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.