San Francisco, California
Free-to-play has made major strides into the world of core players over the last year, and Three Rings Design's Spiral Knights is no exception.
Spiral Knights landed multiple achievements since its release last year; it was one of the first free-to-play games on Steam, it pulled in 1 million registered accounts within two months of its launch, and it landed the Best Online Game Design award from GDC Online 2011.
Perhaps the highest praise is the fact that Three Rings Design's success with Spiral Knights got the company purchased by Sega late last year.
With the Spyro license available, Toys for Bob could have just dialed in yet another sequel. It could have decided to reboot the franchise entirely with a gritty, bloody, "mature" Spyro. Thankfully, neither of these happened (though the latter almost did).
Instead, Toys for Bob came up with Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure, an ambitious new take on Spyrothat integrated a set of RFID-equipped action figures that could unlock new characters within the game.
Fact is, many less-confident developers would undoubtedly shy away from asking parent company Activision to back such an expensive, risky gambit. We're not just impressed that Toys for Bob successfully pulled Skylanders off -- it sold massively, after all -- we're impressed by how ballsy it was to begin with.
Redwood City, California
Adding 25 percent more content to your MMO after it launches is seriously impressive, but for Trion Worlds and Rift, however, that's simply business as usual. Rift developers built the game from the bottom up to make it easy to push more and more to hooked subscribers.
Trion Worlds CCO Scott Hartsman described the platform built for Rift as "a service that completely evolves around the player, and evolves with time, constantly gets better, mines the data, understands what people want, and gives them more of what they need." It's that kind of tech that won them Best New Online Game and Best Online Technology at last year's Game Developers Online Choice Awards.
But Rift's technology is more than just buzzwords and bullet points; it enables the developers to build in more unpredictable, world-altering events that force players to interact with each other in ways they wouldn’t in a more static MMO, which causes them to create connections with other players that they wouldn’t normally make. It's a great example of better technology enabling better design.
There's something to be said for heritage. While Ubisoft's massive Montreal studio creates many of the games that have come to define the company in recent years -- notably, the studio is the heart of development for the Assassin's Creed series -- the parent company, founded in France in the 1980s during the first personal computer boom, is a living legacy.
What's lovely to see is that this spirit still lives in the best games the company released this year. The studio nurtured the wildly inventive From Dust, which gave Another World creator Eric Chahi a forum to explore left-field gameplay innovations and make a surprising success. And its Adventures of Tintin game is the best licensed game you didn't play this year.
Ubisoft Montpellier gets a special nod for letting Rayman creator Michel Ancel come back for another round with Rayman Origins, which made it on Gamasutra's Most Overlooked Games and Top Games of 2011 lists. More than the generous and lush art and gameplay, the project is impressive for its creation of a framework with which others can make high-res 2D games.
Valve was plenty busy in the last year, particularly with Portal 2 and its related ARG. However, Portal 2 isn't why Valve made the list this year.
Some developers decide to test the waters of a new business model with a new game or a side project connected to a larger IP. Last year, Valve tested the free-to-play waters with a 4-year-old game that started life as a boxed, triple-A title -- Team Fortress 2 -- and between the item store (read: hats), frequent content updates to retain its current player base, and an influx of new players, it ended up boosting monthly revenues from TF2 by a factor of 12.
Of course, making TF2 into a free-to-play game was simply one part of a larger strategy involving user-made content. Leave it to Valve to find out how it can make a previously paid game into a free game that makes more money.
Lake Arrowhead, California / Houston, Texas
The Xbox Live Indie Games section is a great place for new devs to show what they can do with an Xbox title and get some real-world experience, but that "experience" is often "soul-crushing disappointment" when they realize that no one is seeing their game, much less buying it.
That's why we're happy to see the success of RPG developer Zeboyd Games, a two-man team consisting of Robert Boyd and Bill Stiernberg (Breath of Death VII and Cthulhu Saves the World). The duo turned its irreverent RPGs into a gig for Penny Arcade’s On The Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness: Episode 3.
That an indie game developer can make it on parody RPGs is a heartwarming story; that said indie game developer can get a chance to work with some major game industry figures is a success story.