Ken Levine, the acclaimed video game developer behind the BioShock series, began work on his next project with his studio Ghost Story Games around eight years ago. Since then, according to reports from Bloomberg, the game has allegedly entered “development hell” and has seen multiple reboots and changes in direction.
Levine’s current project at Ghost Story, which has yet to be officially announced or given a firm release date, has taken much longer than his previous works, including the year-and-a-half it took to develop System Shock 2 and the roughly five years it took to finish BioShock. Obviously, video game development is immensely challenging and each project comes with its own unique challenges, but 15 current and former employees of Ghost Story Games say this is something more – and part of it is due to Levine’s leadership style.
Following the closure of Irrational Games in 2014 and the start of Ghost Story Games, the new team began working on a premise Levine was calling a “narrative LEGO.” He wanted to create a game that would make sure every person’s experience was a unique one. This meant characters reacting differently based on the player’s actions and different scenarios playing out each time depending on what was chosen before.
The original plan was to release the game by fall 2017, and it was to be “a sci-fi shooter like BioShock set on a mysterious space station inhabited by three factions.” The player’s choices would determine how these three factions acted towards them.
Following Levine’s success in the past, publisher Take-Two Interactive Software had given him the creative freedom that few others in the games industry have to make this dream a reality. While this “lack of oversight seemed idyllic at first,” according to former employees, it would become “detrimental to their work and mental well-being.”
Mike Snight, who was one of the ex-Irrational Games developers that Levine chose to help start Ghost Story in 2014, shared a bit of insight into what it was like working with Levine.
“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.”
While one employee says that the current team is “optimistic” about the project once again and thinks a release date could be two years away, Snight – and half of the original team – have already left.
“When it continuously goes in cycles and you don’t align anymore, you kind of get tired of being part of that,” Snight says. “I wasn’t really happy anymore.”
One of the biggest problems, according to former staffers, is that Levine wanted to create a AAA experience as ambitious as BioShock with a fraction of those who made it.
While it has served him well in the past and has helped produce successful and beloved games, Levine’s drive towards perfection has also led to a myriad of issues for those who went on these journeys with him. As Bloomberg puts it, ‘one constant on Levine’s projects is that he never seems content.” Levine has a history in drama and aimed to be a screenwriter early on, and he was “taught that the process for achieving greatness was to keep rewriting until everything was perfect.”
This meant months of work could be discarded if it wasn’t up to standards. In 2012, Levine told AusGamers that he “probably cut two games worth of stuff” when developing BioShock Infinite.
This philosophy has extended to Ghost Story’s project, and some even say weeks or months of work may be scrapped after Levine’s tastes change “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.”
Many of these factors contributed to the game not being ready by fall 2017 and, while that may be frustrating for many to hear inside the company and out, one positive did come out of it – “the lax approach to deadlines minimized crunch time, a welcome change from Irrational, three former employees say.”
Eight years in, many have wondered how long Take-Two will keep this project going. Levine has apparently told staff that Ghost Story is but a “rounding error” for the publisher of games like Grand Theft Auto, meaning Levine will most likely be given all the time he needs to create a new hit that can succeed at the level BioShock has.
While fans wait for Ghost Story’s first game, 2K has also announced that a new BioShock game is in the works from its internal studio Cloud Chamber. However, that project also appears to be a ways away.
Read more on this story at Bloomberg.