Ed. note: Out May 11, Press Reset: Ruin and Recovery in the Video Game Industry is author Jason Schreier’s second book investigating the inner workings of the video game industry. In the book, he dives into how a number of high profile game studios fell apart — and below, we have an excerpt covering some of the challenges BioShock Infinite studio Irrational Games went through when making the game. Copyright © 2021 by Jason Schreier. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.
On August 12, 2010, at a press event in the swanky Plaza Hotel near Central Park in New York City, journalists gathered to watch the trailer for the next BioShock game. The video opened with a delightful fakeout, zooming in on the silhouette of a familiar-looking underwater city before pulling back to reveal that the camera was actually inside of a fish tank. Good-bye, Rapture. Hello, BioShock Infinite. After the trailer, director Ken Levine gave the press a basic outline of the game. BioShock Infinite was set in Columbia, a city in the sky devoted to the celebration of American exceptionalism, during July 1912. It would star the former Pinkerton agent Booker DeWitt, sent to rescue a raven-haired girl named Elizabeth. Guarding her tower prison was a flying robotic hulk called the Songbird, who would make for a good mascot (and merchandising opportunity) in lieu of those Big Daddies.
What was nice about this announcement wasn’t just that the developers could finally be open about what they were doing. It was that they now had to stick with the details they’d announced. Columbia was Columbia. Elizabeth was Elizabeth. None of the major details could be overturned anymore.
For Forrest Dowling, the timing couldn’t have been better. Dowling had just started at Irrational, signing up as a level designer a month before BioShock Infinite’s big reveal. As a BioShock fan, Dowling was stoked to see what they were doing — it had been three years of silence since the first game came out. And as a new Irrational employee, he was happy to see that they’d actually committed to the game’s core ideas. “I’d joined at a time when suddenly the team was inoculated against complete swings,” Dowling said. “There was no chance at that point that the entire time, setting, place, conflict would change.”
Dowling was big and bearded, with a muppety voice and a pragmatic attitude. He’d grown up in western New York, knowing he wanted to be an artist but not sure where to start. After high school he went to a fine arts college — the type of place where “they’re not going to even talk about the fact that maybe you want to make money and eat food some day” — and experimented with crafts like iron-casting and sculpting before growing disillusioned with the art world. By his senior year of college, Dowling had switched course, falling in love with video games like Deus Ex and wondering what it might look like if he made them for a living.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, one of the best ways to learn how to develop video games was to make mods — fan-made alterations that changed the way a game looked or felt to play. Some of these modders did it for fun, but others saw it as a potential career path. In 2003, a group of modders for Battlefield, a popular series of first-person shooter games, banded together to start their own company in New York City, Trauma Studios. The actual developers of Battlefield, at a company called DICE, took notice, and the following year they purchased Trauma, although they went on to shut it down less than a year later. Executives at competing publisher THQ saw an opportunity, hiring members of the Trauma team to form a new game development company, which they called Kaos Studios.
Kaos seemed like a good fit for Dowling, who had been making his own mods for games like Half-Life while working at an Apple Store and trying to crack into the video game industry. “It was a young studio that was made up of former mod-makers who found themselves suddenly having an AAA budget to build a game,” Dowling said. “So they were very open to hiring an idiot like myself.” Dowling couldn’t afford a New York City apartment, so he spent a few months living with his in-laws in central New Jersey and making the brutal two-hour commute into Manhattan every day. First he worked on a shooter called Frontlines: Fuel of War, which came out in 2008, and then he went on to Homefront, a game set in a near-future dystopian universe in which North Korea invades the United States.
By 2010, THQ was in trouble. The U.S. economic recession had hit the publisher hard, and it was cutting costs across all of its studios, including Kaos. When a recruiter from Irrational reached out to Dowling and asked if he might be interested in helping make a new BioShock, he didn’t have to give it much thought. There was a phone screener, followed by a design test, then more calls and a day full of interviews at Irrational’s Quincy office, where staff grilled him about his work and career. “I guess I have a stupid amount of confidence so it wasn’t that intimidating for me, even though it should have been,” Dowling said. “I felt like I nailed the design test and felt really good about the work I did, so I felt that put me on good footing with them.”
Before Dowling had even gotten in the car to drive home, lead designer Bill Gardner pulled him aside and told him he’d be getting an offer, which he accepted. Dowling felt awful about quitting Kaos during the final year of Homefront — “It’s not cool to leave a project before it’s done, particularly when people are going into crunch mode on it,” he said — but he knew he had to get out of there. His gut told him something was wrong at Kaos, and that THQ wasn’t going to last much longer. “BioShock was such a humongous game in my mind,” Dowling said. “I loved it so much and I thought it was one of the smartest games of the generation. … I wasn’t going to say no to that so I could stay on a project on a team where I didn’t think there was a future.” Dowling’s instincts would turn out to be correct. THQ shut down Kaos a year later and eventually went bankrupt.
When he started at Irrational, just a few weeks before the Plaza reveal event, Dowling found a team that was tired but excited to show their game to the world. The BioShock Infinite reveal had been months in the making, and they were all relieved that the major decisions were now locked into place. This was a game set in the floating city of Columbia. It was 1912. Booker had to rescue Elizabeth. Ken Levine couldn’t change his mind about those big-picture ideas anymore, which meant they wouldn’t have to keep scrapping work they’d done on the project.
Of course, plenty of other things could change. In the coming months, progress on BioShock Infinite moved slowly, even by Irrational’s standards, due to frequent cuts, shifts, and reboots. The company was growing, but the game wasn’t. Levine would tell his staff to overhaul large chunks of levels or sections of the city, seemingly at a whim, based on what he thought would be best for the game. Every cut or change Levine made had trickle-down effects for the lower-level designers, artists, and programmers. It was demoralizing to put weeks of your life into something only to watch it get flushed down the drain. “It is tough when stuff gets cut or changed dramatically that people have worked on for months,” said Dowling. “That was definitely a thing that happened a lot at Irrational.”
To convince 2K to expand their headcount further for BioShock Infinite, which was growing bigger and more expensive every day, Irrational needed to come up with ways to make the game feel more evergreen — more indefinitely replayable. Part of that plan involved two big multiplayer modes that 2K’s executives hoped players would keep using even after they’d finished BioShock Infinite’s campaign. But these multiplayer modes weren’t quite coalescing, and the single-player campaign was behind schedule, so Irrational took a drastic step, cutting the multiplayer and moving all of its staff onto the main game. “You spend a lot of time and put your heart and soul into something just to have it disappear in the span of a meeting,” said Bill Gardner, who had helped lead the multiplayer team. “You never really get over that.”
Public demos of BioShock Infinite in 2011 left fans impressed, showcasing the lively citizens of Columbia and Elizabeth’s seemingly magical powers, which allowed her to rip holes in the fabric of reality to conjure objects from other dimensions. (Much of what fans saw in the demos never actually made it into the final product, which was testament to the game’s turbulent development.) At the same time, the developers of BioShock Infinite worried that they might never be able to finish the game. Even after several delays, it was clear they needed to take more drastic measures. A number of senior staff were quitting Irrational, frustrated with the constant overhauls and Levine’s directorial style. To replace them — and to try to wrangle the game into shape — Irrational kept hiring.
In March 2012, Irrational brought in Don Roy, a veteran game producer, who had some experience closing out games at big publishers like Sony and Microsoft. He was shocked to see just how bad things were. “I get there and there was essentially no game,” Roy said. “A tremendous amount of work had been done. It just hadn’t been stood up as a game in any particular form. To the point where the first thing I did was go, ‘Can I play a build of the game?’ The answer was no. They said, ‘You can play these pieces of things, but there’s not an actual functioning game.’”
What baffled Roy most, he said, was the disorganization. Irrational’s bloat — from a few dozen people in 2008 to nearly two hundred by the end of 2012, plus support studios and outsourcing houses — had led to all sorts of deficiencies in their production pipelines. It was chaos. “We were outsourcing a lot of stuff and it was never making it in the game because the process wasn’t established,” Roy said. “People were asking for things, and they’d eventually get made, but then they moved on, so then the [art] came back and they said, ‘No, I don’t actually need that anymore.’” One of Roy’s tasks was to create a workflow to prevent the company from wasting all that time and money.
In the summer of 2012, Irrational made its biggest and most publicized hire: Rod Fergusson, of Epic Games, who had cultivated a reputation within the video game industry as a “closer,” someone who could come in and make the tough cuts and decisions needed to complete a game. Fergusson looked at BioShock Infinite, broke down the tasks they had left, and put together a schedule — including mandatory crunch — that would result in a finished video game. “The game does not ship without Rod Fergusson,” said one Irrational staffer.
What was just as important as Fergusson’s scheduling, according to those who worked with him, was that Fergusson knew how to talk to Ken Levine. “Ken is a creative genius, and that comes with pros and cons,” said Mike Snight, who worked on BioShock Infinite. “Ken is a terrible leader, he really is, and he’d be the first to admit that to you. He’s a creative; he’s not a leader by any means.”
Levine has been the subject of much public scrutiny since the days of the first BioShock. Ask anyone who’s worked with him what it was like and they’ll probably throw out two words: “genius” and “challenging.” He was the type of director whose vision could lead to masterpieces like BioShock, but he could also take a very long time to conceive that vision, and he often had trouble articulating ideas to his staff. “This is not meant as an insult, but I believe he’s a better editor than author,” said producer Joe Faulstick. “He’s not the best off on a blank page. If he’s in a situation where he doesn’t know what he wants yet, he’s not always the best to work with.” Some ex-Irrational employees shared stories about arguments and screaming matches between Levine and other leads. Others said they watched him grow frustrated and yell when employees weren’t executing on the ideas in his head. “He’s brilliant,” said another person who worked with him, “but he doesn’t always know how to tell you what he wants.”
Fergusson was able to speak with Levine, figure out what the director wanted the game to look like, and translate that message to the rest of the staff. “Rod made the right calls,” said Don Roy, “and Infinite turned out the way it did because he was able to come in and do for production what was necessary to deliver what was in Ken’s head.”
In a 2013 interview with Polygon, Ken Levine analogized his development process to carving a statue. “The way I create video games, it’s more like sculpture,” he said. In other words, he’d have to break off chunks of marble to carve the figure he wanted. Levine’s background was in plays and screenplays, where one commonly quoted mantra is “Writing is rewriting” — the first draft is never what shows up on the stage or the screen. In games, however, where the script is written while other parts of the game are in production, constant rewriting means burning months of other people’s work. “He essentially makes a tremendous amount of a game so he can evaluate it, which makes sense,” said Roy. “But when you’re doing it on paper, that’s one thing. When you’re doing it with real humans, time, money, emotions, obligations, it’s a completely different thing.”
Levine would make even more revealing comments a few years later, during a Eurogamer convention in London. “In almost every game I’ve ever worked on, you realize you’re running out of time, and then you make the game,” Levine said. “You sort of dick around for years” — he laughed as he said this — “and then you’re like, ‘Oh my god, we’re almost out of time,’ and it forces you to make these decisions. And that’s when the magic happens, is when the gun’s at your head and you’ve gotta make the decisions, because people, we tend to procrastinate, and we tend to put things off. I find that when it’s time to [ask] what do we keep, what do we cut, what do we focus on, what do we polish, that’s really when the game’s made.”
The people who worked for Ken Levine had mixed and sometimes conflicting feelings about this style of development. Level artist Chad LaClair said working at Irrational made him a significantly better artist and designer, yet he also called BioShock Infinite the toughest thing he’d ever done. “There were times when I thought, ‘I don’t know how we’re going to be able to show this to the world,’” LaClair said. “We have so much further to go.” Like the rest of Irrational’s staff during those final months of development in 2012 and 2013, LaClair had to put in a great deal of overtime in order to finish the lengthy list of tasks that needed to be completed to finish the game. “I’ve never crunched on a game as much as I crunched on BioShock Infinite,” said LaClair, who estimated that he was in the office 12 hours a day for most of the final year. If there was a bright side, it was that his wife had also taken a job at Irrational, so at least the two of them could have lunch and dinner together at the office.
Forrest Dowling also went into heavy crunch mode, working six days a week during the game’s final months. “My house was kind of a mess at that point,” he said. “I couldn’t even be bothered to do dishes. I would just get laundry done and then watch a movie or something, and basically be a slug on the day off. Because when you’re down to one day a week off, that’s kind of your energy level.” Both LaClair and Dowling had one big advantage over some of the older staff at Irrational, an advantage that made this kind of lifestyle more tolerable: neither of them had kids yet. “I still felt pretty young to the industry,” said LaClair. “I think my mindset now is much different.”
Besides, LaClair figured, he was just putting in his dues. “I didn’t have any idea,” he said, “that the company would be going away pretty soon.”