Walnut Creek/Emeryville, California
We can’t write this list without acknowledging Maxis for SimCity and The Sims. During its prime, Maxis was eerily capable of making sim games just complex enough to be engaging and fun -- and also managed to smash a few PC game sales records in the process.
From early flight sims (F-15 Strike Eagle, F-19 Stealth Fighter) to Sid Meier’s Civilization and Pirates!, MicroProse’s PC games legacy in both development and publishing throughout the ’80s and ’90s is impeccable. This legacy would be later left in Firaxis Games’s hands, when studio co-founder Sid Meier left with Jeff Briggs and Brian Reynolds to continue with Meier’s 4X game direction with further Civilization titles (and more recently, XCOM: Enemy Unknown).
There’s little we can say about Treasure that doesn’t ultimately boil down to “They make really, really good games.” Treasure makes great originals (Ikaruga, Gunstar Heroes), Treasure makes great licensed games (Yu Yu Hakusho, Bleach: Dark Souls), Treasure makes great shoot-’em-ups and beat-’em-ups and fighting games… The list goes on. We bow to Treasure’s mastery of the craft.
Love it or hate it, Final Fantasy started as a last-ditch effort to stay in the game industry, grew into an international phenomenon, and ended up growing into a multimedia empire of its own. Chunsoft’s Dragon Quest may have pioneered the modern Japanese role-playing game as we know it, but we credit Final Fantasy with bringing the genre to such prominence in the 1990s and early 2000s (also, Chrono Trigger).
Role-playing games stress a dev studio’s ability to build worlds; BioWare excels at writing them. Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Dragon Age, and Mass Effect are all representative of BioWare’s unparalleled abilities to take worlds and games with complicated rule sets and histories (like Forgotten Realms and Star Wars, for example) and distill them into the essence of video games as storytelling. Considering the game industry as a whole is often characterized as violence-obsessed and juvenile, we like that BioWare managed to build its reputation on good writing, simple design, and compelling worlds.
Manchester, New Hampshire
Simply listing the Wing Commander or the Ultima series doesn’t do Origin Systems justice. Origin’s characteristic polish and technical capability inspired the next generation of developers -- and many Origin devs went on to do great things (Paul Steed, Raph Koster, Warren Spector) as well. Like their motto said, they created worlds.
Sega in general is near and dear to our hearts, but we wanted to give Yu Suzuki’s team a special nod for their string of great work from After Burner and OutRun to Virtua Fighter and Shenmue. AM2 made arcades a magical place to be, and we miss that.
You’d think that it’d take more than two notable game franchises to get yourself on Game Developer’s list of the Top 30 Devs of All Time, but Looking Glass Studios earned this just by the strength of Thief and System Shock alone. (We know they did other games, but every time someone suggested including Looking Glass, it was just for those two.) Naturally, we can’t bring up Looking Glass without mentioning that Ken Levine started his career there on Thief before eventually going on to found Irrational Games and later creating BioShock.
It’s easy to forget that Pokémon wasn’t always a multimedia empire (complete with yearly feature film releases!). It all started out with series creator and studio co-founder Satoshi Tajiri looking to design a game that replicated the childhood thrill of catching and collecting insects -- and gradually evolved into arguably a blueprint for accessible/addictive game design and cross-media success. And it was super effective.
Certainly, Valve’s track record when it comes to their actual games is impressive; the legacy they’ve left thus far with Half-Life, Portal, Team Fortress 2, Left 4 Dead, and Counter-Strike pretty much guaranteed them a spot on this list. We could mention Steam, with which Valve parlayed their success making games into arguably the most influential digital games marketplace. Really, though, we want to acknowledge them for, from all accounts, being a truly developer-led studio that understands the value of getting brilliant people together and treating them well -- which is an example we think the industry as a whole ought to take to heart.