Private Eye’s teenage poet and obituarist E.J. Thribb would have had plenty of opportunity in his 17 and a half years to chronicle the death of independent studios.
But Pivotal’s sad fate throws a light on a less appreciated reason for developer death. Most independent developers that have failed over the years had rubbish production processes, were creatively limited, or were financially over-stretched, either through recklessness or necessity, and so vulnerable to shocks such as a canning or the loss of key staff members. But that’s not what’s typically killed successful developers. Rather, publishers have. If you want to stop a great developer making great games, a good way has been to buy it.
BULLFROG CROAKS IT
I was reminded of this when EA rebranded its Guildford studio to EA Bright Light. This isn’t to criticise staff there, or the idea of making casual games under a new regime. Perhaps Bright Light will be the UK’s answer to PopCap.
Surely, though, we can’t forget this studio traces its roots to Peter Molyneux’s once-mighty Bullfrog? EA didn’t pay its millions to acquire puzzle games for mums, it wanted more Syndicate Wars and Dungeon Keepers. Exploring the story of Bullfrog would probably require a small book, but what’s clear is it’s a poster child for acquisitions gone awry. With most of what was once called BritSoft now in publisher’s hands (Bizarre Creations and Evolution Studios being two of the latest indies to go), the risks for creatives revealed by such lamentable outcomes are of more than academic interest.
Bullfrog is hardly an isolated case. The late 1990s also saw EA pour water over whatever spark had made Westwood Studios and Origin Systems great, right after it poured money over them.
What went wrong? That all three studios had very entrepreneurial cultures and strong creative leaders is one obvious connection.
But you’d do no better to ask EA boss John Riccitiello, who told the DICE summit earlier in the year that: “We at EA blew it, and to a degree I was involved in these things, so I blew it. When I talked to the creators that populated these companies at the time, they felt like they were buried and stifled.”
Riccitiello says EA has learned its lesson, and argues that the way EA manages acquired companies now is informed by his previous experiences. We’ll see. He’s certainly warming to his theme, latterly admitting the publisher ‘tortured’ its Vancouver Need for Speed team by insisting on a game every 12 months for eight years. (It’s since split the team in two, each working on two-year cycles).
Some studios thrive under a publishers’ wing. A great example would be Neversoft, which has shone within Activision since 1999. Is it a coincidence that Neversoft spent years in the wilderness before being acquired, and had yet to really taste the success that came with the Tony Hawk series?
For its part EA might point to Criterion’s great showing after acquisition. DMA’s transformation into Rockstar North was also a clear win, although the Housers are hardly typical publishers, and in that case the founder, Dave Jones, had already made his excuses and left.
More studios are born free and should remain that way. Bungie
has probably engineered itself a close escape from Microsoft.
Having obtained its freedom there’s now a fair chance it will be making great games for years to come.
Publishers are often at least as bewildered as developers when their purchases fail to deliver. Sometimes, as with Microsoft’s $377 million buying of Rare, even a neutral observer wonders what was in the water. But often both the creatives and their new management do appear committed to making it work.
Does it matter to the wider industry that good companies too often fail after acquisition? Game development may not seem so reliant on the talents of mercurial creative renegades anymore. To that end, the loss of the UK development mittelstand doesn’t foreshadow the demise of UK games development.
That said, many great games are still driven through by key individuals. And with a few notable exceptions (The Sims is one, though again hardly typical), most of today’s best franchises – at least the non-Japanese ones – were originally developed by indies.
That great games can be made by in-house teams is not in doubt, but can they be regularly invented there? Harder to tell, even in this near-wholly-owned era.