The chaotic business situation of the mid-1990s was matched by dramatic changes in the kinds of games being made. Adventure games went from a showcase genre to a niche in just a few years, a major problem at a company like Sierra.
In 1999, Roberta Williams, designer of King's Quest, gave an unfortunate interview, complaining about the changing focus of the "average" computer game player, associating an decreased of computers with a decrease in interest in her kind of of games, adventures. "I think in the last five or six years [Ed. note: since 1999], the demographics have really changed, now this is my opinion, because computers are less expensive so more people can afford them."
Cole has a more measured take on the genre changes: "In contrast (to adventure games), FPS games required much less artwork and custom programming. Today that is no longer true -- FPS game budgets have taken off just as much as adventure games -- but initially the formula for a publisher was simple. 'Spend less developing the game and sell more copies.'"
But business and genre changes weren't the only motivators. Exhaustion was another, simpler reason to make a change. "I made RPGs from 1982 until 2001 -- that's a long, long time. After that period, I didn't want to make anything with a sword in it ever again. I was tired of it" says Brenda Brathwaite, who spent nearly two decades with Wizardry.
The constantly restructuring game industry didn't develop big-name replacements, either. The focus on single or small numbers of famous designers was replaced by a focus on the development studios.
It's not like Valve, Bethesda, Blizzard, or BioWare don't have their own designers, who may be as good or better than more famous designers. It's that their corporate names are bigger than any individuals – the days of major titles like Gary Grigsby's War In Russia, Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri (A Brian Reynolds Game), or Roberta Williams' Phantasmagoria are gone.
In a sign of the times, even though EA brought in American McGee to work on the sequel to American McGee's Alice this year, his name was lowered from the title down to the bottom of the box for Alice: Madness Returns. Instead, the names which have come to most commonly represent the industry are those of businesspeople, like Bobby Kotick of Activision or Mark Pincus of Zynga.
What happened to the designers after they left their original studios, whether intentional or not, tends to fall into three categories: they left gaming entirely (though sometimes temporarily), they founded their own studios, or they made their way through an unstable industry. By the late '00s, entry into the social/casual sphere became an obvious fourth trend.
As a general rule, the earlier a designer made games, the more likely they were to completely leave. William Crowther, of Adventure fame, made that game and then stopped. Andrew Greenberg, namesake of Wizardry's villain Werdna, is now a lawyer.
Roberta Williams stopped making games entirely after leaving Sierra, and has expressed interest in novel-writing. And then there's the tragic story of Dani Bunten, designer of M.U.L.E., who died of lung cancer in 1998. Her gift for simple, compelling multiplayer games would have fit in perfectly in the current era of every game platform offering accessible, cheap games, from Steam, to WiiWare, to the App Store.
Lori and Corey Cole have found themselves outside of the game industry for the last decade or so, but they've found a unique venue for a continuation of the Quest for Glory ideals: The School for Heroes, a website reminiscent of the "Famous Adventurer's Correspondence School" which made up the Quest for Glory games' manuals.
The School for Heroes was initially developed as publicity for a potential new game, but while the game stalled, the site itself actually succeeded at developing a community of fans and would-be heroes. Cole blogs at the site, providing "Quest Logs" which take the form of real-world advice.
Some posts are general advice or discussion, such as one on Atlas Shrugged, but other examples are more specifically game-oriented, like one on lessons to be learned from tanking in MMORPGs. Although Cole says the site exists mostly for the fans, he also says it has game-related advantages: "It is also a way for me to hone my writing skills and for Lori to teach and do art."
The Coles aren't the only former developers who have found themselves in a surprising relationship to the game industry: Robert Woodhead, programmer on the original Wizardry, was elected to EVE Online's Council of Stellar Management.
But for those who stayed in the industry, forming their own studio was perhaps the most common route, with dozens of famous examples: John Romero and Warren Spector founded Ion Storm, and then later Loot Drop and Junction Point, respectively. Sid Meier and Brian Reynolds founded Firaxis (with the latter moving on to Big Huge Games and then Zynga), Tim Schafer founded Double Fine. There are many more examples. While some of these studios folded, many of them have consistently developed some of the best games of our era, maintaining and even enhancing their developers' reputations.