The road to Bioshock
25th Dec 2010 | 13:30
Looking Glass closed its doors back in 2000 but its impact on the industry is clear even ten years later.
The Bostonbased studio's alumni have worked on Tomb Raider Legend, Thief 3, Half-Life 2, Team Fortress 2, Oblivion, Fallout 3, Rock Band, Deus Ex, System Shock 2 and even the original Xbox hardware itself.
It's a studio Irrational boss Ken Levine calls a "less organised place", but it's a studio which helped define the modern console generation.
"I remember when I first started there," says Levine. "I turned up and I didn't have a desk. On my second day in the games industry I was just sitting in a corner with nothing to do, so I decided to go see a movie.
I literally walked out and when I came back the Creative Director came over to me and said 'Hey Ken, we were looking for you. I want to introduce you to Doug Church', and that's when I started working with Doug on Thief.
We were put in a room and they were like, 'make the next action RPG', and we were like... 'okay!'"
GLASS HALF FULL
Looking Glass was the culmination of ten years of countless bill-paying jobs for Levine after dropping out of Hollywood at a young age.
"I got into the movie industry writing movies while I was at college," he explains. "Everyone was thinking I would be successful but it didn't work out and I felt like I was washed up at twenty-three. I remember going to my class reunion shortly before I got my job at Looking Glass and I was that guy. I hadn't achieved my goals.
"I quit a lot of jobs on the first day (in my twenties). I got fired from a couple of restaurant jobs, I did computer consulting, I did graphic design; I wasn't doing what I wanted so I jumped between a lot of different things.
I thought I was gonna continue doing a career I wasn't satisfied with for the rest of my life, so when I got that job at Looking Glass I was dead set on succeeding at it."
Levine left his New York consulting job to join Looking Glass, bringing his movie experience to the script for a new Star Trek game and working on design concepts for olde-worlde stealth giant Thief - but when the Star Trek title was cancelled he was left with half-empty days.
"There wasn't really a huge concern for schedule and time-frames at Looking Glass," says Ken, before acknowledging Irrational has had problems of its own with scheduling.
"One of the downsides of Looking Glass is that they were kind of free form, but that was one of the reasons they produced the games they produced.
"I used to sit there all day and write these thought pieces on things like simulational versus emulational games and AI theories; that's very difficult to do at a lot of companies because you actually have tasks to accomplish.
I was given a huge amount of freedom to just think. I'm grateful eternally to the guys at Looking Glass for giving me that opportunity. I basically had my entire education about videogame development in a very short period of time - about a year and a half - and I had a little bit of knowledge and a lot of ambition.
And I thought y'know 'I love this place but I bet we could do it our way... maintain the best of Looking Glass but also make a business that was more oriented towards success.'"
Warren Spector had left Looking Glass during Thief's development to make Deus Ex at Ion Storm and the thirty-year-old Levine left in '97 to found Irrational Games alongside Jonathan Chey and Robert Fermier.
Between them, Levine and Spector would define a new type of action game - one built around choices and role-playing elements which would practically become the template for dozens of modern shooters.
"I don't wanna say for certain but I think we were the first to really combine the real RPG systems and the shooting," says Levine, being sure to add: "I'm sure the internet will tell me if I'm wrong."
Check out part two of our chat feature on Ken Levine and the road to Bioshock tomorrow.