Game Developer and Gamasutra editors have teamed up to list our top 30 developers of the past 12 months, from the indies to the big boys.
July 19, 2012 | By Staff
More: Console/PC, Social/Online, Smartphone/Tablet, Indie, Programming, Art, Audio, Design, Production, Business/Marketing, Exclusive
This honor is reserved for teams of developers who are doing something new, something different, something better -- or, more often than not, all of the above.
Gamasutra will be reprinting this feature, originally published in Game Developer magazine's June/July issue, in five segments this week. (Companies are listed in alphabetical order.)
Rocksteady StudiosLondon, England
We don't envy anyone the task of making a game that lives up to the Batman legacy, but Rocksteady Studios managed to perfectly capture the essence of The Bat in Batman: Arkham City, which is nothing short of amazing. Consumers agreed, too: Arkham City sold 1.5 million copies in its first month and 6 million copies in 2011, which made it the seventh-best selling game in 2011, according to the NPD Group.
Sales data aside, we're impressed by Rocksteady's capability to make great decisions early in the dev process that make the most of its strengths. During a DICE 2012 talk, Rocksteady founder Sefton Hill said that the team made a key decision to make "the world's smallest open-world game," which is undoubtedly what let it pile on the polish in every nook and cranny.
With Batman: Arkham City's excellent use of the Unreal Engine to create a seamless open-world experience and its focused design and evocative writing, Rocksteady is more than deserving of its accolades.
Row Sham BowOrlando, Florida
In 2011, a group of EA veterans formed Row Sham Bow, an independent company looking to find success in the increasingly popular social market. And despite entering a space dominated by multimillion-dollar companies like Zynga, Wooga, and Rovio, the small team put out a game whose quality stands among the best on the platform.
That game -- Woodland Heroes -- takes the basic gameplay mechanics of the classic board game Battleship and frames them within a persistent game world through which players buy new weapons, conquer territories, and fight their way through a far-reaching single-player campaign. These additional subsystems keep the game fresh, as scenarios and opponents change by the minute.
Woodland Heroes doesn't exactly focus on the "social" elements of the Facebook platform, but its simple, tactical design makes it a great strategy game for novices and experts alike. Row Sham Bow's first title showcased some exciting, underexplored ideas on the Facebook platform and has been praised by social and traditional game developers alike.
SmileGateSeongnam, South Korea
When you've got the No. 1 game in China, there's a lot to celebrate. SmileGate's CrossFire held that honor in 2011, and it boasted 3.5 million concurrent users in China alone.
Even though the game was served by Neowiz, this success still managed to shoot Seongnam-based SmileGate up the charts to become one of Korea’s top-10 grossing game companies, according to www.thisisgame.com. In fact, it's the only developer on that list; all the rest are publishers, portals, or some combination thereof.
While SmileGate will likely remain a developer, there are rumblings that the company, now under director Jung-Pil Park (who helped launch other successful free-to-play FPSes such as Sudden Attack and Special Force) has set its sights on the publishing space. The company recently licensed the Unreal Engine for two new triple-A online games that it hopes will help diversify its CrossFire-reliant revenue stream. You don't get to the top by accident, which means these new projects will be worth watching, at the very least.
Snail GamesSuzhou, China
Snail Games is a rising star in the Chinese game market, though it's already known for games like Heroes of Gaia and Ministry of War. While most Chinese game companies and portals are linked to larger electronics giants (Tencent is a huge Internet provider, for example), Snail is a game developer through and through. Most recently, the company has been putting its new title Age of Wulin (Age of Wushu in North America) through the paces in Chinese betas.
Though the game itself is interesting (if unproven), Snail is more notable for throwing its hat into the game serving and publishing arena, with its Woniu.com portal. Woniu.com is a developer-served portal instead of one that builds on an existing Internet service, which shows that Snail thinks a little differently. While this may sound par for the course in the Western markets, in China, where your capability to serve games online is contingent on your relationship with the government, this is no small feat.
ThatgamecompanyLos Angeles, California
Thatgamecompany never ceases to amaze us, partially because it makes emotionally evocative, experimental games, and partially because it manages to build a successful business in doing so. Case in point is Journey, thatgamecompany's early 2012 release that walked players through a roughly 2-hour sojourn of discovery, camaraderie, sorrow, and joy -- and broke sales records to become the fastest-selling PlayStation Network title to date.
Journey's most notable design element is the behind-the-scenes multiplayer matchmaking function, which simply slips another player into your game, without any acknowledgment whatsoever, as long as you're logged into PSN. With another player, you can travel through Journey much more quickly, but your interaction is limited to a button that lets you "chirp" at each other -- you can't even see the other player's PSN handle until you finish the game. The end result is arguably one of the most engaging "art" games to date (and certainly the most civil multiplayer game ever).
And now that Journey marks the last title in thatgamecompany's three-game exclusive contract with Sony, we're excited to see what current and former thatgamecompany devs have on their horizons.
When thechineseroom debuted its Half-Life 2 mod Dear Esther in 2007, the U.K.-based indie team took some real risks in interactive storytelling. The game featured almost no interactivity and simply let players explore a lonely world fueled by an ambiguous, enigmatic narrative.
In 2012, the studio re-created Dear Esther as a full-fledged retail release and further pushed the boundaries of interactive storytelling by presenting an atmospheric, almost ethereal environment that has no true equal anywhere else. With this title, thechineseroom showcased the power of a well-realized virtual world. Without characters, goals, or even real interactivity, the game managed to create an emotional experience that communicates everything through its aesthetic and style.
Sure, Dear Esther might not qualify as a "game" in the traditional sense, but thechineseroom's approach to aesthetic design should serve as a lesson for developers in all genres and disciplines. And considering it managed to turn a profit within six hours of its Steam release, Dear Esther might have some business lessons to teach, as well.