Ken Levine is best known for games like System Shock 2 and the BioShock franchise but nothing recent, and it seems like there’s a perfectly good reason for that. According to Bloomberg, the next game from Levine is in development hell at his new studio Ghost Story Games. Originally due to be released in 2017, the game is still estimated to be at least two years away from release.
Development on the game began in 2014, yet after nearly eight years in development it doesn’t have a name. There doesn’t even seem to be a concrete idea of what the game is supposed to be. The game is meant to be built on a “narrative LEGO” concept where every player’s experience is unique. This can happen through characters reacting to the different actions of a player, resulting in different scenarios each time.
The idea was meant to be unique and stand out from other games, but the title has spent so long in production that other games have got their first. Ghost Story Games’ version of narrative LEGO was a BioShock-inspired sci-fi shooter that took place on a space station that was home to three factions. Each of these factions could be an ally or an enemy depending on the player’s actions. Whether the game still looks anything like this remains to be seen now that development has been rebooted or its direction changed numerous times over the past eight years.
The problem with reboots in Levine’s world is that they often involve throwing away months of work. This isn’t something new to Ghost Story Games; while creating BioShock Infinite at Irrational Games, it was estimated Levine cut enough material to create another two games. Levine’s tastes can change at the drop of a hat depending on what he’s playing at the time too. Features from the upcoming game had to be changed to emulate features from Dead Cells or Void Bastards, for example. The staff at Ghost Story Games understandably called this “demoralizing” and that it could be “a hindrance to their careers”.
One of the issues the team is facing is that Levine’s ambitions haven’t scaled down to fit the size of the studio. Ghost Story Games is a small studio with just a fraction of the staff at Levine’s previous studio, Irrational Games. With less than 30 people on the team, there’s no way they can make a AAA-size game with a “budget” team size. The game has previously had ” elaborate levels and rich, three-dimensional graphics”. Other versions had a “complicated dialogue system that would morph based on player choices, requiring a tremendous amount of writing that couldn’t have possibly been completed within a year”.
Another issue is Levine’s leadership style. He’s been described as “a flawed manager who often struggles to communicate his vision and alienates or browbeats subordinates who challenge him or fail to meet his expectations”. A running joke throughout the studio is “Kenception”, a reference to the Leonardo DiCaprio film Inception. Here DiCaprio enters a person’s dream to plant an idea that the person then thinks was their idea all along. Without something akin to this,Levine was incredibly difficult to persuade away from his original train of thought.
While an initial release window was set for 2017, this has obviously come and gone. The window has continuously been moved since and Levine gets away with this because of the leniency afforded to him by Take-Two Interactive, the parent company of Ghost Story Games. They sometimes check how the game is going but are reluctant to set a firm deadline, something that Levine seems to need. Ghost Story Games’ current employees believe the game is still at least two years away from release, but only time will tell.