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Gamasutra's Best Of 2011: Top 5 Developers

Gamasutra's Best Of 2011: Top 5 Developers Exclusive

December 22, 2011 | By Christian Nutt

[Gamasutra features director Christian Nutt takes a hard look at which developers deserve recognition this year for execution -- what games made their mark on the industry thanks to developers working hard at their craft?]

It's always tough to pick the best developers of the year. Everyone in this industry works very hard to create the best possible games that they can, and with the industry spiraling off in so many directions, it's difficult to figure out precisely who deserves the recognition most.

How do you compare an indie to a major studio? How do you contrast a Facebook game against a triple-A console title? Where does developer end and publisher begin in the social/mobile space? The list below represents Gamasutra's attempt to take a look at the work being done throughout the industry and highlight some of the best of it -- defined by what makes each developer's contribution notable.

5. From Software

"Japan is dead" is a cliche that has been continuously repeated for the length of this generation. To believe it, you have to ignore some huge hits, and most of Nintendo's output, of course. All the same, even the most diehard fans of the region's games have to recognize that the country's developers simply doesn't dominate the charts like they used to, nor innovate in design like we all know they can.

That said, this year, one developer created a game that was reactive to contemporary trends, addictive and artful, and commercially dominant -- but yet completely uncompromising and absolutely unsatisfied to be anything but itself. That game is Dark Souls, and its developer is From Software.

From is not the kind of studio that you'd have expected to see on a list like this a few years ago. Its cult-hit games (Armored Core, Otogi series) always had a special something, but not enough of that something to make a mark.

2009's bleak and tough Demon's Souls, though, did -- and its sequel is so much more than its predecessor: a vast, connected world, a consistent vision, an unrepentant challenge, and a real understanding of a gameplay loop that keeps players tense and driven for success. The game thumbs its nose at the notion of constant checkpoints and Disneyland rides, and is all the better for it.

And the reward for this? A number 6 debut on the October 2011 NPD chart. It's a richly deserved Cinderella story for a developer that's been honing its craft since the PlayStation 1 launched.

4. Double Fine

Ever since the financial crisis hit in 2008, layoffs and studio closures have become the norm for the industry. The middle is being scraped out of the console game market. For the most part, high-budget triple-A games dominate the charts, while very small studios and indies catch the money and time of gamers who want something different. The $60 "good but not outstanding" game is disappearing.

Early this year, Tim Schafer told Gamasutra, "Brutal Legend sold like 1.4 million, last time I asked, and I was like, 'That's more than any game I'd ever made, up to that point.' And I should be going like, 'Woo!' but instead it's like, 'Well, it didn't sell 5', and that's the problem with those big games."
But instead of closing his studio after Brutal Legend failed to make the splash its budget required, he retooled it -- breaking it into four small teams and rapidly prototyping great ideas -- then signing, developing, and releasing them.

The first games started appearing last year, but this year, the slate is even more impressive -- Stacking, Once Upon a Monster, and Trenched / Iron Brigade couldn't be more different, but are all great. Better yet, talent is bubbling up in the studio and leading projects, while the company diversifies its portfolio of genres and supported platforms.

3. Ubisoft Montpellier

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 -- it's not the true soul of the company, founded in France in the 1980s during the first personal computer boom.

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, while Rayman Origins let one of the company's most talented developers, Michel Ancel, bring his creation back to its roots and completely reinvigorate it.

And, oh yeah -- its Adventures of Tintin game is the best licensed game you didn't play this year. Seriously.

2. Rocksteady Studios

No difficult second album for Rocksteady, which proved that it could execute at the highest levels of console game design and polish with Batman: Arkham City. Arkham Asylum was a game that bespoke lots of care and thought. It was clear when playing it just how much the developers had considered precisely what they should achieve with it and then executed that plan effectively.

With the sequel, the developer expanded on the formula it established -- executing, again, on all fronts, but this time with the weight of expectation. It's a technically ambitious title, too, with an open world powered effectively by the Unreal Engine. While there were problems with the game's attitude toward female characters, that was an unfortunate smirch on a game that -- as far as core development goes -- is hard to argue with at all.

1. Mojang

How did this happen? Starting with the vision of a single developer, Markus "Notch" Persson, a company was born with a mission: break all of the rules and become the most talked-about surprise success story in the industry.

Minecraft was developed and distributed in ways that the traditional industry would have flat out said was impossible. It's a simple PC game sold via just the creator's website. It was released to players as a buggy alpha with promises of improvements to come -- and they bought it anyway. It's only got one full-time developer on it (Notch recently passed the torch to Jens Bergensten so he could move onto his next project.) It requires a patient friend or an external wiki to be at all comprehensible.

Yet it's a massive success.

The game hit beta in late 2010. Less than a year later, Mojang hosted a convention in Las Vegas for its legions of fans, 1.0ed the game, and even moved into publishing with last week's release of Cobalt.

Next up: its second game, Notch's next project, and more publishing. Is Minecraft a fluke or is Mojang onto something? It's completely unclear, but its success story, which flies in the face of what the industry says is possible, is both inspiring and, well, amusing.

Runners Up

Row Sham Bow - Recognized for jumping ship from EA's Tiburon studio after years of making Madden and yet somehow delivering one of the best social games yet published: Woodland Heroes.

Chair Entertainment - Infinity Blade II continued the company's quest to define what hardcore games on mobile look like. Still far ahead of the pack when it comes to executing mobile technology, design, and engagement for gamers.

Bethesda Softworks - Skyrim dominated both sales charts and mindshare this fall, showing that the company can continuously refine on a formula and capture gamers' attentions like few others.

Kixeye - The war for core gamers on Facebook has yet to really heat up, but Kixeye has put a definitive stake in the ground with games like Backyard Monsters and Battle Pirates.

Eidos Montreal - For bursting out of the gate, as a new studio, with a creatively vibrant re-envisioning of a beloved but extremely complex and nuanced IP, Deus Ex.

[Other 2011 retrospectives: Top 5 Major Industry Events; Top 5 Major Industry Trends; Top 5 Controversies; Top 5 Most Anticipated Games Of 2012; Top 10 Indie Games; Top 5 PC Games; Top 5 Overlooked Games; Top 5 Social Games; and Top 5 Cult Games.]

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