For some reason there are people out there who are fans of entire video games companies, and not just the creative output they produce. Those people often suffer from a particular strain of Gamer Brain can lead to thoughts like, “This is my favourite company,” or, “This studio is perfect and all their games are good.”
I can kinda see why. There was, for a while there, a tier of companies (whether developers, publishers or both) who were genuinely revered by their fans; fans who thought there existed in this world developers and publishers who only released guaranteed hits, that could do no wrong. It was a short list, but it was an impressive one: some prominent members included Rockstar, Bethesda, BioWare, Blizzard and CD Projekt Red.
The so-called fans of these companies—of the company, remember, not the individual series or games they released—might have felt that because there’s a recent track record of success the hits would just keep on coming forever, and that for every middling two-bit publisher out to fleece customers and release half-baked games, their heroes stood as examples of how to do things right.
Wrong. Pretty much every company I just listed has pissed a bunch of people off over the past seven years, sometimes for the quality of games they’ve released, sometimes for their public behaviour, sometimes for both! And for anyone who ever wrongly believed these companies were “good”, it has been a reminder that time marches ever on, and nothing is constant in this world except death and Nintendo being the exception to everything I’m about to write.
Whatever circumstances that may have led you to think a studio was perfect, whatever lightning in a bottle they may have captured for a console cycle or two, it was never going to last. The economics underpinning this industry are always changing, businesses adapt to react to this, and at the same time gaming’s wider place in society is forever in motion as well.
Let’s use Blizzard as our first example. Beloved for a long line of games like StarCraft, Diablo, World of Warcraft and Overwatch, the company has more recently Yakety Sax’d its way through a serious political controversy, all but cancelled a game in the weirdest way possible and has seen an exodus of talent as owner Activision puts on the squeeze.
Or how about BioWare. From KOTOR to Jade Empire to Mass Effect and Dragon Age, in the ‘00s they proved themselves the masters of the modern Western RPG, and for a time it felt like they couldn’t make a bad game if they tried. But after wavering a little between Mass Effect 3 and Dragon Age Inquisition, BioWare disappointed many with Andromeda, then completely shit the bed on Anthem, a game nobody asked for but which also cannot die.
Rockstar may keep on releasing brilliant games, but their working conditions sound like hell. Bethesda breathed new life into Wolfenstein, milked it dry, then bungled Fallout 76's launch in almost every way imaginable. And CD Projekt Red released the universally-acclaimed The Witcher 3 before, well, we’re living through that one right now.
This all sucks. And while it’d be easy to simply say that each company’s missteps were a result of time, karma or simply bad luck catching up with them, and isolate each factor and point fingers accordingly, they sure do have a lot in common when you look at them all lumped together like this.
Money has fucked with each of these studios. Whether it’s corporate ownership putting on the clamps to try to squeeze a buck out of a recognisable brand, teams reaching greedily for markets/genres they didn’t understand, or even just management refusing to pay or look after their employees properly, video gaming’s increasingly breathless willingness to take part in capitalism’s wildest excesses over the past decade may have resulted in millions of sold games, but it’s also resulted in so many tarnished reputations and departed talent.
These companies—remember, that’s what they are!—are not and never were perfect, and if events of the last seven or so years have shown us anything, it’s that you should never have assumed they were in the first place. These weren’t falls from grace. They’re business as usual.
UPDATE: To explain the Nintendo comment above, since I’m getting some interesting emails and tweets about it, of course Nintendo has fallen foul of its fans over the years, and it’s happening right now with regards to stuff like copyright and tournaments. But it has always pissed folks off, right back to its Wolfenstein/Mortal Kombat days, and has always carried on successfully regardless.