The headquarters sits down the road from Quincy Center, past the joke shop, near the comic book store and above a business specializing in hearing aid repair. Inside, it’s a maze of short stairs and high-traffic carpeting, a low-rent office study sketched by M.C. Escher.

Behind an unmarked door stretches an expanse of workstations, each chair filled, each desk topped with screens packed with codes and colors. It’s dimly lit and the shades stand drawn, while the air hangs heavy with the heat of whirring processors and the scent of junk food. The space is silent save for soft taps and clicks, and the rare whisper floats unhindered from one end of the room to the other. This is crunch time at Irrational Games, creators of one of this century’s most acclaimed titles, BioShock. It’s the state’s most important piece of a 65-billion-dollar industry.


In the early 1990s, Irrational creative director Ken Levine was a young playwright who chased his dream out to Hollywood. He scored a rewriting job with Paramount and quickly became a hot commodity. But the project was never filmed, and as his money ran out his luster faded. Looking for help, he reached out to a major agent. “I said, ‘You’re a really big agency. I’m afraid I’d get lost there.’ He said ‘Kevin, trust me, you won’t get lost.’”

Having failed as a screenwriter, the New York native moved back east and worked odd jobs in computer consulting and graphic design while grappling with where to take his next step. The inglorious kick forward arrived in a moment scrubbed of cliché.

“I was turning 30, and I went to a high school reunion. And you know that classic story of when the nerdy kid goes to the reunion and the football hero’s now fat and balding and kind of a loser, and the nerdy kid is really successful?” he asks. “That didn’t happen to me. The captain of the football team was actually a pretty nice guy. He was great looking, had a beautiful wife and a great business. And I was by myself and really unhappy, and I was like, ‘Oh man, I gotta change something.’”

Combining his love of storytelling with his love for computers, Levine began searching for openings in the video game industry. Although he had no experience, he scored a job as a designer for a company in Cambridge called Looking Glass Studios, most famous for System Shock, a game in which a man wakes from a coma to find himself the sole human left in a space station populated with mutated creatures.

     

Less than two years later, and without ever having completed a full production cycle on a title, Levine and two coworkers left Looking Glass to found Irrational Games in 1997. Their first critical success came in 1999, when, in collaboration with Looking Glass, they released System Shock 2. It didn’t sell many copies, but the game became the studio’s artistic calling card. Years later, publisher Take-Two Interactive bought Irrational’s idea for the game’s spiritual successor, BioShock.

Released in 2007, BioShock won immediate plaudits as a leap forward in gaming. On the surface, it resembles many first-person shooters—a genre including System Shock 2 and more famous titles like Doom and Call of Duty—in which the player is given the protagonist’s point of view and only the character’s weapon-wielding hands can be seen on screen. What set BioShock apart was how the gameplay incorporated role-playing elements, with the ability to increase your capabilities in certain skills. It also advanced the role of morality in video games. In BioShock, your character comes across mutated little girls. Guarding each child is a Big Daddy, a genetically enhanced human in a monstrous diving suit—an antagonist that’s now one of gaming’s most iconic characters. Defeating a Big Daddy presents you with a choice: Saving the girls is the ethical thing to do, but killing them and draining them of their essence gives you more power in an increasingly dangerous environment.

Much of BioShock’s critical praise focused on Levine’s work as a storyteller. As gamers have grown in number and matured in age, players who began with Pitfall! are ready to be challenged by more than pixelated obstacles and enemies. As creative director, Levine introduced adult themes and philosophical questions. He imagined an underwater city called Rapture, and though it’s not directly stated, the city was built as a laissez-faire utopia founded on the tenets of Ayn Rand’s theory of objectivism. As in System Shock, your character arrives to find the environment fallen into disarray. You’re tasked with locating Rapture’s creator, Andrew Ryan, and discovering what role your own free will had in the metropolis’ downfall.

BioShock garnered numerous awards and accolades from both gaming sites and publications like The New York Times, which said, “BioShock can also hold its head high among the best games ever made.”

BioShock’s financial windfall caused Take-Two’s stock to rise 10 percent, and to date the title’s sold more than 5 million copies. But when the chance to make the sequel came, Levine and his team passed. “The issue was we had about two years, and to do it in two years it would have to have a number of similarities, and that wasn’t really our thing,” says Levine, now 45. “We wanted to do something different, and that tends to take a lot more time.” And so for years, the gaming public waited for Irrational’s next move.

The local gaming industry has changed a lot since 2007. There have been major successes. Turbine, Inc., based in Needham, launched The Lord of the Rings Online, now the world’s third-most popular massively multiplayer online role-playing game, or MMORPG. Cambridge’s Harmonix Music Systems made a fortune from its Guitar Hero and Rock Band titles. But while Massachusetts is the country’s fifth largest state for industry employment—with nearly 1,300 jobs according to an estimate from the Entertainment Software Association—the state’s grip on gaming is slipping.

After the chart-topping popularity of music games fizzled, Guitar Hero was discontinued, Harmonix lost millions and the company laid off dozens of employees last February. Blue Fang Games in Waltham, makers of the Zoo Tycoon series, cut most of its creative team last July. Other smaller companies have simply been bought out. San Francisco’s Zynga, the undisputed champ of social networking games with properties like FarmVille and Words With Friends, purchased Boston’s Floodgate Entertainment and Cambridge’s Conduit Labs primarily to grab their programming talent and ship them across the country.

The biggest blow came in the summer of 2010, when former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling moved his 38 Studios—and its just released RPG Kingdoms of Amalur—from Maynard to Providence. The impetus was a $75 million credit given to the studio with the stipulation that it would create 450 new jobs for Rhode Island. The Massachusetts government didn’t make Schilling a compelling counteroffer.

Massachusetts has the educational system, entrepreneurial players and capital infrastructure to compete with any state, but, says Timothy Loew, executive director of the Massachusetts Digital Games Institute (MassDiGi), “The industry has never gotten to the critical mass that would help us grab a piece of the global marketplace.”

The creation of MassDiGi is one step in what Lt. Governor Tim Murray describes as a “multipronged approach” to strengthening the state’s presence in video games. There are now nearly 20 schools in Massachusetts that offer courses or degrees in game development and design, and in September, MassDigi—founded by Becker College and the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative—received a $500,000 federal grant. The institute’s goal is to educate and connect students with local companies through collaboration and internships. Ideally, this will alleviate the state’s biggest problem, which is failing to retain the talent it develops.

Money, of course, plays a large role in why labor and opportunities leave the state. While Massachusetts does a lot to assist sectors like finance and biotechnology, there are regulations and policies in place that stifle growth in gaming. Freelancer laws stipulate that companies must provide temporary workers with certain benefits, so many firms end up farming side projects out to other states or countries. Massachusetts also enforces non-compete agreements, which some argue impedes innovation by placing restrictions on workforce mobility. Then there is the question of a tax incentive.

Last February, Representative Vincent Pedone filed legislation to give video game companies a tax credit comparable to what’s offered to film productions shooting in state. Similar regulations are already in place in 21 other states and Canada, and a tax credit is a major reason why companies like 38 Studios choose to work outside Massachusetts. But after a year, the bill has yet to gain traction, and it’s leader, Pedone, recently stepped down from his post. Representative John Mahoney has since taken over, but it seems that as profitable as the business is—it currently outgrosses the movie industry—funding video games is a harder sell than trying to attract films and their attendant star wattage.

“It’s ironic,” says Tim Gerritsen, Irrational Games’ director of product development. “If you look at it, where do you want to put your money? We’ve got 120 permanent employees. They spend all their money here. They pay their rent here. They pay their taxes here. Do you want Dane Cook? He’s here for two weeks doing a film, and he’s gone.”

Perhaps with a lesson learned from the Schilling decision, Lt. Gov. Murray says any future tax credit would have to be tied to job creation. “When you talk about tax incentives, that’s less revenue that you’re receiving, so I think any kind of incentive would have to be linked to hard commitments from the private sector,” he says.

Even without state assistance, Irrational has succeeded by drawing talent to Massachusetts with the quality of its games. “People go where the products are, where the smart minds are, where the creatives are,” says Gerritsen. “If we were looking for the cheapest solution, we’d just move to the cheapest place in the world. We’d all make games out of Fargo, but you’re not going to attract the best brains to Fargo.”

It was the artistic credibility of System Shock 2 that helped Irrational grow from near one dozen employees to two. With the sweeping success of BioShock, the company swelled from a 40-person staff to triple that size. And rather than relocate, Irrational will remain in its modest, secluded digs until a renovated Quincy Center provides a more modern home base. “We didn’t jump on a bandwagon and go down to Rhode Island,” says Gerritsen. “This is where we are as a studio. We have a mass of people we believe in, and those people live all around the region.”

In August 2010, Irrational revealed the trailer for its next project. Coming out this fall, it’s been named one of the most anticipated titles of the year by gaming sites, news organizations like Time and MSNBC, and economic arbiters like Amazon.com. It will gross hundreds of millions of dollars. It will draw industry attention to the state like perhaps no game has done before. As Timothy Loew says, “It’ll probably be the biggest game to ever come out of the Commonwealth.”

Levine’s inspiration for BioShock Infinite, the series’ third title, came from a staid PBS documentary called America 1900. The film examines a country at a turning point, one influenced by immigration, racism and the rise of technology.

In the gameplay demo since released (and which has been viewed on YouTube millions of times), you see America on July 4, 1912. You find walls plastered in nationalist propaganda before coming across a man standing in a white gazebo, sermonizing on the dangers of foreign hordes. Then you grab a rifle meant for the cause. Suddenly, magic crows are attacking, cannon fire is raining down on your head and you’re clobbering enemies while zooming around on a rail system built through a floating city in the sky.

This new setting of Columbia is like Rapture but bigger. The art design remains dramatic, but the environment is more colorful, intricate and interactive. Set pieces are grander, the action more kinetic. What remains the same is that your hero’s quest isn’t as simple as saving the world. As art director Nate Wells says, “Gamers are ready for more than space station X. There’s other stories to tell, and we’re pretty good at telling them.”

Playing a former Pinkerton agent, you find yourself caught in a battle between Columbia’s xenophobic founders and a heterogeneous group called the Vox Populi. From there, the story explores ideas of American exceptionalism and class warfare. It’s influenced by everything from the policies of President McKinley to the formation of the Occupy Movement. The game feels timely, cinematic and just a little nerdy. But as Levine says, “Nerdiness has become democratized.”

It’s no coincidence that the first computer games were about wizards and space marines. “That’s because the people who were interested in computers, and were buying computers for games, were the same people who were into these very nerdy things,” says Levine. “But now it’s broad enough that there are games on all kinds of topics.”

It’s the democratization of nerd culture that makes comic books cool, fantasy films win Oscars and once fringe hobbies turn very tidy profits. Levine witnessed this popular expansion at the moment of its Big Bang. “The first feeling I had that the world had any interest in the things I did was that first weekend I saw Star Wars,” he says. “I saw this theater full of people, and I actually went to that movie with two cool kids from my school, and they never hung out with me. But for some reason, they were interested.”

As the definition of “nerdy” changes and the audience for gaming grows, Irrational Games finds itself in a position to both surprise people and give them exactly what they’re looking for. And with creative success, Irrational will bring more industry focus to Massachusetts, a state that now finds itself with one of the field’s most influential studios. And with a choice. For art or profit, the pieces are in place for Massachusetts to become a player on the global stage. Whether the moves are made to realize that potential remains to be seen.

 

Credits:

Henrique Plantikow

Webb Chappell

Barry Hetherington

Courtesy of Irrational Games