The Name Game

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet."

- Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)

At a table of a very nice and very empty hotel restaurant in Chicago on Saturday night, my brother Scott and I are arguing, in that "angry, but we'll be over it soon" way only brothers can pull off. The topic is Take-Two Interactive's decision to change the name of Irrational Studios, developers of the impending BioShock, to fit the 2K Games brand. 2K Boston and 2K Australia is what we should now use to refer to the critically-acclaimed and fan-beloved developer behind Freedom Force, SWAT 4, and System Shock 2. The very notion has got my brother livid.

His argument is as follows: Take-Two bought Irrational one year ago, and has largely left them alone. Now, just as BioShock is going to release, Take-Two's label 2K Games is going to claim all the credit for the title when it takes off like a fat kid running for the ice cream truck, and Irrational will be denied the recognition they so very much deserve. It's a sleazy business move, one that effectively kills off Irrational as we know it, and executives at Take-Two should be thrown into deep, dark holes, from which they will never escape.

Most of this is true. But I'm just not that upset about it.

After we get back to their hotel room, my brother explains that instead of seeing the news of Irrational's rebranding at one of the big news outlets, he first picked up on it at a post on Through The Looking Glass, a forum community comprising of members devoted to the dearly departed Looking Glass Studios, and any development teams or upcoming games that seek to follow in their creative footsteps. Irrational devs are worshipped at TTLG, bishops and cardinals in the organized religion the forum has created, which might make Irrational head honcho Ken Levine their Pope. Even in a community as level-headed as this, the thread about the name change is ruthless, posters furious that Take-Two would claim any credit for the eventual success of BioShock and sully Irrational's good name with brand recognition bollocks.

That's all we're arguing about here, though: brand recognition.

What surprises me more than the sound and fury at TTLG, however, is the resounding silence coming from other news sites. Evil Avatar members are surprised this is happening right before the game releases, but not ready to set the house on fire. 1up's news story, written by EA editor Phillip Kollar, is short and sweet, expressing little concern. Why is no one outraged that Irrational, in Scott's words, is dead?

One reason is that this sort of identity crisis happens all the time in the industry, often with little coverage in the press. Independent developers are practically purchased by the dozen by giant publishers like EA and Take-Two, and often rebranded to match their corporate parents immediately afterwards. Rockstar Games is often credited with the Grand Theft Auto series, but the games were developed by Scottish developer DMA Designs, who were bought by Rockstar in 2002, shortly after GTA III came out, and quickly renamed Rockstar North to build up the brand recognition associated with the mega-blockbuster. Rockstar isn't even a development company at all, but a collection of development studios owned by Take-Two, sharing one brand name. The general public hardly knows the difference.

Another reason for the lack of outcry is that, at least in the short term, this doesn't change anything for the consumer. BioShock is done, and all the blood, sweat, and tears that Irrational has poured into the game isn't going to change simply because the name has. All that is different now is what we're calling the talented individuals who designed, modeled, wrote, and birthed this game. The name may change, but the driving force behind the game -- Levine and his team -- is what's important. Tying the 2K Games label to a game that's going to explode like BioShock is nothing but a smart business move on the part of Take-Two. With no GTA IV this year, the company is going to need to ride the commercial and critical success of BioShock as far as they can.

Gaming has become a mature medium. Publishers and studios now matter far less to us than they did when Sierra and Infocom ruled the roost. Consumers think they know what an id, Rockstar, or Epic title "is like," but the industry has reached a point where the guiding hand behind a game -- the actual creative guy -- is becoming more like the director of a film. We won't care so much that 2K Boston made something -- we'll care that Ken Levine made something, or Will Wright, or Sid Meier, or CliffyB. Perhaps Levine should see this as his true beatification: he no longer needs the title, because he's going to be name-above-the-title from here on out.

Comments

I think this is even an issue because many of us come from a era when the developer was the face in front of the camera, the focal point of praise and identity. With the success of companies like Valve and Blizzard to dictate their own identity, and thus force publisher hands later, publishers are extrememly conscious of letting developers get "too big for their britches". Bringing a developer into the collective gives the publishers a position of power, and also defangs the developers in charting their own long-term destinies. Most of the time, this is fine because the market isn't really there for independent developers to survive the way a Valve has, and it has become just how the business works. If anything, it probably creates stability for the former Irrational Games, and extends their resources to go on creating games.

It has very little to do with taking credit, except that when players play a game and like it what they want them to remember is the publisher who released the game and not the developer who may leave or be bought at a later date. They don't want customers to follow the Irrational Brand, but to remember that 2K Games was in charge of Bioshock. It's the EA model all over again.

I think that you can see certain little touches that make the stuff from one director/developer come out with such a different feel than another. Like you said, as long as I know who's making it, it doesn't really matter what the company name is. You always hear about "the team that worked on Diablo II" and such in gaming news, so really - whether or not Irrational is called Irrational - the Bioshock team will get its cred among the gaming public.

Edit: misread the last paragraph, this is exactly how I feel on the issue.

I think you're right Demi and i also agree with what Elysium said too. It seems like (long ago) in the 80s and 90s the developers were around much longer.... there was less movement in the industry by individuals and so the developer's name became the watchword.
Now though the industry has become much more fluid and tumultuous. I still think that this era of consolidation will last for the next few years but after that EA, Ubisoft and Take 2 will have settled down more. Smaller developers will rise and disperse but fewer development studios will be bought outright. It's always been more important to associate the game with the people behind it... we just associated people with a singular place. But it's not usually like that in any other industry and it won't be for ours either.

this seems like the very definition of "tempest in a teapot."

Granted, I'm not a PC gamer, so maybe I just don't see what the big deal is. The console world has always had superstar developers who worked for giant companies, and GOOD games have always been recognized (if not by the public, then at least by the critics...)

I think the key phrase to the above article is "the general public hardly knows the difference." The reality is... the vast majority of people who need to purchase a game to make it a "hit" don't care one bit about who made a game, as long as it's a GOOD game. I'd venture that a vast majority of SIMS 2 players really don't know or care who Will Wright is. And really, why should they have to? As long as they're having fun... I don't think the average person is going to care who made Bioshock.

SommerMatt wrote:

this seems like the very definition of "tempest in a teapot."

Oh what brave new porcelain that has such leaves in it!

Edit: I agree, though. My first thought was that before the internet, I didn't have any idea that people got so upset about such small things!

The whole is composed of the parts. The parts comprise the whole.

Ok, let me get this straight.

Irrational decides to pick up a title that all the other publishers did not want. Take Two picks up Irrational precisely because the team there relentlessly pursues innovative titles. Irrational could easily, without TTWOs capital, have ended up as so much other Game Developer roadkill, and for some reason we are complaining about which of the Developer's labels gets put on the box?

In an era where it is better to have another version of Battlefield than take a chance on something new, I think we should all count ourselves lucky that Bioshock got made at all.

I have the impression that the greatest achievement, in a developers mind, is to be purchased and funded. Beyond that, beyond the workstations on the tables and the dental plans, the only satisfaction is the game. And 3 squares.

Please see GFW Dwarf Fortress article for discussion of "successful professor seeks penury, food, and company of programmer brother". They may be brilliant, but they ain't ever gonna pay a "co pay" to a doctor.

It is very much a reality that publishers will take the credit simply because it is the publisher that normally takes up the financial tab or at least the lion's share. There are exception however such as the recent meeting of Flying Lab Software and Sony Online Entertainment. SOE did not finance the project Pirates of the Burning Seas and hence does not own any of the IP. They are simply pressing and distributing the game to stores. So it is possible to keep the publishers out of it even in today's world. The game developers with their IP and hard work just need to choose the correct publisher and make sure they have alternative backers.

As for the console market they can't really be compared closely with the PC gaming market. Never is a console game released with independent money without a big stamp of ownership from Sony, Nintendo or Microsoft. Since there is so much more hardware involved in console gaming and since distribute via internet has just come about with Live (Microsoft), there really isn't any other choice in the matter. It's not like you can make the discs yourself and sell them online for an Xbox 360 game. Meanwhile you can burn CDs or DVDs with your fully working game and distribute it online with your PC game. It might not be the best method but at least it's possible.

Eidos killed Looking Glass Studios with the Candlestick in the Library.

Interesting take on the situation, but I think it's a little optimistic. The people that are going to recognize names like Ken Levine and Will Wright are also going to know that Take Two had little to nothing to do with making BioShock.

It'd be nice to think that in the future we'll have people talking about "Levine" games the same way they talk about Tarantino films, but I think gaming is going to have to become accepted as an art form before that happens. Corporations seem to think any game could be made by any group of people. Vision doesn't come into it because it's a toy and a product, not a piece of art.

Let's take perhaps the biggest example: Blizzard. Blizzard created a geopolitical entity (WoW) and a national sport (Starcraft). If the average guy on the street knows the name of one game company (other than Rockstar, maybe), it's Blizzard. Yet when Bill Roper, the Schaefers and the others left, the public didn't notice. All that was left was the art team and SOME of the philosophy, but it's still just "Blizzard."

If Tarantino stopped making films, would people follow his camera crew?

2K Games certainly has the right to do this, but I think it bodes poorly for the Irrational team. If 2KG was intending to keep that team intact, they'd have left the Irrational brand on it, because it's a strong point of recognition.

The fact that they've taken it off leads me to predict that the studio will be closed before too long. Irrational is a wholly owned brand, so the only reason not to use it if it's going to go away. I think, as a reward for the struggle and sweat, the devs are likely to get pink slips.

Oh, and Lobster says:

Yet when Bill Roper, the Schaefers and the others left, the public didn't notice. All that was left was the art team and SOME of the philosophy, but it's still just "Blizzard."

I noticed in the WoW expansion. I said at the time that it felt like it had been done by a bunch of second-rate devs; I believe my assumption at the time was that the leads were off working on the Next Big Thing. I didn't realize they'd actually left... but it was pretty damn obvious they weren't working on WoW anymore.