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Game Developer's Best of 2022: The top game developers of the year

From developers in Ukraine to Poncle, Naughty Dog and Second Dinner, these are our picks for game developers of the year.

Welcome to Game Developer's End of Year coverage for 2022! Wherein, GD staff and contributors share our highlights for the year, starting right here in our game developers of the year list. Our criteria for picking these teams and individuals was simple: when tasked with thinking up the most memorable and impressive developers of the year, this is who came to mind and stayed with us as we put the year behind us in context. Without further ado, here are the teams we felt most deserved the spotlight:

Developers in Ukraine

The Ukrainian flag
Photo by Yehor Milohrodskyi on Unsplash

We wanted to use this section to highlight the resilience and courage of developers in Ukraine who've been affected by the Russian invasion.

Many creators in the region issued statements of defiance in the wake of the invasion–which saw Russia invade Ukraine with aid from neighboring country Belarus—with studios such as Frogwares and GSC Game World calling on the game industry at large to support them after their world was turned upside down.

"As of today, the Russian Federation has officially declared war on Ukraine. Our country woke up with the sounds of explosions and weapons fire, but is ready to defend its freedom and independence, for it remains strong and ready for anything," said Stalker developer GSC Game World, which is based in Kyiv, earlier this year.

Since then, many studios and developers with a footprint in Ukraine have worked hard to support staff in the region, sometimes choosing to delay titles and redistributed funds to prioritize the safety of employees and their families—in some cases helping them relocate to more remote regions.

Devs were also forced to take Valve to task after the company halted Steam payments to developers in Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine, resulting in Ukrainian developers being deprived of an important source of income at the worst possible time.

Others created games to document their experiences of the war and share the stories of Ukrainian citizens. What's up in a Kharkiv bomb shelter, a title that aims to provide a snapshot of life in a bomb shelver, was created by Ukrainian developer Dahuanna while they attempted to evade Russian bombardments in an underground shelter.

"We want to do something so that we are something other than victims of war," said Dahuanna during an interview with Game Developer in June. "You know, terrible news filled the entire information space and all our conversations. It's like the world had become narrow, or I'd become narrow-minded and stupid... And the game was one of my attempts to save my individuality from emptiness."

The war in Ukraine continues. At the time of writing, Reuters estimates Russia's war has resulted in an estimated 41,000 deaths and the displacement of approximately 14 million people.

-Chris Kerr, News Editor

Poncle

Vampire Survivors screenshot

It’s difficult not to be impressed by Poncle, the tiny (it consists mostly of one person—Luca Galante—full time) development outfit behind Vampire Survivors. Much has been made of the game’s meteoric rise and it’s conception as a game that Galante simply wanted to make a community for. “Humble beginnings” stories do well in our industry, and remind us that sometimes, a combination of fantastic ideas, technical know-how and a lot of work can actually translate into genuine, unfettered success.

For me, it’s the brilliance of the game’s design itself that makes me jump up and take notice every time it shows up in headlines. It’s essentially a very well-implemented inversion of a classic formula: a bullet hell shoot ‘em up where you “are” the bullet—and the sheer satisfaction of the gameplay loop is hard to top. 

I haven’t played much of the game, personally, but I love to see it in action, and watch as players contend with horde after horde of creepy early 90s-inspired creatures of the night, leveling up their Belmont-y player character often and navigating a screen full of controlled chaos. It’s a game that contains hundreds of sprites onscreen at any given time, yet remains instantly readable and almost addictive in its appeal. Even if I’m not at the controls, I want to see how far every run can go.

One of my absolute favorite stories about the game comes from an early NME interview with Galante. After making an admittedly “ugly” (but very compelling) prototype, the game’s entire theme and vibe came from Galante just happily throwing an asset pack at the existing work, and, like fake blood congealing on a vampire mask, it just simply… stuck.

“I just grabbed an asset pack that was clearly Castlevania inspired. I used the asset pack on every other project I have because I really like it a lot – so I just put on this one. I kept working on it and every time I would get that feeling of having to give meaning to something, I stopped myself, grabbed a random sprite from an asset pack, gave it a random name – that’s why the game is full of silly stuff that doesn’t make any sense – and just kept focusing on development, on the gameplay.

“And it works!” He continues. “But unfortunately, this also means that the theme of the game and the title and the items—literally everything about it—was born out of chance, it’s pure[ly] random.”

This is everything fun and playful about making smaller games, and personally, I love it.

-Danielle Riendeau, Editor-in-chief

Second Dinner

marvel snap winterverse

Second Dinner is the first of many studios founded by ex-Blizzard devs to get a game out to market, and the quality speaks for itself. Though we're spotlighting the whole company here, making such a snappy (heh) and successful games shines a light on the fact that it's people who make games, not brands.

And thankfully Second Dinner seems willing to acknowledge that. Though co-founder Ben Brode is Marvel Snap's main hype man, the team's centered the work of other talented creatives. Art manager Jonny Erner got to join Brode and geek out about his passion for The Silver Surfer in a reason season announcement, and plenty of in-game art variants credit the talented artists who brought them to life. Second Dinner's also announced that it will be sharing in-game credits for all card artists in the near future.

Second Dinner's success is now a standard that we can compare other companies like Frost Giant Studios, Lightforge Games, and beyond. Hopefully each of these studios will make their own mark on the games industry, but they'll be doing so without the heft (and baggage) of the Blizzard name.

-Bryant Francis, Senior Editor

Naughty Dog

The Last of us Part 1

The Last of Us Part 1, a PlayStation 5 remake of the 2013 original, was bound to have a few quality-of-life updates. In the past decade, accessibility has become a core design value, and many of its features, like color blind modes, remappable controls, and subtitles, have become common, if not standard. But Naughty Dog’s approach to updating the game for accessibility has been astonishingly thorough, reading almost like a wishlist for other games and entertainment mediums. The company not only added numerous options for the blind and deaf community, it also arranged those adjustments into three presets for easy implementation.

Players can use haptic controller feedback, audio cinematic descriptions, navigation and traversal assistance, ledge guard, and many other features to move about in the game and survive enemy encounters. Other areas were overhauled for specificity, with both combat accessibility and difficulty modes allowing players to customize their experience based on which aspects they find the most challenging, while HUD adjustments replace certain audio cues for the hard of hearing. Even subtitles, which are relatively universal in modern games, got a little love, with additions like directional arrows to indicate the relative location of speakers and different text colors for character names to improve dialogue clarity.

While the options are too numerous to list, they’re emblematic of an industry-wide shift that will only expand in the future. May Naughty Dog’s example serve as a model for others and continue to push these efforts forward.

-Holly Green, Community Editorial Coordinator

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