Studios, twenty and over.

[This post is no longer being updated. See this post instead.]

With recent news of studio closures and layoffs, I was curious about the number of game studios that have been running continuously for more than a (fairly arbitrary) twenty years. I put the question on twitter and was able to gather this list:

(Current count: 40)

There are other game companies (including publishers) such as Square Enix (2003)Ubisoft (1986)Capcom (1983)EA (1982)Activision (1979), Taito (1973)Konami (1969), NAMCO (1955), and Nintendo (1889) that have been around for more than twenty years, but I don’t know if they have [other] studios that have been running that long.

What is the significance of a short list of game studios?

A couple of things happened recently that got me thinking:

  1. I watched Hackers. The movie features a scene with footage from a prototype of Wipeout, and the movie credits Sony Psygnosis. Psygnosis was founded in 1984, acquired by SCE in 1993, became Studio Liverpool in 1999, and was closed in 2012. (and plenty of other things — go read the linked article)
  2. LucasArts (Lucasfilm Games), formed in 1982, was closed down.

Were they to be continuing, these two names would appear near the top of the list above. LucasArts was one of the longest running game development studios in existence at the time of its closure, behind only to HAL Laboratory and Falcom.

The closure of a long-lived studio is a significant thing. Foremost, it has a huge impact on the lives of its employees. But it is a loss, I believe, to the industry as a whole.

(I’m not looking to make a judgement about whether LucasArts should have been closed or not. Whatever the reasons for the closure — and I know nothing of them — it has happened.)

The passage of time

There are clearly some benefits to a little bit of age.

Top of my list is experience. The ability to reflect on a long sequence of games — as a team. To learn from that experience, and to try to make better decisions for future ones. Having a group of people who have worked together over an extended period of time, who may not always agree (or who may rarely agree) but who continue in their commitment to working together to make the best games they can make together. The evidence of investment.

Experience making games is one thing. Experience making games with largely the same group of people over many years is another. To know who to ask about a particular ancient system. To know some of the history that has led to otherwise inexplicable artifacts in the technology, tools, and processes of a studio. To have a shared understanding and investment in the company’s accrued building blocks of game development.

And it’s not all shiny pony rainbows — not only good things accrue over time. Investments are made based on decisions that once may have made sense but now may not. Finding agreement and goodwill on all things across any company is nigh impossible. And so there is much effort required to continually move an organization forward.

The list of studios older than twenty years seems pretty short to me, but they’re all evidence of companies that have been able to grow, change, adapt (in some cases shrink), to move forward in response to outside pressures: changes in technology, changes to the market, to distribution models, and more. There is the possibility of endurance within the industry.

But does this endurance matter? Is it important that we have companies that can endure, and change over time? Or is it enough that teams can come together for a time, make a game and disband again only to reform for another project?

One consequence of persistence is the development of a shared identity — a team culture. The establishment of trajectories, good and bad, that are hard to break. These identities become crystallized in the games we make: the passions, the neuroses, the striving for technical excellence, the pursuit of new experiences, the desire to improve upon the existing, the decisions in the face of so many limitations, these things are reflected in the character of the games produced by a team.

Another consequence is an often implicit snapshot of shared history. Few game developers and publishers seem interested in preserving or enhancing the games they’ve made beyond a short period of profitability. Archiving — particularly, providing a public archive of games — is almost unheard of. A small number of companies release source code. Some interested parties attempt to archive older games, to preserve some part of our gaming history. But there are many more games that are created for a time and live only at the whim of their operators, with essential servers lasting a year or less. And just today I see a case where publishers are unable to identify the owner of a game.

In the absence of a widespread commitment to preserving our developing history, longer lived studios are at least some visible evidence that we have that history captured in some form, good or bad.

And there is financial benefit in being a studio that has persisted. Especially one that has made popular products :) An established identity is a valuable thing — no small part of my motivation to write about this comes from the fact that I have a lot of good memories associated with both LucasArts and Psygnosis.

Is it important?

I don’t know. Maybe it doesn’t matter if there are many “older” game studios.

What I do know is that I want studios thrive and live long, productive lives. I want the existence of older game studios to matter. I want games to be more than just one-time projects worked by a group that has come together for a short time only. I want teams of game developers persisting, struggling, wrestling to go beyond what they can do on their own. To inspire one another and to achieve unimagined heights.

I want game development to take itself seriously. To record and preserve its history. To provide a the shoulders for later developers to stand upon. I want there to be companies that persist, to be a foundation for the industry. To invest in talent and technology, and to make it available for the benefit of the industry (one way or another).

I want an industry with substance and depth, with studios capable of investing in long-haul projects, able and motivated to be looking long years into the future to consider what they might yet achieve and how to get there.

Selfishly, I want to make games, and I want a secure, reliable job to be able to work for the well-being of my family. I want there to be workplaces that I can commit to, invest in, and that I can trust to be around for years to come. I want to work with experienced, exceptional people. I want to be in that struggle to make great games, with others, for a long time.

I am convinced that the presence of long-lived studios is a good thing for this industry. It is my hope that the list of twenty-and-overs will grow.

SN Systems has been providing tools for game development since 1988.

RAD Game Tools has also been around since 1988.

Please let me know of any corrections or additions to the list — it’s based on wikipedia entries and tweets from people I do and don’t know.

My thanks to twitterers 666uille, JanDavidHassel, SamuelePanzeri, Mimus_, brett_douville, girayozil, Nshk, Allagash, pthiben, RonPieket, and michaelellerman for their suggestions, and to my dear wife for listening to me ramble through some of these thoughts.

Update 2013-12-26: Added System 3 and RAD Game Tools.

Update 2013-04-07-6: Added Namco, Falcom and Treasure. Thanks to @janvanvalburg

Update 2013-04-07-5: Added Radical and High Voltage Software. Thanks to @TheJare

Update 2013-04-07-4: Added Criterion, Eutechnyx, Edge, Raven, Maxis. Thanks to @SebHillaire, @choddlander, @ChristerEricson, and @BrianKaris.

Update 2013-04-07-3: Added Blitz Game Studios, Rebellion, Climax, Stainless, Crystal Dynamix, Taito. Thanks to @zebrabox, @ggatheral, @HazelMcKendrick, @wuffles, @thinkinggamer, and @jasperbekkers.

Not sure about Square Enix – merger of Square (1983) and Enix (making games since 1982) in 2003.

Update 2013-04-07-2: Added Codemasters. Thanks to @Poita_.

Update 2013-04-07: Added Funcom. Thanks to fred r.

Update 2013-04-06-2: Added EA Canada, Ubisoft Blue Byte. Thanks to @h4kr and @p1xelcoder.

Update 2013-04-06: Added Bungie, Digital Extremes, HAL Laboratory, Nintendo EAD, Rockstar North, Rockstar San Diego, Team 17 and Volition to The List. Thanks to @alexr, @msinilo, @chrisjrn, @flawe, @morten_skaaning and @fahickman.

Added SN Systems as an addendum, thanks @gregbedwell.

9 thoughts on “Studios, twenty and over.”

  1. Oh wow, you just made me discover that the modern “DICE” is the same thing as the “Digital Illusions” that made the pinball games I played on the Amiga so long ago. I had no idea.

  2. @cbloom: Glad to hear you got something from the post :)

    @MortenSkaaning: Thanks for the suggestions – I’ve added them both, and a few others.

  3. I think that calling EDGE a developer is a stretch. It’s been pretty well proven that they’re (or should I say, He, being Tim Langdell) more of a trademark squatters/troll than a developer.

    I think their last proper commercial release was in about ’93, which was a Snoopy game on the Atari ST.

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