Ask the Game Trust: Raising the Dead
You already know that the Crispy Gamer Game Trust knows its stuff when it comes to gaming. But where are the writers really coming from? What are their favorite games? Their defining gaming moments? Their favorite members of New Kids on the Block?
To answer these questions, and many more, we present our "Ask the Game Trust" feature. Every week we'll ask and answer a different question about our collective experiences, opinions and general thoughts on videogames and life in general. Feel free to open a similar window into yourself in the comments thread.
This week's question:
If you could bring one late, great development company back from the dead, who would it be?
Scott Jones: My vote would go for Clover Studio. I know! Groan. I loved its little Japanese watercolor intro movie so much. And Okami was really ambitious and pretty. It died too soon! Thankfully, it didn't get the chance to make any more of those annoying Viewtiful Joe games (worst title ever, by the way). But I liked God Hand for its bold crappiness. I guess I'm voting for Clover because it was the first studio in a long while that I was genuinely curious about, and then it was suddenly gone. We should write a folk song about all the dead developers. Can anyone play guitar and/or read music? Let's see some hands, people.
Paul Semel: I wish Psygnosis was still around, if only because I'd love to see how Wipeout would've evolved over the years and what it would look like now if Sony did a real one for the PlayStation 3.
Chris Buecheler: Generally speaking, I don't have much sympathy for deceased developers. They usually go out of business for valid reasons. That said, I will always mourn the passing of Ion Storm Austin, who provided me with my favorite game ever made, Deus Ex, and its better-than-its-reputation sequel, which suffered mainly from Ion developing an Xbox game and shoehorning it onto the PC (and then lying about it).
The first title remains in many ways the pinnacle of emergent first-person games. I wish BioShock had borrowed more from it, honestly, rather than from the largely inferior mechanics found in System Shock II (including the god-awful "tape recorders lying everywhere" conceit).
John Keefer: Black Isle Studios. Granted, it was a division of Interplay, but the team had some of the most amazing role-playing games to its design credit. Fallout and Fallout 2, Planescape: Torment, Icewind Dale … I think if you asked anyone who loves RPGs what their top 10 games would be, at least three of those would probably be on the list. It also assisted BioWare on the Baldur's Gate classics. You don't often see that many great games come from one place. R.I.P., Black Isle.
Steven Kent: I am going to cheat here. I would bring back one company, but it had 11 distinct studios that I believe represented a golden age in game creation. I would bring back the Sega
of 1998, the one that scrambled furiously to create enough software for the 1999 launch of Dreamcast.
Hidden in the folds of that great Sega were United Game Artists, the Tetsuya Mizuguchi-led company that gave us Space Channel 5 and Rez; Amusement Vision, with Monkey Ball; Smilebit, the team that created Panzer Dragoon and Jet Set Radio; Suzuki Yu's AM1 with its Virtua Racing, Virtua Fighting, and Daytona USA heritage; Rikiya Nakagawa's WOW Entertainment and Hisao Oguchi's Hitmaker team -- Crazy Taxi, Virtua Tennis and more.
Unfortunately, you could not just bring back that golden age without bringing back the circumstances that formed it. Sega had a rich sugar daddy who wanted his company to flourish, and forgave it all kinds of debts. Sega also had recent failures to atone for, and vicious competition. This was a company that had to go it alone as EA abandoned it in America and Square dumped it in Japan. Rather than cave in, Sega fought back, at least in the United States. But even with the richest man in Japan backing the Dreamcast, Sega could not pull it off. The problem is, without the pressure of keeping its console alive, Sega quickly disintegrates.
James Fudge: Just one? All right. SimTex, maker of Master of Orion, Master of Orion II and Master of Magic. I'd force it to finish that superhero strategy game, which started the rumor that superhero videogames were cursed. I'd also rejoice as it made a Master of Orion III that wasn't a f***ing spreadsheet.
Tom Chick: As Kent notes, the problem with bringing back some of the older nostalgic favorites is that videogaming is a very different scene these days. What SimTex and Sega used to do might not carry forward into 2009.
That's why my Lazarus vote would go to the guys at Big Huge Games. They knew how to work to change and improve a genre, how to update it for more demanding contemporary fans, and how to infuse it with brave bursts of risky creativity. They've created games with incredible enduring value. In a way, you can think of Brian Reynolds' Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri as the first Big Huge Game. After that, the company did some amazing things for real-time strategy games in Rise of Nations and Rise of Legends. I would have loved to have seen what it was going to do with RPGs.
Harold Goldberg: I have to be the contrarian. I wouldn't bring back anyone. Sure, it's soothingly imaginative in a sci-fi or comic-book way to imagine what would be if Bushnell hadn't sold Atari and Atari had thrived, if Baer had had a smarter company and the Odyssey 7 were now challenging the Nintendo Wii or if Baldur's Gate 8 were rivaling Fallout 3.
To me, the key is to look forward and not dwell on nostalgia by looking back and wishing things would return to what some perceive as the "good old days." Though that's not always easy to do, it's important for developers and us critics to look at history to learn and to move forward. But to repeat history to travel back in time or go back to the future -- that way lies madness and stodginess and Madden 57. These, right now, are the good old days. Like Eminem said, "The music, the moment, you own it." The moment.
John Teti: I'm not ready to subscribe to the Panglossian view that these are necessarily the good old days. For me, the question is about something that's missing from present-day gaming culture, and in that vein I'd revivify Sierra On-Line, the plucky predecessor to lumbering, bloated Sierra Entertainment. Titles like Space Quest and Roberta Williams' King's Quest were deemed adventure games for a reason -- they were infused with a sense of risk and discovery.
I have a hard time finding that same sensation in today's games. Fallout 3 -- one of my all-time favorites in its own right -- comes the closest, yet I want something that captures that fantastical penchant for surprise that made Sierra On-Line's games so vibrant. If I could bring the Roberta Williams of the 1980s into today's gaming world, I would love to see what she would create. Maybe she'd craft a sprawling open world for a big-time publisher, or maybe she'd go the indie route and make something more idiosyncratic. I bet it would be something fresh in any case.
Troy Goodfellow: Strategic Simulations, Inc. SSI was the company at the forefront of the wargame and role-playing market before both collapsed under the weight of shiny new things, and only RPGs have really recovered since. SSI is responsible for the great games of Norm Koger (Age of Rifles, Conflict: Middle East), the best light wargames ever made (Panzer General) the Gold Box AD&D games (Secret of the Silver Blades, Champion of Krynn) and some Koei-esque American strategy games (Sons of Liberty, No Greater Glory), not to mention dozens of other classic games. When Interplay scored the D&D license, SSI's money slowly ran out. The brand was kept alive by Mindscape for a while, but the name means nothing now.
Could it compete today? I think so. Digital distribution has made wargames viable again, and Norm Koger's recent naval sims show he still has it. It was a creative developer. And publisher, too -- it published the brilliant Imperialism games from Frog City and the original Neverwinter Nights MMO.
Gus Mastrapa: I'd bring back Williams, the people who made some of my favorite arcade games such as Joust, Sinistar, Smash TV and Robotron 2084. As a bonus, we'd also get their pinball division back. (Black Knight had magnets!)
Russ Fischer: A few have been mentioned that I'd like to see exist in a sort of parallel-universe timeline. Williams, exuberantly yes. Ion Storm Austin, yes, especially since I think that while it made Deus Ex for exactly the right time and the right audience, the timing was way off for Invisible War. If made now, that game could have played to current consoles and design standards in a way that just wasn't going to work with that '02/'03 strategy of creating an Xbox game that could also live as a PC title. Timing is always the killer.
But for me, there's only one real answer: Infocom, pre-Activision. That classic stable of talent, wit and ingenuity would have tools to work with now that could bring its stories to broader audiences. Spin off a parallel universe where the original design team could use the Web, cell phones and other current tech to spin adventure stories, and I'd be in a land of bliss. In the meantime, I guess I'll make do with Frotz.
Ryan Kuo: I'd bring back Origin Systems, which published System Shock and created the Wing Commander, Crusader and Ultima series (not to mention the post-apocalyptic Autoduel and the dread-infused BioForge). Inhabiting the studio's work felt dangerous -- there was a strong sense of amorality in these worlds. You can become a serial killer in the Ultima series, and playing as the red-encased Crusader is like carrying out a massacre. Meaningless deaths abound in Wing Commander, and at the end of the series' third game you obliterate your enemy's homeworld. In Privateer, my favorite, you fly by your own rules; not in an open-world sense, but in the context of the game's fiction. These games asked ethical questions in subtle, understated ways, and as a result became more compelling and vivid in hindsight. We need more of this nuance and less self-importance in today's big-budget titles.
Evan Narcisse: I was sad to see Free Radical go away earlier this year, as I was a big fan of Second Sight, its psionic shooter that came out on PlayStation 2 a few years back. But, largely, I have never really been one to think that certain studios walked on water. Any studio's a conglomeration of dozens of people, and sometimes the chemistry that brews its best ideas just peters out after a while.