This will be a fun little experiment. I’ve compiled a list of famous game publishers and decided to come up with a slogan for each, reflecting both the good and the bad of the company. Below each will be an explanation for the sometimes esoteric concepts. I thought it would be an enjoyable way to look at the views of each company in the history of games so far and remind us generally about these entities and how histories (or at least I) view them.
3DO, The Goals Are Clear
3DO was built around a mission statement, one that they always felt was clear to everybody. Overtime that message has become muddied, but their openness and decentralization as a publisher was a central tenant of their philosophy. While this brought a lot of raw talent to their side, both engineers and software creators, the plan that Trip Hawkins made never adapted properly to the changing market situation. Even after abandoning the 3DO hardware platform, the rigidness of the company in it’s ambition left it as a largely irrelevant player by the end. This slogan also reflects their large amount of general military themes such as in Might and Magic and Army Men.
Acclaim, Riding the Zeitgeist
If there’s one thing you can say for Acclaim, it’s that they were in the right time and place to make an impact. Through their licensing strategies and rapid growth, they developed major credibility in the business so far as a capitalized entity. However, they exemplified the issues of careless development. They had no creative spark and followed every trend they could get their hands on, from The Simpsons to Dave Mirra. Sometimes they caught the wave and rode it high, like on some of their 16-bit Spiderman games, but most of the time they got only as far as the license could carry them, almost single-handedly turning off a generation of gamers to movie-based video games.
Accolade, Running the Rings
As a company known primarily for it’s sports games, it’s proper that Accolade would be circling the bases. That did put them in a bit of a rut that was hard to climb out of, but while active they provided the deepest professional sports simulations available. Each release put the polish on a complicated system such as in Hardball or Test Drive. There were other releases of course containing similar depth like the space-spanning Star Control. Action was always an important layer to their systems-driven material.
Activision, Accessible Action
In so many ways, the mainstream of video games has been defined by Activision. From their early pick up and play sports titles on the Atari VCS, the world-linked exploration in the first two Pitfall games, to casual games in Shanghai, retro revivals in Return to Zork, and of course to today with Call of Duty. Sure, through each of these points Activision evolved as a company, but it is the only pre-1983 Home Video Game Crash publisher in it’s original form still functioning. Being accessible though leaves many promising concepts unable to get much coverage, leading to a homogenization in action titles. In many ways Activision is the big conservative in the business with almost an incentive to see things stay the way they are. Accessibility builds out of the refinement and their games certainly do shine, at whatever cost to developers that takes.
Atari Inc, The Palace of Serendipity
It would be unfair to say that Atari was only ever luck in it’s pioneering status, but circumstance played a huge roll in what they were able to tap into. They had an unstable identity, never able to build a brand around anything more solid than the vague ambition of high technology. Is there really any easy way to describe Atari like there is with many of these other’s? They were the king not so much because games like Asteroids and Adventure garnered a huge amount of recognition in and of themselves, but because they worked from this buy-in base which grew from happenstance primarily. That good luck ran out of course and left their kingdom divided.
Bally/Midway, Gloss and Sheen
Perhaps it’s just me, but Bally immediately evokes the feeling of a glossy shine reflecting off of a machine. Whether that be an immaculate arcade cabinet or a slot machine, Bally means bank. They were huge believers in presentation from well before their first video games and upped the ante with coin-ops like Tron and Spy Hunter. Even if the games weren’t the most impressive – which sometimes they were – they knew how to market extraordinarily well. That sheen though sometimes did cover up games that were often frustrating or less than polished. Their endless Japanese imports and many of their internal team’s games could be a lower standard of quality. In both defining and setting themselves apart from the traditional arcade view though, Bally was at the forefront.
Brøderbund, The Auteur’s Paradise
It’s easy to forget just how much Brøderbund fostered some of the industry’s most lauded talent without ever actually having them on staff. Dan Gorlin with Choplifter, Jordan Mechner with Prince of Persia, Will Wright with SimCity, and the Miller Brothers with Myst are all successes Brøderbund got to reap the benefits from, but only on a superficial level. They never attempted to hold onto these people and eventually had to shed their franchises as well, largely because they acted more as a safe haven rather than a publisher outright. Their system allowed for so much creative growth of their developers, but at the end left them stranded.
Capcom, Expanding Horizons
Expansive is the operative word when it comes to Capcom. Not that their model was ever based on becoming the largest company, but they sought to travel every possible road while they were ahead. If you think about the general themes of Capcom games, they are more diverse than many publishers in the industry with larger product lines. Themes like military in 1942, sci-fi in Mega Man, martial arts in Street Fighter, gothic horror in Resident Evil, and so on. fitting with this theme, they were one of the premiere companies in exploring how much value one could get out of a game without having to simply make it bigger. Their experiences were expansive and rich in a way that grows past their arcade roots. This strategy of development left them on very rock ground at the end of the 2000s and has certainly overworked some of their developers, but a commitment to consistent quality is what many people expect from Capcom.
Codemasters, The Precious Pillars
The resilient Codemasters are the pillars of the British industry, holding up it’s shakey roof with a reliable stream of releases. They are precious because of the franchises they mold and the childlike wonder that these properties involve. Those such as Dizzy and Micro Machines are valuable, if perhaps already tarnished, properties which keep interest in the publisher from long-time fans. Codemasters is best known for it’s racing game series such as F-1 and equally hold the fidelity of those games precious as the prop to their propping up as well.
Coleco, Strong and Reliable
Coleco in it’s brief run publishing video games made a strong impression of giving the customer exactly what they wanted. Specifically, that was in high fidelity arcade ports which played incredibly strongly compared to the aging Atari VCS and complex Intellivision. These strengths though left them rigid and locked into place as interesting new concepts found themselves unable to push through the barriers of management from their external developers. Those at Coleco believed so much in their own strength that they had to simply focus on reliability and not on new steps forward. Ultimately from a design standpoint Coleco isn’t particularly notable today, but for players who knew what they wanted, they were the perfect publisher.
Data East, Always Playing Catch-Up
It’s unfair to say that Data East never had any sort of original concepts, as in fact they were quite innovative. In a classic dilemma of firsts, the company was usually the progenitor of concepts such as bar meters in sports games in Tournament Pro Golf and fighting games in Karate Champ, but they never achieved the status of popularizer. Instead they’re best known for refined takes on concepts like Lock ‘N Chase for Pac-man clones and Fighter’s History as a Street Fighter II competitor. Their games never achieved a true distinctive style next to the likes of SNK even if many of them were very good. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride.
Eidos, Adventures in Anomalies
Every so often there’s a publisher that really makes an impression upon it’s audience, and Eidos was certainly one of those. The games they published, in an effort to build franchises out of the content, were equal parts amazing and bizarre. Tomb Raider was a lucky break, but following that they had tons of unique developments from upstarts. The Thief series, Anachranox, Deus Ex, Timesplitters, Hitman, and Legacy of Kain all came under the auspices of Eidos’ experimental phase. However, in part because all of these games were PC games, they never achieved the success needed to prop up the company long term. Their existence itself was an anomaly, a victim of troubled publishers combining into a giant corporate structure that knew very little about video games. It was fun while it lasted, but Eidos had to change to survive.
Electronic Arts, It’s All in Good Business
Electronic Arts has always felt that they play fair, at least in terms of growing to become successful. There’s no doubt that they make decisions which leave people angry and often jobless, but it is clear enough that anything under the EA umbrella gets at least a chance to survive. Ultimately the company sees itself as a very serious business and any dalliances in experimentation are always a directive to explore new markets. Madden itself was an experiment that paid off, as were their publishing of games from Bullfrog, Origin, and Maxis. These acquisitions allowed for continued existence up until the profit return no longer looked promising enough to continue to a high standard. Never mistake, despite their ideological origins Electronic Arts has always wanted to be successful, and they always knew what they would mean.
Enix, The House of Authors
Established initially on the book publisher model, something about Enix has always seemed very old-time and rustic to me. Of course many of their games like Dragon Quest and ActRaiser are old-school fantasy in their styling, but their commitment to storytelling exemplified in games like EVO: Search for Eden and the Gaia trilogy seem very author-centric. This has led to the company in it’s existence having a very top-down structure, leading things such as the Dragon Quest series to mainly be built on a strict mandate rather than allow it’s contracted developers to shine on their own merits. By it’s nature though, Enix has had to give credit to it’s major developers just as authors receive, opening the gate for other Japanese companies to do likewise.
Exidy, Dynamic and Erratic
There’s no arcade company perhaps more wildly experimental than Exidy. Part of this was due to their close-knit nature as a company, leading to large shifts in interest and ability with the swinging of the market trends. The company always sought out the unserved niches, whether that was in light gun games with Crossbow, large experience games in Star Fire, or D&D inspired romps with Venture. The company had an unmistakable aesthetic, almost always shewing towards single pixel dots for eyes and a jagged edge to all objects. It spoke to the ferocity of their craft and ultimately the lack of professionalism which would bring them down.
Hudson Soft, The Worksmen Company
Just try to imagine what it was like working for Hudson Soft. Early on they were already Japan’s largest game software publisher and even then they had a lot of hardware. While famously the PC Engine system was their design, that console itself built on successive hardware projects for Japanese home computers, and the PC Engine itself would get continued iterations almost every year. On top of that they released the majority of the software for the PC Engine with classics like Bonk’s Adventure, was a major supporter of the Famicom and Super Famicom with their Bomberman series, and were often the first major Japanese publisher to any new platform like the Gameboy and Sega Saturn. This prolific output has given us a good view of the company from the outside, but the hard work done within has never really been contextualized. In that sense Hudson was a very traditional Japanese company and despite powerful marketing has never really shown a great deal of personality from a historical perspective.
Infocom, Pure Craftsman
It’s clear now that Infocom never really understood the business end of their company. Even if they had stayed the course with their successful strategy in the early period, the market would have got ahead of them before long. They reveled in their craft, but not the way that people would approach it. An author’s voice really shines through every Infocom games. Obvious examples like Hitchhiker’s guide aside, there’s a reason that folks like Steve Meretzky and Brian Moriarty are still lauded for what they brought to interactive storytelling. The narrative was the craft, they simply thought too little about what bringing that narrative to people truly meant.
Infogrames, Lock, Stock, and Barrel
The slogan for Infogrames reflects both their wide-ranging approach to become the largest international publisher as well as their artistic flirtation with old weaponry in their game settings. From Alone in the Dark to North and South, their games have generally had a rustic sort of feel to them, perhaps a product of being from France and having the Early Modern Era as a greater part of their cultural understanding. This wasn’t exclusive of course, games like Captain Blood and their Disney titles were a big part of their success, but less so their identity. As with a musket rifle though, loading too much in the barrel will lead to bad consequences, such was the fate of the wildly disparate French company.
Jaleco, Quirky Grabag
Always the company to try something strange, Jaleco is almost a symbol of what Americans think about Japanese game developers. From the wild genre mixing of pinball quest to converting point and click adventures like Maniac Mansion to the NES, one could always count on something surprising from a Jaleco game. They were early pioneers in 3D arcade games as well with BOTTS and EDS being an interesting alternative to Namco’s contemporary flat-shaded games. Ultimately Jaleco never had any sort of big hit, with even their Bases Loaded series being pretty far down in the overall list of good baseball simulations available. Eventually they were out of tricks and there was no brand to support at that stage.
Koei, To Our Level
As innovator in both grand strategy and RPGs, it’s hard to be on the level of Koei. Their games have always been about so many moving pieces, including Dynasty Warriors. Statistical elements have always been a part of it as well, bringing a more literal “level” noun into it. Their renowned strategy epics Nobunaga’s Revenge and Romance of the Three Kingdoms were technical marvels in their own way in just the sheer mass and variety was achieved even on the console ports. As with many technical minded game studios though, a large portion of the audience is alienated off the bat by the subject matter, let alone the game. It was a strange combo when they joined with Tecmo 2009, but it was a great compliment.
Konami, Smooth and Controlled
From a fan perspective it would be hard to call Konami’s relationship with the outside world “smooth”, but internally the company has always been very steady about their corporate outlook. They have managed each transition they have had to make with a sort of elegance that few companies have been able to. Whether that was moving onto the Playstation with their Metal Gear and Castlevania franchises, or whether it was in exiting the arcade market with their Bemani games. As a feature of the game as well, smoothness has always been a hallmark of Konami’s action titles. The playstyle of Symphony of the Night and their Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Beat ’em Ups are both legendary and overshadow the fact that they were resilient in giving credit to their smaller teams even through the nineties. The company knows how to exert control.
Mattel Electronics, Highbrow Software
As best shown by their George Plimpton ad campaign, Mattel Electronics always felt that they were in a higher class of game development. While this grew out of a genuine desire to try something new, they also had to contend with the inability to gain any arcade licenses until late into the lifespan of the Intellivision. Most of the original games for the console aren’t even traditional action-oriented. Astrosmash aside there’s the litany of highbrow sports games next to Utopia, Space Armada, and B-17 Bomber. These crazy experimentations in interface were largely facilitated by the Intellivision’s keypad allowing for so many possible inputs. However, it’s completely fair to say that they overdid it, alienating a large portion of the action-centric audience that preffered the simplicity of Atari games.
Microprose, Stories in Systems
Sid Meier really set the direction for Microprose without ever attempting to have a strong influence over it. Their strategy faire mixed with a storytelling aspiration in games like Pirates and Civilization that was quite astray from average games of that type. Even their straight flight and nautical simulations had a sort of heft behind them in context, perhaps best explained in the manuals to each game. Overtime though the franchise reliance of the company became a bottleneck to new concepts and the interpersonal stories within that ecosystem made the artists eventually leave. Their focus on systemic storytelling though only becomes more relevant by the day.
Mindscape, The Golden Leftovers
If every major publisher rejected you, Mindscape was usually at the top of the second tier. This isn’t to say that they just got the dregs of software, in fact a lot of their catalog is still remembered rather fondly if perhaps never top tier. Whether looking at the ICOM adventure suite starting from Deja Vu, their many ports of Paperboy, or the variant ports of off-brand Maxis titles like SimAnt there’s never a dull moment in Mindscape’s history. The excessive porting however showed an uneasiness in the company, perhaps from eating all those leftovers. Their high-middle tier position was based on finding interesting niches and once those were being handled internally by the original publishers, they had nowhere to go.
MUSE Software, Programmers Action
It’s easy to see a company like MUSE Software as one chasing trends, making off-brand arcade ports that play nicely but seem almost primitive in their barebones depth for a computer game. True, while their catalogs were impressive demonstrations, they never achieved the trance-inducing highs of other early publishers in that vein like Sirius Software. Aside from their ABMs and Space Taxis though were the enduring spirits of RobotWar and Castle Wolfenstein. In these games, not only was that depth present and able to be grasped, but the action element was very impressive for that style of game. The mind of a programmer, best expressed in RobotWar, really shows the personality aof those behind the company.
Namco, Intensely Character Driven
Namco is full of characters. From it’s game stars to it’s game heroes, they have gone to very interesting places and established a wide span of identities in the same way that Nintendo is lauded for. Even the less iconography heavy games like Ridge Racer and Xevious have a high recognition value due to the care taken in building something more from the franchise. This has also lead though to each era of Namco being very much defined by it’s own characters, fluctuating greatly as major players shift in and out. While always successful, they have often misunderstood the appeal of their franchises like Pac-Man and diluted their most valuable resources as a result. As long as Namco still lives though, it’s characters do.
Nintendo, The Playground
There’s no surprise in the best way to define Nintendo. Playfulness, delightful experience, child-like excitement. All are words accurate to describe the company. To use the term “playground” though implies certain things. First of all, a limited possibility space which directs the fun. Two, each activity in itself being fun and being able to exchange between those things rapidly. Third, the social hierarchy context that comes with the playground. Nintendo is not unusual as a Japanese company in terms of it’s work environment and therefore it has stagnated as new voices try to break through the senior-based system on Mario and Zelda as well as try to expand the playground with games like Metroid. They create spaces where fun can go for hours and hours, so long as it doesn’t disturb anyone beyond those strict boundaries.
Ocean Software, Lateral Licensors
Ocean Software would often take unusual moves towards it’s licensed games, as that was pretty much all they were known for. Their strategy for genre recognition was to reach for as wide a breadth as possible, whether in the realm of film or the arcade. For a while they controlled releases for top properties like Batman, Robocop, and arcade games from Taito. Obviously many of these conversions were not exactly stellar, but none were simply bad as a result of minimal effort put into a simple concept. The catalog of Ocean is a grabbag of genre mixing that no safe publisher would try out. That was probably an affect of their different ecosystem as a British company and even if it didn’t make them a distinctive publisher, it did give them a lot of value.
Sega, Pushing Forwards
No one can ever claim Sega slowed down. The company, as big as it was, never had a vast amount of internal development staff and therefore would have to always seek a new horizon in order to support it’s infrastructure. The heady, high-pumped image of Sega from Hang-On to Sonic the Hedgehog is just one side of them though. There were also the sometimes vicious quality standards they put upon themselves, as misdirected as they could often be. The technical marvel of a project like Phantasy Star Online and Jet Set Radio undermined the fact that they couldn’t recoup development costs due to their playstyle. They always pushed forwards, but never seemed to actually look ahead well enough to avoid the pitfalls.
SNK, Spit and Polish
Legendary pixel art and massive arcade style games made almost every SNK game feel like in was in a world of it’s own. Fatal Fury, Ikari Warriors, and Metal Slug all have a similar polished feel compared to their contemporaries as well as that gritty edge which their themes provided. That’s the “spit” part of it. SNK always seemed rough and ready to fight in the dirt if required. This core gamer attitude engendered them a lot of respect and franchise sustainability, yet cut them off from new audiences. They were never able to move on from the adrenaline-soaked arcade style which had made them famous and while their experiences were impressive in that context, they were less so in the home.
Sierra On-Line, Princes of Presentation
Technology was the ethos of Sierra On-Line from the start. Their adventure games show this best, but even their nonstandard franchises like Incredible Machine and SWAT were all about impressive technical marvels. This wasn’t to say that they always had the best defined and most memorable art styles, but rather they knew how to present things the right way. The sculpted pallets of Sierra games like King’s Quest would be immediately identifiable on a fuzzy CRT as well as through a bad pair of speakers with distinctive, cinematic music stylings. This layer of polish often obfuscated a completely hollow game beneath, almost held up purely on the strength of their setting rather than even the franchise. Amidst the quagmire though are images and experiences which are unforgettable, even if not always top-tier.
Sony, Shaping the Mainstream
Sony always evaluates games under it’s label as an extension of their mission to infiltrate mainstream culture. That started with FMV games, grew to encompass staples like Gran Turismo, and tested the waters with the likes of Shadow of the Colossus. As a company, they want to remain as a relevant talking point, so a release structure is built around this ecosystem. They gave life to giant MMOs like Everquest and Planetside while that was a mainstream success, but now have shed them as the market turns. Sony doesn’t tend to guide the market like a lot of companies insofar as their game publishing. Instead they try to sit comfortably on top of a market area without a great deal of effort purely due to their investment. It’s a dangerous line, but it hasn’t sunk them yet.
Squaresoft, Revealing Their Depth
Inauspicious little Squaresoft never let on the appearance of it’s lengthy and complex experiences from the off. The first Final Fantasy famously has a fake-out quest before the opening credits and the innocuous starting to their major franchises like Mana and SaGa appear to be smaller than they are. The trick lies in their easily grasped game concepts, which even their earlier work like 3-D Worldrunner shows. Square never tried to frontload things, though that could hurt them. Their depth sometimes became a little off the rails with the later Final Fantasy games and especially with Xenogears, leaving bad tastes to new players for the whole genre. It took a greater reevaluation of that depth to stabilize their properties under Enix.
Strategic Simulations Inc, What It Says on the Tin
I really couldn’t think of anything more appropriate from which to describe Strategic Simulations Inc. In all the best and worst ways, it’s exactly what most people think. SSI could almost be thought of as what IBM would be if they published computer games. Iterative, puzzlingly deep works of methodical strategy gameplay ripped straight from the pages of Avalon Hill. Even the Goldbox games fit this description. While Pools of Radiance and Eye of Beholder pulled in more fans than the games would have on their own, their catalog was always more about the Panzer General and Steel Panthers series. Just like IBM, SSI was unable to move with the winds and adjust their business model because it had worked for so long, leaving them destitute once the D&D license faded away.
Sunsoft, A Roughened Jewel
Despite status as a premiere publisher on Nintendo systems, often one has to go digging for Sunsoft because of being buried in the history by players still substantial today. Through the muck though are classics like Master Blaster, Gimmick, and Chameleon Twist alongside polished failures like Faster’s Quest and Atlantis no Nazo. Their games were rough around the edges though even in their time, often ashewing standard conventions of platformers to try something new. This would often include not thoroughly explaining their often interesting mechanics, leaving some players stuck. They mixed genres and concepts unlike any early console developer though and really showed the strength of their form from how much they are held in reverence today.
Taito, Abstract and Original
Some publishers never go the easy route, like Taito. While always chasing that larger success, almost every single game of their’s was often too abstract to catch on. Even something like Space Invaders with it’s unrefined characters is more abstract than something like Pac-Man. Games like Qix and Arkanoid have no definable character and play on genre conventions in a totally unique way. The closest the company ever got to a mascot were the characters in Bubble Bobble, but that game was too hard to establish a brand out of the same way Namco and Nintendo were doing. Largely the issue with Taito was they ran out of steam, unable to find true creative talent inside or outside the company to sustain themselves. A sad fate for such a groundbreaking company.
Technos, In Your Face!
The image of Kunio-Kun punching served as the logo for Technos for a while and it was wholly appropriate. Everything about the attitude of the company spoke to this need for attention and the strong brand-building aspect behind that. Double Dragon, River City Ransom, and super dodge Ball have higher aesthetic recognition than many games from that time. The physicality of those games in their combat also played a huge role in the simplistic, but defining feel of Technos games. every game they made did feel a bit like a punch to the face though. Difficulty mixed with interlocking systems which needed to be tweaked the right way can leave one disoriented. After a while though, it’s hard not to give props to the spunky Technos.
Tecmo, Paced Appropriately
Tecmo was a very diverse company in terms of the things they tackled and those that they tackled well. Best remembered for their NES breakouts Tecmo Bowl and Ninja Gaiden, they also produced arcade masterworks like Solomon’s Key and Rygar. One unifying element of Tecmo games tend to be their immaculate pacing. The speed of the game and the rate of discovery seem to be central tenants of their design and it pays off beautifully. In keeping with their aims for success though, Tecmo was never bold in striking out to find new hits. It was a steady stream, yet never took off to the extent that a business growing at the rate of the video game industry needed to. Their polish was sacrificed and that left their identity tarnished.
Ubisoft, Communicating the Abstract
Endless jokes can be had about how “weird” Ubisoft games are, but if there’s one thing that I see in them, it’s all about the manner of communication. On one level it’s crossing a language barrier, yet I also see a need to communicate something that no other game companies seem to be offering. The expressive landscapes of early games from them like Rayman and Unreal are a reflection on ideas not easily understood. The Tom Clancy series of games get across the notion of the difficulties of semi-authentic combat which other publishers lean to either side of. Assassin’s Creed wants to communicate history in a way that a player can participate in. Most of the time these attempts only make a strange impact upon their players, but occasionally they strike a chord with the play-minded and bring a new field of understanding to the game space.
Westwood Studios, In Your Mind’s Eye
The fantasy that Westwood Studios sought to deliver is one that most game companies wished they could do so elegantly. Commanding armies across the and of Arrakis in Dune II, playing the role of Decker in Blade Runner, fighting modern Nazis in Command and Conquer. These fantasies play out in a way which is perfectly suited to the imagination, daring to take on interaction styles that very few publishers were willing to at the time. In their own mind’s eye, Westwood saw itself as a powerful player due to their background in creating these fully realized works, but they lost sight of how other’s viewed them. Their catalog slipped once the strength of their properties were shallower than expected, ultimately leaving Command and Conquer as their only viable fallback. For that time they were making games like Eye of the Beholder and Dragonstrike though, they perfectly evoked the fantasy of their subject matters.
Williams Electronics, Visceral and Physical
It’s easy to blame Williams Electronics for it’s own shortcomings. Their relentless focus on a high-octane experience which exemplified quarter-eating in titles like Smash TV and Robotron 2084 were very much a part of their time, unable to be expanded to the needs of a changing market. At the same time though, it was something that is still respected and desired. A game like Defender in fancier clothing would find an audience today, and certainly Mortal Kombat is still going strong. The legacy of Williams has proved there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the arcade formula, just needed for a particular time and place for it to succeed. They produced some of the most iconic pieces of adrenaline-fueled macho software that has ever been seen, all without ever truly becoming cheesy.