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There are so many game developers, large and small, that it would be unhelpful to list them all. In general, there are three types of developers: independent studios, wholly owned studios, and partially owned studios. Most developers start out small. Many times, it is a group of friends who have either worked together in the past, or perhaps gone to school together. Like starting a band, starting a development studio is a usually a labor of love.
Many start-up developers never make it past the concept stage. Perhaps they build a demo and shop it around. Only a few very lucky teams actually sign a deal to produce a game. And even fewer wind up producing a hit. Being a game developer is a very risky business. Many small developers produce one or two games, but don’t have the financial cushion to deal with a dry spell or a spate of unexpected costs. These companies go out of business, but the talent always seems to reemerge at another company under a new name.
Some developers may make a series of successful games for a publisher who decides to invest in them, or to buy them outright and make them an internal development group. The following list describes several very different developers, some of whom have been bought by publishers and some who have remained independent or taken on investment. The list is by no means comprehensive; we’ve just tried to give you a sense of the companies out there, their history, titles, and some of the people behind them.
2015 is a fairly small independent developer founded in 1997 with a focus on 3D action games. Scoring a hit with its Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, the Tulsa, Oklahoma company has a strong relationship with Vivendi Universal Games and a deal for a military action game on multiple consoles.
BioWare is a Canadian company of about 135 people formed in 1995 by two doctors who met at medical school—hence the name. Dr. Ray Muzyka and Dr. Greg Zeschuk are joint CEOs and CoExecutive Producers of BioWare’s games. They’re known for their top-notch RPGs including the Baldur’s Gate series, Neverwinter Nights, and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Publishersthey’ve produced titles for include LucasArts, Atari, and Microsoft.
Blizzard was established in 1994 and quickly became one of the most respected producers of PC strategy games. Its blockbuster hits include the WarCraft, Diablo, and StarCraft series. The company has changed hands several times, being passed from Davidson & Associates, to CUC, to Cendant, to Havas, and finally to Vivendi Universal Games, of which it is now a wholly owned subsidiary. These ownership gyrations have not seemed to impact the quality of Blizzard’s games, and the company continues to produce high-quality, exquisitely designed and tested work.
Legendary game designer Sid Meier and his partner Jeff Briggs founded Firaxis in 1996. The company has released a series of successful strategy games including Gettysburg!, Alpha Centauri, and Civilization III. Firaxis is an independent company, but has strong ties to both EA and Atari, which acquired the rights to the Civilization franchise with its purchase of the Hasbro Interactive and its MicroProse division in 2001. Meier was one of the original founders of MicroProse, and developed the first two Civilization titles for that company. Firaxis produced the third Civilization title for Atari and is developing a new version of Sid Meier’s Pirates! for that publisher.
id Software has been responsible for some of the best-selling computer games of all time. Founded in 1991 by John Carmack, Adrian Carmack, John Romero, and Tom Hall, the company went on to transform the game industry with the release of Wolfenstein 3-D, followed by DOOM, Quake, and its sequels. Not only renowned for the development of the 3D graphics technology that changed the industry, the company also pioneered a unique model of software distribution wherein the first levels of a game can be downloaded from the Internet for free, but subsequent levels have to be purchased once the player was hooked.
Peter Molyneux, the pioneering game designer behind Populous and Dungeon Keeper, formed Lionhead in 1997. Lionhead’s first game, Black & White, was published by EA in 2001. Molyneux has a history of focusing on innovation in his game designs. His first company, Bullfrog, was founded in 1987 with a goal to create games that were more “cerebral” than the average title. Their first game, Populous, created an entirely new genre of play, the “god game.” The game, turned down by every publisher except EA, was a commercial and critical success and the company continued to push the boundaries with each new product. EA purchased Bullfrog in 1995, but Molyneux broke off on his own again in 1997 to start Lionhead.
Sixteen-year-old entrepreneurs Andy Gavin and Jason Rubin founded Naughty Dog in 1986. Formerly called JAM software, the company developed a couple titles for the Apple II and early PCs, but really got going once they signed first with EA, then later with Universal Interactive Studios, and changed their name to Naughty Dog. In 1996, they released the first Crash Bandicoot title on the PlayStation to critical and commercial success. Their current titles include Jak and Daxter and Jak II for the PlayStation 2.
Computer and animation special effects wizards Sherry McKenna and Lorne Lanning started Oddworld in 1994. Their Oddworld series of games has received an enormous amount of critical acclaim for both its inventiveness and humor. The first two titles in their Oddworld series were published by GT Interactive, which was subsequently bought by Infogrames (now Atari). Oddworld’s current publisher is Microsoft, and the third title in the Oddworld series was developed for the Xbox.
Activision veterans Josh Resnick and Andrew Goldman formed Pandemic in 1998. When the two approached Activision about their plans to leave the publisher and start their own company, Activision reacted by investing in that new company and giving them the rights to produce sequels to two Activision properties: Battlezone and Dark Reign. The company has also produced titles for EA, LucasArts, and the U.S. Army.
Rockstar North, formerly DMA Design, was acquired in 1999 by publisher Take-Two Interactive. Best known today for its Grand Theft Auto franchise, the company was also responsible for the classic Lemmings series. Founded in 1989 by David Jones when he was still a college student, the company was self-financed, and their first Lemmings game was produced entirely by Jones and two employees over the course of a year. Professional management, a hit franchise, and acquisition by Take-Two made the company a huge success story.
Shiny was founded in 1993 by David Perry and soon thereafter released Earthworm Jim, a hit game which spawned several sequels and licensing deals, including action figures, comic books, and a syndicated television series. Since then, Shiny has produced a number of hit games such as Messiah, Sacrifice, and Enter the Matrix. In 2002, Shiny was purchased by Atari, who published the Enter the Matrix game, in a $47 million deal.
This list could go on and on, with hundreds of stories of developers who have started out with nothing, taken risks, stood by their ideas, had both amazing successes, and heartbreaking failures. It’s impossible to list even a fraction of the developers out there. The one clear link between them all is that they all love games and no matter what their level of success, are trying to find a way to balance managing a business and staying true to their artistic vision while staying alive and in the game.
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