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Best of 2018: Gamasutra's top games, devs, events and trends

Here we present a roundup of our roundups to make your end of year game industry round-upping that much simpler.

The game industry in 2018 saw events that will shift the future of games, landscape-shaping trends that we'll see evolve for years to come, developers and studios who set the bar high, and of course, games we'll never forget.

Here we present a roundup of our roundups to make your end of year game industry round-upping that much simpler. This is what Gamasutra's writers thought of 2018.

Also make sure to check out the personal game of the year picks from Kris GraftAlex Wawro, Alissa McAloon, Emma Kidwell, Chris Kerr, and Bryant Francis.

Thanks for reading and sharing on Gamasutra!

Gamasutra's Top 10 Games of 2018

There are a lot of games released into the market every year.

And we cover this trend; this inundation of games filling the marketplace. It's a trend that complicates the chance for success and recognition, from developer to developer, from game to game.

That was true as ever in 2018. But among our staff, there hasn't been a real complaint about there being "too many games." We get it -- there are a lot of games, but no one would say "there are too many games" if there weren't so many games that were great.

There were so many games that were great in 2018. Here are the 10 games that stood out in the minds of Gamasutra's writers this year. (Selections in alphabetical order.)

Celeste by Matt Makes Games

When Celeste first came out this year, I played it for maybe a half hour, and then stopped. I just wasn't in the mood for yet another hard-as-hell platformer.

It wasn't until I picked it back up at the end of the year when I completely fell in love with it, and appreciated what it was doing. Yes, the game is difficult. But the way the story addresses that difficulty, and emboldens the player to keep climbing, is absolutely brilliant. Celeste shows us that we can be our own worst enemy, but that "enemy" is still an innate part of who we are. And having a friend or two help you realize that along the way never hurts.

Mechanically, it's a simple concept for a player to understand. Jump, dash, and grab. The game masterfully introduces players to the traversal mechanics, then sprinkles in new level design elements where players have to use those basic skills in new ways. It all just feels perfect. - Kris Graft

Donut County by Ben Esposito

Ben Esposito’s Donut County is the perfect amount of video game. It’s a funny, surreal story about remote control holes that’s a joy to play, one that doesn’t overstay its welcome. - Alex Wawro

Florence by Mountains

Before diving into why Florence is a unique experience, the developers deserve credit for making a game that’s the perfect length of time. Clocking in at around two hours, Florence tells a story about love at a great pace.

The game takes the generic formula of a traditional relationship (meeting, falling in love, falling out of love) but tells it in such a different way through effective use of simple mechanics, powerful score, and unique art style.

Games without a lot of dialogue or text need to go the extra mile to convey an engaging and emotional story effectively, and Florence absolutely nails it.

No story spoilers will be given away, because it's a game that needs to be played in order to fully grasp the impact it has. Florence is made for mobile and other short, narrative games would find themselves a great home on the platform. Mobile is confined to a very small subset of mechanics: Tapping, swiping, or holding an icon on your screen. Those constraints serve as powerful storytelling tools ripe for innovation.

The game in its entirety is made up of small, digestible vignettes of very personal and intimate moments in adult relationships where both the good and the bad are shared in a special way. - Emma Kidwell 

Frostpunk by 11 bit Studios

11 bit Studios' Frostpunk was the 2018 game I could never stop thinking about. From the moment my poor survivors reached the totemic Generator sitting in the frozen Arctic north, every decision I spent with this society simulator helped me reckon with the demons of authoritarianism and how much control and the lies you can tell yourself in the name of the greater good. 

Frostpunk's thoughtful design means that it's not just an arbitrary moral messenger here to warn you of the woes of a police state or theocratic regime. It's crafted to guide you on a path of different path of pain points to remind you that just because you didn't commit higher crimes against freedom, your lesser decisions still infringed on the rights of your people. And as the pressure drops, and your city is freed from the frozen snow in a great sigh of relief, you'll look at it's become and see how even its physical shape was impacted by how much you'd give up in the name of survival. - Bryant Francis

Hitman 2 by IO Interactive

The Hitman sequel drops the episodic format of that last rendition but keeps a firm grasp on Hitman 2016’s charm and quirks as it introduces just the right dose of new mechanics, new levels, and new content to the last game’s already tried and true formula. Hitman 2's magic is in each of the massive sandboxes that each main story mission of the game is set in and how it gives players the freedom to take complete ownership of their plans and assassinations, whether the steps they took to complete those objectives were laid out by the game's suggested or plotted out completely from scratch.

While setting up a platform for another season’s worth of dev and user-made content is an impressive feat, the team at IO Interactive also remade every level, both DLC and base Season 1, from Hitman 2016 for Hitman 2. It’s an undertaking that no doubt took a considerable amount of work, especially since each Legacy level manages to embrace the new mechanics and AI of Hitman 2 without losing the feel of the original. Between the Legacy levels and the still-evolving agent-versus-agent multiplayer Ghost Mode, Hitman 2 has become a game that both builds on the successes of its predecessor without shying away from risk. - Alissa McAloon 

Into the Breach by Subset Games

Nothing I’ve played conveys the sensation of snatching salvation from the jaws of failure quite like Into the Breach. There’s a lot to admire about Subset Games’ sophomore effort, but what’s most striking is how often it sets up tactical problems that seem first impossible, then survivable, then solvable. It’s my favorite strategy game since chess, and a remarkable follow-up to FTL. - Alex Wawro

Marvel's Spider-Man by Insomniac Games

Marvel's Spider-Man is just one emotional pit stop for the web-headed hero who's had a hell of a 2018. He gave his life in the film Infinity War, he's reframing his own heroic origins in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, and when given a shot, Insomniac Games doesn't waste any time when granted use of one of the biggest icons in pop culture.

Not only does Marvel's Spider-Man give breath to a dizzying and dynamic traversal system that takes advantage of New York's iconic architecture, Insomniac also uses its mission design and gadget expertise to weave a narrative about the struggles of Peter Parker, and how his selfless nature and faith in other people can be used against him. 

But it's still not a cynical game! It's quippy, it's cute and it gives Mary-Jane Watson something to do. If superheroes are becoming the modern-day mythological heroes, it's great that Insomniac Games injects a meaningful experience in the middle of its well-honed, well-polished technical achievement. - Bryant Francis

Red Dead Redemption 2 by Rockstar Games

Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption 2 excels on the merits of its smallest moments. The massive open world is an ambitious undertaking, and a space you as a player spend a considerable amount of time traversing during and between missions. And that downtime is where Red Dead Redemption 2 shines. It's captivating, or even just relaxing to just toss headphones on and exist in that world for a while, fishing, or hunting, or tracking down small oddities hidden out in the wilderness. 

The same is true for the moments spent catching up with the other members of the Van der Linde gang. Catching small conversation with a friend around camp or even just lingering among that cast of characters as they sing, drink, and celebrate after a heist well done makes such an endearing and heartwarming experience that I can't say I've found in other games before.

It's impossible to mention Red Dead Redemption 2 here however without calling out some of the controversy that's surrounded the game in the leadup to its release regarding excessive crunch, mandatory or otherwise, during the development of Red Dead Redemption 2. Current and former Rockstar developers have spoken at length about their experiences while working on the game, and the stories on those perspectives should be mentioned with any discussion or praise of the game itself. - Alissa McAloon

Return of the Obra Dinn by Lucas Pope

In an indie scene where retro has become a cliche, a few games continue to remind us of why gaming's past remains a valuable space to explore. Lucas Pope's latest, a brilliant supernatural mass murder mystery-cum-insurance investigator simulator, uses its 80s-inspired graphics to reinforce core mechanics. First, your character uses an enchanted watch to see a deceased person's moment of death in freeze-frame; no animation required, just an eye for detail. Second, that detail is brought into sharp relief by those same graphics. Where certain things might get lost in the haze of bloom and shaders, the unpretentiously-used bit graphics work in favor of clue-finding.

The story that evolves is an incredibly gripping spec-fic narrative in its own right. You only get snapshots of every life aboard the Obra Dinn, often at their lowest moments and their very ends, but you still come away knowing something all-too-human about them all as you piece together Pope's grand puzzle. The end result is one for the ages. - Katherine Cross

Tetris Effect by Monstars, Resonair

In the run-up and launch of Tetris Effect, I formed a new pet peeve: people saying things like 'it's just re-skinned Tetris' or 'do we really need another version of Tetris?'

For one, Tetris is a game that humankind will be playing in some shape or form for the next thousands of years, barring any near- to mid-term self-destruction of our species. To say something is "just Tetris" is like saying "just the Ancient Pyramids" or "just the moon landing" or "just penicillin." Tetris is a monumental human achievement.

Ahem ok where were we? Oh yes, Tetris EffectYes we do need another version of Tetris -- specifically this version. Tezuya Mizuguchi's take on the game (which was directed by Takashi Ishihara) is surprisingly emotional, bringing together visuals, sound and music, and interactivity together perfectly, with a soulful sincerity unique to Mizuguchi's work.

And don't pass up on this if you don't own PSVR -- while that's a great Tetris Effect experience, the game doesn't lose its beauty on a regular screen. Just turn the lights down, turn the sound up, and play yet another version of Tetris. - Kris Graft


Gamasutra's Top 10 Game Developers of 2018

Choosing 10 game developers who left their mark on 2018 wasn’t easy. The achievements we saw from game developers, from indie to triple-A, were incredible.

The way game developers are telling stories, serving their audiences, and helping their employees stay happy, healthy, and creative are evolving year by year. Looking back and seeing all the good stuff game devs have done this year reminds us how games are small miracles, and the people making them are some of the most gifted people around.

As always, our annual top 10 list of game developers isn't necessarily made up of devs that made the “best games,” or the most financially successful (although that doesn’t hurt anyone’s chances of making the list). These are the developers and studios that left their mark on this year in a meaningful way, shaping the art and business of making games.

Below (in alphabetical order) are the 10 individual developers and studios, selected by Gamasutra's writers, that exceeded our expectations and pushed creative, commercial, and cultural boundaries.

11 bit Studios

We’ve known that Warsaw, Poland-based 11 bit Studios is capable of a unique brand of mechanics- and systems-based narrative, particularly with 2014’s This War of Mine. This year’s Frostpunk iterates on that approach with outstanding results, making players care for the hundreds of displaced denizens of London.

But 11 bit isn’t on this list “just” because the studio released an outstanding game this year. 11 bit solidified its reputation ­for top-tier storytelling with Frostpunk, establishing a method of storytelling in games that 11 bit lead designer Jakub Stokalski calls “a values-driven game design approach.”

This practice uses conflict as the narrative base – which of course is a common approach, but 11 bit has formulated a unique way to make conflict an integral part to every aspect of a game’s design, and inject meaning into a web of intersecting systems and mechanics. 2018 saw 11 bit truly find its unique design voice, and other studios stand to benefit if they pay close attention.

Insomniac Games

Insomniac Games spent 2018 not only proving the success of its platform-exclusive game development model, the studio also took strides in standing up for the game developers who make their games possible.

Marvel's Spider-Man is an amazing accomplishment for the veteran studio, and shows how the gameplay pillars they've honed over the years can be tuned toward an experience that balances playfulness and somberness with grace. 

But while a lot of studios released some astoundingly-designed games this year, Insomniac Games is the one that stood up for its developers under a hail of online harassment. During both the puddle fiasco and the recently-resolved Sam Raimi suit snafu, Insomniac Games relied on the studio's Twitter account to both try and transparently communicate with players about the state of their development process and push back against a growing tide of anger.

Other events in the game industry this year showed that when players use anger and fury to get what they want, a quid-quo-pro is established. "Get loud enough, and we'll do what you want, even fire our talented staff." Insomniac Games chose the opposite path and offered a firm defense of its employees rather then leave them twisting in the wind. 

Lucas Pope (3909, LLC)

Lucas Pope, the developer behind 2013’s incredible border patrol game Papers, Please, has a knack for solving design problems, with fantastic results.

His latest effort, this year’s long-awaited “insurance adventure” Return of the Obra Dinn is quite a different experience from Papers, Please, but it still retains a clarity of vision that’s becoming a trademark of Pope’s games. And achieving that level of quality isn’t easy. When we talked to Pope earlier this year, he told us about the daunting task of scaling up the small Obra Dinn demo into the full game that launched this year. We love Pope’s problem-solving approach to game design, or as he told us, “in every project I do, I approach it like an engineer, as if there’s a problem that needs to be solved.”

The fact that Pope himself did the programming, art, design, sound, and music on Obra Dinn only solidifies a much-deserved place on this year’s list.

Matt Makes Games

Matt Makes Games, the indie team behind this year's Celeste, worked hard for the last few years to make a platformer that wouldn't just be one of the best in the genre. Through Celeste, the studio would also talk about anxiety and depression, real-world problems that players (and developers) tackle every day. 

That sense of connected mood between the player and the game heroine Madeline seeps into every part of Celeste's being. Lena Raine's synth-driven score is an amazing tool to help guide the player through Madeline's headspace, Studio MiniBoss broke ground with a pixel art aesthetic that only nods briefly to the retro era before striking out on its own, and Matt Thorson and Noel Berry together deserve credit for looking at the hundreds of levels they nearly threw out and just going "eh, sure" and putting them back in the game. 

Not only is Celeste a noteworthy addition to the platfomer genre, it's a challenging game with an assist mode embodies the games' ethos about approaching challenge. It's not a difficulty reducer, it's a granular tool to help players of different skillsets enjoy the game. Matt Makes Games would kick off a whole year of developers showing how accessible their games could be, and to do so in a genre known for being...well, inaccessible was an inspiring precedent to set.

Microsoft

Microsoft has had a busy year no matter how you look at it. 2018 saw the company go on an acquisition spree so prolific that it earned a spot on our top 5 events of 2018 roundup. But the reason Microsoft has once again landed itself on a Gamasutra end of year list is the company’s powerful push for accessibility and inclusion in video games.

This year, Microsoft released the Xbox Adaptive Controller as an official first-party answer to a long-standing need for more accessible and adaptable ways to play games. The Xbox Adaptive Controller itself offers two large face buttons, but allows for a variety of external input devices that range from one-handed joysticks and foot pedals to standalone switches in a variety of sizes. Players that might have previously struggled with a traditional controller now have many more ways of comfortably playing games on both Xbox One and Windows 10.

It’s a physical reflection of other inclusivity-driven programs Microsoft has rolled out in recent years to make its platforms more welcoming to a wider range of players, such as last year’s revamp of its Xbox Live Avatars to include options for prosthetics, wheelchairs, and more.

Motion Twin

French indie Motion Twin has been quietly humming along for nearly two decades, but this year it made an outsized splash in the game industry with Dead Cells. Launched on Steam Early Access last year, Dead Cells 1.0 debuted this summer and was roundly praised as one of the best and most beautiful 2D action games of the year.

To make a game as good as Dead Cells is no mean feat; that Motion Twin did it as a small, worker-owned cooperative where everyone reportedly gets paid the same and there are no "bosses" is a minor miracle -- and a significant signal to the game industry at large. In a year in which so many game makers lost their nights and weekends, their jobs, and/or their studios due to decisions made above their pay grade, it's heartening to see that some devs are committed to figuring out how to make games effectively without giving up equality. 

And while Motion Twin's flat structure has its own unique drawbacks ("everyone in the Motion Twin faces burnout at least once because of our system", acknowledges Motion Twin's Sébastien Bénard in an interview with Kotaku), the team seems committed to figuring out how to build a system for making games that doesn't underpay or overwork anyone involved. For that, and for Dead Cells, we recognize Motion Twin as a top dev of the year.

Mountains

"We make games that linger in hearts and minds," is the motto for Mountains, the developer behind Florence, an interactive story about a young woman falling in love. It definitely rings true, as the mobile title has resonated with many and cemented Mountains as a studio capable of telling a story in an engaging and interesting way.

Mountains has some big shoes to fill after its debut game as a studio was so well received, but there's no doubt that they will thrive. The team is small, but they know how to develop interactive narratives for mobile, and it will be interesting to see what they do next.

Nintendo EPD

Somehow, Nintendo still manages to iterate and push the envelope when it comes to game design. This innovation brought forth the Nintendo Labo, an extension for the Switch including lots of sturdy cardboard. Place into the hands of everybody from children to adults, these crafting kits are great for providing an avenue for creativity.

Released back in April, the Labo has produced a lot of diverse creations and really drives home how (at heart) great Nintendo is as a company when it comes to designing memorable experiences. As an added plus, it's already being incorporated into classrooms, which is perfect because of how customizable it is.

Sony Santa Monica

Sony Santa Monica’s God of War revival is a marvel in many ways, each of which shows the impressive effort of the development team. On the technical side, the Sony Santa Monica squad has been refreshingly open about how different elements of God of War came together throughout the project’s lifetime. 

In one such chat, God of War game director Cory Barlog discussed how he fought tooth and nail to have Kratos’ son Atreus as he is in the final game despite the often tricky task of getting his AI to feel just right. The secrets of everything from the process of crafting that satisfying thwack of recalling Kratos’ magical ax to the surprisingly complicated process of making a boat work with both the game and Atreus’ AI have been divulged by the team since the game’s release. 

But Sony Santa Monica’s true crowning achievement has got to be taking a decade-old series long known as a hyper-violent bloody slash-em-up and granting those characters and world room to grow and mature. God of War tells a touching story about fatherhood, both through Kratos’ want for his son to become better than him and his own struggles to grow into his relationship with his boy. Barlog himself said it best: "We couldn’t just make another ‘angry Kratos’ game," and what Sony Santa Monica has created is indeed so much more than that.

Ubisoft Quebec

2018 was a year chock full of terrific games, made by some tip-top developers. But it was also a year when the issue of workers' rights seemed to reach fever pitch, with the Red Dead Redemption 2 crunch fiasco and Telltale layoffs once again reminding us how many of the talented creatives in the games industry are often marginalized and exploited by their employers.

Horror stories like those make for grim reading, but there were signs of progress among all the doom and gloom. Ubisoft Quebec proved it's entirely possible to find critical and commercial success in triple-A without sacrificing the well-being of your workforce during the development of its acclaimed (and rather gargantuan) open-world RPG, Assassin's Creed Odyssey.

The Canadian studio impressed us with its commitment to improving the work-life balance of its staff, with studio managing director Patrick Klaus explaining it learned from the mistakes made on previous project Assassin's Creed Syndicate to reduce the need for massive crunch this time around. Although Klaus stressed the company "could always do better," it's clear the studio (quite rightly) prioritized keeping its employees fit, healthy, and happy. After all, the only way to make great games is to keep great teams together, and Ubisoft Quebec is one major studio leading the charge on that front.


5 Events That Rocked the Industry in 2018

Gamasutra editor Alex Wawro continues our annual series of year-end roundups by looking back at some of the big events that shook up the game industry in 2018.

A lot of long-simmering game industry issues boiled over in 2018.

As we noted yesterday while looking back at the trends that defined the games business this year, many longtime studios executed big layoffs or shut down entirely.

Unionization in the game industry is a hot topic again, a

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