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Gamasutra's Best Of 2010: Top 5 Developers
Gamasutra's Best Of 2010: Top 5 Developers
December 16, 2010 | By Christian Nutt

December 16, 2010 | By Christian Nutt
More: Console/PC

[Another look at the best of 2010 in Gamasutra's continuing series -- this time putting the year's best developers in the limelight, in a year which saw the possibilities for games explode. Previously: Top 5 Trends, Top 5 Major Industry Events, Top 5 Surprises, Top 5 Disappointments, Top 5 Controversies, and Most Anticipated Games Of 2011.]

Picking the top 5 developers any given year is a ridiculously difficult task to begin with. Game developers tend to be tremendously enthusiastic, creative, and dedicated -- which makes deciding hard enough. How do you decide who goes above and beyond above and beyond?

But even more so lately, it's a tremendous challenge thanks to the fragmenting of the market. Game development is truly going global, and it's doing so on a vast array of platforms. Different skills are required by developers than just a couple of years ago, and what constitutes game development can drastically change from platform to platform.

To that end, then, Gamasutra has made an effort to recognize the global games industry in the form of five developers who stood out this year in particularly memorable ways (plus some honorable mentions.)

To get on this list, tremendously successful developers had to outdo themselves, true innovation, creative spirit, and finesse was required.

Top 5 Development Studios of 2010 (listed alphabetically)

Blizzard (StarCraft II,, World of Warcraft: Cataclysm)

A company not known for shipping products frequently shipped three in one year -- long-awaited RTS sequel StarCraft II, world-beating MMO expansion pack World of Warcraft: Cataclysm, and most notably, in some ways, a completely new implementation of its service which transforms it from simple matchmaking to a complex and comprehensive service that covers the networking and community functions for the company's slate of games, present and future.

While this didn't go off without a hitch (see: Real ID controversy) the company has made a concerted effort to develop a solution which is in line with the popularity of its games and the future of the market -- a ferociously difficult task, as project director Greg Canessa explained at GDC Online.

And while there are controversies over the circumstances surrounding StarCraft II as a Korean eSport, those have little to do with the team's successes as game developers.

Its games, as always, seem to hit their targets creatively -- conservative, perhaps, but polished and massively popular. The fact that the company shipped two titles this year to rapturous receptions while working on a third -- the deep-in-development Diablo III shows that as a developer Blizzard is firing on all cylinders in 2010.

Rockstar San Diego (Red Dead Redemption)

While Grand Theft Auto has been a truly standout success since the release of the third installment in the series in 2001, very few developers have truly lived up to the promise the series outlined. While open-world games have become a viable genre -- and there are a lot of very, very good ones on the market -- it wasn't until Red Dead Redemption shipped that the publisher showed it could, in many ways, better its own flagship title.

Audiences and critics agree that the title is refined and engrossing, offering a play experience that takes the fundamentals of the open world experience and hones them -- all as a Western, a setting that has been a dicey proposition at best for mainstream video game success.

The only black mark on the title is the "Rockstar Spouse" controversy that erupted -- which illustrates the supreme difficulties of achieving a title like this, and the potential cracks in the studio model which is currently required to do so. Addressing these will be key to the forward motion of the industry and the creation of more games of this scope and scale; even still, the creative power of Red Dead Redemption can't be denied.

Rovio (Angry Birds)

Has this Finnish team cracked the secret of succeeding on the App Store? They may well have, and that lands them on the list. Disappointingly for many, the secret may not be simple, or easily repeatable -- but there is still a lot to learn from the endless chart-topping success of Angry Birds.

One major lesson is that success doesn't come quickly. While you often hear about giving up on casual games that don't hit right away, Rovio poured effort into making the title successful -- and learned that constant updates drive its continued popularity. People talk about games they keep playing. The team also capitalizes on holidays to keep the game fresh and in people's faces.

In short, Rovio has learned that casual games need a great deal of attention; a lesson that was already apparent to developers of core games. The interesting lesson is precisely where and when that attention belongs -- and that is a different question altogether.

Team Meat (Super Meat Boy)

If the point needed any more illustrating, Team Meat has done it: brutally hard 2D game play can spell great success when backed with creativity, polish, and great design. Super Meat Boy captured a huge audience and a great deal of love on download platforms thanks to the developer knowing exactly what kind of game it was making and completely going for it.

But it's not just the game Super Meat Boy itself that makes Team Meat stand out. It's the way the developer's attitude spills out in its interaction with the community -- being honest becomes marketing-from-the-heart when it hits the player base in the form of meaningful communication. And let's not forget trolling PETA, and its hilarious result.

Zynga East (FrontierVille)

The path forward for social games is far from clear. One studio that has made a great stab at charting it despite, arguably, no real need to -- given its publisher's tremendous market advantages -- is Zynga East, developers of FrontierVille.

It's clear that parent company Zynga realized it would need experienced development talent to push forward with games that were more than what it had -- and so it enlisted the help of experienced strategy developers like Brian Reynolds, who left Big Huge Games to transition into the social space.

"I just kind of vote with my feet, of what I want to make and what's cool and what's exciting," Reynolds told Gamasutra, of his decision to move to Zynga -- a move questioned by many in the traditional industry who see the social space as lesser.

However, FrontierVille has proved that there is a way forward -- a way to marry not just a traditional design ethos, but traditional design talent with Facebook. Appropriately enough, it was proved by a game with a Wild West theme.

Honorable Mentions

Osaka-based Platinum Games had an exceptionally strong year with Bayonetta and Vanquish -- polished and inventive takes on established genres that show Japanese game design is far from dead.

While Harmonix Music Systems' Rock Band 3 didn't resuscitate the plastic instrument genre, it was the most robust game in that space yet -- alongside the developer's successful launch of Kinect bestseller Dance Central, that spells a great year creatively.

Playdead proved itself with its moody first release Limbo, a moody and quickly beloved commercial success.

Ubisoft Annecy demonstrated that guns don't make multiplayer with the original and fun competitive mode it contributed to Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood.

BioWare, meanwhile, showed that it has its ears to the ground and great process with as it stepped forward in terms of both interface and narrative with the almost universally-lauded Mass Effect 2.

And Quantic Dream showed a new way forward for the marriage of gameplay and narrative with its chilling, riveting Heavy Rain.

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Jose Resines
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Sorry, but that half that list is laughable. Blizzard is just printing money and seeing how they can make even more by any means necessary. They have forgotten about REALLY listening to the community (RealID was so big that was the exception).

RDD was nice, but that hardly gives Rockstar a spot in the top 5.

And Zynga?. Please!. That's worse than choosing Zuckerberg Man of the Year 2010.

I'll respect the other two options, and change the previous three to Bioware, Mojang (@notch) and Bethesda. They certainly deserve it more.

Chris Remo
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What in particular is your grievance with Blizzard and its community?

Adam Bishop
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What did Bethesda release this year?

Patric Mondou
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I think, on the contrary, that Blizzard is the company most belonging to that list. You don't design a game by force-mergining every suggestion. They stayed true to their main design axis, created a virtually flawless game and an even more flawless online multiplayer platform. Blizzard products, although very mainstream and scarily lucrative and viral (you were to mention it), are engineously planned, produced and marketed.

Ian Uniacke
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Angry fan boy makes critical comment in response to article about Blizzard. News at 11.

Nathan Verbois
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I am not a fan of social network games like the kind that Zynga creates, but just because I don't like them and I have no interest in them, does not mean that Zynga shouldn't receive top honors. The success of Frontierville and Cityville along with the continuing success of Farmville, cannot be overlooked. Love 'em or hate 'em, these games have fundamentally challenged the status quo in this industry. There are many other great examples of free to play models out there, but Zynga is by far the most prolific and successful.

Bethesda only published Fallout: New Vegas; Obsidian developed it. I don't know if Id's iOS Rage spinoff fell under Bethesda's publishing arm, but I'm fairly positive they haven't released a game this year as a developer.

Joe McGinn
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Disagree nathan. This is supposed to be a "top 5 developers" list on a site about the professional game development business. It's not a "best games" list (which Red Dead should be on) nor is it a "most profitable developers" list (which Zynga would be on). It's not a secret in the business that Red Dead is one of the worst run projects in recent history. Just one of many such testimonies:

It's a joke putting these guys on the "best developer" list.

Vin St John
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Fair points, but "best developer" is sort of a vague term that gives him room to assign spots on these criteria. I would certainly say that Zynga's strides in proving its own business model and damn near inventing a portion of the industry (in that it's their success that has driven other players to the industry) makes it worth of consideration. And while RDD is not an exemplar to management or project managers, it is a testament to the developers' creativity and ability to create something new.

Rodolfo Rosini
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No list can make everyone happy but what about mentioning Obsidian for FNV?

And FarmVille, well, are they a top 5 developer because they managed to lose 150 million players? Check AppData more often, it's lots of fun.

Simon Carless
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We did specifically reference Zynga East, Jose/Rodolfo, for their development of FrontierVille - not 'FarmVille'. Brian Reynolds and team have made a sophisticated, interesting game there, and we'd definitely defend that - have you tried it?

Ian Uniacke
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I'd like to know how you classify them as "losing 150 million players"? Are you going to say Rockstar lost 10 million players from their GTA franchise because no one plays it much these days? It seems a totally ridiculous assertion. I recall Zynga's latest creation (I can't remember it's name) is rapidly becoming the next big thing.

David Fisk
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Rockstar? Really? I'm sorry Red Dead was so buggy it was almost unplayable.

Mario Di Pesa
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I guess that's why millions played it...

David Rodriguez
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The Game of Year was sooo buggy that it was unplayable....

Good for you Fisk.

David Serrano
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RDR had fewer true bugs (360) than many other games I've played this year. I think RDR's problems have more to due with the fact that Rockstar used the extremely outdated GTA control system for the game. As soon as the action moves quickly, the system collapses under its own weigh. Which is why I can't agree with all the praise the game has received. Great story and possibly the most amazing environmental graphics I've ever seen, but the control mapping destroyed the gameplay.

Now Fallout New Vegas... FNV literally is unplayable because of bugs.

Gregory Kinneman
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I'm happy to see both indie and major studios getting accolades here. Nice going Gamasutra!

Carl Chavez
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Bart Stewart
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I could quibble with a couple of those choices, but with one exception they're all easily defensible.

The exception is Team Meat, a slot that should have gone to Minecraft's developer, Mojang Specifications -- AKA "Notch," AKA Markus Persson.

I have nothing against Super Meat Boy or Team Meat. (And frankly I enjoyed their well-deserved response to PETA.) But in terms of creativity, SMB is yet another platformer while Minecraft offers both exploratory *and* creative play in a package that gamers of nearly any age can enjoy. Notch, despite being one person, is doing more inventive work.

The business side of Minecraft also makes Notch the more appropriate choice here. By offering permanent access to all updates and expansions to everyone who invests in development by paying full price for the alpha release of the game, a little fortuitous word of mouth was all that was needed to make Mojang phenomenally successful for a developer of that size. That's a tremendous inspiration for very small game development teams.

On balance, then, I think there's reason to disagree that Mojang/Notch wasn't among the top 5 in 2010, to say nothing of being excluded from even the honorable mentions. (Note: "he hasn't shipped a real game" is not a persuasive defense; the revenues from people playing the game today, even if it is only an alpha build, eliminate that argument against including the *developer* in this list.)

Again, though, that's just one disagreement out of five possibilities. Not too bad. ;)

Maurício Gomes
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To me Minecraft is just a more popular Sauerbraten "Build" server. Except Sauerbraten has better graphics (WAAAAY better).

The only thing Minecraft have that Sauer don't, is random map generation.

Robert Mobbs
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Minecraft got a lot of support in the comments. Maybe Gamasutra should do 6-entry lists from now on.

Tom Plunket
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Is Rockstar San Diego in that list because of the insane crunch, or the layoffs immediately post-ship? (I didn't typically consider those marks of a great studio, but now I know!)

Tim Carter
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"Layoffs immediately post ship" simply means the project is over.

If you were a carpenter, would you be upset if the real estate owner who hired you to build his house immediately laid you off once the house was done? Wouldn't it be smarter to work for a, or form your own, carpentry company - going from house to house as required - rather than be employed by the real estate owner and being surprised that you were let go after you finished building the house and there was no more work to do?

(Of course, to be fair, it would help if more real estate owners would be prepared to do a contract with a carpentry company, rather than insist on directly hiring said carpenters under the pretence of "permanent employement"...)

Thierry Tremblay
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We are not building houses.

David Fisk
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but what happens all to often is a big round of hiring just to get a game done with the sole purpose of laying people off once the game ships. it's not a good way to treat people, and shows poor planning. All of us that actually work in the industry have been through it, and very few studios actually DON'T do it. It's so common it's an inside joke, "2 years and out". For some people it's no big deal, for others it is.

Bren Lynne
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In that case, employees should have been contractors, and paid for overtime. Hire/fire on a project cycle is abusive.

Eric Geer
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Yay! for Platinum.

"Osaka-based Platinum Games had an exceptionally strong year with Bayonetta and Vanquish -- polished and inventive takes on established genres that show Japanese game design is far from dead."

Though not a strong selling game they also had another note worthy one.

Infinite Space for DS(super RPG space opera)

And I heard its rumored that they are developing and publishing another game with Sega--not sure what thats gonna be, but I'm sure its gonna be another good one...too bad Madworld didn't get a great reception either. It seems like their games are very niche--its a super hit with some crowds while it dies with others.

Kevin Reilly
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Not even an honorable mention for Treyarch? Does the anti-Activision crowd hold that much sway on these boards that you can't acknowledge the top-selling game creator for this year. There doesn't seem to be a problem mentioning devs working on other notable sequels (ACB, RB3, ME2). What gives?

Cody Scott
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blizzard got number 1 so your anti-Activision sway theory is void.

Scott Southurst
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@Cody Scott - lol - good call...

Kevin Reilly
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@ Cody, doesn't answer the question. FYI - Blizzard is technically under separate publishing arm.

David Fisk
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I think the list looking more at innovation and less at studios cranking out the same type of game that we've all played before.

DanielThomas MacInnes
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I'd still give Treyarch props for Tony Hawk Pro Skater 1 & 2 on the Sega Dreamcast. Those guys are good workers.

Tomi Hanzek
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No love for the talented Retro team who revitalized an all-but-dead Donkey Kong franchise? Before them the series was Nintendo's go to gimmick testing grounds. Remember Donkey Konga and the Wii racing game, Barrel Blast? No? Exactly.

Cody Scott
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i was ok with the list until i read zynga..... they dont make games they make time wasting pieces of spam on social network sites...

Luke Skywalker
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This list clearly omitted "Troll Studios", and their employees are voting with their comments.

Great list, thanks Christian.

DanielThomas MacInnes
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Let's see...Notch...Notch...Nothing here...Maybe this paragraph.

I give up. Where's Notch? The biggest indie game of the year, and potentially a revolutionary game-changer in how video games are made and sold, and no mention at all?

Regardless of one's personal preferences, from a business standpoint, Minecraft is the only video game that matters.

Robert Boyd
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Yeah, failing to mention Notch at all was a huge oversight.

Michael Joseph
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It's just a list.

Harald Maassen
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It's unfortunate that an industry blog would name studios with notoriously bad working conditions in their list of top developers.

Cate Ericsson
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Rockstar's actually the only studio on the list that I've heard that about. I haven't heard much about Rovio and Team Meat, probably because they are so small. As for Zynga, the biggest complaint I've heard from there is the lack of opportunity to exercise much creativity. Nothing about the working conditions. And other than Customer Service (which is a thankless job no matter who you work for), Blizzard's employees are practically cultish in their love for working there.