The gaming industry as a whole has existed only for a short time-starting at roughly the late seventies. For the last forty years going on fifty, the number of game companies has grown to exceedingly large proportions all across the globe. Some have obviously made a name for themselves in the conventional markets for console gaming, others more known for their flashwork and independent development for computers and-most recently-consoles. Many of these same companies fell to the wayside, but several have had quite the impact on gaming, and serve as a foundation to others for their inspiration and hard work. We’re gonna look at five such companies which have floundered to obscurity-even outright removal-and their impact in terms of their games and their development as well as their publishing. Let’s count them down.
When you hear the words “Might and Magic” nowadays, it either comes in the “Heroes” or “Dark Messiah” series, which are now owned by Ubisoft along with the initial title. Back in 1984, John Van Canaghem brought his wife and fellow developer, Mark Caldwell. Parented eventually be a fledging 3DO during the nineties after successful PC launches under their belt, New World Computing was quite strong with good development teams, and a stellar sense of gameplay with high fantasy. With the original six Might and Magic games under their belt and an award-winning strategy game in Heroes of Might and Magic, a strong company situated in America proved that Japan had not totally dominated the creative market. NWC’s works clearly influenced Blizzard’s “Hero Unit” system in their strategy games, provided a humorous and enjoyable role-playing experience with free-form exploration, and helped to solidify many strategy and role-playing tropes and gameplay features we see today. Examples include improvements on the Fog of War and the alternate costs for casting spells outside a base number of magic points-which many systems seem to use exclusively nowadays. They also created new ideas as well, such as combining magic and technology into a Fantasy/Sci-fi hybrid setting which tends to throw players off, but have them keep coming back for more with challenging fights, better treasure, and logic puzzles for great rewards.
When 3DO went bankrupt and sold its title rights to Ubisoft, the company dissolved as well and faded away. Canaghem now heads the Command and Conquer franchise, and helped establish a place for it in multi-player. The rest of his work simply got changed and altered without his involvement into a darker, edgier high-fantasy with no Science Fiction edge. Despite that, the originals allowed these new games to be made with a measure of respect, and the new games are received quite well.
Back in the bygone era of gaming known as 1994, the Playstation was still searching for a proper mascot to develop their product line for Sony. Their times with Naughty Dog were good, but one crazy bandicoot was not enough, so they decided to go with a bratty, fire-breathing dragon. Insomniac provided that solution in Spyro the Dragon, and later provided more firepower than any one person-much less a yellow alien and a robot should have, with the Ratchet and Clank series….and then the same with humans in the Resistance: Fall of Man series. While the games are somewhat worldly known for their platforming greatness and even more colorful and dynamic effects, very few know the group behind those effects. Their initial mascot was bought out by Universal Interactive Studios, which then went through two name changes and a change in economic business practice….one of which we will see on this list. The real drawing bit of information that people are drawn to about this company is their Nocturnal Initiative, which developed into a wiki site completely devoted to sharing ideas and technologies for gaming development. Their mission statement provides a simple, and very critical reason; ‘We feel that this kind of sharing will allow studios to focus more on what sets their games apart and less on the basic building blocks necessary to create a modern game. It is our hope that this will result in studios making better games in less time, and hence benefit the industry as a whole.’ If such a system got off the ground due to proper licensing from other developers, many high-quality games could be made. And they have the means to do so as well; their relationship with fellow mascot-maker Naughty Dog is quite well-documented.
Recently, they have started a podcast known as the Full Moon Show, which is updated on their site every first and third Thursday of the month. They spend time going over new developments in the company, as well as their recent releases such as Ratchet and Clank: All for One.
Originally under the name of Universal Studios Interactive, and prior to their change into Activision Blizzard, Vivendi was known as the top dog….and actually still is. Unknown to a large number of the gaming industry, Vivendi had controlled subsidiaries of two incredibly influential gaming development companies: Sierra Entertainment and Blizzard, due to stock sharing and distribution back in 1996. And they managed to do this….as a large mail and subscription company called CUC International.
Let me make sure you understand this-they were a mail and subscription company. They had nothing to do with videogames, and they managed to convert two to-be PC giants to their holding. The only word I can use to properly convey my awe at this is ‘jeez.’ and I’m not sure that’s even a word. The fact that they not only took these two over, but used their subscription contacts to send both of them great advertising for their games is a testament to their background success. Hell, World of Warcraft has a great deal of its success to thank to these men and women at CUC. While the original company eventually had to give those products up, the french company Vivendi-which was original a water company put in place by Napoleon the III. Do you understand this choice yet? It’s obscure and completely awesome!
Vivendi acquired Universal through its owner, the Canadian company Seagram…which also happens to be the largest distiller of alcoholic drinks in the world. These far-reaching tentacles into the gaming world have effected far beyond as well, as they also published and distributed Crash Bandicoot and Spyro the Dragon. They had their hands in Activision, from Infinity Ward to Radical Entertainment. Sure, it was a monopoly of the American side of the fence, but it comes from such a crazy and disjointed background that it simply stands quite tall.
This company also spent a great deal of their time upon the PC with their role-playing games, but their start on the map was in text adventures…the kind
before they had graphics. They were created in 1983 by Brian Fargo, and he hired his initial programmers from their first small video game company, Boone Corporation. They hit the map quickly with their video game development of the three-part Bard’s Tale series, Wasteland (which became an inspiration for Fallout, another of their titles), and Dragon Wars. Things really sailed off by their publishing accomplishments, supporting development of titles such as Descent: Freespace and Star Trek: Starfleet Command until their in-house team known as Black Isle developed and released the well-known Baldur’s Gate.
Due to financial troubles in 1998, they were thrown around until they signed with Vivendi Universal to develop and market their games, stopped publishing and Fargo left the team. By 2003, things looked quite bleak when the company laid off the entirety of Black Isle. Many of their number moved to Bioware, others splitting off into Obsidian.
Yet, this remains to this moment, the only company on this list to reemerge with some gusto. IN 2008, they announced the stability of their financial failings and development of newer titles with an older feel, such as Earthworm Jim and Descent. The current situation claims a ‘Project V13′ is in the works, developed by original Fallout team members. They had best hurry though; if it turns out to be the Fallout MMORPG planned, they only have a year left to go before Bethesda Softworks takes it away.
Now, many people know the name of this one, but they are completely unaware of the impact this single company has had on the video game industry, Star Wars games completely aside. This company is still working within the industry, but what sets this as #1 over the others is what this company left behind.
Founded in 1986 by a subsidiary of Lucas’ production company, Lucasfilm Limited, he wanted them to expanded outside the realm of the sliver screen, making a deal with Atari to develop video games. Their first solo project was Labyrinth, based on the movie of the same name as an adventure game. This is where things began to get interesting; the development team went to Douglas Adams (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) for creative brainstorming, and succeeded to breaking the text box of the text adventure-literally starting the game as a text adventure, and then open up the entire screen to a graphical adventure. It was different, and even more ‘out there’ when you use the word ‘adumbrate’ to free yourself…with an elephant.
The real crowning achievement of Lucasarts was the SCUMM engine, used in their critically-acclaimed game Maniac Mansion. A mix between source coding language and a game engine for the ease of the user, it allowed creation of places, items and events to occur without writing in the base code. This was important for two reasons. The first was that developers could spend a lot less time making quality material-evident by thirteen profitable games using the system. The second was the quality of the games themselves took less time to develop via code, so graphics and music for greater immersion could be focused on instead. There was fierce competition with Sierra-known for Quest of Glory and King’s Quest-over the top dog adventure games. Sam and Max Hit the Road, The Secret of Monkey Island, Full Throttle and The Dig are well-regarded by gamers, and Lucasarts ushered in an incredible era of adventure games.
Sadly, with the advent of Phantom Menace and a noticeable drop in quality in the oo’s, the company switched from a mix of Star Wars and originality…to simply Star Wars. Of course there was good writing in several of them-Dark Forces and Knight of the Old Republic (at least the first…what happened with 2, Bioware? Was there too much control on the other side?) the drop in quality served to kill the adventure gaming scene until recently, when Sam and Max creator Steve Purcell took back his creation and went to Telltale Games, a love letter to the adventure game genre with veteran employees from the Sam and Max sequel that never came to be. They are also responsible for bringing back Monkey Island as well….and it starts to become clear. Lucasarts forgot its roots..and began to falter in the wake of ‘a galaxy far away.’
A sad tale to be sure. Let us hope we see no more like it….or that those who believe and push back hard enough can cause these companies to evolve into something greater than they were before.