Presenting Gamasutra's Top 10 game developers of 2013.
For 2013, we're kicking off our year-end video game roundups with perhaps our most important annual list: The Top 10 Game Developers.
Like our selections from previous years, recognition on this list isn't necessarily just
about who made a good game in 2013. Rather, these are the developers and studios that left their mark on this year in some shape or form -- the leaders that the industry will be watching in the years ahead.
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.
If you ask Michael Brough
what he does, he might not tell you that he's a video game developer -- he may just tell you he's an artist
Looking at Brough's catalog of games, from the take-one-step-per-day ritualistic genius of Vesper.5
to this year's cerebral roguelike 868-HACK
, arguing against Brough's artistry would be difficult. Brough's games have a mathematical complexity and exactitude about them, but the execution conveys an artistic, sometimes abstract vision. As the sole creator of these games, he's the author, and his games speak to each person who plays them. Every choice he makes as a designer has a purpose, and every choice that he offers his audience does, too.
Of course these days, the lone developer making games is a common scenario, but it's the unmatched level of complexity, purity and clarity in Brough's games that put him in a category of his own. This year's 868-HACK
only confirmed Brough's high level of talent and thoughtfulness, which he's been exhibiting over the past years.
Back in 2011, when Fullbright Company
's first game, Gone Home
, was nominated as a finalist in the Independent Games Festival, studio co-founder Steve Gaynor told us
, "Basically, I was a level designer and writer in triple-A for a long time, and now I'm doing an indie thing where hopefully the experience will prove to be useful."
Fast forward two years later to Gone Home
's 2013 release, and Fullbright's efforts have proven useful not only to the three triple-A expats who founded the studio, but also to fellow game developers and designers who care about how games and narrative intertwine.
Fullbright's first title expertly leveraged the interactive power of video games, and through logical game design problem-solving, successfully took on the complicated subject of young love. The studio may have only released one game so far, but Gone Home
's supremely-executed player-led environmental storytelling will prove to be a blueprint for game designers to study in the years to come.
GungHo Online Entertainment
According to Tokyo-based developer GungHo
, its top mobile game, Puzzle & Dragons
, was making around $3.76 million a day this past April. That's a staggering figure, as are its 20 million-plus downloads, which represents over 10 percent of Japan's population. Its profits took an astounding jump.
Game developers can get squeamish when you talk about money. Many are driven by creativity, not commercial success, but success like this has an impact that is hardly limited to generating cash. Puzzle & Dragons
will not just be imitated; it will also be analyzed and used as a model for game mechanics, marketing and more.
This kind of money has effects on other studios, too; Grasshopper Manufacture, the well-known and beloved studio responsible for games like No More Heroes
, was snapped up by GungHo
, no doubt with Puzzle & Dragons
cash -- a "have your cake and eat it too" moment for anyone who likes the artsy side of the industry. The company -- along with its majority shareholder SoftBank -- also acquired 51 percent
of Finnish Clash of Clans
In essence, Puzzle & Dragons
and GungHo represent the next phase in the evolution of mobile megahit studios and the business that surrounds them. The bloated, churn-to-the-next-game approach of Zynga has given way to massively successful games carefully tended by studios that are laser-focused on keeping them at the forefront of their players' consciousness. This tie-up also represents a shift from the gold rush, land-grab craze of the mobile games market to a fortress-building mentality.
It's inspiring to think of game development in a broader way. The idea that game design is bigger than commercial technology -- that it can mean the creation and development of human play, assisted, sometimes, by technology -- should be part of anyone's great pitch for why games are an expressive, relevant 21st-century medium.
's main idea was that game design can be for everyone, can be public, physical, shareable, spontaneous. This year the company successfully raised funds and released its Tiny Games
app, a multitudinous collection of instructions for little analog, in-person games anyone could play anywhere.
Yet despite all the good news and positive trends out of the studio, it announced at the end of this year it would be shutting its doors
-- knowing such an announcement would come as a surprise to people who'd watched Hide&Seek's success.
We've written lots of stories this year about folk games, public installations, the rise of local multiplayer and numerous other trends that seem designed to refocus game design on intimacy, in-person experiences, and the pure, uncynical definition of game design as experience design
. If that objective is unsustainable even for one of the companies most eagerly leading that conversation, though, what might that mean for the rest of us? It's tough to think about.
Somehow during this console generation our expectations of a triple-A game's vision have become relatively narrow. You will probably be a Man With A Past; in between running, gunning and takedowns you will uneasily negotiate your relationship with some other character (current trend: a complicated younger woman, because game dev fatherhood).
We're accustomed to promises about Deep Mature Storytelling, and are similarly accustomed to a reality where the promises don't materialize. Something doesn't quite work. It's easy to start to think that probably the common fantasy whereby a commercial video game could end up being at least as good as an HBO series is unreasonable and ought to be abandoned.
It cannot be easy to have to develop console games in a market that expects certain things: The man who runs-and-guns, the complicated partner. The zombies. Yet with The Last of Us
, Naughty Dog
created an important proof: It's possible to take on this mandate lovingly, and in a fashion that doesn't make your audience feel like duped children.
It's not that it's a perfect video game: It's just that it understands what subtlety is
, posits a world where nuance is attainable by triple-A games. The core relationship at the core of The Last of Us
is less about garden-variety heroism and more about the complexities of codependency. Naughty Dog takes its audience seriously, as best the market allows, and in so doing suggests a world where more big games might be able to do that.
For fighting the console wars by actually developing software, Nintendo makes the list. That's a flippant way to put it (and yes, we realize that "Nintendo" comprises multiple studios), but in terms of executing on the promise of its platforms and the potential of its franchise legacy, Nintendo had a fantastic year as a truly well oiled first party development organization.
Fire Emblem Awakening
and Animal Crossing: New Leaf
took their respective franchises to new heights of popularity and made the 3DS, at last, a must-buy system. Pokemon X
, meanwhile, marked the series' change to full 3D without a misstep. And these are just the standout titles in a year of strong games.
But it is Nintendo's signature franchises that are a measure of its development health. Super Mario 3D World
unquestionably demonstrates the vivacity of the IP in the way the last couple of installments simply could not; it synthesizes the franchise's entire 28-year history into a game that looks forward. Meanwhile, The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds
bridges the gap between the series history and its future smoothly and seamlessly.
The Wii U may be struggling, but as a video game developer, the company is obviously operating with clockwork precision, and a culture of quality runs across Nintendo's studios. With two pieces of hardware, its toughest competition may be itself: So many good games came out for the 3DS this year, do you really need a Wii U to enjoy Nintendo games?
To varying degrees, every triple-A video game studio wants to be Rockstar North
. In 2013, the Grand Theft Auto
developer managed to singlehandedly argue the mainstream relevance of expansive, high-budget video games with just one title, at a time when the video game industry is very much in a state of flux. It may all be mobile games this, and free-to-play that, but Rockstar sort of gave a shrug, ignored everyone else, went down its tried and true path, and reaped $1 billion in sales in just three days.
Of course, the game we're talking about is Grand Theft Auto V
-- a title that, when released in September, managed to pull the UK's video game industry out of a four-year retail sales decline all on its own. But it wasn't just the vast sales of GTA V
that made Rockstar worthy of praise this year. From the design possibilities of open-world games, to the stinging topic of violence in games, to the communities that build up around big blockbusters, GTA V
wasn't making a statement about the culture we live in as much it was giving the world a platform to talk about
the culture we live in.
There are a few high-profile individuals in game development we may point to as public speakers and advocates for the medium. Of those, Wizardry
developer Brenda Romero
is almost certainly the most eloquent, and undeniably the most passionate. In 2013, she reminded us of the reasons we create and play -- losing sight of that signals the death knell of an art form.
Romero doesn't make this list because of a game she released this year, but because of her words. From her vibrant and pointed speech delivered at March's Game Developers Conference in San Francisco to her design talks at IndieCade in October and GDC Next in November, to listen to Romero speak is to fall in love with the art and craftsmanship of games as she does; to believe in their exquisite possibilities to elevate the spirit; to admire games as existing within a larger ecosystem of human creativity.
If you haven't yet, we highly recommend you swing by this video from March's #1ReasonWhy panel at GDC
and the GDC Vault
for even more great videos from one of game development's brightest.
Often, standouts on the mobile market are determined by consistent economic success. It's more rare that they're defined by consistent quality, though -- and rarer still that incredible refinement is also accompanied by wild innovation. It's not just that Simogo
has a history of consistently releasing high-quality mobile games, it's that those mobile games couldn't exist on any other platform, fully-leveraging the devices in playful ways.
That's really the only defining mark of a Simogo game, though: clever, experimental, vivid and innovative. This year the studio released two games: eerie folk-horror Year Walk
and sleek, surrealist 1960s spy narrative Device 6
. Both are incredibly sophisticated works, drawing their primary influences from outside of games, yet still being inventive about what players can do with touch inputs.
The versatility, consistent quality and relatively-brisk release pace is even more impressive when you learn Simogo's design team is really only two people (Simon Flesser and Gordon Gardeback pull in musicians or other writers occasionally). With Year Walk
and Device 6
, this year Simogo has set the bar for iOS innovation quite high.
As other similarly-sized studios collapsed, Volition
has managed to carve out a niche for itself with its series of self-referential sandbox games, Saints Row
. With the release of 2013's Saints Row IV
, Volition took the free-wheeling experimentation of the franchise to a new level, becoming a critique of so-called "open-world" game design while also taking potshots at Call of Duty, Mass Effect, The West Wing, Pleasantville
and whatever else came into its line of sight.
But even more than that, buried within the games of Volition is an appetite for deconstruction we seldom find outside of garage kit indies. What other studio of over 200 staff do you know of would release a DLC that contained, among other things, half-finished animatics and live-action puppetry in service for cutscenes? What other studio do you know of would, in the same financial quarter as Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto V
with its breathless appeal for verisimilitude in the simulation, deliver a game like Saints Row IV
, for which destabilizing any semblance of realism is the point
? By opting for the role of court jester, disavowing any pretense to serious commentary, Volition has positioned itself to deliver some of the smartest design critique we're likely to find within the "triple-A" games industry.