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The Best Indie and AA Studios Made up of Ex-AAA Developers

While it was 'Game Over' at one company, these developers were given an extra life and continued on at new studios.

As employee testimonials will often verify, working for a game company can be a dream job. The fun work atmosphere, free games, and benefits can often make the majority of employees happy. However, these jobs often require sacrifices involving one's personal life, and in many cases, creative freedom.

To a creative person, having freedom to realize your vision can be the most important aspect of a job. When that freedom is reduced, or diminished in any way, it can be the breaking point for some people. No matter how good the pay is, or how successful the games are, opinions are often prioritized. Of course, there are factors other than creative freedom, like administration, management, and financial issues.

Work can be a lot of fun, until it’s not

If you follow game industry news, you’ll occasionally see stories about great developers and creators leaving a very successful company. Not long after their departure a new company or studio is often formed. This new endeavor might be independent or under the umbrella of a large publisher. One thing usually remains consistent; The developers have something to prove. They need to show their former employers why they should’ve compromised, or found a way to continue their relationship.

While it’s tough to say who is the best of the best, I’m going to list the most famous industry folks to leave their previous company and form new, successful studios. I’ll give some details on why they left, how they’ve fared, and games for which they’re known.

So let’s start with a studio lead by one of the most famous developers:

Kojima Productions

Official Twitter: @KojiPro2015_EN

Founder: Hideo Kojima

 

Lead by Hideo Kojima, this studio was disbanded when Kojima left Japanese publisher Konami in December of 2015. After Konami announced a corporate restructuring, removed Kojima Productions branding from the promotion of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, and canceled a new Silent Hills project, Kojima parted ways with the company despite being a vital part of it since 1986. As the creator of the Metal Gear, Zone of the Enders, and Boktai franchises, Konami won’t be the same without him.

Almost immediately after leaving Konami, Hideo Kojima announced that he had reformed Kojima Productions as an independent studio. Artist Yoji Shinkawa and producer Kenichiro Imaizumi would also join Kojima at his new studio. Their first project would be a title exclusive to PlayStation 4 called  Death Stranding. The game will star Norman Reedus (from AMC’s The Walking Dead) and is already one of the most anticipated games announced at E3 2016.

Respawn Entertainment

Official Twitter: @Respawn

Founders: Jason West, Vince Zampella

In 2010, after possibly one of the most bitter departures in the game industry, Vince Zampella and Jason West left Infinity Ward, a studio they founded in 2002 where they created the Call of Duty series. A dispute with parent company Activision lead to West and Zampella forming Respawn Entertainment with funding from the EA Partners Program. Once the new studio was formed, 38 of the 46 former Infinity Ward employees who had resigned following West and Zampella’s departure were hired at Respawn.

After three years, at E3 2013, Respawn announced their first title, Titanfall, exclusive to Xbox. The following year, a former Sony Santa Monica employee, Stig Asmussen, joined Respawn as well. Asmussen had previously worked on the God of War series and was said to be working a new game other than Titanfall. That title was later revealed to be a third-person Star Wars game.

(It's also worth mentioning that the majority of the original Infinity Ward team was carried over from EA when West and Zampella left that company. They must be some pretty awesome people to work for.)

In October 2016, Respawn released Titanfall 2. The sequel to Titanfall added a single-player campaign and improved it’s multiplayer. Critics and fans have given high praise to Titanfall 2 since its release.

Boss Key Productions

Official Twitter: @BossKey

Founders: Cliff Bleszinski, Arjan Brussee

Founded in 2014, this studio has the potential to be one of the top tier studios in the industry. During his 20-year career at Epic Games, Cliff Bleszinski was responsible for the creation of the Unreal and Gears of War franchises. After leaving Epic, Bleszinski was approached by Hideo Kojima with an offer to work on his new Silent Hills project, which he declined. Boss Key’s co-founder, Arjan Brussee, was also the co-founder of Guerilla Games and creator of the Killzone series. Brussee left Guerilla in 2012 to work for Visceral Games, where he produced Battlefield: Hardline.

The studio’s first game, LawBreakers, is a pay-to-play first-person arena shooter for PC and will be published by Nexon. It is already getting a lot of great feedback and hype ahead of launch.

 

Firaxis Games

Official Twitter: @FiraxisGames

Founders: Sid Meier, Jeff Briggs, Brian Reynolds

 

In 1996, Sid Meier, Jeff Briggs, and Brian Reynolds left software giant MicroProse and founded Firaxis Games. MicroProse was also founded by Meier and was the original publisher of the Civilization and X-COM series.

While it is now a subsidiary for Take-Two Interactive, Firaxis is also well known for its strategy games. Co-founder Sid Meier usually has his name in the titles, such as; Sid Meier’s Pirates and Sid Meier’s Civilization. They’ve successfully carried on (from MicroProse) the critically acclaimed X-COM and Civilization series, with X-COM 2 and Sid Meier's Civilization VI recently getting released. Both games have received very positive reviews.

Sid Meier is also still the head of the studio after all these years.

I think a lesson can be learned from these developers.

If you have a dream and are passionate about what you do, find a way to continue doing that. A lot of the studios mentioned -- possibly all of them -- were founded by people who could be considered visionaries in their fields. They are legends of the industry.

Some of these studios have yet to release a game, or at least a critically successful one. However, considering their pedigree, it's tough not to expect the next great game to have their logo on it. Respawn and Firaxis are proof that success can continue in other forms, even if you take the plunge and stop trying to please the big dogs. 

Are you looking forward to any games from these developers? Do you follow any of them on Twitter. Which ones do you find the most fan-friendly and entertaining? Let me know in the comments!

Published Nov. 8th 2016

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