The Best PC Game Developers of All Time
What makes a developer a PC game developer? A few things. Naturally they support the platform in one of several ways: their games are released on PC; they look better on PC; their games are exclusive to the PC or at least are released at the same time as their console version brethren and don’t have a crappy PC port released one or two years later; games have a PC feel to them; they usually go under quicker than console game-developers, too. Sorry to say, but it’s a just true – statistically speaking. Don't believe me, then look at some of the companies below.
So which studios are my personal favourites? Studios I like may develop games I like playing or provide some sort of service that caters to the PC market, or do something that just makes them awesome. But it's generally, mostly about games. Just so you know.
So, in no particular order:
Looking Glass Studios – System Shock, Thief
A company that truly tried to introduce new things. LGS was innovative. Look at System Shock – it was way ahead of its time. Powered by the Ultima Underworld engine, it wasn’t pretty by any means even for the time – but gameplay and technology wise it was leaps and bounds ahead of Doom, the most popular title around at the time of its release, which went for a more simplified action approach. System Shock went largely ignored by most gamers for this reason, and the same could be said for the sequel, System Shock 2, which LGS co-developed alongside Irrational Games.
Years later and they once again showed off their ingenuity; creativity – when they unleashed Thief: The Dark Project upon us. Garrett, the memorable player character didn’t have guns, instead opting for a bow and arrow, and a sword to fight his battles – which was entirely not the idea of this game. Stealth was favoured and often the player was rewarded for taking the more shadowy route.
Thief helped pioneer the stealth game genre, and we see its legacy continued today in the Splinter Cell series, chiefly, among others. It was never a mainstream series, but instead developed a cult following that has kept the spirit of the games alive to this day with fan-developed missions, unofficial expansions, and Thief-inspired mods.
Despite LGS having closed its doors over ten years ago, the Thief series lives on. It was first adopted by Ion Storm, but has since been picked up by the capable people over at Eidos Montreal, who brought us Deus Ex: Human Revolution. So there’s still hope for it yet. As for its other major series, System Shock, that seems to have been left in limbo with Irrational Games opting to focus on the BioShock franchise. EA supposedly owns the rights to the System Shock IP, but has thus far shown no interest in resurrecting the series.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky and S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat.
GSC Game World – S.T.A.L.K.E.R., Cossacks
The recent semi-demise of GSC GameWorld was a bit of a shock. It was sudden and unexpected, but I can’t say it wasn’t obvious it would happen sooner or later. The Ukrainian-based developer only ever released its famed S.T.A.L.K.E.R titles on the PC, with talk of console versions being merely speculation over the years.
I once predicted that S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2 would be the death of the series – and right I was. The talk came about again regarding the introduction of the series to console gamers with this release, but in the end it was that very ambition that led to the studio’s downfall. Failure to secure a publisher for the console versions of the game led to GSC taking a massive hit. Just like with 3DR, the development team that was going to tackle the sequel to S.T.A.L.K.E.R. left and formed their own company, Vostok Games.
There had also been reports of a possible DRM (Digital Rights Management) involving players having to have a constant internet connection to play the game – much like the nonsense that Ubisoft tried to con paying customers with not too long ago. This would only have hurt the long awaited true sequel in the end.
I for one hope that the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series stays alive somehow. In a way it will, seeing as Metro 2033 has become a hit. The series has been worked on by people who once helped develop S.T.A.L.K.E.R. It's what you might call a spiritual successor. That and Vostok Games has Survarium. GSC for the time being is still alive, but is slowly bleeding out. Currently the main website and forum are still open, and they still provide technical support for their games catalogue, and the store is still open to purchase games. If you haven’t ever played a S.T.A.L.K.E.R. game, do yourself a favour and buy one – even if just to say thanks to a great studio that made a terrifically atmospheric, if technically flawed, series of games. It’s only a matter of time before they’re gone for good.
You don’t care? You say you’ve never heard of GSC, and you hate S.T.A.L.K.E.R.? You, my friend, are not a real PC gamer. And you’re a horrible person.
Fallout 3 GOTY includes Fallout 3 plus all of the DLCs released for the game: Operation Anchorage, The Pitt, Broken Steel, Point Lookout, and Mothership Zeta
Bethesda – The Elder Scrolls, Fallout 3
One series pretty much made Bethesda a household name and that is The Elder Scrolls. These titles were first made available on the PC, and the first two have since been released as freeware. Starting with Morrowind, the series made its way to consoles. But let’s be honest, RPGs play better on PC. This could be said for some other genres, too. You could chalk it up to fanboyism – proven by the fact that this is a pro-PC article. Navigating inventories, clicking and dragging items to and from places – they’re not natively developed for consoles in mind, in my opinion.
We have not forgotten
Without Black Isle and it’s awesome turn-based strategy series, Fallout, and its predecessor, Wasteland (which is getting a sequel as we speak), we wouldn’t have had Fallout 3 or New Vegas. Black Isle did post-apocalyptic themed games before they were cool. And it's good to see they're making a comeback.
Games out of Bethesda not only look better on PC, but they technically work better too. The PS3 for one has had plenty of issues with their games, and this includes Skyrim. Issues pertaining to hardware and memory make it impossible for some players to even play the game for more than half an hour. Come on, this is an RPG here. You don’t take breaks. You don’t get up from your seat for anything. You play it until you finish it. End of story.
And the number one reason why we like Bethesda games on PC is because of the mods – something you don’t get with console titles. Most shortfalls that their games have are addressed by mods, not patches released by the developers. It’s also so easy to load mods with Bethesda games.
I’ll also say one thing here just to end off: Bethesda still has love for the PC, and this is proven by the fact that collector’s editions are still released for the platform in addition to being available for the console versions. Most other publishers don’t even bother doing this.
This pack includes Diablo II and the Lord of Destruction expansion.
Blizzard Entertainment – Diablo, StarCraft, WarCraft
Probably one of only a few true and pure PC game developers left – yes, they might be aligned with the evil Activision nowadays, but at least they haven’t yet resorted to shovelling out console-exclusive games.
Blizzard developed some of the first video games I ever played. I have memories of Blackthorne, and also The Lost Vikings. These are just a couple among others.
Diablo, StarCraft, and WarCraft are the three series this developer is known for, and they have mostly only ever been available to play on PC and Mac, save for one or two, practically cornering the RTS and RPG markets. World of WarCraft, years later, is still the top MMORPG out there, and has helped keep PC gaming alive – or at least the multiplayer component of it anyway. It doesn’t show any sign of slowing down.
People sometimes ask: “Are there any good console MMORPGs?”
Don’t be silly. Of course there aren’t. Even if they were any, nobody would play them.
3D Realms (Apogee Software) – Rise of the Triad, Duke Nukem, Shadow Warrior
First off, 3DR is not dead. It’s taken an ass-kicking, but it’s still around. After the fiasco that was Duke Nukem Forever, 3DR had to let go of all of the guys who worked on DNF. And several of them went and formed Triptych Games to finish the game and get it out there with the help of Gearbox Software.
Despite the game receiving generally negative reviews across the board, at least it’s out; over and done with. But the whole 14 year affair left 3DR burned. Lawsuits from Take-Two Interactive, letting go of the DNF team, and eventually selling the Duke Nukem IP to Gearbox, the last few years has seen this once giant company brought to its knees. And it was all George Broussard’s fault – at least they claim.
3DR back in the 90’s was known for several games, such as Rise of the Triad and Shadow Warrior (the last game ever commercially released by the company that they actually developed that wasn't a port). But it was mainly known for Duke Nukem 3D – one of the best selling, and just one of the best, period, FPS titles ever made, as far as I’m concerned.
Apogee/3DR in addition to developing numerous games, also published many notable games over the years like Wolf 3D, Max Payne, Prey and of course most of the Duke Nukem console titles. Not that we care about any of those.
Long before Duke Nukem even came along, Apogee’s business boy, Scott Miller, helped popularise the concept of “shareware” – releasing the first episode of a game for free, and then charging for the whole game thereafter. Studios like id Software, who had several of its early games published by Apogee, copied this strategy with the likes of the Commander Keen series, Wolf 3D, Doom, and Quake. Interesting to note by the way that the phrase "When it's done" was originally used by id Software, and then later caught on over at 3DR...
This pack includes The Ultimate Doom, Doom II: Hell on Earth, Doom 3 (with improved graphics and new levels in the form of The Lost Mission) and Resurrection of Evil, the expansion for Doom 3.
id Software – Doom, Quake, Rage
All right, so half of the original founders who started up id are Mac guys at heart. But id has also avidly supported PC gaming right from the beginning.
Right from the days of Softdisk and coming up with games like Dangerous Dave to classics such as the Commander Keen series, they moved on to establishing 3D games (or at least pseudo-3D initially) to practically inventing the FPS genre as we know it with Hovertank 3D and Catacomb 3D, and then further popularising it with Wolf 3D and Doom and later wowing us all with the technological advancements showcased in Quake. This was really released the same year as Duke Nukem 3D? Yes!
Why id is still chiefly a supporter of PC gaming today is because of one reason: John Carmack. The genius who really makes it all happen as far as the id Tech engine goes would naturally go for the PC as his platform of choice (even though he is one of the Mac guys I mentioned earlier – he stole an Apple Mac II once). He’s done a lot for the advancement of graphical technology. The Xbox 360 and PS3 are old, outdated pieces of… hardware, that seriously each need a successor to cope with the times. Games like Rage that came out of id perform way better on PC with double the average framerate, and like most games, it looks better too, on the PC. Okay, so there were some graphical glitches and low res texturing that came with the game upon release, but surely that’s all been patched up by now. Surely.
You can also thank id, along with their chief competitor at the time, Epic, for the birth of multiplayer-focused games that dominate the market today, like Call of Duty and Battlefield, by releasing Quake III Arena more than a decade ago.
Id was also the most successful independent developer for nearly two decades until they were acquired by ZeniMax, the parent company of Bethesda. So I’m sure there’s at least some respect out there for them.
This pack includes Half-Life 2, Episode 1 and 2 of Half-Life, Team Fortress 2 and Portal.
Valve Corporation – Half-Life, Steam
Valve has been a staunch PC supporter for years.
Starting off in the mid 90’s after being founded by Gabe Newell and Mike Harrington after they left Microsoft, Valve produced the seminal title known as Half-Life, which took gaming and the first person shooter genre to new heights. After a couple of expansion packs and plenty of fan-made addons and mods-that-became-games (Counter-Strike for example), along came the sequel, Half-Life 2. Originally the game was only available on PC – for several years, until eventually ports for the consoles were released. After that Half-Life 2 and some other Valve games became available to play on Mac, as well.
In fact Gabe Newell was once quoted to have said that he disliked the PS3 and didn’t want to waste time developing games for the platform. Since those days, he seems to have changed his tune a bit, though.
Valve also started off the digital distribution service for PC and Mac, called Steam, which has proven to be the best on the market for some time now, compared to several other similar services available.
Valve listens to its fans, and more often than not employs modders who create games using one of their titles – something they’ve been doing for years now. Counter-Strike, Portal, and other major games started off as mods but ended up becoming fully-fledged Valve products.
This collection has 12 games from Westwood, including Command & Conquer, Red Alert, Tiberian Sun, Red Alert 2 and C&C: Generals.
Westwood Studios – Dune, C&C, Red Alert
Westwood Studios should be known to the majority of PC gamers out there in the world. They developed three legendary series: Dune, Command & Conquer, and Red Alert, a spin-off of – and prequel to – the C&C universe.
I’ve always maintained that certain genres work better on PC – and strategy or RTS is one of them. And these two series rank among some of the best ever released for said platform. C&C tells the story of a distant future that mankind inhabits, where two rival factions, NOD and GDI, battle over a resource known as tiberium. Red Alert focuses on an alternate reality where WW II never took place, due to Einstein travelling back in time and erasing Adolf Hitler from existence. So the Soviets, still at full strength since they were not subjected to any sort of Nazi tyranny, decide to wage war directly on the Allies instead. And these events eventually lead up to the occurrences that take place in the C&C universe.
The early games made it on to other consoles, but interesting enough, the sequels in both series didn’t. But both the first and second generation iterations from the Tiberium series are available as freeware nowadays, and the same goes for Red Alert (but not Red Alert 2). The third and fourth generation games are on consoles such as PS3 and Xbox 360. Unfortunately these were not developed by Westwood Studios – it was EA who developed and published these games. And EA is loathed by gamers worldwide, reason being, ironically, for how they screwed over Westwood in some ways, such as forcefully cancelling various projects of theirs.
The company made it in to the Guinness Book of World Records, for the achievement of C&C selling 10 million copies worldwide.
This collection includes Commandos: Behind Enemy Lines, Beyond the Call of Duty, Commandos 2: Men of Courage, Commandos 3: Destination Berlin, and Commandos: Strike Force.
Pyro Studios – Commandos
To my knowledge, the Spanish-based studio known as Pyro Studios has only ever developed one successful series of games, and that would be the Commandos series. Back in the late 1990’s the first one appeared: Commandos: Behind Enemy Lines. It was an isometric squad-based RTS title that took place in WWII against the Germans, all over Europe. The game got a bit of attention, enough to warrant an expansion of sorts called Beyond The Call of Duty.
The series reached its height with Commandos 2 – probably one of the greatest 2D isometric squad-based RTS titles ever made. There were others such as Commandos 3, which sucked a lot of the fun out of the experience by being too bloody hard. Commandos: Strike Force was pretty much the low point of the series, as it tried to get with the times and be an FPS. It was too much of a major departure from the original games. There’s a lot of that going around nowadays…
There were rumours in the last year or two that there might be a new Commandos title, but later these rumours were denied by Pyro Studios. Like you’ve got anything better to do…
This includes The Sims plus many of the expansion packs that were released for the game.
Maxis – Sim City, The Sims
Maxis started out life making SimCity games in the late 80's and 90’s. Amazingly addictive simulations that saw you managing… cities.
Back in the early 2000’s, Will Wright and his minions at Maxis developed one game that proved to be one of the best sellers of all time: The Sims. You might argue that it’s a girl’s game, but don’t deny it: there’s at least an 87.3% chance that you yourself played it at one point, even briefly, even if just to see what all the fuss was about.
The Sims was available for PC and Mac initially, but over the years and along with the sequels, it spread to the consoles. Still, every Sims game to date was originally released on the PC. And with every Sims game comes expansions and addons, which initially only were available on the PC, although standalone expansions mean you could play them on console as just a separate game. The reality is that most of these packs are only available on the PC anyway.
Monolith – Blood, NOLF, F.E.A.R.
Monolith’s first project was Blood – a game that was handed to them by QStudios, a division of Apogee Software, and originally had "Horror 3D" as a working title. Despite it being largely ignored by most people, it developed a cult following and merited enough interest to produce two expansions, and a sequel – which flopped. There was not another Blood game to be seen again, although Jace Hall has expressed interest in bringing Blood back, and claims he has the power to do so. There probably are more similarities between Jace and Tchernobog than we realised.
Shogo was another title to come out of Monolith and involved Mech warfare similar to MechWarrior. This franchise too lay dormant for some time until recently when Lith revealed it would produce a long awaited sequel.
Lith also brought out NOLF, or No One Lives Forever, AVP 2 and eventually F.E.A.R. – a properly scary game. There were two expansions released for the latter, albeit by a different studio. All were initially for PC, but F.E.A.R. Files was released for the Xbox 360 later on.
Monolith also developed the last really good Aliens game, Aliens vs Predator 2, and is also known to develop their own proprietary game engines, such as LithTech, Jupiter, and Jupiter Ex.
Yes, there is one or two black marks next to Lith's name. The first is that Condemned, scary and atmospheric as it was, looked like absolute rubbish on PC. It was a sub-par port and probably had everything to do with the fact that Sega published it. And the sequel? That didn't even make it to PC. Shame on you, Monolith.
Rainbox Six 3, Ghost Recon and Splinter Cell.
Red Storm – Rainbow Six, Ghost Recon
Back in the 90’s, Red Storm developed and released Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six, a tactical shooter which saw you command a squad of highly trained counter terrorists. It became an amazingly successful series that spawned several sequels over the years. They also brought you Ghost Recon, too, which was more jungle warfare than urban environments like its cousin.
But Red Storm ended up being owned by Ubisoft, and in to the new millennium, they promptly messed up the Ghost Recon series with a console-exclusive sequel followed by the largely unsuccessful Advanced Warfighter games.
Rainbox Six has done fairly better in comparison.
MicroProse – Worms 2, X-Com
MicroProse should get a mention just because they’ve developed about a hundred different games over the last near 30 years, and have been around a lot longer than most on this list.
They’ve made some games that are rather close to my heart and bring back fond memories. One of these is Risk II – which is a sequel to the boardgame of the same name. I grew up playing Risk and it was probably among my favourites of all time, next to Monopoly and Scrabble.
The other series is Worms. The first title was developed by Team 17, but MicroProse did the sequel, Worms 2, and Worms: Armageddon. Armageddon had its share of bugs (no pun intended) but I think it was really Worms 2 that spent a hell of a lot of time being played in my house. It was fun and didn’t make much sense. But I didn't care. Just mindless violence. What's not to love?
Another key series MicroProse is known for is X-Com. The last I checked there were two X-Com games being developed, although not by MicroProse. One was more of a reboot in the same vein as the latest Syndicate title, and the other is a more faithful remake of sorts.
Sierra (Online, Studios) – King’s Quest, Space Quest, Police Quest, Leisure Suit Larry
You couldn’t possibly not have this developer on the list. Roberta Williams’ Sierra Online is one of the most influential in PC game history. A PC game giant back in the 1980’s, they brought you classic point and click and text series like King’s Quest, Space Quest, and Police Quest – the latter of which spawned the awesome spin-off series, SWAT. Unlike Commandos, also mentioned on this list, SWAT made a successful transition from 2D isometric RTS to fully 3D FPS in a matter of a few years.
Let’s not forget Leisure Suit Larry, which featured a loveable loser type character resembling Jim Belushi or Bill Murray. Sierra delved a bit in to the subject of sex but it was done with some class – something that can’t be said for the more recently Larry games.
Sierra also published some major games too, like Half-Life and F.E.A.R.
Arkane – Arx Fatalis, Dark Messiah, Dishonored
Arkane made a cult favourite in Arx Fatalis, released years ago. A while later they came out with another game that caught my attention: Dark Messiah of Might and Magic. This game contained several references to that earlier title. It also contained references to Thief. While technically flawed, the game was heaps of fun to play, with the combat being rather impressive, and one of the game's selling points, being able to use the environment to dispatch hordes of enemies.
Arkane has tried its utmost to follow in the footsteps of Looking Glass Studios, and their latest effort, Dishonored, looks like it will be yet another great title from this somewhat underrated studio.
SirTech – Jagged Alliance
Jagged Alliance has a history that is just as jagged as its namesake. SirTech developed Jagged Alliance: Deadly Games for the PC. This title was a pseudo expansion of sorts for the first game, that was made by Madlab. It was a turn based strategy title that had you hiring mercenaries to carry out actions, ultimately trying to get rid of the baddies that were doing somebody wrong. The game is one of the most well known turn-based strategy titles, along with X-Com and Fallout.
The sequel, Jagged Alliance 2, also developed by SirTech, became one of my favourites in the genre. It was published by TalonSoft, although Unfinished Business, the expansion, was published by Strategy First. This also goes for Wildfire, although it was developed by fans of the game and not SirTech.
The company went under before work could begin on Jagged Alliance 3. This title has been through several different developers and publishers and has been stuck in development hell for ages. While there, other titles that took inspiration from the series such as Brigade E5: New Jagged Union and Hired Guns: The Jagged Edge have been brought out in various parts of the world. A remake of JA2, called Jagged Alliance 2: Back In Action, was also released not too long ago.
SirTech may be dead, but its legacy lives on.
Epic - Jill of the Jungle, Jazz Jackrabbit, Unreal
They may have gone on to help popularise multiplayer gaming and become known for their Unreal Engine which everybody and their mother has licensed for just about every other title. But I really liked Epic MegaGames from the 1990s, and in my opinion Unreal was the last really decent game they ever made, and a true pioneer in both visual quality and story in games. Even before that, they had Jill Of The Jungle, Jazz Jackrabbit, and One Must Fall 2097. Those were among some of the very first games I ever played, and hold a special place in my heart and produce fond memories.
Epic and id Software are arguably the two most influential when it comes to graphics technology - pushing the envelope. Of course they also share the limelight in this respect with Crytek nowadays.
CD Project – The Witcher, Good Old Games
I’ll admit, I haven’t ever played a CD Project game. Among their released titles, include The Witcher and its sequel, which are said to be some of the finest games ever made… for the PC only.
The main reason I like CD Project though, is because they created Good Old Games, or GOG.com, which is a digital distribution service which caters to selling old PC games, and some that might work on a Mac, too. You can get most of them dirt cheap, unlike trying to get them from Amazon where you’ll pay double or triple what you would for a brand new game.
They’re the reason you can still buy and legally download games you thought were lost to time. And they’re DRM free, too. CD Project is against any and all form of Digital Rights Management implementations actually, even with new games. Let’s face it: it’s intrusive, annoying, punishes paying customers and does little to nothing to stop piracy – if anything it encourages it.
But that’s not to say that CD Project is pro-piracy. Recently, the company has engaged on a mass crackdown on pirates who downloaded The Witcher 2, and planned at one stage to sue each and every one of them for several thousand dollars.
Frictional Games – Penumbra, Amnesia
A true PC game developer. They might still be indie but they’ve had some success. They were first noticed after they released a tech demo of sorts called Penumbra.This was a peek at what was to come. It featured the dark environments similar to Doom 3, and the physics-based gameplay that took the world by storm when Half-Life 2 appeared a couple of years earlier. Penumbra: Overture was the first in the trilogy and was released in a retail package, followed by two sequels.
The next game to come from Frictional was Amnesia: The Dark Descent, and this is available via retail and digital distribution.
They certainly know how to make psychological horror titles that will mess with your mind, and probably make you mess your pants, too. Their latest Amnesia instalment has pigs in it, or things that sound like pigs, that are hunting the player down. And we all know how intimidating they can be after witnessing this first hand in Duke Nukem 3D or DNF. Nah, the pigs in those games were more comical than anything, really.
Interceptor Entertainment - Rise of the Triad
Interceptor started life by beginning development of Duke Nukem 3D Reloaded (previously known as Duke Nukem 3D: Next Gen). It was meant to be a modern remake of Duke Nukem 3D, and it looked to be coming along nicely. The project hit a roadblock however – and that roadblock was Gearbox Software. Gearbox basically said that they could continue developing the game, but could not release it publicly – which almost sounds a bit like Charlie Wiederholder’s chair story involving DNF. Interceptor threw up a big middle finger to Gearbox, stopped development on Duke Nukem 3D: Reloaded, and went over to Apogee, where they began work on a new Rise of the Triad game. And by all accounts, the trailers of the game in action show promising things.
Interceptor has also worked with Apogee on a version of Duke Nukem II for the Apple iOS. Years ago after the Duke Nukem IP was sold to Gearbox, 3DR’s business boy, Scott Miller, when asked if 3DR had plans for new ROTT and Shadow Warrior games, said “absolutely”. Interceptor has made a new ROTT game a reality, and I can only think what they might do for Shadow Warrior and maybe some other old Apogee games that need reviving.
Interceptor is a studio spread all over the world and not in one central location, made up by people who love making games, and have a soft spot for classic franchises. And that’s all that matters in the end.
Other studios that I really wanted to feature but didn't because it would have taken up too much space and perhaps I didn't play any of their games, but might have them in a follow up article at some point:
BioWare, Origin, LucasArts, Relic, Bohemia, Bullfrog, Irrational Games, and Black Isle Studios.
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