A lot of gamers are ignorant of where early games came from, who made them, and how things turned out for those people. It's not like they teach this stuff in school. Most of the history of entertainment software falls into that strange blind spot in the history books: Too recent to be considered "history," but too distant for the younger set to actually remember. Sure, everyone is familiar with giants like Atari, Sega, and Nintendo, but the companies that vanished at the end of the last century brought us a lot of remarkable games produced by a number of very smart people.
So before I kick all of you youngsters off of my lawn, I thought I'd talk about some of the important players from those days. The complete list of the companies and all their stories would fill a book, but here are just a few of the landmarks I see shrinking into the distance as I glance into gaming's rear-view mirror.
What made them important: These guys launched some of the most important strategy games in the history of gaming. X-COM, Master Of Orion, Railroad Tycoon, and Civilization all came from the minds of MicroProse. The latter two came from the mind of co-founder Sid Meier, and are still active franchises today. In the case of X-com ... well, it's getting a remake. Sort of.
People can argue whether Civilization or Master of Orion is the first "true" 4X strategy game, but either way MicroProse founded and popularized the genre.
What happened to them: They were bought out by Spectrum HoloByte. And then sold to Hasbro Interactive. Which was subsequently swallowed up by Infogrames. Which in turn became Atari Interactive. I don't think we can say there's anything left of the original team or company culture that brought about those games, but at least some of the franchises live on. Compared to the other companies in this list, this is actually a relatively happy ending.
Looking Glass Studios
What made them important: They created the System Shock games, which were the grandfather of the popular BioShock series. The also created Thief, the first major stealth game. Their employee roster was like a "Dream Team" collection of some of the smartest folks in the industry at that time: Seamus Blackley, Marc LeBlanc, Ken Levine, and Warren Spector, among others.
What happened to them: Setting up shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts and hiring a bunch of MIT graduates is a great way to create these smart, innovative, "thinking person's" shooters. It's also a great way to spend yourself into oblivion. They flamed out and went broke in 1999. Alas.