Ken Levine first got into the game industry in 1995 when he joined Looking Glass Studios. At Looking Glass, Levine would develop his first hit, Thief: The Dark Project. Thief was a big hit with critics, many naming it one of the greatest games of all time. Thief would also be a commercial success for Looking Glass. Thief would be a large inspiration for future stealth games, such as Assassin's Creed.
Levine would eventually go on to found Irrational Games. Soon after founding the studio, Irrational Games teamed up with Levine's former studio, Looking Glass Studios to develop System Shock 2. Like Thief, System Shock 2 was a huge hit with critics, once again praising the game as one of the best of all-time. However, System Shock 2 would not meet the same commercial success as Thief, though it would eventually form a cult following. 3 years after System Shock 2, Levine would produce his next hit, Freedom Force. Freedom Force was a real-time tactical RPG that was seen as a respectful satire of comic books' Silver Age. Like Levine's previous titles, Freedom Force was met with many favorable reviews. Levine would then go on to develop his next hit in 2004, Tribes: Vengeance. Tribes featured an enhanced version of the Unreal Engine 2.5, called the Vengeance Engine. What separated Tribes from other sci-fi first person shooters was the use of jet packs, which became an important part of combat. Tribes was met with favorable reviews though was ultimately overshadowed by another sci-fi first person shooter, Half-Life 2.
The next year, Ken Levine developed the sequel to Freedom Force, Freedom Force vs. The 3rd Reich. In the sequel, the superheroes from the original travel back in time to battle the Nazis. Like the original, Freedom Force vs. The 3rd Reich was met with many favorable reviews. Less than a month later, Levine's next game was released, entitled SWAT 4. SWAT 4 was Levine's first attempt at a realistic first person shooter and like the rest of Levine's game, it was a hit. SWAT 4 was another huge hit with critics everywhere. In 2006 Take-Two bought Irrational Games, renaming it 2K Boston.
A year after being bought out, Levine developed his first game under 2K Boston, BioShock. Levine described the game as a spiritual successor to System Shock 2, which was apparent through its many similarities. Like System Shock 2, BioShock was huge success with critics, gaining many Game of the Year awards. Not only that, but the game was also a huge commercial success, selling more than 1.5 million copies.
Levine was not involved with the development of BioShock 2 but was credited at the end as a special thank you to "everyone who worked on the first BioShock". In 2010, 2K Boston announced that its returning to its original name: Irrational Games.
In August 2010, Irrational Games announced the third entry in the BioShock series, titled BioShock Infinite, with Levine returning as the creative director and lead writer. After a series of delays, the game was released on March 26th, 2013. The game received critical acclaim upon release, with reviewers particularly praising the story and art directions, among other aspects.
On February 17, 2014, Ken Levine made an announcement of the closure of Irrational Games with the following statement:
When Jon Chey, Rob Fermier and I founded Irrational Games seventeen years ago, our mission was to make visually unique worlds and populate them with singular characters.
We built Rapture and Columbia, the Von Braun and The Rickenbacker, the Freedom Fortress and some of the nastiest basements a SWAT team ever set foot into. We created Booker and Elizabeth, the Big Daddy and the Little Sister, MidWives and ManBot. In that time, Irrational has grown larger and more successful than we could have conceived when we began our three-person studio in a living room in Cambridge, MA. It’s been the defining project of my professional life.
Now Irrational Games is about to roll out the last DLC for BioShock Infinite and people are understandably asking: What’s next?
Seventeen years is a long time to do any job, even the best one. And working with the incredible team at Irrational Games is indeed the best job I’ve ever had. While I’m deeply proud of what we’ve accomplished together, my passion has turned to making a different kind of game than we’ve done before. To meet the challenge ahead, I need to refocus my energy on a smaller team with a flatter structure and a more direct relationship with gamers. In many ways, it will be a return to how we started: a small team making games for the core gaming audience.
I am winding down Irrational Games as you know it. I’ll be starting a smaller, more entrepreneurial endeavor at Take-Two. That is going to mean parting ways with all but about fifteen members of the Irrational team. There’s no great way to lay people off, and our first concern is to make sure that the people who are leaving have as much support as we can give them during this transition.
Besides financial support, the staff will have access to the studio for a period of time to say their goodbyes and put together their portfolios. Other Take-Two studios will be on hand to discuss opportunities within the company, and we’ll be hosting a recruiting day where we’ll be giving 3rd party studios and publishers a chance to hold interviews with departing Irrational staff.*
In time we will announce a new endeavor with a new goal: To make narrative-driven games for the core gamer that are highly replayable. To foster the most direct relationship with our fans possible, we will focus exclusively on content delivered digitally.
When I first contemplated what I wanted to do, it became very clear to me that we were going to need a long period of design. Initially, I thought the only way to build this venture was with a classical startup model, a risk I was prepared to take. But when I talked to Take-Two about the idea, they convinced me that there was no better place to pursue this new chapter than within their walls. After all, they’re the ones who believed in and supported BioShock in the first place.
Thanks to Irrational and 2K’s passion in developing the games, and the fans who believe in it, BioShock has generated retail revenues of over a half billion dollars and secured an iconic place in gaming. I’m handing the reins of our creation, the BioShock universe, to 2K so our new venture can focus entirely on replayable narrative. If we’re lucky, we’ll build something half as memorable as BioShock.
We will do our best to update an FAQ in this space as questions come in.
Todd Howard once tweaked Ken's nipple. He claims to have liked it.