BioShock creator Ken Levine announced in 2014 that he was winding down Irrational Games, the studio he co-founded in 1997, in order to start a smaller, “more entrepreneurial” project at Take Two Interactive. Levine said at the time that he wanted to be part of “a smaller team with a flatter structure and a more direct relationship with gamers … a small team making games for the core gaming audience.”
Despite all the years that have passed since then, the revamped studio—now known as Ghost Story—still hasn’t released a game. A new Bloomberg report claims that much of the reason for that is Levine himself: Current and former employees who spoke to the site said Levine’s management style can be difficult, and that he doesn’t hesitate to scrap weeks or months of work if he feels it somehow falls short.
Levine’s reputation as an auteur is borne out by an impressive list of development credits, including BioShock and BioShock Infinite, SWAT 4, System Shock 2, and Thief: The Dark Project. One of the major challenges, according to multiple sources, is that while Levine wanted to work within a smaller studio, he still wants to make complex games like BioShock that push modern technical standards.
“The ideas and ambitions were great,” former Ghost Story AI programmer Giovanni Pasteris told the site. “But the scope just grew and grew without concern for the team’s ability to get it done by our fall 2017 deadline. Ken wanted to make a triple-A game with a ‘budget’ team size. It was never going to happen.”
Multiple employees also called out Levine’s management style. Pasteris said Levine “can be quite charming and charismatic,” which helps attract talent, but also “can become moody and lash out, singling out an individual, while berating them in front of their co-workers.”
Clashes with Levine weren’t uncommon, and could sometimes result in a dismissal of employees who were deemed a bad fit, according to the Bloomberg report. Roughly half of the original Ghost Story team has left the studio since it was founded, says former employee Mike Snight, who moved with Levine from Irrational to Ghost Story when it was founded and then left five years later. “When it continuously goes in cycles and you don’t align anymore, you kind of get tired of being part of that,” he said. “I wasn’t really happy anymore.”
Take-Two is apparently happy to keep funding Levine and Ghost Story, effectively with no strings attached, in hopes that it will eventually lead to the creation of a major new franchise. Levine reportedly told employees that the cost of maintaining Ghost Story is essentially a “rounding error” for Take-Two, which publishes game series including Grand Theft Auto, Civilization, and Red Dead Redemption.
The report offers some very interesting insight into why a project that was expected to be on a smaller scale than Levine’s previous releases is taking so long—and why we might still have a long wait before we get a proper look at it. Ghost Story’s game, which still doesn’t have a title, was reportedly in the “later stages of production” in October 2020, but an employee interviewed for the Bloomberg report said the actual release could still be two years away from today.