Avalanche Software – The Long Path to a Legacy

Just two short weeks after Hogwarts Legacy’s release, Warner Bros. Interactive announced that the game had brought in a staggering $850 million in sales, selling over 12 million units worldwide in just that short span of time, making it the single largest game so far in 2023, and one of the largest recent games in general. And to whom does Warner Bros. owe the success of the Harry-Potter-adjacent game? To Avalanche Software, whose passion, care, and talent shows in spades throughout the game’s intricately designed world and systems.

But Avalanche Software have not always been the kind of developers to create highly polished, tripple-A, flagship games like Hogwarts Legacy. In fact, Hogwarts Legacy is the first game they’ve developed at anywhere near its scale. While they have been around for nearly 30 years, always headed by industry veteran — and in my opinion visionary — John Blackburn, most of their lineup of games could hardly be considered premier products, and their ultimate fate seemed uncertain, constantly balancing on a knife’s edge.

So how did this happen? How did a small studio that made low-budget movie-tie in games and arcade ports, one that was frequently the victim of cynical corporate moves, go from being an obscure group of workhorse developers into the highly respected team behind one of the best open-world games in recent memory? Well, it’s a windy road, to be sure.

To understand the early days of Avalanche Software, you first have to understand where its founders came from. All four of the initial founders of Avalanche came from Sculptured Software, and it is easy to see the influence in the early works of Avalanche. You see, Utah-based Sculptured Software was founded in 1984, right as video games were taking off, but it never enjoyed the same successes as some of its fellow studios. It was not the go-to studio for making the biggest, most innovative hits for the newly-established home console market.

avalanche software retrospective sculptured software

Instead — and be ready to hear this a lot — they made licensed games. They created SNES ports of several Mortal Kombat games, tie-in games for the Simpsons, Star Wars, and Space Jam, digitized games like Clue, Monopoly, and Risk, and were even early developers of sports games, including those licensed by the NBA, NHL, and WWF. They made a name for themselves. Not as maverick developers, changing the industry, but as steady, dependable agents who could produce needed games for existing franchises and brands. After all, the name of the game in the late 80s and early 90s was “synergy.”

It was from this environment — creative, but ultimately restricted by the tight schedules created by tie-ins — that Avalanche Software sprang. Founded by John Blackburn, Todd Blackburn, James Michael Henn and Gary Penacho as a subsidiary of Warned Bros. Interactive in October of 1995, the studio almost immediately set to work on tie-ins and ports. They would’ve joined Saffire, another video game studio, except that they didn’t want to deal with the commute from Salt Lake City, Utah to Pleasant Grove, Utah. And so, Avalanche Software was born!

But, before we continue, let’s consider Sculptured Software once more, because it’s ultimate fate must’ve stuck with Avalanche. Shortly after the departure of the Avalanche founders, Sculptured Software slowed down on game production. Within a couple of years, they were purchased by Acclaim, merged with two other studios and renamed “Acclaim Studios Salt Lake City”, and made to create notably lower-quality wrestling games than what they were making before. By 2002, Sculptured Software, now “Acclaim Studios Salt Lake City”, after a long tenure in the game industry, shut down for good, their years of hard and dutiful work ultimately not enough to save them from going defunct.

As we continue, it is important to note that Avalanche Software, in many ways following in the footsteps of Scultpured Software, would be keenly aware of this possibility. They too were a Salt-Lake-City-based development studio often tasked with creating tie-ins to popular franchises, who would find themselves changing hands and projects several times over the year, often being left in precarious situations. While one can only speculate, I can’t help but wonder if John Blackburn, at the head of Avalanche, looked at the fate of his employer and worried if his own studio wouldn’t follow suit.

After their founding in December 1995, Avalanche Software quickly started producing for Warner Bros. Interactive. In 2016 — the very next year after opening up — they created the port for Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 on SNES and combined the first three Mortal Kombat games into the PS1 version of Mortal Kombat Trilogy. They followed that up by creating Mortal Kombat Mythologies: Sub-Zero in 1997, two sequels to arcade-classic Rampage in 1999 and 2000, and two Rugrats games in 2000 and 2002, along with a couple other smaller games.

Suffice to say, they were falling quite in line with the predecessor, producing games that needed to be made for the sake of studios that just needed to make sure something came out to capitalize on trends.

avalanche software 2001 statement
In this statement on Avalanche Software’s website from 2001, already their ambition was obvious

In 2002, though, they wanted to break that mold and develop an original game, with an original premise. And so, they made Tak and the Power of Juju. This 3D action-platformer borrowed a lot from games like Banjo-Kazooie, Spyro, and the 3D Mario games. And when it came out it was… a modest success. Critically, it received average reviews, and commercially, it did well enough to afford two sequels and even a very low-budget show on Nickelodeon (with a shockingly good voice cast).

And I have to admit some personal bias here: Tak and the Power of Juju was a game I was obsessed with as a child, perhaps one of my favorite games on my original Xbox. Granted, I was 7 years old when the Xbox version came out, so I probably wasn’t a very good judge.

avalanche software tak and the power of juju

Still, it was clearly enough to capture the imaginations of many kids, and there is a chance that it could’ve kept blossoming into something really special. But, instead, it was just strong enough of a flagship to allow Avalanche Software to get out from under the thumb of license deals and make their own games. While it was not a rocket ship for the company, it was a start towards something more.

Or so it seemed. Enter Disney.

In May 2005, Buena Vista Games bought out Avalanche Software. For those not in the know, Buena Vista is the name used by the Walt Disney Company for subsidiaries that they don’t want to have the explicit “Disney” branding (though the connection is very well-known). Buena Vista Games would even become Disney Interactive Studios in 2007, not long after buying Avalanche Software.

At first, this buy-out was good news, financially and professionally, for Avalanche. Disney was a more massive brand than Warner Bros., with more lucrative licensable properties and a greater market aimed at children, who were the predominant demographic for video games. While they would have to go back to making licensed games, the Disney brand was simply better for doing so, and it is no doubt that they were promised a more favorable deal for making the switch.

avalanche software disney interactive studios
Disney might seem like a promising brand… At first

The first game they made for Buena Vista Games was Chicken Little, based on a movie which critically and commercially flopped. Then, in 2006, they made their lowest-rated game ever, 25 to Life. Following that, they made Chicken Little: Act in Action, and it is at this point that John Blackburn and the rest of the team at Avalanche might’ve realized what they got themselves into. Their next few games were tie-ins for Meet the Robinsons, Hannah Montana, and Bolt. Not exactly the cream-of-the-crop when it comes to Disney properties. After coming so close to producing original games with Tak and the Power of Juju, they were now, essentially, back where they started, churning out mediocre tie-in games quickly enough to meet demand.

They were given some reprieve from this with the tie-ins for Toy Story 3 and Cars 2, which were at least adaptions of more popular properties (Even if it did mean having to adapt Cars 2). But their real break — or what seemed to be it — came with one of Disney’s largest video game projects they’d made: 2013’s Disney Infinity. Avalanche Software was to develop the toys-to-life game, suddenly thrusting them to the front of game studios under the Disney brand. Maybe this would be their second chance?

Avalanche Software performed admirably, given Disney Infinity’s concept. It was going to be a sandbox game, one where you could take physical toys that you purchased and, using special discs connected to the system, put them in the game. This was a massive launch, featuring many of Disney’s most popular brands, from Toy Story to Pirates of the Caribbean, enabling players to bring their toys to life in the game (in fact, the genre of game was called “toys-to-life”). Looking to be a direct competitor to Skylanders, another toys-to-life game, Disney Infinity was Disney’s effort to use the heft of their massive brands in order to muscle in on the space.

And thanks both to the brand power and to Avalanche Software’s talent, they did. At first. Disney Infinity released to moderate critical success and some solid sales, both for the game itself and its associated toys. It was successful enough for Disney to commission two sequels from Avalanche: Disney Infinity 2.0 and Disney Infinity 3.0 in the following two years, each introducing more toys, more mechanics, and more flexibility for the sandbox. While this tight, yearly schedule must’ve been difficult, Avalanche Software kept up, with the final game in the series garnering the highest ratings of the lot.

avalanche software disney infinity 3.0
The toys-to-life market just never caught on

But, while it seemed like Avalanche Software was finally settling into their niche, with the usually reclusive John Blackburn even giving several interviews supporting the game and speaking on his love of toys, Disney had other plans. Disney Infinity 3.0 was released in 2015. But, by that point, the writing on the walls was clear: toys-to-life was not catching on, even with the Disney branding. The project was plummeting.

Rather than greenlight a 4.0, Disney unceremoniously shut down Disney Interactive Studios in 2016, closing down Avalanche Software alongside many other studios in the process. The studio, having then been around for 20 solid years, was no more. Many of the developers were picked up by castAR, a company that made augmented and virtual reality glasses (no, they didn’t work very well) in order to form castAR’s Salt Lake City division. That didn’t last long, with castAR itself folding the next year, but the damage was done. John Blackburn, now a certified veteran of the game industry, was faced with the reality that his company had, indeed, followed the path of Sculptured Software, where he came from.

But, sometimes, old friends come to the rescue.

Well, perhaps massive media megacorporations can’t be considered “old friends,” but Warner Bros. Interactive must’ve seemed like it to Blackburn when they approached him in 2017, to offer him the project of a lifetime. Warner Bros., you see, was itching to capitalize on the renewed interest in the Harry Potter franchise — now rebranded the “Wizarding World” — following the release of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. The film was a moderate success. But, more importantly, it sparked interest. Naturally, a video game needed to follow suit.

By 2017, we are out of the era of direct movie-to-game tie-ins (at least for the most part), but that doesn’t mean that a huge brand like the Wizarding World should just go to waste. And video games were now much more dominant as a form of entertainment, both financially and culturally, than they had been more than a decade prior. What Warner Bros. Interactive needed was a huge game, one to meet the expectations of modern gamers and cater to a fanbase that desperately craved it. It was the perfect project.

avalanche software rumors about harry potter game
Articles like this built up hype even long before the game was confirmed

But, dozens of studios had fumbled Harry Potter and Wizarding World properties before. The tie-in games for all of the movies aside from the very first were poorly received, and that first game had been released nearly twenty years prior to that point, by a studio that no longer existed. There was, simply put, no studio Warner Bros. Interactive could trust with the property. They were all either too new, or had been to involved with the development of the previous disappointing entries. They needed industry veterans that they could trust, who were experienced with licensed games but talented enough to create something suitably huge — a flagship for the new era of Harry Potter fans.

They needed Avalanche Software, the studio that had been sold off to Disney twelve years prior. And so, early in 2017, Avalanche Software reformed, with John Blackburn still at the head and with all eyes set on one, massive project, for which they would be given plenty of time and plenty of budget. Avalanche Software, under the Warner Bros. Interactive’s new “Portkey Games” label, would develop Hogwarts Legacy.

Avalanche Software was brought back together because of the Wizarding World, and because of talent of its veteran team, headed by John Blackburn, who must’ve been itching to prove himself. But, even reformed, nothing was a sure thing.

Work on Hogwarts Legacy, you must understand, started in 2017, in the wake of the decent box office success of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. The cultural momentum of the original Harry Potter movies, the last of which was released in 2011, was still in full swing, with many young adults still finding comfort in the familiar houses and world. The “Wizarding World” area of Universal Studios Florida, after opening in 2010 and significantly expanding in 2014, was as popular as ever. Harry Potter, even after the end of the original series, was one of Warner’s biggest brands. It seemed to be the perfect time for Hogwarts Legacy, a new megaproject in the Wizarding World to really cement the staying power of the brand.

avalanche software universal wizarding world 1
The Wizarding World at Universal Studios Florida is one of the most detailed parks in the world

But, after 2017, the brand took some hits. The two sequels Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them released to complete critical and commercial failure, alienating fans and damaging the brand value of the Wizarding World. At the same time, JK Rowling — the creator of Harry Potter — slowly unmasked herself as an unapologetic transphobe, causing her to lose much public support, including that of all the lead actors in the original movies. Harry Potter never went away, but between the start of Hogwarts Legacy’s development in 2017 and its release in 2023, the brand was damaged severely.

Through all this, Avalanche Software continued dutifully developing the game, putting every ounce of care and effort into creating it as possible, but the weight of the project must’ve increased. At some point, they must’ve come to the realization that they were not simply making a Harry Potter game, something to capitalize on the success of a brand. At some point, Hogwarts Legacy became more than another tie-in that just happened to have a bigger budget. At some point, Hogwarts Legacy had to become the future of the Wizarding World. It wasn’t a part of the universe, it was going to be, for better or worse, the continuation of the franchise.

avalanche studios hogwarts legacy

Avalanche Software had finally been put in the forefront of a project, given everything they needed to succeed, because everything was resting on them. The future of the Harry Potter and Wizarding World brands rested on their success. This was the moment Avalanche Software had been waiting for over nearly thirty years.

And they were ready.

By the time Hogwarts Legacy released — six years later, in 2023 — things were surely looking dire for Warner Bros. Interactive. We know now that their year-on-year sales had been dropping, and that the value of the Wizarding World brand was in steeper decline than most. They had chosen to put their eggs in Avalanche’s capable hands, though, providing them with ample time to make an incredible game, plenty of budget, and some excellent marketing (though Avalanche also did some of that themselves, with an incredibly responsive PR team that deserves just as much praise as the developers).

When the game released, there must’ve been a massive sigh of relief that swept through Warner Bros. Interactive and Avalanche Software. The game, despite everything, was a massive, instant hit. Critical acclaim swept in, with scores of 9 and 10 not uncommon. People went out in droves to buy it, excited to experience the Wizarding World they grew up with themselves, in as gorgeously detailed realism as possible. Hogwarts Legacy was, fittingly, like magic. It was everything one could hope for, and more.

avalanche software hogwarts legacy accolades
Hogwarts Legacy was released to massive critical acclaim

Behind that magic, though, is a team that was constantly put on the back foot for 30 years, formed by a group of passionate developers who worked on fairly thankless projects for years before finally being given the chance to prove themselves after having truly earned it. And prove themselves they did; Avalanche Software can now proudly say they created a genuine masterpiece, a guaranteed contender for Game of the Year, and a massive critical and commercial success.

It goes to show what the power of dedication, passion, and perseverance can get you, and shows the game industry just how valuable some of the developers they’ve been neglecting can be, when given the chance to shine. Avalanche Software started as a small company founded because its creators didn’t want to commute, that was left making low budget licensed games. Now? They just released one of the biggest games of the year, revitalizing a franchise, are being roundly celebrated for their work.


We hope you enjoyed this look into the long road toward Avalanche Software’s hard-earned success. Let us know what you think below, and make sure to check out the rest of our Hogwarts Legacy content, from news to guides to tools.

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Graves
Graves

Graves is an avid writer, web designer, and gamer, with more ideas than he could hope to achieve in a lifetime. But, armed with a mug of coffee and an overactive imagination, he'll try. When he isn't working on a creative project, he is painting miniatures, reading cheesy sci-fi novels, or making music.

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