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.)
Monolith SoftTokyo, 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, Xenoblade
promised 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 TokyoTokyo, 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'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 GamesSanta 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 EntertainmentPlano, 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.
Gamasutra will be reprinting the rest of the top 30 over the course of this week. The previous installments can be found here and here.