[Gamasutra here reprints the latest installment of Game Developer magazine's Game Developer 50, which attempts to put faces and names to some of the most significant contributions to the game industry over the last year. This article first appeared in the November 2010 issue of Game Developer, for which physical and digital subscriptions are now available.]
People are what power our industry. Development teams pull together to create awe-inspiring pieces of interactive technology, and rarely outside of the indie world is any one piece of a game a single-person effort. But at times it's nice to single out those who have made great strides for our industry, on an individual level, even as a team leader.
And so, we present here our second-annual editor-chosen list of 50 important accomplishments of the last year-or-so, in the fields of art, programming, design, business, and evangelism, attempting to focus on the specific achievements of specific persons.
It should be noted that these names are not ranked -- they are listed alphabetically by last name. As independent game making becomes increasingly popular and profitable, we expect to be honoring individual achievements more and more in the near future.
Valve's Left 4 Dead 2 has received much-deserved accolades for its carefully tuned and intense game play. But we should also take a moment to recognize what an amazing visual accomplishment the game represents. Under the art direction of Jeremy Bennett, the team at Valve created a game that rises to phantasmagorical heights while remaining firmly grounded in a lovingly-detailed reality.
Anyone who has spent time in the American South will instantly recognize the game's well-worn environments and the sluggish afternoon light as it filters through humid air. The game's character designs also stand out for their verisimilitude. They are not comic book fantasies, but are instead reminiscent of the people that you see every day in line at the supermarket. The game's visuals trigger a remarkable level of emotional investment from the player and are a reminder of the power of great art direction.
Naughty Dog's creative director Amy Hennig is at the forefront of digital acting. As a writer and director on Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, Hennig helped to create complex, believable, and most importantly, relatable characters. The days of computer marionettes in games are over, and for a title to reach the widest audience it has to have human characters that players can identify with.
While good writing and solid voice acting are essential, Naughty Dog's innovation has been to integrate voice acting and motion capture in an effort to imbue its characters with uniquely human performances. By casting actors to handle both tasks and by treating mocap sessions as a film set with careful attention to rehearsal and performance, the studio is able to create games with the pulse of real life flowing through them.
Christopher M. Hunt
Though The Saboteur was underpromoted and rather underappreciated in its time, the "will to fight" concept was undeniably well-executed, especially in a visual sense. In this France-based WWII-era game, areas controlled by the Nazis were represented in black and white, with only the Nazi iconography showing up as red.
As the player liberates France, color returns to the world in real time, giving the player direct feedback regarding their in-game successes. This visually-striking feature was led by art director Christopher M. Hunt to excellent effect, and was one of the most successful elements of the game.
Final Fantasy XIII's luxurious visuals are a sparkling, candy-coated spectacle of teenage love fantasies and utopian fever dreams. The game's status as a flagship for Square Enix's much-vaunted Crystal Tools framework, combined with a protracted development time, gave Isamu Kamikokuryo's art team the opportunity to push the limits of real-time digital imagery.
The result is a visual feast of baroquely detailed models that are shaded and rendered with an obsessive eye for the physical qualities of light. Square Enix has always been known as a graphics powerhouse with a particular emphasis on beautiful pre-rendered visuals. With Final Fantasy XIII we can see that real-time graphics are quickly approaching traditional computer animation techniques.
Kim is best known as an illustrator, adding lithe female forms and brutish male bruisers to games such as Magna Carta and War of Genesis. Now, as art director for NCSoft's upcoming MMO Blade & Soul, Hyung-Tae Kim is taking control of the whole of the game's visuals, making his distinctive illustrations (which often "modify" anatomy for greater impact) finally come to life in a polygonal world.
Though the game will not be out for some time, the results of his efforts are already visible, in the larger-than-life interactive characters, distinctive architecture, and weaponry that make video games unique.
Video games have an innate capacity to be extremely, unaccountably weird. Unfortunately, the current of gleeful weirdness that once ran through games is rarely tapped into with any intention. Realism is the rule of the day, particularly when applied to high concept console games.
What a relief then to start up Platinum Games' Bayonetta and find a game that is a head spinning mash up of art nouveau, shojo manga, and gothic revival, along with a hit of pure nitrous oxide. As conceptual designer for Bayonetta, Ikumi Nakamura helped create a game with visuals delirious enough to match its frenetic play.
Splinter Cell Conviction represented not only a design reboot for the series, but a visual one as well, incorporating an innovative use of light for objectives and projecting characters' inner thoughts on nearby surfaces.
The concept originally came from creative director Maxime Beland after he saw Tony Scott's Man on Fire -- but it was expertly implemented by art director Jean-Philippe Rajotte. Though inspired by a movie, Rajotte and his team's implementation represented something only games can really do. In this way, Conviction made a step forward in visual interactive storytelling.
Paul Robertson is an Australian pixel animator whose short film projects have alternately delighted and horrified the game-playing public for many years.
In the past, his work had often been relegated to backgrounds and contract animation -- but for Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Robertson was given more free reign than ever before, assisted by longtime associates Jonathan Kim and Mariel Cartwright, and the result is a game that bears his unmistakable style and flourish, demonstrating his substantial abilities to a larger group of people.
As the creator of classic soundtracks for Ridge Racer and Tekken, composer Nobuyoshi Sano has a deep passion for synthesizers and their place in games. Teaming up with Korg and Cavia (now AQI), he helped design the Korg DS-10 and DS-10 Plus for the Nintendo DS.
Radical in concept, the Korg DS-10 delivers the experience of playing the classic Korg MS-10 analog synthesizer in a creative recording environment that is completely free from any game play concessions. With the upcoming Korg M01, Sano has now turned his attention to recreating one of the foundational instruments of modern club music, the Korg M1 workstation, in Nintendo DS form. Never before have pro-level electronic instruments been so accessible.
Creating convincingly destructible game environments is a big hurdle for both engineering and art. It's a challenge that Volition has fully embraced, and the studio's ongoing Red Faction series is a love letter to armchair demolitionists everywhere.
Under Jasen Whiteside's art direction for Red Faction Guerrilla, the studio crafted a somber, terraformed Martian landscape dotted with industrial settlements that beg to be aggressively disassembled. Here lies the art team's greatest accomplishment: not only have they built an engaging game environment, but they've also designed for its piece-by-piece destruction. It's a testament to Volition's skill that broken things in their games look so good.
In this the age of first person shooters, if you are going to step into the free fire zone between Halo and Call of Duty, you need to have some major tricks up your sleeve. Fortunately Gearbox's Borderlands had more than a few interesting twists for players.
With game design direction from Matthew Armstrong, Borderlands successfully married MMORPG-style level grinding and item collecting to fast-paced shooter play. Other creative innovations included the game's procedural content system that generated unique item drops in order to keep gameplay fresh.
Tom "Zileas" Cadwell
Riot Games went from unknown quantity to industry standard in just over a year of League of Legends' operation.
This was the first major attempt to commercialize the style of gameplay of the hugely popular Warcraft III mod Defense of the Ancients, and the design, under Tom "Zileas" Cadwell, resonated with enough people to rocket Riot Games to the top of the online space. Not only that, the game recently swept the GDC Online awards, including Best Online Technology, Visual Arts, Game Design, and New Online Game.
Rockstar San Diego
One of the old axioms of the game industry states that "Westerns don't sell." Red Dead Redemption disproves that theory several times over, with massive sales in North America and Europe. The game takes the sandbox genre and depopulates it, effectively strengthening players' bonds with the main character, his horse, and the story in general.
Riding over vast landscapes has never felt more immersive, and the illusion of player agency is incredibly strong, even though the gameplay is clearly objective and node-based. The game's design leads the player to feel as though they've discovered something new, while they've actually been cleverly lead to a conclusion. Modern game design at work.
2K Marin's Minerva's Den downloadable campaign for BioShock 2 was an interesting creative approach to DLC that brought completely new characters and environments to the familiar BioShock universe. Not often is a DLC "expansion" a complete unique narrative experience. It also subtly tweaked the balance on upgrades and enemies to encourage a slower and more considered pace through the game without radically altering established mechanics.
Led by Steve Gaynor, who recently made the move from 2K Marin to BioShock developer Irrational Games, the Minerva's Den team was a 10-person, self-contained group within the larger company, proof that working small and fast can lead to real creative breakthroughs.
Suehiro "Swery" Hidetaka
Deadly Premonition was, for some, the surprise success of the year. The combat was troublesome, and the controls subpar, but the story, the script, and the character interaction was deeper and more subversive than any other linear game that year.
Hidetaka "Swery" Suehiro is the mastermind behind the game's text and direction, and he filled his fictional town of Greenvale with life -- characters go about their daily lives whether the player is watching or not. They have breakfast, drive to and from work, and voice their own hopes, dreams, and troubles. Most impressive is the main character, with his carefully considered persona and deep monologues. Anyone writing modern video game characters could learn something from Deadly Premonition.
Pokémon is a seemingly unstoppable cultural force, with games spanning multiple consoles, movies, television, a card game, and so forth. The newest game combo, Pokémon Black/White, moved over 2.6 million units in the first two days of its Japanese release.
This is largely due to the absolute perfection of obsessive-compulsive addictive gameplay that has been infused into the series, lately under the stewardship of game director Junichi Masuda. Black/White has added some complexity to the story, but overall has stuck to its tried-and-true formula. If you can sustain interest in one game series for so long without any lull, we would say that warrants notice.
Sid Meier's oft-quoted "fun over realism" design maxim was in full effect in Civilization Revolution, but it was Meier's Zen-like ability to simplify the well-established Civilization gameplay without losing any of its strategic complexity that was the real accomplishment. From streamlining the visuals and user interface, to trimming down the variety of units, the game was made to be Civilization's most accessible incarnation yet.
Still, the game's fundamental pleasures of exploration and city building and its deep mechanics of diplomacy and warfare remain unchanged. Now that an iOS version of Civilization Revolution has been released, we may have the game in its most elegant form yet.
Is Japanese game development in a bit of a slump lately? Perhaps not if you look at games such as From Software's Demon's Souls. Directed by Hidetaka Miyazaki, Demon's Souls is big, ambitious, thoughtfully designed, and crafted to perfection.
Much has been written regarding the game's creative online implementation and notorious difficulty, but designers should take note of the way that Demon's Souls allows serious players to create uniquely personal experiences within the game. As one travels deeper into Demon's Souls, it becomes apparent that players are actually being tested against themselves, eliciting a level of mental concentration that may be closer to mountain climbing than game playing.
The Tomb Raider franchise has been around for almost 15 years, and just when it seemed like there was nothing new to add to the series, Crystal Dynamics reinvigorated an interest in all things Lara Croft with The Guardian of Light.
Now radically molded into a fixed-camera, isometric game by lead designer Daniel Neuberger, the new title puts a fresh face on the series while still retaining all of Tomb Raider's signature moves. It's a smart design choice that gets to the heart of the series' exploration and traversal play while eliminating many of the annoying camera and control issues that accompanied the previous free-roaming 3D Tomb Raider games.
Markus "Notch" Persson
Minecraft was a labor of love for Markus Persson, also known as Notch. He created the game from an old project he had been working on some time ago, infusing a mining and building mechanic with a blocky, pixel-like 3D world. The resulting game has taken off dramatically.
The game's user-created content and addictive gameplay have struck a chord with fans around the world, to a degree which even Persson didn't predict. The well-designed, one-person indie game has gone on to net almost $4 million as of this writing, and Persson is now setting up a studio to better support his breakaway hit.
As the lead programmer on RedLynx's Trials HD, Sebastian Aaltonen helped create a unified physics engine for the studio's popular motorcycle stunt game. A traditional approach would have called for separate physics systems to handle rider ragdoll, bike motion, and track obstacles, but the resulting layer of programming work in order to support the varying game states and animations was too extensive for the small studio.
Aaltonen's elegant solution was to apply the same realistic physics model to every object in the game, a technique that enabled RedLynx to streamline development and completely eliminate the need for key-frame driven animation.
Joachim Ante began writing the core of Unity as a teenager, and nine years later the engine is now in the hands of more than 200,000 users. As Unity's chief technology officer and co-founder, Ante has brought pro-level game tools to the masses, and is playing a major role in the renaissance of independent games.
While the latest version of the engine sports a number of graphics enhancement such as deferred rendering, licensed light mapping, and occlusion culling solutions from Illuminate Labs and Umbra, it is Unity's cross-platform editor that has made it a major tool of choice for developers both indie and pro.
From Dust is not yet released, but the tech has already demonstrated itself as exceptional. Ubisoft technical director Ronan Bel has partnered with lauded designer Eric Chahi to create a world of dynamically-changing water, greenery, earth, and lava, which evolves before players' eyes, even if left alone.
More impressively, the player can mould the world like clay, redistributing resources in real time, or forming massive structures of water or molten rock that could never exist in reality. Bel and his team have made this living world run seamlessly, with an intuitive user interface, demonstrating some of the most impressive tech yet seen in a downloadable title.
Giving players the tools to create their own maps has long been a Bungie tradition, and the Forge tool saw its first incarnation in Marathon Infinity. Now within Halo: Reach, the latest version of the map-building Forge tool has been integrated into the massive Forge World, giving players an almost limitless sandbox with which to build their own elaborate erector set constructions.
Using a simple set of conditions for each placed object in the Forge World, Forge allows objects to be aligned and blended with ease. It's a testament to Forge's capabilities that Bungie itself used Forge to create a number of the maps in Reach.
Box2D is an open source 2D rigid body physics engine, which was created single-handedly by Erin Catto, and then further refined by the community. The tool has proved to be popular among indies and iOS developers, powering the physics behind games like Crayon Physics, Fantastic Contraption, Rolando (iPhone) and a host of others.
As of now, the tool works in Flash, Java, C#, Python, and of course its native C++. While the original version was released two years back, in the last year the game has had a significant uptick in users due to the increasing number of game creators using the engine on iPhone.
James Hall and Dee Jay Randall
Blue Castle Games
On top of its solid gameplay, Blue Castle Games' Dead Rising 2 is a remarkable technical achievement. Rarely have we seen such a vast number of characters on the screen at once; all moving independently and with realistic and unique (for zombies at least) animations.
It is a credit to the studio's tech that publisher Capcom was so pleased with Dead Rising 2 that it bought the company outright. Under the technical direction of James Hall and Dee Jay Randall, the studio also employed advanced telemetry to get feedback and even bugs from players across the globe.
Making a full-featured game in five weeks is no simple task at any scale, but that's what Amitt Mahajan and his small team of web developers at Zynga managed to do with FarmVille for Facebook. Mahajan cleverly scaled the project so that it would be able to adapt to Facebook's quickly-changing development environment, and also require minimal programmer support when designers wanted to implement new features, all the while keeping track of important player metrics.
Mahajan and his cohorts have helped to create a set of best practices for Facebook game development, even as the platform continues to evolve.
Mark Overmars' Game Maker engine is a key learning tool for budding gave developers. By abstracting game creation with simple drag-and-drop functionality, Game Maker allows beginning users to easily build working games without programming. Those wanting to go deeper can utilize the Game Maker Language to script complex game logic, as well.
This, combined with the tool's nominal cost, has lowered the barrier to game development to almost nil. But don't assume that amateur hour is the rule of the day. Standout indie titles like Spelunky and Seiklus are creative examples of what is possible with the tool.
Torus Knot Software
For most of the past decade Steve Streeting has been overseeing the open source OGRE 3D rendering engine. The engine is tightly focused on providing an object-oriented, cross-platform graphics rendering solution for Direct3D and OpenGL APIs.
Commercial projects, including the high-profile Torchlight from Runic Games, are increasingly turning to OGRE 3D for its mature design and flexible class hierarchy. While Streeting may have stepped back from the day-to-day stewarding of OGRE 3D this year, his team continues to polish what is already a class leader in 3D rendering.
Matthew Versluys and Rob Pardo
Battle.net was Blizzard's longtime online gaming service, but only for its older titles -- crucially, World of Warcraft wasn't supported. But in 2009, a massive revamp effort was undertaken, dubbed "Battle.net 2.0." The initiative was spearheaded by Rob Pardo's design, and implemented by technical director Matthew Versluys' team.
Versluys has been working on Battle.net since 2000, and is principally responsible for maintaining the current service's reliability. Migrating millions of World of Warcraft users to a new system, while also providing useful integration with StarCraft II and future titles, is no simple task. The studio's work proves that valiant efforts in programming don't only happen in-game -- they happen on the service side, as well.
Robert A. Altman
Under CEO Robert Altman, Zenimax has been quietly buying up developers of immersive and emotionally-arresting open-world first person content over the last year, with id Software and Arkane Studios now under its wing, alongside existing development/publishing house Bethesda Softworks. With these three powerhouses, Zenimax has the potential to really push the first person genre forward.
Also interesting is the company's publishing effort in Japan, helping bring western games from many different publishers to the region. While that initiative hasn't necessarily been a massive financial success, the company has helped to increase awareness of western games on Japanese shores.
Even though it's financially secure in its position as one of the supporting pillars of the current game industry, Epic has never been comfortable resting on its own success. The studio has taken the dramatic step of offering its Unreal Development Kit free to anyone who cares to download it.
Of course, if you have commercial aspirations for a game made with the UDK, the licensing terms are a bit less altruistic, but that's really beside the point. Getting the Unreal engine technology into the hands of as many users as possible is training a new generation of developers to use Epic's tools.
Most often, if a game doesn't financially succeed immediately, the company moves on. But in the case of Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars, when the title didn't meet sales expectations on the DS, it was ported to the PSP.
From there, it was ported to the iOS devices, where the game wound up the highest grossing paid app for several weeks. Rockstar Leeds and president Gordon Hall knew the game itself was solid, and was reviewing well, so kept the title alive until it could find the right home. The game wound up split across three similar-spec consoles, turning a "moderate success" into something much larger.
Steve Jobs has said several times in the past that video games were important to Apple, but in truth games were never really a reason to buy the company's computers. Until now, that is. The overwhelming popularity of the iPhone and iPad has opened up a huge market for games on Apple's iOS platform and quality games are no doubt helping drive the device's sales.
Thanks to a loosening of the iOS SDK's code restrictions and the addition of new social gaming functionality, ad serving, and better revenue reporting, Apple's handhelds are edging ever closer to being the portable format of choice for developers.
Penny Arcade has grown from a simple web comic into a cottage industry, including books, games, and an extremely successful bi-coastal expo (PAX). So how did Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulic, two staunch creatives, manage to get so far in the world of business? The answer, at least in part, is Robert Khoo, their longtime business partner.
From the gamer goodwill spread through their expo to the overwhelmingly positive influence of the group's Child's Play charity, which has donated over $5 million in cash and toys to children's hospitals across the globe, Khoo has been there keeping everything solvent and successful -- while still allowing the creators to do what they do best, unabated.
Valve has a well-deserved reputation for creating quality games, but it has always had the slightly monastic air of a studio that is predominately Microsoft facing (no surprise considering that its founders spent many years in OS development at Microsoft before forming Valve). This has changed rather dramatically with the studio's recent release of a Mac version of Steam.
With that comes the promise of Valve games for the Mac delivered simultaneous to their PC release. After being neglected for the past several years, the PlayStation 3 is also suddenly looking very attractive to Valve, and the studio is developing a version of its upcoming Portal 2 directly for the console rather than farming the port out as it did with The Orange Box. This realignment of resources is not easy and points to a major change in Valve's outlook, as the company becomes more comfortable with its role as a lead player in the game industry.
Hilmar Veigar Pétursson
Since the early MMO gold rush, EVE Online has been one of only a handful of titles to significantly grow its subscriber numbers over the long term. After taking over EVE Online publishing duties for itself, CCP (under CEO Hilmar Veigar Pétursson) has been cultivating its fan base with regular updates to the EVE universe as well as keeping a vigilant stance against real-money traders.
CCP is also remarkably accessible to its players and keeps them well informed on its design and development process through detailed blog postings. The upcoming Dust 514 will see the company stepping into the console space to reach an audience that has the potential to be even larger than that of EVE Online.
EA gets its lumps for being very franchise-focused at times, but lately the company has been doing much more to foster original IP with its EA Partners program. More than that, though, EA has been innovating in the digital download space. In an attempt to reclaim some of the money spent on used games, the company has started including one-time use day-one downloadable content vouchers in boxed games, which used game buyers would have to purchase themselves.
Though the extent of this program's success has not been publicly proved, it has convinced other publishers, such as Ubisoft and THQ, to adopt similar programs. John Riccitiello is making interesting moves with the company, and we will likely see the ramifications in the next few years.
Born as it was out of the collapse of Flagship Studios, Runic Games has endeavored to run a stable business right from the beginning, with Max Schaefer as its captain. Staying lean, working fast, and sticking close to its core talents as a developer has resulted in Torchlight, a debut title whose success has been a resounding affirmation of the studio's efficient approach.
With Torchlight's sequel due early next year and an even more ambitious Torchlight MMO in the works, Runic Games is in the business to stay.
Kellee Santiago, Jonathan Blow, Ron Carmel, Kyle Gabler, Aaron Isaksen, Nathan Vella, Matthew Wegner
The Indie Fund was created by a group of successful indies looking to help future creators make good games without the overhead of a traditional publisher relationship. Santiago (Flower), Blow (Braid), Carmel and Gabler (World of Goo), Isaksen (Armadillo Gold Rus