Ken Levine has some hugely impressive games to his credit: Thief, System Shock 2, and of course BioShock and BioShock Infinite. None of them are exactly what you'd call small games, but it sounds like his next project will be. Levine said during an On Point segment on NPR (via Gamespot) that while nothing is carved in stone at this point, Irrational is currently working on a "sort of a small-scale open-world game."
Not an open-world game like Minecraft, though, or even The Elder Scrolls, but one that "fights against the linear nature of the games we made before, like BioShock and BioShock Infinite," Levine said. "What it really means though is, 'How do you make your content so it feels like the quality of the content you've made in games before but reacts to the players' agency and then allows the player to do something in one playthrough and something very different in another playthrough?'"
Levine said the studio began an "experiment" after finishing BioShock Infinite to help work out how to make games replayable and reactive without giving up the narratively-driven experiences of its previous games. The conclusion—"giving players different ways to approach the problems and really letting them dictate the experience"—sounds not too far off of Levine's earlier efforts, but interestingly he thinks that sort of game is actually on the way out.
"The triple-A, single-player narrative game is starting to disappear," he said. "Kind of games like BioShock. There's fewer of them being made. The real reason is they're very expensive to make and I think gamers are saying pretty loud and clear that if they're going to spend $40, $50, $60, they want an experience that lasts more than 10-12 hours. That's a lot to ask somebody to spend."
I would never presume to argue about game design with Ken Levine, but I do think it's an interesting perspective in a year in which Metal Gear Solid 5 and The Witcher 3 split our biggest "Game of the Year" awards. (And while we're at it, let's not forget a minor release called Fallout 4.) At the same time, I'm thrilled by the idea of Levine working his magic on a smaller but deeper and more well-realized game world. It may come to nothing—Levine admitted that the studio's work could lead to some "nasty surprises," and presumably a turn back toward more conventional design—and I'm certainly not about to give up on big-budget games, even if he nails it. But I do hope he nails it.