Criterion Co-Founders Leave: An Anomaly Or A Trend

Criterion founders leave to create a new studio. Is this the beginning of a trend with AAA developers?

Criterion founders leave to create a new studio. Is this the beginning of a trend with AAA developers?

In 2000, two friends created a gaming studio from Criterion Software, which is a tech company that developed RenderWare. The studio’s name is Criterion–they created the Burnout series, which are a collection of profitable arcade-like racing games. 

Due to their success, they were eventually handed the Need for Speed franchise by EA. Last week, both founders of Criterion left. Is leaving a major AAA studio the only way to express your creativity? Are there any major studios that understand how to help harness the developers’ creativity?

Oh how the mighty have fallen

No one ever likes to see any gaming development studio struggle, regardless of size. Earlier in 2013, Electronic Arts moved “60 – 65 people” from the creators of Burnout Paradise. They transitioned over to another studio owned by EA called Ghost Games.

In the same month of the ‘transitional period’, Criterion’s Need for Speed franchise was handed off to the Senior Vice President of EA Sports. With this move, Need for Speed was then given to Ghost Games studio.

Ghost Games has now acquired about 80% of Criterion’s employees, leaving a dismal 20 hard-working people to complete any remaining projects. This has been followed up by the co-founder, creative director, and vice president Alex Ward, leaving Criterion. Along-side his departure is studio director and co-founder Fionna Sperry.

As Polygon originally published this story, they also updated a tweet that came from Mr. Ward himself.

“Just decided to start afresh and start a new games company with Fionna Sperry.”

Everyone’s jumping ship!

This isn’t the first departure of important people from EA within the last year. CEO John Riccitiello resigned due to poor financial performance in early 2013. In addition to a $300 million “whoops” that led to the closure of studio Playfish.

A few months back, news broke that the founder of EA, Trip Hawkins, left to create a new studio, If You Can. This independent studio is attempting to focus on an educational game for kids called If. He’s teamed up with professionals on children’s psyche to help develop a sense of empathy. The idea is to teach our little ones how to empathize more.

The premise for the game sounds like a slam dunk idea. EA has many studios under its umbrella; yet none are best suited to approach the task.

This begs the question:

Why do developers feel the need to leave a financially secure company to make genuinely unique experiences?

The obvious answer seems like the lack of risk-taking when analyzing the financial aspect of game creation. Why make something you’re not sure will turn profit? Lets take a look at a good example of what of going indie may lead to. Then we’ll take a look at a possible solution to the AAA dream crusher. 

…And they lived happily ever after

A great example of some highly creative minds wanting to leave the low-risk environment similar to EA’s structure would be The Fullbright Company. The team is composed of folks who worked on and created the unforgettable Bioshock 2 DLC, Minerva’s Den, XCOM, and Bioshock Infinite.

Fullbright created Gone Home, which has been a critical and financial success. In many circles, it won Game Of The Year, which isn’t typical considering it’s an indie game. You play as a female who’s searching through a house for clues. The impressions about the game seem to highlight the emotion conveyed so eloquently through interacting with objects and finding clues as the story unfolds.

There’s always the exception to the rule

Though that is just one example of a successful indie studio created from top-notch content creators. Not all is grim and terrible in the land of innovation paired with AAA development. The exception to the rule would be Ubisoft. They’re a high-profile Publisher and Studio that makes games like Assassin’s Creed, Tom Clancy titles, and Rayman to name a few.

Recently, they’ve announced a small group of passionate developers are hard at work on an indie title, Child of Light. CoL is a creative and financial risk, one that’s creating quite the buzz. The overwhelming positive feedback from the community is a prime example of why major companies should make low-cost, high-risk games.

These developers are obviously wanting to do more than the same old, tired, and predictable games. With indie studios being the only outlet for most of these outstanding developers, this trend of bailing on the large studios will continue. In other words, AAA devs and publishers need to pull their heads out of their butts and realize what gamers are craving.

Give ’em what they want for Pete’s sake

It seems like innovation is what the consumers and developers are craving right now. If these large studios/publishers don’t realize that soon, well… no one wants to see a group of people struggle simply because they’re attempting to bring us something different, something entertaining, and something we keep asking for. Can EA turn it around in time to salvage what talent they do have left? Only time will tell.

What are your thoughts–how can we avoid anymore downsizing? Is it just that these large company environments are squashing out any sense of true innovation? Or is it simply supply and demand; people go where good games are? If you’re not making good games, you lose your staff, get relocated, or even close the doors for good. Sound off below and lets hear your thoughts.


About the author


I'm a stay at home dad who writes about video games. I enjoy my family, video games, and music.