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.
Gamasutra will be reprinting this feature, originally published in Game Developer magazine's June/July issue, in five segments this week. (Companies are listed in alphabetical order.)
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.
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.
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 with Deus 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, modern Deus 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Gamasutra will be reprinting the rest of the top 30 over the course of this week. The previous installment can be found here.