In March 2013, Irrational Games released BioShock Infinite, the third game in the bestselling BioShock shooter series. It should have been a triumphant moment — early reviews were strong, the game shipped millions of copies, and the developers started work on an expansion called Burial At Sea. But less than a year later, studio head Ken Levine called employees into the kitchen for an all-hands meeting. He told them that Irrational — the team behind one of the last decade’s most acclaimed and successful series, just weeks from releasing its final chapter — was shutting down.
Irrational is one of several studios featured in Press Reset: Ruin and Recovery in the Video Game Industry. Press Reset is the second book from Jason Schreier, a Bloomberg journalist known for his detailed inside looks at studios like Red Dead Redemption developer Rockstar. It’s a loosely connected postmortem of teams that worked on everything from ambitious roleplaying games to widely loathed freemium titles — often bleak but also intriguing, hopeful, and sometimes darkly funny. In an interview before the book’s release, I spoke with Schreier about how a volatile industry can move forward.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
What do you see as the biggest common thread between why the studios in your book closed and the biggest differences between them?
The biggest thread is always money in some way or another. It’s always like: “We ran out of money,” or “We don’t think that this is going to lead to enough money,” or “This is not going to lead to enough growth,” or “We need this money for something else.” It all comes back to just the flaws of unregulated late-stage capitalism and the issues that causes and the insatiable need for growth.
A lot of times, that’s oversimplifying it, though. One of the things that I found over the course of reporting for this book was that layoffs and studio shutdowns can happen for all sorts of reasons. Some of them are logical. Some of them are not so logical.
A lot of the practices don’t just seem exploitative; they seem really counterproductive. Like studios that will staff up a whole expert first-person shooter team, and then abruptly change direction for the game and hire a new team, and then switch back again and have lost all of the people that they managed to collect before. Are there rational reasons for that?
I was thinking about this a lot last night because last night was the NFL draft, and I’m a big fan. But one of the things that is so infuriating about the NFL and a lot of sports organizations is that the people making the decisions, the general managers and the head coaches, are on very short leashes. They know that if they underperform for two or three years in a row, they will get fired. It’s not in their best interests to be like, “Okay, what will this move now mean for our team five years from now, 10 years from now? Will it leave us screwed because we spent all our money on these players and they’re not actually very good, or will set us up in a position to succeed because we have all these extra draft picks?”
And I feel like the video game industry is very, very similar. Because you have these executives — some of whom might have the freedom to think about like, “Okay, what is the company like five years, 10 years from now?” But a lot of them have to think about their next fiscal quarter, especially these publicly traded companies where there’s not a lot of patience from shareholders.
If you’re not delivering on growth — and exponential growth — every single quarter, every single year, then you are seen as a failure to shareholders. It’s difficult, if not impossible, for the people making the decision to think in terms of, what is the studio’s roadmap going to look like 10 years from now? We have this messed-up system where people are rewarded for thinking short-term, even if it damages everybody in the long-term.
About half the book traces the genealogy of System Shock and the people who worked on things related to it like BioShock. Did that just happen as you followed leads, or do you think there’s something distinctly noteworthy about that lineage?
First of all, I think that immersive sims, because they’re critically acclaimed but tend to not sell exceptionally well, they tend to be tied to some of these big studio shutdowns.
But also, my first book was structured in a way where you could pick up any chapter in the book and read it and get a lot out of it without having to read the rest. For Press Reset, I wanted it to feel more like one ongoing narrative. And one of the things I wanted to do there was look at a company like [BioShock developer] Irrational and then trace back the lineage there with [System Shock producer] Warren Spector and then also look at some of the people who came out of that, and then look over to the side to [BioShock 2 developer] 2K Marin. I wanted this to feel like more of an overarching story.
There’s a tweet I like about how everyone who worked on BioShock went on to make their own BioShock.
I was pretty surprised at how much success in the indie sphere came out of the ashes of Irrational and 2K Marin. So many cool indie games can just be traced back to that same lineage.
And really, it all, I think, traces back to Warren Spector, who I think is a really fascinating person. I think he would want to give credit to other people as well, which is totally fair — like Doug Church and Paul Neurath and some of the other folks from that era. But a lot of people were inspired by his philosophy, which is very much the game-making philosophy of putting the tools in the player’s hands rather than the designer’s, which I think is has been incredibly influential on all sorts of games.
In the chapter about Dungeon Keeper, you allude to fans telling the developers to kill themselves in this incredibly matter-of-fact aside — like, “Yeah, that’s how the games industry works.”
I hope people pick up on that being as wry as it was.
What role do you think gaming fandom plays in the trajectory of the games industry?
I think mostly negative. But I think that also one of the interesting things about that chapter is that, toward the end, the folks who went on to make Enter the Gungeon after Dungeon Keeper found that they had their own Reddit community, and they were kind of wincing, bracing themselves for it, only to find that it was only positive responses and discussion.
But yeah, I think that the gaming community as a whole can be really draining for a lot of people. I think if you actually talk to a lot of game developers behind the scenes, a lot of them are very scared and exhausted by their audience.
At the same time, one of the themes of the book is that ongoing games that involve creating some kind of relationship with an audience are one path forward for developers.
There are a lot of people doing really cool things in that space. Like you think of Fortnite and other big moneymakers. But in the book, I talk about The Blackout Club, which I think is a really cool example of how game developers are doing creative stuff in that space — it’s essentially online interactive theater, which is wild to me.
I think when you do something like that, and you know it’s not going to be super big, there are ways to cultivate an audience of chill people and not have to deal with the shitheads that often show up when you’re dealing with bigger-scale things.
This is a thought that’s just occurring to me now, so it’s a little bit half-baked. But I think that one of the problems with internet communities is because they have no max limit, once they hit a certain size, they’re always going to bring in just shitty people.
If you were an online game developer and you were to be able to say, like, “I just want 20,000 people to buy my game and that’s it. I don’t want more than that. I don’t want to be a millionaire. I just want to have a bunch of good people who get what we’re trying to do,” then that might lead to something cool. But then you get into what I was talking about earlier, with this need for constant growth.
Do you think the pandemic has shifted the industry in a meaningful way — especially with remote work since one of the problems for a lot of the people in the book is that they have to move to a specific city for a studio and then they’re locked in there?
Yes — yes, yes, yes. I finished up most of my book probably a week before it started. And to see now, after a year and a half, that people actually have been able to be productive from home remotely — to make that potentially an option moving forward would really just change everything.
Because what I’ve been told is that that’s the worst part. Is not only not getting to see your friends again or having to look for a new job, but knowing that you might have to move 3,000 miles for your next job. That uproots your life. You might have to pull your kids out of school. You might just say, “Hey, I’m not going to do this. So I guess I’ll just have to leave the video game industry entirely.”
A lot of the burnout that I explored and talked about in the book is the result of that. And I think if game companies said, “You know what, actually we’re going to be a lot more accepting of remote work. We’re going to hire people from anywhere. It doesn’t matter where,” I think it would really just change everything and create a more healthy, sustainable environment for everybody.
Press Reset: Ruin and Recovery in the Video Game Industry will be released on May 11th.