Where Are They Now? Tracking The Trajectories Of Classic Developers

Journalist Rowan Kaiser investigates what developers of classic games, from Richard Garriott to Brenda Brathwaite to Jane Jensen and John Carmack are up to, how they got there, and why some developers have disappeared from the industry entirely.

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."

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.

Such was not usually the case with those developers who didn't form their own companies. One major exception has been Brenda Brathwaite, who has become an important voice in the industry since leaving Sir-Tech. "I worked for Atari on a D&D game, then Cyberlore on the Playboy game. Both of those studios closed, so staying wasn't an option. When I considered the possibilities after that, the idea of teaching game design was very interesting to me. So, it seemed like a logical next step." After teaching game design, and releasing board games like Train, Brathwaite entered the social sphere, first with Lolapps, and now with Loot Drop.

The social gaming dominoes started to fall when Brian Reynolds joined Zynga in June 2009, but casual games had proven attractive before then. Jane Jensen received offers to make casual games in the early 2000s, after writing a few novels, and discovered that they shared traits with her previous adventures: "I saw that the demographics of the players on casual games online were really good demographics for adventure games...That's one reason why I got into casual games. They're focused on women. That audience, they really like storytelling, and a slower pace and exploration (like adventure games)."

But Jensen hasn't just been making casual games; she's also been changing and improving them: "So I got involved in that industry and basically over time just kept taking the casual games further and further towards adventures. They're already quite adventure-y." Jensen also agreed that, other than the few years she spent on writing novels, she doesn't really feel like she ever stopped making adventure games.

Designers have also found advantages in other aspects of social and casual games. After his acrimonious split from NCsoft following the release of Tabula Rasa, Richard Garriott's announcement on the founding of his new social company Portalarium mentioned a few of these pragmatic benefits: "This really takes me back to my roots in the game business -- small development teams, low barriers to entry, affordable budgets for quality projects..."

The amount of money involved in AAA development makes these games very different for designers compared to the way top-of-the-line games were made in the '80s and early '90s.

Corey Cole describes the differences in just the late '90s: "When we started at Sierra, our games used 16-color artwork drawn on the screen. By QG5, everything was first painted, then scanned and mapped to 3D objects. One artist used to create the background and all of the objects in a 'room' of a 50-room game in a week or two. By 1998, it took five or more artists a month or two to create a single room."

Brathwaite noted that her Wizardry 8 team was 20 people, a relatively small amount at the time, and her recent social games have smaller teams of 12 or so.

While some designers may be excited to return to coding, in a recent interview, Wing Commander's Chris Roberts said that one of the things which could compel a return to game design was the opposite: "The technology base now is much more stable," he said. "These engines, whether it's Unreal Engine or CryEngine, you can use as a baseline. I could build my own engine... but in today's world I wouldn't do that. I'm not sure it's worth it [rather] than spending my time in making a better gameplay experience and building cool content."

What would it take for some of these designers to go back to making the kinds of games which made them famous? Not much, in some cases. Jane Jensen is a unique case, having completed and released Gray Matter, a gothic adventure very similar to Gabriel Knight.

But even her work with casual games is moving in that direction: "I would like to make large adventure games again, like Gabriel Knight and Gray Matter. I don't think it makes sense for the budgets to be enormous. I would like to be back in that ballpark. But we're getting there slowly, with time, with more interaction and harder puzzles, and things like that."

For Brenda Brathwaite, it's more about getting the right opportunity: " would depend. It would be a blast to make another Wizardry or another Jagged Alliance. Sometimes, it's just the designer and the opportunity. For instance, I'd love to make an RTS with John (Romero)."

Her new company, Loot Drop, is less than a year old, with its first game, Cloudforest Expedition, yet to be released. Previews suggest major leaps forward for social games, especially in terms of the sound design.

Although Richard Garriott's Portalarium has released a few games, Garriott has freely stated that they are primarily infrastructure tests as the company prepares for more ambitious work, most notably Lord British's New Britannia, a title which strongly implies an Ultima-style game.

For Corey Cole, the industry is not so welcoming or exciting, and a new Quest for Glory seems a long way away, even for a designer with his track record. "We do not have the skills to negotiate venture capital and open our own studio to make a $10 or $20 million game. That's what it would take to make a Quest for Glory with today's market expectations of graphic and game quality."

"I have talked with a few companies about working for them as a designer or programmer, but have not managed it so far. Our track record is barely enough to get a foot in the door, not enough to 'prove' that we can successfully design a great game for another company. It is frustrating, but I don't know a way around it."

It may be easy shorthand to say that in general, designers of classic games are moving into the social sphere, but that experience is hardly universal. While there have been some trends -- leaving or being forced out of the industry, forming a new company, moving into social games -- each individual designer's journey has been and continues to be unique.

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