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Gamasutra's Best Of 2009: Top 5 Game Companies

Gamasutra's Best Of 2009: Top 5 Game Companies

December 22, 2009 | By Christian Nutt

December 22, 2009 | By Christian Nutt
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[In the latest in Gamasutra's look back at 2009, Christian Nutt presents a list of the top companies in the business -- and what got them there this year Previously: Top 5 Biz Trends, Top 5 iPhone Games, Top 5 Controversies, Top 5 PC Games, Top 5 Handheld Games Of 2009, Top 5 Console Downloadable Games, Top 5 Major Industry Events, Top 5 Developers, Top 10 Indie Games, and Top 5 Disappointments.]

We've already covered the top five developers of 2009 -- and a fine crop of studios it is. But there's more to the world of games than development skill, and there's more to Gamasutra than recognizing it.

No, in a challenging year and a splintering market, there are several companies that stood out as companies. Some are developers, and some are not -- but the point is that just as studios deserve to be recognized for their fantastic games, so do industry companies that do exceptionally well.

Here's our pick for a list of the top companies influencing the game biz this year, and what made them so vital:

Top 5 Game Companies of 2009 (listed alphabetically)

Apple

Apple has done tremendous things for the game industry this year. While we all now recognize that the iPhone has not been the faultless goldmine that developers hoped for in late 2008, the platform is still empowering real developers to make really interesting games and make real money in the process.

Apple isn't a passive participant in this process, either. While the workings of the App Store can be oblique to the inexperienced, and the approvals process for apps is opaque, the company supports developers by promoting apps not based on budget or ad buys, but quality and buzz. Big hits can come from indies, not just major publishers. And someone at Apple is knowingly promoting games like Tiger Style's Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor and Firemint's Real Racing as "best of 2009" games over shinier, better-marketed titles from bigger companies.

The company also chose 2009 as the year to truly take gaming seriously from a marketing perspective: it started advertising the iPod Touch as a gaming device on TV, in print, and on billboards. Apple spokespeople have also continuously talked tough about the company's competition in the mainstream handheld gaming space -- Nintendo and Sony. And it has introduced improvements to the hardware and to the market, including new versions of the iPod Touch and iPhone, and enabling transactions in free apps, something many had been asking for.

While its approvals and other processes could stand to become more transparent, Apple has opened up a huge new market for games and shaken up the stagnant mobile gaming space completely.

Epic Games

Epic Games continued its dominance in current generation engine licensing -- no surprise, that, as the house that built Gears of War has had no trouble signing up licensees for its popular tech since the start of the Xbox 360's reign as the top console for hardcore gamers. In the face of increased competition coming to market, the firm has held strong.

And to increase its market share, and in the face of free toolsets being distributed by its competition, Epic this year made the intelligent decision to offer Unreal Engine 3 for free. While you can't release a commercial product built under these licensing terms, this move doesn't just get indies working with Unreal. It also ensures that Unreal will continue to march into schools -- training the next generation on its tech.

And though the acquisition took place last year, this year is when it paid its dividends: Chair Entertainment's Shadow Complex came out to massive acclaim and sales, proving conclusively not only that the right developers and game can make a tremendous success of Xbox Live Arcade, but that Unreal Engine 3 is the right tool for that job: a double win for Epic.

Its Epic Games China subsidiary's Titan Studios also launched Fat Princess for Sony's PlayStation Network, showing that Epic knows how to play both sides of the hardcore console audience. Also, as the name implies, it shows that the company is not ignoring Asia but, instead, embracing it -- with localized versions of its tools that specifically incorporate enhancements aimed at genres, such as MMOs, popular in Asian markets.

Unity

From an academic project to an engine contender -- Unity has become a major player in the market as of 2009, and there's more to come. Like Epic, Unity moved to launch a free version of its toolset, which is more flexible than Epic's implementation -- the free version of Unity can be used commercially. In the wake of that, the company reached 33,500 registered developers in November.

Important, too, was Unity's announcement that it's moving into the Xbox 360 market. XBLA, as we said above, is a tremendous market for developers to tap into, and while Unity might be considered lightweight for a full-fledged Xbox game, its tech fits into the downloadable space well.

Of course, that's proved by its success on the iPhone -- where Unity is one of the leading engine solutions. And while there was a brief, serious hiccup for Unity on the platform this year, it was quickly fixed by the Unity team.

And the company opened up a new UK office under the stewardship of former Criterion man Graham Dunnett -- expanding its capabilities beyond its San Francisco and Copenhagen locations. 2009 has been a majorly up year for Unity, and as the web and iPhone continue to rise in importance, and as Unity's support for Wii and Xbox 360 help bolster it, the engine becomes a more and more major player in the market.

Valve

Valve, the only company to cross over between the Top 5 Developers and Top 5 Game Companies, is one that many admire greatly. Writing about why Valve is so great is frankly getting kind of boring. But it's still worth exploring it -- and also exploring precisely why the company is the only one to make both lists, because that's key to its success.

Nobody doubts that Steam is an excellent platform. Some developers are less thrilled than others, but with indie titles like Zeno Clash getting their due thanks in no small part to the seamless digital distribution of the Steam platform, it's hard to argue that it is not a net positive. In addition, the service's cloud features, including game-saves, are innovative and value-additive. Its popularization of frequent discounts and has created a positive disruption to the PC business model, and the service's overall popularity with its user base has hastened the move toward digital distribution.

Notable, too, is the release of Left 4 Dead 2 -- not just because it's a great and highly successful game, but because the company adapted beautifully from its notoriously slow release model to one much more in line with today's market. It also rolled with the punch of a boycott -- turning the ire of fans into a major marketing coup by flying in the organizers of an online petition against the game's release, and turning them back to the community full of praise for the title.

And, of course, the whole reason that L4D2 thing blew up in the first place is because of Valve's peerless reputation for running its games as services. Its users have gotten so used to meaningful downloadable content and post-release support that their main complaint about L4D2 was that the first game's support would be truncated. Take, for example, Team Fortress 2 -- two years old, it's still getting major updates.

Valve's reputation as an excellent developer and a great service provider are intertwined. The company's success at producing amazing games like Portal feeds its reputation with gamers, driving them toward its Steam service; its success as a service provider builds confidence in its game releases. Other developers can't parlay their goodwill into other revenue streams -- but Valve can, and that makes it a savvy contender.

Zynga

Of course, the shining star of performance this year has been Zynga -- the company which rode the social gaming trend to the top of the revenue heap, creating the most popular games on Facebook and reaping the microtransaction-based rewards.

Sure, plenty of people don't like to hear it. There's the obvious and disheartening question of the fact that the company's games are largely unoriginal from both a design and theme perspective. So goes the trope: Harvest Moon begat Happy Farm begat Farm Town became FarmVille -- a copy of a copy of a copy. And there's no doubt that the company's strength in marketing is what has drawn players to its particular executions of popular social gaming themes.

But execution is not to be underestimated, says Zynga VP Hugh de Loayza: "Our games are pretty distinctively different from the traditional Asian farm games. A shooter is a shooter, so a harvest mechanic is a harvest mechanic. But the story you wrap around it is different. The other thing to pay attention to is that you've got a service that you're running." It's obvious the company is doing something right with its generic-seeming games. And there's more to the service than strongarm user acquisition tactics -- though they're indubitably a key part of the strategy.

And there's no doubt that this rapid growth has caused some growing pains -- unethical offers got FishVille banned from Facebook, though the game did come back.

But the company has managed to attract great talent from the traditional games space, and secure secure significant funding, no small feat in today's economic climate.

Yes, people love to hate Zynga and the social games market (check the comments on that last link.) And that hate is comprehensible. But Zynga proves that, in the short time since the phenomenon has emerged, a business can be built on it. While we can never say "yes, this one will be a long-term success," Zynga is the power player in the market and the absolute company to watch out for, and is also one of the most meaningful and disruptive success stories of 2009.

Honorable Mentions

Zenimax, parent of Bethesda, deserves a shout-out for its acquisition of id Software. The lawsuit with Interplay is a bit of a black mark, though, and so were Wet and Rogue Warrior (it's time to sort out your non-internally developed games efforts, guys).

Also worthy is Square Enix -- not only did the Japanese company successfully acquire Eidos this year, it also shipped the most popular game in its massive Dragon Quest series and instantly became the PS3's record-holder for units sold in Japan with Final Fantasy XIII.

[Apple image taken from Wikimedia; uploaded by user Nurmib. Used under Creative Commons license].


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