Inside Irrational Games: “For most of development there is no fun”
Ex-Irrational Games developer Morgan Jaffit explains the unusual way in which Irrational Games creates blockbusters like BioShock.
Back at the turn of the century, Morgan Jaffit joined a budding Irrational Games as writer and game designer. In the year 2000 and fresh from the success of System Shock 2, the developer opened a studio in Canberra, Australia. Jaffit joined the outfit, and began work on Freedom Force, which would come out in 2002. During that time Jaffit worked closely with Ken Levine, and in a recent interview on the GameHugs podcast, he offered some insightful details about Irrational Games’ early years and the way the studio goes about making games.
Jaffit would go on to work with Relic Entertainment and Pandemic Studios, before founding Defiant Development in 2010. The company has found great success with mobile titles Ski Safari (iOS and Android) and Heroes Call (iOS and Android), as well as the excellent Hand of Fate for consoles and PC. Here is what he had to say about his first years working in the industry with Irrational Games.
You worked at Irrational Games with Ken Levine. Was that daunting?
Ken wasn’t really the face of Irrational at that point in time. Keep in mind that System Shock 2 was an Irrational Games game, but it was actually badged as a Looking Glass game. Looking Glass was a development studio with a deeply storied history, and John [Chey] and Ken came out of Looking Glass to work on a Buck Rogers style of game that built on the experiences they had had at Looking Glass. Then EA came along and said, “hey, System Shock has done pretty well and we want another one.” Looking Glass said, “we’re too busy with other stuff” – which I think was Flight Unlimited 3 – but we do have a couple of old, ex-Looking Glass crew who might be interested. So EA went to [John and Ken] and said, “can you do System Shock 2?” and that is the project that started Irrational Games.
So when I started at Irrational, I wasn’t wise enough to be intimidated. And I was having my writing for Freedom Force edited by Ken on a regular basis. He would write the major cutscenes and I would stitch everything together.
So you were working pretty closely with him then?
Well as close as you can from the other side of the world. It was really just me flinging drafts at him and him sending them back saying, “terrible; rewrite.” The first one I got back from him just said, “this is all formatted wrong. Send it back to me when you know how to format it.” And he was right. I am a lot more sympathetic to it now than I was at the time, when it was quite crushing. But it did make me want to perform.
So I would wait on bated breath to hear back from Ken, which he would do in big blocks. Then I would walk through it all and work out what the changes were and what they meant and where to tweak the work. It’s the best experience I’ve had; it’s no surprise that people who have worked with Ken tend to go on to do really good stuff. It’s one of the best proving grounds in games.
So what was it like when Freedom Force was released?
I loved comic books, so it was such an honour to work on it. But the truth is, from the inside, I had no idea if we knew what we were doing. Because Irrational Games, and more broadly Looking Glass, didn’t make games the way most other games were made. These games are comprised of a bunch of systems, which are tied together. And you just keep building systems, and keep adding them together and interfacing them with each other. Then you shake that whole system until fun falls out the bottom. Which means for most of development there is no fun. And at about the point where all the systems start working together and it becomes fun, you ship it.
I always thought it was the other way around with games development, where you have to find the fun concept first before you develop it to fruition?
That is very much a way of making games, but it’s not the Looking Glass way. I would say it is fundamental to a lot of their games and the games coming out of Looking Glass alumni, that they were probably not fun for most of their development process.