In this the age of first person shooters, if you are going to step into the free fire zone between Halo and Call of Duty, you need to have some major tricks up your sleeve. Fortunately Gearbox's Borderlands had more than a few interesting twists for players.
With game design direction from Matthew Armstrong, Borderlands successfully married MMORPG-style level grinding and item collecting to fast-paced shooter play. Other creative innovations included the game's procedural content system that generated unique item drops in order to keep gameplay fresh.
Tom "Zileas" Cadwell
Riot Games went from unknown quantity to industry standard in just over a year of League of Legends' operation.
This was the first major attempt to commercialize the style of gameplay of the hugely popular Warcraft III mod Defense of the Ancients, and the design, under Tom "Zileas" Cadwell, resonated with enough people to rocket Riot Games to the top of the online space. Not only that, the game recently swept the GDC Online awards, including Best Online Technology, Visual Arts, Game Design, and New Online Game.
Rockstar San Diego
One of the old axioms of the game industry states that "Westerns don't sell." Red Dead Redemption disproves that theory several times over, with massive sales in North America and Europe. The game takes the sandbox genre and depopulates it, effectively strengthening players' bonds with the main character, his horse, and the story in general.
Riding over vast landscapes has never felt more immersive, and the illusion of player agency is incredibly strong, even though the gameplay is clearly objective and node-based. The game's design leads the player to feel as though they've discovered something new, while they've actually been cleverly lead to a conclusion. Modern game design at work.
2K Marin's Minerva's Den downloadable campaign for BioShock 2 was an interesting creative approach to DLC that brought completely new characters and environments to the familiar BioShock universe. Not often is a DLC "expansion" a complete unique narrative experience. It also subtly tweaked the balance on upgrades and enemies to encourage a slower and more considered pace through the game without radically altering established mechanics.
Led by Steve Gaynor, who recently made the move from 2K Marin to BioShock developer Irrational Games, the Minerva's Den team was a 10-person, self-contained group within the larger company, proof that working small and fast can lead to real creative breakthroughs.
Suehiro "Swery" Hidetaka
Deadly Premonition was, for some, the surprise success of the year. The combat was troublesome, and the controls subpar, but the story, the script, and the character interaction was deeper and more subversive than any other linear game that year.
Hidetaka "Swery" Suehiro is the mastermind behind the game's text and direction, and he filled his fictional town of Greenvale with life -- characters go about their daily lives whether the player is watching or not. They have breakfast, drive to and from work, and voice their own hopes, dreams, and troubles. Most impressive is the main character, with his carefully considered persona and deep monologues. Anyone writing modern video game characters could learn something from Deadly Premonition.
Pokémon is a seemingly unstoppable cultural force, with games spanning multiple consoles, movies, television, a card game, and so forth. The newest game combo, Pokémon Black/White, moved over 2.6 million units in the first two days of its Japanese release.
This is largely due to the absolute perfection of obsessive-compulsive addictive gameplay that has been infused into the series, lately under the stewardship of game director Junichi Masuda. Black/White has added some complexity to the story, but overall has stuck to its tried-and-true formula. If you can sustain interest in one game series for so long without any lull, we would say that warrants notice.
Sid Meier's oft-quoted "fun over realism" design maxim was in full effect in Civilization Revolution, but it was Meier's Zen-like ability to simplify the well-established Civilization gameplay without losing any of its strategic complexity that was the real accomplishment. From streamlining the visuals and user interface, to trimming down the variety of units, the game was made to be Civilization's most accessible incarnation yet.
Still, the game's fundamental pleasures of exploration and city building and its deep mechanics of diplomacy and warfare remain unchanged. Now that an iOS version of Civilization Revolution has been released, we may have the game in its most elegant form yet.
Is Japanese game development in a bit of a slump lately? Perhaps not if you look at games such as From Software's Demon's Souls. Directed by Hidetaka Miyazaki, Demon's Souls is big, ambitious, thoughtfully designed, and crafted to perfection.
Much has been written regarding the game's creative online implementation and notorious difficulty, but designers should take note of the way that Demon's Souls allows serious players to create uniquely personal experiences within the game. As one travels deeper into Demon's Souls, it becomes apparent that players are actually being tested against themselves, eliciting a level of mental concentration that may be closer to mountain climbing than game playing.
The Tomb Raider franchise has been around for almost 15 years, and just when it seemed like there was nothing new to add to the series, Crystal Dynamics reinvigorated an interest in all things Lara Croft with The Guardian of Light.
Now radically molded into a fixed-camera, isometric game by lead designer Daniel Neuberger, the new title puts a fresh face on the series while still retaining all of Tomb Raider's signature moves. It's a smart design choice that gets to the heart of the series' exploration and traversal play while eliminating many of the annoying camera and control issues that accompanied the previous free-roaming 3D Tomb Raider games.
Markus "Notch" Persson
Minecraft was a labor of love for Markus Persson, also known as Notch. He created the game from an old project he had been working on some time ago, infusing a mining and building mechanic with a blocky, pixel-like 3D world. The resulting game has taken off dramatically.
The game's user-created content and addictive gameplay have struck a chord with fans around the world, to a degree which even Persson didn't predict. The well-designed, one-person indie game has gone on to net almost $4 million as of this writing, and Persson is now setting up a studio to better support his breakaway hit.