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Best of 2021: The top game developers of the year

With 2022 officially underway, it's time to take one last look back at 2021 and recognize the game developers who have left a lasting, positive impression on the games industry.

With 2022 officially underway, it's time to take one last look at the previous year and recognize the game developers who have left a lasting, positive impression on the community and the industry.

2021 was a year of evolution, maturation, and accomplishment amid an established pandemic that continues to disrupt the planet. The world is still in a difficult place but game developers, through their work, have continued to provide comfort for millions of people, all while enduring the same difficulties and hardships as their audiences.

The entries below, listed in alphabetical order and carefully selected by the Game Developer editorial staff, represent the individuals, groups, or organizations that made an exceptionally positive impact on the games industry last year. That may be through advocacy, technology, business practices, creativity, or sheer tenacity in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges.

These are Game Developer's top 10...game developers...of 2021.

343 Industries

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343 Industries has had a rough journey as steward of the Halo series. The fourth and fifth entries in the series landed with mixed reviews, and they had to watch as the once-dominant first-person shooter series lost steam and had to adapt to other changes in the multiplayer world. With Halo Infinite, could they turn that momentum around and make a stellar game?

That's already one mountain to have to climb in developing Halo Infinite. Now add a few more mountains. A tumultuous dev cycle. A global pandemic. The Craig phenomenon. Making games is always hard. Making Halo Infinite seems like it was almost impossible. A year-long delay seemed inevitable, and also necessary. Could the team recover from that?

Fast-forward to late 2021, and boy did they bring that Pelican in for a landing. There are still some issues to be sorted out, but Halo is back, baby. This was only possible because of the hard work by a team of developers who took on some of the biggest challenges the game industry has to offer, and they deserve to be celebrated. - Bryant Francis, Senior Editor

A Better ABK / A Better Ubisoft

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The developers at Activision Blizzard and Ubisoft deserve unending praise for holding their employers to account, supporting each other, and attempting to usher in cultural reforms that would give workers more rights and begin to address the endemic misconduct, harassment, and inequity that has plagued the games industry for far too long.

Formed in response to the tsunami of misconduct allegations at Activision Blizzard and Ubisoft, a Better ABK (ABK) and A Better Ubisoft (ABU) are pro-worker groups established by current and former employees. Since going public on social media in 2021, both have amplified the voices of victims, called out alleged abusers -- including senior staff and those at the very top, such as Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick -- and taken action by organizing walkouts and strikes to send a clear message to those in charge: enough is enough.

The task facing those ABK and ABU developers is herculean. Continuously holding the people who pay your wages to account takes courage and bravery, especially when those very people -- the ones with the power to usher in reforms -- seem intent on playing hardball. 

When Kotick was hit with numerous misconduct allegations, the Activision Blizzard board of directors backed him. When Activision Blizzard was sued over its "frat boy" culture by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, the company's initial response was to dismiss the allegations as "distorted" and "false." Despite Ubisoft's recent admission that its poor handling of the misconduct crisis eroded trust, the company still hasn't granted workers at all levels at seat at the table.

That isn't even the tip of the iceberg. The list of challenges facing A Better ABK and A Better Ubisoft goes on and on and on. Yet, despite facing inordinate levels of adversity, both groups continue stand shoulder to shoulder, fighting for what is right. - Chris Kerr, News Editor

Asobo Studio

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As the year comes to a close, we find ourselves looking back on the technological advancements that blur the line between simulation and reality. Microsoft Flight Simulator, from the brilliant minds at Asobo Studio, may have been a 2020 release on PC, but the game's console debut this year left us in awe. The technology at work in Asobo's latest take on the series is nothing short of impressive.

The big selling point for Microsoft Flight Simulator is the way the game maps out an impressively accurate and detailed planet Earth using cloud computing techniques with Microsoft Azure. We've got a deeper dive into that tech here, but in short, via Azure, the game draws 2.5 petabytes of world data from search engine Bing and combines that with vector data from OpenStreetMap, then uses machine learning that identifies and processes buildings, trees, grass, clouds, etc. to render them in believable 3D.

Through partnerships with companies like Meteoblue which follows weather conditions, and FlightAware which relays air traffic, Flight Simulator pulls data to reflect what's happening in the world in real-time. Combine that with satellite data that reflects real-time ground conditions, and on-device processing that renders seasons, time of day, aircraft, and player interaction, you get an incredibly convincing flight experience and an impressive display of a truly next generation console experience. - Kris Graft, Publisher

Chicory: A Colorful Tale Team

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These Unprecedented Times of 2020 and 2021 have only increased our appetite for cozy and introspective games. Several developers this year delivered that particular and much needed brand of comfort, including the minds behind Chicory: A Colorful Tale. The small team of Greg Lobanov, Lena Raine, Em Halberstadt, Alexis Dean-Jones, and Madeline Berger expertly demonstrates how all elements of a game, from art and sound to narrative and gameplay, can seamlessly come together to offer a comforting experience that's nothing short of beautiful.

Like Lovanov's previous release Wandersong, Chicory: A Colorful Tale eschews traditional combat throughout. Instead, it sees its players interacting with the coloring book-like world via a magical paintbrush obtained from the titular Chicory, a "wielder" that has lost her creative spark and watched the color fade from the world around her. Despite its cartoonish world, the team behind Chicory weave real and often heavy themes into the game's overarching experience, making for a relatable journey into issues imposter syndrome, burnout, and the weight of expectations that plays out while you're using your brush to solve puzzles, complete quests, and repaint every inch of the world as you see fit. All of this makes Chicory a compelling pick for any game of the year list, but in practice, each part of the whole comes together to demonstrate a heartfelt and excellently developed game created by a small team that deserves nothing but praise. - Alissa McAloon, EiC

Deck Nine

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Deck Nine is no stranger to the Life is Strange franchise, having previously created the light LiS prequel Before the Storm. 2021, however, saw the studio return to the series to release their first standalone entry into the episodic Life is Strange saga and the team did so with flying colors. Life is Strange: True Colors is the third mainline LiS game, and keeps the series' theme of following a young protagonist as they grapple with newfound supernatural powers and complex issues borne out of both that power and the more mundane struggles around them. Alex Chen, the protagonist of True Colors, is gifted with supernatural empathy, allowing her to gain expressive insight into the feelings of those around her, and often mirror those explosive emotions within herself.

Both Alex's past and her path forward are paved with tragedy and complex issues alike, but Deck Nine's handling of those very themes throughout is what makes the game truly shine. Her ability is so interwoven throughout the game that it becomes a tool for players to both understand Alex's past struggles and the new relationships she forms along the way. How she uses the power changes across the game, slowly reflecting her own change of heart as she learns her empathy can be a positive for both her and the world around her.

While there's an overarching mystery at play, Deck Nine ensures that human and the distinctly personal nature of Alex's ability doesn't fall to the wayside. Sometimes, that comes through calming and understanding the anxiety of a man terrified to speak the truth. Other times, it sees Alex helping a woman and her family cope with advancing Alzheimer's and the complicated decisions those family members must make. Thanks to the thoughtful approach taken by the team at Deck Nine, Alex's empathy isn't merely a gamified ability. Instead, it invokes a level of thoughtfulness and compassion woven throughout nearly every element of the game. - Alissa McAloon, EiC

Four-day work week advocates and experimenters

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In 2021, work and life balance continued to be a hot topic within the industry, with workers increasingly petitioning for better work conditions, staging walkouts, and starting unions to demand a more equitable work environment in the games industry.

One topic that gained speed was that of the four-day workweek, which was adopted by a handful of studios this year, some of whom shared their thoughts with our own Chris Kerr about how the switch affected the productivity and wellbeing of their employees. While the results varied depending on who you talk to (Kitfox Games co-founder Tanya X. Short broke down some of the pratfalls for us back in December), much of the feedback suggests that workers are just as efficient working four days as five, and that benefits to their mental health outweigh any potential productivity losses.

But more importantly, the conversation seems to be shifting towards valuing the health of tech workers regardless of the potential benefits to the company and putting human needs first. As Phil Tibitoski, co-founder of Young Horses, told Axios earlier this year, their personal goal in implementing a four-day workweek was to maintain "a healthy, creatively fulfilling business that supports our lifestyles. Those lifestyles being ones where growth of the studio is not very important and sustainability of the happiness of the people who work here is much more our focus."

Young Horses was not alone in that this year. In October, Eidos Montreal adopted the new shortened workweek, and Boyfriend Dungeon developers Kitfox Games have been testing it out since July. Indie developers like Outerloop, makers of Falcon Age, and Ko-oP, a Canadian studio, have been working four day weeks throughout the pandemic in the interest of protecting the mental health of their employees. Meanwhile, flash and MMO game developer Armor Games’ trial period for the shortened workweek (the results of which their CEO John Cooney discussed recently on Twitter) purportedly ended on December 31 (though whether or not the change will be permanent is unknown). With the pandemic still raging and the push for workers’ rights only increasing, it’s likely that more companies will experiment with the four-day workweek in the year to come. - Holly Green, Community Editorial Coordinator

Falling Squirrel

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Accessibility done right is always worth celebrating, and that's precisely why Falling Squirrel has made this list. The Canadian outfit championed inclusion with its first in-studio project, The Vale: Shadow of the Crown, an audio-only adventure that was created with assistance from the visually impaired community and organizations like the Canadian National Institute for the Blind.

The title uses binaural audio technology and haptic controller feedback to help those with visual impairments fully immerse themselves in The Vale's fantasy world. During a chat with Game Developer earlier this year, studio boss Dave Evans explained how he spent five years fine-tuning the project with that goal in, tweaking individual sound effects and object placement in the hopes of ensuring The Vale could be played by as many people as possible.

Notably, The Vale's success -- the title has been inundated with praise and was recently nominated for Innovation in Accessibility at The Game Awards -- also sparked more conversations around accessibility, with Evans imploring other developers to start working with those from disabled communities to make their projects even better. Accessibility should never be an afterthought, and Falling Squirrel proved that when studios simply take the time to listen, everyone stands to benefit. - Chris Kerr, News Editor

Gameloft Brisbane

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This year's push of Apple Arcade games came with a surprise—a new version of The Oregon Trail. Originally developed by The Minnesota Learning company, this classic PC franchise took a long journey of twists and turns in ownership through the '90s before fading somewhat into classic obscurity.

Gameloft got its hands on the license, and a new edition is now playable on iOS devices. But there's a great (and much-needed) twist. This version of The Oregon Trail takes a much harder look at how westward colonial expansion in the United States was devastating and genocidal for Native American tribes that stood in its way.

As The New York Times noted in 1993, these included the Pawnee, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Sioux, Shoshone, Crow, Nez Perce, Ute, Spokane, Cayuse, Chinook, and Umpqua tribes, just to name a few.

Many of those tribes are depicted in this new version of the game, not only as random settlers who can join the players' party, but as individual characters included in a series of storytelling vignettes. This version of the classic game reminds viewers right on first load that the journey west was an invasive one for tribes in these territories.

Obviously, Gameloft Brisbane is a bit too far removed to deserve direct credit for getting these stories right. So it's worth naming the Native American academics who helped steer them in the right direction: Jazz Halfmoon, Margaret Huettl, and David Lewis all warned the Gameloft team away from traditional stereotypes of these different tribes, and helping introduce a nuanced cast of characters trying to navigate life in the midst of a dark, dark time.

The team at Gameloft do deserve credit for bringing in this consultation, but when it comes to better telling the story of Native Americans, scholars and storytellers from those communities who will have the best perspectives. Their presence makes The Oregon Trail a more robust game, and its return to the video game world is better for it. -  Bryant Francis, Senior Editor

Modern Storyteller

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The journey from modder to full-fledged game developer rarely makes for a dull story, as the journey of Modern Storyteller can attest. The studio put out its first game, The Forgotten City, in 2021 to much acclaim. In this incarnation, The Forgotten City chronicles a single, looping day within a doomed Roman city hundreds and hundreds of years in the past. While the game itself is its own standalone and self-contained experience, the idea first took form as an award-winning mod for Bethesda's The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim created by Modern Storyteller founder Nick Pearce and released back in 2015 after nearly two thousand hours of development time.

The mod version of The Forgotten City started to rack up thousands, and eventually millions, of downloads. Pearce decided that the entire story could stand on its own as a full-fledged game, and started down the path of developing the version of The Forgotten City gracing many game of the year lists today. Doing so gave Pearce the chance to take a leap of faith and end his decade-strong legal career, telling Xbox Wire this year that "It was a great job, but I dreamed of a different horizon. That’s probably why I had enough energy to devote time to this project. It was just a hobby, but it excited me more than anything else in my life."

Pearce and Modern Storyteller's journey makes for an inspiring development tale on its own, all helped along by the fact that the finished product is itself an incredible game that, among its twists and turns, is painstakingly designed to reward its players for cleverness and encourage them to look beyond black-and-white morality for the ambiguity at the core of The Forgotten City's curse. - Alissa McAloon, EiC

Square Enix Creative Business Unit III

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Have you heard of the critically acclaimed MMORPG Final Fantasy XIV? The Final Fantasy series is prolific in its own right, but the work done on its second MMORPG incarnation is nothing short of awe inspiring. We've lauded the team in the past for its impressive work turning Final Fantasy XIV's original and near-catastrophic launch around with the reimagined Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn back in 2013, and the game has continued to thrive in the years since. 2021 in particular marked a standout year for both the game and the team tasked with keeping its millions upon millions of players engaged.

Earlier in the year, Final Fantasy XIV producer and director Naoki Yoshida dove into some of the team's development philosophies that might just be the secret sauce for Final Fantasy XIV's continued success. In that chat, Yoshida stressed the importance of giving developers room to innovate, something that both leads to the creation of compelling content for players and helps developers stave off burnout when working with the traditionally tight development cycles needed to support a live game.

Judging by Final Fantasy XIV's latest expansion launch, Endwalker, that flexibility is paying off. A few months back the game reportedly crossed 25 million registered players, 1 million of whom seemingly signed up between October and November. Over on Steam, the early access release of Endwalker set a new peak concurrent player count for the platform of 95,000 according to Eurogamer. All of that success amid an industry-wide parts shortage and worldwide pandemic, however, doesn't come without its costs. Limited server space led to hours long login queues for many folks trying to play in the weeks following Endwalker's release, eventually prompting Square Enix to fully pause both sales and advertisements of Final Fantasy XIV and impose restrictions on its famously memed free trial as they work to resolve those congestion issues. - Alissa McAloon, EiC

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