For Gamasutra's writers, 2019 was a year that laid the groundwork for absolute incredulity by the time we were putting together our end of year writeups.
That is, we simply couldn't believe certain significant things happened as recently as January 1, 2019.
"Apex Legends...that launched this year...?"
*Everyone Googles to verify.*
"Yup, wow, that was 2019."
After thinking about it for a bit, 2019 was such a phantom of a year because of its pace. 2019 was a relentless firehose of great games and significant accomplishments. And behind all them were outstanding developers, some of whom we want to recognize here.
As always, our annual top 10 list of game developers isn't necessarily made up of devs that made the “best games,” or the most financially successful (although that doesn’t hurt anyone’s chances of making the list). These are the developers and studios that left their mark on this year in a meaningful way, shaping the art and business of making games.
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.
2019 started off with the news that Bungie had acquired the full publishing rights to its game Destiny 2 from now former publisher Activision, the first of many headlines Bungie would make throughout the year as it began to overhaul elements of the game, speak candidly about new changes, and discuss work-life balance at the studio.
Many changes to hit Destiny 2 itself following the split revolved around creating more meaningful in-game gear customization and building out the new, free-to-play flavor of the base game. Others focused on overhauling monetization through changes to its premium cosmetics store and the introduction of a battle pass paired with a new, more seasonal content plan. In these areas, Bungie has favored a transparent approach to explaining changes to its players through regular livestream or remarkably in-depth blogs like game director Luke Smith’s Directors Cut series.
Throughout all of this, Bungie continued to host regular charity events through its Bungie Foundation arm (the latest raising $1.6 million). In just the latter half of the year, Bungie turned its sights toward a future filled with new franchises, a bolstered publishing group, and a Destiny 2 that matches the vision the studio has always had for the live game, showing Bungie is committed to thriving and not just surviving in its new post-Activision world. - Alissa McAloon
Capcom’s has consistently managed to breathe new life into its classic series, so much so that the games are able to reach new audiences and old fans alike.
2019 saw Capcom’s launch of Devil May Cry 5, a release that came over a decade after the last numbered game in the Devil May Cry series (skipping over Ninja Theory’s 2013 reimagined reboot) and made for a stylish return to form for the series. After giving Monster Hunter a similar revitalization in 2018, the following year saw Capcom continuing that momentum with its Iceborne expansion (both a top earner on Steam as a whole and a driving force in Capcom’s recent financial reports).
The Resident Evil 2 remake from this year is arguably the game that fuels my argument for Capcom as a standout developer of 2019; the game brings the PlayStation 1 classic to the modern generation, improving and altering where needed to mesh with modern games, but keeping the spirit, story, and creeping horror of the revered classic title alive.
Already, the game has sold over 5 million copies and a similar remake for Resident Evil 3 is slated to arrive in 2020. While Capcom has been on a roll for the past few years, 2019 shows Capcom’s expertise at thoughtfully revitalizing its legacy franchises, so much so that its recent success has the company considering a similar treatment for other dormant IP down the line. - Alissa McAloon
The Coalition’s Gears 5 is an incredibly beautiful game by any standard but what’s especially eye catching about the most recent entry in the Gears of War series is the wide breadth of accessibility options that The Coalition built directly into the game itself. While more and more video games are starting to include robust accessibility options, The Coalition (with the help of parent company Microsoft’s Gaming for Everyone division) went above and beyond even those rising standards.
The studio held an inclusive design sprint in 2017 to learn from players with disabilities and accessibility experts about their experiences and where video games could stand to improve subtitle, camera, audio, and control options to meet the needs of more players. In Gears 5, those attentive conversations manifest as customizable subtitles that detail musical cues from the soundtrack alongside other sound effects and dialogue landing the game a perfect deaf accessibility score from Can I Play That?, a fully remappable controller scheme (including trigger remapping) that opens the game up to single-handed play as well as full use of the Xbox Adaptive Controller, and options for players sensitive to gore or excessive screen shake to customize their experience and remove barriers that might have otherwise made Gears 5 unplayable for them.
The Coalition made it a point to focus on accessibility early on, think of those options as more than just a niche set of settings, and commit to conversations with its community to learn what changes can best serve players’ individual needs, setting an example for the rest of the industry in the process. - Alissa McAloon
For years, the developer of Pokemon has seemed like a Game Freak on a leash. Like most teams in charge of long-running franchises, the Pokemon masters have had to balance demand for innovation in each new game with the very real baggage of systems (and Pokemon) designed 20+ years ago.
This year we watched Game Freak change things up in a big way with the release of Pokemon Sword and Shield, which both introduced novel mechanics and new content while simultaneously being the first mainline games in the franchise to not support the import (via data transfer) of all 800+ Pokemon.
It was a bold choice, and the company was punished for it; self-described Pokemon fans gathered on social media and message boards to stoke outrage over these new games, with some going so far as to harass Game Freak staff with death threats as part of an ill-defined (and badly-branded) “Dexit” campaign.
This harassment began despite clear statements from the dev team that indefinite support for all Pokemon was never guaranteed, and it continued even as the games shipped and reviewers praised them for streamlining and innovating on many of the series’ core mechanics.
For facing a taste of the worst behavior a fanbase can offer in an effort to make the best of a new generation of Pokemon games on a new console, we recognize Game Freak as one of our top developers of 2019. - Alex Wawro
Yes, House House released a game about a goose this year. Yes, that game, Untitled Goose Game, sold 1 million units in three months. But is that enough to get House House on Gamasutra's devs of the year list? I can only reply with a resounding "HONK."
House House might seem like it made a game that was an overnight success, but a lot of people don't realize--or flat-out forget--that the studio also made the charming and wonderful Push Me Pull You, which was actually much stranger a game than the one about a nameless, terrible goose. The point is that House House has been working on its craft for a long time, and Untitled Goose Game is just the culmination of years of work and ideas of a small group of developers committed to whimsy and wonder.
There's also the business and marketing success of Untitled Goose Game that is impossible to ignore. This game is a meme machine whose concept, design, and aesthetic are highly conducive to virality. That virality got House House a publisher, and it got them to 1 million sold. It's one of the most modern and best examples of a game marketing itself.
If you closely follow the game development world, you may know about the tweet from House House's Michael McMaster that included screenshots of a team joking around about making a game about a goose. Welp, I guess House House showed the game dev world what you can do with a fowl joke. - Kris Graft
When creating our annual top game developers lists, during deliberations we emphasize the idea that the ones who qualify should ideally have done more than "merely" release an excellent game. That said, Mobius Digital makes the list because by sheer force of will it birthed one of the best games in recent memory into existence.
It was a long time coming--the brilliant game Outer Wilds started out several years ago as a master's project by Alex Beachum, who was later brought on board to Mobius to finish Outer Wilds as co-director along with a small team of ambitious and imaginative people whose heads must be up beyond the clouds. While the idea for Outer Wilds didn't originate within the walls of Mobius, the studio had the foresight to see the value of the concept early in development, and nurture it from both a creative and financial standpoint so it would see the light of day (and in turn, see many accolades).
Mobius Digital has in effect used Outer Wilds as a vehicle to convey the studio's core values, among which is to create games with emotional impact and also ones that encourage exploration and inspire curiosity. This year, Mobius Digital showed how mechanics can perfectly serve narrative (and vice versa), how meaningful companionship can still exist within ambivalent universe, and how small teams with galaxy-sized ideas can execute their vision and offer to the world something unforgettable. - Kris Graft
Founded and driven by Ziba Scott, Boston indie Popcannibal has produced an eclectic variety of games over the past decade. Standout releases like Girls Like Robots and collaborations like Elegy for a Dead World have given Popcannibal a foothold in a variety of markets, but it’s this year’s remarkable Kind Words that earns the studio a place among our top devs of the year.
As mentioned in our article rounding up some of the top games of the year, what Popcannibal has built in Kind Words is a striking leap of faith in games and the people who play them. A simple game of writing and answering letters about worries and fears, Kind Words trusts each player to treat other players with empathy and respect. In doing so it smashes through one of the thorniest issues in multiplayer systems development, combatting our tendency to dehumanize others online by literally bringing us face to face with their most human concerns.
In a year fraught with global discord Popcannibal released a game that trusts players to be vulnerable, and to respect each others’ vulnerabilities. It reminds us of the good that passionate, close-knit communities of people can do for each other, and for that we celebrate Popcannibal among our top devs of the year. - Alex Wawro
Respawn Entertainment has had a banner year, not only releasing a standout entry in the Battle Royale genre with Apex Legends, but also rallying its resources to make a standout single-player adventure with Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order. Both games show off the incredible mechanical polish that the studio's become known for, and showcase how a studio can grow and adapt to meet the challenges of live games while also maintaining traditional development practices.
But Respawn also deserves acclaim for making a public commitment this year to try and maintain the work-life balance of its employees while developing for one of the hungriest audiences in game existence. At GamesBeat Summit in April, CEO Vince Zampella explained that the company would be sticking to seasonal updates, and not chase Fortnite's weekly updates, in order to maintain the health of the team. 2019 saw some growing pains for Respawn on this path, but its willingness to publicly commit to these quality-of-life goals stands just as strong as the games it's released. - Bryant Francis
Riot Games workers
This year the employees of Riot Games made headlines by organizing one of the largest walkouts in game industry history. For that, we feel the staff at Riot deserve to be applauded, even as leadership at the studio itself has apparently failed to meet their needs.
Over a hundred people walked out of work at Riot in May to protest (among other things) the company’s policy of including forced arbitration clauses in employee contracts. The policy came under fire after Riot used it to settle with two employees who filed a class action lawsuit alleging gender-based discrimination, and while the walkout pushed Riot into making a show of removing forced arbitration clauses from new employee contracts, at last report the company still maintains them for existing staff.
Nevertheless, as we step into 2020 it’s important to recognize the progress that Riot has made, and the work still to be done. That progress was achieved solely because individual Rioters were willing to make a public stand, at great risk to their careers and personal lives, to demand better working conditions. For that and more, we celebrate the workers of Riot Games and their contributions to the game industry this year. - Alex Wawro
To debut with a creative work like Disco Elysium is an extreme rarity. And note that I say "creative work" because Disco Elysium is a resounding artistic feat regardless of medium. ZA/UM's game is unsettling, absurd, hilarious, and oftentimes "too real" in its lurid depictions of addiction, racism, and existential self-awareness. There's a twisted joy in experiencing ZA/UM's world; you don't want to live there but it tugs at our appetite for interactive voyeurism so we keep subjecting ourselves to the desperation in the games' narrative as it's the only way to experience the hilarious "what the fuck" moments that surprise players throughout.
That may sound dismal, but underlying the desperation that bleeds through the game's world is a moral compass, a disdain for elitism, and an opportunity to forego cynicism and instead weave some empathy into a broken world.
This kind of work can only be done by a group of creators that sees itself less than a game studio and more of an artistic movement. You may think that sounds pretentious but it only would be if the results weren't there to back up such a claim. The intricate world-building of Disco Elysium, derived from years of tabletop RPG development and novels by the game's lead developer Robert Kurvitz, will influence and be studied by current and future game makers. In that sense, what ZA/UM has done is pay it forward, making something that is a wonderfully unique amalgamation of their own influences and attitudes that will certainly inspire other great work that has yet to exist. - Kris Graft