Fallen Legends: Honoring Five Forgotten Titans of Gaming's Past
I can’t say I’ve ever been part of a failed game development studio (or organization). I count myself lucky in this.
There must be nothing more heartbreaking, more disheartening than seeing years of hard work, of creative expression and blood, sweat, and tears tossed by the wayside in the face of cruel financial reality. Such a thing is inevitable in virtually every industry, though: for every developer that succeeds, I can almost guarantee that there exists at least ten that have failed.
I can also say without any doubts that not all game developers are created equal. Some development studios, in their prime, are effectively kings among commoners. When these studios eventually shut down or fall from grace, the entire industry feels it. Today, I’d like it if we could all pause and remember a few once-great developers. Perhaps many of my readers might not be old enough to recall most of the entries on this list…but it’s never too late to learn.
Let’s have a moment of silence for five fallen titans of gaming’s past.
Best Known For: Ultima Online, surviving the Great Video Game Crash
Shut Down In: 2004
Founded in Austin, Texas in 1983, Origin Systems was the brainchild of Robert Garriott and Richard Garriott, two brothers whose ideas would come to dominate role-playing games for decades to come. Garriott had, several years earlier, developed the original Ultima, which at the time was a downright revolutionary title. The studio’s true legacy would come several years later after an acquisition by EA. It was at this point that the studio released one of the earliest and most successful graphical MMORPGs ever made; Ultima Online.
In its later years, the studio’s sole reason for existence was the upkeep and curation of the RPG. Eventually, EA disbanded the studio after cancelling plans for Ultima X: Odyssey.
Best Known For: Dungeon Keeper, Syndicate Wars
Shut Down In: 2004
Bullfrog Productions was originally founded in 1989 by Les Edgar and Peter Molyneux (note that this was before Petey-boy acquired his much-deserved reputation as a snake oil salesman). Over the course of its life, Bullfrog released a whole host of well-known and much-beloved strategy and simulation titles, the best of which were undoubtedly Syndicate and Dungeon Keeper.
The latter was Molyneux’s last game with Bullfrog, and was released at a point when Electronic Arts had already acquired the development studio. EA published Theme Park Inc. in 2001, which was the last title ever developed with the Bullfrog name. Eventually, the publisher merged Bullfrog with EA UK, effectively ending the life of the studio (but by no means the careers of the developers; many went on to become quite successful in the games industry).
Best Known For: Being one of the largest developers/publishers in recent memory to go bankrupt.
Shut Down In: 2012
I won’t spend much time describing the fall of THQ, as it should still be in recent memory for many of you. Everyone had known the massive publisher and developer had been ailing for a little while, with reshuffling after reshuffling from 2010 through to 2011. I don’t think anyone actually suspected things were as bad as they were. As a result, many of us were quite shocked when the organization filed for bankruptcy in November 2012, effectively ending over two decades of success in the games industry.
Thankfully, most of THQ’s best titles were sold off in an auction to other developers and publishers, meaning that, though the original developer may no longer be with us, the best franchises it owned will never truly be forgotten.
Best Known For: Pretty much every Star Wars video game ever released, along with some of the best adventure games
Ceased Development In: 2013
Most of you probably know all about LucasArts’ sale to Disney this year, just as you’re aware of some of the more popular games the studio’s been involved in. What you might not know is that the game development division of George Lucas’s media empire originally got its start making point-and-click adventure games…something it turned out the studio was very, very good at it. Things only got sweeter when it started tapping the Star Wars property to make games, and Rebel Assault was at the time considered one of the best killer apps on CD ROM.
Unfortunately, all good things must eventually come to an end, and LucasArts found its reckoning in the 2008 resignation of then-president Jim Ward, who was eventually replaced by Darrell Rodriguez. One independent studio described the months after Ward’s stepdown as an evolution from “the best working relationship we’d ever had with a publisher to one fraught with such abuse that the independent developer eventually dissolved just a few short months later, cancelling the in-production Battlefront 3. LucasArts eventually fell on hard times, experiencing an obscenely high executive turnover until eventually stepping away from game development after being sold to Disney.
The last game LucasArts ever released was Angry Birds Star Wars.
Black Isle Studios
Best Known For: Creating some of the best PC role-playing games the platform has ever seen.
Shut Down In: 2003
The 2003 shut-down of Black Isle Studios was perhaps one of the greatest tragedies PC gaming had ever seen. Amidst severe financial troubles, Interplay made the (incredibly foolish) decision to shut down Black Isle, laying off the entire staff of the studio in the process. This also resulted in the cancellation of Baldur’s Gate III: The Black Hound, Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance III, and the original Fallout 3. In the process, InterPlay also lost the Dungeons & Dragons license.
Up to this point, Black Isle was pretty much universally beloved amongst PC gamers, responsible for such critically acclaimed and incredible RPGs as Fallout 2, Planescape: Torment, and Baldur’s Gate/Baldur’s Gate II (which it worked with Bioware to co-develop). Although the studio was apparently re-opened last year (nine years after its original closure), neither ex-Black Isle employee Chris Avellone nor former Interplay CEO Brian Fargo knew anything about it. What this basically means is that, while the new studio will definitely bear the Black Isle name, it’ll be nothing like the studio it used to be; a ghost of a once-great developer.
That said, Project V13 does look pretty promising.
A gamer at heart, Nick started writing when he was a child. He holds a BA in English, works as a freelancer, and loves every minute of it. One day, he hopes to net himself a career in game design - but that's something for the future.
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