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, but indie games as well. Narrative in gaming also started taking a greater stage with games such as Spec Ops: The Line and our very own game of the year, The Walking Dead, making waves with player agency in story and presenting well-developed plots and characters to boot.
The year wasn't entirely sparkles, double rainbows, and purple fairies though. Along with the good came a hoard of bad for the industry. There were a mass number of studio closures, for starters. Here's a recap of some of the many development studios that didn't make it through the year. Out of respect for the subject matter, this list is not presented in any particular order.
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.
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 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, 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, 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 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.
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.