Our Top 30 Developers

By Staff

Game Developer and Gamasutra editors have teamed up to list our top 30 developers of the past 12 months, from the indies to the big boys. This honor is reserved for teams of developers who are doing something new, something different, something better -- or, more often than not, all of the above.

This is a reprint from Game Developer magazine's June/July issue. (Companies are listed in alphabetical order.)

Arrowhead Game Studios

Skelleftea, Sweden

It's not every day that a group of student developers decides to drop out of school and work full-time on a class project, as Arrowhead Game Studios did with Magicka. But even more than that, Arrowhead gets the nod for taking a disastrous release and turning it into an opportunity to show just how dedicated the team is to its craft.

Magicka launched with a lot of bugs, including hardware incompatibilities, networking issues that made internet multiplayer almost impossible, and plenty of show-stopping bugs and hard crashes that made the game experience more frustrating than fun. "Even though the game had so many problems, we had a large amount of gamers playing and loving it.

Many expressed their sadness that the game was nearly unplayable," said Arrowhead CEO Johan Pilestedt in a Magicka postmortem for Game Developer's sister publication, Gamasutra. "At that point, we made a split-second decision that we'd patch the game every day for two full weeks, just because we knew that if we had bought a game in that state, we would have expected the same."

Arrowhead gets extra credit for sticking to its guns and creating a game characterized by offbeat humor, chaotic action, and plenty of other design elements that wouldn't normally make it out of focus testing. But it's Arrowhead's insistence on making Magicka work that earned it a spot in our top 30.

Bethesda Game Studios

Rockville, Maryland

Bethesda Game Studios game director Todd Howard dropped an amazing statistic during his DICE 2012 keynote: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim had over 10 million players worldwide, and Steam statistics showed PC players had an average play length of over 75 hours.

If that Steam average is indicative of the majority of Skyrim players, humanity has collectively spent approximately 85.5 millennia wandering the open world ofSkyrim. Really, that says more about the game than its numerous awards and accolades (which include Game of the Year from the 2012 Game Developers Choice Awards). It's amazing any work got done at game companies around the world, as most of our developer friends were over 100 hours deep into Skyrim within a week.

With Skyrim, Bethesda managed to raise the expectations for open-world role-playing games in almost every facet possible. Skyrim was significantly less buggy at launch than most big RPGs are a year after release, and many of the bugs that were present were funny quirks emerging from the game's system (such as freezing bears and rolling them down a mountainside until they break the game's physics) that turned into unintentional viral advertisements for Skyrim on YouTube. Three months after the game came out, Bethesda even built a modding tool called the Skyrim Creation Kit and released it for free to anyone with a copy of the PC game and a Steam account. More recently, Bethesda added Kinect support for Skyrim, with over 200 voice commands (including dragon shouts, of course). These additions were built during a week-long internal game jam that saw developers concepting everything from new monsters and weapons to rendering techniques and kill-cams.

In short, the team at Bethesda not only pushed the boundaries of open-world games but also its own development boundaries, while simultaneously opening up the system a bit to future content creators.

Big Huge Games

Timonium, Maryland

Big Huge Games has gone through some big huge changes over the last few years. Its open-world RPG Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning began life as an RTS, and the company changed hands twice during the development process: THQ bought Big Huge in 2008, and then 38 Studios bought it in 2009. This year, not long after the launch of Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, 38 Studios collapsed, sadly bringing Big Huge down with it.

The fact that Big Huge Games finished Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning at all is impressive. More impressive is that Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning managed to stand out among a crowd of established fantasy RPGs, such as Skyrim and Dragon Age 2, thanks to its novel combat system and creative involvement from fantasy veteran R.A. Salvatore and comic book legend Todd McFarlane. Finding focus amid the chaos and releasing a quality product puts Big Huge on our list.

Even though Big Huge shuttered when its parent company closed, Gears of War and Unreal Engine house Epic Games announced it would be working with former Big Huge leadership to found a Baltimore-based Epic subsidiary. Best of luck to this talented team.

BioWare Austin

Austin, Texas

If finishing an open-world RPG is the game industry equivalent of climbing Mt. Everest, making an MMORPG meant to go toe-to-toe with World of Warcraft must be akin to climbing Everest, finding another Everest-sized mountain on top of Everest, and saying, "Might as well -- we're already here."

Developing Star Wars: The Old Republic is impressive for a few reasons. It takes guts to build a subscription-based MMO in a time when free-to-play is the standard for practically everyone but Blizzard and a few other holdouts. It takes even more guts to try to do that with the Star Wars license, considering the previous Star Wars MMO, Star Wars: Galaxies, never quite took off. Star Wars is one of the most beloved science fiction licenses out there, and The Old Republic is quite possibly the most expensive game in development history. The game had more content than all of the other BioWare RPGs combined, after all, so it's easy to see how Star Wars: The Old Republiccould have turned into a big-budget unwieldy mess.

Instead, BioWare Austin made a remarkable game that hit 1 million subscribers in the first three days, put an acknowledged dent in World of Warcraft's customer base, and raised the bar for storytelling in online role-playing games. We're keeping a close eye on subscription numbers for this MMORPG, as they did take a notable drop, and BioWare Austin had to endure layoffs. But that doesn't change the fact that, in its first outing, this studio has taken on some of the biggest challenges ever seen in the game industry, and is now a formidable player in the MMORPG space.

Capy Games

Toronto, canada

If there is a poster child in the development community for making the games you want to make, it must be Capy. After all, when you're normally working on games like Might & Magic: Clash of Heroesand Critter Crunch, it can be easy to let your quirky iOS "video game-type-thing" fall by the wayside in favor of more dependable projects. But Capy held the line with Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP, which went on to win the Game Developers Choice Award for Best Handheld/Mobile Game of 2012 and Apple's runner-up iPad Game of the Year, among other accolades.

Awards aside, Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery reinvented the classic point-and-click adventure game by cleverly playing to the iPhone/iPad's strengths, wrapping it in decidedly inspired art (by Superbrothers) and sound (by Jim Guthrie), and above all, tossing out pretty much everything we thought we "knew" about game design. Simply finishing a game like that is praiseworthy; that this "niche" title has sold over 350,000 copies to date on the App Store at a comparatively high price ($3 for iPhone, $5 for iPad) is downright inspirational. And considering how Capy's award-winning run-n-gun platformer Super Time Force is coming along, with companies like Microsoft lining up to publish it, we wouldn't be surprised to see Capy show up in a few more best-of lists here and there.

CD Projekt RED

Warsaw, Poland

These are days in which a game company's anti-consumer practices can earn it the dubious honor of Most Hated Company in America (as EA did), beating out a bank that was at the center of the recent financial collapse. In that light, CD Projekt RED seems to understand its business model entirely too well: Make games that make people happy, and when something about that game makes people unhappy, fix it so that the people are happy again.

The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings has sold over 1.5 million copies since its initial PC release in May 2011 -- definitely not bad for a relatively obscure developer making a game based on cult series of short stories. What distinguishes CD Projekt RED from other developers, however, is the way it has devoted itself to its fans. When players found that the SecuROM DRM in The Witcher 2 caused the game to perform poorly, the developers pulled it out and made it DRM-free. When the developer built an Enhanced Edition with hours of new gameplay and content, it was offered free to existing buyers instead of sold as a DLC or an expansion pack. Listen up, devs: If you want your game to be given to President Obama when he visits your country, as The Witcher 2 was in Poland, this is what you have to do.


Double Fine Productions

San Francisco, California

Double Fine is something of a fan favorite when it comes to game developers, thanks in part to a legacy of cult titles like Psychonauts and Brutal Legend. It has been relatively prolific over the last year thanks to Stacking, Iron Brigade, and Sesame Street: Once Upon a Monster, but the achievement that earns the company a spot in the Top 30 isn't actually for a game that has already been developed.

Instead, it's for the absurdly successful Kickstarter campaign that funded the upcoming Double Fine Adventure (working title).

Odds are good that anyone who reads this is already familiar with Double Fine's Kickstarter success story, so we'll keep it brief: Double Fine announced a Kickstarter to fund the development of a new 2D adventure game-since no publisher wanted to risk sinking money into a "dead" genre-and set the funding goal at $400,000.

Within nine hours, the project had hit the funding goal. Within 24 hours, the project broke $1 million. By the time the project closed, it was funded to the tune of $3.45 million from over 87,000 backers. Dead genre, indeed.

Double Fine was able to use its popular goodwill to break Kickstarter records, get some serious money behind a relatively niche project, and trigger a wave of niche Kickstarter revivals for Shadowrun, Wasteland, Leisure Suit Larry, and other long-forgotten franchises. Among a field of excellent developers, Double Fine stands out for being so good it can disrupt the industry's dominant publishing model.

Eidos Montreal

Montreal, Canada

Nothing says "trial by fire" quite like forming a new studio and immediately going to work reviving one of the game industry's most beloved franchises. That is exactly what Eidos Montreal did withDeus Ex: Human Revolution. Making the third game in the Deus Ex trilogy could very well have been a no-win proposition for Eidos Montreal. Even if Deus Ex: Human Revolution turned out to be an above-average game, it wouldn't match series fans' rose-tinted memories of the original, much less exceed them.

If the game failed, Eidos Montreal would be credited with putting the final nail in Deus Ex's coffin after its sequel, Deus Ex: Invisible War, failed to impress. But in the end, Eidos Montreal developers took the best elements from the original Deus Ex and made a game that is truly a new, modernDeus Ex in every way.

"Building Deus Ex: Human Revolution was not always a smooth ride," game director Jean-Francois Dugas said in his postmortem for Game Developer (January 2012). "This is the most ambitious project that most of us have ever embarked on, and it made us grow as a team, as people, and as professionals who take their craft seriously." Thanks to Deus Ex: Human Revolution, one can't help but take Eidos Montreal extremely seriously.

From Software

Tokyo, Japan

Many in the game industry think Japanese development is behind the times. But can some throwbacks become strengths? While triple-A developers this generation have mostly concentrated on ironing out all the wrinkles in their games and giving players a smooth, Disneyland-like ride from Press Start to The End, From Software has gone in the opposite direction.

Dark Souls is hard -- notoriously so -- but the interesting thing is that it rewards the player for persistence, effort, and learning. That is the premise at the core of its design and what ties the whole experience together. Through practice, players are rewarded with mastery over the gameplay. By paying attention, players are rewarded with secrets and bonuses. By exploring, players are rewarded with entire vistas they never knew existed.

And while the structure is exacting and a bit retro in its appeal, its interesting use of players invading each other's game worlds (or not!) established an entire new genre concept: mingleplayer. Something old filtered through something new -- that's how progress is made.

Hi-Rez Studios

Alpharetta, Georgia

With Tribes: Ascend, Hi-Rez Studios faithfully resurrected a beloved action game franchise, garnered stellar reviews from press, peers and players, and deftly implemented the free-to-play business model in a way that's good for fans and good for business, catering to non-paying players in order to convert them into paying ones.

Hi-Rez knows that in order for free-to-play to work, especially in the West, pay-to-win schemes and restrictive paywalls need to be thrown out the window. Tribes: Ascend shows that when a developer puts engaging gameplay before the business model, players (even hard-to-please online FPS fans) will be receptive.

Imangi Studios

Washington, D.C.

At first glance, the three-person Imangi Studios doesn't immediately come to mind as an obvious candidate for our top 30 list. Statistically speaking, though, you're more likely to have played Imangi's flagship game Temple Run than any of the other games mentioned within this list; as of this writing, Temple Run has over 50 million downloads between the iOS App Store and Google Play.

Temple Run is a fine game, but what makes Imangi Studios stand out is its business acumen. The game launched as a paid $0.99 game on the App Store, made it into the Top 50 Paid Apps chart, and started to slump in sales from there. Fortunately, Imangi had anticipated that would happen. "We had little to lose, so we decided to try going free, which is the option we had in our back pocket from the start," Imangi cofounder Natalia Luckyanova said in an interview with Gamasutra. "If nothing else, we figured we'd have more people playing the game. If the revenue is similar, it's always better to have more players."

And since Temple Run had already been built with a robust in-app purchase system, Imangi ended up pulling in about five times as much revenue once the game went free. Releasing an Android version was another unusual contributor to Imangi's success; while many mobile developers shy away from porting their games to Android because they're worried about developing for such a fragmented platform, Imangi Studios decided to try its hand at an Android version. The result? Over 1 million downloads in three days. Take note, mobile devs: You shouldn't ignore Android for the right project.

IronMonkey Studios

Melbourne, Australia

Not many mobile developers are making games that aim to re-create a high-quality console experience on a phone or tablet, but IronMonkey Studios did just that with Dead Space for iOS and Android, a mobile-only Dead Space side story that looks and feels every bit like it belongs on a proper game console (and won Apple's iPad Game of the Year).

Between Dead Space and Mass Effect: Infiltrator, IronMonkey has consistently managed to push players' expectations of what their mobile devices can do. And as our smartphones and tablets continue to get more powerful, major console publishers ought to consider taking a page out of Electronic Arts' playbook and acquire their own IronMonkey Studios equivalent to make high-quality mobile adaptations of their major releases in order to expand their audience. "We saw people in user reviews saying, 'This is awesome; I'll get the console game now,'" IronMonkey design director Jarrad Trudgen said in an interview with Gamasutra. "[Dead Space Mobile] was their first exposure to Dead Space, so we benefit the console guys too, expanding their audience."

Mode 7 Games

Oxford, England

Mode 7 Games makes our list for Frozen Synapse. The company doesn't necessarily stand out in one given area, but they made a solid game, with a bunch of surrounding solid ideas. Designing a game roughly described as a turn-based, top-down cyberpunk version of Counter-Strike. Selling preorders with beta access to make sure developers could finish the game the way it deserves to be made. Perhaps most interestingly, the company included two game keys with each purchase so players could give one to a friend (who will presumably tell his friends about it).

Taken together, all those decisions indicate that Mode 7 Games understands its audience at a very fundamental level. Its philosophy: Make good games that you would want to play yourself, and make it easy for people to play your games. Do these two things and you don't have to worry about designing clever ways to take your customers' money.


Monolith Soft

Tokyo, Japan

When Nintendo acquired Monolith Soft in 2007, it seemed like a strange match. The developer was best known for the slow-paced, cinematic, and complicated Xenosaga series. None of its subsequent games made a big splash for quite a while, and none of its products for Nintendo reached North American audiences. Just what was happening?

Then came Xenoblade. While Square Enix and Microsoft had tried and failed to bring the Japanese RPG into the current generation with Final Fantasy XIII and Lost Odyssey, Xenobladepromised to be the title that fans of the genre had been waiting for.

Unlike many Japanese teams this generation, Monolith has clearly absorbed the best ideas for game design from all around it, releasing a streamlined, modern, and intelligently made game while retaining the soul that drove the popularity of the genre in the 1990s.

The result is a game that's polished, engrossing, deep, accessible, inventive, and appealing to Westerners, many of whom tired of the genre’s conventions years ago. That's an achievement.

Nintendo EAD Tokyo

Tokyo, Japan

Kyoto has been the home of Nintendo since its inception, but one could argue that the soul of Nintendo now resides in Tokyo. Super Mario Galaxy and its sequel were impressive, but Super Mario 3D Land had to save the 3DS, justify its 3D display, and reimagine what it means to play Mario in 3D by rolling the game design back to its 2D roots.

Director Koichi Hayashida's words at this year's GDC were inspirational. "Enjoying making something leads to making something enjoyable," he said during his talk -- a very simple idea, but one that should be at the core of game development. Too often the industry struggles to remember this as the complexity of game development and outside pressures take their toll on the process. The results, however, are made clear by this studio's output.

Playfish

London, England

Playfish's The Sims Social proved that there is room in the social-game market for established franchises to survive, thrive, and attract more players.

With The Sims Social, Playfish took some of the fundamental elements from The Sims and wove them into a core social game every bit as compelling (and addictive) as the best Zynga or any other established social game developer had to offer. And The Sims Social got results: One month after launch, it managed to become the second-most active Facebook game (measured in terms of daily active users), surpassing FarmVille and coming in second to CityVille (both Zynga games).

As the social game space continues to grow, we anticipate that more developers will be eagerly looking to find clever ways to adapt existing core game IPs.

Riot Games

Santa Monica, California

Most developers don't get included in a Top 30 list for a game they released almost three years ago. Then again, most developers don't grow their competitive community to the point where a tournament has a $50,000 grand prize or 1.69 million unique viewers, either.

Riot Games gets the nod for taking League of Legends, the free-to-play multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) title inspired by classic Warcraft III mod Defense of the Ancients, and growing it into a proper eSport every bit as competitive as tournament giants like Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty.

Riot Games's free-to-play business model and emphasis on customer and community has paid off in the numbers; by the end of 2011, Riot reported League of Legends had 11.5 million active monthly players, 1.2 million higher than World of Warcraft's reported player base at the time.

Riot is putting its money where its mouth is, too. The second major competitive "season" for League of Legends started in November 2011 with $5 million in prize money from Riot Games itself, $1 million of which is set aside specifically for community-organized tournaments. It's not often a developer takes its competitive players as seriously as the players take its games.

Robot Entertainment

Plano, Texas

Over the last year, we've seen Steam and XBLA continue to showcase great games from smaller independent developers, and we've found out first-hand that free-to-play games with turn-based multiplayer are great for extracting cash out of pretty much anyone with a phone and a pulse. Few developers stand out in both areas quite like Robot Entertainment, responsible for Orcs Must Die(Gamasutra's No. 8 game of 2011) and Hero Academy -- two titles that blend core game dynamics with a casual-friendly aesthetic and a decidedly forward-looking business sense.

Both games started out with a relatively established genre -- tower defense for Orcs Must Die; tactical-RPG for Hero Academy -- and applied a solid coat of Robot Entertainment polish and innovation to make something more than another me-too.

In order to make it on this list, a developer usually needs to do something either very new or very well; that Robot Entertainment pulled it off on two separate platforms in one year made its inclusion a no-brainer.


Rocksteady Studios

London, England

We don't envy anyone the task of making a game that lives up to the Batman legacy, but Rocksteady Studios managed to perfectly capture the essence of The Bat in Batman: Arkham City, which is nothing short of amazing. Consumers agreed, too: Arkham City sold 1.5 million copies in its first month and 6 million copies in 2011, which made it the seventh-best selling game in 2011, according to the NPD Group.

Sales data aside, we're impressed by Rocksteady's capability to make great decisions early in the dev process that make the most of its strengths. During a DICE 2012 talk, Rocksteady founder Sefton Hill said that the team made a key decision to make "the world's smallest open-world game," which is undoubtedly what let it pile on the polish in every nook and cranny.

With Batman: Arkham City's excellent use of the Unreal Engine to create a seamless open-world experience and its focused design and evocative writing, Rocksteady is more than deserving of its accolades.

Row Sham Bow

Orlando, Florida

In 2011, a group of EA veterans formed Row Sham Bow, an independent company looking to find success in the increasingly popular social market. And despite entering a space dominated by multimillion-dollar companies like Zynga, Wooga, and Rovio, the small team put out a game whose quality stands among the best on the platform.

That game -- Woodland Heroes -- takes the basic gameplay mechanics of the classic board gameBattleship and frames them within a persistent game world through which players buy new weapons, conquer territories, and fight their way through a far-reaching single-player campaign. These additional subsystems keep the game fresh, as scenarios and opponents change by the minute.

Woodland Heroes doesn't exactly focus on the "social" elements of the Facebook platform, but its simple, tactical design makes it a great strategy game for novices and experts alike. Row Sham Bow's first title showcased some exciting, underexplored ideas on the Facebook platform and has been praised by social and traditional game developers alike.

SmileGate

Seongnam, South Korea

When you've got the No. 1 game in China, there's a lot to celebrate. SmileGate's CrossFire held that honor in 2011, and it boasted 3.5 million concurrent users in China alone.

Even though the game was served by Neowiz, this success still managed to shoot Seongnam-based SmileGate up the charts to become one of Korea’s top-10 grossing game companies, according to www.thisisgame.com. In fact, it's the only developer on that list; all the rest are publishers, portals, or some combination thereof.

While SmileGate will likely remain a developer, there are rumblings that the company, now under director Jung-Pil Park (who helped launch other successful free-to-play FPSes such as Sudden Attackand Special Force) has set its sights on the publishing space. The company recently licensed the Unreal Engine for two new triple-A online games that it hopes will help diversify its CrossFire-reliant revenue stream. You don't get to the top by accident, which means these new projects will be worth watching, at the very least.

Snail Games

Suzhou, China

Snail Games is a rising star in the Chinese game market, though it's already known for games likeHeroes of Gaia and Ministry of War. While most Chinese game companies and portals are linked to larger electronics giants (Tencent is a huge Internet provider, for example), Snail is a game developer through and through. Most recently, the company has been putting its new title Age of Wulin (Age of Wushu in North America) through the paces in Chinese betas.

Though the game itself is interesting (if unproven), Snail is more notable for throwing its hat into the game serving and publishing arena, with its Woniu.com portal. Woniu.com is a developer-served portal instead of one that builds on an existing Internet service, which shows that Snail thinks a little differently. While this may sound par for the course in the Western markets, in China, where your capability to serve games online is contingent on your relationship with the government, this is no small feat.

Thatgamecompany

Los Angeles, California

Thatgamecompany never ceases to amaze us, partially because it makes emotionally evocative, experimental games, and partially because it manages to build a successful business in doing so. Case in point is Journey, thatgamecompany's early 2012 release that walked players through a roughly 2-hour sojourn of discovery, camaraderie, sorrow, and joy -- and broke sales records to become the fastest-selling PlayStation Network title to date.

Journey's most notable design element is the behind-the-scenes multiplayer matchmaking function, which simply slips another player into your game, without any acknowledgment whatsoever, as long as you're logged into PSN. With another player, you can travel through Journey much more quickly, but your interaction is limited to a button that lets you "chirp" at each other -- you can't even see the other player's PSN handle until you finish the game. The end result is arguably one of the most engaging "art" games to date (and certainly the most civil multiplayer game ever).

And now that Journey marks the last title in thatgamecompany's three-game exclusive contract with Sony, we're excited to see what current and former thatgamecompany devs have on their horizons.

thechineseroom

Portsmouth, England

When thechineseroom debuted its Half-Life 2 mod Dear Esther in 2007, the U.K.-based indie team took some real risks in interactive storytelling. The game featured almost no interactivity and simply let players explore a lonely world fueled by an ambiguous, enigmatic narrative.

In 2012, the studio re-created Dear Esther as a full-fledged retail release and further pushed the boundaries of interactive storytelling by presenting an atmospheric, almost ethereal environment that has no true equal anywhere else. With this title, thechineseroom showcased the power of a well-realized virtual world. Without characters, goals, or even real interactivity, the game managed to create an emotional experience that communicates everything through its aesthetic and style.

Sure, Dear Esther might not qualify as a "game" in the traditional sense, but thechineseroom's approach to aesthetic design should serve as a lesson for developers in all genres and disciplines. And considering it managed to turn a profit within six hours of its Steam release, Dear Esther might have some business lessons to teach, as well.


Three Rings Design

San Francisco, California

Free-to-play has made major strides into the world of core players over the last year, and Three Rings Design's Spiral Knights is no exception.

Spiral Knights landed multiple achievements since its release last year; it was one of the first free-to-play games on Steam, it pulled in 1 million registered accounts within two months of its launch, and it landed the Best Online Game Design award from GDC Online 2011.

Perhaps the highest praise is the fact that Three Rings Design's success with Spiral Knights got the company purchased by Sega late last year.

Toys for Bob

Novato, California

With the Spyro license available, Toys for Bob could have just dialed in yet another sequel. It could have decided to reboot the franchise entirely with a gritty, bloody, "mature" Spyro. Thankfully, neither of these happened (though the latter almost did).

Instead, Toys for Bob came up with Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure, an ambitious new take on Spyrothat integrated a set of RFID-equipped action figures that could unlock new characters within the game.

Fact is, many less-confident developers would undoubtedly shy away from asking parent company Activision to back such an expensive, risky gambit. We're not just impressed that Toys for Bob successfully pulled Skylanders off -- it sold massively, after all -- we're impressed by how ballsy it was to begin with.

Trion Worlds

Redwood City, California

Adding 25 percent more content to your MMO after it launches is seriously impressive, but for Trion Worlds and Rift, however, that's simply business as usual. Rift developers built the game from the bottom up to make it easy to push more and more to hooked subscribers.

Trion Worlds CCO Scott Hartsman described the platform built for Rift as "a service that completely evolves around the player, and evolves with time, constantly gets better, mines the data, understands what people want, and gives them more of what they need." It's that kind of tech that won them Best New Online Game and Best Online Technology at last year's Game Developers Online Choice Awards.

But Rift's technology is more than just buzzwords and bullet points; it enables the developers to build in more unpredictable, world-altering events that force players to interact with each other in ways they wouldn’t in a more static MMO, which causes them to create connections with other players that they wouldn’t normally make. It's a great example of better technology enabling better design.

Ubisoft Montpellier

Montpellier, France

There's something to be said for heritage. While Ubisoft's massive Montreal studio creates many of the games that have come to define the company in recent years -- notably, the studio is the heart of development for the Assassin's Creed series -- the parent company, founded in France in the 1980s during the first personal computer boom, is a living legacy.

What's lovely to see is that this spirit still lives in the best games the company released this year. The studio nurtured the wildly inventive From Dust, which gave Another World creator Eric Chahi a forum to explore left-field gameplay innovations and make a surprising success. And its Adventures of Tintin game is the best licensed game you didn't play this year.

Ubisoft Montpellier gets a special nod for letting Rayman creator Michel Ancel come back for another round with Rayman Origins, which made it on Gamasutra's Most Overlooked Games and Top Games of 2011 lists. More than the generous and lush art and gameplay, the project is impressive for its creation of a framework with which others can make high-res 2D games.

Valve Software

Bellevue, Washington

Valve was plenty busy in the last year, particularly with Portal 2 and its related ARG. However, Portal 2 isn't why Valve made the list this year.

Some developers decide to test the waters of a new business model with a new game or a side project connected to a larger IP. Last year, Valve tested the free-to-play waters with a 4-year-old game that started life as a boxed, triple-A title -- Team Fortress 2 -- and between the item store (read: hats), frequent content updates to retain its current player base, and an influx of new players, it ended up boosting monthly revenues from TF2 by a factor of 12.

Of course, making TF2 into a free-to-play game was simply one part of a larger strategy involving user-made content. Leave it to Valve to find out how it can make a previously paid game into a free game that makes more money.

Zeboyd Games

Lake Arrowhead, California / Houston, Texas

The Xbox Live Indie Games section is a great place for new devs to show what they can do with an Xbox title and get some real-world experience, but that "experience" is often "soul-crushing disappointment" when they realize that no one is seeing their game, much less buying it.

That's why we're happy to see the success of RPG developer Zeboyd Games, a two-man team consisting of Robert Boyd and Bill Stiernberg (Breath of Death VII and Cthulhu Saves the World). The duo turned its irreverent RPGs into a gig for Penny Arcade’s On The Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness: Episode 3.

That an indie game developer can make it on parody RPGs is a heartwarming story; that said indie game developer can get a chance to work with some major game industry figures is a success story.

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