Irrational Games, one of the largest and most successful video game studios in Massachusetts, said Tuesday it will close shop and turn over control of the popular “BioShock” franchise to a sister company.
Cofounder Ken Levine said he intends to open a smaller house that fits with the state’s growing indie development scene. Levine, who announced the move on his Quincy studio’s website, plans to launch a leaner venture focused on narrative gaming.
Irrational will lay off more than 100 employees, but Levine plans to retain about 15 people for the new project.
“While I’m deeply proud of what we’ve accomplished together, my passion has turned to making a different kind of game than we’ve done before,” Levine wrote. “To meet the challenge ahead, I need to refocus my energy on a smaller team with a flatter structure and a more direct relationship with gamers. In many ways, it will be a return to how we started: a small team making games for the core gaming audience.”
Levine’s change of direction is the latest example of small-scale game development taking the place of big studios trying to produce the next blockbuster. Cambridge-based Fire Hose Games said in November it would drop the traditional model of in-house development to become an incubator for indie game developers. It will offer stipends, workspace, and mentoring at its Inman Square office in exchange for a share of the proceeds from successful games.
Fire Hose expects some of its new tenants to be developers from larger area game makers that have shuttered completely. In one highly publicized failure, a company founded by former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, 38 Studios, went bankrupt in 2012. Later that year, Zynga Inc. closed its Cambridge office during a round of more than 500 layoffs nationwide. Boston-based Stomp Games closed last summer.
Meanwhile, small studios such as The Tap Lab and Proletariat of Cambridge are enjoying success by developing games for digital download, instead of trying to sell discs that gamers buy at big-box retailers. Reducing development and distribution costs makes it possible for a studio to turn a profit on a game that appeals only to a niche audience.
Boston is becoming a hotbed for this style of lean game development, according to Proletariat chief executive Seth Sivak.
“Boston is kind of a unique game ecosystem because you don’t have a huge studio here,” he said. “It means that Boston is very independent. Especially with the closure of 38 Studios and Zynga Boston, you have a lot of indie studios popping up.”
Levine’s new venture will not be truly independent. It will be owned by Take-Two Interactive Software Inc., which also owns Irrational Games. But Levine said it will follow the indie model of targeting core gamers and selling exclusively on digital platforms.
Levine founded Irrational Games with Jon Chey and Rob Fermier in 1997 and grew the business into a significant player in the video game world. The first-person shooter franchise “BioShock” is its biggest hit, generating more than $500 million in revenues since its debut in 2007.
Irrational expects to release the last update to “BioShock Infinite” soon and then hand the reins to 2K Games, another subsidiary of Take-Two Interactive.
Levine said some Irrational employees may find work with other Take-Two studios, and that he will hold a recruiting day for outside development houses to interview his staff.Callum Borchers can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @callumborchers.