The Best “Rise And Fall” Stories Of The Video Game Industry

When it comes to the video game industry, I have a weakness for “inside-baseball” style stories. Obviously, it’s better  for everyone when a company completes its development cycle and successfully releases its game. The only problem with all the successes is that few of them make for interesting reading. “We all worked very hard and then we released our product” is rather dull, even if it’s the goal everyone strives to attain day after day.

No, what makes a good “inside the industry” story are the companies that don’t make it; the ones that go down in flames. What goes on in those companies is as interesting to an observer of human behavior as it is to speculate about their products and what could have been.

Obviously, taking an interest in this topic has to come with an understanding that these were not characters in a book, but real people whose lives and livelihoods were affected by these events. Nevertheless, the collapse of these two companies was, in my opinion, nothing short of spectacular. I think it’s worth revisiting the stories of their respective demises.

Ion Storm
Article: A hardcore elegy for Ion Storm (Salon.com)
Original publication date: Jan 2, 2002.
Choice quote:

No place was more aptly named. John Romero was the focus of this industry love-hate affair: his popular games and extravagant lifestyle made him an icon in the industry. But with great success came great antipathy, not just for John, but also for many of his employees.

What started out as a video gamer’s heaven turned into a public hell of walkouts, firings, lawsuits and litigation. Chat rooms and Web sites devoted daily commentary to analyzing, bemoaning or laughing at every move John made. He went from being one of the industry’s most respected figures to one of its most pilloried. Few bothered to defend him or the company.

 38 Studios
Article: End Game: Inside the Destruction of Curt Schilling’s 38 Studios (Bostonmagazine.com).
Original publication date: August 2012.
Choice quote:

Schilling’s harshest critic in the online exchange was Bill Mrochek, the vice president of online services, whose wife required a bone marrow transplant at the time their healthcare disappeared. “Are you going to admit that your stupid hubris, pride, and arrogance would not allow you to accept that we failed — and help shut it down with dignity?” he asked Schilling.

Mrochek was talking only about 38 Studios’ dramatic final weeks, but as interviews with Schilling, members of his former staff, and others associated with the company show, he might as well have been describing 38 Studios from the moment that Schilling — lacking any business experience, but full of the same confidence, bravado, and determination that made him a baseball legend — decided he could build a billion-dollar video-game company.

If you have any other stories of game developers or publishers collapsing in a dramatic fashion, feel free to share your links in the comments. I’d be interested in seeing what else is out there.

If you’d like an even deeper look at Ion Storm’s demise, I recommend Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture by David Kushner. It’s a fascinating read.

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4 thoughts on “The Best “Rise And Fall” Stories Of The Video Game Industry”

  1. I also read Masters of Doom! That was a really good book, full of drama, and it makes a great counterpoint to Pirates of Silicon Valley and the Steve Jobs biography.

    I had the opportunity to sit next to Tom Kalinske, CEO of Sega America from 1991-1996. He told me some of his stories from the trenches, like how they carpet bombed Bentonville, AR with Sega advertisements to make Walmart sell the Genesis in their stores. He also told me about how the whole “Blast Processing” thing was just a name the marketing team cooked up to make their advertisements pop. The upshot of all that is that Sega really did well in the 16-bit era, gaining marketshare where there previously had been none.

    But if you want to talk about a fall, Sega had a doozy. Sega CD, 32x, Sega Saturn? They spectacularly botched three major hardware rollouts in a row. Releasing the Saturn months early without notifying developers or retailers? Can you imagine the lack of thought that went into a scheme like that?

    Your blog doesn’t allow links, but do a google search for “Sega-16 Tom Kalinske” to find an interesting interview where he talks all about the rise and fall of Sega. I think you’ll find it really interesting!

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