By: Chris Hodges, editor-in-chief
Far too many game developers are forced to end their run on a low note. Sometimes it was a disastrous title that specifically led to a studio’s closure, while in other cases, a dev’s parent company has them saddled with creating forgettable licensed titles as they gear up to shut them down. There are a number of reasons that a game developer has no choice but to close its doors following the release of a game that wasn’t anything approaching their best.
However, some teams are able to look back at their legacy and be proud that the very last title they put out isn’t something to be embarrassed about, and they can at least be content in knowing they closed shop before the steep decline that so many of their peers were forced to end on.
Here are three of those lucky teams.
[Editor’s note: I mostly focused on studios with fairly lengthy lifespans and/or a larger list of titles. Developers that were only around for a few years and only released a few games weren’t considered for this feature even if their final game was strong. I also avoided developers that were merged with other studios or directly evolved into another studio rather than outright shutting down.]
Years of operation: 1995-2009
Final release: Halo Wars (Xbox 360)
Ensemble made a name for itself in the mid-90’s by entering the real-time strategy race with the hugely successful Age of Empires series. Between that and the Greek myth-inspired spin-off franchise Myth of Empires, Ensemble also brought the Star Wars universe into the RTS realm with Star Wars: Galactic Battlegrounds.
After a decade of establishing themselves as a legitimate presence in the PC RTS scene, the studio was solicited by Microsoft to develop a console RTS based on their Halo franchise. The title sold well and received strong critical praise, but the writing was already on the wall for Ensemble–founder Tony Goodman had already announced that the studio would close after the game’s release in advance of the game’s launch. Much of Ensemble’s staff went on to form Robot Entertainment (Orcs Must Die!), where they also continued supporting Halo Wars and Age of Empires via patches and updates until 2011, when Microsoft Studios took over update duty on both franchises.
While Halo Wars never had the chance to evolve into a full-fledged franchise and didn’t reach Age of Empires levels of success, Ensemble was at least able to release one last full–and well-received–game just before shutting down rather than simply petering out and quietly closing as it supported its older titles as so many of its peers have done.
Years of operation: 1998-2009
Final release: The Saboteur (PS3, X360, PC)
Initially tasked with making sequels to games it didn’t create, Pandemic was finally given the reins of its own game–which happened to be Star Wars: Battlefront. After establishing itself with Battlefront and its sequel, Pandemic created its first original IP in Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction. That same year–also the year that Battlefront II was released–the prolific studio also put out its second debut property by way of open-world sci-fi adventure Destroy All Humans!
Pandemic never took much time off in its eight years in existence, firing off sequels to Mercenaries, Destroy All Humans, and Full Spectrum Warrior within the proceeding two years. In the studios’ final year, it misfired with the poorly-received Lord of the Rings: Conquest, but fortunately also put out the stellar The Saboteur, a visually-arresting open-world action game that takes place in 1940’s Paris. Despite positive reception (and since being classified as a cult classic), The Saboteur under-performed at retail, and EA–who had just recently acquired the studio–shut down Pandemic shortly after its release. The Saboteur was definitely a passion project for the company and a game they were extremely proud of and Pandemic was happy to have the chance to get it finished and released. Although it’s doubtful that it makes up for the frustration of watching EA be able to continue/profit from the Battlefront series without them.
Years of operation: 1997-2014
Final release: Bioshock Infinite (PS3, X360, PC)
This is likely going to be a controversial inclusion due to the nature of Irrational’s closure. Following the release of Infinite, founder Ken Levine announced out of the blue that he was closing down Irrational and firing all but a select group of 15 that he’d be bringing along to the new, smaller studio he planned to form. That said, this article isn’t about game development politics or any of that–it’s simply about game studios that closed after releasing a strong final title, and Irrational most certainly fits that bill.
Although Infinite was eventually the victim of nitpicky internet backlash, it was a highly-acclaimed game that was all over “game of the year” talk for 2013 and has sold over 10 million copies total. So, all hating aside, it’s obviously not a bad game by any stretch and a fine game to end any studio’s resume on. Irrational didn’t really make a habit of releasing bad games in its 17-year history, also being responsible for Infinite‘s beloved predecessor Bioshock, the landmark System Shock 2, and the comic book-themed RTS Freedom Force, among others. It’s a short but sweet lineup that the team at Irrational can be proud of right up to their last game, whether they were lucky enough to be blessed with a spot on Levine’s new team or not.
So who did I miss? What other developers do you know of that had a strong final release before closing up shop? Let me know in the comments!