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With just a handful of days left until we shut the book on 2015, it's been nice to look back over the year that was and try to suss out what it meant for the art and business of game development.
Trying to pin down what the last twelve months meant for everyone involved would be a fool's errand, of course; the best we can do is hope that the year treated you well, and shine a light on some of the most notable events, trends and games that shaped the industry as a whole.
Gamasutra staff have been doing just that for the past few weeks, and today we draw that work together in a unified whole that aims to offer you a useful retrospective of the year that was.
Since the game industry is driven by developers, it seems only appropriate that we kick things off with a look back at the standout game makers of 2015. 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 this year.
We noticed something about Fallout 4 after it launched. We noticed the same thing a couple weeks after launch…and we continue to notice it a month later. People, across all different tastes and backgrounds are still talking about Fallout 4, and likely will be for the foreseeable future. The game is inescapable; its popularity hitting a kind of critical mass that has outdone most other, if not all, triple-A games this year.
But of course, “game is popular” isn’t quite enough to get on our top developers list. What’s notable about Bethesda Game Studios is its execution in open world RPG design of Fallout 4, and the foresight it must have taken for the studio to create something that is not just sprawling and massive, but an experience that defines the modern game market. Bethesda-style RPGs already are inclined to provide emergent gameplay and personalized experiences, but throw in user-generated content, and launch it on multiple platforms that allow for easy game streaming, you get a thoroughly shareable game that finally feels like it’s at home.
Notable too is Bethesda’s marketing prowess. It’s easy to forget that Fallout 4 was announced in June, with a release date of November, making the game’s launch about as Beyoncé as triple-A games get. And the studio also launched a free-to-play mobile app (its first ever, developed in part by Behaviour Interactive) that became so popular that even Bethesda seemed caught off guard. Overall, it was a stellar year for the studio, proving its worth in terms of art and business, and its ability to coordinate the two for big critical and commercial success.
The success of Blizzard in 2015 showcases how a developer can survive and thrive while embracing change. Last year the company made waves by debuting (among other things) a remarkably successful F2P card game designed by a comparatively small team, then rode that success to remarkable revenue gains in 2015 even as the subscriber base of cash cow World of Warcraft continues to decline.
But beyond its market savvy, Blizzard deserves to be recognized for cultivating an environment where developers can work on a variety of projects with different scales, stakes, and design challenges. This year alone saw the company release a new entry in its core RTS franchise, Starcraft II: Legacy of the Void, even as it reached into a new genre to launch an approachable, free-to-play MOBA in Heroes of the Storm, and began beta-testing Overwatch, which is likely to be a major player among the “hero shooter” games that will flood the market next year.
Blizzard continues to experiment with new ideas and embrace popular shifts in the market while supporting its venerable franchises (and the developers who work on them), and for that we recognize it as a top developer of the year.
Finnish indie studio Colossal Order has been steadily producing rich, complex simulation games for years, but in 2015 it leapt into the spotlight thanks to the breakout success of Paradox-published Cities: Skylines.
We recognize Colossal Order as a standout developer of the year not just because it made a great city management game, but because it did so with less than 20 people, one-upping entrenched market leader SimCity in the process. The studio saw an opening, recognized there was an underserved audience, and capitalized on that fact brilliantly.
Cities: Skylines lead designer Karoliina Korppoo noted earlier this year that a key factor of the game’s success is its vibrant modding community, and the studio deserves to be lauded for how it has nurtured that community by releasing powerful modding toolsets and integrating some premiere mod work into its own official Cities: Skylines updates.
There have been games about game development in the past—quite good ones, too: There’s the excellent Twine game The Writer Will Do Something and the “unfinished” fantasy game The Magic Circle, for example. These games give their players unique and entertaining insight into what it’s like to make a video game. The message generally seems to come across as 'making games is weirder, more complicated, and more difficult than you think.'
With The Beginner’s Guide, Davey Wreden made a game that was ostensibly about game development, but it was in fact more purely about creating things and handing partial ownership of those things over to other people. It’s a game that walks the line between “about game development” and “about the existential crisis of a creator” and it often loses balance, finding itself on either side of that line at different points in time. It’s all deliberate and brilliantly authored, and it resonated strongly with game developers.
His work in writing The Stanley Parable, exhibited a knack for using the tropes of game design to tell a story. If you look in the right places, you can find a lot of interesting, strong storytelling in games. And there are a lot of games with great mechanics. But someone who knows how to merge the two with such prowess is a rare bird. Wreden’s ability to use game mechanics and interactivity to tell a story and to spur emotion and thought in players was second to none this year.
Wreden has shown that he has a way of being immediate and powerful in his storytelling—he is a game author. If he continues on this trajectory, and if other designers pay attention, he could become one of the most influential storytellers in video game development as a whole.
Here's a doozy of a challenge for you: Take a beloved franchise, nearly two decades old, and known for its deep narrative and very specific style of handcrafted gameplay, and adapt it for the modern era of open-world games—without killing its soul or alienating its fans, and yet make it accessible and appealing to the players of today.
Somehow, Kojima Productions pulled this off. It's no small feat, even at a reported budget of $80 million, and with years of experience creating triple-A games.
The challenge was to retain the franchise's essence while also moving it forward -- and the team did that, updating and translating Metal Gear Solid gameplay mechanics that stretch back to the late 1990s for the modern, open-world triple-A game. If you take time to consider the game, you can find all of the gameplay that makes Metal Gear Solid what it is, albeit often in a wildly reinterpreted form that cleanly fits with the rest of the game's systems.
And though it will certainly be the last Metal Gear Solid game we get under Hideo Kojima's creative leadership, this isn't the first time the studio's pulled this off; the original 1998 Metal Gear Solid was itself a recapitulation of everything that made the first two 8-bit Metal Gear games into 1980s classics -- but reinterpreted for the original PlayStation, in 3D, and with an entirely new form of creative expression.
Metal Gear Solid V may not be as epoch-making as that game, but it does prove that things like a singular creative vision, handcrafted levels, and an eye for idiosyncratic detail can thrive in an open-world game. These were not settled questions, by any means. If this is Kojima's last game for Konami, so be it -- there can be no question it was executed with the care and creativity we'd expect.
Every year we get to watch a fresh crop of developers make their mark on the game industry. Japan-based indie game maker Ojiro “Moppin” Fumoto did just that in 2015, releasing his debut game Downwell in the latter half of the year to widespread critical acclaim.
Fumoto represents a new generation of indie game makers, drawing inspiration for his own work from high-profile indie hits like Spelunky and Super Meat Boy. But despite those touchstones, Downwell reads less like a latter-day nostalgia piece and more like a tribute to brevity in game design. It’s a game about jumping down a well with guns strapped to your shoes. You can grasp it in a moment, and spend weeks mastering it.
In a broader sense, Fumoto deserves to be recognized as an example of the sort of talent and creativity that’s brewing in the Japanese indie scene. His success this year with Downwell is a welcome one, and we look forward to seeing what he and his contemporaries do next.
The fundamental idea of making an open-world RPG on the scale of Xenoblade Chronicles X would be daunting for any team. But a decade ago, Monolith Soft was still making the highly cinematic, tightly compartmentalized games that most associate with the moniker "JRPG." How did the studio pivot to making a game with a map so big that you fit the world of Fallout 4 into it several times?
The secret to understanding this it to consider that the "Xeno" series mastermind, Tetsuya Takahashi, has never lacked for ambition—though his reach, in the past, exceeded his grasp. Not so this time. It's clear that it's the simple result of careful planning, long development experience, and hard work.
And if Xenoblade Chronicles X had a mission statement, it would be "show the world that the Japanese RPG can stand toe-to-toe with Western ones." Outside of the struggling Final Fantasy series, there are so few examples of the genre that can truly be classified as triple-A; yet here's a game that has a truly staggering breadth of content (including both passive and active online modes alongside a deep and long single-player campaign) and which can legitimately wear that moniker.
This is a real rabbit-out-of-a-hat trick for a developer to pull: A game that excels against any top-tier title you could conceivably compare it to, yet one in a genre where it's nearly impossible to borrow from others' design innovations, on a platform where it's difficult to pull off cutting-edge technical tricks -- and all the while preserving the studio's own long-running creative and cultural ethos, losing nothing in the bargain.
This is a game that can stand on the world stage and compete with any other open-world RPG. How many developers can say they've pulled that off?
Nintendo's internal development studio hit hard this year with two standout titles that were, in many ways, polar opposites.
Super Mario Maker leveraged the company's most recognizable IP in a totally new form. Released for the 30th anniversary of Super Mario Bros.' 1985 debut, it distilled what makes the franchise great -- no easy task to begin with -- and then expanded that into a massive, polished toolset that allows anyone who touches it to meaningfully participate in the series' very creation.
Super Mario Maker may sound like a gimme, but realistically, to execute on this premise so well, it requires the patient craft of experienced developers and creative leadership who fully understand the soul of their own franchise.
And then there's Splatoon -- a brand-new IP with very 2015 sensibilities. Just look at Twitter, Tumblr, and Pixiv -- they're bursting with Splatoon fan art. There could be an article written simply on how right Nintendo got that.
But it's the game, itself, that proves that the company can yank itself into the present. The fact that the studio could get the core mechanics of a shooter right is a big enough achievement to start -- but the developers did it one better, and made the game feel just right, in a very console-specific and Nintendo-like way. And the perfectly executed community DLC plan, which is very un-Nintendo-like, is the game's crowning achievement.
But what truly makes it a standout title is that, in fact, it innovates within the genre. Few teams can make a bold, playable, and distinctive game in a new genre the first time they tackle it; few games have as strong an identity as Splatoon, and certainly almost none approach its quality from a design perspective.
Pulling all of this together shows the formidable skill of Nintendo's internal development teams, indeed.
Few studios seem more tenacious than Psyonix, which built its business on helping to make games for other people and achieved seemingly overnight success in 2015 by spending years tweaking, refining and playtesting a simple idea: what happens if you strap rocket engines to Unreal vehicles and try to play soccer with them?
Lots of people heard about Psyonix this year thanks to Rocket League, the studio’s cross-platform multiplayer car soccer (soc-car?) game. But in speaking to Gamasutra shortly after Rocket League blew up, studio founder Dave Hagewood noted that it’s a revamped version of a PlayStation 3 game Psyonix put out seven years ago: Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle Cars, which could itself be traced back to an Unreal Tournament 2003 mod.
In a year that saw many developers try their hands at emulating established successes, we recognize Psyonix for sticking with -- and ceaselessly iterating on -- a set of core concepts that it knew, internally, would make for a great game if brought together in just the right way. Such tenacity in itself is admirable, so much more so when it brings about a game like Rocket League that will be played and talked about for years to come.
So why is Tale of Tales on a top 10 game developer list? Even in the year it exited game development, Tale of Tales was at the forefront of challenging the idea of what games are, and what they can be, with this year's award-winning Sunset. When people were debating over whether games were art, Tale of Tales would create games that were so obviously art that there was little room to debate otherwise.
The commercial failure of Sunset, and Tale of Tales’ reaction to that failure, exemplified the friction between games as commercial products and games as art. Sunset showed Tale of Tales that the commercial games aspect was more than the studio was willing to deal with, and thus moved onto other projects.
Even if the studio never made another game, the fact would remain that Tale of Tales is a developer that inspired and influenced a modern design apparent in games like Gone Home from Fullbright and SOMA from horror game studio Frictional Games, among others. And those games, and games like them, will continue to reach and inspire ever more developers.