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The Gamasutra 20: 2008's Breakthrough Developers

In a special feature, the Gamasutra 20 for 2008's Breakthrough Developers honors those special game creators our editors think are making big professional leaps this year, from 2D Boy to Media Molecule.

[Following its female-centric debut, the Gamasutra 20 returns to honor those game developers that our editors our editors think are breaking through in 2008 in terms of promise, execution, or attitude.]

The editors of Gamasutra are delighted to present are second ever Gamasutra 20 list - this time honoring the twenty teams we consider to be Breakthrough Developers in 2008.

Of course, with the burden of deciding comes comes some notable challenges. What's to say whether a studio is 'breakthrough', especially if it's been working on games for some time? How do you even define the concept, anyhow?

After much discussion, we feel strongly that, much like the discussion of what 'indie' constitutes, the 'know it when you see it' test applies. There is no single thread which links each of the honored developers, other than excellent work or work in progress that makes us think about games in a fresh, vital manner.

So, for this first ever Gamasutra 20, you'll find some honorees that have recently released games, others have yet to publish a title. Some companies have been around for decades, while others have been in existence less than two years. There are studios with dozens of people, and others with only a couple of full-time employees. What they do have in common is that all of them are making big professional leaps.

While there are many more teams out there who are growing and doing excellent work, we feel the 20 following studios truly exemplify what it means to break through.

A little housekeeping, first. Gamasutra 20 honorees are not ranked, and therefore their listings appear in alphabetical order. Here's a key to the developers whose work and attitude is honored:

1. 2D Boy (Page 2)
2. 5TH Cell (Page 3)
3. Area/Code (Page 4)
4. Atlus (Page 5)
5. The Behemoth (Page 6)
6. Certain Affinity (Page 7)
7. Double Fine (Page 8)
8. Grasshopper Manufacture (Page 9)
9. Gearbox Software (Page 10)
10. Hothead Games (Page 11)
11. Infinite Interactive (Page 12)
12. Level-5 (Page 13)
13. Media Molecule (Page 14)
14: Metanet (Page 15)
15. PlatinumGames (Page 16)
16. Q-Games (Page 17)
17. Thatgamecompany (Page 18)
18: Treasure (Page 19)
19. Valve South (formerly Turtle Rock) (Page 20)
20. Wadjet Eye Games (Page 21)

Each entry is followed by a short write up from a Gamasutra staff member -- explaining exactly why we think the creator deserves to be on the 'Breakthrough Developers' list.

Gamasutra's publisher Simon Carless, features director Christian Nutt, editor at large Chris Remo, news director Leigh Alexander, and Game Developer magazine editor in chief Brandon Sheffield all contribute their thoughts.


Gamasutra 20 'Breakthrough' Honoree:

2D Boy

http://2dboy.com/

Studio overview

2D Boy was started in 2006 by two former EA employees, whose goal was to build games that had accessible and unique gameplay. The development team currently has three members and is based in San Francisco.

Key staff

Kyle Gabler is one of the cofounders of 2D Boy, and the company's creative director; he is also one of the four founding members of CMU's Experimental Gameplay Project.

Cofounder Ron Carmel helms the business end of 2D Boy and is responsible for programming.

Resume highlights

2D Boy's first title, World of Goo, is based on Tower of Goo, which was a prototype that Gabler developed under the rules of the Experimental Gameplay Project. The title was nominated for a number of awards at the 2008 Independent Game Festival, including the Seumas McNally grand prize, and won out for Design Innovation and Technical Excellence.

Nintendo CEO Satoru Iwata also highlighted World of Goo at the company's quarterly conference in April 2008, calling out the game as an example of the type of products the company envisions its WiiWare service showcasing.

dev_2worldofgoo.jpg

What's next

World of Goo is slated to come out for PC and Wii/WiiWare later this year, with Mac and Linux versions to follow.

Our take

"There's no doubt that being singled out by Satoru Iwata for praise in terms of WiiWare titles is high, high praise indeed. That the game he picked was a Western title put together by a tiny cadre of indie game developers is even more amazing - and shows 2D Boy's talent in crafting innovation.

What particularly charms in World Of Goo, at least from what I've seen of it, is that it both has unique art direction and a cunning gameplay mechanism which jibes wholly with the visual look of the game.

It's rare that you get such synergy, and from a first commercial title, to boot. Judging by some of the ways Kyle Gabler and his colleagues are expanding on his Experimental Gameplay Project beginnings, 2D Boy is going to go a long way."
- Simon Carless


Gamasutra 20 'Breakthrough' Honoree:

5th Cell

http://www.5thcell.com/

Studio overview

5th Cell was founded in 2003, and is located in Bellevue, WA. The studio's first projects were for mobile platforms, including both original titles (Siege, SEAL Team 6) and licensed games (Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, Full Spectrum Warrior).

In 2006, 5th Cell released PC puzzle game D.N.A. and announced its first DS title, Drawn to Life.

Key staff

Cofounder and general manager Joseph M. Tringali handles studio management and oversees project development and overall company direction. Cofounder and chief creative officer Jeremiah Slaczka has acted as both lead designer and creative director for the majority of titles created by 5th Cell.

Resume highlights

The studio's first DS title, Drawn to Life, capitalized on the unique qualities of the DS as a platform, and the creative aspect that allowed players to use the stylus to hand-draw the game's protagonist and other objects in the game struck a positive note with critics and gamers alike.

dev_3drawntolife.jpg IGN gave Drawn to Life an award for Most Innovative Design for a DS title, and it was the only handheld title to be listed as a nominee for Outstanding Achievement in Story Development at this year's DICE Summit.

Notably, THQ's DS sales profits also rose 94 percent over the last three quarters of 2007, an increase that was attributed primarily to Drawn to Life.

What's next

Lock's Quest, a DS title that melds together RPG and RTS elements, is being published this fall by THQ; the game looks like it will further solidify 5th Cell's growing reputation as a company that creates innovative titles that take advantage of their platform.

Our take

"This team started in the mobile space, but wanted to start on original IP for consoles -- and so did. It was a struggle. The team shrank, and so did morale, but 5th Cell managed to release Drawn to Life on the DS, to success.

While the game was far from perfect, the concept was innovative and sound, and proved that original content can and should work on the DS.

This year, 5TH Cell will be releasing another new DS IP, with a decidedly chunky pixel look (Lock's Quest), proving that lightning can strike twice, even when the studio's chosen publisher has a much higher penchant for licenses."
- Brandon Sheffield


Gamasutra 20 'Breakthrough' Honoree:

Area/code

http://www.playareacode.com/

Studio overview

Based in Manhattan since it was founded in 2005, developer area/code works with a variety of clients to build games - often PC and web-based - that interact with the real world and operate on a large scale.

The company has also worked on a manifesto for what it calls 'Big Games', with projects it's aided on including real-life arcade recreation PacManhattan.

Key staff

Frank Lantz is the company's creative director and one of its cofounders; he previously worked at developer Gamelab, the creators of Diner Dash and other notable casual titles. Lantz teaches courses in game design at NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program, the School of Visual Arts, and the New School.

Resume highlights

While area/code's business model of making games to promote products for its clients brings criticism from those who consider it too commercial, the studio brings games to a population that doesn't necessarily consider itself gamers.

Its titles break down the boundaries of what is considered the game space by making games that respond to and interact with the real world.

Parking Wars, a Facebook game that the studio developed to promote a new show by client A&E, proved wildly popular, with 400,000 people signing up in two months. Another title, Sharkrunners, promoted Discovery Channel's 20th Anniversary of Shark Week by having a game where the shark movements in game were determined by the actions of real sharks out in the ocean.

The company also created an addictive puzzle game to tie in with a Numb3rs TV show episode that featured an evil game designer, among other notable titles.

dev_4sharkrunners.jpg

What's next

The team's most recent project, a cell phone game developed for client Puma based around the Euro 2008 Championship, has just wrapped up in Europe.

Our take

"Area/code is forging its way through a segment of the industry challenged by blurry boundaries -- are they "games?" "Experiences?" Social activities, advertisements? Put simply, Parking Wars enervated a nation of non-gamers to "play online," but it remains to be seen where area/code will land when this tectonic shift among games and "new media" settle out.

As "the space" -- whichever space it is -- swells with new venture-funded start-ups trying to catch the wave of viral fever, the novelty of innovations such as area/code's may soon wear off on its audience of everyday consumers.

But it's a safe bet that the ability to adapt, innovate and stay ahead of the curve that Area/code has demonstrated to date will continue to help it maintain relevance and energize audiences even when the me-too bubble eventually bursts."
- Leigh Alexander


Gamasutra 20 'Breakthrough' Honoree:

Atlus

http://www.atlus.com/

Studio overview

Japanese developer and publisher Atlus has been in business since 1986, and is headquartered in Tokyo.

Of course, in addition to publishing titles from outside developers, such as innovative sleeper Steambot Chronicles, the company's development teams that have created games including recent entries in the macabre Shin Megami Tensei RPG series, as well as the Trauma Center games.

For this 'Breakthrough' award, Gamasutra is honoring its internal Japanese development studio, in particular for managing to enchant the Western market in recent months with gameplay intricacies in the Persona series.

Key staff

Katsura Hashino was the director and producer for Shin Megami Tensei Persona 3 and is reprising his role for Persona 4. He was also the producer for Trauma Center: Under the Knife.

Shigenori Soejima acted as art director and character designer for Persona 3 and will return to those jobs for sequel Persona 4.

Resume highlights

While Atlus has been developing games for many years, the quality of recent titles such as the Persona games, a spinoff of its Shin Megami Tensei series, has set a new bar for console RPGs.

Persona 3, and the subsequent expanded edition Persona 3 FES, garnered a rave reception from critics, who praised the original plot, deep combat, and sim-based resource management system.

What's next

Persona 4, which has been developed for the PlayStation 2, recently released in Japan and is due to be released in North America in December.

dev_5fes.jpg Our take

"Atlus has long been a publisher of niche Japanese RPGs and quirky action games, but the company seems to be coming into its own both in terms of development and publishing. Of course, the former is what interests us here.

The center of this awakening is the Persona series. Persona 3 FES, an updated version of its 2007 title Persona 3, became one of the biggest sleepers on the PlayStation 2 this year.

Its mixture of engrossing plot, J-pop style, and a refried mixture of simulation and RPG gameplay has captured surprisingly large audiences globally.

Persona 4 is by all reports a refinement of the formula that Persona 3 pioneered, while returning to the more disturbing and contemplative storytelling the under-the-radar series was best known for before Persona 3.

In a time when the JRPG genre has been largely written off by the gaming press - and many gamers - one company has managed to find a way to successfully revitalize it, and that's why Atlus deserves a place on this list."
- Christian Nutt


Gamasutra 20 'Breakthrough' Honoree:

The Behemoth

http://www.thebehemoth.com/

Studio overview

The Behemoth was founded in 2003 by a group of developers who saw they were going to be the victims of an impending layoff at their current employer.

Headquartered in San Diego, the company's first game was independent favorite Alien Hominid.

Key staff

Programmer Tom Fulp is the creator and owner of Flash site Newgrounds, which is where Alien Hominid made its original debut. In addition to working at The Behemoth, Fulp continues to run Newgrounds from his home in Pennsylvania.

Alongside cofounder and producer John Baez, art director and lead animator Dan Paladin, who worked at Raven Software as an artist prior to cofounding The Behemoth, helped to cocreate original Alien Hominid.

Resume highlights

While on paper the prospect of a 2D side-scrolling shooter for PlayStation 2 and Gamecube may not have sounded like a good idea, The Behemoth forged ahead with the task of bringing Flash favorite Alien Hominid to consoles. The studio funded all the development on its own, which allowed it to retain the intellectual property rights to the game.

O~3 published the game in 2004; the old-school gameplay was well-received, and the game was eventually ported to Xbox Live Arcade in 2007. Alien Hominid also received a number of awards, including three Independent Games Festival awards, for Innovation in Visual Arts, Technical Excellence, and an Audience award.

What's next

The long-awaited Castle Crashers, which features a knight as he battles his way through a castle, is due to be released on XBLA this summer and will allow for four-player co-op.

dev_6castlecrashers.jpg

Our take

"The Behemoth is a rare breed among modern-day developers making successful, commercial video game titles. For one thing, its games can be described as 'illustrated by Dan Paladin,' which points to a kind of personal, small-scale authorship that has all but disappeared within the video game mainstream.

Paladin's hand-drawn visuals are only one example of that principle; Alien Hominid and the upcoming Castle Crashers demonstrate a tight, laser-focused design that makes The Behemoth a comforting old-school oasis in a next-gen world."
- Chris Remo


Gamasutra 20 'Breakthrough' Honoree:

Certain Affinity

http://certainaffinity.com/

Studio overview

The company was formed in 2006 and is based in Austin; it got its start by developing the Blastacular map pack for Halo 2.

Key staff

President Max Hoberman is a former Bungie employee. After almost a decade with the studio, the native Texan wanted to move back to his home state; while he initially worked remotely from Austin, he eventually left Bungie to found his own studio.

Resume highlights

Thanks to its first project, the multiplayer maps Tombstone and Desolation for Halo 2, Certain Affinity has been able to self-fund the development of its first original title, the downloadable title Age of Booty (formerly Plunder).

The real-time strategy pirate game takes old-school elements like grid-based gameplay and wraps them in a more casual-gamer friendly package, with a board-game feel and online multiplayer of up to eight players. Certain Affinity has also been contracted to work on the Xbox 360 port of the upcoming Left 4 Dead.

dev_7ageofbooty.jpg

What's next

Age of Booty will be released for XBLA, PSN, and PC later this year; the 360 port of Left 4 Dead is scheduled to be released this November.

Our take

"You know a studio is up and coming when, in its short two-year history, it's already worked on one of the greatest franchises of all time -- with the Halo 2 map packs -- and managed to get a hex-based digital download project signed by Capcom, while helping Valve on a console version of Left 4 Dead. That's quite a combo.

What those projects clearly show of Certain Affinity -- and of many of the other breakthrough studios profiled in this Gamasutra 20 -- is that you need to be smart and agile to survive in today's business, and that means mixing and matching work for hire projects with original IP and other less mainstream angles.

If you can do this correctly, you'll build up a stable of your own original work while proving your worth and reliability -- which is just what Hoberman and his Certain Affinity cohorts seem to be doing."
- Simon Carless


Gamasutra 20 'Breakthrough' Honoree:

Double Fine

http://www.doublefine.com/

Studio overview

Double Fine is located in San Francisco and is best-known for creating cult favorite Psychonauts, which was released in 2005; the company was awarded the award for Best New Studio at the 2006 Game Developers Choice Awards.

Key staff

Tim Schafer, who is arguably one of the few auteur designers in the videogame industry, got his start at LucasArts, where he made a name for himself working on classic titles such as The Secret of Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, Full Throttle, and Grim Fandango. Schafer left LucasArts and founded Double Fine in 2000.

Resume highlights

Double Fine's first release, platformer Psychonauts, was hailed for its original premise (summer camp for psychically blessed children), strong artistic vision, and hilarious dialogue.

The game earned a number of end-of-year awards from gaming publications in 2005, although unfortunately many of them were of the "best game you didn't play" variety.

Happily, however, Psychonauts has enjoyed somewhat of a resurgence; last year the game made its debut on GameTap, and it was one of the launch titles for Xbox Originals when the service premiered at the end of 2007, bringing it to a wider audience.

What's next

Though its publishing status is currently in question as of this writing, Brütal Legend is expected this fall; the game is an action-adventure journey tracing the adventures of metal band roadie Eddie Riggs as he makes his way through a fantasy world that fuses metal rock with Nordic legend.

With Jack Black voicing the protagonist, odds seem good that Brütal Legend will enjoy commercial success - though its publisher is currently unclear, with Activision apparently opting not to publish the title after acquiring Vivendi Games.

dev_8brutallegend.jpg

Our take

"Tim Schafer has been making some of the most remarkably imaginative video games around for nearly two decades, while avoiding working on licenses or getting bogged down by sequels.

One of the top few writers in the industry, Schafer has a knack for blending a deft sense of humor (itself a rare trait in games these days) with genuine emotional weight.

Psychonauts didn't net Double Fine huge commercial success, but the game got enough admiring attention from the industry and the press to secure another publishing deal -- and the upcoming heavy metal adventure Brütal Legend -- looks to be more saleable than its predecessor."
- Chris Remo


Gamasutra 20 'Breakthrough' Honoree:

Grasshopper Manufacture

http://www.grasshoppermanufacture.com/

Studio overview

Started in 1998, Grasshopper Manufacture has its headquarters in Tokyo. Over the years, the company has built a substantial resume of both licensed games such as Samurai Champloo: Sidetracked and original work like Killer7 and No More Heroes.

Key staff

Goichi Suda, also known as SUDA51, is Grasshopper Manufacture's CEO and the primary public face of the company. He has also been the main creative force for the studio, acting as director and/or writer for a majority of the games the company has created.

Resume highlights

While Grasshopper Manufacture released a number of titles prior to 2005, including the Silver Case games, it was Killer7, with its distinctive cel-shaded graphics and bizarre story, that brought the company more widespread attention, particularly in the North American market.

dev_9nomoreheroes.jpg The company's 2007 release of No More Heroes on the Wii brought more acclaim, with critics praising the game's dark humor, mature themes, and unique style.

The studio's original work has won it a number of fans, including the likes of Hideo Kojima; in fact, Suda is working with Kojima on Project S, a series of projects based on Kojima's classic Snatcher franchise.

What's next

Tecmo contracted Grasshopper Manufacture to work on the fourth installation in its Fatal Frame survival-horror series; the game recently came released on the Wii in Japan and is expected next year in North America.

Suda has also announced that the studio is also working on DS ports of PlayStation title Silver Case and PS2 adventure Flower, Sun, and Rain.

Our take

"With Killer7 and No More Heroes, which tapped into a newly-created American fan base for Grasshopper, creative lead Goichi Suda has finally created a global audience for his aggressively abstract, schizophrenic -- dare I say, postmodern? -- attitude towards game design.

Few designers let their own personal sense of style shine through as strongly as Suda does, even in licensed titles such as Samurai Champloo: Sidetracked and his games' lack of polish only speaks more to that uniquely no-common-denominator ethic."
- Chris Remo


Gamasutra 20 'Breakthrough' Honoree:

Gearbox Software

http://www.gearboxsoftware.com/

Studio overview

Gearbox Software has been based in Plano, Texas, since it was founded in 1999. The company's first projects were developing the Half-Life expansions Opposing Force and Blue Shift; since then, the studio has become best-known for creating the Brothers in Arms series, which is published by Ubisoft.

Key staff

Company CEO and president Randy Pitchford was one of the founders of Gearbox; prior to that, he worked at upstart developer Rebel Boat Rocker on Prax War, which was never released.

Resume highlights

Gearbox has taken the commercial and critical popularity of the initial Brothers in Arms game in 2005 and built on it -- the series has grown to include entries on every platform available, from PSP and DS to mobile phones to consoles.

And while the company is best-known for the military-themed shooter series, it has taken its success and used it as a chance to diversify its development projects.

The company is currently working on titles for three different publishers, with genres ranging from rhythm games (Samba de Amigo) to sci-fi RPG-shooters (Borderlands) to games based on licensed properties (Aliens: Colonial Marines).

dev_10samba.jpg What's next

This month will bring the first Brothers in Arms for HD systems, as Hell's Highway comes to PS3 and Xbox 360.

Also due this year is a new version of Samba de Amigo for the Wii, which is being published by Sega this fall.

Our take

"Gearbox has been around for years, and had high profile projects from almost day one -- but the company seems tighter, more aggressive, and more focused these days.

It's now fully expanded to the simultaneous development of four next-generation games -- Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway, Aliens: Colonial Marines, Borderlands, and another unannounced title (plus Samba de Amigo for luck.)

Led by outspoken and genial president Randy Pitchford, the company maintains its own IP when possible (in the case of Brothers in Arms, for example) and builds solid relationships with both publishers (Ubisoft, to continue the example) and technology partners (Pitchford recently spoke on an Epic Games panel at Microsoft's Gamefest 2008.)

While these aren't necessarily evidence of the company's creative facility, they paint a picture of an expanding, innovative, and well-run studio with a continuing bright future, which is what scores big here."
- Christian Nutt


Gamasutra 20 'Breakthrough' Honoree:

Hothead Games

http://www.hotheadgames.com/

Studio overview

Hothead Games was founded in 2006 with the goal of making digitally distributed episodic games for people who may have once been hardcore gamers but no longer have as much time. The company is based in Vancouver.

Key staff

Hothead's senior staff include CEO and president Vlad Ceraldi and COO Joel DeYoung, both veterans of Radical Entertainment. Probably the best-known name on the staff is Ron Gilbert, who is current the studio's creative director.

Gilbert is best known for the work he did while at LucasArts, where he made seminal titles such as Maniac Mansion and the original Monkey Island games; he also created SCUMM, the scripting language used as the basis for the majority of the LucasArts adventure games.

Resume highlights

Now that studios like Telltale Games have proven that the episodic model can work successfully, the genre doesn't have the same stigma that it once may have.

And having a popular gaming web comic as the subject of the company's first game didn't hurt matters either -- the studio recently released the first episode of Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness on XBLA and PC.

In fact, the action-adventure game's initial sales on XBLA were some of the strongest the service has seen.

dev_11pennyarcade.jpg

What's next

Along with more Penny Arcade episodes, Ron Gilbert's DeathSpank -- an episodic RPG with a tongue-in-cheek take on gaming heroes -- is the company's next big project; the first episode, Orphans of Justice, is currently in development.

Our take

"Teaming up with one of the industry's most renowned games-criticizers to make a game was actually a pretty gutsy move -- despite Penny Arcade having such a massive fan base to start with. After all, what's the game going to be about? Two guys who write about games?

But Hothead worked with that and seem to have followed up Telltale's success with a possibly even more mainstream launch -- PC and Xbox 360 simultaneously -- of the episodic gaming model.

Not only is it working well, they're showing the ability to cherry-pick popular talent by picking up Monkey Island supremo Ron Gilbert to work on the thoroughly silly DeathSpank.

Doing the "licensing" thing on an indie, collaborative level is an immensely smart thing to do when you can find pop culture reference points, and heralds a new method of direct distributed, carefully focused gaming with built-in fan bases."
- Simon Carless


Gamasutra 20 'Breakthrough' Honoree:

Infinite Interactive

http://www.infinite-interactive.com/

Studio overview

Infinite Interactive was founded in 1989, and became wholly independent in 2003 as a spinoff of Strategic Studios Group, which is best-known for the PC role-playing/strategy series Warlords. The company is headquartered in Port Melbourne, Australia.

Key staff

CEO and founder Steve Fawkner is the creator of the original Warlords and has more than 20 years of professional game development experience. He is the lead designer for most of Infinite Interactive's titles.

Resume highlights

Infinite Interactive's first few projects were sequels to series that had been established by SSG (Warlords IV, Warlords Battlecry II and III), but the studio's first big hit was with last year's Puzzle Quest, which debuted on the PSP and DS.

While the title had loose affiliations to the Warlords franchise of games, the combination of role-playing elements with match-three gameplay was an entirely new direction.

That new direction proved to be a hit with gamers and critics alike -- the game was so successful that it was eventually brought to Wii, PC, XBLA, and PS2 later in the year, and both GameSpy and GameTrailers recognized Puzzle Quest in their 2007 awards.

What's next

Puzzle Quest: Galactrix (slated to come out later this year for XBLA, PC, and DS) is the sequel to Puzzle Quest and will introduce a sci-fi setting, a hexagon-shaped board, and gravity-influenced battles.

The company has also announced that it is working on Neopets Puzzle Adventure, a puzzle game based on the concept of Reversi that will be published by Capcom.

dev_12puzzlegalactrix.jpg

Our take

"Game developers don't often get major second acts -- at least, not after being in business since 1989, as Infinite Interactive has.

So it's all the more impressive that Steve Fawkner's company has transitioned from PC notability with the hardcore-loved Warlords series, through to the new and ostensibly spin-off Puzzle Quest series.

Obviously, Puzzle Quest's evilly addictive combination of match-3 and RPG has been well documented, at this point, but I think it's doubly impressive how the other upcoming Infinite Interactive titles continue to iterate on the basic concept in new formats and licenses.

Tragic though it may be, I'm genuinely excited by hexagonal versions of Puzzle Quest with different settings or the same general concept with a Reversi/Othello board included - plus Warlords Online trying in-browser variants. If you've found the golden path, why stray from it?"
- Simon Carless


Gamasutra 20 'Breakthrough' Honoree:

Level-5

http://www.level5.co.jp/

Studio overview

Based in Fukuoka, Japan, Level-5 has been developing games for more than a decade. The company's first title was Dark Cloud for the PlayStation 2, published in 2000.

Since then, it has made games including Rogue Galaxy and Japan's best-selling PS2 game, Dragon Quest VIII (for which the studio was hand-picked by Square Enix).

Key staff

Company president and CEO Akihiro Hino got his start at Riverhillsoft, working on the Overblood series of PlayStation games. In 1998, he left Riverhillsoft and started Level-5; he oversees design and production for all of the company's titles.

Resume highlights

Level-5 might have actually been on a list like this a few years earlier for True Fantasy Live Online, an MMORPG that the company was developing for release on Xbox; however, the title was canceled by Microsoft just a few months before its scheduled 2004 release.

While the company has since released several well-received RPGs -- including last year's PSP title Jeanne D'Arc -- the game that finally broke through in North America was the puzzle-based DS title Professor Layton and the Curious Village, which was released here a year after it hit stores in Japan and topped DS sales charts for several weeks after its February 2008 release.

dev_13layton.jpg In addition to being a new genre for Level-5, Professor Layton was also the company's first self-funded and self-published title in Japan.

The second game in the series was released in Japan at the end of 2007; while no date has been announced yet for North American markets, it is presumed that the title will eventually make its way to the west.

What's next

The third installment of the Professor Layton trilogy of games is due out in Japan this fall; also close to release is Inazuma Eleven, a unique combination of soccer and RPG that will be coming out in Japan on DS in August.

The company's first release for this generation of consoles is White Knight Chronicles for PS3, which will be released before March 31, 2009, according to a recent Sony press conference, although there are no details yet on whether that date applies to a worldwide release.

In addition, the company is also working on Dragon Quest IX for DS, which does not currently have an announced release date.

Our take

"Level-5 has quietly become one of the most important development studios in Japan. In the near future, the company will ship its second title in Japan's most popular role-playing series, Dragon Quest IX.

The game, to be released on the Nintendo DS, brings multiplayer to the series for the first time. It will cement Level 5's position as shepherd of the franchise for the forseeable future.

But the company, just as importantly for its survival and growth, has several other games: the Professor Layton series has won plaudits and global sales. Inazuma Eleven, the company's second original DS series - mixes the company's signature RPG style with soccer, which sounds weird but could very well appeal to kids raised on gym class and Pokémon, and though it's yet under the radar, White Knight Chronicles is a flagship first-party PS3 title.

The company clearly understands the importance of maintaining a balanced portfolio -- even while sticking principally to one genre."
- Christian Nutt


Gamasutra 20 'Breakthrough' Honoree:

Media Molecule

http://www.mediamolecule.com/

Studio overview

The developer was founded in 2006 by former employees of Lionhead Studios; its headquarters are located in the United Kingdom.

Key staff

Cofounder and artist Mark Healey was the main creative force behind Rag Doll Kung Fu, which he developed as an independent project while working at Lionhead Studios; the title was later published on Steam.

Also a veteran of Lionhead Studios, Alex Evans is a cofounder of Media Molecule and the company's technical director; he has been one of the primary public faces for LittleBigPlanet.

Resume highlights

While Media Molecule has not yet released a game, its first title, LittleBigPlanet, made a huge splash when Phil Harrison showed it off at the 2007 Game Developer Conference.

The do-it-yourself platformer -- which showcases a unique combination of graphic style, deep physics, accessible gameplay, user-created content, and social gameplay -- struck a chord with GDC attendees, and enthusiasm for the game has remained high since.

dev_14littlebig.jpg

Originally, LittleBigPlanet was scheduled to be released in 2007 as a download on the PlayStation Network with a Blu-ray release to follow; however, a growth in scope pushed out the game's release date by a year, and it will now be a Blu-ray only release.

What's next

LittleBigPlanet, one of the PS3's most anticipated system exclusives yet, is due to hit stores this October.

Our take

"Not only did LittleBigPlanet whet appetites at GDC, but it earned critical acclaim -- especially that rare swath of positive opinon from the often-cynical blogging community, who spread the excitement to fan communities and vocal forums eager to.

But even more intriguing than this pulse of faith in a promising, unreleased title is the way LittleBigPlanet's core concepts stand to alter the industry forever.

LittleBigPlanet will be the largest-scale effort yet to bring content democritization to the console -- user-created maps and characters have found smashing success in more traditional console titles, but putting creative power directly into the players' hands is the concept at the core of Media Molecule's oeuvre.

No matter the end result, the lessons learned from LittleBigPlanet may set the mold for the way the industry handles large-scale user-generated content going forward."
- Leigh Alexander



Gamasutra 20 'Breakthrough' Honoree:

Metanet

http://www.metanetsoftware.com/

Studio overview

Metanet was founded in 2001 after the studio's core team of two people met in a programming class at the University of Toronto. The duo is based in Toronto; their first game, 2D platformer N, was released online in 2005.

Key staff

Mare Sheppard is a digital artist and filmmaker who also happens to develop games. In addition to making games, cofounder Raigan Burns is also interested in real-time physics and music.

Resume highlights

The pair's first project, N, was originally developed as an entry for a Flash game competition, but after it failed to make the finals, they posted the game online as a free download.

Word quickly got out, and the pair soon picked up an Audience Choice at the 2005 Independent Game Festival as well as an Audience Sparky at the 2006 Slamdance Guerrilla Games Competition.

An enhanced version of the original, N+, was released on XBLA earlier this year to rave reviews and excellent sales. The Metanet team has also become known for its brutal honesty, being unafraid to openly discuss and critique various issues encountered in both the development and publishing processes.

dev_15nplus.jpg

What's next

DS and PSP versions of N+ will be published this summer by Atari. Metanet is also working on its next new game, Robotology, a 2D physics-based platformer.

Our take

"N+ has been quite a success in the download space, not just in terms of numbers, which have been quite good, but also in terms of experience. The precise gameplay calls to mind an earlier era, but the user-created maps and top-10 superplays are decidedly modern features.

On top of that, I personally appreciate the penchant for its core members, Raigan Burns and Mare Sheppard, to speak their minds.

This is an industry often afraid of expressing itself for fear of repercussions from publishers, distributors, or even other developers. It's encouraging to see someone express a strong opinion in a public setting."
- Brandon Sheffield


Gamasutra 20 'Breakthrough' Honoree:

PlatinumGames

http://www.platinumgames.co.jp/

Studio overview

PlatinumGames was originally founded in 2006 by former members of Capcom's now-dissolved Clover Studios as Seeds Inc.; in October 2007 the company merged with another band of ex-Capcomers, ODD Incorporated, and renamed itself. The developer is headquartered in Osaka.

Key staff

Shinji Mikami is best-known for creating the original Resident Evil and then reinvigorating the franchise as the director of the critically acclaimed Resident Evil 4. He also was executive producer for titles including Viewtiful Joe and Devil May Cry while he was the general manager for Capcom Production Studio 4.

Atsushi Inaba made a name for himself while at Capcom by producing a wide range of games, including Steel Battalion, Viewtiful Joe, Okami, God Hand, and Phoenix Wright. He's joined by Hideki Kamiya, the creator and director of both Devil May Cry and Viewtiful Joe; he also directed the critical favorite Okami.

Resume highlights

While it may not be typical to include such an untested company in a roundup such as this, the incredible resumes of its founders earn PlatinumGames a deserved spot on the list.

In May 2008, it was announced that the studio had signed a four-game publishing deal with Sega; the three titles that have been announced so far are all slated to come out in 2009.

What's next

PlatinumGames has shown three of the four games that will be published by Sega. The Kamiya-directed Bayonetta is an action title starring a witch facing off against angels, DS RPG Infinite Line is a space opera inspired by the sci-fi novella Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke and is being developed in partnership with Japanese studio Nude Maker.

In addition, MadWorld is a very violent Wii title featuring black-and-white graphics and dark humor. The fourth title, which has yet to be announced, is being developed by Mikami.

dev_16madworld.jpg

Our take

"Some might say that including PlatinumGames on this list is buying into the hype -- the studio's public debut earlier this year has become one of the most talked-about events in games in 2008.

But the pedigree of its developers is absolutely without question: the soul of many of Capcom's major successes (and minor but significant games -- like Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter, one of the most beloved sleeper titles on the PS2) has been transferred into this new studio.

The studio is notable not just for the fact that it has so much proven talent, but that the talent has added to its strength by banding together to push out a rank of promising titles into the light - and talking big about them.

Shaking off the image of Japanese development as staid and corporate might be as important to the industry as a whole as the quality of its games."
- Christian Nutt


Gamasutra 20 'Breakthrough' Honoree:

Q-Games

http://www.q-games.com/

Studio overview

Q-Games is based in Kyoto; the company was founded with the dual missions to develop accessible, original games for consoles and to research and expand 3D technology.

The studio has developed technology for publishers such as Sony, for whom it developed the Xross Media Bar main interface of the PlayStation 3. Q-Games' first titles to be published were for Nintendo -- DigiDrive on the Game Boy Advance and Star Fox Command on the DS.

Key staff

Dylan Cuthbert is the president and managing director of Q-Games; before founding the studio in 2001, he worked at Argonaut Software on games including Starglider and the first Star Fox. After that, he moved to Sony, where he was responsible for the famous duck-in-a-bath demo that was shown at the press conference announcing the PlayStation 2.

Vice president and director Kenkichi Shimooka is a Sony veteran who worked on titles such as Ape Escape; he cofounded Q-Games with Cuthbert.

Resume highlights

While Q-Games has been known for its work behind-the-scenes doing technological development, the company's PixelJunk series is what has gained it attention from a wider audience.

The driving concept behind the games is that they be downloadable HD titles developed by small teams with fast schedules.

The first title in the series, slot-car racer PixelJunk Racers, was released on the PlayStation Network in 2007; it was followed just four months later by 2008's PixelJunk Monsters, a tower defense game that requires players to strategically place resources to ward off invaders.

What's next

Platform puzzler and visual stunner PixelJunk Eden has just debuted; gamers can upload gameplay videos directly to YouTube, and more titles in the PixelJunk series are promised.

dev_17pixeljunkeden.jpg

Our take

"Having been a seminal player in the East-West coalition that brought us Star Fox, Dylan Cuthbert formed Q Games as a Westerner in Japan , a rare thing that leads to some interesting cross-cultural productions. I appreciate that his company's work can be alternative even when working with massive companies -- the Nintendo-published Digidrive, for example.

But I especially enjoy Q's retro angles on classic gameplay, as showcased in the PixelJunk series. I even enjoyed PixelJunk Racers as a paean to classic '80s British gaming, when I suspect others did not -- and PixelJunk Monsters is one of the best-executed short-form digital games on any service to date.

Most importantly, building a brand around your games is important in today's indie-centric markets, and the PixelJunk series is doing that with aplomb -- I practically want to buy Eden just because it's branded as a PixelJunk title, which is the kind of loyalty which breakthrough developers should be engendering.

Oh, and I can't wait for the alleged second series of 3D retro PixelJunk games -- a wireframe shooter, maybe?"
- Simon Carless


Gamasutra 20 'Breakthrough' Honoree:

Thatgamecompany

http://www.thatgamecompany.com/

Studio overview

The company was founded in 2006 by two USC grads who had a goal of making games that evoke a specific feeling. The company's first title was flOw, which was part of cofounder Jenova Chen's thesis for graduation from the Interactive Media Division.

Key staff

Creative director Jenova Chen graduated from USC in 2006, where he helped develop flOw and concept the as-yet unrealized Cloud; after graduation, he worked at Maxis for a brief period of time but left to continue on full-time with thatgamecompany.

Kellee Santiago, who is the president and cofounder of thatgamecompany, worked with Chen on Cloud; she also was involved with developing Darfur is Dying, which highlighted the plight of Darfur refugees and received a grant from MTVu.

Resume highlights

Thatgamecompany's first release, flOw, which has gamers evolving an organism over a series of levels, began as a student project for graduation. Based on the theory of Active Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment (ADDA), the game was built with the idea that players should be able to adjust the difficulty of a game without having to exit to a menu or start over.

The project eventually led to a three-game deal with Sony for PlayStation Network, the first of which was flOw, which was released in the spring of 2007; the game was later ported to the PSP in 2008.

What's next

The developer's next game, Flower, continues the themes of flOw -- both in terms of its naturalistic world, and its innovative, technology-driven gameplay. It will be released later this year.

dev_18flower.jpg

Our take

"The company's single release, flOw, has gotten lots of press, not just for its thoughtful approach to casual game design, but also as early proof of the PlayStation Network's worth as a service. As a company, thatgamecompany is different, from its unassuming name to its small-team structure and lofty goals.

TGC is one of a new breed of students-turned-professional-developers, with plenty of theory under the members' collective belts, and a different approach to what constitutes "fun".

The next release, Flower, should prove the company is not just a one-trick pony. Not that I know anything about it..."
- Brandon Sheffield


Gamasutra 20 'Breakthrough' Honoree:

Treasure

http://www.treasure-inc.co.jp/

Studio overview

The oldest independent studio in this Gamasutra 20 awards, Treasure was formed in 1992 by ex-Konami employees. The company has consciously remained small over the years, focusing on making quirky and distinctive titles, including games such as Gunstar Heroes, Radiant Silvergun, and Gradius V.

Key staff

President Masato Maegawa was one of the company's original founders; in the early days he worked as a programmer for some of the company's titles, but now his primary role is running the studio.

Resume highlights

Treasure may be best known for its cult favorites, but the studio has done an excellent job of using current hardware and distribution advances to bring some of its classic titles to new audiences.

This last spring saw the release of Ikaruga (originally released for Japanese arcades in 2001) on XBLA, where the game enjoyed remarkable sales success. Another older title, 2000's Sin and Punishment: Successor to the Earth, was released on Virtual Console at the end of 2007.

However, the company isn't just rereleasing old products; they're also reinventing some of them. Bangai-O Spirits is a sequel to the original Nintendo 64 title; the game has pioneered a technology that allows players to design a level, convert that saved file to a sound, and then share the level by playing the sound to other DS' microphones.

dev_19bangaiospirits.jpg What's next

The North American release of Bangai-O Spirits for DS is just in the process of being released. Bleach: Dark Souls, the second in its series of DS fighters based on the popular anime series, is also set to debut in October.

Our take

"Treasure has its share of fanboys, so it's no surprise to see it on any given top developers list. But why this year?

Well, the upcoming D3-published release of Bangai-O Spirits and its audio-based map-sharing technology is the reason. Treasure has taken an idea that was developed during the Spectrum days -- that is, sharing game data via audio -- to the next level, allowing simple transfer of maps using the DS' game speaker and microphone.

This is one of the best realizations of user-created content on the DS, as all maps in the game are editable, copyable, and shareable."
- Brandon Sheffield


Gamasutra 20 'Breakthrough' Honoree:

Valve South (formerly Turtle Rock)

http://www.turtlerockstudios.com/

Studio overview

The L.A.-based studio's first projects were doing contract work for Valve on various titles in the Counter-Strike series, including a port of the original CS to Xbox, Counter-Strike: Condition Zero, and several maps for Counter-Strike: Source. In January 2008, Valve announced that it had acquired Turtle Rock.

Key staff

While at Westwood Studios, Michael Booth worked as a programmer on Nox and the technical director for Command & Conquer: Yuri's Revenge. He was inspired to found Turtle Rock in 2002 as an alternative to larger, more corporate development environments.

Resume highlights

Turtle Rock announced its first original IP, Left 4 Dead, in 2006 and showed hands-on gameplay for the first time in 2007.

The game features cooperative zombie battling, with four survivors (either AI- or player-controlled) who must work together to make it through the various levels intact.

dev_20left4dead.jpg

Notable is the game's dynamic AI system, known as the "Director"; instead of using fixed spawn points in the levels, the "Director" places enemies in randomly determined locations each time a level loads, keeping gamers on their toes.

The game has generated a great deal of enthusiasm in the game community and was impressive enough to inspire Valve, arguably the king of the independent studios, to buy them.

What's next

Left 4 Dead is due to be released this November for PC and Xbox 360; the game will be retail published by Electronic Arts.

Our take

"Internally, Valve has always referred to Turtle Rock Studios (now officially Valve South) as 'Valve's fourth floor,' a reference to Turtle Rock's Los Angeles-area fourth-floor office space.

The joke illustrates the symbiosis the two developers already had pre-acquisition, when Michael Booth's startup provided maps and updates for the Counter-Strike franchise.

With the zombie co-op extravaganza Left 4 Dead, which brings years of multiplayer expertise to bear, Turtle Rock is sure to gain a much more public following."
- Chris Remo


Gamasutra 20 'Breakthrough' Honoree:

Wadjet Eye Games

http://www.wadjeteyegames.com/

Studio overview

Wadjet Eye Games develops adventure games and is headquartered in New York City. The company was officially founded in 2006; since then, it has released three games and was nominated for Best New Studio at the 2007 Game Developers Choice Awards.

Key staff

CEO Dave Gilbert began making adventure games using freeware tool Adventure Game Studio on his own time; after winning a competition with his entry The Shivah, he decided to sell the games online to a wider audience.

Resume highlights

While Wadjet Eye's old-school point-and-click, pixelated graphics are in some ways a throwback to the glory days of the LucasArts adventure games, the studio is also taking advantage of the more recent advances in the industry that have enabled small companies to self-fund their own development and publishing.

dev_21shivah.jpg In addition to The Shivah, a game whose central character is a rabbi, the studio has also released The Blackwell Legacy and Blackwell Unbound; each of these games has had a development cycle of around three or four months.

This last February, PlayFirst announced that it had signed Wadjet Eye to a publishing deal for upcoming titles

What's next

Wadjet Eye is currently working on the next game in the Blackwell series, which is titled Blackwell Convergence.

Our take

"Perhaps Wadjet Eye would be one of the more unconventional picks on this Gamasutra 20. After all, it's a tiny company that makes PC adventure games, of all things. But there's a reason for this -- it mirrors the rise of formerly dormant genres through the growth of independent and casual games.

Seeing the Blackwell games being signed by the fairly major casual publisher PlayFirst shows the fact that the adventure genre is returning to the mainstream -- and that's exciting from many points of view, not least those of strong characterization and plotting.

Adventures have always been story-focused beyond many other games, and The Shivah and The Blackwell Legacy are just two of Wadjet Eye's titles that show beautifully tuned use of both."
- Simon Carless

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