Development studios primarily earn their reputation on the strength of the games they release, and rightly so. But many studios make a name for themselves beyond that, based on interaction with their fans, impressive post-release support, strong first impressions, or succeeding in genres or business models that are traditionally particularly challenging.
These five studios fulfilled some of those criteria. Eligible groups released at least one game during 2009. Only specific development teams, offices, or divisions were considered; entire publishers were not.
Top 5 Development Studios of 2009 (listed alphabetically)
Harmonix Music Systems (The Beatles: Rock Band, Rock Band Network)
In addition to having kicked off the current wave of music-driven video games, Cambridge-based Harmonix Music Systems has stayed at the forefront of it through its ambitious but relatively restrained stewardship of the Rock Band franchise.
The company's sole internally-developed retail release this year, The Beatles: Rock Band, was a cut above the rapid-fire band tie-ins that populate the genre, serving as a self-contained tribute to an iconic band that built on the design framework the studio has perfected.
But more broadly, Harmonix's stewardship of the mind-boggling voluminous and diverse Rock Band song catalogue has ensured the franchise's increasingly-broad appeal. It's a lineup that ranges from The Who to Roy Orbison to The Zombies to the Pixies to Alice in Chains to Lucinda Williams, totaling more than 1000 tracks across individual downloads, bundles, and full albums.
And that number will only increase with the full launch of the Rock Band Network, a suite of community-driven tools allowing musicians to create their own Rock Band-compatible tracks. The software is already available, so when the marketplace opens up, it should start with a healthy stock.
Naughty Dog (Uncharted 2: Among Thieves)
Aside from garnering considerable praise for its action-adventure sequel Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, Naughty Dog set a particularly strong example this year for its desire to document and demonstrate its development practices to its fans and to the rest of the game development community.
On the public-facing side, Naughty Dog developers -- not just marketers -- produce a surprisingly high number of behind the scenes videos discussing its design philosophy, development goals, and general studio culture. Staffers also participated in multiple extensive real-time chats with fans, answering questions about all aspects of the project.
The company also addressed its development peers, sending staffers to demonstrate extensively at shows like Game Developers Conference and Develop; the company is planning to give numerous talks during GDC 2010 drilling down deep into Uncharted 2's production.
Rocksteady Studios (Batman: Arkham Asylum)
London-based Rocksteady Studios' first effort, the 2006 shooter Urban Chaos: Riot Response, was relatively well-received, but generated little attention. With its followup, this year's Batman: Arkham Asylum, the studio created a new first impression for itself overnight, establishing a top-notch reputation on the back of one of 2009's most acclaimed releases.
What's more impressive about the feat is that Arkham Asylum succeeds where nobody else has. It's tough enough to make a truly great licensed game -- after all, the segment doesn't have much of a quality threshold, and it's been demonstrated that tie-ins can sell well regardless -- but it's even harder to make a truly great Batman game. For over two decades, the dark knight's video game presence has been, with few exceptions, abysmal.
But Arkham Asylum is highly playable, strongly evocative, and inventive from a design standpoint, showing that all the license needed was the right caretaker. IP owner Warner Bros. clearly agrees, having recently announced Rocksteady will be hanging on to the caped crusader for another round.
Runic Games (Torchlight)
Seattle-based Runic Games hit the ground running this year. Starting with an open-source renderer -- already an unusual choice -- the startup churned out its highly-polished debut effort Torchlight in only 11 months.
The Diablo-esque action RPG was widely praised as fun and addictive in the way the genre strives to be, but it's Runic's approachability and receptiveness to feedback that has particularly distinguished it beyond its development prowess. Developers from the company have made an effort to respond to fan concerns and suggestions, provide information and context, and participate in a heroic number of community interviews and podcasts.
In a particularly famous incident, the studio set a bar for accessibility concerns. Mere hours after a forum member mentioned that one of the game's camera effects left her unable to play sections of the games due to an uncommon eye condition, a Runic developer patched in a user toggle for the option -- at 8:00 am on a Sunday morning, no less.
Valve Software (Left 4 Dead 2, DLC for Team Fortress 2 and Left 4 Dead)
Valve goes to great lengths to share its philosophy on ongoing post-release content with the rest of the development community, but it still arguably acts on that philosophy better and more frequently than anyone else, supporting its games long after their ship dates with free content (at least on the PC) in an era when day-one paid DLC is becoming the norm.
But that's most evident with the two-year-old multiplayer shooter Team Fortress 2, which has played host to a dizzying (and seemingly neverending) stream of new content, gameplay tweaks, and almost joke-like additions. It's almost a totally different game than it was at launch; it's seen more persistent evolution than some MMOs.
The game's fundamentally tongue-in-cheek premise of warring corporate entities provides a perfect canvas for the studio's continuing content insanity, as documented by its consistently hilarious blog. Case in point: the game's Soldier and Demoman classes are currently locked in a community-wide war that has seen the Demoman equipped with a new shield and claymore (the sword kind).
Developer Honorable Mentions
Ace Team (Zeno Clash)
BioWare (Dragon Age: Origins)
Dejobaan Games (AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! - A Reckless Disregard for Gravity in it)
From Software (Demon's Souls)
Rockstar North (Grand Theft Auto IV: The Lost & Damned, Grand Theft Auto IV: The Ballad of Gay Tony, Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars [co-developed with Rockstar Leeds])
Telltale Games (Tales of Monkey Island, Wallace & Gromit's Grand Adventures)
Twisted Pixel Games (The Maw, 'Splosion Man)
- Chris Remo
Daniel Piers: "[Infinity Ward] and Gearbox should be on this list; for the producing the [Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2] sales juggernaut and for introducing the best new IP of '09 (respectively)."
Mike Nowak: "Personally, I'd have included Capybara Games and/or 5th Cell."
Bob Stevens: "Everything Valve releases is great, but this feels like an off year for them in terms of high profile releases, so I'd have put [Infinity Ward] in that spot."