It has been nearly eight years since development began on Ken Levine's next video game. Levine, the creator of the hugely influential BioShock series, is an auteur of the medium. He embodies everything that comes with the title, according to people who have worked for him: a singular brilliance, stubborn perfectionism and a delicate ego.
Eight years is a long time to develop a game. Levine's breakout 1999 release, System Shock 2, was finished in a year and a half. BioShock—a seminal shooting game released in 2007 that, according to New York magazine, “proved games could be art”—took about five years, as did a follow-up, which came out in 2013. His current project, which began in 2014, still doesn't have a name or a release date. Development has suffered from numerous reboots and changes in direction, say 15 current and former employees of Levine's Westwood, Massachusetts-based studio, Ghost Story Games.
Just as critics grant Levine credit for the artistry of his games, many Ghost Story employees readily blame him for their tortured project. Levine is a flawed manager who often struggles to communicate his vision and alienates or browbeats subordinates who challenge him or fail to meet his expectations, say current and former employees, most of whom requested anonymity because they feared repercussions.
A recurring gag around the office invoked another celebrated auteur. Persuading Levine was so difficult that former employees joked about engaging in Kenception, a reference to the film by Christopher Nolan in which Leonardo DiCaprio infiltrates a person's dreams and plants an idea so that the target thinks he came up with it himself.
Game production is heavily influenced by Hollywood, where famous directors can wield as much clout as the stars on screen. The Steven Spielbergs and James Camerons of gaming include Neil Druckmann (The Last of Us) and Hideo Kojima (Metal Gear). Like a big-budget movie, their games can require a crew of thousands to produce. Although creative leaders deserve some of the praise they receive, the adulation can mask managerial flaws and set unrealistic expectations.
One of the world's top game publishers is betting Levine, 55, will eventually deliver. Take-Two Interactive Software has a 15-year marriage with him. It began with the acquisition of his last company, Irrational Games, and continued with the dissolution of that studio and the creation of Ghost Story, which Take-Two also owns. The publisher gives Levine a level of autonomy afforded to few game designers. Some of his former employees say the lack of oversight seemed idyllic at first but became detrimental to their work and mental well-being.
Take-Two likely tolerates all of this for the same reason many people have flocked to work at Irrational and Ghost Story over the past two decades: because an auteur is capable of producing something magnificent. But Levine's managerial style has led to burnout and, former employees say, caused a lot of pain.
Take-Two didn't respond to requests for comment. Through a representative, Levine declined requests for an interview. But in a 2013 interview with the website Grantland, he addressed the effects of his working style. “If it's not right, it goes,” Levine said. “It's not without cost, but I find that the people who are the most experienced at Irrational tend to be the most comfortable with throwing stuff away.”
He saw Mike Snight as one of those people. Levine handpicked Snight from Irrational to help start Ghost Story in 2014. “Ken is a very hard person to work for,” Snight says. “I think he tried a lot to change, and he really excels better at this company than Irrational because it is a smaller group of people.”
Ghost Story set out to revolutionise video-game storytelling but has instead watched other companies accomplish its goals. One employee says the team is optimistic that things are finally on track but estimated a release could still be two years away. Snight eventually quit, along with half of the original team. He says Levine's creative process is what drove him to leave after five years there. “When it continuously goes in cycles and you don't align anymore, you kind of get tired of being part of that,” he says. “I wasn't really happy anymore.”
On February 18, 2014, Levine gathered the Irrational Games staff in the kitchen of their office in Quincy, Massachusetts. Their last game had come out a year earlier, and it wasn't clear why they hadn't yet heard about the next one. Levine gave them an answer: With trembling hands and tears in his eyes, he said he was shutting down the studio and laying off almost the entire staff.
The announcement was unexpected and abrupt, say more than a dozen people who were there. Levine had formed Irrational in 1997 with two business partners and very quickly found success. They made a sequel to a sci-fi game owned by Electronic Arts called System Shock. It fused first-person shooting with horror and became a cult classic. Take-Two bought Irrational in 2006 and published a spiritual successor, BioShock. It's considered one of the 30 greatest games of all time, according to Metacritic. The latest iteration, 2013's BioShock Infinite, sold more than 6 million copies.
Levine explained to the stunned crowd that development of the game had drained him and that the company had grown too large. He wanted to explore new ideas with a smaller team, he said. So Levine was starting a new outfit at Take-Two.
He had earlier informed 11 chosen employees of the plan. They had dragged themselves to the office every day knowing their friends would soon be out of a job, says Snight, who designed levels at Irrational. After Levine delivered the news to their colleagues, the remaining employees took a break. “We didn't come into the studio for a while,” Snight says. “There was a lot of survivor's guilt.”
When the smaller team reconvened, they began working on a premise that Levine called “narrative Lego.” The idea was for every person's experience with the game to be unique. Characters would react differently depending on a player's actions, and they would be thrust into different scenarios every time they played. It was a concept the team thought could stand out from other games. They relocated to a new office in a smaller town nearby. Levine hired a few more people, and they started developing prototypes.
“There was a lot of survivor's guilt”
Levine told new recruits that his studio offered the financial stability of a major publisher and the agility and artistic freedom of an indie developer, say people who worked there. To ensure the latter, he had negotiated a special arrangement with Take-Two. Rather than answer to 2K, a publishing label that had overseen Irrational, Levine reported directly to the parent company.
The plan was to start small to prove the narrative Lego concept and release a game by fall 2017. It was supposed to be a sci-fi shooter like BioShock set on a mysterious space station inhabited by three factions. Each could act as an ally, an enemy or something in between, depending on what the player did.
Despite promising an indie mentality, Levine wanted to make a game as ambitious as BioShock with a fraction of the staff, say a half-dozen former staffers. Two early employees of the studio recalled a version from around 2016 with elaborate levels and rich, three-dimensional graphics. They wondered how they'd finish it with fewer than 30 people on the team. Others remembered a complicated dialogue system that would morph based on player choices, requiring a tremendous amount of writing that couldn't have possibly been completed within a year.
Take-Two executives occasionally stopped by the office for updates, but Levine was given agency. “The ideas and ambitions were great,” Giovanni Pasteris, an early employee, wrote in an email. “But the scope just grew and grew without concern for the team's ability to get it done by our fall 2017 deadline. Ken wanted to make a triple-A game with a ‘budget' team size. It was never going to happen.”
One constant on Levine's projects is that he never seems content. Levine studied drama and was taught that the process for achieving greatness was to keep rewriting until everything was perfect. He originally wanted to be a screenwriter before settling on video games.
The late film critic Andrew Sarris introduced the auteur theory to much of the world in the 1960s, adapting an idea from French New Wave cinema. It describes a filmmaker who controls so many aspects of a production that he becomes akin to the author of a novel or play. The theory was used to dissect the work of Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock and became an aspiration for generations of creative minds.
In Levine's interpretation, auteurism has meant discarding months of work, much to his staff's dismay. During development of BioShock Infinite at his previous studio, Levine said he “probably cut two games worth of stuff,” according to a 2012 interview with the site AusGamers. The final months of work on that game demanded extensive overtime, prompting managers to meet informally with some employees' spouses to apologise.
During a panel discussion a few years ago, Levine explained the final act of his process. “In almost every game I've ever worked on, you realise you're running out of time, and then you make the game,” he said. “You sort of dick around for years, and then you're like, ‘Oh my god, we're almost out of time,' and it forces you to make these decisions.”
But time never seems to run out at the new studio. Ghost Story employees spent weeks or months building components of the new game, only for Levine to scrap them. Levine's tastes occasionally changed after playing a hot indie release, such as the side-scrolling action game Dead Cells or the comic book-inspired shooter Void Bastards, and he insisted some features be overhauled to emulate those games. Former staff say the constant changes were demoralising and felt like a hindrance to their careers.
The 2017 target became 2018, then 2019 and on and on. The lax approach to deadlines minimised crunch time, a welcome change from Irrational, three former employees say. But working on a game with no clear release date is a challenge of its own, some staffers say. Employers forbid artists from including assets in their portfolios until a game is unveiled publicly, leaving job seekers to awkwardly justify why they had nothing to show for their last few years of work.
A persistent tension at Ghost Story, employees say, is between the type of game they set out to make and the kind Levine was used to directing. He wanted to see every moment of the story unfold on screen and fine-tune each one. But the narrative Lego concept made Levine's cinematic approach impossible to apply because stories would change so much based on player decisions. Levine often assessed aspects of the game when they were not yet finished, decide they weren't good enough and command the team to scrap or change them, employees say. “The type of game being explored does not match well with the creative process being used,” says Andres Gonzalez, a founding member who left to start a new company with Snight.
Those who worked with Levine say his mercurial demeanor caused strife. Some who sparred with Levine mysteriously stopped appearing in the office, former staff say. When asked, managers typically described the person as a bad match and said they had been let go, say five people who worked there. Others simply quit. The studio's top producer resigned in 2017 following clashes with Levine.
People followed Levine because he “can be quite charming and charismatic,” says Pasteris, who was an AI programmer at Ghost Story. Levine also “can become moody and lash out, singling out an individual, while berating them in front of their co-workers,” Pasteris says.
Ghost Story employees occasionally asked Levine how long Take-Two would fund their experiments before demanding a product it could sell. Levine told them that their studio is a “rounding error” for the publisher of Grand Theft Auto, according to two former employees. Michael Pachter, an analyst at Wedbush Securities, agrees. With enough time, Levine offers Take-Two “a realistic chance of a new franchise” like BioShock, he says. “I expect they will continue to allow Ken to take as long as he needs to make something great.”
Auteurs can be effective at enticing investors and consumers to buy into a new intellectual property, says Joost van Dreunen, a professor at New York University who teaches about the video game industry. But he says auteurism is growing out of style as a method for running a game business. “Operationally, it is precisely the type of org structure that results in the various problems the industry faces today,” he says.
Despite its calamitous beginning, Ghost Story was intended to be a friendlier, more supportive environment than its predecessor, says Gonzalez, the founding team member. But the studio was haunted by Levine's old ways of doing things. “Intentions are one thing, and reality is another,” Gonzalez says. “When there's a road that's driven on a bunch, and there's a rut, getting out of that rut takes energy.”
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