The video game industry has always been a volatile and unstable place to make a living. It was dangerous in the 80’s, and maybe even more so now. Games cost vast amounts of money, and has become a business model that demands significant returns on a publishers investment if a development team wants to keep their jobs. Even when you create a remarkable game, there’s no guarantee your job is safe; a difficult lesson that the inhabitants of this list all learned the hard way. These hardworking teams won’t go unremembered, though. The following is the top ten best last works – “Swan Songs” if you will – from developers before they shut their doors.
10. Homefront (Kaos Studios)
A tragic victim of being a military FPS and not being Call of Duty, Homefront played like a more polished and cinematic version of Kaos Studios’ first title, Frontline: Fuel of War. It’s story was a gritty and bleak tale about a near future United States on the losing end of a war with North Korea on American soil. Its backdrop and narrative were breaths of fresh air in a genre that is readily flooded with pseudo-current event inspired warfare, and it spoke to the semi-nihilist in all of us. It even sold moderately well for a big budget game; THQ proudly beat their chest when bragging about the 2.6 million copies it shipped. But Kaos couldn’t survive under the weight of THQ’s implosion, and the reported sequel was sold away to CryTek during THQ’s asset firesale.
9. Unit 13 (Zipper Interactive)
A rather straight forward Vita debut shooter, Zipper took their third person talents to this small screen with a bit of pulpy grit. A wildly polarizing game, it was commonly criticized for its lack of story structure and mission variety and strange A.I., but praised almost universally for its tight and responsive controls, something Zipper had proven good at after four SOCOM games. Moving 300,000 units worldwide, it was one of the better selling titles in the Vita’s first year, but with the middling success of MAG and SOCOM 4, Sony couldn’t afford to keep Zipper open without a gangbuster. They were “realigned” in late March of 2012
8. God Hand (Clover Studio)
Before Platinum Games was redefining what being weird and over-the-top really meant, Clover Studio wore the crown for making the strangest stuff on Earth. God Hand enjoyed a rabid cult following after it launched for the PS2 back in 2006, and the crazy action beat ‘em up still holds a place in many hearts of the genre’s biggest followers. Under all of the glitz, it really was a run of the mill action game, but it was filled to the brim with so much personality and humor that many of its fans over-looked its mediocrity. Clover heads couldn’t really vibe with the corporate structure of Capcom, though. That and the middling sales of God Hand and Okami before it were the catalyst for Clover’s eventual demise. Ironically enough, many Clover employees would find their way to Platinum, and continue their unique brand of madness.
7. Playstation All-Stars Battle Royale (Superbot Entertainment)
All-Stars is a complex case of the organic and degenerative cycle that the industry can really be. A collection of many of the fighting game scenes best minds came together to form Superbot with the specific intention of creating this mascot party battle game, and the attention to the form and function of fighting game design is as immaculate as this collective would lead one to assume. But it wasn’t for everyone. Either the characters weren’t nostalgic enough, or werent “Sony” enough, or the combat system wasn’t straight forward enough, or the menus were not polished enough, etc. When people played it they liked it, but normally not enough to buy it. And even though the game sold pretty well, it wasn’t the take Sony was hoping for, and the studio was shuttered, this being their only project.
6. Kingdom of Amalur: Reckoning (38 Studios)
One of the first games to spark the Online Pass debate back in the 2010, KoA became the posterboy of the real-life casualties mismanagement can cause in a studio. Developed after ex-pitcher Curt Shilling’s 38 Studios bought up Big Huge Games, (and with it the Amalur IP created by none other than R.A. Salvatore) the game was released to an initial wave of very positive reviews. But serious financial woes and unacceptable sales, as per EA’s projections, caused the studio to be shut down after the game was released. 160 employees laid off, and $50 million dollars of CEO Shilling’s own money were lost in the dismantling of the studio custom built for this RPG. The legal tangle between Shilling, 38 Studios, and the state of Rhode Island are well documented, and a sad fate for what could have been a promising franchise.
5. Halo Wars (Ensemble Studios)
People were worried the first time a Halo game would be A) not developed by Bungie and B) not a First Person Shooter. They were generally surprised when Halo Wars was actually a satisfying RTS experience, despite its lack of real tactical depth that its PC peers enjoy. Top notch cinematics and a script that was true to the Halo mantra was what carried it in the heart of its fans, and lead it to be the best selling console RTS ever (sorry N64 Starcraft). When Ensemble closed in 2009, many of its members broke off to start new, independent studios like Robot Entertainment, Bonfire Studios, and Newtoy, Inc. Oddly enough, both Bonfire and Newtoy were bought up by Zynga, and are responsible for the mobile mega publishers greatest hits.
4. Darksiders II (Vigil Games)
Vigil was never shy about attributing much of the design aspects of the original Darksiders to older games that inspired the team, most notably Zelda. So if Darksiders was a dark fantasy version of Zelda, then Darksiders II was a Diablo II inspired version of Darksiders. Upping the RPG ante with a pretty remarkable amount of loot porn design to appease any consummate dungeon diver, this game was a hugely ambitious sequel. Everything was bigger: the map, the story, the ad campaign; next to Saints Row the 3rd, this was the game that THQ was hoping to make their last stand with. Unfortunately, the game didn’t sell nearly what THQ was betting on, and Vigil would be yet another casualty of the THQ fallout.
3. Warhawk (Incognito Entertainment)
The first ever online only game on a console was the remake of Warhawk. Adding on a diverse scope of land, air, and vehicle combat over large maps, Warhawk succeeded in making the PSN look like the best place to be when it rolled out. Engaging in a dogfight a couple stories above a vicious trench battle beneath you, all happening in real time by other real players was a unique experience that has yet to truly be replicated on the console. David Jaffee (of Twisted Metal and God of War fame) left Incognito in ‘07, to form Eat, Sleep, Play, and Incognito would be officially defunct in ‘09.
2. City of Heroes (Paragon Studios)
A great example of how a rabid fanbase can keep a game alive far longer than the economics may imply, City of Heroes (and eventually City of Villains) was a superhero themed MMO that played like a more robust version of DC Universe Online. Though originally developed by Cryptic Studios, Paragon took the reigns in ‘07 after Cryptic got the call by Marvel to develop Marvel Heroes (after being sued by them). The experience of being in big groups of like-minded heroes versus big groups of people from the other side of the tracks was one ripped right out of your favorite comic books. Released about 6 months before World of Warcraft back in ‘04, it’s one of the few games to last as long as the dominant MMO, ending the service in November of 2012. The game was updated twenty-three times in total, all for free.
1. L.A. Noire (Team Bondi)
There may not be a more polarizing game on this list than L.A. Noire. A Rockstar game with so much potential, that left a lot of people wanting more at the end of the day. The team employed a great deal of new motion capture technology that helped blur the lines between traditional motion capture and real life acting. Rooting itself in a neo-noir-esque film style, akin to Chinatown or The Black Dahlia, the narrative swirled around the glitz, vice, and dangers of a post-WWII Los Angeles, with war veteran and fresh new Detective Cole Phelps as your guide. But even with its top-notch score, and high level cast of actors and voice talent, the development process was marred by scandal. Complaints about stressful and extremely poor working conditions towards their bosses at Rockstar were revealed after the studio shut down. Writer/Director Brendan McNamara cited an inability to secure another game project after L.A. Noire, and Team Bondi was sold to a production firm.