Before There Were Indies, There Was Ambrosia

Before There Were Indies, There Was Ambrosia

This day in video game history: A venerable little game maker celebrates its 22nd anniversary.

The rise of independent game developers over the past decade stands as one of the most important seismic shifts in the medium's history. Sure, the big studios make the biggest games with the biggest budgets and marketing campaigns, but it's the little guys who exist as the industry's new backbone.

"Indie" is just a new name for an old phenomenon, though: Small, self-owned studios who sustain themselves on a steady stream of modest budgets and modest sales. This business model has been a part of gaming from the beginning; in fact, in the early days of home gaming, practically everyone outside of Atari and a handful of major toy and electronic companies such as Parker Bros. were precisely what you'd consider indie these days. Many of those little guys grew into giants, such as Origin Systems, which began with Richard Garriott selling homemade copies of his proto-RPG Akalabeth in Ziploc bags and ultimately became an RPG giant until it was consumed and dissolved by EA.

The Macintosh market in particular gave rise to a number of these tiny developers almost as a matter of inevitability: A powerful, graphics-focused platform with a negligible user base? Apple's market was a petri dish for indies, and three notable studios came into being on the Macintosh during the '90s, just before the advent of 3D accelerator cards shifted the balance of gaming toward DOS and Windows forever: Bungie, Spiderweb, and Ambrosia.

Of the three, Bungie eventually became a juggernaut thanks to Microsoft buying them up and turning Halo into the Xbox's centerpiece. Spiderweb continues to soldier along, and the classic turn-based isometric RPGs they make are back in vogue, once again proving that if you stick to your guns eventually you'll become fashionable again. Ambrosia, however, isn't known nearly so well as the other two studios; they've never had a breakout hit, and they long ago diversified away from being a pure game maker to offering a more generalized software lineup. Which isn't to say they don't make games at all, but Ambrosia's offerings tend much more toward the casual end of the spectrum, with lots of card games for iOS and Mac.

Maelstrom, the game that put Ambrosia on the map, has been remade quite a few times, but it's never lost its early '90s "have you seen this thing called 'Photo Shop'!?" aesthetic.

Their trajectory sets them apart from many of their peers. Ambrosia was a part of the shareware revolution of the early '90s, which hit the big time when id released DOOM as a free, playable demo episode. Countless hopefuls sprang up to get in on the action id had discovered, few of which survived the violent transition to 3D game graphics once id's next big thing (Quake) appeared. Ambrosia toughed it out, though, leaning on a wide variety of genres ranging from pure arcade shooting to strategy to puzzle. Eventually, they expanded from developer to publisher, bringing cool outside projects like Sketch Fighter 4000 Alpha and Darwinia to Mac, before finding even greater success with utilities that extended the functionality of the Mac operating system, such as WireTap Studio and Snapz Pro.

The studio has definitely struggled to adapt to the changing market in recent years; it undertook massive layoffs a couple of years ago, and its output has slowed considerably since then. But they're still around, making them one of the last remaining old guard of classic Mac gaming. It's comforting, you know?

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