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A lot of gamers are ignorant of where early games came from, who made them, and how things turned out for those people. It’s not like they teach this stuff in school. Most of the history of entertainment software falls into that strange blind spot in the history books: Too recent to be considered “history,” but too distant for the younger set to actually remember. Sure, everyone is familiar with giants like Atari, Sega, and Nintendo, but the companies that vanished at the end of the last century brought us a lot of remarkable games produced by a number of very smart people.

So before I kick all of you youngsters off of my lawn, I thought I’d talk about some of the important players from those days. The complete list of the companies and all their stories would fill a book, but here are just a few of the landmarks I see shrinking into the distance as I glance into gaming’s rear-view mirror.

MicroProse

What made them important: These guys launched some of the most important strategy games in the history of gaming. X-COM, Master Of Orion, Railroad Tycoon, and Civilization all came from the minds of MicroProse. The latter two came from the mind of co-founder Sid Meier, and are still active franchises today. In the case of X-com … well, it’s getting a remake. Sort of.

People can argue whether Civilization or Master of Orion is the first “true” 4X strategy game, but either way MicroProse founded and popularized the genre.

What happened to them: They were bought out by Spectrum HoloByte. And then sold to Hasbro Interactive. Which was subsequently swallowed up by Infogrames. Which in turn became Atari Interactive. I don’t think we can say there’s anything left of the original team or company culture that brought about those games, but at least some of the franchises live on. Compared to the other companies in this list, this is actually a relatively happy ending.

Looking Glass Studios

What made them important: They created the System Shock games, which were the grandfather of the popular BioShock series. The also created Thief, the first major stealth game. Their employee roster was like a “Dream Team” collection of some of the smartest folks in the industry at that time: Seamus Blackley, Marc LeBlanc, Ken Levine, and Warren Spector, among others.

What happened to them: Setting up shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts and hiring a bunch of MIT graduates is a great way to create these smart, innovative, “thinking person’s” shooters. It’s also a great way to spend yourself into oblivion. They flamed out and went broke in 1999. Alas.

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Westwood Studios

What made them important: Eye of the Beholder is a classic and served as my introduction to Dungeons & Dragons on the computer, but I don’t think the game has any progeny on the shelves today. I think a first-person, party-oriented, turn-based RPG would be an impossible pitch in today’s market. (You could claim that something like Dragon Age is a descendant, but I think that would be a stretch.)

But what solidified Westwood’s place in history is the fact that they basically invented the Real-Time Strategy genre. Bits of the idea had surfaced in earlier games, but Westwood’s Dune II gave us the full package: Build a base, harvest resources, make dudes, and kill the enemy base. (Yes, Dune II – they invented a new genre in the process of making a sequel. Man, do I miss those days.) After Dune they went on to create the Command & Conquer games.

What happened to them: They were purchased by Electronic Arts in 1998, and closed by EA in 2003. The silver lining is that EA admitted their mistake and CEO John Riccitiello took responsibility for the once-successful company flaming out under his management. They seem to have mended their ways, and BioWare has fared much better in their service since then. Hm, admitting fault and changing direction? I disagree with Riccitiello from time to time, but this is a pretty good example of why he’s a class act compared to other guys I could mention.

Activision

What made them important: Before Activision was a multi-billion dollar publisher it was actually a feisty little indie company. Strange, I know. Back in the 1970s, a number of programmers became upset with Atari. They made games for the Atari 2600, but didn’t get any credit or receive any additional compensation if they produced a blockbuster. Like the movie stars of just a few decades before, they became aware that they were worth many times what they were being paid. They realized this, and their employers didn’t. In these situations, things rarely go well for the employer.

These programmers jumped ship and started up the world’s first third-party developer, and began producing games that were more fun, engaging, and visually appealing than the dross that Atari had been squeezing out of those same people. Apparently people work better when they’re paid well, respected, and have a stake in their work? Who knew, right? It was a complete inversion of what we’re seeing now on the Wii: The console owner was churning out shovelware and third-party developers were making solid gold.

What happened to them: I think it’s one of the strangest tales I’ve read in this business. Activision wanted to diversify into boring old non-videogame software, so they changed their name to Mediagenic, which to me sounds like the name of an evil corporation in a cheesy mid-80s sci-fi flick. They lost a lawsuit for patent infringement. (Wikipedia doesn’t say what the patent was for, and this story is actually news to me 22 years after the fact.) Low on cash after the lawsuit, they were bought up by an investment group run by… guess who. They filed chapter 11, renamed themselves again, restructured the company, moved the company, and then began buying up other companies.

And so thirty years after the first third-party indie company was born out of a desire to see more quality games and more money in the hands of developers, that same company is now the mega-giant publisher that seems to be at odds with those ideas in everything it does. Imagine if thirty years from now World of Goo developer 2D Boy was a monolithic publisher that ate companies for breakfast and crapped out sequels in the afternoon.

You can’t make stuff like this up.

Now get off my lawn.

Shamus Young is the guy behind Twenty Sided, DM of the Rings, Stolen Pixels, Shamus Plays, and Spoiler Warning. Beat that, fanboy.

Activision: We Don’t Have an Ego Problem

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