'Games Are The Convergence Of Everything'Mary Jane Irwin, 12.03.08, 10:30 AM EST
''Bioshock'' creator Ken Levine would rather swing from a noose than stop making games.
It is unfair to give Ken Levine all the credit for "Bioshock's" success. A team of some 70 people built the game about an underwater haven unhinged by its own unwavering objectivism. But Levine, creative director of game developer 2K Boston (owned by Take-Two Interactive), is the puppet master behind the 2007 critical hit, which was recently released for the PlayStation 3.
He also worked on some of gaming's most treasured cult classics--if not necessarily financial successes--like "System Shock 2" and "Thief." It is an impressive resume for a washed-up Hollywood script writer. And it's a good thing he stumbled into games. Otherwise, Levine jokes that he would "probably be swinging from a noose."
Forbes.com talked to Levine about the game industry's biggest mistake, digital distribution and the impact of casual game players.
What game inspired you to make games?
Ken Levine: It was [1992's] "Ultima Underworld." The feeling of being in a place compared to this abstraction that was adapted from board games--the feeling of being in a 3D world--was incredible. All the things that I wanted to do and all the games that I ended up working on came out of the inspiration I took from that product.
What is the most successful game you've worked on?
We never really had a hit before "Bioshock." We had marginally successful projects--we never lost money--but "Bioshock" is head and shoulders above the rest. We're north of 2 million sold.
What is the industry's biggest mistake?
I'm a real believer in industrial Darwinism. It's hard for an industry to make a mistake because the market tends to be self-correcting...but I wish the industry could find a way to make PC gaming more broadly successful. There are so many challenges for PC gaming--the complications from systems specifications to the drivers--most people look at PC games and say, "What are you talking about?" It's a shame because as a gamer, I am never more comfortable than I am sitting with a mouse and keyboard two inches away from my monitor.
How will digital distribution change the games business?
One of the biggest problems we face as an industry is the notion that we really only have one channel to deliver product. A game comes out and it has three weeks where it either hits or it fails. When you look at movies, they have the theatrical release, they have pay per view, and it is on airplanes, in hotels and DVDs. We don't have that. We need to provide different levels of investment.
We support the downstream segments--the bargain bins--but for people who love a certain type of product they can't get more of it without buying a whole sequel. With [downloadable content], "Rock Band" being the best example, DLC makes it so you can be invested in a way you've never been invested before.
What will define this era of game design?
This past six-month period is the era of finally figuring out how to do [cooperative multiplayer]--not just co-op capable. Multiplayer isn't just about beating the crap out of each other or playing the single player mode with another person, it's about a whole new game experience.
As the main writer on "Bioshock," what will be the next trend in game narrative?
I've been thinking a lot about how to bring narrative into cooperative gaming--something beyond just playing through the story mode with someone else. There are narrative things that are unique to cooperative experiences that are untouched upon. I've got a lot of big thoughts about that and am really excited about that space.
If you weren't making videogames, what would you be doing?
I'd be swinging from a noose. I can't imagine. I'd probably be writing comics or working on movies, but games are so exciting because they're the convergence of everything. They are my passion and my hobby, and I like to think about them intellectually, and they're a challenge. We still have our "Crisis on Infinite Earth" and our "Citizen Kane" ahead of us. It's so exciting to be a part of that world.
Is there a game you wish you had thought of first?
No, because then I would not get to play it as a gamer. My team and I make things that excite me, but the downside is that I don't get to play them with fresh eyes. When you make games you want to make, they always end up being games that you want to play--but you already know everything about them. So no, I don't wish I had made ["Fallout 3"] because then I wouldn't get to play it.
How has the influx of casual game players impacted how you think about making games?
They don't. We generally don't make games for targeted demographics. You can't make "Bioshock" from a focus test. It is too weird. We come up with the kind of stuff we want to do, and then it is our responsibility to make sure the company is going to make a return on its investment and we're not off making some crazy art project. The casual space just broadens the expressive space for what we think of as gaming experiences and what people enjoy.
How will the next generation of consoles change games?
There are two things. There is the extension of what you're seeing now--integrating the social and the Internet components. But one thing that has been so powerful this console generation has been the physics. The more you can simulate realistically, the more you can leverage in a gameplay experience. It removes barriers to interaction and immersion. It is a design challenge, but it's also a technology challenge because you have to represent all that stuff in the world.