[As always, Josh Sibley’s opinions do not reflect those of the JKP! group at large or, indeed, most reasonable people. Gird your loins.]
I’m glad that I sat on this article for a while. Recently Irrational Games closed, saying that Ken Levine and fifteen dudes would henceforth be working on smaller titles. This brought a lot of things into sharp contrast, the big one being that maybe AAA games on consoles ARE in danger of oblivion, just not for the reasons most reactionaries have stated. So my original thesis remains essentially unchanged: Yes, tons of studios have closed, and almost every single one of them was due to them being run poorly, doing something stupid, or being bought out, FORCED to do something stupid, THEN closed. There’s almost not a single instance of a game being really good, the studio being really smart, and then closing because no one cared… at least in my collection.
With that in mind, I thought it would be a good idea to go through my collection of games from last generation and see what’s happened to the companies that made them.
Okay, so here’s a picture of my game collection. This is what we’re starting with.
My collection is cut to about half when I take out the games that I either know for certain have defunct developers, or I’m unsure (not pictured but talked about: The Incredible Hulk, the game based on the movie, as it’s in one of those awful Gamestop cases). Some of these developers will no doubt still be in business, so they’re kind of moot.
A lot of the games whose companies are still going strong also put out incredible series that did well for good reason: Rocksteady, Ubisoft, Capcom (grr), Criterion, EA, Traveler’s Tales, Avalanche, and a couple others. They’re also not known for being dumb or lazy. That’s the key: None of those companies grabbed at one of the many shiny distractions that plagued last generation, the act of grabbing basically being an admittance of “I would really like to make the same amount or more money and not work as hard”. Soon after you take that attitude, down goes your company. And, as mentioned before, some companies just chose poorly on various things that deflated them, despite their best efforts. It happens, but it’s never indicative of lack of interest in games in general. Finally, some of these companies were just helmed by utter tools, entire toolsheds, a virtual Home Depot’s worth of tool-ness.
First up, let’s talk about the game that basically made me get the system and one of my favorites of all time: Crackdown.
Crackdown looks really dated these days, but there’s still nothing like it. No game has captured the addictive exploration and stunt shenanigans combined with open world base infiltration. What I’m saying is, that it’s really good. It also sold well, to the tune of 1.5 million copies by the end of 2007. So what happened?
Crackdown’s devs, Realtime Worlds decided that, after their success, Microsoft took a little too long greenlighting a second installment, so they did what any rational company would do: Immediately set about making a massive MMO in a time when everyone else was trying to make one too due to WoW earning money hand over fist, and they called it APB. Almost all of these me-too MMO’s failed, but none like APB did: Realtime Worlds shit itself and died a mere six weeks after releasing APB, a game that cost them $100 million to make. Had they just made a solid co-op open world game that wasn’t an MMO-constant-revenue-stream-cash-grab, we’d probably be hearing about Crackdown 3 by now.
Speaking of poorly run companies, this one’s pretty recent: Lucasarts, represented here by The Force Unleashed.
I liked The Force Unleashed. It had two things that almost always secure a purchase from me: new, experimental tech and Star Wars. I thought the story was way better than it had any right to be, flinging troopers around was a blast, and the material physics in the game is truly something to behold. So what happened?
Poor, shifting, unfocused management. Lucasarts mad long made the habit of teaming up with other teams to get their products out: Raven Software, Bioware, Pandemic (more on them later) and many others worked with them on varying titles to varying degrees of success, but Lucasarts themselves had a couple of massive successes: The Force Unleashed and Battlefront II were both at one point the best selling Star Wars games of all time. Instead of doing more of what they had been doing, the revolving door of upper management led them to make the Force Unleashed 2 quickly and shittily with a completely different crew, and to mistreat Free Radical so hard when they tried to develop Battlefront III for them, they bankrupted them. When Disney acquired All That Is Lucas, they took one look at this idiotic company and went “Uh, no”.
Next, let’s look at another game that I actually had a blast with, made by a company I liked: Mercenaries 2: World in Flames, made by Pandemic.
Mercenaries 1 on the Xbox was a pretty neat open world game that I rented but never got to finish. Mercenaries 2 has the distinction of having the biggest, bestest, Bay-est explosions of any game I’ve played to date. There a mission that takes place entirely on a big oil rig in the middle of the ocean, and it’s a full, multi tiered level. At the end of the mission, you call down a missile right on the middle of it as you jump off the side, and you watch the entire huge thing crumble into the ocean as you swim away. Not even Just Cause 2, king of Over the Top did something like that.
It was also one of the buggiest games I’ve ever played, and the only one where most of the bugs were beneficial: There’s a side mission that’s impossible unless the game bugs out and enemies stop firing at you, and you can re-collect money and collectibles just by flying over their general area in a helicopter. Still, it was a blast. So what happened?
It’s not quite clear why EA closed Pandemic. They were acquired in the same big swoop that grabbed them Bioware, and were shutdown in 2009 right after they released Saboteur. I don’t know how well that one sold, but its review scores are strictly in the mediocre column. Not a soul I can find was impressed with it at all, so I’m going to go ahead and blame it on that. Was it EA’s influence? Too big a budget? Poor timing? Straight up lack of talent? These things are rarely clear cut, but a mediocre game failing and its studio being shut down isn’t an indication of the AAA market not working, it’s just an example of someone’s best not being good enough.
Why, is that Stranglehold? It IS Stranglehold!
I picked up Stranglehold for 14$ used and it’s worth every penny. It’s a movie sequel as a video game, it’s a high-octane, arcadey Max Payne, it has some of the best destructible terrain I’ve ever seen on a console, and it has a dedicated ball-shoot supermove (well, it’s called Precision Aim, but why would you shoot the bad guys anywhere but their balls?). It is pure, shallow, gun-based joy. So what happened?
This one actually has a happy ending: Although parent company Midway shat its pants so hard its Mom had to come pick it up from school, before that happened Midway Chicago (the subsidiary that made Stranglehold) was sold to WB Entertainment and is now known as Netherrealm Studios, who has been knocking it out of the park lately. As for Midway, they were bleeding money constantly since the early 2000’s, well before any AAA console doom and gloom nonsense started.
Ah, Prototype. This one’s a sad tale.
So Prototype was developed by Radical Entertainment, who had done some Crash Bandicoot games and a Simpsons game. They also did Hulk: Ultimate Destruction which to this day is in my top five favorite games of all time, and was the best superhero game ever made until Batman: Arkham City came out. Prototype‘s a whole shitload of fun too. So what happened?
Activision happened, and the “crash of the Vancouver video game scene”. Long story short, Radical was their own little entity, doing really well, until they were snapped up by Activision. Under them they made Prototype, but several other projects were cancelled along the way, including multiple Crash titles, a Jason Bourne game, and Scarface 2. However, the bulk of work was done on a sequel, Prototype 2.
Prototype 2, contrary to popular belief, sold very well and was fairly well received. The only problem was that its parent company was Activision, and it didn’t sell world-endingly, pants-wettingly well, like the other big release from around that time, Diablo 3. Activision is notoriously arrogant and stupid, and thus downsized Radical for Prototype 2 failing to “find a broad commercial audience”, whatever the fuck THAT means. Radical isn’t gone, just heavily downsized and marginalized. Apparently they have something big brewing in the wings, though whether Activision will slice their heads off again for not doing Call of Duty numbers remains to be seen. This falls under the purview of being run shittily by a shitty parent company. Again, nothing to do with AAA games not being able to do well or lack of interest in consoles.
“Josh”, I hear you saying across the internet, “Why did you buy the freaking Watchmen game? Is your time and money really of that little value to you?”
Turns out, this game isn’t bad. The cutscenes, while using Nite Owl’s movie design, have an art style that apes the comic. The story is an interesting one, and very much feels like it fits in the Watchmen universe. For what was originally a couple of XBLA games, the graphics are actually pretty nice. The combo system is interesting (if a little cumbersome), it’s one of the few 3d same screen co-op beat-em-ups this generation, and who doesn’t want to beat up people in bellbottoms, afros and gimp suits? So what happened?
Watchmen: The End is Nigh was made by Deadline Games, and very little info is available about them, other than they folded shortly after making the game. They had done relatively little before this, most notably Chili Con Carnage. This seems to be a case of an unremarkable company doing their best on a property that was destined to not be well received. It’s a shame, because as far as “game based on a movie based on a comic” games go, this could have turned out a LOT worse.
If you ever managed to see a copy of Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard in a Gamestop and said to yourself “Who would have ever bought something like THAT?”, it was me. I would. I was the one person who purchased that game day one, full price. Not a great decision, in hindsight, but I bought it on principle more than anything.
Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard is the only game I’ve ever seen that is a full fledged parody/satire of gaming. Something like Borderlands or the older-yet-still-excellent Blood has lots of humor and references, but when you get right down to it, its goal is to be a kickass videogame. Matt Hazard as a pure game isn’t terrible, but its main goal is to lampoon the AAA videogame market. Some of the parodies are lazy, some of them are brilliant, but there is no other game quite like it. In theory, if Tim Schaefer can make mediocre games that fly entirely by the strength of the weird writing and worlds, a mediocre shooter can be elevated by its wholly original premise and the voice talents of Will Arnett and Neil Patrick Harris. So what happened?
As far as I can tell, Vicious Cycle Software is still around, subsisting wholly on Dora the Explorer and Ben 10 games. Either that, or no one has cared to tell their Wikipedia page that they’re out of business. That could entirely be possible, as their last listed releases were in 2012. If they’re still in business, they’ve resigned themselves to doing bottom of the barrel Ben 10 work.
Ah, the Ghostbusters game. Oddly enough, the second game on my list here that’s a game-as-movie-sequel.
If you like things that are good, this game needs only a one sentence review: This game perfectly captures what it’s like to be a Ghostbuster. That’s all you need to know as to whether you need to play this game or not (you do). My only gripes are minor ones: I wish the trap throwing was a little more meaty and solid feeling, I wish the pack upgrades didn’t alter the look of your proton pack so much, and I wish that they basically cut out every part of the game that WASN’T trapping ghosts with the proton beam, but I literally couldn’t have asked for more. So what happened?
Ghostbusters was made by Terminal Reality, whose original claim to fame was Terminal Velocity. They also made Fury3, one of the earliest Microsoft attempts at gaming. Fury3 was one of those early “3d is just getting its footing” flight sim alien shooters you probably tried to play on your dad’s work computer in 1995. In addition, they made both Bloodrayne 1 and 2, and they also made several impressive game engines throughout their lifetime.
However, three of their last games were Def Jam Rapstar, Star Wars Kinect, and The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct. All three of those games aren’t just bad, they’re legendarily bad, the kind of games that developers talk about around late night campfires as cautionary tales. “And on the end of the handle…. was a copy of Big Rigs! WOOOOOOOO!” Most game companies only have to fail once in order to die off: Terminal Reality failed hard three times before going down fairly recently: They closed forever on Dec. 12, 2013.
Enslaved. This is an oddity amongst the themes we’ve seen so far: A major game that didn’t do well at all, and a dev team who is still alive and kicking because of it.
Enslaved was one big missed opportunity. You could tell that it was done by a dev team that had a lot of big ideas and a lot of heart, because its major failing wasn’t that it was bad or poorly done, it was just unfocused. Climbing, puzzling, fighting, platforming, hover-boarding, it did it all, just none of it amazingly. In the end, the thing that killed Enslaved is that they took the premise they started off so strong with and drove it directly into the ground. So much of the game has completely beautiful settings and a heavy air of sad mystery and guess what? The whole reason for all of it is a pouty Andy Serkis in a tech pyramid you’ll never go to, the end. Oh, spoilers. So what happened?
Ninja Theory went on to do the Devil May Cry reboot that everyone was surprised to find out they loved. It made a ton of money and Ninja Theory was saved. However, this may soon change as their next project is a mobile only game for iOS.
I’m lumping in Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 1 and 2 into one entry here, because both developers are not only still around, but doing very well. Both of them combined are some of the best superhero video games ever made, and even Marvel Heroes that I’m currently all about doesn’t live up in several respects. So what happened?
Marvel:UA1 was done by Raven Software, who is responsible for not only that great game, but the incredible Jedi Knight II and Jedi Academy. They went on to do a little title you might have heard of called Every Call of Duty, so they’re doing fine. Marvel 2 was handled by Vicarious Visions, who have been steadily the go to guys for Activision’s milking projects, including all Guitar Heroes and all Skylanders spin offs. They’re not going anywhere anytime soon either.
Uh… what? Why do you own this, you might be saying. What could possess you to own a Marvel Movie game?
Well, The Incredible Hulk has the same open world shenanigans that Ultimate Destruction had, and while it’s not nearly as good, it DOES allow you to literally destroy every building on the island of Manhattan, so that’s new. It also has a lot of the Hulk’s villains, like the U-foes. It’s honestly not a bad purchase if you can get it for a couple bucks and just want some Smash Time. Also, U-Foes. Can’t stress that enough. So what happened?
Hulk was made by Edge of Reality, a company that’s done mostly ports (Most notably Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect on PS3). As far as I can tell, they’re still around. Seems like a steady stream of ports can keep you afloat if need be.
WET? WET. WET joins the very, very short list of games that I tried to play seriously and never beat. Not because it was hard, but because fuck this game. It would have been bargain bin fodder in the PS2 era, except it came out in 2009. I don’t even know how you make fun of that. Remember when you could launch a tactical nuke at a table with some bottles on it and have the bottles be as untouched as the bottom of the Marianas Trench? I thought we were past that shit, WET. So what happened?
WET was developed by Artificial Mind and Movement, which turned into Behavior Interactive. I almost feel bad for them, because they only have three games in their massive library that aren’t shitty Spongebob ports, and that’s Naughty Bear, Indiana Jones and the Staff of Kings, and WET. It’s clear they wanted to get out of the MySims Racing ghetto, swung for the fences and ended up hitting themselves in the face with their own bat so hard that three of the worst games of the last generation popped out of the resulting skull fracture. Hey, at least they all have jobs, which is more than I can say for some of the other people on this list who committed far less hateful crimes.
Now, we have a representative from one of the most egregious offenders on this list: Saint’s Row the Third and THQ. If you haven’t played Saint’s Row the Third, go rectify that immediately. One of the best games this generation, one that really captures the “fun above all else” mentality. So what happened?
THQ is tossed about as a big example of why the traditional console/publisher/AAA game framework is crumbling. After all, THQ had several profitable franchises going and they still couldn’t hack it!
THQ is lesson number one in bad corporate leadership ruining an otherwise good thing. As the story goes, THQ was trundling along fine, raking in money from various UFC titles and things like Saint’s Row II, as well as various licensed kids properties like Spongebob. Then, a couple of things happened: Number one, the bottom fell out of the market for console-based shitty kid’s games, as all of those had moved over to apps or in-browser affairs. Number two, THQ decided that the UDraw tablet they had released for the Wii for 70$ to middling success would all of a sudden be the backbone of their entire 360 and PS3 efforts, and invested so heavily in it that it literally destroyed the company. One point four MILLION UDraw tablets went unsold, leaving a revenue shortfall of about one hundred MILLION dollars. Simply put, whoever was in charge was a complete idiot.
Volition actually made Saint’s Row the Third, and have since moved over to Deep Silver, where they’re still knocking it out of the park.
Finally, we come to the newest entry, the one that broke my heart. My personal superhero company for years, Irrational games and BioShock Infinite.
What we see from that post and that article, when mooshed together, is that Take-Two was content to write blank checks to its superstar developer, and the head of the superstar developer used those blank checks to install himself into the five star Auteur Hotel, where he was no longer making a product, but chasing a vision. It happens to movies all the time, ballooning budgets to achieve the “perfect” end result, which doesn’t exist. Once that happens, failure is certain, unavoidable. Something as complex as games require a firm hand and a clear plan, and that’s something Bioshock Infinite didn’t have.
The first thing I did after completing Infinite was look at all the preview videos from all the previous E3’s, and I noticed the sheer amount of things that were cut. The things that weren’t cut were cutscenes. Setpieces that were part of the story, and not gameplay elements. It’s clear that Levine spent way more money that he should have thinking up and then discarding things on the fly, and also that his parent company let him do such in the first place. This falls clearly under “poor management”, just from multiple angles. So what does this change?
If Levine can’t wrangle the traditional AAA machine to come up with something that can be both a breath of fresh air AND under budget, then aren’t AAA games done? Isn’t it too big a monster to wrangle, collapsing under its own weight?
Nah. It’s not that the demand isn’t there, it’s not that profit can’t be made, it’s just that mistakes are more costly. Bioshock Infinite didn’t sell enough to be profitable, but it didn’t sell poorly. That’s an important distinction to be made. To be blunt, you can’t have out of touch corporate nimrods that insist their money means they know better than their talent running the show, nor can you hand a superstar a blank check and say “Do just like, whatever man”. You’ve got to be on the ball. You’ve got to have a publisher with a firm hand and the experience to not set sales projections through the roof just because they’re sort of following a formula, and you’ve got to have project leads that have a clear goal they’re shooting for and can get their entire team of hundreds of people working as one unit. This is not unlike THQ’s situation, except less dumb.
So that’s it. Some companies on the list went out of business trying to drag themselves out of the Nickelodeon game hell they started in. Some of them simply slid back into that pit where they will remain forevermore, barely profitable. Some did decent work and vanished, some did awful work and survived.
There are some running themes though. The bigger names who had done more than Dora The Explorer: Awkward Silence Master and tanked did so because of parent company shenanigans usually unrelated to lack of sales. The smaller studios that had saved up to make their own unique thing usually failed to produce anything impressive. And a couple names just made some absolute garbage that rightfully lost everyone involved their jobs.
If you take out the people being mismanaged from the top down, we’re not losing top tier, promising companies. We’re losing people that make Ben 10: Balls On Your Chin, and we’re doing so because they decided to compete in a AAA game market with AA or even A products. In other words, we’re not seeing the death of the demand for consoles or the death of the AAA game. We’re actually seeing the BIRTH of the indie game scene as a major force, a good stepping stone. We’re seeing the industry shifting priorities, changing, growing up. We’re seeing the game industry no longer being a subsidiary of the toy industry, where artists make their magic in between obligations to Spongebob Squarepants: Shut Your Fucking Mouth Already, but an industry of its own that’s not beholden to things like that anymore. Those shitty games have migrated off to the web and the tablet forever, which resulted in two things happening: The companies that relied on that kind of console business and weren’t quick enough to adapt died off, and the industry had no more time for middle of the road companies trying to make a name for themselves doing “so-so” titles. It’s morphed into an arena where you go big or go home. If that seems harsh, it’s not, because instead of making a WET or Enslaved, now you make a smaller but more ambitious title on something like Steam or iOS and make your name there, and maybe someday try your hand at something truly AAA. Consoles aren’t dying, they’re the place you go when it’s time for the big leagues, but the newly birthed indie scene is where you practice in the minors. These closures aren’t death throes, they’re growing pains. AAA development has its own pitfalls and perils as we’ve seen, but hopefully the people that labored all their lives under tight budget restraints will keep that sense of money and urgency in the future when they move on up.
We actually saw this happen with Matt Hazard. His first title was a console, disc-based affair. It didn’t do well, and his second title was an XBLA game (the exquisitely named Blood Bath and Beyond). Not sure how well it did there, but had Matt Hazard come out now as an indie game, it probably would have fared a lot better from the get go.
As for corporate mismanagement, well, that problem generally takes care of itself (in theory). The downsized people from, say, Radical Entertainment will go on to other companies and do great work for them, making our future AAA games better. The CEO that ordered one hundred million iSuppositoryU peripherals made because he saw how excited his 3 year old was about the Wii will drive his company directly into the ground, and those properties he oversaw and the talent therein will disperse, working elsewhere. Meanwhile, the CEO will go on to run a chicken company or something.
Everything’s not roses, however. To a huge, monolithic publisher, “You can’t do massive budget, AAA titles if one or both sides of the equation is going to be an idiot” looks a whole lot like “You can’t do massive budget, AAA titles”. THIS would be the death of the console market (and the PC market), not because there’s no profit in it, but because the industry at large goes “Eh, we don’t wanna. Too hard”. Nintendo’s been doing this exact thing while still trying to make mainstream video games since the death of the N64, and they just shat away billions of dollars because of it. A very real possibility for Nintendo’s next big step is getting out of games altogether. Games are screwed if publishers go “The risk isn’t worth the investment” and if hotshot devs go “The triple A game machine won’t let me make that game about reconnecting with my estranged father I’ve always wanted to make”. If that happens, games are done. Find another hobby. I hear Harrison has some ideas.
Some of you might be going “What about indies!?”, but while Braid and Broken Planet and Limbo are cute and all, the future doesn’t happen on a Kickstarter budget, the art form doesn’t move forward with sidescrollers, and you don’t create the massive virtual worlds that separate this art form from books and movies with a fifteen man team. Arkham City and Skyrim and Just Cause 2 and all the other big triumphs of this generation need big teams and budgets to be made, and those games are the ones that push the art form forward. Like it or not, AAA games give the experiences that make this art form its own thing. As incredible as Fez was, no one’s building on what that game accomplished to make something bigger and better. These small games are neat and worth your time (sometimes), but very rarely are they doing something that A) could not be achieved in a more economical manner via animation, film or even a comic, and B) isn’t jerking off over a genre that was last genuinely popular in 1989. The video game scene isn’t complete without both sides, the big and small filling all the gaps.
Ironically, my original last line for this article was “Don’t panic when the makers of Rugrats: Tommy Shit His Pants Because We’re All Babies goes out of business. Panic when Irrational or Naughty Dog goes out of business”. Well, fucking shit, Irrational just went out of business. That’s not nothing. Maybe panic a little? I think a little panic is okay in this situation.