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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, Battle.net, 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 Battle.net 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.
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.