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The Top 10 Game Developers of 2014
The Top 10 Game Developers of 2014
December 11, 2014 | By Staff




With 2014 coming to a close, it's time for our end of year roundups, starting with perhaps our most important annual list: The Top 10 Game Developers of 2014.

The creation of this list involved a fair amount of back and forth among our staff -- adding developers, subtracting developers, adding them back in, taking them back out, etc. -- until we eventually came to the 10 game developers and studios you see below.

Like our selections from previous years, recognition on this list isn't necessarily just about who made a good game in 2014, although that does help. But also, these are the developers and studios that left their mark on this year in a meaningful way, shaping the year in game development.

Below in alphabetical order are the 10 individual developers and studios, selected by Gamasutra's writers, that exceeded our expectations and pushed creative, commercial and cultural boundaries.

Bungie

Bungie could have lived in the shadow of its own creation -- the Halo franchise and its hero, Master Chief. But with Destiny, the first non-Halo game from the studio in 13 years, Bungie applied its penchant for interactive sci-fi lore to a game that combined conventional (but spot-on) shooting, role-playing, and massively online community focus into a single, technically-stunning package. As if the Halo franchise wasn't proof enough of Bungie's knack for building sprawling universes that give players a true sense of place, Destiny drives the point home: Bungie is a world-class worldbuilder.



Watching Bungie and its publisher Activision roll this game out also gave us a glimpse of what we might expect from major online-centric console launches going forward. While the press was issuing rather lukewarm reviews of the initial game, Bungie, backed by the massive marketing resources of Activision, released a trial that let players form their own opinions. The launch of the game involved a deft combination of giant ad campaigns, and the organic (and ongoing) word-of-mouth support MMOs need to survive. There was no reason to let a middling Metacritic score decide the fate of the game, and that's one lesson game developers big and small can take away from Bungie's success in 2014.

Coffee Stain Studios

You could be forgiven for taking Sanctum developer Coffee Stain Studios lightly -- they did release Goat Simulator on April 1st, after all -- but beneath the merry veneer of this Swedish studio lurks a talented group of developers with a keen understanding of what it takes to succeed as an indie in 2014.



This year the "YouTuber" phenomenon truly came into its own, and few studios did a better job of adapting to the trend than Coffee Stain. After an internal game jam the studio released YouTube footage of a goofy goat game prototype as a joke, then rapidly pivoted and turned the joke into a full game when the video became a viral hit. Goat Simulator went on to sell over a million copies, and proved so popular among livestreamers that Coffee Stain is now working on porting it to consoles.

But Coffee Stain's recent work is more than a smartly-executed comedic cash grab. The studio also helped its local indie scene by publishing Gone North Games' colorful puzzle-platformer A Story About My Uncle while that game's developers were still in school.

Facepunch Studios

British developer Facepunch has showed an impressive talent for making games that are crafted with the intention of handing them over to players. Already known for the smashing success of the 2004 sandbox game Garry's Mod (over 6 million sold), it's the Early Access craft-and-survive online game Rust (over 2 million sold) and the studio's exemplary approach to open game development that solidified Facepunch's place on our list in 2014.



Facepunch has shown that open game development isn't necessarily about trying to avoid development "screw-ups," or hiding development difficulties from your audience, but being fully transparent about game development and doing the best you can to thoroughly explain decisions -- big and small -- that affect the player base.

Case in point: Months after Rust jumped to the top of the Steam charts, Newman and his team realized the code base for the launch version of Rust was too bloated, and was slowing down development of the alpha that people had paid to play. Facepunch decided to stop updating the version that everyone bought (that version is still functional and still has players), and focus on a full-on reboot. It was a gutsy but necessary move that could have alienated players, but by being straightforward about the realities of the situation, Facepunch saved face. That's not to mention regularly-updated dev blogs that show the game's progress, forums where developers talk to players, and even a public Trello project management site where players can weigh in on dev priorities and decisions.

Facepunch not only is good at handing its games over to players from a design standpoint, but now it's shown how a studio can give players a sense of ownership over a game's development (which, of course, can be a double-edged sword). In 2014, Facepunch exhibited how open development ought to work for a modern game studio, and continues development on a highly interesting game to boot.

Inkle

When we talk about democratic, diverse text games, Twine tends to get most of the media spotlight. But in 2011, Cambridge, UK-based Jon Ingold and Joseph Humfrey founded Inkle Studios with a vision for combining beautiful visual design with intelligent story games. Their tool, Inkle, is easy to jump in and start making simple Choose Your Own Adventure stories that look especially great on mobile, but the company seemed to hold hope that it could do more, releasing an interactive, adaptive-text version of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein in 2012, and Steve Jackson's Sorcery! earlier this year, to critical and commercial acclaim.

This year, the company's brilliant 80Days, penned by Meg Jayanth, set an exciting bar for what mainstream interactive fiction could look like. Comprised of more than half a million words, stylish, touchable images, and a sprinkling of board game-style mechanics and events, it brings the classic adventure story Around the World in 80 Days to vivid life under players' fingers -- without sacrificing sophistication and depth for accessibility.

A confluence of modern factors have brought text and story-based games new relevance in recent years, and until now, Inkle Studios has been a less-sung player in the space. But between providing beautiful creative tools and a stunning bellweather of possibility in 80Days, it's definitely time to celebrate it.

Mojang

It seems a bit strange to put Mojang on this list, doesn't it? What did the company really do but get bought in 2014?

It closed the first chapter of the indie dream, writ large.

That chapter began when Markus Persson got it into his head to make Minecraft in the first place. The idea for the game was always ambitious, but putting it out there for people to play and try well before any form of "completion" -- and then selling it to them while collecting their feedback -- was truly inspired.



The game grew and by now has become, without exaggeration, the building blocks of today's kids: Very nearly all of them play and love Minecraft. It is the foundation upon which the next generation of game designers is nurtured, and it was possible because of Mojang's dedication to making sure the game and the developer stayed true to themselves.

As Minecraft got bigger and bigger, it became all too much for Notch, who opted to sell his company to Microsoft just to get away from it. Under Microsoft's management, Minecraft and Mojang will change profoundly, whatever the executives might say (or even think).

"I don't try to change the world," Notch wrote. That may be true -- but he did. After achieving cultural ubiquity and earning $2.5 billion from the world's largest software company in the process, the first chapter of the Mojang story comes to a close, and this is how we mark it.

Laralyn McWilliams

Laralyn McWilliams, a 20-year industry veteran and current chief creative officer at The Workshop Entertainment, hadn't seen much reason to discuss her gender until now. She'd gotten used to going to industry conferences and being among the few women -- and seeing other woman give talks about "being a woman" rather than their areas of specialties often frustrated, rather than inspired her. But when she saw a woman colleague endure the awkward sexual proposition of an amateur game journalist, McWilliams spoke up. And kept speaking up, until the rare experience of being not just a woman in game dev, but a veteran woman, emerged.



It was a brave philosophical shift for McWilliams, who participated in the 2014 #1ReasontoBe panel at GDC. Countless women indies, developers and writers have found ways to speak out about diversity issues in the games business, but often those who work in the traditional space don't have the same freedom to get angry in public without professional consequences. But McWilliams has devoted herself to the issue with the circumspection of a programmer, and the savvy of a person with years of experience in multiplayer games and online communities.

When GamerGate hit, McWilliams responded by approaching sexism and a lack of understanding and empathy in her professional community where it lives: among design issues. Her Gamasutra blog post, "She's Not Playing It Wrong," was a systems-oriented approach to rallying colleagues for support, and treating misconceptions about games and gender as a "usability problem."

Of course, there's no one "best" response to sexism, especially for a community of women whose working space has become toxic and threatening on a daily basis in recent months. It's fallacious to recognize "professionalism" in people who are under assault. But what McWilliams has done is find a way to speak out pragmatically within the constraints of an industry that is often more comfortable with "professionalism" than social or emotional issues, and that would like to overlook "politics" in favor of design problems. McWilliams fought to show that it's all part of the same issue. The critique is coming from inside the industry, folks.

Dong Nguyen

Brutal difficulty, simple mechanics and retro aesthetics were the darling of the indie community landscape almost since its inception. But when Vietnamese developer Dong Nguyen's hooky and much-buzzed little game Flappy Bird became a sensation, suddenly those popular elements became a reason to other and ostracize him. Nguyen's case served some much-needed self-reflection to the developer community, and put the shy creator at the center of a sudden tidal wave of attention. His decision, ultimately, to pull Flappy Bird, came as much because of the stress his "player community" was causing him as it was because of his fears it wasn't good for them.



Flappy Bird itself launched a popular game jam that seemed like an apology, or at least a prompt for thought on what design values are desirable under what circumstances. It also catalyzed numerous conversations on anguish and frustration in games, and the dark side of participatory culture online, among other topics.

Eventually Nguyen's Flappy Bird was reborn on Amazon Fire TV, and even created and released Swing Copters, another brutal little game in his signature style. Swing Copters wouldn't prove to be quite as popular, but demonstrated the creator's resilience and productivity in what was sure to have been a complicated, difficult year. (Picture: AFP)

Sora Ltd. / Masahiro Sakurai

It isn't enough to get on this list to make a great game in 2014, but Sora Ltd. and Masahiro Sakurai -- along with a frankly massive team of experienced fighting game developers at Bandai Namco -- made two.

Super Smash Bros. for 3DS and Super Smash Bros. for Wii U are excellent examples of the craft of making truly fun games: They've lived up to the series' legacy and even improved on it. They exude quality and attention to detail. When the first portable entry in a series is superior to the prior generation's main console entry, that's a great sign; things only got better from there.



Sakurai himself deserves special mention as the center around which all of this holds; he's got a legendary reputation within Nintendo for his personal dedication and vision, and if you look across his body of work over the last decade -- Meteos, three Smash Bros. games, and Kid Icarus: Uprising -- you can perceive a vibrant, iconic "Sakurai style."

But Sora and Sakurai are also on the list for another significant reason: Turning around Nintendo's fortunes. The uptick that began with Mario Kart 8 has blossomed into analyst positivity with the release of Smash Bros. and Amiibo. Smash for Wii U is the only game that truly supports Amiibo this shopping season, and thanks to that fact, and its excellence, Nintendo has been able to get back in the game.

Vlambeer

We couldn't let another year slip past without recognizing the contributions Vlambeer cofounders Rami Ismail and Jan Willem Nijman have made to the game industry at large. While Vlambeer has been producing interesting work since its formation in 2010, 2014 was a banner year for the studio that saw both the release of Luftrausers, and the ongoing development of stellar Early Access game Nuclear Throne.



Vlambeer deserves to be lauded not just for the games it makes, but also the way it makes them. The studio has committed itself to helping other developers and fostering a healthy development community by, among other things, creating and providing free marketing tools [including presskit() and distribute()] to any developer who needs them, pioneering open game development through regular livestreams of their work making Nuclear Throne, and tirelessly paying it forward within the game industry. Both Ismail and Nijman devote time to sharing design wisdom and advice with their fellow developers; Ismail in particular seems to spend most of his time flying around the world like some sort of indie dev Superman and Nijman is co-organizer of the 7 Day FPS Challenge, for example. In all these ways and more, Vlambeer is an outstanding example of a modern commercial indie studio that makes meaningful contributions to the game industry at large.

Adriel Wallick (aka Ms. Minotaur)

Having grown tired of programming weather satellites, Adriel Wallick decided to move into game development in order to satisfy her creative drive. But after a couple years of working in Boston-based studios, she wanted to stretch her legs as a through and through indie game developer. Today, she's proven to be an influential figure with a knack for pushing her creative limits, and also bringing creators together in special ways.



Wallick organized the most inspiring and creative game development event in 2014 -- the inaugural Train Jam, which, as the name implies, was a game jam on an Amtrak train. Over the course of 50-plus hours between Chicago, Illinois and Emeryville, California, game developers from all sorts of backgrounds turned the gently swaying train into a multi-team, multi-project game development studio that rolled through canyons, tunnels, cities, and towns across America.

By the end of the trip, there were prototypes including 2D platformers, Unity-powered VR experiences, a game made for homemade controllers, and Twine-based text-driven stories. It demystified game development and game developers to the regular passengers who were on board. Wallick created an inspirational experience with practical benefits that participants won't soon forget. (Now Wallick is organizing Train Jam 2015.)

...And on top of that, she made 52 games as part of a year-long game-a-week exercise. That's quite the productive year.

That's our take - who were your top game developers of 2014, and why?


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