It's heart-breaking when a development studio responsible for a game or series that you love closes down. Often, you'll remember them for the good times - the stand-out, stellar high points of their career - and not the decisions or titles that ultimately doomed them. Inevitably though, some studios come to be defined by their final release. We've taken a look at six such developers below.
Halo Wars - Ensemble Studios
Ensemble Studios was once one of the world's best loved PC strategy developers, responsible for the impossibly addictive Age of Empires series. It was acquired by Microsoft in 2001, and later, appointed the sizeable task of turning one of Xbox's best loved franchises into a strategy game. Interest in Halo Wars was high - Halo began life as a strategy game, after all - and everything was coming up Milhouse for Ensemble. Then, in 2008, Microsoft Studios boss Phil Spencer sent over a fateful message: all non-essential staff were laid off with immediate effect, while the rest were offered incentives to finish the project and support it post-release. The entire team was eventually shuttered in 2009.
Remarkably, there's little bitterness from key former Ensemble staff. Paul Bettner, a 12-year veteran, gave a speech at GDC in 2010 (via Eurogamer) where he partially blamed himself for the studio's collapse. "The reality is that every single game we shipped took twice as long as we said it was going to take, and cost twice as much to make. Microsoft is a public company, they answer to their shareholders, and we were simply too expensive."
Bettner also spoke at length about damaging trends in the industry, where developers are worked into the ground and constantly expected to work long hours when it comes to development deadlines and crunches. "This is a horrible vicious cycle. We burn out all our best people," he said. "We destroy these precious artists, we wreck their families and we sacrifice their youth. So they leave, and they take all their experience with them."
Bruce Shelley, another former Ensemble employee, has attributed the studio's closure to its failure to diversify beyond strategy gaming. He also highlighted the fact that after two projects the studio were working on - one the fabled Halo MMO - were canned by Microsoft, the studio didn't downsize accordingly, meaning resources were needlessly thrown away. Many former Ensemble staff have since turned their talents towards mobile gaming. Halo Wars was a strong swan song for the company - dearly departed Mike Channell named it as "the thinking man's Halo" in our review.
Bionic Commando - Grin
Stockholm-based developer Grin was founded in 1997, and worked primarily on PC games before releasing Bionic Commando: Rearmed for XBLA in 2008 and Bionic Commando for the Xbox 360 in 2009. Not long after getting shot of the latter, Grin filed for bankruptcy, pinning the blame on "many publishers delaying their payments, causing an unbearable cash-flow situation".
Grin later went on to point the finger squarely at Square Enix, which in 2008 had signed it up to develop a Final Fantasy spin-off, codenamed Fortress. However, after six months, Square Enix backtracked and hastily reclaimed Fortress from Grin, complaining that it didn't like the game's Nordic style. "It was almost a criminal activity," Grin founders Bo and Ulf Andersson told Swedish paper Aftonbladet (via Kotaku) in an interview in 2011. "We wanted to come in and revolutionize Final Fantasy, which is exactly what they need. The latest version sucks of course."
The Anderssons also claim that they were handed ridiculous requests (at one point Square asked them to fax over the game's music files), and that they secretly sent the company a Final Fantasy 12 screenshot as a "sample" for their project, which the publisher rejected because it didn't "look like Final Fantasy".
Square Enix subsequently declined to pay Grin for the time it had spent on Fortress, exacerbating the aforementioned "cash-flow situation" that forced the studio to close. Grin founders Bo and Ulf Andersson went on to form a new development studio, Overkill Software, which is behind the upcoming (and rather promising) Xbox 360 release Payday 2.