clone of a 2K Boston or Irrational Games; 2K Marin has to be its own thing. And a very separate thing. They're working on BioShock, but it's got to be their project. They've got to put their stamp on it.

Your games have integral story elements. And there's already debate over how stories should be told in games. It's a subject of a lot of debate: how stories should be told, and if they should be told, what methods should be used. So, when you're hiring for that, and creating a game that has a really important story element, how does that affect your process of hiring?

KL: Well, I think one of the challenges is, when we make games, generally we don't make games that rely on the most traditional methodology of storytelling in games, which is cutscenes. That's not our thing, generally. Certainly it wasn't our thing on System Shock and BioShock.

And I'm a big proponent of that, because I'm a big believer that what games do well is immerse people in worlds, and put people in scenarios that feel like there's not a layer between them and the experience. Like in a movie, you're just sitting, watching this activity onscreen; with a cutscene you just sit back in your chair.

What is that moment that we want out of game playing? We want that moment we forget we're in front of the computer, in front of the Xbox 360, in front of the PS3. We want that moment where we're immersed, and we're in that thing. And so, if I can tell a story without that layer, without that, "Okay, now you're participating in entertainment" -- where you forget that you're participating in entertainment, where you just think you're having an experience. That's the golden ideal, right?

So, the challenge is that it's really, really, really hard to do, because it's so easy. Cutscenes are such shorthand [for telling] a story. It's so easy to tell a story because you control everything.

So when you bring people in, what you want to find out from them is: Are you really interested in making all this effort? Because it's so much effort to tell a story that way. Like, BioShock's story? Told in cutscenes? My, it would've been so much easier.

I'm working on the BioShock novel being done, with a writer named John Shirley, and I'm going to just sort of peek my nose in and write the prologue and the epilogue of that. And I'm sitting down to write it, and it's like, "Oh! I can just write about Tenenbaum! I can just say what she's saying! And she can talk! And the audience may not go off and, like, shoot her in the head while she's saying it!"

So to do that, to want to take that pain on for the audience? To do that work for the audience, and have that experience of being immersed? You say to the person you're thinking of hiring: "Are you ready to not take the easy way out?" And I think that's always the challenge with us, is how we develop software; how we develop games is, we want to take the work on so the audience doesn't have to. And sometimes that's painful.

And BioShock... It was a development cycle of lots of revision, and lots of thought and rethought, and going back and throwing stuff out. I threw out huge drafts of scripts and things like that; artists threw out whole sequences. And that's because we all, at the end of the day, said, "What is the audience going to think of this? How is the audience going to react to it?"

And I think if you just want to come in, and do your work, and just have it be sacrosanct, and have nobody touch it, then this probably isn't the right place for this. If you want to do something where you go home and you go, "I think that's absolutely the best way that itcould have possibly been done, and I'm satisfied with knowing that, I don't doubt that anymore," then this is the right place for you, because I think you'll walk away feeling that.


You talked about being influenced by a lot of old games, like Ultima Underworld, that were immersive, and you have what I'd consider a traditional PC gaming background. Can you talk about the culture of people who come from that background, who embrace those kinds of games?

KL: I think there's a great creative tension. We have a lot of guys here -- a lot of oldschool Looking Glass guys here. And when I came to Looking Glass, there was definitely a tension, even a transition, going on. I remember the arguments we had on Thief. When I was working on Thief, it was, "Well, should we have mouselook in the game?"

Because there were a lot of people that thought, "No, you don't have mouselook, and there should be inventory screens..." and Thief almost didn't have weapons equippable by the number keys, and almost didn't have mouselook, because there was certainly an oldschool/newschool thing going on.

And I was certainly involved in that creative tension there, of figuring that out. How do you keep that -- for all the things that made those games great? While making it something that an audience that's used to the standards of modern games is going to enjoy?

But I think if you don't read the classics, it's hard to write new classics. And, so, we read the classics here. There's no doubt that we read the classics. And I think, sometimes, the challenge, more, with some of the oldschool guys, is, "Hey, look at the new stuff as well!" But I think it's good, though, because we have a mix.

And we have a lot of younger guys coming in, newer guys coming in, who don't know the classics -- and the challenge for them is saying, "Go read the classics! Go play System Shock 1 or 2, or go play Deus Ex. Go play these classics." But then let's take the lessons we learn from those things, and bring them into the modern day.

And I think it's not an accident. You look at the great developers now? Of console games? Bungie, and Lionhead. You look at BioWare; you look at Bethesda; and where do they all come from? They come from the PC side. Valve? They come from the PC side.

Because, I think the PC developers, working in the space they worked in, they were probably in a lot of ways -- not all ofthem, I mean, Shigeru Miyamoto, clearly, I think, is probably the most innovative person who ever lived, in the gaming space -- but, more innovative, pound for pound, than their console counterparts.

And then when they came over to the console side, they brought a lot of, I think, what made PC games great, in terms of, "Hey! This is your game, not our game! This is the user's game! This is the game for you! You want music on or off? You want to skip cutscenes? You want to play different difficulty levels? You want to have different modes that let you replay the game differently?" All of those things that came from the PC side are very much in the DIY part of playing a PC game, we brought over to the console side.

Also, I think, the maturity of some of the experiences. You know, you had things like Thief; you had things like Planescape: Torment; you had things like Half-Life on the PC side, which I think were more sophisticated narrative scene-wise, than on console counterparts at the time. All of that maturity came over, was brought over from the PC side. Now it's the console side, and most of my favorite console developers came from the PC world.

Ithink one of the things that made BioShock really successful was that it had a lot of hooks into it at different angles for different people. I'm not an FPS gamer, but I really enjoyed it on an aesthetic level, and on a narrative level -- whereas some people, obviously, really like to just shoot, and really get into the gameplay of it. How do you ensure that you have people with different perspectives to offer on these issues? How deliberate is that?

KL: I think it mostly came out of, originally, not so much a thought-out process -- just things that interest us here. You know, like I'll sit around with Nate, or Shawn, or Bill, or Joe, and we'll talk about -- you know, the stuff we talk about. Whether it's religion, or politics, or movies, or books.

We also just sit around and watch stupid YouTube videos, too, so I'm not trying to present us as more intellectual than we actually are -- but I think that a lot of people have a lot of interests here. And that naturally works its way [in]. The people we hire tend to have a fairly broad range of interests.

And then, there are things that I've been wanting to demonstrate to my parents, over the years, that they didn't waste their money on my liberal arts college education. So I prove to them that the degree was worth it. Making BioShock was one of those things that allowed us to bring all those things together.

I think our surprise came not from the fact that we did this game called BioShock, but it's more from the fact that the audience was as accepting of it as they were. I think it says something about the gaming audience. I think it says something -- that people underestimate the gaming audience.

I think you're seeing a change in tone -- and I'm not attributing that to BioShock-- but I think you see a change in tone over the past few years, of whenever they used to put out an article about video games in the New York Times, th eheadline would be like, "Pew Pew! Pow Pow! Video Games Make a Hit!" and they'd have an article about stupid kids playing video games.

But now, I think, if you look at the topics-- there were articles about BioShock, certainly, in the New York Times, and Washington Post; and articles about Mass Effect, and the moral choices there. And games in general have started to take on a wider range of respect.

And I care less about that respect than I do about the fact that I think our audience is able to vote with their wallets, to some degree, about what they're interested in. The kind of themes that they want -- whether it's underwater Objectivist utopias in BioShock, or the history of the Crusades with Assassin's Creed. Or whatever they're playing.

There's a broader range of issues that they're interested in, and they're interested in engaging in those topics in a medium they enjoy, which is video games. Which is in a medium that isn't yet fully approved by politicians, or fully approved by parents, or fully approved by anybody. It's our medium. It's the medium of the generation that we came from, and we're telling stories, and we're dealing with topics that we want to deal with, in the way we want to deal with them. Without any guidance from anybody.


You talk about working with people with different tastes,or different perspectives, or different interests. Is that something you consider important? Because that's not exactly something you put on your resume, right? But to foster that kind of environment, where people can talk about things, and bounce things off one another, and have that creative tension, is really important.

KL: The way you do that, usually, when we do the interview, is we just start talking about other topics, and then it's not so much like you have a list and, "Have you read this book? Have you read that book? Have you seen this movie? Have you seen that movie?" I'll talk about whatever they've seen. I'll ask them about what they've seen; whatever they've read; what they've played recently.

And I'll just start talking to them, and see how they think about those things. Will they just be like, when they play a game, do they just play a game and go, like, "It was awesome!" Or are they able to analyze, and think about their experience from a creative standpoint, and say why was it awesome, why was it cool?

Are you able to see a movie like Armageddon, and see where that came from, you know, in the narrative history of storytelling?

It doesn't have to be Shakespeare; it can be a very mass-market product, and if they're able to analyze why it works, and why it hits people emotionally, then that's going to be a candidate that we're really much more interested in.

If they're able to tie that stuff into the larger history of art and history and music and film and literature over the years, and see connections between those things, and understand why things work -- because things work in art for a reason.

You know, there are things that are consistent, if you look at the history of storytelling and art, that worked in BioShock, that worked in Half-Life, that worked in Aeschylus. And they worked in a little different ways, but they worked. They worked for many of the same reasons.

I was talking to my wife the other day about detective stories, and about why they work, and we started tracing it back to that the detective basically is the modern day hero who gets a quest to go on. Because who in the modern day gets quests? Woah, detectives get quests, in these stories! Somebody comes in and gives them a mission to go on, and that ties back into the classic hero archetype of somebody being given a quest and they go off and they're changed by that quest.

And somebody who can make those connections between even the most mass-market types of media, is someone we'd be really attracted to.

Obviously, I don't think anyone really expected a game to come out with Ayn Rand as the catalyst. And that became really surprising. But I think that -- and you've talked about this -- if you don't know anything about her writing, you can still understand the story that is built on those foundations.

KL: Well, you know, in reading Rand, I just thought she spoke very clearly. Generally when you read philosophy, it's very boring, and very dull.

And one of the great things about Rand as a philosopher was that she was able to speak her message in a very clear and entertaining fashion. You read The Fountainhead. For all of it, it's got a fair amount of bombast, but for all its bombast, it's a great read. It's a great story, and it's got great characters.

When she talks, and you read her interviews, she speaks like -- I grew up reading Fantastic Four and Spider-Man -- she speaks like The Green Goblin, or Doctor Doom. Not necessarily evil, but in terms of her vision for the world, and she's so convinced of that vision that I just, when I read her, it was like, "Oh my God, this would be a great character!" because of that certainty that she has. That moral certainty. I just wanted to write a character like that.

And, yeah, so it's out of 1930s, and '40s, and '50s philosophy, but I thought it just would speak to a modern audience because that stuff's universal. The ability to just have a vision and be so committed to that vision -- it's just the classic makeup of any great antagonist.

The thing is that Objectivism became culturally relevant in the financial meltdown. Alan Greenspan was an Objectivist.

KL: I know; wasn't that odd? To watch Greenspan say -- what was the quote he said? "I may have made some mistakes, but my belief that people would act in the interest of the common good may have been naive," or something like that.

I remember that quote. I know exactly what you're talking about, and I was like,"Holy shit."

KL: Yeah, you're seeing a guy -- he was one of Rand's handmaidens, basically. And to have somebody who had that experience, to basically observe history and say, "You know, I may have been wrong," was interesting.

When I wrote Andrew Ryan, Ryan was never really able to say he was wrong. And I think that certainty is what led to his downfall. If he was ever able to modulate his views, based upon reality -- because he had some really powerful ideas, and he had some great ideas -- you know, maybe things would've gone differently. And it was interesting to watch Greenspan [do that] -- albeit too late to have any modification of his view.

But I think on the other side, you've got people with different points of view than Greenspan. You've got people who come from a different school who are just as certain that they have the absolute prescription for what to do. And I imagine those people that are completely inflexible can do just as much damage. And I find those people fascinating.


Something that's really interesting to me is studio culture, and how that affects thegames that a studio makes. Obviously, you guys have a strong creative culture,and a culture of strong creative vision. This extends all the way back through Irrational, and before that. So, can you talk about how you form a studio culture, and what that contributes?

KL: The culture, I think, started with the founders. The company was founded by myself and Jon Chey, and Robert Fermier; we were all working at Looking Glass at the time.

And the thing about Jon, Rob, and I is that I think we all had a real sense of games. We all came from a really similar place, game-wise. We all came, originally, from playing board games when we were younger -- you know, playing Avalon Hill board games, and loving reading comic books, and watching movies, and having this broad range of cultural influences.

And we were all quite different, too. I think Rob was sort-of the most traditional sci-fi fantasy nerd, I had a dorky theater background -- a lot of jazz hands, and things like that -- and Jon was a little more, I think, "cultured," in the sense of he had a PhD in -- what does Jon have a PhD in?

Joe McDonagh: Neuroscience.

KL: Neuroscience. Yeah, something made up like that.

(laughter)

KL: I think Jon was probably a lot classier than Rob and I, you know. He knew how to order wine, right? Where I would order a Diet Coke and Rob would order a chocolate milk.

(laughter)

KL: Both the similarities and the mix established how we make games, how we think about games, and what kind of games we love. We all ended up at Looking Glass for a very particular reason. We all loved those kinds of games -- that they made real worlds to inhabit. Ultima Underworld, System Shock -- games I didn't work on, but games that, as a gamer, just spoke to all of us.

Rob did work on some of those games. Irrational was created to create games that would make compelling worlds for people to inhabit, and just experiences that people could have, that would have influences outside of the traditional typical sci-fi fantasy influences that I think you see in most games.

How does that influence your process -- your creative process, as a studio? What's the key to getting it right?

KL: I think one of the key reasons that we've been successful is the fact that we don't really have a businessy-guy hierarchy here, in the sense that I work on every project.

I wrote the actual words and scripts for BioShock and System Shock 2, and Freedom Force, and Tribes. My desk is on the floor witheverybody else. I don't have an office. And we don't have any business people in the studio here who run stuff and are disconnected from the day-to-day.

[It doesn't work if] if [business people] don't understand when they make a decision on the business level that, hey, people they don't talk to are going to have to deal with that decision. I am one of those people that has to deal with those decisions when those decisions get made.

If you're anybody in the outside world that we have to deal with, that makes decisions like that, you're talking to me, and I know what impact that's going to have.

You don't have this chain of command where decisions are passed down and pain gets doled out without [an understanding]. Look, there's going to get pain doled out because production is tough. But the person in the middle, mediating that pain, is me, who is going to be one of the people who's going to feel the pain in the development process.

So I think that leads us to a more efficient process, because we don't waste a lot of calories on silliness. Everything comes down to -- you see it in the product. And that's why I think you look at a product like BioShock, developed with a relatively small team, [competing with games] in the scale of the 200 to 300 person teams that you see today.

It's going toe-to-toe with those products in polish and scale, because we are incredibly efficient; because we don't have a lot of people making decisions who don't have to deal with those decisions.


You talked about how you guys had similar but varied backgrounds. When it comes to getting people into the studio, how much of it is a question of temperament, and how much of it is a question of similar taste, or inspiration?

KL: We look at people who are going to come in and understand what kind of games we're making -- love the kind of games we're making. We really like to hire gamers. We really like to hire people who have a love for the thing they're making.

Honestly, if it's just a job, and you could go be doing programming databases for Morgan Stanley? This is really not the right place for you. There has to be a love. There has to be a passion, like, "I've got to make games; I've got to be doing this thing that I'm doing", or it's probably not going to be a very good job for you.

We have a pretty stringent hiring process. We do extensive phone screens, followed by flying people out to do day-long interviews with people, and then follow-ups after that, because we have to. We've had a culture for, I don't know... well, we're 13 years old now, and maintaining the culture is done two ways.

One is by -- a lot of the people have been here the whole time. I mean, many people working on System Shock 2 with me are still here with me. Pretty much everybody that worked on BioShock is here. And so, you maintain the culture by having that consistency of people; that's the most important thing.

But you also maintain the culture by making sure the people you hire have the -- as you said -- the temperament. Do they view the work as something that's important to their lives, central to their lives? Do they want to do something different? Do they want to do something important in the game space? Do they want to come to a place where there's going to be people around them they can learn from and teach things to?

Because that's how you get the most value out of adding an employee. It's not just the work they do, but they're going to improve other employees around them by being able to tech them stuff, and they're going to learn from the other employees around them.

RO: One of the things that we've done here at the studio, to help acclimate new people, is we've actually developed a form of mentor program. So anyone that we hire gets paired up with someone who's been here at least a year, and this person serves as your private wingman.

They take you around, introduce you to the team, or bring you out to lunch, and that's just one way we've made strides toward making sure that people get acclimated sooner rather than later.

KL: Our hiring procedure used to be a little more ad-hoc before, where we'd just bring people in. And we had a really good sense for hiring the right people. But I think in the last year, Ryan and Stephanie have done a great job of an actual formal process to acclimate people here. Because we're trying to keep a culture of, "Hey, we're a bunch of guys making cool games. Are you one of those guys? Come along!"

But not have it like -- I remember my first day in the games industry. I showed up, there was no desk for me, there was no computer for me, at the first company I worked at, and I ended up just going to a movie.

(laughter)

KL: I left, and just went to a movie. Because after two days, there's nobody that'd talk to me, or anything like that. And we were never like that, but I think what we really try to do is get to the state of the art for bringing people in, and not just having a desk but having somebody there with you that can answer your questions.

When you're moving into production on a project -- and maybe it's not that big of an issue because you say you have a high retention rate, but -- if you're expanding your studio, you have

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