Following surprising reports in May that "Bioshock Infinite" was being delayed until 2013, publisher 2K Games and developer Irrational Games are facing further suspicion of the state of one of their flagship franchises following rumors that key figures in the game's development are leaving the company.
On Wednesday, Gamasutra reported that two key figures -- Tim Gerritsen, director of product development, and art director Nate Wells -- were both leaving the company for unannounced reasons. According to Gamasutra and IGN, Wells confirmed his departure through his Twitter feed, changing his bio information to: "New Job ... Details to follow." The bio has since been changed again following some rampant speculation on the tech forum NeoGAF, though late Thursday afternoon Well tweeted: "Ignore the panicked press speculation. Trust me instead: #BioshockInfinite will be an unforgettably special game. (and quite beautiful)."
Wells has worked at Irrational Games for more than 13 years, winning acclaim for a studio universally praised for its dark, stylish, and cerebral take on first-person shooters, a genre often criticized for its sheer repetitiveness. Gamasutra reports that he briefly listed Naughty Dog, another critically acclaimed developer, on his LinkedIn profile in 2012. He has since removed that information as well.
Gerritsen listed his employment at Irrational as ending in August 2012. As the director of product development, he focused on "interfacing with our corporate home base and publishing partners, strategic level partners and vendors, conducting contract negotiation, strategic level planning, hiring and recruitment, and supervising our day-to-day development," according to his profile.
The latest round of senior employee departures came after 18 months of other high-profile departures, Kotaku reports, including design director Jeff McGann, producer Joe Faulstick, principal systems designer Ken Strickland, senior level designer Steve Gaynor and systems designer Tynan Sylvester.
Making the bad staffing news sound worse, Irrational then confirmed that two multiplayer modes were being cut from the name. But the company added that Rod Fergusson, director of production at Epic Games and one of the key developers of its celebrated "Gears of War" franchise, was joining Irrational to help finish the project.
Irrational was predictably cagey in speaking to the press about the news, but sources speaking to the videogame site Kotaku admitted that the development team was struggling to meet heightened expectations following acclaimed demos it unveiled at E3 in 2011.
"In a company of 200 people you're going to have turnover," Irrational's co-founder and creative director Ken Levine told Kotaku. "We never like to see a guy like Nate leave because he's been here for a long time, but it's been 13 years and I think sometimes people want to spread their wings. I'm not going to stop people. We love Nate and I think we all remain friends. After 13 years he sort of finished his work on BioShock Infinite, as you will be able to tell when you see the game again... I think Nate's moving on to something else."
Speaking candidly about the tensions the development team has faced, Levine admitted that some of the challenges in designing the game's more ambitious elements wore thin on the team. Setting the game atop a floating steam-punk mosaic of a city the player must rappel through with an intricate system of cables certainly didn't make things easy. And including a non-player character that responds dynamically to the players' every move strains everyone from the AI programmers to the scriptwriters (when I spoke to Ken Levine in April, he admitted the game was several times larger than either of the previous "Bioshock" games).
"It's always challenging when you're trying to make a game that does a lot of different things," Levine told Kotaku. "Trust me, there are plenty of things in this game -- either it was the Skyline or Elizabeth -- where there were movements in the team to get rid of them. Because they are the most challenging things."
Bioshock was originally set for release on PC, Playstation 3, and the Xbox 360 on Oct. 16, 2011. When the delay was first announced, Levine explained on the game's official website that, "When we announced the release date of 'BioShock Infinite' in March, we felt pretty good about the timing. Since then, we've uncovered opportunities to make 'Infinite' into something even more extraordinary."
The new release date puts the game in stores on Feb. 26, 2013. Gamasutra describes the title as "one of the most important games this fiscal year" for Take-Two Interactive, the delay may give the game a competitive edge for sales considering that February is traditionally a slower period for videogame sales. But it also places the game after the traditional holiday rush period that most publishers try to capitalized upon with their largest franchises (almost every "Call of Duty" is released year-over-year by Activision in November, for instance, part of the marketing savvy that helped the game shatter industry sales records).
"I won't kid you: 'BioShock Infinite' is a very big game, Ken Levine concluded in his initial statement on the delay. "We're doing things that no one has ever done in a first-person shooter."