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.
Bethesda Game Studios
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.
Davey Wreden, Everything Unlimited, Ltd.
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.
Tale of Tales
Belgium’s Tale of Tales, made up of Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn, is one of the most influential game developers in existence. And by the studio’s own account, it is no longer a game developer.
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.
Here, Gamasutra editor-in-chief Kris Graft takes a look at the trends that shaped the video game business in 2015.
The game industry in 2015 had just about the usual amount of hope, despair, order, chaos, fear, courage, optimism, and pessimism as most any other year in the past four decades of video games. In other words, the business of games was interesting as ever.
2015 was a year that saw (another) major market shift, and new technology gaining big momentum. Here are the top five trends that defined the year.
Valve pushes for the living room PC, as industry looks on
Valve’s intention to invade living rooms with PC-based devices has been apparent for years now—it was all the way back in September 2013 when the company announced Steam Machines, which would be the solution for the living room-based PC game experiences.
But it was just over the course of 2015 that we saw the culmination of everything Valve has been talking about over the past couple of years: the vision of a standardized controller (Steam Controller), in-home streaming (Steam Link), and an overall family room-friendly experience (Steam Machine launch, significant evolution of Big Picture Mode).
There are some risks to being a trendsetter such as Valve. The Steam living room experience is mixed, and still a work in progress. It's hard to tell if Valve can expand its audience, or simply invest in an existing one. For other game companies, a push into the living room would be more of a big launch event rather than a gradual, drawn out process. But that’s the way Valve does things, and industry watchers will be keeping their eyes on the company’s efforts in 2016 and beyond.
Entrenched mobile games
Have you checked the top grossers on mobile storefronts lately? Looks familiar right? That’s because the top-grossing charts have been quite static over the course of 2015, when top mobile game companies and their games have dug in and, with much success, fended off competitors. That’s good for the leaders—not so good for other companies wanting to break into the top.
Just how static are the charts? Here’s a chart from SuperData outlining U.S. iOS App Store revenues, comparing Black Friday 2014 with Black Friday 2015:
There’s a little movement there, but you get the picture: the odds are against you if you want to launch an honest-to-goodness, sustained hit in mobile games. But fortunately, as unforgiving as the market is, most game devs don’t have to make the top-grossing list for mobile game development to be worthwhile.
Democratization of players as entertainers, players as viewers
Streaming games and Let’s Plays have been easily identifiable trends in games for the past couple years, but in 2015, the ease of streaming and recording tech reached a turning point that democratized a movement that made players performers—and passive viewers—of games.
This ease and popularity of streaming and recording is thanks to a number of advancements in accessibility of the tech, from mobile streaming offerings like Mirrativ to the wider availability of Twitch apps. That’s not to mention an install base of tens of millions of current-gen consoles that make streaming games and uploading videos as easy as pushing a button, or the advent of Steam broadcasting.
The trend will continue to build speed for the foreseeable future. YouTube jumped into the fray with its YouTube Gaming platform, adding to the momentum, and just recently eSports company Azubu announced a major investment to help it take on Twitch and other streaming competitors. For developers, this phenomenon means new opportunities to market, develop, and design games. And more eyeballs on video games is good for the business.
The future of virtual reality firmed up in 2015, with more impressive displays of practical application in video games. This year, we saw the technology transition from last year’s “ok, that’s interesting” to more people—like me—being convinced that this is something that can truly serve video games creatively and commercially.
A few things left this impression in 2015:
-The demos at GDC for the SteamVR HTC Vive showed what VR looks like when you pair the highest-end tech with the best talent. Read my impressions of that here.
-The Samsung Gear VR is less talked about compared to its higher-end cohorts, but this mobile-based form factor has excellent potential for putting VR in front of a true mass market. Mobile VR responds to arguments against the practicality of VR (you use it in a chair, it’s portable, it’s inexpensive, and there’s already a lot of content available), and it’s also for sale right now, along with some truly standout game applications.
-PlayStation VR has a lot of support from major game companies. With 30 million-plus PlayStation 4s on the market, one has to wonder if this will be the breakout VR platform for “core” players.
What VR also is doing is creating a new marketplace; in other words, it's an open, fertile ground for refugees of the dreaded (see below)...
INDIEPOCALYPSE (capitalized for dramatic effect)
We all knew it was going to happen. Major marketplaces became flooded with games, revenues went down, budgets got cut. There was flash of light, then the shockwave, then the heat, which melted your face off as a final thought skipped across the wrinkles of your brain: “Welp, indiepocalypse.”
Whether or not you agree that the “indie bubble” burst in 2015 (there are arguments both ways about the true extent of the ‘pocalypse), the fact remains that this has been something on game developers' minds over the past several months.
An unidentified indie game developer
What’s happened is that many of the things so many people desired had finally arrived—namely, more open marketplaces, more accessible development tools, and better (potential) access to a wide consumer base. The industry got its wish, and in 2015, the marketplaces matured, competition intensified, and players’ funds were split amongst many more games.
Over the year, we’ve seen the industry adjust to the ‘pocalypse: there’s a rise of “mini-publishers” that help small games break through the noise, and Steam’s discoverability algorithms have helped put games in front of potential customers, for example. But nothing has yet completely quelled the fear of failure that is at the root of the so-called indiepocalypse.
The market changed over the last year, and we have a new normal. Nothing is guaranteed, there’s no easy solution, and making a living making games remains hard--it probably got a bit harder. But hopefully the reward of making things counts for something. Welcome (once again) to game development!
Gamasutra editor Alex Wawro continues by looking back at some of the biggest events that shaped the industry in 2015.
With days to go until we close the book on 2015, what will you remember most about the year that was?
As the staff of Gamasutra gathered to answer that question, we looked back at the big news of the year and saw a handful of moments that shook the industry in ways too powerful to ignore.
Let’s get a bit more specific and talk about some of the big events that seem likely to shape the course of the industry for years to come.
Activision buys King in a $5.9 billion deal
The game industry runs on money, so when nearly $6 billion of it gets thrown around in a single deal it’s hard not to sit up and take notice. At the same time, the fact that an entrenched console/PC game publisher Activision Blizzard jumped headfirst into the mobile market by acquiring Candy Crush Saga-powered King was a deal so big that, honestly, it can be hard to guess at how it will meaningfully affect the industry in the near future.
But we already have a great example of how the sort of modern mobile game design tricks refined to perfection by companies like King can be meshed with a popular franchise to create a chart-topping, industry-shaping game: Hearthstone.
Activision Blizzard has reportedly seen remarkable revenue from the F2P digital card game, which has buoyed company earnings reports amid the slow, steady decline of company cash cow World of Warcraft and, as CEO Bobby Kotick told investors recently, inspired Activision-Blizzard to "think about [mobile] opportunities differently."
So when it drops a cool $6 billion on a profitable F2P mobile game firm with an established audience Activision Blizzard’s core franchises don’t typically reach, you have to figure that presages big changes for both the mobile and the console markets in the years ahead.
Nintendo strikes a deal with DeNA to go mobile
This year also marked a big mobile shift for Nintendo, but if Activision Blizzard jumped into the market headfirst it’s perhaps more appropriate to mark 2015 as the year Nintendo joined hands with DeNA and cautiously waded into the shallow end of the mobile game business.
Still, even the cautious steps it’s taken by partnering with DeNA and promising to design games and game-like apps for mobile devices is a seismic shift for a company whose leaders decried mobile games in recent years as bad for developers.
Mobile games -- and by extension, mobile game makers -- have long been perceived to be somewhat apart and at odds with their compatriots on console and PC. Nintendo is one of the oldest game companies in the business, and by shifting this year to publicly embrace the mobile market it presages a near future where the rift between platforms is mended -- a future where game designers are encouraged to experiment with new ideas on new platforms.
Ouya is sold for parts
This was the year we shut the book on Ouya and, with it, the promise of a modern-day microconsole that was open to all and (crowd)funded by the people.
And what a promise it was! Ouya was not the first or the last microconsole, but it was certainly the most hyped in recent memory. It’s multi-million dollar success on Kickstarter back in 2012 almost certainly inspired companies like MadCatz, Razer and Nvidia to pour resources into making their own microconsoles, which makes it all the more remarkable that Razer came full-circle and bought out Ouya’s brand and talent in an all-cash deal earlier this year.
For all its promise, Ouya was dogged by problems from the day it launched -- from bad hardware design to a lukewarm adoption rate and a “Free the Games” developer fund that seemed to be backed by the best of intentions but wound up stiffing many developers out of payments they’d been promised.
The fact that Razer seems to have stepped in and proposed to make good on those debts in a cash-now-for-games-later deal suggests that maybe something better will rise from the ashes of Ouya’s demise.
The former Ouya developers who are now likely part of Razer’s own microconsole efforts don’t have the warm fuzzy feeling of working on a much-hyped open platform, but maybe that’s okay -- as a number of experts suggested to Gamasutra earlier this year, maybe the dream of Ouya was never really that feasible in the first place. Now that the Ouya is dead in all but name, maybe the talent that built it will have the opportunity to make something better in the years ahead.
The Feds crack down on YouTubers
The rise of the YouTuber is neither a particularly new nor singular event -- we've published a slew of articles in the past few years charting how the broadcasting platform continues to shape the game industry -- but in 2015 the Federal Trade Commission acknowledged the influence of YouTubers through two important events.
By laying out strict, specific guidelines for how broadcasters on YouTube, Twitch and other services should disclose sponsored videos, the FTC cemented YouTubers' role as influential media personalities and marketing platforms. However, many online broadcasters continue to disregard the FTC's disclosure guidelines.
This was also the year that major YouTuber network Machinima settled with the FTC over charges that Machinima YouTubers had deceived viewers by producing videos endorsing the Xbox One, without disclosing that they were being paid for the videos as part of a Microsoft marketing initiative. Machinima is one of the bigger game-focused YouTube networks in the world, and the fact that its now effectively under probation with the same agency that helps to regulate print media and TV broadcasters is significant.
Nintendo president Satoru Iwata passes away at the age of 55
The untimely passing of Nintendo president and CEO Satoru Iwata in July shook the industry in a rare fashion, and as the year comes to a close we’re still marveling at how the man’s absence is felt by the industry to which he devoted his (working) life.
Most remember Iwata best as one of the leading faces of Nintendo as a company, for good reason: after becoming Nintendo’s fourth president in 2002 he took a very public role in shepherding the launch of the company’s DS and Wii consoles, which succeeded in attracting a broad audience to video games.
Through his Iwata Asks interview series and his appearances in Nintendo Direct videos Iwata made games and game development more approachable, and during his time leading Nintendo he did more than arguably any other executive to humanize the business of making games.
And for game developers, Iwata was something more: a compatriot. As a young man he cut his teeth making games in his free time and, later, as one of the earliest employees at HAL Laboratory. While there he worked on NES classics like Balloon Fight, EarthBound and Kirby’s Adventure; years later, when he’d worked his way up to an executive role, Iwata would still occasionally pitch in to help ship games like Pokemon Stadium and Super Smash Bros.
All of these accomplishments make Iwata’s passing this year at the age of 55 that much more impactful: he died so young, and with such a remarkable list of accomplishments, that we have to wonder what he might have done with more time. The game industry lost a lot of good people in 2015, and Satoru Iwata’s passing is one of many that will be felt in the years to come.
Here then are Gamasutra's Top 10 Games of 2015.
Last year, Gamasutra abandoned an overall "best games" list in favor of presenting a comprehensive list comprising the picks of every editor contributing to the site that time. But this year we've brought back a select 10, as hashed out by the staff. Why?
Because it matters, essentially. We looked back at what we'd done in years past, and found that our criteria from that far-flung year of 2010 still hold sway over us: “the games that will remain in our memories as having defined the year for technical sophistication, storytelling, innovation, and pure intangible experience value.” Selecting a handful of games that stand above the rest says something.
Here they are, listed by title in alphabetical order -- not ranked. The commentary is taken from our individual contributors' write-ups, and you'll find links to those at the end of this list.
Bloodborne by From Software
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Much was written this year about how satisfying it can be to throw yourself against Bloodborne’s arcane systems until you master them, so I’ll try not to belabor the point here. Bloodborne just works for me, in much the same way From’s Souls games do, though with some significant change-ups in its core design that I really appreciated.
By designing smart new systems like the vampiric health-regain mechanic while eliminating (or at least drastically toning down) established safety nets (think: blocking and magic) Bloodborne’s developers made something more approachable than the Souls games that simultaneously forced series fans to master new ways of overcoming challenges within a familiar framework. They drove me out of a comfort zone, and I loved it.
Someone made Abraham Lincoln, Bloodborne hunter, because of course they would
There’s also a welcome tinge of the surreal coloring Bloodborne that I wish was more commonly explored in big-budget game design. Bloodborne reminds me of surreal fiction (think: Murakami novels) in a really good way. As I returned to this game throughout the year there were moments where elements of Bloodborne's design turned in a way that caused me to question my own perceptions of what was (within the game, at least) real and true.
I loved Dark Souls partly because it was designed to feel like a real place, with each area connecting to the rest in a way that seemed believable and real. I love Bloodborne partly because it seems surreal by design, with creatures and paths subtly shifting and changing in a way that made me question whether I’d ever really seen them before. - Alex Wawro
Downwell by Ojiro “moppin” Fumoto
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Downwell is the tightest piece of design on this list. It’s a small game, it’s focused, procedurally generated, and highly mechanical. It involves jumping down a well, fighting not only against enemies (you know…bats…blobs…frogs…), but interestingly, the force of gravity itself. Downwell gives players a few tools to steer that force—a left button, a right button, some boots that shoot bullets—but the constant, invisible pull toward the center of the Earth always wins. It’s the player’s job to manage that pull without dying, and that adds a sense of urgency that few platformers can claim.
The foundation of Downwell—the verticality of the levels, the pull of gravity, and the shooty boots—are supplemented by other impressively-considered systems that feed into an already excellent game: Shops make you think hard about where you ought to spend your hard-earned gems, and enemy behaviors cause you completely change your strategy at a split-second’s notice, for example.
We’re going to be hearing more about Downwell in 2016, and rightfully so, as it heads to other platforms. The game is an achievement in design, and considering this is the first commercial release for Ojiro “moppin” Fumoto, we may have more to be excited about in the future. - Kris Graft
Fallout 4 by Bethesda Game Studios
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
There are only two real certainties in life. The first? That Bethesda will release a game absolutely dripping in bugs, and the second? That we’ll all fall head over heels in love with it anyway.
Fallout 4 meets both of those expectations, but this year Bethesda made the curious choice to shake up its tried and tested formula, tightening up the shooting mechanics, putting a greater emphasis on action and narrative, and, in what was perhaps the biggest change of all, adding a deep crafting system that allows players to literally reshape the wasteland.
I know, it’s difficult to call any decision made by a developer as big as Bethesda “brave”, but after the success of Fallout 3 any changes ran the risk of alienating long-time fans and newcomers alike.
Instead, they slotted in seamlessly (although the main quest was lacking at times), and now I can’t imagine a Fallout game without them.
Whereas before I would’ve spent my time completing quests, but largely ignoring the intimate details of the world around me, now I can’t help but be drawn to each nook and cranny, like a true post-apocalyptic scavenger, searching for every desk fan, telephone, and used oil canister I can find to help me reshape the Boston wastes in my own image.
Those new additions mean the world of Fallout is now richer than ever, and when you consider the level of depth present in Bethesda games from days gone by, that really is saying something. - Chris Kerr
Her Story by Sam Barlow
Games can be many, many things. Somewhere on that vast spectrum rests “interactive drama”, the sort of ideal video game you can quickly rattle off to acquaintances as an example of where the medium shines. Games can be just as affecting, just as entertaining as a great work of film or television, you say; the only difference is, you get to actually play a part in a great game.
Her Story is like a great TV drama you get to be part of. Sam Barlow’s writing is excellent. Viva Seifert’s performance is sublime. The way the game's design presents both to you in chunks that can typically be pieced together in an hour or two, yet allows plenty of room for brilliant bits of deduction or intuition, is fantastic.
Playing through it, I felt trusted as a player. I felt as though the game was designed with faith that I would find my own reasons for playing through it, and my own conclusions from the story I eventually pieced together. I can’t be sure if that feeling was what Barlow intended, but it was a welcome one. - Alex Wawro
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain by Kojima Productions
Publisher: Konami Entertainment
I have a lot of problems with The Phantom Pain. The writing, the character design, the online multiplayer component and the monetization systems leave a lot to be desired. But when I look back over a year that saw a surprising number of great open-world games released, it's still The Phantom Pain that I remember most fondly.
For all its flaws, Kojima Productions' final project under Konami's banner is a fantastic example of how a big team can augment and improve upon an established franchise with contemporary design elements while keeping the core game's unique strengths intact.
Audio logs. Base-building. Sidequests. Companions. Crafting. Fast travel -- sort of. Name a well-regarded element of modern game design, and there's probably a tailored version of it built into The Phantom Pain. Yet the final product feels of a piece with previous Metal Gear games, building upon their weaknesses without obscuring the idiosyncracies -- from overblown cinematics and hyper-dramatic twists to megalomaniacs piloting giant robots -- that have become the series' calling cards.
It's not quite as systems-rich as I'd like (then, again I was a fan of Snake Eater and its hunger/injury mechanics) but I'm hard-pressed to think of a game this year that better communicates, through mechanics alone, the feel of being a lone soldier in a hostile wilderness.
I've met a few people at parties this year who worried that Japanese game development has become somehow stagnant, outmoded, and too inward-facing to succeed in a global game industry. I don't think that's true: The Phantom Pain is an outstanding example of craftmanship and attention to detail in big-budget game design, and it stands alongside other 2015 releases like Splatoon, Bloodborne, Xenoblade Chronicles X and Downwell as a sterling example of both the scope and skill of modern Japanese game developers. - Alex Wawro
Rocket League by Psyonix
Probably on a few end-of-year lists, Rocket League is an unlikely idea -- soccer with cars -- polished to within an inch of its life. As a direct result of that, it’s some of the most fun I’ve had playing a game in years.
There are probably a lot of subtle reasons why the Rocket League works, many derived from the fact that this is a second-generation car soccer game (?!) But an easy automatching service, solid online play (after demand-related glitches early on!), and carefully designed arenas that maximize the ‘ball bouncing just in front of goal’ are just a few of them.
It came as a surprise to me that there’s so much high-level play in the game as well. But that’s yet another sign that this unlikely sport is here to stay -- if it’s fun for clunky neophytes like me, and still fun for thousand-hour veterans. It’s turned what could be stereotyped as a "silly physics" game into a long-lasting eSport -- a surprising result that Rocket League has joyfully and effortlessly bounced into. - Simon Carless
Splatoon by Nintendo
Every once in a while a game comes along that makes a slight change to a popular formula and reinvents ludic reality in the process. By taking the basic structure and gameplay of competitive FPSes and making a small tweak to the conceit, Nintendo’s Splatoon created a fabulous all-ages multiplayer shooter that is surprisingly nonviolent. The adventures of the adorable squid kids who star in the game has produced a bottomless, purple- and orange-colored well of memes and in-jokes, a small sign of the vibrant fan community the game has produced.
In so many ways, it’s the embodiment of the late, great Satoru Iwata’s mantra: “Above all, video games are meant to just be one thing: Fun for everyone.” Splatoon was a risky new IP for Nintendo but one that has paid off spectacularly well and proven that Nintendo’s accessible, games-for-everyone platform remains as vigorous as it was at the dawn of the Wii era. - Katherine Cross
Super Mario Maker by Nintendo
What's left to say about this game? What probably leaves the biggest impression on me is that it is exactly what it ought to be. How often can you say that?
The developers carefully considered what is essential to the franchise -- and I don't just mean that in terms of, say, gameplay mechanics or popular characters. The question was to fundamentally identify what was key to Mario and then make it accessible to an audience who'd not be playing it, but building with it. That's a crucial distinction.
Not since I was a kid was I able to so deeply enjoy building my own levels in a game -- and that's because of the allure of Mario and the excellence of the toolset working hand-in-hand to provide the best possible platform for your personal platformer. - Christian Nutt
Undertale by Toby Fox
Another much picked end-of-year favorite for 2015, this enchanting one-man Earthbound-ish 2D RPG jaunt stands out for two reasons.
Firstly, its combat system is a clever twist on normal turn-based RPGs. But secondly, and more importantly, Toby Fox’s title is one of the wittiest, best-written games in recent memory. Characters are impeccably well-laid out, the pacing is good -- though gameplay is a tiny bit repetitive on occasion -- and small, brilliant narrative touches are all over the game.
Wait, okay, I guess there’s more! Thirdly, the soundtrack -- also composed by Fox -- is one of the catchiest in aeons, and has already spawned about a billion YouTube remixes. Fourthly, there’s quite a bit of emotional depth underneath all that wit, and this is reinforced by the multiple ways you can choose to act in the game – from smashing to persuading.
Fifth, the ways you choose to behave in-game triggers some notable gameplay changes -- and different ends to the game. Once you realize this, you’re constantly scanning Undertale for different things you could have done and their effect on the narrative. And the "what if?" factor creeps up and you decide you might want to play over again. And again. And -- bravo, Undertale is the feel-good hit of the year. - Simon Carless
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt by CD Projekt RED
Publisher: CD Projekt
The Witcher 3 isn’t just a set of short stories. It’s a novel, packed with dozens and dozens of short stories around it. While one of Andrejz Saprowski’s books might focus on a central narrative with a few narrative deviations, The Witcher 3 is an open landscape for stories, where the fabled hero Geralt of Rivia can chase down the main plot or roam the countryside in the menial moments we might not see in other adaptations of this character.
The worlds of Skyrim or Fallout might contain some of these "games as a platform" moments, but they’re mostly constructed through environmental clues and left-behind-notes. The Witcher 3 gives the player a chance to become invested in these disconnected threads through dialogue and choice. They can snark, they can ask for more pay, then can offer unneeded advice, or they can just take the job, and become wrapped up in the complicated lives of the people of the Witcher universe.
This isn’t a knock against the game’s main quest -- though I confess I found the constant “you just missed her” of Ciri’s presence in the plot a tad grating after long complicated diversions like the city of Novigrad. But ultimately when I think of my time with The Witcher 3, I think of all the fascinating and unsettling moments that happened when I stepped off the beaten path. Whether it was the final encounter with the Women of the Wood or interviewing witnesses in a murder investigation, The Witcher 3 is most alive when it was flipping through the many stories of Geralt’s life -- not the ones that put him against the darkest forces of the Universe. - Bryant Francis
Hungy for more 2015 best-of love? Gamasutra contributors also each wrote up a personal top-five list -- and you can read them here: Kris Graft, Christian Nutt, Alex Wawro, Simon Carless, Bryant Francis, Katherine Cross, Chris Baker, Chris Kerr, and Brandon Sheffield's unique "most surprising '90s games."