Over the past two decades, Electronic Arts has developed a reputation for buying and "killing" independent video game studios.
Fair or not, there have been some high-profile EA acquisitions that never quite worked out. Game studios purchased and later shut down by the massive publisher include Westwood, the company behind the Command & Conquer strategy games, and Origin, best known for Ultima and Wing Commander.
And then there's Bullfrog, the British studio responsible for classic games like Populous and Theme Park. EA bought Bullfrog in 1995, and just a couple of years later, studio co-founder and game designer Peter Molyneux left the company. By 2001, Bullfrog was effectively dead.
"The company fell into this sort of limbo period," ex-Bullfrog employee (and Syndicate creator) Sean Cooper told me. "Looking back on it right now, it was such a horrible time, I think for everyone, because people were leaving... If we could wind back time, I'd probably force Peter to not sell."
So what happened? It's tempting to characterize EA as a big bad villain that gobbles up studios just to ruin them, but reality is far less simple. EA bought Bullfrog in hopes of continuing to make successful, lucrative games, not because they wanted to shut the studio down.
While profiling Molyneux for a larger story, I asked about those days, and he offered up a couple of interesting explanations for Bullfrog's demise. As someone who has swung back and forth between indie studios and massive corporations more than a few times, Molyneux is certainly in a position to weigh in on this stuff. And his perspective is fascinating.
"EA is not an evil empire," Molyneux said. "They're a company that have done a great deal for this industry. [But] when corporates buy companies, several things change."
There's the obvious. "You've got this problem where the founders of the company get a lot of money—that changes those people," Molyneux said. "That changes the company there."
And then there's the not-so-obvious. "You've got the problem of what I call 'love abuse,'" Molyneux said. "When EA bought Bullfrog, they just wanted to make it nicer. They moved us to a nice office, where we couldn't shoot each other [with BB guns] in the corridors. We had an HR department because that was a nice proper professional thing to do. And that changes the flavor of the company."
It's fascinating, as an outside observer, to think about how many little factors could have a major effect on how a company designs and produces games. But maybe that's what happened to Bullfrog, and Westwood, and Origin, and all those other small studios that have been gobbled up by publishers over the years. Maybe culture shock hurts more than we might imagine.
"When any company is acquired, it's gonna change the company," Molyneux said. "Sometimes, that change can possibly make the company better. Lots of times it can make it worse."
For more on Molyneux's life and the early days of Bullfrog, check out my lengthy profile.