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Gamasutra's Best Of 2011

Another year is ending, and Gamasutra has once again taken a broad look at the ever-expanding face of the industry with a series of articles that identify the games, trends, and companies that have made the biggest impact.

andre.jpgAnother year is ending, and Gamasutra has once again taken a broad look at the ever-expanding face of the industry with a series of articles that identify the games, trends, and companies that have made the biggest impact. 

This mega-article, which comprises all of the text we've already spilled on these topics, contains contributions from Gamasutra's staff and contributors, including Kris Graft, Leigh Alexander, Brandon Sheffield, Simon Carless, Frank Cifaldi, Tom Curtis, Mike Rose, Eric Caoili, Chris Morris, and IndieGames.com's Tim W.

In the following article you will find everything from the biggest surprises, trends, and controversies to our outlook for the most exciting games of 2012 -- and much more besides. And if you have an eye for history (or just want to check our track record) you can revisit Gamasutra's Best of 2010, 2009's 'Top 5s' compilation, plus 2008's similar compendium and 2007's chart rundown.

Top 5 Major Industry Events

The dynamic video game industry never disappoints when it comes to major news events, and in 2011, choosing just five of the most meaningful events was as difficult as it's ever been.

That's because this year was filled with many instances worthy of note. There was drama, destruction, risk, death, disappointment, flashes of brilliance, moments of surprise and, above all, victory.

Whereas last year's major events did a fine job of bringing about questions, this year was able to provide at least some answers. Now we know where Nintendo is placing its hopes for its home console business, and that $250 is too much for a 3DS. Now we know that game companies can't take security for granted. And we also know that we won't be carded for an M-rated game anytime soon.

5. Steve Jobs's Death

For someone only ostensibly part of what we might define as the "video game industry," Apple's Steve Jobs had an enormous impact on the sector. It was his iPhone hardware that opened up new kinds of gameplay, the App Store and iTunes that gave game makers a new platform for wide distribution, and the iPad that opened up a tablet market that welcomes video games with open arms.

Steve Jobs passed away on October 5 this year after a fight with pancreatic cancer. It was his design genius that allowed Apple products to touch so many people and so many industries, including the gaming industry (one that he was an active part of earlier in his life).

It's true that there are intelligent capable people he left behind at Apple, and Jobs' death doesn't mean that the company can't still have considerable impact on the games industry. But we'll never know just how much further Jobs could've taken his vision, and how that might have influenced gaming.

4. Wii U Unveiled

As the only pure-play video game company in the big three, Nintendo's hardware unveilings are always big news. The way the company attacks the medium from unique angles has a special way of keeping us on the edge of our seats.

At E3 in June, the company put rumors to rest and gave a name to its next home console: "Wii U". Nintendo's next home console will be high-definition capable and backwards compatible, but most strikingly, the controller boasts a 6.2" touchscreen in between more traditional sticks and buttons.

As with the debut of the phenomenally successful Nintendo Wii, the Wii U's unveiling was cause for excitement, as well as questions. Would Nintendo finally be able to make both the mainstream and the core gamer happy? Will the games utilize the new control scheme in new, fun ways? Or will it just be a gimmick?

Nintendo president Satoru Iwata made a big statement when he told E3 attendees, "The new platform will provide you with deeper game experiences than what even the most passionate gamer has realized before and it will offer wider appeal to gamers, wider even then for Wii... It will let everyone see games in a different way."

3. 3DS' Rapid Price Drop

Months before launch, Nintendo appeared supremely confident that its next handheld gaming machine, the 3DS, would be a hit. There was little indication that it wouldn't be, as the device had generally received positive reviews from the press, and the glasses-free stereoscopic 3D effect wowed others who got a pre-release hands-on with the DS successor.

The March launch price of the machine reflected Nintendo's confidence: $250, or the same price as the Wii when it launched in 2006.

Nintendo's new handheld wouldn't hold that price for long. Sales were dropping rapidly and the company had to make the drastic decision to cut the price of the device. Four months after the U.S. 3DS launch, and five months after Japan's, Nintendo announced it would reduce the price of the handheld to $169.99 in the U.S., with similar price cuts worldwide.

If the 3DS' price cut is not the fastest and heftiest post-launch sales drop in video game history, it certainly is a top contender.

Nintendo eased the rage of early buyers by deeming them "Ambassadors," and giving them 20 free downloadable games playable on 3DS. The price drop took effect in August, and gave the handheld much-need traction. Now, with some strong holiday software titles, Nintendo says the 3DS is on track to beat first-year sales of the smash-hit DS, another Nintendo handheld that had a slow start.

2. PlayStation Network Breached

It's not uncommon for a network to have to go offline for a short period of time, due to technical difficulties. When Sony said in late April that PlayStation Network would be down for "a day or two," there wasn't much reason not to believe the company. This of course is Sony -- surely it has the resources to get the network up and running again, promptly.

But that wasn't the case. Rather than an outage that lasted just "a day or two," what appeared to be a technical snafu turned out to be a security breach of monumental proportions, as Sony announced that an "external intrusion" by unknown cyber assailants had compromised personal information of about 77 million registered PSN accounts, plus nearly 25 million Sony Online Entertainment accounts.

Sony had only partially restored major online functions to its network by mid-May, and it wasn't until six weeks later, in early June, that a full restoration would take place in the Americas and PAL territories, plus parts of Asia. Japan and the rest of Asia were fully restored in late May.

The event showed that even the world's largest companies aren't safe from hacking and other kinds of cyber attacks. Sony went on to add to its staff a "chief information security officer," and promised that security is now a "full-time commitment."

1. Video Games Are Protected Speech

Easily the biggest news for the video game industry was the validation by the highest court in the land that video games are protected speech.

The long-awaited, landmark ruling in June this year set a precedent for the government's role in the regulation of the video game industry, and helped place the video game industry on equal ground with other forms of media in terms of government regulation.

Games could continue to be self-regulated by the industry, and not treated by the government as pornography or some kind of addictive substance that's harmful to youth. Rather, the people who make games could enjoy the same creative freedoms as authors, playwrights and film directors.

The ruling tells politicians to think twice about penning unconstitutional laws, and using taxpayer money to initiate more moral crusades against the video game industry. Now we know that, according to Supreme Court of the United States of America, "Video games qualify for First Amendment protection."

Other notable industry events of 2011 included:

Sony unveils NGP/ PS Vita
Japan's devastating earthquake
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3's big sales
Duke Nukem Forever actually launches
EA acquires PopCap
Adobe halts Flash player development for mobile browsers
Zynga files for major IPO


trend.jpgTop 5 Major Industry Trends

The games industry has a constant ebb and flow -- last year's rising trends might be this year's declining trends. For 2011, Gamasutra's Top 5 Major Industry Trends are all about the rise.

Whether it's technology that's gaining traction, unit sales that are defying gravity, or independent developers who are finding new ways to get the money to pursue their passion, 2011 was marked by growth, evolution and ingenuity.

5. HTML5 Buzz

More than any previous year, 2011 saw plenty of chatter over the potential of HTML5. While some companies pit HTML5 versus Flash in what they perceived as a zero sum game, others argued that competing technologies could coexist.

Game development on an open format web standard such as HTML5 is an enticing idea: Developers would only have to build their game once, and it would be inherently cross-platform, it's relatively easy to learn, and it's an alternative to Adobe-owned Flash.

But there are concerns -- even though game companies are jumping on board, HTML5 is still not finalized, and notable players in the games industry like Unity have said that the technology just isn't quite up to snuff yet for games.

Nevertheless, game companies this year have been acquiring game studios with HTML5 expertise, and the format got a vote of confidence from Adobe this year when the Flash owner said it would cease development of Flash for mobile browsers in favor of HTML5 for mobiles. Next year, expect the buzz and the debate to give way to more concrete answers to the future of HTML5.

4. Xbox 360's Sales Strength

Historically, hardware sales are supposed to be falling after five years on the market, not growing. And that's assuming your console can even last that long on the market. (Alas, poor Dreamcast.)

But Microsoft's Xbox 360 has endured and expanded its base in the U.S. during 2011. Not only that, but the Xbox 360 has managed to increase its reach while avoiding a proper price cut for years. A $200 model has been the baseline since September 2008, and except for retailer deals, it hasn't budged.

Consider this: the Xbox 360 actually increased its average selling price from $280 in June of this year to $306 in September. Simultaneously it handily outsold the rival PS3 whose average selling price had dropped to $271 on the back of a much-ballyhooed price cut.

It would be easy to ascribe record Xbox 360 sales as a direct result of Kinect, but the reality is more complex. The stickiness of Xbox Live and a stable of exclusive super-sellers like Gears of War and Halo have all contributed to Microsoft's increasing fortunes.

The PlayStation 3 has been a solid seller in 2011 too, but the Xbox 360 is a year older and is still managing to rack up strong numbers every month. It's not often, if ever, that the games industry sees a game console that achieves five years of successive growth in the U.S. -- and if this year's sales trend continues, you can make that six years.

3. A Maturing Social Games Space

Social games are beginning to show a certain level of maturity as the young space continues to evolve. While many social network games are still engineered to appeal peoples' compulsive nature, rather than their desire to do something fun, there are signs that this is changing.

There are more and more experienced game designers who are moving from the traditional game development space over to social games, bringing their expertise in "finding the fun" over to social, balancing out the metrics-focused bean-counters.

Publishers such as EA are aggressively targeting the core gamer via social networks, and independent startups, several founded this year, are also trying to woo the more traditional gamer and expand the audience.

This year, Facebook also announced major updates that could improve the overall social gaming experience for all players. And as the number of social games swells, developers are starting to realize they need to launch a quality game right off the bat, or else they're essentially doomed in this competitive marketplace.

We also noted last year the evolution of social gaming. But in 2011, the changes again can't be ignored. Now we see that social games are going everywhere, including mobile, and console games are also adopting social aspects. Major publishers who were once only reliant on packaged goods -- namely EA -- are now eyes-deep in social gaming. Zynga is headed for an IPO. Google+ is ramping up its games outreach. Upstarts abound. There will continue to be growing pains, but more than ever, we're seeing companies truly adapt to full games-as-a-service models via social networks.

2. Kickstarter And Crowdfunding

This year, as more video game developers looked to independence, they needed some funds. Instead of turning to a game publisher or a venture capitalist, many turned to crowdfunding.

The most prominent hub for crowdfunding was Kickstarter, where game developers such as Robert Boyd (Cthulhu Saves the World), Eric Zimmerman (Metagame), Young Horses (Octodad) and David Board (Lifeless Planet) have all reached the funding targets needed to continue their work on video games.

Those weren't the only game developers who got a boost from Kickstarter. In April this year Kickstarter said that over the course of two years, games had received over $1 million of funding through the service -- more than the respective funding of dance, fashion and comics projects. As more independents look for new ways of gathering funds, expect the crowdfunding trend to continue into 2012.

1. Lots of Layoffs, Lots Of Upstarts

As the games industry continued to shift, the people within it were displaced throughout the course of 2011. Major publishers closed well-known studios, and independent, mid-tier development houses ran out of steam, scattering their staff across the industry.

But even though it's typcially sad and disappointing when a company shuts down, people who lose their jobs in this industry often do not stay idle for long. This year, a lot of laid-off game developers struck out on their own and founded new independent game development studios.

For instance, Disney shut down UK-based Split Second developer Black Rock in September, giving birth to at least three new companies from former staff: West Pier Studio, Roundcube Entertainment and ShortRound Games. Zoo Tycoon house Blue Fang shut down, and its leaders formed Beach Cooler Games. When Activision shuttered Project Gotham developer Bizarre Creations, ex-staff went on to form multiple studios.

Layoffs plagued the industry this year, sweeping across companies including Disney, Activision, THQ, RockYou, Silicon Knights, CCP, Ignition, Team Bondi and others. The people who make the games, however, continue to prove their passion and resilience, and stay in an industry that they know can be difficult, adapting to the ever-changing landscape of the market, all for the sake of fulfilling their desire to make great games.


la_noire.jpgTop 5 Controversies

Controversies that drum up debate and discussion are valuable contributors to industry conversation. A fruitful year for video games and the folks that make them gets even more interesting when you include crossroads for major industry firms, community challenges for a powerful niche, and misfortune for the studio that made one of the year's most-buzzed games.

Here are some of the issues that drummed up the most spirited debates in the business this year.

5. The Real Zynga?

As the Facebook gaming space's biggest giant prepares to launch a long-anticipated IPO, it's come under enormous pressure. The model of designing and monetizing games on Facebook has been controversial enough in some sectors of the games business, but close scrutiny has come with the territory.

A pair of high-profile expose articles in the New York Times and BusinessWeek illustrated employees under siege, anxious about high standards, the challenge of keeping user numbers up and an excessive focus on investment return and metrics versus a creative internal culture.

If such tidings don't seem bad enough, the business outlook for the company is frequently under fire; one analyst found the success of CastleVille hasn't been significant enough to offset the decline in the company's other games, while another analyst rated the pre-IPO stock as "Underperform" based on Zynga's slowing growth. Often-taciturn Take-Two CEO Strauss Zelnick (whose company till now has largely avoided the Facebook boom) went as far as to suggest Zynga has "disclosure issues" and "sketchy" metrics.

With the company under the microscope more than ever, discussions and close attention are bound to pursue it as it begins trading, and as industry-watchers aim to peg it as a bellwether for the health of games on Facebook -- for good or for ill.

4. Tough Lessons For CCP

Few public apologies are as humble and candid as that of CCP CEO Hilmar Petursson following the launch of some features that outraged fans. EVE Online's fanbase -- widely reputed for its passion and loyalty -- reacted quite poorly to leaked internal documents back in June. Highly-priced vanity items, some as much as $60, threatened game balance and the community's sense of fairness.

Players believed the "Incarna" updates allowed the purchase of in-game advantages that would otherwise equate to many hours of playtime. Further, CCP was seen to have botched communications, initially suggesting that the negative reaction -- which included in-game protests -- was an expected part of a transition the company had determined to pursue.

But the company later changed its tune, in an important milestone many working in community management could watch and learn from. Amid a round of significant layoffs at CCP, Petersson apologized for the "estrangement" many fans had experienced and claimed complete responsibility.

3. Line In The Sand

The game industry has struggled throughout its history with the task of its own defense, facing misjudgment from circles that often sight-unseen determined their content to be some kind of social negative. After years spent advocating for gaming content as healthy for well-adjusted people, a certain social shift seems underway whereby gamers finally seem willing and ready to ask for more from the games they play.

More specifically, content that some judge as racist or sexist is increasingly met with nothing short of absolute outcry, and a failure to show progressive attitudes or sensitivity to minority groups has been roundly punished by audiences this year where they see it.

One NPC in Deus Ex: Human Revolution brought ire as it was viewed by some as a racist caricature, while entire internet community discussions hinged on whether the liberal use of the word 'bitch' in Arkham City was acceptable, or implied sexism. These often-heated discussions about how mature and sensitive people should expect their games to be seem to be a sign that the audience is maturing.

2. Team Bondi Under Fire

With Rockstar-published L.A. Noire, Aussie developer Team Bondi had one of 2011's most discussed and acclaimed titles. And yet it was practically cursed from there, amid a checkered saga that ended with the studio's closure in October.

Wind of trouble at the company, which invested heavily in technology that was used to develop L.A. Noire's innovative facial capture system, first surfaced with complaints that over 100 developers had gone unincluded from the game's final credits. Working conditions were reported to have been highly stressful as well, with much rumor reportage pointing to personality conflicts with studio leader Brendan McNamara.

Further, it came to light that staff were owed $1.4 million in unpaid wages and bonuses, with McNamara himself claiming over $100,000 in pay outstanding, even as he battled allegations of mismanagement. The company entered administration and is set to fully close -- while McNamara ended up selling his next game to veteran film producer George Miller.

1. Sony's Mishandling of the PSN Hack

When cyber attackers rocked PlayStation 3 users in what was reported as one of the largest-scale online security breaches of all time, it took too long for the company to come clean about what exactly was going on and how it planned to fix things.

For too long users wondered what kind of attack had taken place, what the perpetrators' motives might be, and what kind of data would be at risk, and fans were outraged when they received an email notifying them of the potential risks days later. Although the company did its best to step up responsibly, further reports of exploits didn't do much to quell anxiety and discussion over whether the company should be better protecting its users and the online service in which those users had invested.

Although the massive hack brought PSN to the forefront of news and tech reporting and was undoubtedly one of the year's major events, the storm of discussion that followed over whether the company could have handled it better, spoken up sooner, apologized with more attention to humility or been quicker about delivering compensatory rewards to users put Sony in the hot seat for the better part of the year.

Honorable Mentions: Diablo III business model, Scrolls patent debate between Mojang and Bethesda.


bioshockinfinite.jpgTop 5 Most Anticipated Games Of 2012

In an industry as fiercely competitive and rapidly changing as ours, it's important to keep looking ahead toward the future to see where the trends are going. And, yes, while trends seem to be leaning toward the mobile and free-to-play sides these days, those games are so rarely announced in advance that we're hard-pressed to even name any that aren't already available.

Luckily,there are still plenty of promising games on the way to consoles and PCs, and we have a pretty good idea of which games to expect in those spaces next year. The following five titles are the ones we're most looking forward to: both as industry watchers and as fans.

5. Max Payne 3 (Rockstar Vancouver, Take-Two/Rockstar)

Grizzled film noire lead wannabe Max Payne returns in a third outing, and it's about time: believe it or not, Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne came out over eight years ago. Kids who were 13 when it came out can buy a beer now.

More interesting to us, however, is the prospect of a new game from Rockstar Vancouver. The studio hasn't released a new game since 2006's Bully (though they did upgrade and port the game in subsequent years), and we're itching to see how this promising studio has honed its craft over these last six years or so.

4. Sound Shapes (Queasy Games, SCE)

Sony Computer Entertainment's Sound Shapes is looking to be the system defining show-off game for its upcoming Vita portable. It's brand new, it's unique, and it utilizes the unique features that make the Vita what it is.

It's difficult to describe the premise of Sound Shapes, though calling it a "puzzle game" is a good place to start. Players control an abstract shape navigating a retro-futuristic minimalist landscape that incorporates music and sonically evolves as you go, much like Rez.

The game is played with swipe and touch controls seamlessly integrated on both the front and rear touchpads of the Vita, making it a game that just wouldn't be the same on any other system. If the Vita's going to catch up with the 3DS, it's going to need quite a few games like these.

3. BioShock Infinite (Irrational Games, Take-Two/2K Games)

The original Bioshock is one of those rare games that still holds up as a talking point over four years later. When we talk about art, storytelling, and choices in games, we still refer to BioShock, whether we think those aspects of the game hold up or not.

While BioShock 2 was a fine game, BioShock Infinite returns the franchise to its creators at Irrational Games. Like the original, Infinite's art direction -- which combines the Utopian vision of a 19th century Worlds' Fair with endlessly stretching skies -- has captured our imaginations and has us itching for more.

2. The Last Guardian (Team Ico, SCE)

It might seem strange to call a game we know almost nothing about our second most anticipated game of the year (assuming it even comes out next year), but the output by Fumito Ueda and the team at Team Ico so far -- namely Ico and Shadow of the Colossus -- are so gorgeous and revered by people of good taste that the studio's next game just has to be a masterpiece.

The Last Guardian may go down as the most-delayed title in Sony Computer Entertainment history. Indeed, the game made the cut on our list last year, too, and would have probably been on our list for 2010 if we had made one. Team Ico has not shipped a game since 2005's Shadow of the Colossus.

Unfortunately, rumor has it that the project is in trouble, and departures by producer Yoshifusa Hayama and creative director Fumito Ueda are doing nothing to dissolve those rumors.

Ueda is committed to finishing the game as a contractor, but the damage is done: The Last Guardian will be the swan song of one of the most respected development studios in our history.

1. Grand Theft Auto V (Rockstar North, Take-Two/Rockstar)

Try as we might to steer our choices away from obvious sequels, the entire industry is watching and waiting for Grand Theft Auto V. No one does open world games like the studio that brought the genre into existence, Rockstar North, and the Houser brothers themselves still stand among the best writers in the industry.

There's no guarantee that the game will come out in 2012, but at the very least we're hoping to see more of the game next year.

According to a statement by Rockstar founder Sam Houser, the game "is another radical reinvention of the Grand Theft Auto universe." Obviously we can't confirm that just yet, but we can confirm that what we've seen looks incredible, especially in the lighting department.

Other notable 2012 titles: Diablo III, Borderlands 2, Mass Effect 3, Hitman: Absolution, Halo 4, Kid Icarus: Uprising, Uncharted: Golden Abyss, Rhythm Heaven Fever, Xenoblade Chronicles (U.S.), the sequel to that one game that you liked and the surprisingly fun social/mobile game that no one knows about yet.


dredmorbig.jpgTop 10 Indie Games

We don't need to tell you that the gaming industry is currently experiencing an 'indie boom' -- the evidence has been piling up throughout 2011, with numerous developers at AAA studios leaving their jobs behind to work on exactly the kind of games they want to make.

You only have to look at the Independent Games Festival record number of entries to know indies mean business this year. This time around, nearly 570 games were entered into the competition, marking an increase of more than 45 percent compared to the previous year.

We say this every year, but we genuinely mean it -- having to choose just ten titles from the incredible batch of indie titles this year was not only next-to-impossible, but also excruciatingly heart-breaking, as we had to knock favorite after favorite off until there were only ten remaining.

But never fear, as a good number of those titles that we close, but just missed out on a top spot, have been compiled below the main list as honorable mentions.

Here are our picks for the top ten indie games of this year:

10. Atom Zombie Smasher (Blendo Games) [Windows/Mac/Linux, paid]

atom zombie smasher.jpg

Will Blendo Games ever release a bad game? The studio's clean sheet was kept intact this year, as Atom Zombie Shooter showed us exactly how zombie games are supposed to be done -- top-down, filled with purple squares, and with gameplay that is, for the most part, completely out of our hands. There's a zombie outbreak in Neuvos Aires, and you've been put in charge of commanding the army, saving the population, and destroying as many of the undead as possible, real-time strategy style.

For each mission, you're presented with a section of city, and a selection of units. Each unit must be placed strategically on the map for maximum zombie-killing exposure, and then it's time to hit 'play' and watch the hordes swarm in from every direction. Some units can be given orders, while others are simply left to think for themselves, as your helicopter flies in and tries to rescue as many survivors as possible before they are turned into the walking dead. The entire time you're playing Atom Zombie Shooter, you're fighting a hopeless losing battle which will inevitably end in your country being over-run -- the question is, how many people can you save before that happens?

9. Dig-N-Rig (DigiPen) [Windows, freeware]

Dig-N-Rig.jpg

From the school that birthed the students who created Portal comes Dig-N-Rig, an amazing little DigiPen student project game that puts you in control of a mining robot named Diggit 6400. Diggit's task is to dig all the way to the center of the earth, mining and collecting minerals along the way so that better equipment can be purchased from the lab back on the surface. To achieve its objective, a series of scoopers and conveyor belts must be built to transport the minerals back to your base of operations, where there are then processed and turned into rare elements for research and upgrade purposes.

If your robot is ever destroyed while en route to the core, fear not: it'll cost you a small amount of minerals to construct a new bot as a replacement. There are fourteen layers of earth to dig, and anyone who wishes to mine the moon can do so as well. Dig-N-Rig is a brilliant game that deserves more attention from the public, especially seeing how many people are playing sandbox and construction games in recent months.

8. Jamestown: Legend of the Lost Colony (Final Form Games) [Windows/Mac/Linux, paid]

Jamestown.jpg

Just when you thought that the shmup scene had run out of ideas and there wasn't really anything that exciting when it came to vertically scrolling shooters anymore, Jamestown came out of nowhere and exploded into a gorgeous display of retro pixels and fast-paced gameplay. Jamestown is a homage to shmups gone by, with plenty of oomph to grab the attention of both veteran blasters and those new to the shmup front. With a tongue-in-cheek storyline and plenty of levels to play through, this is easily one of the best shooters to appear in years.

There are multiple modes to play through, and various ships with different abilities, allowing each player to find the control scheme that gels with them the best. Jamestown might be great for all players, but it's far from a pushover, and only the fastest fingers will manage to see it through to the end, beating all of the available challenges. Once you've exhausted all the single player options, there's up to four player co-op too -- alas, it's local play only, but if you can get three friends around your computer with Xbox controllers, you're laughing.

7. Bastion (Supergiant Games) [Windows/Xbox Live, paid]

Bastion.jpeg

Whether you've given Bastion a play or not, you'll no doubt be aware of the main character 'The Kid', thanks to the smooth, spine-chillingly cool narrator who chronicles the player's every move. The city of Caelondia has fallen apart, and only The Kid can fight off the Calamity and put it all back together again. Using the Bastion as his central hub, and an old wise man called Rucks as his guide, The Kid must find the Cores that power the world, and bring them all back together again.

While the narrator's voice is one of the outstanding features of the game, bringing incredible life to the simpliest of situations, that's not all there is to love about Bastion. The world is stunning, and builds itself around The Kid as he explores. The story is genuinely enthralling, and you'll no doubt want to see it through to the end. The gameplay straddles the line between hack 'n' slash and run 'n' gun remarkably. This is a very complete package that deserves to be played.

6. Dungeons of Dredmor (Gaslamp Games) [Windows/Mac/Linux, paid]

dredmor.jpg

Take the classic roguelike formula, spice it up with a dash of wit and parody, and out pops Dungeons of Dredmor, baked to perfection. This comic-like dungeon crawler features all the elements you'd expect from a roguelike, from randomly generated dungeons to monsters and traps galore, and asks you to make your way deeper and deeper into the ground, looting chests and enemy corpses at every turn. The action is turn-based, with both the player and the various blobs, vampire bats and skeletons getting a good old swipe every time you click.

Dungeons of Dredmor is a roguelike veteran's dream, with an interface that allows for multiple weapons, potions and armors to be carried and worn, and UI windows that can be positioned away from the main action, and glanced at whenever needed. While Dungeons of Dredmor is a magnificent feat in itself, its even more impressive when you consider that it is only the first release from Canada-based Gaslamp Games.


5. Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP (Superbrothers, Capybara Games) [iOS, paid]

sword-sworcery.jpg

Did 2011 see any video game more stylish, more beautiful, more atmospheric than Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP for iPad and iPhone? We think not.

The game follows the Scythian warrior, who is on a quest to discover a mysterious power hidden in the Caucasus Mountains. Sword & Sworcery focuses on intriguing exploration and tricky puzzles, with short sword battles from time-to-time.

As the player explores, there are items to be found and characters to converse with, although the game prefers to tell its story through visuals and gorgeous music most of the time, with such immersive, captivating presentation.

It's incredibly easy to find yourself lost in the world of Sword & Sworcery, simply happy to wander around with a vague underlying goal and taking in the majesty that it provides. Hopefully 2012 will see this most unforgettable of experiences making its way to other mobile platforms too.

4. Frozen Synapse (Mode 7) [Windows/Mac/Linux (iPad soon), paid]

frozen-synapse.jpg

If you follow indie games, or even dabble a little every once in a while, you'll no doubt be aware of simultaneous turn-based strategy shooter Frozen Synapse, with its neon blue visuals and satisfyingly tactical gameplay. Players take to randomly-generated scenarios to do battle, giving soldiers moving and firing orders, and then hitting 'go' and waiting for their opponent to do the same. Once both players are ready, the action unfolds, and lives are most likely lost.

Described by many as 'Chess meets Counter Strike', Frozen Synapse takes real skill and understanding to better your opponent, as you attempt to guess where they are going to move on their next go, and counter their plans accordingly. The asynchronous play means matches can go on for days as each player makes their move in their spare time, or two really focused opponents can spend an evening trying to get the upperhand on each other again and again. Easily one of the most unique and challenging experiences of the year.

3. Terraria ( Re-Logic) [Windows, paid]

terraria.jpg

With the success of Minecraft spurring on multiple block-building clones in 2011, and even inspiring the next upcoming game from a big AAA studio, it was only a matter of time before one of these clones got it right. Terraria took Mojang's hit title, compressed it onto a single, 2D plane, threw in Castlevania-like elements, and came away with something that was completely its own experience. Players band together online, create small houses to store their gear and keep out the enemy, then dig deep in search of treasure and wealth.

The beauty of Terraria is that you can play for dozens of hours, and still not have seen whole main elements of the game. While the underground houses plenty of secrets to be found, from materials for making stronger weapons and armor, to streams of lava and enemies that will surround and destroy you, the overground is also teeming with life, as mucus blobs attack in the day, and hordes of goblins invade your humble abode at night. Grab some friends, and you can easily play Terraria for weeks on end.

2. The Binding of Isaac (Edmund McMillen and Florian Himsl) [Windows/Mac/Linux, paid]

binding of isaac.jpg

When Edmund McMillen of Gish and Super Meat Boy fame sat down to work on a small-scale game over his summer holiday, who could have guessed that it would evolve into something so addictive and replayable, and would go on to sell hundreds of thousands of copies. The Binding of Isaac is a semi-roguelike that follows a young boy who flees to the basement, avoiding his murderous mother, with very thin and vague religious connotations.

Players guide Isaac through randomly-generated rooms, killing enemies, gaining power-ups and battling hideous bosses, before coming up against his mother. There are dozens of upgrades to find, and even after tens of hours of play, you'll still be finding items and secrets you've never seen before. Get killed, and it's right back to the start for you -- there is no concept of 'lives' here, as the roguelike status suggests. The Binding of Isaac oozes that 'one more go' mentality, and has been delighting hardcore roguelike players and more casual gamers alike.

1. SpaceChem (Zachtronics Industries) [Windows/Mac/Linux/iPad, paid]

spacechem.jpg

SpaceChem is "the leading chemical synthesizer for frontier colonies," and you are a reactor engineer -- a cog in the company's rather volatile goings-on. Your job is to build reactors that can take atoms and molecules, and turn them into someone of value for customers, using 'waldos' and a great deal of bonding. As molecules loop around in your reactors, you'll need to make sure no unauthorized collisions occur, and that the stock is being called up and transported to the next reactor in a timely manner.

SpaceChem is also one of the most challenging, ingenious and downright rewarding gaming experiences of 2011. No prior understanding of chemistry or chemical reactions is needed -- in fact, the game bends the truth when it comes to molecule bonding every now and again -- and you will no doubt come away from each session with a few more brain cells than you had before play. With wonderfully unique gameplay that not only provides fun, but also makes you feel clever at the same time, SpaceChem is unlike anything else you can play this year.

Honorable mentions:
Minecraft (Mojang) - note: already appeared in last year's top 10 while in alpha form
Gemini Rue (Joshua Nuernberger)
Explodemon (Curve Studios)
English Country Tune (Increpare)
Blackwell Deception (Wadjet Eye Games)
Scoregasm (Charlie's Games)
Viriax (Locomalito)
Really Big Sky (Boss Baddie)
Soul Brother (Superflat Games)
Capsized (Alientrap Games)
Serious Sam: The Random Encounter (Vlambeer)
Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet (Shadow Planet Productions)
Nitronic Rush (DigiPen)
BloodyCheckers (BigCorporation)


witcher-2.jpgTop 5 PC Games

In 2011, the definition of a "PC game" became increasingly hard to quantify. Indies are flourishing in the space more than ever, and a number of popular PC games are making their way to consoles or even mobile devices. With so many options out there, it became harder to define the quintessential "PC" experience.

While PC gaming, by its loosest definition, includes any game that can be played on a PC, this year Gamasutra chose to only highlight games that are available exclusively on the platform. That means no iOS ports, no console ports, just a single PC release as of 2011.

If there's anything that defines the year's best offerings on PC, it's breadth. All of the titles on our list are worlds apart from each other, ranging from small indie projects to full scale, big budget MMOs. In the end, that variety is part of the beauty of such an open and unrestricted platform.

Absent from this list is Electronic Arts and BioWare's highly-anticipated MMO Star Wars: The Old Republic, which is set to officially debut on December 20th. We don't think its possible to evaluate a large-scale MMO in just a few days, so unfortunately The Old Republic will have to sit this one out.

Here are our picks for the top 5 PC exclusives of 2011:

5. Rift, Trion Worlds

RIFT.jpg

With so many online games adopting the free-to-play model, it's become exceedingly rare to see a traditional, subscription-based MMO. Trion Worlds' Rift, however, is one of those exceptions, and it has managed to find success by sticking to its guns and offering an ambitious, full-scale MMO that justifies its traditional pricing structure.

Outside of its business model, Rift stands out from the MMO crowd with a game world that's constantly changing, allowing the balance of power between monsters and players to shift at many moment. When the game's titular rifts open to introduce an army of monsters into one of the game's zones, players are given the option to team up as a public group to conquer the threat as a team.

This dynamic variation of a traditional MMO framework introduces an exiting layer of unpredictability to the game, and does a great job at encouraging players to play together -- which, after all, is the basic idea behind an MMO.

4. Atom Zombie Smasher, Blendo Games

Atom-Zombie.jpg

Blendo Games' Atom Zombie Smasher proves that real-time strategy doesn't need to rely on lighting-fast reflexes or perfect dexterity. Rather, it's a game that encourages thoughtful strategy and impeccable timing to save the population of Neuvos Aires from the out of control zombie outbreak.

In the game, players take a bird's eye view over city districts, and send out helicopters, plant turrets and otherwise take measures to save and protect citizens from the undead horde (represented by abstract, yet still terrifying, purple dots). It's a unique approach to tower defense that constantly has you scrambling to rescue as many people as possible before the city is inevitably overwhelmed.

It's simple, it's abstract, but that's part of its beauty. Atom Zombie Smasher strips away the complex layers of real-time strategy to create a game that really reminds you what makes the genre so great in the first place.

3. The Binding of Isaac, Edmund McMillen and Florian Himsl

Binding-of-Isaac.jpg

Difficulty can be a dangerous element of game design. If your game's too hard, players will get scared away; if it's too easy, it won't hold their attention. The Binding of Isaac, a collaboration between Super Meat Boy's Edmund McMillen and indie dev Florian Himsl, strays on the high end of the difficulty scale, but still finds that perfect balance where you feel compelled to give things another try.

The game follows a traditional roguelike structure, where you fight your way through a labyrinthian series of dungeons, where death is permanent. That's right; die once, and you have to start from the very beginning. With such consequences hanging over your head, each encounter carries much more weight.

Of course, as a roguelike, The Binding of Isaac features randomized maps, which means that even though you might suffer might die over and over, you'll never quite know what to expect on subsequent attempts.

2. Minecraft Version 1.0, Mojang

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Sure, Minecraft has been playable for some time now, but in 2011 we saw the game's official debut, and Notch and the team at Mojang have transformed the game considerably over the last year. The game has grown from a construction and survival-based playground into a shockingly deep suite of creative tools featuring new tools, monsters, and even single-player features like quest systems and a definitive end-game.

With all of these new additions, the game has continued to spawn an increasingly impressive array of in-game creations -- players have even found a way to play Minecraft within Minecraft! The game is a real exercise in creative expression, and few other games even come close to the freedom Minecraft allows its players.

With all of the exciting growth the game has seen leading up to its launch, we can't wait to see what happens with Minecraft now that it's seen its official launch.

1. The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, CD Projekt RED

Witcher-2big.jpg

There are a number of reasons why The Witcher 2 earned our top spot for 2011. Its well-realized world, ambiguous moral choices, complex combat system, and lengthy campaign are just a few factors that put this ambitious action role-playing game above the competition.

Perhaps the most interesting element of The Witcher 2 is its bold approach to player choice. At key points throughout the game, players are forces to make sweeping decisions that will affect hours and hours of game content, leaving some areas completely unexplored. Considering the amount of work that went into creating the world of the Witcher, it's impressive that CD Projeckt RED had the guts to withhold so much content from players on their first playthroughs.

In another exciting, if risky move, The Witcher 2 puts a lot of trust in the hands of its players, leaving it up to them to explore and master the game's combat and myriad other systems. While it's no doubt challenging at the onset, there's something special in learning to interweave traps, magic, potions, and swordplay to overcome the game's greatest challenges. Of course, since the game's release, CD Prokect RED has added new tutorials and eased the game's steep learning curve, making it even easier to jump into the shoes of Geralt of Rivia.

Honorable Mentions:
Anno 2070, Related Designs
Frozen Synapse, Mode 7 Games
Terraria, Re-Logic
Trackmania 2 Canyon, Nadeo
Trine 2, Frozenbyte


rm.jpgTop 5 Overlooked Games

Every year, a few games slip through the cracks. Well, more than a few, let's be honest - but a few of them really didn't deserve it.

Whether they didn't meet sales expectations, came out at the wrong time, or the critics didn't particularly care for them (or both), these games got the short shrift in spite of some major positive factors.

While there are assuredly more games out there from 2011 that deserve a second look, this is my list of games I very much hope will eventually reach the audience they deserve. (Note that this list is different from the top cult games, which will come later in the week.)

5. Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars (Nintendo 3DS - Ubisoft Sofia)

Tom Clancy fans were disappointed to learn it wasn't a shooter. Strategy game fans were disappointed to learn it wasn't extremely hardcore. But X-COM creator Julian Gollop has created something lovely in Shadow Wars. The game successfully takes the thrill of a video game gunfight and molds it into a strategic, turn-based battle.

Any turn-based fan would find something to love here, even if the story is trite, and visual uninspiring. The core of the game, which encourages cooperation and clever tactics in your virtual squad, while also allowing for RPG-like skill progression is solid enough that several of us at Gamasutra called this game our favorite of the 3DS U.S. launch. But therein lied the problem -- the game came out too early, before U.S. consumers were sold on the idea of a new Nintendo handheld.

The game wound up performing below sales and critical expectations, but its clever tactics scenarios, hours of unlockable gameplay, and good old fashioned PC-style tactics make it worth a shot for any fan of the genre.

4. BloodyCheckers (Microsoft XBLIG - Killroyfx)

BloodyCheckers is a first-person dungeon (well, castle) crawler, with creepy ambient music, harsh mechanics, and a complicated, cavernous environment. And in order to gain experience, money, and keys to different parts of the castle, players must fight against portraits of dead castle residents -- in checkers of course. As you're playing, your lobby can fill up with real opponents to play against over the network. Place traps along the checkerboard to gain money, lob axes and spears at your enemies, and when you defeat them, smash your glasses against the screen.

In a way, BloodyCheckers is a posterchild for everything that's good and bad about the Xbox Live Indie Games marketplace. On the plus side, XBLIG allows people to create games that -- frankly -- are coming very far out from left field, and release them on console. On the negative, in spite of the positive press the game has gotten, very few people still know about it, since the XBLIG discovery experience is so poor.

Developer Killroyfx continues to update the game with free content, adding new twists and turns to this already full game experience that only costs 80 Microsoft points. There's no reason this game shouldn't be a success.

3. Bejeweled 3 (Multiplatform - Popcap)

You may think this an odd choice, but hear me out. Sure Bejeweled 3 is a big game, with a big budget. And people bought it, to be sure. But I think this game deserves another look from critics and fans. Many, if not most reviews of the game said it was nothing more than "just" another decent version of Bejeweled. But there is so much love in this game, and you can feel the history of the PC game industry pulsing through its veins. Listen to some of the music, for example. Listen to the crazy Mortal Kombat-style voices.

This video shows not only the odd voice choices but how very hardcore the game can be in terms of pace of play, and tactics. Meanwhile, the effects and explosions should please the most hardcore of fans. All this is wrapped up in a "casual" package that anyone's mom or dad could play with ease. Several new modes take the "match three" concept and put them in interesting new scenarios, all of which makes for a game that is much more than the sum of its parts. The game is just so generous -- it keeps giving to those who want to look. As an example, demoscener, Secret Exit programmer, and Stair Dismount creator Jetro Lauha told me he extracted the music from Bejeweled 3, only to find that it was saved as an 0.8 MB .mo3 file - a throwback to the demoscene days, which extracts to 80 MB of 160kbps mp3s.

(Note: Bejeweled 3 on PC came out in December 2010, after our lists last year were finished. The grand majority of Bejeweled 3 versions came out in 2011.)

2. Monster Tale (Nintendo DS - Dreamrift, Majesco)

For me, Monster Tale was my biggest surprise of 2011. I just bought it because it had nice pixel art, truth be told -- but once I actually played the thing, I realized it was extremely clever. It's an action-based platformer/brawler on the top screen, and a monster companion raising sim on the bottom. It's truly the first game in which I've really cared about what was happening on both the top and bottom screens at the same time, especially without being frustrated. As you raise your monster, it evolves into new forms, which can help you in battle, and complete certain puzzles for you.

Monster Tale has its issues, but the deep skill tree for your monster friend, the combo-heavy combat, and the charming visuals pull you through. Plus there's that lovely score from Ian Stocker. Here's hoping Dreamrift can refine this system even further in a future title. This one slipped under most people's radars, but is certainly worth a look.

1. Rayman Origins (Multiplatform - Ubisoft Montpellier)

Rayman Origins is a game I never thought would exist. It's a huge, robust, gorgeous high res 2D platformer, with as much love put into the animation as any Disney classic. Playing the game co-op had two grown men literally giggling, constantly, between cries of "jesus christ!" regarding how one amazing technique or another was being used. The game is pure 2D joy, and looks and plays the way we remember the 16 bit era in our childhood minds. It's simply gorgeous, and so full of a creator's love.

That designer Michel Ancel managed to push this through development is a testament to his importance in the company, and Ubisoft's willingness to make a game for the art of it. With its budget, and insane amount of content and assets, there's no way it would be anything but a $60 retail title. But that was also the title's undoing. In an era where every 2D game is downloadable, the game couldn't manage to move more than 50,000 units in its first month on the NPD charts. But this gorgeous tribute to 2D games is likely the last we're getting of this level of polish, so is absolutely worth your time.

Honorable Mentions:
Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective - a lovely adventure game with fantastic animation from Capcom.
The following XBLIGs: Escape Goat, Dead Pixels, DLC Quest, Four Winds Fantasy, Sins of the Flesh, and all the interesting/ambitious games even I didn't find.


woodland.jpgTop 5 Social Games

Over the last year, social network games have grown considerably in both scope and quality. Social gaming is only a few years old, but it has already expanded to encompass millions of players, and the games in the space are beginning to show much more depth than titles from even just one year ago.

In addition, social games have seen some considerable diversification this year, with developers exploring new genres and gameplay styles that make good use of the connected platform.

And, of course, it's been a big year for Facebook game giant Zynga, which made its long-awaited IPO just last week. Throughout the year, the company has been gearing up for its public debut, and in doing go has released a number of major titles including CastleVille and Adventure World, many of which currently rank among the top games on Facebook, according to AppData.

2011 has also been a great year for the social gaming startup. We've seen numerous companies make their debut this year with games that offer new and interesting approaches to presenting games on a social platform.

In the following list, Gamasutra presents its picks for the best social games of 2011:

5. Empires & Allies, Zynga

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Zynga's Empires & Allies takes the framework featured in previous Zynga titles like CityVille or FarmVille, and expands them in several meaningful ways to create an experience that, while still familiar, adds some exciting changes to the city-management formula.

Much like the Zynga games that came before it, Empires & Allies has players managing and developing their own plot of land, this time outfitting it with army barracks, naval ports, and airfields to do battle with AI and player-controlled adversaries. The game allows players to progress through an ongoing single-player campaign, providing even more incentive to strengthen your virtual army.

The game's rock-paper-scissors approach to combat works well within the game's light strategic framework, and bolsters the traditional base building systems with some fast-paced, strategic diversions. By both refining old mechanics and introducing new ones, Empires & Allies easily ranks among Zynga's best offerings to date.

4. The Sims Social, Playfish/EA

Sims-Social.jpg

The Sims is easily one of the most well-established franchises in gaming, and Playfish's The Sims Social does a great job reimagining the series for social platforms.

The game streamlines many of the features found in other Sims titles, giving players control of just one Sim and presenting more simplified options for home construction and management. By trimming some of these features back, the game has an increased focus on the interaction between individual Sims (which makes sense, given the game's title!).

Player-to-player interaction in The Sims Social goes well beyond sending gifts and the like. Rather, players form in-game relationships with their friends' avatars, allowing them to become arch-enemies, friends, or even lovers. The game strongly encourages players to interact with others, and does a great job of capturing the social element of social gaming.

3. Adventure World, Zynga

Adventure-World.jpg

Zynga's Adventure World is noted departure from the company's traditional city-management games, and presents a progression-based framework with accessible single-player appeal and a unique blend of social mechanics.

The main draw in Adventure World is its focus on exploration and puzzle solving. In the game players work their way through a series of ruins by manipulating ancient mechanisms and fighting off the aggressive local fauna. The game ties in social elements by having players call in their friends for help in certain areas, granting them the tools they need to progress.

The game's slightly more cerebral take on social gaming is a nice breath of fresh air, and its departure from the Zynga's previous titles makes up hopeful that the studio will take even more creative risks when designing its future games.

2. Triple Town, SpryFox

Triple-Town.jpg

While Triple Town first made its debut on the Amazon Kindle, the game has since made its way onto social network as one of the most unique and addictive titles on the platform.

While technically a city-building title on the surface, Triple Town has much more in common with a match-three puzzle game. Players match up bushes, trees, houses, and a number of other items to create increasingly valuable structures on their small and developing village. When the 6 x 6 grid fills up, it's game over -- but you'll more than likely just want to try again to beat your high score.

In a space rife with familiar genres and gameplay tropes, Triple Town intelligently fits within the framework of social gaming and proves that there are still genres the social developers have yet to explore.

1. Woodland Heroes, Row Sham Bow

Woodland-Heroes.jpg

Row Sham Bow made its social game debut this year with Woodland Heroes, a game that stands out among its competition thanks to its accessible, yet deceptively engaging strategy formula.

At its core, Woodland Heroes is very much like the classic board game Battleship. Players arrange their war machines on pre-defined grids, and battle it out with a series of AI-controlled opponents. Along the way, they will gather new weapons, conquer territories, and progress through a far-reaching single-player campaign.

Woodland Heroes succeeds particularly well at creating an experience that players of any skill level can jump into, while simultaneously presenting just enough depth to hold the interest of a seasoned, traditional fan of the medium. It's a terribly fine line to walk, yet the game does an excellent job of appealing to both crowds.

Honorable Mentions
Battle Pirates, Kixeye
Gardens of Time, Playdom
Zombie Lane, Digital Chocolate


elshaddai.jpgTop 5 Cult Games

What makes a cult game? I might define “cult” as a title that gains a dedicated audience in spite of low adoption outside a rabid few. Or a game that succeeds in spite of obvious flaws. Then again, perhaps it’s simply an experience you remember for months after it’s finished, even if you’re not quite sure why.

For many of us at Gamasutra, and certainly for me, cult games are the highlights of the year. Finding these diamonds in the rough is a bright spot in a world of brown, and we applaud the developers of all these games for their efforts. These games are, for one reason or another, more than the sum of their parts.

5. The King of Fighters XIII (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 - SNK Playmore, Atlus)

While I would love to simply call KOF XIII one of the proper best games of the year, the series just doesn’t get nearly the recognition or audience that Street Fighter does. But this is the best KOF in many years, and series fans know it.

After the faltering KOF XII, XIII feels again like a proper alternative and complement to Street Fighter.

It’s faster, but not too fast (ala Melty Blood), it flows better, and is more complex than ever before.

KOF has always had a different “feel” to it, and that feeling is back, as are the layered fighting systems. But this time, they’re so fluid that you can stumble upon (and thus learn) them by accident, if you’ve got a little skill, which has big payoffs for both newer and veteran players. Plus it looks pretty fantastic, bizarre racial profiling backgrounds aside.

4. Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP (iOS - Capy Games)

What can be said about this game that hasn’t been said before? Sword & Sworcery is one of those rare games that was lauded by players and press alike, even in art and music circles. The gorgeously stylized visuals and perfectly paired music arguably made it more of an interactive art experience than a proper “game,” and the team at Capy was rewarded for that.

Sworcery has gained a dedicated following, which extends to the company itself, as it works on new properties. That is, perhaps, the very definition of a “cult hit.”

3. Dead Island (Multiplatform - Techland, Deep Silver)

It’s hard to imagine where Dead Island would be without its innovative and emotionally arresting trailer. The game was given a significant boost, which resulted in many more eyes on the property than you’d expect from a mid-budget title -- the game shipped over 3 million copies so far.

The game itself is often described as “schlocky fun,” which fits under the “cult” umbrella nicely. The game tries to branch in so many directions that is a jack of all trades and master of none, mixing equal parts Left 4 Dead, Borderlands, and Oblivion. But the meeting of all these ideas gives it a grindhouse-y feel even in its flaws, and the co-op brings the game’s systems to life, adding up to make the FPS (or is it first-person melee?) cult surprise of 2011.

2. Shadows of the Damned (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 - Grasshopper Manufacture, EA)

As I said in my recent interview with Grasshopper Manufacture’s Goichi Suda, I don’t really know why Shadows of the Damned didn’t sell better than it did. It’s got an odd premise, with a nearly illiterate hero (especially amusing when he’s reading in-game fairytales) and a wimpering demon gun chasing after a girl who is constantly dissected, murdered, and blown up.

The demon realm in SotD feels like a living city, but one like you’ve never seen before. The push and pull of the game’s light/dark mechanic can make for very tense moments. The story is irreverent and ridiculous. This game screams cult, but could have been so much more, if only it had found the right audience.

1. El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 - Ignition Entertainment)

I’ll admit that I don’t enjoy playing El Shaddai. It’s a totally competent third person brawler, but even the best of those just isn’t my sort of game. But the visuals, my god! Video games have a unique position in entertainment – they can take you inside of fantastical worlds that couldn’t possibly exist, and allow you to live in them. El Shaddai, then, is a perfect example of what video games can and should do.

Moving from oil-slick mountains to living ukio-e prints to sparse neon technodromes, the game takes you into the impossible and out the other side. It is a visual feast the like of which may never be made again, at least not with this budget. So why did I say I don’t enjoy playing it? Because this game has so much care put into its presentation that I did play it. The presentation carried me through. If that’s not cult, I don’t know what is!

Honorable mentions:
Yakuza 4 (Sega) – hostess clubs!
From Dust (Ubisoft Montpellier) – you can make a skull mountain cry waterfalls.
Corpse Party (Team GrisGris, XSEED) – 2D macabre adventure.
Alice: Madness Returns (Spicy Horse, EA) – The madness, it returns!


minecraft.jpgTop 5 Developers

It's always tough to pick the best developers of the year. Everyone in this industry works very hard to create the best possible games that they can, and with the industry spiraling off in so many directions, it's difficult to figure out precisely who deserves the recognition most.

How do you compare an indie to a major studio? How do you contrast a Facebook game against a triple-A console title? Where does developer end and publisher begin in the social/mobile space? The list below represents Gamasutra's attempt to take a look at the work being done throughout the industry and highlight some of the best of it -- defined by what makes each developer's contribution notable.

5. From Software

"Japan is dead" is a cliche that has been continuously repeated for the length of this generation. To believe it, you have to ignore some huge hits, and most of Nintendo's output, of course. All the same, even the most diehard fans of the region's games have to recognize that the country's developers simply doesn't dominate the charts like they used to, nor innovate in design like we all know they can.

That said, this year, one developer created a game that was reactive to contemporary trends, addictive and artful, and commercially dominant -- but yet completely uncompromising and absolutely unsatisfied to be anything but itself. That game is Dark Souls, and its developer is From Software.

From is not the kind of studio that you'd have expected to see on a list like this a few years ago. Its cult-hit games (Armored Core, Otogi series) always had a special something, but not enough of that something to make a mark.

2009's bleak and tough Demon's Souls, though, did -- and its sequel is so much more than its predecessor: a vast, connected world, a consistent vision, an unrepentant challenge, and a real understanding of a gameplay loop that keeps players tense and driven for success. The game thumbs its nose at the notion of constant checkpoints and Disneyland rides, and is all the better for it.

And the reward for this? A number 6 debut on the October 2011 NPD chart. It's a richly deserved Cinderella story for a developer that's been honing its craft since the PlayStation 1 launched.

4. Double Fine

Ever since the financial crisis hit in 2008, layoffs and studio closures have become the norm for the industry. The middle is being scraped out of the console game market. For the most part, high-budget triple-A games dominate the charts

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