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Our Top 30 Developers: Arrowhead to CD Projekt RED

Editors of Game Developer magazine and Gamasutra teamed up to list our top 30 studios of the last 12 months, honoring those who did something new, different, and better within this dynamic industry.
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. 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.)

Arrowhead Game Studios

Skelleftea, Sweden It's not every day that a group of student developers decides to drop out of school and work full-time on a class project, as Arrowhead Game Studios did with Magicka. But even more than that, Arrowhead gets the nod for taking a disastrous release and turning it into an opportunity to show just how dedicated the team is to its craft. Magicka launched with a lot of bugs, including hardware incompatibilities, networking issues that made internet multiplayer almost impossible, and plenty of show-stopping bugs and hard crashes that made the game experience more frustrating than fun. "Even though the game had so many problems, we had a large amount of gamers playing and loving it. Many expressed their sadness that the game was nearly unplayable," said Arrowhead CEO Johan Pilestedt in a Magicka postmortem for Game Developer's sister publication, Gamasutra. "At that point, we made a split-second decision that we'd patch the game every day for two full weeks, just because we knew that if we had bought a game in that state, we would have expected the same."
Arrowhead gets extra credit for sticking to its guns and creating a game characterized by offbeat humor, chaotic action, and plenty of other design elements that wouldn't normally make it out of focus testing. But it's Arrowhead's insistence on making Magicka work that earned it a spot in our top 30.

Bethesda Game Studios

Rockville, Maryland Bethesda Game Studios game director Todd Howard dropped an amazing statistic during his DICE 2012 keynote: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim had over 10 million players worldwide, and Steam statistics showed PC players had an average play length of over 75 hours. If that Steam average is indicative of the majority of Skyrim players, humanity has collectively spent approximately 85.5 millennia wandering the open world ofSkyrim. Really, that says more about the game than its numerous awards and accolades (which include Game of the Year from the 2012 Game Developers Choice Awards). It's amazing any work got done at game companies around the world, as most of our developer friends were over 100 hours deep into Skyrim within a week.
With Skyrim, Bethesda managed to raise the expectations for open-world role-playing games in almost every facet possible. Skyrim was significantly less buggy at launch than most big RPGs are a year after release, and many of the bugs that were present were funny quirks emerging from the game's system (such as freezing bears and rolling them down a mountainside until they break the game's physics) that turned into unintentional viral advertisements for Skyrim on YouTube. Three months after the game came out, Bethesda even built a modding tool called the Skyrim Creation Kit and released it for free to anyone with a copy of the PC game and a Steam account. More recently, Bethesda added Kinect support for Skyrim, with over 200 voice commands (including dragon shouts, of course). These additions were built during a week-long internal game jam that saw developers concepting everything from new monsters and weapons to rendering techniques and kill-cams. In short, the team at Bethesda not only pushed the boundaries of open-world games but also its own development boundaries, while simultaneously opening up the system a bit to future content creators.

Big Huge Games

Timonium, Maryland Big Huge Games has gone through some big huge changes over the last few years. Its open-world RPG Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning began life as an RTS, and the company changed hands twice during the development process: THQ bought Big Huge in 2008, and then 38 Studios bought it in 2009. This year, not long after the launch of Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, 38 Studios collapsed, sadly bringing Big Huge down with it. The fact that Big Huge Games finished Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning at all is impressive. More impressive is that Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning managed to stand out among a crowd of established fantasy RPGs, such as Skyrim and Dragon Age 2, thanks to its novel combat system and creative involvement from fantasy veteran R.A. Salvatore and comic book legend Todd McFarlane. Finding focus amid the chaos and releasing a quality product puts Big Huge on our list.
Even though Big Huge shuttered when its parent company closed, Gears of War and Unreal Engine house Epic Games announced it would be working with former Big Huge leadership to found a Baltimore-based Epic subsidiary. Best of luck to this talented team.

BioWare Austin

Austin, Texas If finishing an open-world RPG is the game industry equivalent of climbing Mt. Everest, making an MMORPG meant to go toe-to-toe with World of Warcraft must be akin to climbing Everest, finding another Everest-sized mountain on top of Everest, and saying, "Might as well -- we're already here." Developing Star Wars: The Old Republic is impressive for a few reasons. It takes guts to build a subscription-based MMO in a time when free-to-play is the standard for practically everyone but Blizzard and a few other holdouts. It takes even more guts to try to do that with the Star Wars license, considering the previous Star Wars MMO, Star Wars: Galaxies, never quite took off. Star Wars is one of the most beloved science fiction licenses out there, and The Old Republic is quite possibly the most expensive game in development history. The game had more content than all of the other BioWare RPGs combined, after all, so it's easy to see how Star Wars: The Old Republic could have turned into a big-budget unwieldy mess.
Instead, BioWare Austin made a remarkable game that hit 1 million subscribers in the first three days, put an acknowledged dent in World of Warcraft's customer base, and raised the bar for storytelling in online role-playing games. We're keeping a close eye on subscription numbers for this MMORPG, as they did take a notable drop, and BioWare Austin had to endure layoffs. But that doesn't change the fact that, in its first outing, this studio has taken on some of the biggest challenges ever seen in the game industry, and is now a formidable player in the MMORPG space.

Capy Games

Toronto, canada If there is a poster child in the development community for making the games you want to make, it must be Capy. After all, when you're normally working on games like Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes and Critter Crunch, it can be easy to let your quirky iOS "video game-type-thing" fall by the wayside in favor of more dependable projects. But Capy held the line with Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP, which went on to win the Game Developers Choice Award for Best Handheld/Mobile Game of 2012 and Apple's runner-up iPad Game of the Year, among other accolades.
Awards aside, Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery reinvented the classic point-and-click adventure game by cleverly playing to the iPhone/iPad's strengths, wrapping it in decidedly inspired art (by Superbrothers) and sound (by Jim Guthrie), and above all, tossing out pretty much everything we thought we "knew" about game design. Simply finishing a game like that is praiseworthy; that this "niche" title has sold over 350,000 copies to date on the App Store at a comparatively high price ($3 for iPhone, $5 for iPad) is downright inspirational. And considering how Capy's award-winning run-n-gun platformer Super Time Force is coming along, with companies like Microsoft lining up to publish it, we wouldn't be surprised to see Capy show up in a few more best-of lists here and there.

CD Projekt RED

Warsaw, Poland These are days in which a game company's anti-consumer practices can earn it the dubious honor of Most Hated Company in America (as EA did), beating out a bank that was at the center of the recent financial collapse. In that light, CD Projekt RED seems to understand its business model entirely too well: Make games that make people happy, and when something about that game makes people unhappy, fix it so that the people are happy again.
The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings has sold over 1.5 million copies since its initial PC release in May 2011 -- definitely not bad for a relatively obscure developer making a game based on cult series of short stories. What distinguishes CD Projekt RED from other developers, however, is the way it has devoted itself to its fans. When players found that the SecuROM DRM in The Witcher 2 caused the game to perform poorly, the developers pulled it out and made it DRM-free. When the developer built an Enhanced Edition with hours of new gameplay and content, it was offered free to existing buyers instead of sold as a DLC or an expansion pack. Listen up, devs: If you want your game to be given to President Obama when he visits your country, as The Witcher 2 was in Poland, this is what you have to do. Gamasutra will be reprinting the rest of the top 30 over the course of this week.

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