The Microsoft corporation stretches far across the game development landscape and the root of its $230 billion mountain lies in Seattle, the childhood home of its founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen. Although formed in New Mexico in 1975, Microsoft relocated to the Seattle area in 1979.
Two years later Microsoft introduced MS-DOS for the 8086 family of processors and the software was such a success that it became the default operating system for the vast majority of PC games released over the next ten years. Late in 1995 Microsoft released Windows 95 with a revamped interface and soon after the company made a serious commitment to game support with the introduction of the DirectX APIs.
Although Microsoft had previously funded game development with titles like Flight Simulator and Age of Empires, the company knew that it would need to invest heavily in first-party development talent when it decided to enter the hardware business with the Xbox console.
Known for making thoughtful and visually ambitious games for the Macintosh, Chicago-based Bungie seemed like an odd fit for Microsoft's new console. Joining the company in 2000, the studio packed up and moved to Microsoft's campus.
As work progressed on what would become the genre-defining Halo, the studio chaffed under the Microsoft corporate structure and eventually moved to its own location in nearby Kirkland. Days after the release of Halo 3, Bungie became an independent studio again although Microsoft retains a minority stake and the two companies continue to have a close publishing relationship.
Over the years, many ex-Microsoft employees have started their own companies in the Seattle area. The founders of Valve Corporation, Gabe Newell and Mike Harrington, cut their teeth on OS development at Microsoft before forming a game development studio in 1996.
Influenced by Ultima Underworld and the new wave of first-person shooters that were hitting computer screens in the 90s, Valve created a sophisticated mix of action and narrative in Half-Life. Since then the company has become a major presence on the game development landscape, producing critically acclaimed games and developing its Steam digital distribution platform.
Leave Luck to Heaven
Like Microsoft, Nintendo of America (NOA) did not pick Seattle as the initial choice for its headquarters. Founded in 1980, the fledgling arcade machine company first set up shop in New York City but soon found itself falling behind the curve as it waited weeks for cabinets manufactured in Japan to be shipped across the Pacific, only to be delayed even longer as they made their way across the continent to the East coast.
Seattle was quickly decided on as a new head office because it had the advantage of being a port city, had a lower cost of living, and was home to a large pool of skilled workers from which to hire.
Unfortunately, NOA was saddled with a huge inventory of unsold Radarscope cabinets. While the game was a hit in Japan, it had flopped badly in America and NOA was stuck with a warehouse full of unsellable machines. Desperate to recoup its mounting losses, NOA begged Nintendo Japan to send them a new game on circuit boards that could be retrofitted into the Radarscope cabinets.
It was sent an oddly titled game called Donkey Kong that had been developed by an apprentice designer named Shigeru Miyamoto. A test machine was set up in a local bar and within days people were lined up to play the new game. Donkey Kong had saved the company. By 1982 Nintendo had outgrown its Seattle warehouse and a new a headquarters was built in nearby Redmond.
In the decades since, Nintendo of America has largely acted as a publisher and distributor, although the Nintendo Software Technology development group (Metroid Prime: Hunters) makes its home at Nintendo's Redmond campus, as does the DigiPen Institute of Technology. Originally founded in Vancouver, Canada, the institute partnered with Nintendo in 1998 to open the DigiPen Institute of Technology in Nintendo's office building.
Its graduates have gone on to work on a long list of games throughout the industry, perhaps the most famous example is the Narbacular Drop team, which after being noticed at a job fair, was tapped by Valve to develop Portal.
When PopCap Games' Bejeweled was released in 2001, the game's phenomenal success ushered in a new era of casual games, not as a genre but as a bonafide industry. Since then Seattle has become a major hub for casual and mobile game development. RealArcade, Big Fish Games, Amaze Entertainment, Big Top Games, Sandlot Games, I-Play, Mobliss, and WildTangent all make their home in the Seattle area.
UIEvolution, previously supporting Square Enix's mobile games division and now independent, is based in Bellevue. The Casual Games Association, which is also headquartered in Seattle, helps keep the industry linked and informed through its Casual Connect Magazine and yearly Casual Connect Seattle conference.
Of course, the Seattle area is home to core developers as well. Arena.net, the creators of Guild Wars is based in Seattle and Supreme Commander developer and Square Enix partner Gas Powered Games is located in Redmond. Working out of Kirkland, Monolith Productions has produced a diverse catalog of shooters including Shogo, F.E.A.R., and No One Lives Forever as well as developing its LithTech engine.
Monolith's subsidiary Touchdown Entertainment utilizes a branch of the LithTech technology that it develops separately and markets as the Jupiter EX engine. Surreal Software (The Suffering) works out of the area as does 5th Cell Media, creator of Drawn to Life and Scribblenauts. The Seattle area is also home to several military sim developers including Zipper Interactive (SOCOM), and Zombie Studios (Spec Ops, America's Army).