Choosing 10 game developers who left their mark on 2018 wasn’t easy. The achievements we saw from game developers, from indie to triple-A, were incredible.
The way game developers are telling stories, serving their audiences, and helping their employees stay happy, healthy, and creative are evolving year by year. Looking back and seeing all the good stuff game devs have done this year reminds us how games are small miracles, and the people making them are some of the most gifted people around.
As always, our annual top 10 list of game developers isn't necessarily made up of devs that made the “best games,” or the most financially successful (although that doesn’t hurt anyone’s chances of making the list). These are the developers and studios that left their mark on this year in a meaningful way, shaping the art and business of making games.
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.
We’ve known that Warsaw, Poland-based 11 bit Studios is capable of a unique brand of mechanics- and systems-based narrative, particularly with 2014’s This War of Mine. This year’s Frostpunk iterates on that approach with outstanding results, making players care for the hundreds of displaced denizens of London.
But 11 bit isn’t on this list “just” because the studio released an outstanding game this year. 11 bit solidified its reputation for top-tier storytelling with Frostpunk, establishing a method of storytelling in games that 11 bit lead designer Jakub Stokalski calls “a values-driven game design approach.”
This practice uses conflict as the narrative base – which of course is a common approach, but 11 bit has formulated a unique way to make conflict an integral part to every aspect of a game’s design, and inject meaning into a web of intersecting systems and mechanics. 2018 saw 11 bit truly find its unique design voice, and other studios stand to benefit if they pay close attention.
Insomniac Games spent 2018 not only proving the success of its platform-exclusive game development model, the studio also took strides in standing up for the game developers who make their games possible.
Marvel's Spider-Man is an amazing accomplishment for the veteran studio, and shows how the gameplay pillars they've honed over the years can be tuned toward an experience that balances playfulness and somberness with grace.
But while a lot of studios released some astoundingly-designed games this year, Insomniac Games is the one that stood up for its developers under a hail of online harassment. During both the puddle fiasco and the recently-resolved Sam Raimi suit snafu, Insomniac Games relied on the studio's Twitter account to both try and transparently communicate with players about the state of their development process and push back against a growing tide of anger.
Other events in the game industry this year showed that when players use anger and fury to get what they want, a quid-quo-pro is established. "Get loud enough, and we'll do what you want, even fire our talented staff." Insomniac Games chose the opposite path and offered a firm defense of its employees rather then leave them twisting in the wind.
Lucas Pope, the developer behind 2013’s incredible border patrol game Papers, Please, has a knack for solving design problems, with fantastic results.
His latest effort, this year’s long-awaited “insurance adventure” Return of the Obra Dinn is quite a different experience from Papers, Please, but it still retains a clarity of vision that’s becoming a trademark of Pope’s games. And achieving that level of quality isn’t easy. When we talked to Pope earlier this year, he told us about the daunting task of scaling up the small Obra Dinn demo into the full game that launched this year. We love Pope’s problem-solving approach to game design, or as he told us, “in every project I do, I approach it like an engineer, as if there’s a problem that needs to be solved.”
The fact that Pope himself did the programming, art, design, sound, and music on Obra Dinn only solidifies a much-deserved place on this year’s list.
Matt Makes Games, the indie team behind this year's Celeste, worked hard for the last few years to make a platformer that wouldn't just be one of the best in the genre. Through Celeste, the studio would also talk about anxiety and depression, real-world problems that players (and developers) tackle every day.
That sense of connected mood between the player and the game heroine Madeline seeps into every part of Celeste's being. Lena Raine's synth-driven score is an amazing tool to help guide the player through Madeline's headspace, Studio MiniBoss broke ground with a pixel art aesthetic that only nods briefly to the retro era before striking out on its own, and Matt Thorson and Noel Berry together deserve credit for looking at the hundreds of levels they nearly threw out and just going "eh, sure" and putting them back in the game.
Not only is Celeste a noteworthy addition to the platfomer genre, it's a challenging game with an assist mode embodies the games' ethos about approaching challenge. It's not a difficulty reducer, it's a granular tool to help players of different skillsets enjoy the game. Matt Makes Games would kick off a whole year of developers showing how accessible their games could be, and to do so in a genre known for being...well, inaccessible was an inspiring precedent to set.
Microsoft has had a busy year no matter how you look at it. 2018 saw the company go on an acquisition spree so prolific that it earned a spot on our top 5 events of 2018 roundup. But the reason Microsoft has once again landed itself on a Gamasutra end of year list is the company’s powerful push for accessibility and inclusion in video games.
This year, Microsoft released the Xbox Adaptive Controller as an official first-party answer to a long-standing need for more accessible and adaptable ways to play games. The Xbox Adaptive Controller itself offers two large face buttons, but allows for a variety of external input devices that range from one-handed joysticks and foot pedals to standalone switches in a variety of sizes. Players that might have previously struggled with a traditional controller now have many more ways of comfortably playing games on both Xbox One and Windows 10.
It’s a physical reflection of other inclusivity-driven programs Microsoft has rolled out in recent years to make its platforms more welcoming to a wider range of players, such as last year’s revamp of its Xbox Live Avatars to include options for prosthetics, wheelchairs, and more.
French indie Motion Twin has been quietly humming along for nearly two decades, but this year it made an outsized splash in the game industry with Dead Cells. Launched on Steam Early Access last year, Dead Cells 1.0 debuted this summer and was roundly praised as one of the best and most beautiful 2D action games of the year.
To make a game as good as Dead Cells is no mean feat; that Motion Twin did it as a small, worker-owned cooperative where everyone reportedly gets paid the same and there are no "bosses" is a minor miracle -- and a significant signal to the game industry at large. In a year in which so many game makers lost their nights and weekends, their jobs, and/or their studios due to decisions made above their pay grade, it's heartening to see that some devs are committed to figuring out how to make games effectively without giving up equality.
And while Motion Twin's flat structure has its own unique drawbacks ("everyone in the Motion Twin faces burnout at least once because of our system", acknowledges Motion Twin's Sébastien Bénard in an interview with Kotaku), the team seems committed to figuring out how to build a system for making games that doesn't underpay or overwork anyone involved. For that, and for Dead Cells, we recognize Motion Twin as a top dev of the year.
"We make games that linger in hearts and minds," is the motto for Mountains, the developer behind Florence, an interactive story about a young woman falling in love. It definitely rings true, as the mobile title has resonated with many and cemented Mountains as a studio capable of telling a story in an engaging and interesting way.
Mountains has some big shoes to fill after its debut game as a studio was so well received, but there's no doubt that they will thrive. The team is small, but they know how to develop interactive narratives for mobile, and it will be interesting to see what they do next.
Somehow, Nintendo still manages to iterate and push the envelope when it comes to game design. This innovation brought forth the Nintendo Labo, an extension for the Switch including lots of sturdy cardboard. Place into the hands of everybody from children to adults, these crafting kits are great for providing an avenue for creativity.
Released back in April, the Labo has produced a lot of diverse creations and really drives home how (at heart) great Nintendo is as a company when it comes to designing memorable experiences. As an added plus, it's already being incorporated into classrooms, which is perfect because of how customizable it is.
Sony Santa Monica’s God of War revival is a marvel in many ways, each of which shows the impressive effort of the development team. On the technical side, the Sony Santa Monica squad has been refreshingly open about how different elements of God of War came together throughout the project’s lifetime.
In one such chat, God of War game director Cory Barlog discussed how he fought tooth and nail to have Kratos’ son Atreus as he is in the final game despite the often tricky task of getting his AI to feel just right. The secrets of everything from the process of crafting that satisfying thwack of recalling Kratos’ magical ax to the surprisingly complicated process of making a boat work with both the game and Atreus’ AI have been divulged by the team since the game’s release.
But Sony Santa Monica’s true crowning achievement has got to be taking a decade-old series long known as a hyper-violent bloody slash-em-up and granting those characters and world room to grow and mature. God of War tells a touching story about fatherhood, both through Kratos’ want for his son to become better than him and his own struggles to grow into his relationship with his boy. Barlog himself said it best: "We couldn’t just make another ‘angry Kratos’ game," and what Sony Santa Monica has created is indeed so much more than that.
2018 was a year chock full of terrific games, made by some tip-top developers. But it was also a year when the issue of workers' rights seemed to reach fever pitch, with the Red Dead Redemption 2 crunch fiasco and Telltale layoffs once again reminding us how many of the talented creatives in the games industry are often marginalized and exploited by their employers.
Horror stories like those make for grim reading, but there were signs of progress among all the doom and gloom. Ubisoft Quebec proved it's entirely possible to find critical and commercial success in triple-A without sacrificing the well-being of your workforce during the development of its acclaimed (and rather gargantuan) open-world RPG, Assassin's Creed Odyssey.
The Canadian studio impressed us with its commitment to improving the work-life balance of its staff, with studio managing director Patrick Klaus explaining it learned from the mistakes made on previous project Assassin's Creed Syndicate to reduce the need for massive crunch this time around. Although Klaus stressed the company "could always do better," it's clear the studio (quite rightly) prioritized keeping its employees fit, healthy, and happy. After all, the only way to make great games is to keep great teams together, and Ubisoft Quebec is one major studio leading the charge on that front.