[ VC&G Anthology ] Developers Cite The Greatest PC Games of All Time (2009)

November 5th, 2015 by Benj Edwards

10 Greatest PC Games of All Time
10 DAYS OF VINTAGE: Day 4

In early 2009, I undertook my most ambitious slideshow up to that point: The Ten Greatest PC Games of All Time for PCWorld.com.

After playing dozens of games, reading opinions on forums and blogs across the Internet, and consulting every previously published list of greatest PC games I could find, I made a rough list of about 50 games. Then I stuck them in a spreadsheet and rated them based on various criteria.

During the process, I also surveyed several well-known PC game developers (and Dan Bricklin) for their nominations of Greatest PC Games. I did the best I could, and of course, the result reflected one man’s opinion. Here’s what I came up with:

#10: TradeWars 2002
#9: Myst
#8: The Sims
#7: StarCraft
#6: Rogue: The Adventure Game
#5: M.U.L.E.
#4: SimCity
#3: Sid Meier’s Civilization
#2: Doom
#1: World of Warcraft

It pissed everybody off, of course.

(Well, just about everybody. Fellow journalist Jenn Frank and her mom liked it. But that was about it.)

VC&G Anthology BadgeEditors who had not been consulted were livid that I was apparently speaking on behalf of PC World with such an important-sounding list (not my intention), and people all around the U.S. were upset that I didn’t include Half-Life or X-Com: UFO Defense.

Meanwhile, readers in the UK cried for blood and shouted, “Where is Tomb Raider??!!” I just scratched my head on that one — apparently it’s a national classic over there.

It didn’t help that my editor had changed the title to “The 10 Best PC Games Ever.” After about two dozen angry comments, I got my editor to change it back to “greatest” — the difference being that I was going after influential and culturally important games — not necessarily the “best” games to play today. (I also regretted not making a title slide for that slideshow for the first time, so it always says “best” on there.)

The piece got syndicated on MSN and everywhere else, so the title change didn’t propagate there. Hate seethed at me from all corners of the globe. I honestly don’t enjoy making people upset, but man, it was fun to watch people go apeshit over a slideshow.

Giving a Voice to the Underdogs

TradeWars 2002 Title ScreenDespite the criticism, there were some great things about the whole episode. The list became notable for the fact that I included a BBS door game, TradeWars 2002.

BBS door games had never been recognized in a mainstream capacity before, so it was a fairly big deal. The original creator of TradeWars 2002, Gary Martin, commented and said that my list made that day “a day to be remembered.” The maintainer of TW2002, John Pritchett, was so pleased and simultaneously flabbergasted that he emailed me and said (I’m paraphrasing here), “Tell me straight: Did you really think TradeWars 2002 was good enough, or did you just put it on there for the heck of it?”

I’ll say it again: Yes, TW2002 is good enough. People still play it religiously every day, and it’s a freakin’ text game written for BBSes in 1990. That’s a good game!

I also included the original Rogue, another old (and highly influential) game people play all the time, which got me some kudos. And M.U.L.E. was an unusual choice at the time, but most people recognize it as a classic, so it was not controversial.

MYST IS AWESOMEBut best of all, I delighted in including Myst — one of the most important and influential PC games of the early ’90s — despite the fact that Al Lowe (creator of Leisure Suit Larry) wrote me an email about how much he specifically hated it. But I love Myst (…and I also love Al Lowe, but hey).

If I did the list again today, I’d keep the roster mostly the same, but I would put Minecraft in the number one spot. Of course, no one would let me make a list like this again without consulting other editors at the publication. But things were different in 2009.

Game Developers Weigh In

So after all that controversy back then, a number of people wondered if I had really contacted veteran game developers (I did!), and if so, they wanted to see what they actually said.

Well, here you go — over six years later, I’m finally brave enough to revisit this topic and share what the developers nominated to be on the list. Their choices did indeed influence me, and I put all of their nominations on my spreadsheet. Of course, the final list came down to how I subjectively rated the games based on different criteria.

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Remember, all these developer picks were made in January 2009.

Tim Sweeney
Photo: GamerHubTV

Tim Sweeney

Tim Sweeney is perhaps best known for being the founder and CEO of Epic Games. He pioneered shareware concepts in the 1990s while developing ZZT and Jill of the Jungle and publishing many other games. After that, he co-developed Unreal Engine, which powers many of the industry’s most popular games.

Tim’s List:

  • Zork
  • Ultima
  • Doom
  • Command & Conquer
  • World of Warcraft

Tim said:
“My personal top 5 list is Zork, Ultima, DOOM, C&C, World of Warcraft. I don’t have enough perspective to fairly pick 5 others.”

I later asked for quote about Doom to use in my piece:

Doom defined the 3D shooter genre and made multiplayer gaming mainstream. But it didn’t just do those things, it did them with such incredible polish, artistry, and foresight that it created an industry.

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Chris Crawford
Photo: Jason Scott

Chris Crawford

Chris Crawford gained a reputation for being a game designer’s designer from his advocacy for the craft and for his authorship of famous titles like Eastern Front: 1941 and Balance of Power. Crawford is also the original creator of the Game Developers Conference, which first took place in his living room in 1988.

Chris’ List:

  • M.U.L.E.

Chris said:
“I stopped playing games some years ago, so I don’t think I can fairly address anything after about 1995. So I’ll limit myself to just a few games from before that year. For the time period from 1978 to 1995, the greatest game design of all was M.U.L.E. by Dan Bunten. You know, I think I’ll stop there.”

I asked for quote about M.U.L.E.:

M.U.L.E. exploited the strengths of the Atari 800 to the fullest. The music, sound effects, graphics, use of the controllers, and algorithmic complexity all pushed the machine to its limits. Modern software comes nowhere near close to pushing the hardware; most of the time, the CPU is sitting around in wait loops. This is understandable; machines today are a million times more powerful than the Atari 800. Still, there’s a real elegance in understanding the hardware so intimately as to be able to push it to its limits.

But there’s another, more subtle aspect to the design of M.U.L.E. that makes it the greatest game design of all time: the appeal to intuition in the auction. The design of the auction, with its ticking time limit, the moving bars marking sell price and buy price, the up-and-down teasing behavior that either buyers or sellers could use, all made for intense interaction that tickled the deepest levels of human intuition. That was the greatest design stroke of M.U.L.E., and few modern designers appreciate its significance.

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Steve Meretzky
Photo: Jason Scott

Steve Meretzky

Steve Meretzky is best known for his work as an interactive fiction designer at Infocom, authoring titles such as Planetfall, Sorcerer, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (with Douglas Adams), and Leather Goddesses of Phobos — among many others. He has also been active in the game preservation scene in recent years, helping to create the first notable “game canon” in 2007 with Henry Lowood and others.

Steve’s List

  • Zork
  • Sim City
  • Civilization
  • Age of Empires II
  • World of Warcraft
  • Peggle
  • Tetris
  • The Fool’s Errand
  • The Incredible Machine
  • Might & Magic 4 & 5

Steve said:
“I actually did this exercise a couple of years ago; I was on a GDC panel, sponsored by the IGDA Preservation SIG, on ‘10 Games You Have to Play.’ Each panelist only had to come up with 2 games, but I came up with a list of about 30 to pare down to my 2. It was all games, not just PC games. Here is that list, but to replace Pac-Man, I’ll go with Peggle, my favorite game of the last year or two.”

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Bruce Shelley
Photo: Andreas Rentz

Bruce Shelley and Ensemble Studios Staff

Bruce Shelley is best known for co-developing Sid Meier’s Railroad Tycoon and Sid Meier’s Civilization with…well, Sid Meier. He also co-designed Age of Empires for Ensemble Studios, which happened to close its doors just after my slideshow published. When I asked him for a list, he decided to poll the entire staff of Ensemble for their picks, and this is what they said.

Bruce and Ensemble’s List:

  • Age of Kings
  • Diablo II
  • Half-Life
  • Starcraft
  • Sid Meier’s Civilization
  • World of Warcraft
  • X-Com: UFO Defense
  • Wing Commander
  • Doom
  • Master of Orion

Bruce said:
“Here is the list based on the feedback from employees. Not surprising but our guys gave our own game highest marks. Many people came to work here to work on those games. Most of these games were series. Where one game in the series was called out the most, I have named it. About 41 games got mentioned at least twice by maybe 20 people who responded to my thread.”

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Soren Johnson
Photo: pcgamesn.com

Soren Johnson

Soren Johnson is best known as a design protégé of Sid Meier by being the lead designer of Civilization III and Civilization IV at Firaxis. He also worked on Spore and Dragon Age Legends.

Soren’s List:

  • Railroad Tycoon
  • Pirates!
  • SimCity
  • M.U.L.E.
  • Seven Cities of Gold
  • Age of Kings
  • Faery Tale Adventure
  • Maniac Mansion
  • Legacy of the Ancients
  • Rocket Ranger

I asked him for quote about SimCity:

SimCity was one of the first games where a few very simple sub-systems (crime, property value, traffic, etc.) combined to make an interesting and challenging experience. Even playing on a black-and-white Mac with a tiny screen, I felt that there truly was a whole city inside my machine – one which relied on my judgment to succeed. I could fit all of the gameplay concepts in my head at once, which encouraged me to experiment frequently to discover how to create the best Sorenopolis.

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Chris Sawyer
Photo: Chris Sawyer

Chris Sawyer

Chris Sawyer gained recognition for designing the classic simulation games Transport Tycoon and RollerCoaster Tycoon — continuing with the RollerCoaster Tycoon series throughout add-on packs and two sequels. Earlier, he also worked on ports of the legendary titles Elite and Frontier: Elite II. I believe he is also the only non-American I consulted.

  • Atic Atac (Spectrum)
  • Knight Lore (Spectrum)
  • Sid Meier’s Railroad Tycoon
  • Sim City 2000
  • The Sims

Chris Said:
“Can the list include games on old computers like the Spectrum etc? If so then that makes the list a lot easier to do as the games I most admire are the ones which pushed the technical boundaries in the ‘good old days’ and defined new genres. [After sharing his list] That’s all I can think of at the moment and right now I can’t think of any modern PC games that fall into the ‘greatness’ category for me, though I’m sure you’ll get plenty of suggestions from other developers.”

I asked him for a quote about The Sims:

Here’s why I admire The Sims. It focused on two main elements of gameplay, nurturing and creativity, along with possibly a little bit of voyeurism too, which made it a pretty unique game (though interestingly my own RollerCoaster Tycoon games are very similar in concept if you think about it). The game tapped into some of our most fundamental instincts — most people enjoy being creative and making something their own, and most people enjoy looking after things and seeing how they grow and develop over time. So it had a much wider audience than most other games, appealing to all ages and genders, and finally, it was very well marketed and developed, with dozens of expansion packs, sequels, and conversions released to keep the game going.

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Al Lowe
Photo: Al Lowe

Al Lowe

Al Lowe created the Leisure Suit Larry series of risqué graphical adventure games for Sierra in the 1980s and ’90s. He also worked on several earlier Sierra titles, such as Winnie the Pooh in the Hundred Acre Wood (a personal favorite of mine as a kid) and The Black Cauldron.

  • Loom
  • Pinball Construction Set
  • Lode Runner
  • Sim City
  • Monkey Island
  • King’s Quest
  • Doom
  • Quake
  • World of Warcraft

I asked Al for a quote about SimCity:

SimCity was never fun for me to play, but I always felt that was because I could “see the algorithms churning” in the background. It so reflected Will’s particular view of society that other views were unacceptable. Yet it was huge. It changed simulations forever and started a 20-year run of games. That impressed me.

Then I asked him about why he didn’t like Myst:

“I never understood the excitement about Myst. There were always many other games that were more interesting, exciting, subtle and funny, with better logic and puzzles. I grew to resent its success while better games struggled for recognition.”

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Randy Farmer
Photo: Oracle Omega

F. Randall Farmer

F. Randall (“Randy”) Farmer co-developed one of the world’s first graphical multi-user online words, LucasFilm’s Habitat, with Chip Morningstar in the mid-1980s. He later went on to work on its follow-up, WorldsAway. I asked him for his picks because I had been talking with him about Habitat for an article not long before.

Randy’s List:

  • Tetris
  • Portal
  • Warcraft
  • Quake
  • World of Warcraft

I asked Randy about World of Warcraft:

World of Warcraft certainly isn’t the most original MMOG, but it took all the best ideas from its predecessors and merged them with a monster brand and a seemingly endless content development budget to create the standard-to-beat in the genre.

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Nick Newhard
Photo: Nick Newhard

Nick Newhard

Nick Newhard was the lead programmer and designer of Monolith’s Blood (a personal favorite) and a main programmer on Bookworm Deluxe (another personal favorite!), among other notable games.

Nick’s List:

  • Sid Meier’s Civilization
  • Diablo
  • Deus Ex
  • The Last Express
  • Doom II
  • Counterstrike
  • Maniac Mansion: Day of the Tentacle
  • Bioshock
  • Ultima Online
  • World of Warcraft

Nick said:
“I feel like I am giving short shrift to so many games I have loved equally. Warcraft II and Starcraft would have been on my list too, but Blizzard would dominate half my entries.”

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Landon Dyer
Photo: Atari

Landon Dyer

Landon Dyer may not be famous, but he’s awesome. That’s because he created one of the first video games I ever played, a port of Donkey Kong for the Atari 800, while working at Atari in the 1980s. He also developed a port of Super Pac-Man for the same machine that was never officially released.

Landon’s List:

  • Quake
  • Monkey Island 1 and 2
  • Diablo II
  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
  • Peter R. Jennings’ Microchess

Landon said:
“There are other, more recent games that I’ve enjoyed (Bioshock was very good), but they haven’t yet withstood the test of time. And while WoW is often fun, it’s not exactly *good* — just tuned well, and pretty much the same grinding stuff until you hit the endgame, whereupon it’s a job, not a game.”

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Dan Bricklin
Photo: Luca Lucarini

Dan Bricklin

Dan Bricklin is not a game developer, but he is best known for co-delveoping VisiCalc (often called the killer-app for PCs) and for once wrestling Steve Wozniak in a fantasy VC&G Wrestling League. He also wears great shoes.

Dan’s List:

  • Windows Solitaire
  • Space Invaders (Apple II)
  • Star Raiders

[I should have put Solitaire at #1 –Benj]

Dan said:
“I didn’t have any favorite game — I don’t play many. BUT clearly #1 is Solitaire. That is what taught many people to use the mouse, probably has the most users, etc. On the Apple II, we really loved Space Invaders (that was the real reason to have an Apple II — VisiCalc was just an excuse 🙂 ). On the Atari 800, Star Raiders really was an eye opener. Those are all very old, though.”

The Takeaway

Looking back, it’s interesting to see how much in thrall we all were of World of Warcraft, which was the dominant PC game of the time (2009), and The Sims. This was in an era before the huge indie game explosion, and before Minecraft, which would definitely be mentioned in any list of greatest PC games today.

What a fun group of people to hear from. If I did this today, I’d probably include a lot more diversity in ages, genders, races, and eras of the developers, but hey — it was early 2009. I am still grateful that all of them took the time to get back to me and share their picks.



8 Responses to “[ VC&G Anthology ] Developers Cite The Greatest PC Games of All Time (2009)”

  1. Zeddi Says:

    Dan Knows whats up.
    Also, the best games of all time is obviously Quake (1996) and Thief (1998). 🙂
    Oh, and best for who is the real question.

  2. Philip Says:

    I really wonder if Solitaire is the most-played PC game ever. It wouldn’t surprise me.

  3. Rowan Lipkovits Says:

    You get some interesting results if you add up all these results together. The game appearing on the most lists (7) is World of Warcraft; next most popular is Doom, on 5, then Civ and Sim City tied with placement on 4 lists each. Then, M.U.L.E. is on 3 lists (as is Quake.)

    Now the really interesting thing is that this top 5 overlaps entirely with your personal list at the top of the post, in sequence! (There is a little tabulation bias since I did include your list in the summed list, but still.)

    (More mildly interesting are the remaining games on multiple lists: Age of Kings, Diablo 2, Monkey Island 1, Railroad Tycoon, Starcraft, Tetris, The Sims and Zork all appear on two lists each.)

  4. Jistuce Says:

    Fact: If your Top 10 list doesn’t generate an endless tsunami of hate mail, it means no one read it.

  5. SirFatty Says:

    What a great article! Thanks for putting the time and effort into this content, it means a lot.

  6. Benj Edwards Says:

    Nice analysis, Rowan. And thanks for your support guys — especially SirFatty. It is fun doing some meaty posts on VC&G again.

  7. Luis Says:

    Even with the the title change, I find asinine to not include System Shock (either 1 or 2) and Half-Life. The former launched the RPG/FPS hybrid as we know it. The second changed PC gaming strategy for narrative forever.

  8. Dar Says:

    Interesting that it was largely strategy/adventure games.

    But computers had a ton of excellent sports, action, platform, and simulation games.

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