Rational Games – Ken Levine and Harsh Realities of Running a Business

There seems to be a sort of Midlife Crisis happening lately with developers who entered the industry in the 1990s. John Carmack recently left ID to work on the Oculus Rift, Cliff Blezsinski woke up one morning last year and realized he’d spent half his life working non-stop and wanted to explore new opportunities, and today Ken Levine announced that he was closing up shop on Irrational Games, the studio he co-founded in 1997. The primarily PC developer was most notable for the System Shock/BioShock series’, games that redefined what video game narrative was capable of. It’s truly sad news to see such an acclaimed studio closing and of course to see hardworking, creative people out of work. This is surprising and shocking news and while I understand that some people are upset that he has chosen to lay off staff, I can’t help but feel that perhaps he deserves the benefit of the doubt for not only his possible reasons for taking this action, but for the way in which he has chosen to do it.

Irrational Shutdown

My father ran a small business for just over 30 years; an Air Conditioning installation and service company. He ended up selling it to a larger company in 2001 and secured a sales position with them, then retired the following year. He had about 15 employees at the time of its closure, some of whom went on to that larger company while others sought work elsewhere. My dad’s business was nowhere near the scale and size of Irrational Games, but there are some relative similarities in relation to its industry. One big characteristic of running an independent company as a primary director is that it is a 24/7 job. It can be very lucrative to be sure, but it can also completely take over your life.

Not to belabor this, but while my dad was able to provide for us growing up, he really wasn’t around that much because work had to come first. That sort of thing is all good and fine when you’re in your 20s, but as you grow older and have a family the allure of such a venture tends to wear off. Maybe he realized that he wanted to scale back and take on less responsibility; still being able to create games while letting Take-Two handle the day-to-day grind of running a business. I don’t presume to know what Levine’s motivations were beyond the letter he posted on the Irrational site, but this is a guy who’s been running a private company for 17 years non-stop, overseeing some gigantic titles and dealing with the inevitable ups and downs that go along with working in such a risky industry.


Speaking of the industry, there is a truth about the video game business that everybody knows but seems to forget at times like this; it’s first and foremost a business. As the head of a company, a CEO/President/Boss has the right to handle it however s/he wants, and sometimes that means scaling back to cover costs and secure profits. It may not be pretty, but sometimes being the boss means you have to make tough choices that affect people’s lives.

While that is sad and no doubt difficult for all involved, to his credit Levine is providing financial support to his staff and also giving them space to work until they find their feet. It’s a far cry from the usual practice of sending goons in to escort laid-off staff out of the building. Yes, it’s unfortunate. However, he’s trying to make the most of a bad situation and he’s doing a hell of a lot more than most other employers in other industries would do to make their landing as soft as possible.

Anyway, I’m sure more information from this will be revealed as time goes on. Who knows, maybe it’ll turn out that Ken Levine is in fact the devil who doesn’t care about this staff. Maybe we’ll find out that Irrational was in all kinds of financial trouble, and it was either scale back or go under. All I’m saying here is to keep an open mind and consider the perspective of the challenges faced by all levels of employees of a company…even its boss.

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