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On the Hot Seat

Irrational is exuberant about Hub’s game industry

(Erik Jacobs for The Boston Globe)
By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / April 11, 2010

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Boston has come of age as a major center for video game development. One of the people who built the city’s creative reputation is Ken Levine, general manager of Irrational Games, the Quincy development house that created the acclaimed 2007 action game Bioshock. Globe reporter Hiawatha Bray recently asked Levine what the company’s been working on.

Game sales were awful last year. Will things turn around this year?

I wish I could say I paid more attention to that stuff . . . I worry more about the macro trends — what kinds of games people are playing and what they want to play. I’m not a guy who ever says, ‘Oh my God, social games are hot right now. We have to go make a social game,’ or ‘Kids games are hot,’ or ‘The [Nintendo] Wii is hot; we have to go make Wii games.’ I tend to look at what’s the underlying notions of those. Like, why are social games popular and how does that apply to what we do? . . . If you just try to do exactly what somebody else has done, it’s too late. It’s already been done.

So this new game you are developing is going to be something different from what anybody else is doing? I can’t comment on anything in particular about the new game. The sky would fill with ominous shapes, and creatures would come down from New York and pick me up and rend me from limb to limb if I commented about the game. Which they would be right to do. Everything in its time.

You recently revealed that you’d worked on a game about zombies, but just gave up on it. Why?

We’re constantly trying new ideas. We throw out way, way more than we ever use . . . you have to throw out a lot of stuff to get to keep the really, really good stuff. We come up with a lot of ideas and we throw them in the fire of the opinions of everybody here. And the ones that survive are the ones that grow.

Does Take Two Interactive Software Inc., your parent company, give you sufficient artistic freedom?

They know that if the team doesn’t believe in the mission, it’s not going to happen. It can’t happen. The team’s got to believe in the mission. It’s not creating widgets. It’s a very complicated creative process. I think that the company wants us to do very ambitious things . . . I don’t think I’ve ever been told at the company, ‘Be less ambitious.’

For a couple of years, the company changed its name to 2K Boston. You’ve recently gone back to Irrational Games. Why?

Names and identities have value. They have value to the team and they have value to our fans. That’s something we really discovered. There was very seldom an article that didn’t refer to us as ‘formerly Irrational Games.’ We just kind of looked at that together and said, ‘You know what? Why don’t we just back this out a little bit?’ And we went back to the original game.

We also were in a process where we wanted to relaunch our Web page. We hadn’t done business cards in eight years. We hadn’t really thought about things like identity in so long that we saw it as an opportunity both to re-embrace that identity and to really step up our game in terms of the webpage.

How healthy is Boston as a place for game development?

It was certainly a less healthy place when we started. There was nothing here. It was all California.

I think it’s better than it was . . . Certainly game developers who come here don’t have to worry about, ‘Well, if I go to this company and it doesn’t work out, I’m going to be stuck in the middle of nowhere.’ There’s so many big companies out here now. There’s a lot of studios out here.

Do you often play games for fun?

I play tons and tons of games. For instance, I have a regular Monday night World of Warcraft group with a bunch of guys, game designers and journalists I know. We play every Monday, and I’ve been playing World of Warcraft for five years now. I was up at 4 in the morning when the new Warhammer 40000 expansion came out. It launched on Steam (a site that sells downloadable games) at 1 in the morning.

Where do you find the time?

I don’t have kids.