Following the launch of the last Bioshock game, Bioshock Infinite, in 2013, Bioshock creator Ken Levine wanted to do things differently. According to Levine, the development of Infinite drained him and the team at Irrational Games was too large. He wanted to explore new ideas with a smaller team. This led to the creation of Ghost Story Games. Their first game revolves around a premise that Levine called “narrative lego.” The idea is that every player’s experience with the game is unique. Characters would react differently depending on a player’s actions which would put them in different scenarios every time they played. It’s supposed to be a sci-fi shooter like Bioshock set on a mysterious space station inhabited by three factions. Each faction could be an ally, enemy, or something in between depending on what players choose. It was supposed to be released in 2017, but that has not been the case. In fact, it’s still several years out, and as Bloomberg’s Jason Schreier outlines in a new report, this may be due to Ken Levine and how he works.
According to former Irrational and Ghost Story developer Mike Snight, “Ken is a very hard person to work for. I think he tried a lot to change, and he really excels better at this company than Irrational because it is a smaller group of people.” Due to the success of System Shock 2 and Bioshock, Levine has had a lot of leeway with how he operates things. Some of his former employees say the lack of oversight seemed idyllic at first but became detrimental to their work and mental well-being. Many Ghost Story employees blame him for how development has progressed on the company’s first title. They say he is a flawed manager who often struggles to communicate his vision and alienates or browbeats subordinates who challenge him or fail to meet his expectations. Many joked and said that persuading Levine was kind of like how Leonardo DiCaprio’s character does things in Inception, infiltrating a person’s mind to plant an idea so that they would believe that they thought of it first. Former employees called it Kenception. Snight says that Levine’s creative process is what drove him to quit, along with half of the original team. “When it continuously goes in cycles and you don’t align anymore, you kind of get tired of being part of that,” he says. “I wasn’t really happy anymore.”
One of the issues hindering development is, as employees say a persistent tension at Ghost Story for the type of game they are setting out to make and the kind Levine was used to directing. Levine wants to make a game as ambitious as Bioshock with a fraction of the staff. “The ideas and ambitions were great,” Giovanni Pasteris, an early employee, wrote in an email. “But the scope just grew and grew without concern for the team’s ability to get it done by our fall 2017 deadline. Ken wanted to make a triple-A game with a ‘budget’ team size. It was never going to happen.” Leevine wanted to see every moment of the story unfold on screen but the game’s narrative lego concept caused the stories to change so much based on player decisions. Levine often assessed aspects of the game when they were not yet finished, decide they weren’t good enough and command the team to scrap or change them, employees say. “The type of game being explored does not match well with the creative process being used,” says Andres Gonzalez, a founding member who left to start a new company with Snight.
Former staff says that Ken Levine’s mercurial demeanor caused strife. Those who clashed with Levine mysteriously disappeared. When others asked, managers said that the person who left was described as a bad match and had to be let go. Other employees just quit. Ghost Story Games’ top producer resigned in 2017 following clashes with Levine. People followed Levine because he “can be quite charming and charismatic,” says Pasteris, who was an AI programmer at Ghost Story. Levine also “can become moody and lash out, singling out an individual, while berating them in front of their co-workers,” Pasteris says.
Andres Gonzalez says that Ghost Story Games was intended to be a friendlier, more supportive environment but the studio was haunted by Levine’s old ways of doing things. “Intentions are one thing, and reality is another,” Gonzalez says. “When there’s a road that’s driven on a bunch, and there’s a rut, getting out of that rut takes energy.”