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Zipper Interactive

Remembering studios that closed in 2012

Dec 22 // Sterling Aiayla Lyons
Hudson Soft Founded on May 18, 1973, Hudson Soft has been a force in this industry for so long that it seemed as if it would always be around. By 2003, the company had over 500 employees, with studios in both Tokyo and California. Throughout its history, Hudson designed a vast amount games and characters, including the iconic Bomberman, as well as less-iconic-but-still-identifiable Bonk. This story was one that was drawn out, as last year saw the closure of the offices in California. The final nail would come this year, when even the Tokyo offices would also be shut down. It’s something that is definitely heartbreaking for many a fan of the company's works, as well as people who loved the classic bee logo -- doubly for people in both categories like me. With the closure came the announcement that Konami would be absorbing what was left of Hudson, and retiring the name. So while the cute bee might be put out on the rocker on the front porch, hopefully the properties that bee ran won’t be neglected in the future. THQ & THQ San Diego Yesterday we reported that THQ had filed for bankruptcy. The company may not intend to reduce its workforce size during this period, but it's not a very optimistic situation. In March, the company reported a net loss of $239.9 million for the end of the fiscal year, which was over $100 million greater than the previous year's loss. Shortly after, THQ publicly made a deal with Electronic Arts to sell off its license to the UFC franchise. This directly lead to the closure of the THQ studio located in San Diego, the team behind the UFC games. This is one of those times that just goes to show you how fragile some things are in the industry. One deal sealed the fate of a whole studio, and all the workers there. While this might not be the end for THQ yet, the company's long-term survival is by no means guaranteed. I don't usually root for a publisher, but my heart is out for this one, if only for Saints Row 4. Black Hole Entertainment Black Hole Entertainment might be known for a few different games. It developed a couple of Warhammer games: Mark of Chaos and Black March. The company's most notable recent achievement would be Heroes of Might and Magic 6, which can be claimed as the reason for its downfall. Shortly after filing for bankruptcy, an insider from the company came out with claims that Ubisoft, the publisher they worked with, was at fault. The claims laid down include a lack of accountability from Ubisoft for missed deadlines, consistently sudden changes and feature removal demands by Ubisoft, and Ubisoft restructuring the key development team numerous times. Supposedly, the penalties from the missed deadlines, as well as the losses from money spent on features taken out of the game after completed made it so that an unreasonable 200 million copies needed to be sold before Black Hole would see any profit. Whether these claims are true is unknown, but the fact that the company went bankrupt still remains. Radical Entertainment Radical Entertainment is mainly known for the recent series Prototype, but it has been around since 1991, getting passed between multiple publishing companies through its history. There were layoffs, and many claimed that these layoffs lead to the crash of the Vancouver game design market. It was the oldest studio located in Vancouver, after all. This story happens to have a silver lining, as it appears that the company is still partially intact, functioning as a support studio for Activision Blizzard. Rockstar Vancouver/Barking Dog Rockstar's Vancouver studio is known for Bully and the recently released Max Payne 3. Shortly after the release of Max Payne 3, it was announced that Rockstar would be dissolving the studio to refocus its efforts in Canada on its Toronto-based studio. This story does not bring the saddest news of closure though, unless you're someone complaining about the decline of the Vancouver market. All 35 of the Vancouver employees were offered positions within the Toronto studio. With the additional claim of more positions being created afterwards, hopefully this leads to big new projects coming from those folks. Sony Liverpool/Psygnosis Sony Liverpool, perhaps better known as Psygnosis, is the studio behind the WipEout series. At the start of the year, Sony Worldwide Studios came out with an announcement that they would be restructuring the Liverpool studio. Many of the projects they were working on were halted as a result. It wouldn't be until August when the announcement finally came about the studio's closing. The studio employed roughly 100 people across two development teams. The studio was reportedly working on two projects at the time, each for the next-generation Sony console. While the facility at Liverpool remains functional, it is only to house other Sony Computer Entertainment Europe departments. The status of the two projects, one being a new WipEout, is unknown. BigBig Studios BigBig Studios, I feel, is mainly known for Pursuit Force, one of the better launch games for the PlayStation Portable. The studio was formed from a core team of four former Codemasters employees. Sony acquired the studio in 2007, and assigned them to work exclusively on games for the portable system. That might have been the major component in the downfall of the studio, due to the generally dismal life of the portable device itself. The last game they made would be the recent Vita game, Little Deviants which released to less-than-stellar reviews. The studio would be shut down at the beginning of the year as part of restructuring of Sony's European studios. Zipper Interactive Zipper interactive started out making computer games before it became tied to the franchise that would rule the company for the most of its life span, SOCOM. In 2006, the studio was acquired by Sony Computer Entertainment and would go on to make games exclusively for the PlayStation brand.  Not to let SCE Europe have all the fun restructuring studios, SCE Worldwide Studios announced in March that Zipper Interactive would be shut down. The reason given was that it was part of a normal cycle of resource re-alignment within Sony. The studio had roughly 80 employees at the time of closure. Its recent games, SOCOM 4, MAG, and Unit 13 are still going to be supported, according to Sony. Paragon Studios NCSoft is one of the few companies that almost exclusively deals in MMOs. Of course, most of that is acquiring studios that make those kind of games and just putting the monetary system on top of that. There are two things that usually happen. Either the game becomes too bloated to sustain from a financial standpoint, or the people calling the shots shift their focus to something "new." Such is the case with City of Heroes, which was finally shut down this year, much to the outrage and disappointment of its players. The really sad part comes with the liquidation of Paragon Studios, the developers behind the game. As of now, I don’t exactly know what happened to the folks who worked there, whether they were reassigned, or just let go entirely. At the very least, I hope that they are all still out there making games. 38 Studios and Big Huge Games 38 Studios started in 2006, originally named "Green Monster Games." Founded by Baseball star Curt Schilling with a dream to make his own MMO, he seemed to start out the right way, hiring talent that had great experience in the game world. In addition to writer R.A. Salvatore and artist Todd McFarlane, former general manager of games at Comcast Jennifer Maclean, former lead engineer at EA Jon Laff, and a former lead designer of EverQuest Travis McGeathy were in the employ of the studio. To further bolster the prestigious talent base of the company, 38 games acquired studio Big Huge Games, of Rise of Nations fame. The single-player RPG that BHG was working on at the time would be turned into a tie-in to Schilling's MMO. It all looked like it was going the right way, and in 2010, the studio received a $75 million dollar guaranteed loan from the state of Rhode Island to relocate their business to the state, in the hopes of creating new jobs. In February of this year, that RPG would see release in the form of Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, which received favorable reviews. A missed loan payment just a few months later, and very shortly after, the entire 379 person workforce was laid off, with 38 Studios entering bankruptcy. Schilling and his studio has come under investigation since then for criminal charges, though at the time of writing, no federal charges have been filed against him. A state-level investigation is still underway. As for the folks under Big Huge Games, they're still happily together as Epic Baltimore.
Studio Closures in 2012 photo
Taking a sec to pay respects
This year was great in general for videogames. Beyond the predictable success of games like Halo 4 and Call of Duty: Black Ops II, there were a ton of hits that came out of nowhere, including not just big publisher titles, bu...

Review: Unit 13

Mar 06 // Jim Sterling
Unit 13 (PS Vita)Developer: Zipper InteractivePublisher: Sony Computer EntertainmentReleased: March 6, 2012MSRP: $39.99 Unit 13 could be considered a spiritual successor to SOCOM, given that it plays similarly and revolves around the same grounded, military-based scenarios as seen in Zipper's previous titles. At heart, this is a cover-based military shooter with no higher ambition than to be just that. If you like military shooters, you've certainly come to the right place. If you don't, then you can safely jog on. What sets Unit 13 apart isn't so much the way it plays, but the way it is presented. Rather than let any actual story get in the way, Unit 13 is split into a number of missions that can be played out of sequence, and a choice of characters with their own unique set of weapons and skills. There's definitely a premise, concerning an elite group of soldiers and some terrorists, but it's all easily disposable fluff. There are thirty-six main missions, although most are locked until other missions have been beaten, and each one can be played solo or with an online co-op partner ... provided players input an online pass.  Missions aren't simply a case of shooting everything that moves. There are a number of objectives to complete in each level, ranging from assassinations to rescues to bomb disposals. In addition, missions are split into special categories, each with their own unique conditions for victory or failure. These categories -- Direct Action, Covert, Deadline, and Elite -- are designed to exploit the strengths of certain characters, and can be very strict about their conditions. [embed]223201:42948[/embed] Direct Action is the simplest type of mission, based around multiple objectives with no specific restrictions. In Covert operations, players cannot trip any alarm systems or get spotted by cameras, and they'll need to quickly take out enemies if spotted. Deadline sets a strict time limit on the player and favors characters that can pack a lot of firepower. Elite is by far the toughest type of mission, since the ability to passively regain health has been taken out and players can only heal at specific checkpoints. Given how few bullets even the toughest character can absorb, it's generally a good idea to never get hit, and it can be as difficult as it sounds. In addition to the thirty-six main missions, there are also nine High Value Target operations, unlocked by earning rank stars in the regular stages. These special assassinations pit players against increasingly protected terrorist soldiers and almost act as boss levels. They get very challenging very quickly, and represent some of the largest obstacles in the game. Once beaten, they can be sent to other players who might not have unlocked them yet, which is a cool little feature.  This impressive selection of content is rounded out by a daily challenge. This is a unique mission that can be obtained and completed once a day by logging into the PlayStation Network. The daily mission, as well as all other stages, are tied together by local and global leaderboards, so players are constantly competing for highest missions scores. For the most competitive players out there, the daily challenges alone ought to provide near endless replay value.  Speaking of which, each of the available missions can be played in "dynamic" mode, which randomizes the objectives and once again adds as much replay as the player can stand. Each of the game's characters can also be leveled up ten times, gaining unique scoring abilities and unlocking extra weapons or upgrades. It has to be said that Zipper did a great job of providing plenty to do.  The structure of Unit 13 is terrific, and perfectly suited to a portable experience. Once the actual meat of the game is torn into, however, things are a little less consistent. For the most part, this is a solid cover-based shooter with an enjoyable, if predictable, range of objectives and plenty of masked terrorists to kill. The Direct Action and Covert missions are especially entertaining, as is the scoring system that constantly rewards players for headshots, bomb disposals, and more flavorful methods of taking out the enemy. However, random difficulty spikes, spotty enemy behavior, and a number of poorly thought-out missions dish out just as much frustration as amusement.  Enemy behavior in certain missions can be especially irritating, especially on levels where they will constantly spam the room with grenades. Even worse is the fact that these grenades have a pretty large radius and will one-hit kill the player if stood anywhere within it. Enemies are also not afraid to break cover and harass the player with shotgun-toting soldiers that turn characters into kibble within seconds, and there are even stages with respawning opponents. These little tricks aren't random, either -- they've been specifically designed for certain missions, and they make those missions thoroughly objectionable.  It doesn't help that, despite having several characters to choose from, only a handful are useful. In fact, the Gunner character should be the default choice for everything except covert missions. Unit 13 "helpfully" recommends an operative for each stage, but its recommendations are best largely ignored. Sorry, but the chap with the shotgun designed for close encounters has no place on an Elite level -- or, in fact, any level, given how combat is designed to only slaughter those who don't stay a wise distance from the enemy. At times, the strict restrictions placed on Deadline and Elite missions can lead to failures so annoying that one has to resist tossing the Vita at a wall. Even without the harsh conditions imposed on the player, they're just not all that fun. They feel needlessly stressful and amount more to work than anything enjoyable, especially on the longer missions that can take a considerable amount of time to do. While covert stages are well thought out and Direct Action provides simple, no-fuss excitement, the two alternative modes can be a real drag. That said, however, the co-op function goes a considerable length toward mitigating these problems, and it's highly recommended that you go into Deadline and Elite with a partner. Not only do missions go by a lot faster with two guns blazing, enemies can be smartly outflanked, and players are able to revive each other, providing an appreciated second chance to scrape out a win. This extra advantage helps make each mission a lot more pleasant, especially with the fact that the Vita's built-in mic and speakers can be used to deliver some surprisingly effective voice chat. Co-op games run smoothly -- though I had to reset my Vita in order to get matchmaking to work at one point -- and generally a lot of fun can be had teaming up with a friend in order to smash those objectives.  Another note of praise must be reserved for Unit 13's controls. As expected, Zipper has exploited the expanded input to provide a traditional experience, with right-stick aiming that serves the kind of shooter experience players expect. However, what really impresses me is the elegant way that touch controls have been integrated into the system. Players can touch a symbol onscreen to toss a grenade, and contextual icons also appear on either side to push buttons, disarm bombs, or vault over cover. These icons have been beautifully positioned right by the D-pad and face buttons, so that they feel like a natural extension of the normal controls, and are incredibly comfortable to use. Along with Mutant Blobs Attack, Zipper's debut performance stands as a shining example of how touch controls can be used to enhance a game, rather than get in the way. All it takes is a little subtlety, and I believe Zipper's handled it wonderfully.  Unit 13 isn't exactly Uncharted: Golden Abyss, but it's far from the ugliest Vita game on the market. While environments are fairly sparse and mundane, character models are nicely detailed, and there are some suitably pretty explosions at the right moments. I have noticed a few visual glitches, most notably with enemy soldiers becoming stuck in a cover transition animation, skipping up and down rapidly until shot at. Those players sick of brown military shooters won't be wowed by the art direction either, which is as ordinary and unremarkable as any other entry in the genre.  It's hard to say for sure, so early into the Vita's life, whether or not Unit 13 will be an essential game. There are yet no comparable experiences with which to draw from, and while Zipper's game impresses with its snappy presentation and nicely implemented controls, there's no telling how it'll look next to similar games released in future. Is this the best the PS Vita will be able to give the third-person shooter genre, or will something better come along to make this game look outmoded and poor?  These questions come up because one needs to decide which of Unit 13's setbacks are a result of design or hardware, and there's no way of telling how we'll look back on it. Saying it's great "as far as portable shooters go" will become retroactively silly if a far higher standard is met in the future. Right now, Unit 13 is unequivocally the best portable shooter available, due in large part to the PlayStation Vita and its new controls. However, there are certainly a number of aggravating issues with the mission structure, and the gameplay itself is fairly ordinary and likely would be considered highly forgettable by home console standards. Unit 13 is the best because it is first, not necessarily because it is particularly great. With that in mind, one can only really look at what it provides on its own, right now, and that's a sleekly structured collection of portable shooting missions that won't set the world on fire, but definitely provide some entertaining handheld thrills. When Unit 13 is fun, it's really very fun. When Unit 13 is not fun, it becomes far too much like hard work. Overall, however, the revelry outweighs the rage and with an embarrassment of content, not to mention some cool cooperative action, Zipper Interactive's first Vita outing scrapes by with a net win.  In years to come, Unit 13 will likely not be remembered by a great many people, but for right now, it's a good indicator of what the future of console-equivalent experiences will feel like on Sony's newest portable. The future's looking promising. 

Zipper Interactive is generally regarded to have done a pretty exemplary job when it came to providing staple console experiences in a portable format. Despite the input limitations of the PlayStation Portable, Zipp...


Hands-on with Zipper's Unit 13 on the PlayStation Vita

Dec 15
// Keith Swiader
If there's one misconception that I hate about portable gaming, it's that both gamers and developers (some, not all) feel that a game made for a handheld should have the same bells and whistles of a console game. Not only tha...

Unit 13 is a PS Vita game with guns and shooting

Nov 23
// Jim Sterling
Zipper Interactive has revealed Unit 13, a squad-based shooter aiming to arrive in time for the PlayStation Vita's launch. This trailer shows of everything you need to know -- which isn't hard considering all you need to kno...

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