Warning: This article contains spoilers for BioShock Infinite.
For a publically traded company that is “dependent on the future success of [their] Grand Theft Auto products”, it takes an unwavering amount of confidence and respect in RockStar to allow a 5-year development cycle for GTA V. Take-Two Interactive is dependent on this franchise to survive and yet, unlike the majority of AAA publishers, is uninterested in exploiting its cash cow. The company doesn’t publish quick cash-in games like Activision, cut corners like Ubisoft, or chase the mobile and FPS money train like Electronic Arts. Their strategy is a humble one: create few, but high quality video games. It’s right there in their 2014 Annual Report:
“Our core strategy is to capitalize on the popularity of video games by developing and publishing high-quality interactive entertainment experiences across a range of genres. We focus on building compelling franchises by publishing a select number of titles….”
Take-Two trusts its talent too, giving its creative figureheads like Ken Levine the time and freedom to develop unconventional games like BioShock, BioShock Infinite, and his experimental new project. It’s still unbelievable how, after seeing BioShock -a high budget single-player FPS set in a 1950s underwater objectivist dystopia- a Take-Two executive said “Yes, we want to fund that”. Even crazier is that System Shock 2, BioShock’s spiritual predecessor, was a commercial failure.
But Take-Two’s open approach to game development may have run its course with the BioShock franchise. Infinite, though selling roughly 7 million copies, was not a worthy investment for the company, and led to Irrational Games’ closure in February 2014. Infinite was developed over 5 ½ years with little oversight, which puts into question the effectiveness of its development structure and how future BioShock games will be approached. It’s not hard to imagine stricter publisher interference and more concrete development milestones on future installments. Greater influence from publishers can lead to less risky, more action focused titles, as seen with other franchises like Dead Space.
This isn’t entirely speculation, as Ken Levine himself hinted at greater publisher influence if BioShock Infinite failed to meet expectations. In response to Infinite’s box cover controversy in 2012, Levine discussed what infinite’s performance means to the creative freedom of future installments:
“The cover you pick off the shelf my not be your favorite cover in the universe. Hopefully, that will mean it will help make this game successful and we can keep making more of them and not compromise in any way. Because right now, nobody asked us to compromise….I believe I have an obligation both to the company and to gamers: if these kinds of games want to continue to be made, they have to be successful.”
With Levine’s departure from the franchise and Infinite’s inability to meet Take-Two’s lofty expectations, the series is now in an uncertain state creatively. Fans should anticipate some level of compromise between publisher and developer, which unfortunately might already becoming apparent with BioShock iOS.
The original BioShock is slated to release on iOS devices later this summer, but it makes little creative sense on the platform. Playing BioShock on a small screen with muddled texture quality defeats the purpose of the game: to immerse players in its world and story. Unlike previous titles that Take-Two has ported to iOS like XCOM: Enemy Unknown, BioShock simply does not complement mobile devices. It’s purely a business decision, which perhaps foreshadows Take-Two’s handling of future titles: emphasize accessibility at the expense of creative integrity.
Exactly how the Bioshock franchise will change going forward is unknown, but its level of creativity, high risk-taking, and long development cycles will likely not be the same. It’s a depressing thought, but hardly an unrealistic one. So be prepared BioShock fans, be prepared for BioShock Infinite 2, BioShock in space, or heaven forbid, BioShock 3. For a franchise that aims to reinvents itself with each iteration, the lifeblood of the series may very well be at stake. Like Elizabeth in Infinite, Take-Two can see all the lighthouses; let’s hope they haven’t locked the doors to bizarre and imaginative worlds like Rapture and Columbia forever.