The landscape of gaming companies is vastly different than it was ten years ago. Then, it was a world ruled by names like Acclaim, Hudson Soft, and Interplay. These companies were titans in the industry, seemingly too large to be defeated, even by the hardiest of contenders.
Yet all three have fallen, some meeting their demise in more grisly ways than others. Some are dead and gone, while some hang on as shells of their former selves. How could this happen?
Itís easy to suggest that these companies died a natural death at the hands of time, disappearing simply because the progression and evolution of the gaming industry demanded it. But I say that thereís more to it than that. No gaming company has to die, nor does it have to give up even an inch in the struggle to reach and stay at the top. No, every game company dies for a reason, and each of their downfalls should stand as a warning to the established and emerging giants of today.
So get out your tissues, guys and gals, and letís delve into the depressing stories of some formerly beloved monsters of game making.
Hudson Soft: The zombie of gaming companies
Calling Hudson Soft a zombie is perhaps the best way to describe its current state: itís technically still animated, ambling around the games industry mostly in the shadows, but it certainly isnít what it used to be before the outbreak. But when Hudson Soft was great, you could hardly ignore it.
Hudson was the first of Nintendoís third-party partners in 1984, when it released Lode Runner for the Famicom. What followed was a torrent of memorable NES games, including the long-running Bomberman series, starting with the first Bomberman game in 1985. There was Adventure Island, Bonk (one of the weirder and more awesome platformers of the time), Faxanadu, mother fucking Xexyz, and Felix the Cat. Sure, not all of these were great games, but itís hard to argue with the fact that Hudson Soft had a huge presence in the industry.
However, by the time the SNES came around, Hudson Soft had already started to decline. Super Adventure Island was released in 1992 to mixed reviews, and things were never the same. The company released a few other games for the SNES that no one cared about, about by the time that the N64 came about, Hudson Soft became the Mario Party company, developing those games and pretty much nothing else of note for many years. Today, little has changed.
So, what the hell happened?
In the case of Hudson, thereís probably no one reason that their decline happened, but hereís how I see it. In 1994, Hudson developed the semiconductor chip for NECís PC-FX console. Never heard of it? Neither had I. The PC-FX was the successor to the TurboGrafix-16, which Hudson also created. Anyway, the PC-FX was a huge failure: it was huge, poorly designed, and had extremely lax quality control, meaning that the console was overrun by hentai games and garbage. The console sold just under 100,000 units, lasted for three years in Japan, and was never seen anywhere else.
Obviously, this was a bad move for Hudson, and thereís almost certainly a correlation between this and the declining quality of their games. If you look back, Hudsonís software began to drop off considerably in - you guessed it: 1994. It took a chance on the hardware side of things, and it didnít pay off. This gamble essentially killed its chances of remaining a major player in video games.
Sure, Hudson Soft is still around today: they do some Virtual Console stuff and mobile gaming, and they released Deca Sports in 2008. But the chances that weíll ever see them return to greatness are slim. Theyíre now too far behind to really consider development for anyone but Nintendo, thanks to their strong ties and weak financial status; Hudson Soft president Michihiro Ishizuka said in 2008 that he felt that developing for the PS3 was too costly.
Hudson Soft is both an example of bad luck and bad planning. Had the PC-FX been a smash hit, perhaps Hudson would be huge today. But why take the risk? The TurboGrafix-16 was a relative success, though not on the level of the SNES and Genesis, especially thanks to a lack of third-party support in North America. It seems rather short-sighted to believe that the company could survive despite having no success with its hardware in North America.
The lesson? If you make games, donít dick around with hardware unless youíre really sure that you can pull it off. Starting with hardware and getting into games can work - but itís not so likely the other way around.
Boomshakalaka! Acclaim gets jammed
Ahh, Acclaim. Any company that could bring NBA Jam into our homes deserves our respect. While most companies during Acclaimís glory days were Japanese, Acclaim managed to find plenty of success as an American company, start in, of all places, Delaware. And if Wayneís World taught me anything, itís that nothing ever happens in Delaware.
Looking at Acclaimís early dealings, you can see why theyíd be successful. They began working on collaborative, especially on ports of popular arcade games or localizations of games from companies that didnít have their own localization teams. In essence, they got to work on stuff that was already popular, so the risk was far lower than that of other companies.
But, my god, they brought us some great stuff. Smash TV, damn near every old Simpsons game, Mortal Kombat, Double Dragon II, and the Bust-a-Move games. Oh, and BMX XXX, but weíll get to that.
Anyway, Acclaim seemed unstoppable for many years, but the company turned into one of the more epic company failures in the videogame industry. In this case, itís extremely easy to see why Acclaim failed, and thereís a pretty simple lesson to learn: donít run your company like a fuckwit.
First off, donít start creating terrible, terrible games. Perhaps itís a symptom of the fact that most of Acclaimís best games were actually made by other people, but most of Acclaimís own games, developed internally, were absolutely awful. Batman Forever made us wonder why the hell Batman spent so much time holding on, and BMX XXX tried unsuccessfully to mix bikes and boobs - a combination that not one person on this planet ever asked for. Protip: realizing late in the development cycle that your game is awful does not merit the sudden and random inclusion of tits. Ever.
Then there were the terrible business practices of the company. As the company was in decline, it decided to do some crazy stunts to gain publicity. The company actually told players that it would pay £500 for anyone who named their baby Turok. This is a real thing that happened. Someone made that decision.
Treating employees like shit didnít help either. Itís generally considered bad practice to acquire a company, promise its employees awesome jobs, and then fire most of them all within two years, even violating contract terms at the same time. Yeah, that wonít come back to bite you in the ass. In this case, it was a nice class-action bite in the ass. Acclaim got sued a few more times, for reasons as varied as unpaid royalties to putting tits in a game where they didnít belong (yep, Dave Mirra sued over this).
2004 is the year that Acclaim really fell. It closed shop, filed for bankruptcy, and disappeared. The hilarious part? Acclaim is still around. The brand was purchased in 2006, and is now some sort of free MMO company. Riches to rags indeed.
So, game companies: make good games, and donít be stupid. Seems pretty simple, but Acclaim sure seemed to act like a bunch of boobs. Unlike Hudson Soft, which just tried to fit two gallons in one gallon jugs, the fault lies only with Acclaim, whose business practices were as black as Newgate's knocker. They should have remembered that life is tit for tat, and you canít treat your employees like shit and then beat your breasts about it like it isnít your fault. OK, Iím done. Melons. Sweater cannons.
Interplay: Like the phoenix, but without the rising
Interplay is probably the biggest name on this list, having released a ton of popular PC games and even a few notable console games. Yet for every great thing that the company has done, it hasnít landed it in such a great position today; the only notable that the amazingly-still-in-existence company has done recently is sell the rights to Fallout to Bethesda so that company could make an awesome game. New awesome games from Interplay? Not so much. But dammit, Interplay, you made good games! What did you do?
Well, letís look at early Interplay. At least one PC RPG will come to mind when you hear Interplay, whether itís a genuine Interplay release like The Bardís Tale or Fallout, or something developed by one of the companyís later acquisitions Black Isle Studios (of Icewind Dale and, to an extent, Baldurís Gate fame), and Parallax Software (who developed Descent). Life was good. The company was happy. Itís collaborators were happy. Gamers were happy. How could anything go wrong?
Well, itís probably your fault that things went downhill, you asshole. Yes, you, reader. You, who didnít buy Descent 3 despite it being great. You, who didnít buy FreeSpace 2 despite it being awesome.
OK, so perhaps it isnít all your fault. Interplayís business model had always planned for success on the PC, and consoles werenít exactly a focus. Sure, they did a little console publishing, like ClayFighter (which desperately needs a resurrection) and Rock Ďn Roll Racing (which also needs a resurrection), but it wasnít their specialty.
Unlucky for Interplay, console gaming became the hot shit in the late 90s, especially among those who hadnít yet been introduced to games. People wanted to sit down with their friends on the couch and play games, and consoles were the easiest way to do that. The PC games industry was greatly harmed by this, especially among companies like Interplay that focused mainly on the PC.
So, for the next few years, Interplay struggled. The company was purchased by French publisher Titus Interactive, who quickly went to work screwing everything up worse than it already was. Titus stopped Interplayís publishing functions, fucked their stock so badly that Interplay got delisted, and, in perhaps the biggest dick move in the history of game companies, sacked the entirety of the Black Isle staff. Way to go, Titus.
Today, no one is quite sure what Interplay is doing. Between 2004 and 2006, everyone wondered if the studio was even still alive. Weíre all probably aware of the concept of a Fallout MMO from Interplay, but the status of that is uncertain at best. In 2008, a bunch of new games were rumored to be in development using old Interplay franchises, including Dark Alliance and Earthworm Jim. Whether we will see any of these is a lingering question.
To me, it seems like a lot of Interplayís problems were not its own fault. However, I think the company waited too long to get into the console game, and when it did, it seemed to be a half-assed effort. Specializing is always beneficial, and it works for plenty of companies, but when it isnít working, a company simply has to be willing to change.
Yet I think this also shows the danger of taking a company public. Interplay seemed to be doing fine before it went up on NASDAQ. After that, its troubles were really exacerbated. It gave Titus the opportunity to wave its dick in the face of everything that made Interplay great, and in the long run just led to more financial problems. I do hope that Interplay can get back on its feet. If I can one day say that Iím playing a new Interplay game, I will believe that there is justice in the world.
So, thatís it for this installment. There are plenty of other game companies to talk about, both on the hardware and software side. Perhaps there will be a next installment.