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Game Developer's Top Deck 2008

December 11, 2008 Article Start Page 1 of 8 Next

[Originally printed in sister industry-leading trade publication Game Developer magazine, Gamasutra is proud to present the Top Deck 2008 - the 52 individuals (plus 2 jokers!) who were most important to the game industry in 2008.]

You've seen lots of top lists before, but we here at Game Developer magazine decided it was time for a distinctly focused but slightly alternative take on the important personalities in the game business.

Thus, Game Developer's Top Deck was created to recognize those members of the game development community who have -- either individually, or as part of their company -- made particularly outstanding achievements in the past year. The picks were made by Game Developer's editors.

Each "suit" of the Top Deck represents a group of game creators and businesspeople who distinguished themselves particularly well in a specific area of the game industry-specifically, Trailblazers, Progressives, Ambassadors, and Entrepreneurs. The suits themselves are not ranked, nor are the persons within them.

This does not suggest that any given person on our list didn't contribute in multiple different arenas -- but this is where we felt they shone particularly bright this year. In addition, we are aware that the vast majority of games and product lines are not made by a single person.

So, while one individual is generally mentioned, we would like to acknowledge here that none of the people on this list would be here without the support of those who work with them. Nonetheless, individuals have to spearhead, mastermind, and create-and we're delighted to be honoring them in the first ever Top Deck. Onward:


The folks in the Trailblazers group have made the world easier for their fellow developers by going where no one has gone before-or at least, not to the extent that these individuals did, or with as much obvious success.

From standing up against piracy to simply making effective systems, these folks have evolved the business in ways that will continue to be emulated.

Ace of Spades: Rob Pardo, Blizzard Entertainment

Not only has World of Warcraft shown the world that there are at least 10 million dedicated PC gamers out there, it has undisputedly proved the mass appeal of MMORPGs. Pardo was instrumental in creating this phenomenon, and with the Wrath of the Lich King expansion and a massively successful BlizzCon, 2008 continues to be a banner year for the company. And that's notwithstanding the upcoming dual hammer of StarCraft II and Diablo III, plus the company's next MMO, of course.

King of Spades: Masahiro Sakurai, Sora

Sakurai, once a designer at Nintendo's HAL Laboratory, is best known for his creative influence over both the Kirby and Super Smash Bros. series. While he has since started his own company, Sora, he has continued to work on the Smash Bros. series, and the latest iteration is what gets him on this list.

Not only a palpable game design mash-up success, Sakurai assembled over 40 different sound composers to create music for the game, making the project almost a jam band-style get-together. In an age of licensed soundtracks, this is to be applauded.

Queen of Spades: Jason Kapalka, PopCap

The only major casual game developer to both enchant the everyday gamer, while impressing the hardcore, Bejeweled and Peggle creator PopCap has got the balance just right, and chief creative officer Kapalka has been there since the company's genesis.

Not only excellent at brand maintenance, PopCap seems to have mastered brand creation and extension, with Bookworm Adventures and Peggle Nights just two of the titles that continue the company's focus on broad entertainment.

Jack of Spades: Tim Sweeney, Epic

No other game engine out there has had such an impact as Unreal Engine 3. It is more ubiquitous than even Renderware was in its heyday, and lawsuits and quirks aside, there's got to be a reason nearly everybody uses it. Tim Sweeney, as the main architect of this beast, has opened up the market for developers looking to cut costs and prototype early, while also supporting the company's own original software.

Sure, it may not be cheap, but this little "side business" has turned into Epic's largest contribution to game culture thus far, and given Sweeney's history in game tools (see: ZZT), it's only to be expected.

Sony/Media Molecule's LittleBigPlanet

10 of Spades: Alex Evans, Media Molecule

PS3 standout title LittleBigPlanet is blazing new frontiers for user-generated content on consoles, and for cooperative content generation too. Evans, one of the top creators in the PC demo scene in the 1990s, and subsequently at key British talent nurturer Lionhead, is one of the main architects of the LBP experience.

And what's most notable about the Media Molecule success story is that it's the team's first title together -- a significant achievement.

Article Start Page 1 of 8 Next

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Art Director


Arjen Meijer
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great article, maybe one day ill steal a card in there ;)

but that's year away! but one day!

Tom Krausse
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I have to question the statement that "No third party has understood Nintendo's hardware and target demographic as well as the Paris-headquartered Ubisoft" While it's tough to deny that Ubisoft does good with part of Nintendo's customers, I can't figure out why they choose to ignore the traditional core gamers that support the Wii/DS. Given that they have traditional core titles on other platforms, it makes me wonder why they don't care about the Wii gamer, and I know that it is costing them support, even among gamers that own multiple consoles.

Sean Parton
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Fantastic article. Quite a nice read. The joker's section is also rather entertaining, while still insightful.

@Tom: You just said it though, "no third party has understood Nintendo's [...] target demographic". Nintendo's target demographic is casual gamers, not core gamers.

Ubisoft makes ridiculously good games for the Wii, but nothing can please everyone (and in this case, a fairly large chunk of the "core" Nintendo gamer).

Carlos lópez
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Nice article, but you left over some of the most prominent people on the game Developer world

Shigeru Miyamoto - Please, he is the lead designer on Nintendo. If it wasn't for him we wouldn't have so fun memories running trough world splattering turtles and looking for princesess on wrong castles!!!!

Hironobu Sakagushi - He is the sole savior of SquareEnix. He is the creator of Final Fantasy. Most recent Las Oddysey

Jhon Romero - Ever heard of Doom. He is the mind behind the game. Shame that he only shinned once, but still, shinned pretty hard!!!!

Corwyn Kalenda
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Great list-- a few people I didn't even realize had done some of what they have. Very happy to see some personal favorites on the list, like Brad Wardell and Gabe Newell... I was also really happy to see some of the standout indie projects hit the list, since in a lot of ways the guys that gave us Braid and World of Goo and Audiosurf are keeping the dream alive for a lot of people with their successes.

I *did* find it a little surprising that the Trailblazers portion of the deck didn't include Cryptic Studios in some fashion-- when you look back over the last year(plus a little) for them, it's been a fascinating jump into new ground. Announcing Marvel, then selling their single(and very successful) title, then losing Marvel, announcing Champions, attempting to self-publish, announcing STO... it's a lot of unknown to forge that most companies would avoid. The largest impact to be had has, I think, gotten the least notice in the general shuffle, though it's what makes me most surprised to not see them-- the engine and development tools pipeline and their goal to bring the development time on a AAA MMO down from the notorious and costly timeframe we've come to expect down to a mere 1.5-2 years. I realize the jury's still out on whether it's something they'll be able to do, since the upcoming titles are just that-- upcoming, but even the *suggestion* that an MMO could be built on that kind of timeframe is a lot of food for thought.


True, but I would argue that all of those people lacked anything really worthy of the list in 2008-- most of what you're citing is based on past conquest more than what they've spent their time doing in the last year. As I understand it, this list is intended to be a snapshot of the last year's events.

Bart Stewart
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I was expecting this to be the usual personality contest, but this list instead focused on actual contributions -- great job!

One omission that's perhaps understandable this year, but which I expect will be rectified in a year or two (assuming this list becomes an annual feature as I hope it will), is that of David Whatley at Simutronics for the HeroEngine. With licensees from BioWare to Bethesda sister-company Zenimax Online, and all of them saying very positive things about it, the HeroEngine could potentially do for MMORPGs what the Unreal Engine did for shooters. Once games start shipping, I won't be surprised to see Whatley's name somewhere on a future edition of this list.

On a mostly (though not entirely) unrelated note, I'm still waiting for someone to submit to Gamasutra a feature article -- or better yet, an entire book -- on the astonishing story of Looking Glass and what its "graduates," from Warren Spector and Harvey Smith (Deus Ex) to Ken Levine (BioShock) to Greg LoPiccolo, Dan Schmidt and Eric Brosius (Guitar Hero) to Emil Pagliarulo (Fallout 3), have accomplished and continue to achieve in the computer game industry. (And that doesn't even include folks like Allen Varney, Marc LeBlanc and others whose impact on game design is still strong.)

I'm obviously a bit of a fan where the Looking Glass style of game is concerned. But I think there's an objectively interesting industry story deserving to be told here, and Gamasutra would be a great place to start doing so.

Taure Anthony
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2008 was's to more dominance in 2009

but hopefully these key people don't become superstars......the game industry doesn't need to become a "Hollywood"

Mark Harris
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The meaningful exposure of exceptional talent in game development will help mainstream acceptance. Faces humanize the industry, and the art, and give gaming a voice among non-gamers. The real benefit is increasing the exposure of gaming, attracting new talent and new investors. A more prominent dialogue about the game industry could help broaden understanding in non-gaming society; which would do everything from increasing permeation of gaming culture into society at-large to decreasing pressure from politicians to censor games.

Christopher McLaren
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Taure Anthony I think we need to have the "superstar" to create the recognition that the industry needs. How many people ask who is in a film rather than what it is about before choosing to watch it. If the industry needs to have figure heads to improve it's marketing then that is the way it needs to go.

Every single person on this list has achieved great work and are all skilled at what they do. Passing this knowledge or skills through the industry is what now needs to be looked at.

Taure Anthony
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@Christopher McLaren


Jen Williams
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Very interesting article