Going solo: When gaming greats strike out alone

What happens when gaming auteurs try to make it on their own? As Cliffy B prepares, we take a look.
CliffyB takes a Lancer to Major Nelson
Going solo: When gaming greats strike out alone © Flickr/Major Nelson
By Jon Partridge

Cliff Bleszinski, celebrated game designer behind the Unreal Tournament series and Xbox blockbuster franchise, Gears of War, has finally revealed his next step after leaving Epic Games in 2012. The long-time designer is setting up his own shop, Boss Key Productions, and he’s taking Guerrilla Games’ co-founder Arjan Brussee with him too. He’s not the first gaming great who’s left his original mothership, and certainly not the last: we take a look at these gaming greats and how they’ve fared after setting out on their own paths.

Cliffy B

© Flickr/Major Nelson

Affectionately nicknamed CliffyB or DudeHuge by legions of internet fans, Bleszinski honed his craft at Epic Games with early nineties side-scroller Jazz Jackrabbit before finding his niche and passion with the Unreal series of first-person shooters. He then served as the lead designer on Gears of War, and helmed the franchise throughout the 2000s. He left Epic back in 2012 to pursue other projects – setting up a restaurant, for example – and to take a break away from the keyboard but in April, he silently set up his own studio, dubbed Boss Key Productions, scooping up Guerrilla Games’ Arjan Brussee in the process. Now out of “retirement”, Bleszinski is working on the futuristic, free-to-play sci-fi arena shooter currently code-named BlueStreak, which will no doubt – ironically – go up against the similarly free, and currently in development, fan-made Unreal Tournament. Which will win out?

Keiji Inafune

© Gfinity

Keiji Inafune, former head of Research & Development at Capcom, best known as the illustrator and co-designer of Mega Man, left the Japanese game giant to literally kickstart his own studio, known as Comcept. Originally starting off as developing all the art and design for the characters for the original NES Mega Man title, Inafune then helmed the successful Mega Man X series on the SNES. He was also tasked with bringing Mega Man to the third dimension, which was realised with Mega Man Legends, but despite being a fan favourite, it was not a massive success – it spawned the fewest sequels and spin-offs, although a fully-fledged Nintendo 3DS sequel was in the works before being dropped. Inafune also served as a producer on the Onimusha and Dead Rising franchises, but it wasn’t until 2010 that he left the company and started his own studio, Comcept.

It wasn’t revealed until last year what Inafune had been working on, but he slid onto the crowdfunding website in a big way with his brand new game, Mighty No. 9, a spiritual successor to Mega Man which managed to swarm the Kickstarter charts and raise a huge $3.8 million from over 70,000 backers. While we’re still waiting for the game to launch on PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, Xbox One and Nintendo 3DS next April, Inafune has launched another fundraising campaign for more features for the game, while a separate animated series is also on the cards. The future looks bright for Inafune.

Yuji Naka

© Flickr/Major Nelson

Yuji Naka is not a household name in the same way his rival, Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto is, but he deserves to be. This is the man, who as a young developer at Sega, dreamt up Sonic the Hedgehog and ultimately led the company into the console arms race. As well as the unforgettable early Sonic games, his Sonic Team created hits including Phantasy Star Online and the 3D Sonic Adventure, and it was a big blow to Sega when he left to form his own studio, Prope, in 2006. Naka’s not achieved the same level of success on his own however, mostly putting out forgettable iPhone games (Real Ski Jump, Fluffy Bear) and moderately successful Wii games (Let’s Tap). Let’s hope Cliffy B tries his hand at something more substantial.

Tim Schafer

© Flickr/Major Nelson

For many, Tim Schafer was LucasArts. The gregarious Californian created a string of belly-achingly funny point and click adventure games in the 1990s, including Day Of The Tentacle and Grim Fandango, before leaving George Lucas’ game division to try his luck on his own. We’d say he’s doing just fine: more than that in fact. As well as releasing the critically acclaimed, psychedelic platformer Psychonauts, his Double Fine Studios all but kickstarted the concept of crowdfunding video game projects with Broken Age, which raised a staggering $3.3m on Kickstarter in 2012. The first part of the game has gone on sale with glowing reviews, and the conclusion is expected soon – though it certainly won’t be the last Double Fine game.

Hironobu Sakaguchi

© Flickr/Major Nelson

Hironobu Sakaguchi, the legendary Final Fantasy creator, has had an illustrious career at Square Enix, starting off with the initial make-or-break first game in the now-long running franchise, which has spawned almost countless sequels, spin-offs and clones over almost three decades. Whilst Sakaguchi took over various roles during his tenure at Square, including serving as executive vice president, he resigned around the time the company merged with Enix, becoming the giant entity it is today. Sakaguchi certainly hasn’t lost any of his golden touch – the outfit he started in 2004, Mistwalker, has been cranking out RPG classics right from the get-go. Blue Dragon and Lost Odyssey continued Sakaguchi’s RPG prowess on the Xbox 360, while the studio’s latest console game, 2011’s The Last Story, is widely considered the Nintendo Wii’s swan song. Mistwalker’s latest efforts focus on mobile, but a return to the console world would be welcomed eagerly – a next-gen RPG with Sakaguchi at the helm, anyone?

John Romero

© Flickr/Major Nelson

John Romero, better known for “making you his bitch” with the infamous advertising campaign for the lacklustre Daikatana, has flip-flopped his way from co-founder of hallowed id Software to founding various other hit and miss gaming outlets. Ion Storm, the studio Romero’s most known for, is best known for the aforementioned Daikatana, the game that Romero produced and designed, while its sister Austin-based studio, helmed by Warren Spector, was behind the ambitious, and hugely successful Deus Ex. Soon after releasing Anachronox, Romero left Ion Storm to found Monkeystone Games, which focused on mobile games for the Nokia N-Gage (Remember that?) at the time, before then departing for Midway Games where he worked on and then left Gauntlet: Seven Sorrows before it even finished development. These days, Romero is working with his wife, Brenda Brathwaite at social game company, Loot Drop – its games won’t inspire entire, jam-packed conventions around them, like QuakeCon does, but is that the sole purpose of game development? We doubt Bleszinski thinks so.

Peter Molyneux

© Flickr/Major Nelson

Legendary impresario Peter Molyneux’s left a major publisher to strike out on his own not once, but twice, in his three decades of video game development. After a stint with EA after his PC game studio Bullfrog was acquired in the late 1990s, he left to form Lionhead Studios, which in turn was bought by Microsoft, chiefly for the Fable RPG series, in 2006. In 2012, he quit his job as head of all Xbox games in Europe to form an indie studio, 22 Cans. There’s no denying his greatest games (Populous, Theme Park, Black & White) have come during the “start-up” periods of his career, but he’s not quite hit his stride again yet with 22 Cans. Though he generated a media storm around the Curiosity mobile game/competition, which saw players tapping away at a cube to reveal a mystery prize, 22 Cans’ follow up Godus, a spiritual sequel to Populous, has not been well received. Fun fact: throughout all this, Molyneux has remained in the same business park in Guildford, just outside London.

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