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Ken Levine: „You Can’t Be Completely Normal And Create Amazing Things!”

The creator of BioShock chatted with Mark Cerny, the system architect of the PlayStation 5, the PlayStation 4, and the PlayStation Vita at GameLab Live.

Levine is now working on something at Ghost Story Games, but it’s unrelated to BioShock (its new episode has been announced by Take-Two, but it takes time before it gets revealed). „When I get into a creative state, it can end up with me in a high state of anxiety. I have a problem with anxiety in general, but to get creative I start revving the engine up, and I’ll get on a run of having all of these excessive thoughts. You have to put yourself in the world of the game because you can hold yourself back at a remove, but I [need to] get the engine going… and I realise I’m also super anxious by the time I get to this state. But I need to get to that stage so I can come up with ideas that are different and will sound counterintuitive.

Sometimes I have to step back and say: ‘You need to cool the jets for a while because it’s gonna lead to other things. You’re gonna start getting cranky, you’re gonna start getting difficult, and annoyed at the people around you.’ I learned that” Levine said about his creative processes. It might sound that he could potentially create a negative working environment, he pointed out that art tends to be made by people who embrace their „strange” side. „You don’t come up with amazing things that nobody has ever said before by being completely normal. You do it by being a little bit off, a little bit strange… It makes me strange because I have to go to strange places,” he added.

And he worked on some classics, such as System Shock 2, Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite. Yet, he pointed out that people are necessary around him. An example would be Ghost Story Games’ art director, Shawn Robertson: „He’ll work with me, and he’ll try to turn it into something doable, but if you don’t have people at least saying ‘that sounds a little insane,’ you haven’t gone close enough to the edge. Because the great stuff exists just at the edge of over the top. Sometimes you have to push past that point and make something outrageous and ridiculous, and then pull it back. But if you don’t go to the outrageous and ridiculous, you don’t know where that boundary is… You’ve got to go past it, and you’ll tell people things and they’re gonna look at you like you’re insane. And then you bring it back to something you can accomplish,” Levine said.

Cerny admitted that he also tends to think as a producer, not just a creative director: „I have an idea, but how much time is that gonna take? And are we staffed appropriately for it? These are self-destructive activities, but the creative director… is supposed to have that bold, almost unachievable idea, and the rest of the team is supposed to be pulling the director back, and the director is supposed to be resisting it. That’s kinda my image for how the great stuff gets made,” Cerny said.

Levine admitted that he has „built up a little trust with Take-Two,” giving him „a little more leeway.” He also said that he doesn’t want a fourteen-month development cycle to ever happen again (it happened with System Shock 2, but he admitted that that game was something special). From 1998’s Thief: The Dark Project to 2007’s BioShock, he shipped seven games in nine years. However, after that, BioShock Infinite took six years, and since then, he hasn’t released his next title, although there are some mitigating factors behind it (the dissolution of Irrational Games as a large studio, and its rebranding to Ghost Story Games with a smaller team).

Levine also said that „an infinite amount of time” to develop a game can be dangerous, leading to some sort of paralysis, adding that he doesn’t want a producer who says „you can’t do that,” adding that he ensures to keep a team of people around him to reinforce his pragmatic side of the creative choices: „I’m also responsible for the financial health of the company… so I do wear a little bit of the producer’s hat.  I’m concerned about it, but I also know that if it’s not great, it’s not worth it. You can save a lot of money by making not-great things, but then you’re not saving any money. You’re going to lose a lot of money. How you figure that out — that alchemy — that’s the job, right? That’s the job. I don’t have the skillset of a producer, but I’m always interested in what’s expensive and what’s cheap,” he added.

He also said that the dev team has to be protected: a creative idea can have a human cost: „You’ve got people working on a product, and they’ve got their lives, and you don’t want to make them work for years when it’s unnecessary. They could be doing something else — and yourself too. I’m 53 years old. It’s not like I have a thousand of these left in me. I take it seriously, but again, everything I release, if it’s gonna take that much time and energy, I want it to at least have a chance of being something cool. Just getting it out of the door is not essential,” he said.

Before we comment on it, here’s a screencap of their chat:

Ghost lacks the H, and Mark Cerny’s C and the Cerny Games’ G isn’t capitalized, which is weird. Still, Levine is a creative mind: he’s not forcing himself to do something unless he finds it important what he does, so if he needs time to do something, then they make us wait, but in return, the product is excellent, even though he might be unusual during development. He’s not alone with it. His next game could be weird – we’ll see eventually.

Source: GI

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