Richard Garriott. Brian Reynolds. John Romero. They're three of the biggest names in gaming history, designers, respectively, of widely acknowledged classics like Ultima, Civilization II, and Doom. They have also all moved into social games.
Garriott made the move recently, with his new company Portalarium. Reynolds joined Zynga with much fanfare a couple of years ago, designing the megahit FrontierVille, and Romero joined forces with Brenda Brathwaite (herself a veteran of the venerable Wizardry series) to create Ravenwood Fair. The two are now powering through new social titles, including one for Ubisoft, at Loot Drop.
They're not alone. There's something of an arms race as the enfants terrible of the social gaming world snap up the talent behind classic games. It helps to legitimize them in an industry that often turns up its nose at the terms "casual" or "social", and of course it also should help them make better games.
Designers who move into the social/casual game sphere aren't shy about describing their excitement about the change in scenery.
Since his company Portalarium was announced, Garriott has been describing how social games are the "Third Grand Era" in game history, after single-player and massively multi-player games, and how he is "fortunate for a third once-in-a lifetime opportunity in social media" after playing a crucial role in the first two eras.
Brathwaite described her move into social games saying "I'd had my eye on the social space both as a player and a developer since its launch, and it was just fascinating to me."
However, that's only half of the story, one told from the perspective of the social games companies. The other side of the story is equally interesting: if our most famous game designers are making social games, it means they're not making the kinds of games they made famous, for the companies they made popular. What happened, and why?
It was not a historical inevitability. Looking at designers in Japan reveals that. Many of Japan's most famous game creators are still with the companies they helped build up, such as Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tekuza at Nintendo, or Hideo Kojima at Konami.
Alternately, even some designers who left their initial companies are often making the same kinds of games, like Final Fantasy's Hironobu Sakaguchi, who left Square Enix to form Mistwalker and develop epic RPGs like Blue Dragon and The Last Story. While many Japanese designers have left their companies, it's not as rare for them to stay as it is in the West.
If there was any comparison to Miyamoto as the English-speaking face of gaming, it was Will Wright, whose SimCity and The Simsare some of the biggest and most enduring hits in the industry. Yet even Wright, who went from Maxis to EA when the former was absorbed by the latter, recently left his position, choosing instead to work on a new kind of game: Hivemind.
One notable exception is John Carmack, who is still with id Software. In a 2009 interview about the purchase of id by ZeniMax, he made some interesting claims:
"The two obvious choices [of id buyers] were Electronic Arts and Activision. They're the two giants of the industry. But we knew that we would have to go through big corporate changes if we went with them... (with ZeniMax) we could do our games the same way we have been. The corporate cultures are compatible. And when we go out to publish the games, now we will be doing that."
And, in a recent Gamasutra interview, John Carmack explained the appeal as a way to let himself get back to doing his work: "If anything, since the ZeniMax acquisition, it's been great. I don't even have to pretend to be an executive anymore. I don't have to go to board meetings. I don't have to do anything! I can just sit in my office and work."
The history of gaming is riddled with influential studios being purchased by larger publishers and then hemorrhaging talent. EA's purchase of Origin Systems famously led to the gutting of the once-proud studio, as designers like Richard Garriott and Warren Spector left for smaller companies, while Chris Roberts, of Wing Commander fame, left the industry entirely.
Things were arguably worst at Sierra, a major publisher and developer, known primarily for its adventure games. It was purchased by another company in 1996, and then when that company, which became Cendant, had massive financial irregularities, it was sold to French conglomerate Havas. The games, and game designers, suffered.
According to Jane Jensen, designer of Gabriel Knight, "They were sold to another company, and they didn't want to make adventure games anymore. I think I was the last adventure game designer who was still working there. Gabriel Knight 3 was the last big adventure that they did. They didn't want to make that kind of game anymore, so all of those game designers were just out of work."
Quest for Glory's Corey Cole gives more details about the financial situation: "We always had a somewhat rocky relationship with Sierra, between money issues and management putting me on other projects than 'our' games. We left the first time (our contract was cancelled, and I was laid off along with half the company) a few months after Quest for Glory IV shipped [Ed. Note: QFGIV was released in 1993]. We were asked to cut the budget for the next game by 20 percent, and I did not feel we could make a quality game under that budget."
However, the Coles were asked to return when demand for Quest for Glory V forced Sierra to change its mind. "Sierra brought Lori back to design the game, and the following year I joined the project as a programmer. After two years of delays (and a complete rewrite of the graphics engine), Sierra managed to ship the game, but it was at best marginally profitable due to the cost overruns..."
The irony, to Cole, was that this could have been avoided in the first place: "I actually don't think management knew that we already had a bare-bones budget, about $750K vs. the $15-20M development cost of an average game today, or the $4-5M QG5 actually cost Sierra when they finally decided to develop it."