[In this article, originally published in sister print publication Game Developer magazine late last year, its editors present profiles of 50 of the most important contributors to the current state of the game industry -- from indies to AAA, from business to art, design, and beyond.]
We spend a lot of time focusing on companies in this industry, and sometimes not enough on the individuals. While it can often be difficult to attribute the achievements of a game to one to one particular person, we have attempted just that -- mentioning leads where necessary, and independent accomplishments whenever possible. If possible, where leads are mentioned, teams should interpret this as a group honor.
And so, this is our list, compiled by the editors and our advisory board, of 50 important accomplishments of the last year (give or take) as filtered through the specific people attached to them, in the categories of art, design, programming, business, and evangelism.
Within each category, there is no ranking -- names are ordered alphabetically. Thanks to all the below for doing what you do, and keep striving for future excellence!
Games from Jakub Dvorsky's Amanita Design have a distinctly European look that combines the sadness of a faded daguerreotype with flashes of sly, post-modern humor.
Mixing collage, hand-drawn art, and animation, games like Samorost and Machinarium have a complex patina and visual density that seems to transcend their Flash origins, but show their Czech animation roots in ways that speak to a country with its own, rarely seen visual aesthetics.
Amanita Design's Machinarium
Dhabih Eng, Jeff Ballinger, and Jason Mitchell
Valve's Team Fortress 2 is a prime example of how art direction can support game design to create a smoother experience for the player. First and foremost, TF2's art direction scores for its whimsical retro vs. space age bachelor pad vibe, with clever cinematics and characterization making potentially generic characters like The Spy stand out by a mile.
In the fast-paced environment of TF2, differentiating units on the battlefield swiftly is critical for player survival. Thus, Valve's smart art direction also has a crucial role in helping players recognize the unique visual signature of their team and opponents.
Most video games look like... well, video games. But Kareem Ettouney's richly textured, handcrafted visuals for LittleBigPlanet are far more Etsy and Real Simple than cathode ray tube.
Not only is LBP's constructed look a perfect fit for the game's concept of user generated content, but it gives the PlayStation 3 what might be its first broadly recognized visual brand identity. The multitudinous awards the title over the last year have vaulted Ettouney and his team to the top of the visual heap.
Matt Korba and Matt Clausen
The Odd Gentlemen
The Odd Gentlemen's Xbox Live Arcade and PC game The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom began life as a USC student project, and the school's film studies orientation made a deep impression on its design.
Referencing the look of German expressionist films of the 1920s, the game's art direction by Matt Korba and Matt Clausen (with an additional nod to illustrator Vidal Perez) is a clever metaphor for its deconstruction of linear time. The main character's comically villainous façade also helps to support his nefarious quest to steal all the world's pies.
Proving that 2D games still have a place in the hi-def world, Vanillaware has perfected its craft across three console generations. By making a total commitment to its aesthetic of painstakingly realized 2D graphics, the studio has evolved a distinctive house style that is instantly recognizable, and transcends regional classification.
Kamitani is art director, but also the president of the company, and his claim that the studio is "100 percent artists" shows how seriously he takes the artistic side of Vanillaware's games, with titles like Muramasa re-interpreting classic Japanese legends in beautifully abstruse ways.
Tomohisa Kuramitsu (AKA Baiyon)
Baiyon is part of an emerging class of borderless digital artists that move effortlessly between graphic design, fine art, film, music, and fashion. His work on Q-Games' PlayStation Network downloadable game PixelJunk Eden as both composer and art director presents a thoroughly modern aesthetic that mixes minimalist pop art with gently pulsing techno.
As games move further into the mainstream of popular consciousness, these kinds of blurred distinctions between media will become more important, but as an artist who happens to have done a game-related project, Baiyon is a great exemplar.
In creating The Beatles: Rock Band, Ryan Lesser and his team of artists at Harmonix faced an unusual challenge: How should one respectfully portray the Fab Four in a video game? Particularly when The Beatles' faces and personalities are so deeply etched on the hearts of music fans?
Their approach, which avoided the obvious pitfalls of photo-realism as well as the easily dismissed "kiddie" look of cartoon caricature, struck an elegant balance between the two extremes. Lesser and his team show that a tasteful eye combined with lots of research and the traditional skills of hand-animation is the surest way to connect with an audience's emotions -- and a little psychedelia goes a long way.
The world of Prince of Persia had become a comparatively dark and grungy place, rather at odds with its One Thousand and One Nights-inspired origins. What a pleasant surprise it was, then, to step into the newest Prince of Persia and find blue skies over perfumed gardens -- a game that seemed to be an oasis far from the death encrusted space marines that critics charge are so prominent in the current generation.
Ubisoft Montreal's Mickail Labat is to be commended for leading the charge on creatively reimagining this long running franchise.
Dan Paladin's work on 2D hits Alien Hominid and Castle Crashers is a welcome reminder that form follows function. His chunky, clean line style is perfectly tuned to indie developer The Behemoth's brand of instant gratification game design.
Rather than trying to crowbar over-designed graphics into the relatively low-spec environment of Flash or XBLA, Paladin plays to the strength of these platforms by creating art that is bright and eloquently simple. His art also lends itself well to more humorous scenarios -- it's not often you see poop-prone deer jetting across the screen.
Brutal Legend is as much about the look of heavy metal as it is the sound, and under Lee Petty's art direction, the music's lowbrow high fantasy album cover art comes to life. Beyond simply bringing Joe Petagno's Orgasmatron cover into 3D, Petty incorporates a wealth of fantasy art influences into Brutal Legend.
From Frazetta's rough-hewn figures and Brom's leather strapped fetishism, to Beksinski's cyclopean forms, the Tim Schafer-headed game presents a vast canvas of fantasy art history.