The road to Bioshock

Part 2: Things get better...

Irrational's first project wasn't the System Shock sequel they eventually ended up working on, but a single-player version of the popular online isometric shooter Fireteam.

"That's what we were working on for three weeks, but that got cancelled and that was a real, real blow," says Levine.

"I had my new company and I thought that was the end; I thought 'nobody's gonna hire me now'. I hadn't even shipped a game when I started my own company. I was President and Lead Designer and I hadn't seen a game through to the end.

I thought that was it. I'd had my shot at games and blown it; had my shot at movies and blown that. But Looking Glass called about making a game with the Thief engine, and we worked really hard and pitched what became System Shock 2."


Irrational's first game was released in 1999. System Shock 2 drags you, confused and powerless, out of suspended animation aboard the military spacecraft Rickenbacker and immediately drops you into a world gone mad.

The game is an obvious influence on Dead Space, and its structure is aped by its unofficial sequel, Bioshock, but for Levine the game's structure was a matter of necessity as much as design.

"I looked at the engine we had to work with and it didn't run at a very good framerate; the things it did well were much more RPG-ish than shooterish. But I also knew that we didn't have the resources to make a big RPG - a Wizardry-style game, like Wizardry 8 - so why not do a hybrid of the two?"

"System Shock 2 was a big game with a smaller budget than most XBLA games have today," he continues. "Irrational received around $600,000 for that game and that seemed like an infinite amount of money to me back then."

System Shock 2 was followed by work on "fight your way through Hell" jamboree The Lost, but by 2002 the game was stuck in development purgatory and the project reverted to co-developers FXLabs.

Superhero RPG Freedom Force and Tribes: Vengeance followed in 2002 and 2004 before the studio took a sizeable gamble on self-publishing Freedom Force's Nazi-obliterating sequel - sadly, with disappointing results.

Returning to work for hire, SWAT4 and its expansion pack were the studio's last PC exclusives.

After plans for the Wolfenstein-esque Division 9 collapsed, Irrational stepped up to the plate and joined Bioware, Bungie, IO, Epic, DICE, and other former PC-only developers in the new generation's console space.

With Japanese console developers seemingly lost in the next generation's world, Western PC developers pushed forward with new experiences for a new audience.

Bioshock was Irrational's first console game, introducing console users to the kind of depth PC gamers had enjoyed since 2000, though the PC hardcore argued Irrational had 'consolified' their original game, dumbing it down for a dumber audience.

"As your audience gets broader you have to service more people, and when you service more people you can't specialise as much," says Levine.

"You can't release a retail product and sell a couple of hundred thousand units any more; it's not really feasible. You have to play big or play in a different space, like XBLA or the iPhone or webgames.

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I think it would be tough building a studio like Irrational today." Bioshock was a risk, and had Bioshock sold the same numbers as System Shock 2 Irrational's future would have been bleak.

It had to appeal to a big audience, and to do that Irrational had to round off System Shock's harder edges.

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