20 Games Studios We Lost in 2012
This time last year, IGN ran a feature called ‘12 Games Studios that Died in 2011’. In 2012, while researching a similar article, we stopped counting about midway through the 20s.
Such is the nature of the games industry, or at least, life in the 2012 entertainment-tech economy.
Of course, each company or studio is unique, and so is the sad nature of its departure. But there are trends worth noting, and this list aims to highlight those trends. This year, there has been a flushing out of the mobile, social and MMO markets, a general tightening of belts among large companies and, of course, the dismal spectacle of studios getting caught up in economic and even political turmoil.
It’s worth remembering that, as well as these 20 companies, we counted a further 35 instances of smaller studio closures or significant lay-offs. The games industry was ever a maelstrom, but it perhaps serves some small comfort to consider that most companies, most of the time, are seeking to fill positions, and that, via innovations like Kickstarter and Greenlight, new projects new teams and new companies are always being born.
We have placed the following list in order of company longevity, with the oldest developer founded in 1973, and the youngest in 2011. This list is a selection of notable closures, but does not represent every developer that ceased work in the last year. It’s worth also noting that the end of a studio does not necessarily spell the end of the franchises that made its name.
Founded in 1973. Best known for Bomberman. Since its founding in the early 1970s, Hudson Soft has produced, in Bomberman, one of the greatest multi-player series of all time. As well as developing the Mario Party series for Nintendo, the company published the popular Red Entertainment RPG series Tengai Makyo. In the late 1980s, it worked with electronic giant NEC to produce a games console, the PC Engine (TurboGrafx-16 outside Japan). By the start of the last decade, the firm employed 500 people with offices in the U.S. But it spent the next decade being acquired and subsumed into the Konami family, to the point where its parent saw no need for the separate brand. In March, the company’s operations were rolled into Konami’s. In a blog post, product manager Morgan Haro wrote that the company had become a victim of the “Westernization of gaming”.
Sony Liverpool (formerly Psygnosis)
Founded in 1988. Best known for WipeOut. Psygnosis was the Brit-cool games publisher / developer of the late 1980s and early 1990s, producing graphically interesting games for the red-hot Commodore Amiga. Little wonder that Sony, seeking to launch the PlayStation games console and looking for as much credibility as possible, latched onto the Liverpool company for electronic-wondrous sci-fi racer WipeOut. Sony bought Psygnosis and the hits kept coming including Destruction Derby and Colony Wars, until things began to drift and Sony Liverpool became just another development outpost of a multi-national entertainment corp, churning out racers. The office is now used for low-level company-administrative and support purposes.
Founded in 1994. Best known for Desperados. Ravendale, an ambitious steampunk RPG, was due to be released this year. It’s been in development, on and off, for at least five years. But its developer, Germany’s Spellbound wound itself up and reformed as Black Forest Games, which has already released Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams for Steam and is planning same for PSN and XBL. The company was founded in 1994 by Armin Gessert, who coded the original and notorious Commodore 64 hit The Great Giana Sisters, a rip-off of Super Mario Bros. Spellbound went on to create the Desperados series of Wild West tactical combat games as well as Arcania: Gothic 4. Sadly, Armin Gessert died in 2009.
Founded in 1994. Best known for Apples to Apples. ImaginEngine has been making games for the children’s market for 20 years and has worked with franchises like Dora the Explorer and Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader?. Its version of board game Apples to Apples for Xbox Live and PSN, launched in 2011, was not well received earning average Metacritic scores in the 60s. Parent company Foundation 9 closed the company with the loss of 25 jobs, blaming a downturn in the kids and family market.
Founded in 1995. Best known for SOCOM. Zipper began life releasing PC games in the mid-1990s, but came to prominence with the launch of 2002’s SOCOM: U.S Navy SEALs. The PlayStation 2 exclusive showed off that console’s new online gaming service, offering the most advanced tactical multiplayer delights of the day. It became a multi-million seller. Inevitably, sequels followed. Sony stepped in to buy the Washington company in 2006. The company created a stir at E3 in 2008 with the first showing of a massive multiplayer shooter called MAG. Despite lofty ambitions it was received with lukewarm reviews and, in a market now dominated by other shooting franchises, unspectacular sales. Sony, seeking to save money left, right and center, closed the studio.
Rockstar Vancouver (formerly Barking Dog)
Founded in 1998. Best known for Max Payne 3. In the history of games we have so often seen studios being formed by talented, driven people, achieving success and stability, being sold and eventually closing by edict of accountants. It almost feels like a natural cycle, although this will be cold comfort to those who lose their jobs. People often wonder why studios don’t avoid the latter part of the cycle and retain their independence. Often, the founders are looking to cash-out, or are struggling with the grind of deal-making, lurching from one project to the next. Publishers are no respecters of tradition, because when they buy studios, they are usually buying a turnkey solution to a labor problem, rather than history or culture (even if the PR people do say different.). Rockstar Vancouver made Bully and then Max Payne 3, two good games, but then Rockstar decided to focus its Canadian efforts in Ontario and announced that its studios had “merged”. It probably doesn’t help that Max Payne 3 was severely delayed and, compared to certain other Rockstar franchises, barely registers as a profit generator.
Big Huge Games
Founded in 2000. Best known for Rise of Nations. Timonium, Maryland is a day’s drive from Rhode Island, but that wasn’t nearly far enough to save Big Huge Games from the widening catastrophe of parent company 38 Studios’ demise. Back in the day, Big Huge Games had been formed by Alpha Centauri designer Brian Reynolds to focus on high quality strategy games combining traditional turn-based models with more RTS-style elements. Its first game, Rise of Nations, was well-received and spawned an expansion pack and a sequel. The company was sucked into THQ’s mid-decade developer-acquisition frenzy, and then threatened with closure when that gambit didn’t pay off for the publisher. 38 Studios saw the talent and stepped in. But when that company went bust, it was all over for Big Huge Games. The good news is that Epic has formed a new subsidiary in Baltimore made up of many former employees.
Founded in 2001. Best known for Pursuit Force. When Little Deviants arrived as a Vita launch title, IGN’s Colin Moriarty expressed disappointment, in his review, that a game supposed to show off the handheld’s undoubted innovations showed so many inconsistencies. He scored it a six. The sense of deflation was intensified as BigBig had once been a solid developer for Sony’s original PSP handheld, best known for its driving-combat hit Pursuit Force. But Sony’s financial troubles brought the UK developer under the accountants’ gaze. Just four years after being acquired by the company, the studio was closed.
Black Hole Entertainment
Founded in 2001. Best known for Heroes of Might & Magic VI. Andrew Vajna, the Hungarian-American film-producer of such hits as First Blood, Total Recall and The 13th Warrior helped to fund this Budapest start-up, when it formed back in 2001. The team specialized in strategy games, with its first game Armies of Exigo (published by EA) followed up by work on the Warhammer license for Namco and finally, Might and Magic Heroes VI for Ubisoft. The developer ceased trading after the release of Heroes, with one anonymous employee placing the blame on Ubisoft producers and on the developer’s own contract negotiators. He or she claimed that the delays were Ubisoft’s fault but were paid for by the developer. “This project cost Black Hole its existence… while Ubi is making profit on Heroes 6.”
THQ San Diego (formerly Midway San Diego)
Founded in 2003. Best known for UFC Undisputed 3. Such is the perilous life of a studio that one deal can spell the end. This studio was originally created to sit alongside Midway’s corporate HQ, and worked on wrestling franchise TNA Impact. THQ, holding the rights to Ultimate Fighting Championship, picked up the studio when Midway went pop, and did a stand-up job with the license, but that company then lost the license to Electronic Arts, which announced its new victory at E3, while defeated THQ had to lay-off the entire studio. To the victors, the spoils.
Founded in 2004. Best known for ‘Firefly MMO’. The Multiverse Network was really a technology company, offering an MMO platform to other developers. But it also dabbled in the notion of publishing its own virtual environments based on popular fictional worlds, like Firefly and Buffy. Made up of Netscape veterans, located in the heart of Silicon Valley and funded to the tune of $7 million, the company even had James Cameron sitting on its board. It diversified into creating advertising-games for the likes of Coca Cola. But a lack of profits and finished games brought the company to an end, although its middleware source-code is still available via a group of non-profit volunteers.
Founded in 2005. Best known for Moto GP 10/11. Here is one of many UK-based developers on this list, but perhaps it’s a microcosm of the troubles facing developers around the world. Founded in 2005, the company sold low-cost MMO-creation middleware to other developers, produced its own browser-game, called Little Horrors, and developed the motorcycle-racing MotoGP series on behalf of Capcom. But it spent much of the last few years just struggling to survive, cutting staff and closing offices, finally letting its last 25 people go at the beginning of the year.
Founded in 2006. Best known for Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. Many of the companies in this wretched list ran aground on their own errors. Either they sold out to the wrong corporation, or they released a lousy game, or they just made a bad commercial bet. 38 Studios is perhaps the saddest story of all. These guys made a really, really good game, they were backed by a charismatic former sports star, they were funded by the State of Rhode Island. Sure, the company made mistakes, spent too much money, made too many promises. But what it all comes down to is copy sales. And when Amalur, an RPG released in the wake of Skyrim, at the tail-end of a console generation, sold only a million copies or so, it became clear that the costs of the venture were clearly never going to be recouped. The politicians ran. The media fed. The lawyers filed their lawsuits. The staff collected their things, placed them in boxes, and began looking for another job.
Ubisoft Vancouver (Formerly Action Pants)
Founded in 2006. Best known for Motionsports Adrenaline. Publishers often make strange moves that seem to make sense at the time, but later seem puzzling. In 2009, when Wii was flying, Ubisoft acquired independent developer Action Pants, which offered a stated specialization in Wii sports games. The company subsequently released Academy of Champions Soccer for Wii which was okay, and subsequently, Pure Futbal for other consoles and PC, which reviewed poorly. Finally, in 2011 it completed MotionSports Adrenaline for Move and Kinect, which IGN’s review described as “bad”. In closing the studio, a Ubisoft spokesperson explained, with Gallic sang-froid, “Unfortunately, we haven’t found the right formula for success for the talented team there.”
HB Studios Halifax
Founded in 2007. Best known for NBA Baller Beats. Nova Scotia’s HB Studio has been knocking out sports games since its founding in 2000, beginning with a cricket game, but eventually encompassing work on franchises like Madden, Tiger Woods, NBA Live and FIFA. During a period of expansion five years ago it opened a satellite studio in Halifax which worked on NBA Baller Beats, released in 2012. The Kinect game requires players to bounce a basketball in rhythm to music, and reviewed pretty well. But when the lease came up on the offices, HB decided to refocus its energies on its main HQ.
Founded in 2007. Best known for City of Heroes. When Korean publisher NCsoft, the wildly successful company behind Lineage, decided to expand into the United States and Europe about a decade ago, it signed up an MMO called City of Heroes from Cryptic Studios, followed by an expansion City of Villains. NCsoft bought the franchises in 2007, transferring the developers from the offices in Los Gatos to nearby Mountain View and calling the team NCsoft NorCal. The studio eventually took on the name Paragon. Although City of Heroes / Villains enjoyed a long run and devoted fans, turning free-to-play in 2011, it closed down this year, along with Paragon, with the loss of about 80 jobs, according to Gamasutra.
Founded in 2008. Best known for Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. In late 2011 EA announced it would be considering the future of one of its UK-based development subsidiaries Bright Light. The firm explained (in that inimitable way of corporations) that this would “help centralize development on future projects, reduce development costs and allow for better knowledge and talent sharing within the organization”. The developer had employed over a hundred people, but in January, it emerged (following a Develop investigation) that the studio had been closed down, with some staff re-allocated around EA’s studios. Bright Light had been formed in 2008 during an EA re-org initiated by chief-exec John Riccitiello. It worked on some casual games as well as three Harry Potter titles, none of which were particularly good.
Dark Energy Digital
Founded in 2008. Best known for Hydrophobia. If you don’t follow business too closely, you may find the story of Dark Energy Digital confusing. A UK company called Blade was founded in the late 1990s, servicing its local market with games about snooker. In 2008 the company management launched, with the same development technology and management, a new outfit, Dark Energy Digital, which eventually released Hydrophobia in 2010, to middling reviews. Reports began to surface at the beginning of the year of financial troubles and staff going months without wages. In February Gamesindustry reported that Dark Energy Digital had indeed entered administration, but was being replaced by a new entity called Dark Energy Publishing, headed up by the same people. We don’t know if the staff got their wages.
Founded in 2008. Best known for Def Jam Rapstar. When some Rockstar guys got together with a few Def Jam creatives at the tail end of the music-game boom, they began work on a hip-hop game called Def Jam Rapstar. Originally envisioned as a Wii title, its ambitions expanded to other platforms and to a large online / DLC campaign. Reviews were okay, sales were sluggish. In any case, by the time the game came out, the company had burned through a lot of cash. And then EMI showed up with a lawsuit, claiming its copyrights had been violated. So, when finally there was nothing left, the guys could only shake their heads and look back at what went wrong.
Founded in 2011. Best known for Tiny Invaders. Studios don’t always have to be large commercial enterprises, owned by multinational mega-corporations. In the age of the indie, the can appear as one-project entities, collaborations between friends. One such was Hogrocket, made up of former Bizarre Creations employees. The team released an iOS game called Tiny Invaders described by Edge as “not perfect, but it definitely brings a smile to your face.” After only a year together, the team folded. Co-founder Peter Collier explained the situation to Gamesindustry, “The three of us have all moved onto new things. This was due to a combination of factors, ranging from geographical to financial. It’s sad but the three of us all learned a lot.”
Researching this article using IGN’s news archive, we also found many other sites extremely useful, most especially the following – Gamasutra, MCV, Develop, Neogaf, Gamesindustry, VG247, Giant Bomb.
For daily opinions, debates and interviews on games you can follow Colin Campbell on Twitter or at IGN.