Throughout December, Gamasutra will be presenting a year-end retrospective, discussing notable games, events, developers, and industry figures of 2008, from the perspective of our position covering the art, science, and business of games.
Next, we'll look at this year's top five development studios and ten honorable mentions. Included developers released at least one title during the 2008 calendar year.
They also demonstrated uncommon achievement with that release and/or exhibiting significant dedication to community, innovative business models, frequently-unheralded genres, or other noteworthy areas. Only specific development teams, offices, or divisions were eligible; entire publishers were not.
Top 5 Development Studios of 2008 (listed alphabetically)
Bethesda Game Studios (Fallout 3)
As a developer, Bethesda has carved out a remarkable role for itself, spending years to create massive, open-world, single-player RPGs -- hardly a booming genre in the industry at large -- to great success, bringing a once-niche PC genre to a broad multiplatform audience.
And after over 15 years of developing its own Elder Scrolls fantasy universe, Bethesda has become the custodian of Black Isle's Fallout, successfully transitioning that legendary property into the modern era.
And continuing its tradition of delivering new material post-release as it prepares to ship new story content next year, Bethesda has made available the world editor for Fallout 3 on PC, continuing a practice it carried out for years with The Elder Scrolls Construction Set.
Media Molecule (LittleBigPlanet)
Young UK-based studio Media Molecule practically oozes enthusiasm. Founded by four Lionhead expatriots, the small studio's first game LittleBigPlanet immediately grabbed the attention of the development and enthusiast communities for its lighthearted emphasis on user-driven content and systematic focus on physics and cooperation.
Upon release, LittleBigPlanet was hailed for delivering to gamers the same powerful level creation tools used by its own designers, offering accessibility without sacrificing depth.
And Media Molecule set itself apart by creating a unrestrainedly joyous gameplay experience that somehow manages to elevate goofing around with friends (or strangers) to a level rarely seen in major game releases.
Ubisoft Montreal (Far Cry 2, Prince of Persia, Assassin's Creed [PC], Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six Vegas 2, Shaun White Snowboarding, Lost: Via Domus)
With the number of titles produced by this ever-growing studio, it admittedly becomes harder and harder to single it out as one developer in the same sense as some of the other entries on this list -- and some of its 2008 releases, like Lost: Via Domus didn't exactly make the biggest splash.
But over the last decade, Ubisoft Montreal has become the crown jewel in Ubisoft's extensive development stable, and it consistently manages to turn out innovative, risky titles alongside its safer bets.
Like last year's Assassin's Creed (released this year for PC), Far Cry 2 generated strong discussion (and disagreement) among gamers due to often interesting and unusual design choices.
Employees of Ubisoft Montreal have become known for espousing the belief that it is important to attempt new types of gameplay and design systems, even if they aren't executed perfectly the first time out -- an unusual ethic for such a major division of a large, mainstream publisher.
Valve (Left 4 Dead, Portal: Still Alive)
Valve continues to be one of the shining examples of a successful independent studio that has diversified to the point that its fortunes never hinge on the success of any single major venture.
Over the last few years, it has broadened the scope of game experiences it develops, and this year delivered the creative and brilliantly executed Left 4 Dead after having picked up the game's developer Turtle Rock Studios
With Steam, Valve has invested not just in its own IP, but in PC gaming at large. On a seemingly constant basis, new developers and publishers of all sizes are signing up to the service to host their back catalogues and release new titles.
And Valve has used its growing position of influence to speak up for the virtues of the platform, becoming a visible and vocal proponent of PC development and gaming in a financially-justified way virtually no other individual studio can.
Independent Game Developers
In a year that has increasingly seen layoffs, salary reductions, and studio closures across every segment of the industry, it is worth recognizing the collective efforts of independent studios worldwide, including those not explicitly listed here.
With economic uncertainty lessening available funding and causing speculative cost reductions even as industry revenue continues to grow, those studios that continue to operate self-sufficiently, despite the difficulties and dangers often inherent to that model, deserve credit.
Development Studio Honorable Mentions (listed alphabetically)
2D Boy (World of Goo)
Atlus Co. (Persona 4, Persona 3 FES, Trauma Center: Under the Knife 2, Etrian Odyssey II: Heroes of Lagaard)
Black Rock Studio (Pure)
Blizzard Entertainment (World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King)
Criterion Games (Burnout Paradise)
Epic Games (Gears of War 2)
Firaxis Games (Civilization IV: Colonization, Civilization: Revolution)
Ironclad Games (Sins of a Solar Empire)
Q-Games (PixelJunk Monsters, PixelJunk Eden)
Telltale Games (Sam & Max Season 2 [Episodes 2-5], Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People [Episodes 1-5])