Chen and colleagues at Los Angeles studio TGC released PlayStation Network title Flower to great critical acclaim. Not only does the game play differently from others, it eschews violence and many traditional play mechanisms in order to create a new sort of experience.
Chen's design for Flower has sparked no end of critical discussions, design debates, and GDC topics, and has inspired other designers to look further into the fun of experiential and experimental gameplay.
Chen's well-spoken philosophical ideas and theories have cemented his position as one of the more forward-looking designers in games.
KingsIsle lead designer Todd Coleman has claimed for years that MMOs can be successful targeting smaller niches. His first attempt, the free to play/subscription hybrid PC online game Wizard 101, merges a little Harry Potter, a little Pokémon, and a little Magic: The Gathering into a boutique MMO that recently snared its five millionth registration.
The youth and tween space for MMOs is a crowded one, but Coleman and company have proved that specific targeting and clever game design, rather than generic catchalls, can be a formula for success.
The entire PopCap design team has done much to legitimize casual game design by producing titles that combine easy accessibility with deep play mechanics. Recent releases such as Plants vs. Zombies demonstrate the PopCap style of creating games that are deceptively simple on the surface, but remain rewarding over the long-term.
In PvZ, Fan's take on the alternately hardcore or faceless genre of "tower defense"/strategy is cleverly personalized and masterfully iterated, without alienating the more strategy-minded players.
The whimsical cartoon world of Sly Cooper was Sucker Punch's bread and butter during the PlayStation 2 era, but with the transition to latest gen consoles, the competition has gotten altogether darker in tone.
Sucker Punch's response was to update the proven action elements from their well-crafted franchise with a modern, open-world design and edgier art direction. The resulting inFAMOUS is the perfect intelligent fix for an audience that grew up with cartoons, but now craves more adult fare, and gives the PlayStation 3 another much-needed system exclusive.
Hill is the creative director of Rocksteady, a company which came from relative obscurity to create the greatest Batman game yet made (Batman: Arkham Asylum). Rather than turning the hero into "punching batarang guy" as so many developers have before, Hill and company created a thoughtful, stealthy combat-oriented game, with well-designed levels, clever tricks, and scads of new ideas throughout.
Rocksteady Games' Batman: Arkham Asylum
From Batman's "detective vision" to the flowing combo-oriented combat, to the silent takedowns, Arkham Asylum manages to make cautious play enjoyable, without being slow.
Left 4 Dead and its sequel reinvigorated cooperative multiplayer games in such a logical way that it seems astounding it wasn't done before. Players stick together and help each other out because the enemy AI is designed in such a way that you're a fool not to. You actually want to work in partnership, instead of being forced by the old "you need two people to open this door" gag.
By forcing most of the large scale battles to take place in motion, rather than from single defensible positions, Leonard and his Valve colleagues have created a new variant of co-op that has captured the imagination of many.
Most people know BioWare for "the doctors" -- Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk, but James Ohlen is a key design brain behind many of the BioWare classics, including Baldur's Gate I and II, as well as Knights of the Old Republic and Neverwinter Nights.
Ohlen is currently heading The Old Republic, BioWare's entry into the MMO space, ensuring that the tricky franchise -- on a massively multiplayer scale, of course -- is properly infused with the studio's brand of thoughtful play.
Street Fighter IV team
Street Fighter IV brought lapsed fighting game players back into the fold, and even created some new fans. This was a marketing win, to be sure, but the design of the game for lower-level play lowered the barrier of entry such that players were less daunted.
The challenge modes also served as a tutorial for the combo system, teaching players how to link certain moves together. Shiozaki and the folks at Dimps and Capcom have paved the way for a resurgence of 2D fighting games in general.
Shuntaro Tanaka and Ryutaro Nonaka
Strategy RPGs have traditionally been a hyper-niche genre, beloved by its adherents and almost inscrutable to outsiders. Into this hidebound form stepped producer Ryutaro Nonaka and director Shuntaro Tanaka with Valkyria Chronicles, a game that put a fresh, youthful (and blue-skied) face on the typically grognardian elements of small unit fire and movement tactics.
Massive sales didn't necessarily result, but perhaps when the franchise moves on to the PSP it will introduce even more players to the pleasures of tactical games.
Captain Forever developer Farbs has had about eight years of commercial game development experience at companies like BigWorld and 2K Australia -- on either canceled or unreleased games.
Jarrad Woods' Captain Forever
But in his free time he started making independent games, and the fascinating and transgressive ROM CHECK FAIL -- which mashed up classic arcade games in cheeky ways -- was just the start, a Grey Album for games, if you will. His new project, and his first as a full-time indie, Captain Forever, won the IGF China Best Game award for the top Asian-Pacific indie title.