The Extremely Reductive Guide to Today’s Top Video Game Companies
It’s impossible to know which video game companies are in it for the art and which ones just want your money. It's OK, we're here to help.
In the years since video games have leapt from the arcades into our living rooms, the studio complex has evolved into a many-tentacled Leviathan nearly as complex as Hollywood. The companies that deliver our most beloved games run the gamut from borderline evil to simply greedy. And while there are now far too many to name, like Hollywood, if you head up the chain long enough, the big hitters boil down to a few usual suspects.
Here, for your consideration, is our extremely muted, biased, and completely under-informed guide to the best and worst video game companies domination the market today.
One of the world’s biggest video game developers, EA is probably the most unanimously hated company in the industry. Gamers hate EA so much that Consumerist magazine named them America’s worst company two years in a row. EA was so reviled it beat out banks and airlines. And a fucking cable company.
On the brighter side of things, that double kick to the balls spurred EA to change its ways. The last few iterations of Madden have finally gotten good again, and you can’t discount BioWare’s RPG contribution to the brand. Sure, EA is still a big, faceless corporation, but at least it’s now a little beholden to its customer base. And that’s an improvement, right? Even if EA is the reason there hasn’t been a decent SimCity title in a fucking decade.
Formed in 1996 by disgruntled Microsoft programmers Gabe Newell and Mike Harrington, Valve Corporation easily dominates any conversation of PC games. Not only have they made a regular habit of releasing beloved titles like Half-Life, Portal, and Left 4 Dead, but they also own the world’s largest platform for online distribution: Steam.
Even more impressive than Valve’s pocketbook, though, is its sterling reputation. I would love to find some reason to bad mouth Valve, but even when it does stir up a controversy, like last year’s very unpopular decision to allow game mod developers the option to charge for their work, they’re so responsive to the fans’ needs, dirt doesn’t stick to them for long.
Microsoft Studios is like the Roman legion of game publishers. It swallows and incorporates in a fashion only the biggest corporations can, absorbing popular titles into the library with ease. In recent years, its internal studios have slaved away on various unimpressive titles, while the company itself has gone to great lengths to acquire any big name titles its can get its hands on.
Microsoft Studios bought Halo designer Bungie, then let those guys go becauseit wanted to do something besides create Halo games. It bought the rights to Gears of War, brought one person over, and then handed the game to an in-house studio designed to pump out Gears games as often as possible. MS also bought the rights to Minecraft, and then let the game’s creator go on his merry way while it disseminated the title to every platform under the sun.
In short, Microsoft cares about titles, not talents; the company operates like a movie studio insofar as it seems to believe that franchises and not the creative minds behind them are the most important part of their portfolio. But Microsoft also make the Xbox, so all my base are belong to them.
Straight up, Konami sucks now. It used to rule. I mean, what would the world be like without Contra or Castlevania? It’s arguably the most successful company to make the leap from arcades to consoles, having distinguished itself in the home market quickly with the release of Metal Gear.
And now, Konami blows. First, the company alienated a genius. Then, reports arose that it put its employees through some nebulous Big Brother-type shit. Then to top it all off, the classic console developer said it’s going to make mobile the “main platform.” Dicks.
Sony Computer Entertainment
Ask pretty much anyone but the most delusional of Xbox fans and they’ll tell you that Sony Computer Entertainment is totally winning the console cycle. Not only is Sony’s PlayStation 4 outselling Xbox One by a reported 2-to-1 margin, but its commitment to indie games and console exclusive triple-A titles alike also makes its beloved among the fanbase.
Ever since the PS2, Sony has consistently delivered the highest quality console around. In fact, pretty much the only people who actually hate Sony and its products are the people who are missing out on Uncharted and No Man’s Sky. That said, Sony totally sucks because I can’t play Uncharted and No Man’s Sky.
When it first broke onto the scene, Blizzard managed to reinvent basically every genre it tried out. Legions of kids became hooked on Blizzard’s original RTS games StarCraft and Warcraft and the studio doubled down on that success with dungeon crawling loot-fest Diablo. Of course, the studio is now mostly known for the titanic MMO hit World of Warcraft, which — if you ask me — was the beginning of the end of Blizzard’s golden age.
Since the studio unlocked the formula for MMO riches, it’s put less and less time into flagship titles, instead working on the arduous task of turning Kung Fu Panda into a video game character. Of late, WoW has started to hemorrhage money, though, so maybe gamers can finally look forward to StarCraft 3 releasing this side of 2020.
In terms of pure output, Take-Two is, hands down, the best video game company in the industry. The fact that it owns Rockstar Games — and, therefore, Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption — makes Take-Two the winner alone, not only because of those franchises’ insane profits, but because Take-Two also allows its studios an unprecedented level of autonomy, which results in some of the best video games ever released.
Take-Two’s other major studio, 2K is more of a mixed bag, which is to say that Take-Two greedy as all hell, but its properties have a certain amount of unavoidable allure. Take-Two owns the best basketball game on the market; it’s doing interesting shit with the Mafia series; and its dumbed down versions of Sid Meier’s Civilization games are a solid time-waster.
While the studio is mostly known for its two flagship series — which we’ll get to in about five seconds — Bethesda Softworks has also distinguished itself with inspired original FPS titles (Dishonored) and unique takes on classic properties (Wolfenstein). Of course, in the long run no one really gives a shit about those games. It’s all about The Elder Scrolls and Fallout.
For the uninitiated, these last two titles are basically the same game with different set dressing. One is a sword and sorcery epic; the other is a post-apocalyptic epic. Both games are incredibly immersive open worlds that offer unparalleled depth, freedom, and customization. Of course, it’s also pretty obvious that the only thing that’s really changed about either title over the years is that they’ve gotten slightly prettier. They’re still buggy, clumsy messes.
It’s been a long time since the days when the company dominated the home console game, but Nintendo has managed to carve out its own place in the video game industry in the years since. Think of Nintendo like you’d think of the UK: a formerly world-dominating empire that has had to resign itself not to second place, but to specialization.
In that vein, Nintendo’s specialization has been families. Where Sony and Microsoft duke it out with bigger, prettier, bloodier R-rated titles (and bring ’em on! All the blood!), Nintendo has relied on fresh takes of its old franchises to get the entire family involved in video games. It’s also managed to quietly trick millions of video gamers into getting their asses up off the couch, which is both pro and con depending on where you stand … or sit.
After years atop the open world genre, Ubisoft has taken some hits recently. After literally two years of hype, the supposed genre-busting revolution Watch Dogs was just OK. Then, Ubisoft screwed up its flagship franchise with the dreadful launch of Assassin’s Creed Unity, a bungle which bled into low sales numbers for the following year’s improved but uninspired Assassin’s Creed Syndicate.
Right now, the studio has its hopes pinned on next week’s open world MMO The Division and this winter’s long-gestating film adaptation of Assassin’s Creed. At the very least, Ubisoft gets points for casting Michael Fassbender in the lead, no matter how much it’s going to suck.