In this article from the final issue of Game Developer magazine, the Game Developer and Gamasutra staffs collaborate to offer a list of the 30 best developers of all time. (The complete issue is available as a free download here.)
For a few years now, we at Game Developer have consulted with the Gamasutra editors to determine a list of the top 30 developers of the past year (from June to June, that is). Normally, this list is meant to recognize the studios that have shown excellence in creativity or in business, in product or production; in other words, the people out there doing work that inspires the rest of us by virtue of being new, better, or different.
When it comes to the last issue of Game Developer, however, a simple list of the last year’s best simply won’t do. Instead, we chose to assemble a list of the greatest game developers of all time. What follows is a list of 30 studios that have left (and in some cases, continue to leave) an indelible mark on the medium of video games for generations to come.
Note that whenever possible we’ve gone out of our way to avoid recognizing developers solely for being the first to do something in video games -- our medium’s pioneers are important, but we wouldn’t have room left in the list for anyone else. So we’ve generally tried to stick to the last 30 years of game development or so, and focus on the studios that we think have shaped the current era.
Nintendo Entertainment Analysis and Development
Odds are that most people reading this article owe their fascination with video games in some part to Nintendo EAD (Super Mario Bros., Legend of Zelda), so including it on this list is a no-brainer. However, we feel compelled to point out that it’s not just their work from almost 30 years ago that earned Nintendo EAD a spot; we’re impressed by the way they consistently manage to push video games as a whole in new directions. Plus, as people who grew up with video games, we think there’s something to be said for knowing there is someone out there keeping Nintendo’s genuinely friendly blue-skies aesthetic alive.
San Francisco, California
We have a soft spot in our hearts for Lucasfilm Games (later LucasArts) and their adventure games: Monkey Island, Maniac Mansion, Full Throttle, and Grim Fandango, among others. When it comes to their impact on the industry as a whole, though, we think Other Ocean chief creative officer Mike Mika said it best in the May 2013 issue of Game Developer: “Even today, my fantasy of what game development nirvana feels like stems from my experience playing those games, and the insinuation that they were created in the most liberating and creative environment on earth.” Well said.
For better or worse, we can trace the dominance of the first-person shooter straight back to id Software and its seminal titles Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Quake. To be sure, these games have left an indelible impact on the game industry -- particularly when it comes to 3D graphics programming and networked multiplayer, for example -- but we’re also inclined to honor them for their generally dev-friendly attitude toward game development, as demonstrated by their encouraging and open stance toward modding, and their habit of open-sourcing their id Tech engines. Also, we’re keeping our fingers crossed for a gritty Commander Keen reboot.
Cary, North Carolina
Certainly, Epic’s list of games is impressive enough -- nobody can doubt the impact that Unreal and Gears of War have left on the modern game industry. But we’re including them on this list for the Unreal Engine itself. Between the raw power of Unreal Engine and UDK’s relative ease of use, Epic has proven that they’re not just good at making games, they’re good at making tools to help people make games -- and make those games look better than ever. (Just for the record, we’d accept a gritty Jazz Jackrabbit reboot, too.)
We knew Bungie was cool way back in their Macintosh-only days, when we were devouring the terminal text in Marathon and tossing grenades in Myth: The Fallen Lords, but we never could have imagined that Bungie would have basically carried Microsoft’s Xbox and Xbox 360 with Halo. We’re sure that lots has changed since the studio grew from three people to over 300, but we’ve remained impressed by how Bungie has consistently maintained a deeply thoughtful combination of technology, design, and creative direction over the years.
Walnut Creek/Emeryville, California
We can’t write this list without acknowledging Maxis for SimCity and The Sims. During its prime, Maxis was eerily capable of making sim games just complex enough to be engaging and fun -- and also managed to smash a few PC game sales records in the process.
From early flight sims (F-15 Strike Eagle, F-19 Stealth Fighter) to Sid Meier’s Civilization and Pirates!, MicroProse’s PC games legacy in both development and publishing throughout the ’80s and ’90s is impeccable. This legacy would be later left in Firaxis Games’s hands, when studio co-founder Sid Meier left with Jeff Briggs and Brian Reynolds to continue with Meier’s 4X game direction with further Civilization titles (and more recently, XCOM: Enemy Unknown).
There’s little we can say about Treasure that doesn’t ultimately boil down to “They make really, really good games.” Treasure makes great originals (Ikaruga, Gunstar Heroes), Treasure makes great licensed games (Yu Yu Hakusho, Bleach: Dark Souls), Treasure makes great shoot-’em-ups and beat-’em-ups and fighting games… The list goes on. We bow to Treasure’s mastery of the craft.
Love it or hate it, Final Fantasy started as a last-ditch effort to stay in the game industry, grew into an international phenomenon, and ended up growing into a multimedia empire of its own. Chunsoft’s Dragon Quest may have pioneered the modern Japanese role-playing game as we know it, but we credit Final Fantasy with bringing the genre to such prominence in the 1990s and early 2000s (also, Chrono Trigger).
Role-playing games stress a dev studio’s ability to build worlds; BioWare excels at writing them. Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Dragon Age, and Mass Effect are all representative of BioWare’s unparalleled abilities to take worlds and games with complicated rule sets and histories (like Forgotten Realms and Star Wars, for example) and distill them into the essence of video games as storytelling. Considering the game industry as a whole is often characterized as violence-obsessed and juvenile, we like that BioWare managed to build its reputation on good writing, simple design, and compelling worlds.
Manchester, New Hampshire
Simply listing the Wing Commander or the Ultima series doesn’t do Origin Systems justice. Origin’s characteristic polish and technical capability inspired the next generation of developers -- and many Origin devs went on to do great things (Paul Steed, Raph Koster, Warren Spector) as well. Like their motto said, they created worlds.
Sega in general is near and dear to our hearts, but we wanted to give Yu Suzuki’s team a special nod for their string of great work from After Burner and OutRun to Virtua Fighter and Shenmue. AM2 made arcades a magical place to be, and we miss that.
Looking Glass Studios
You’d think that it’d take more than two notable game franchises to get yourself on Game Developer’s list of the Top 30 Devs of All Time, but Looking Glass Studios earned this just by the strength of Thief and System Shock alone. (We know they did other games, but every time someone suggested including Looking Glass, it was just for those two.) Naturally, we can’t bring up Looking Glass without mentioning that Ken Levine started his career there on Thief before eventually going on to found Irrational Games and later creating BioShock.
It’s easy to forget that Pokémon wasn’t always a multimedia empire (complete with yearly feature film releases!). It all started out with series creator and studio co-founder Satoshi Tajiri looking to design a game that replicated the childhood thrill of catching and collecting insects -- and gradually evolved into arguably a blueprint for accessible/addictive game design and cross-media success. And it was super effective.
Certainly, Valve’s track record when it comes to their actual games is impressive; the legacy they’ve left thus far with Half-Life, Portal, Team Fortress 2, Left 4 Dead, and Counter-Strike pretty much guaranteed them a spot on this list. We could mention Steam, with which Valve parlayed their success making games into arguably the most influential digital games marketplace. Really, though, we want to acknowledge them for, from all accounts, being a truly developer-led studio that understands the value of getting brilliant people together and treating them well -- which is an example we think the industry as a whole ought to take to heart.
When Blizzard made Warcraft, it seemed like everyone wanted in on real-time strategy games. When Blizzard made World of Warcraft, everyone wanted to make an MMO. We don’t know what’s in the water at Blizzard HQ, but whatever it is has enabled them to take an existing genre and turn it into an industrywide trend.
Whenever possible, we’ve tried to avoid recognizing a massive game company on this list in favor of highlighting specific dev teams. With Capcom, we simply can’t do this, because it’d mean picking favorites between the folks who made Mega Man, Street Fighter, and Resident Evil (just to name a few!). Fact is, Capcom knows how to make a darn good video game, and that has kept them in the center of the industry for decades.
To be clear, when we mention Kojima Productions, we’re retroactively including the work that the core team did as part of Konami during the original Metal Gear Solid days. The Metal Gear Solid series embodies some of the most creative fusions between game design and storytelling we’ve ever seen in video games before. Yes, it gets weird sometimes, but we’re glad that Hideo Kojima is out there making big-budget games that get a little weird.
We can’t talk about inspirational devs without bringing up Bullfrog Productions, the studio that brought us Populous, Syndicate, Theme Park, and, of course, co-founder Peter Molyneux, who would go on to found Lionhead Studios (Fable, Black and White). We like that Molyneux chases after ways to tease out the medium’s potential for emotional engagement -- and in doing so, inspires other devs to do so as well.
Mojang makes Minecraft, Mojang sells Minecraft, Mojang makes millions and millions of dollars. Practically overnight, Mojang became a fairy tale to tell starving indies: Work hard on ideas you believe in, do right by your players, and the money will come. So Mojang is on this list because what they’ve done with Minecraft alone is an amazing accomplishment -- and also because we, too, want to believe.
When we were putting together this list, we found that it was easy enough to pick out studios that had landmark games early on in the industry’s history, or studios that emerged as dominant players in the current era. Ubisoft Montreal nearly flew under our radar -- not because they don’t deserve a spot, but because it’s strangely harder to recognize a great studio when they’re still around and doing great work like Splinter Cell, Far Cry, Assassin’s Creed, and the rebooted Prince of Persia series. We like to think that in 20 years (forever, in this biz), Ubisoft Montreal will still be there, quietly cranking out a handful of top triple-A titles year after year.
Culver City, California
Riot Games basically took a Warcraft III custom map and turned it into an international phenomenon that spawned a genre of its own -- the multiplayer online battle arena, or “MOBA.” What’s more, they did so by championing the then-unproven free-to-play business model (well, unproven in American markets, anyway), and architecting a studio culture built solely around making League of Legends the best darn game they could make it. Since 2006, Riot has focused solely on developing and sustaining one game, which we think is a testament to how much they believe in their game. Here’s to the next seven years.
Platinum Games/Clover Studios
We’re going to cheat and cover two studios in one entry, since Platinum Games’s core trio of Shinji Mikami, Atsushi Inaba, and Hideki Kamiya previously worked together as Capcom subsidiary Clover Studios. Between the two studios, this dream team is responsible for Viewtiful Joe, Okami, God Hand, Bayonetta, and MadWorld. We like that Platinum Games is unafraid to unleash their creative energies and take risks; we love that they do this and make games that just feel solid, satisfying, and lovingly crafted.
Los Angeles, California
Even after Flow and Flower, naysayers and traditionalists had no problem dismissing thatgamecompany’s work. After Journey’s runaway success in 2012, though, we don’t think anyone can ignore thatgamecompany anymore. To us, the fact that thatgamecompany’s emotion-directed development approach can thrive and flourish indicates that our industry and our medium are gradually maturing in their capacity for creative expression -- which we think was a long time in coming.
Electronic Arts - We See Farther devs
Can a computer make you cry? That’s the question posed in an early print advertisement for Electronic Arts in its early days during the mid-’80s. Nowadays, EA’s reputation isn’t quite so clean, but we couldn’t put together a top 30 list without acknowledging their roots as a publisher for what was basically a loosely affiliated dev collective composed of: Bill Budge (Pinball Construction Set), Anne Westfall and Jon Freeman (Archon, Murder on the Zinderneuf), Danielle Bunten Berry (M.U.L.E., Seven Cities of Gold), John Field (Axis Assassin), David Maynard (Worms?), and Mike Abbot and Matt Alexander (Hard Hat Mack). It’s somewhat comforting to know that video games have a long history of artists and iconoclasts looking to push the medium further.
Sierra On-Line (originally On-Line Systems) started from humble beginnings with Mystery House, the first-ever adventure game with graphics. With King’s Quest, Space Quest, Quest for Glory, Gabriel Knight, and, yes, Leisure Suit Larry, however, they grew the adventure game genre into an integral part of the video game landscape. Sierra On-Line may not have made it into the current generation of games, but their impact on the industry and subsequent generations of developers lives on.
Rare started out making games for the NES at a ridiculous clip (releasing 18 games in 1990 alone!), went on to partner with Nintendo as a second-party developer, and then got purchased by Microsoft to make games for the Xbox and Xbox 360. When you think about it, it’s kind of amazing that the same studio responsible for Battletoads, Donkey Kong Country, and Killer Instinct also did GoldenEye 007 and Kinect Sports. That kind of longevity in a cutthroat industry like this is, well, rare.
As we work our way through this list of legendary game dev studios, it’s worth taking a moment to honor the all-volunteer team behind MAME (Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator). Fact is, we’re really glad there are people working behind the scenes to preserve a playable, accurate version of our arcade game history, especially when that kind of preservation work entails breaking old proprietary encryption schemes and reverse-engineering undocumented system architecture. Keep doing what you’re doing, folks.
Sometimes it seems like games are a medium in search of a master storyteller to show us all how it’s done -- which is funny, because Infocom did exactly that with only text in 1980. Their works of interactive fiction -- most notably the Zork series, of course -- demonstrated that games could engage players in ways other media couldn’t. What’s more, with later releases like A Mind Forever Voyaging and Leather Goddesses of Phobos, they tackled mature themes meant for adult audiences that developers almost 30 years later still have problems sorting out.
Between their early work on the MSX to their more well-known NES and Game Boy games (Adventures of Lolo, Kirby’s Dream Land), HAL Laboratory was probably Japan’s best third-party development studio in the late ’80s to the early ’90s. We think that Nintendo buying HAL in 1992 was probably one of the best decisions they’ve ever made: Not only did HAL go on to make Earthbound and Super Smash Bros., they also hired a “genius programmer” straight out of college named Satoru Iwata, who would eventually go on to succeed Hiroshi Yamauchi as president of Nintendo.
Sherman, Set the Wayback Machine to…
While we’re acknowledging the top game devs of all time, we figured we might as well take a moment to recognize the folks who set the stage for the modern video game, too. Humans have been playing games far longer than we’ve had computers -- and computer technology has a longer history than most of us tend to realize.
Ada Lovelace is widely considered history’s first programmer. Born in 1815 to the poet Lord Byron and Anne Isabella Milbanke, Milbanke encouraged her daughter to study mathematics from a young age. In 1842 she was commissioned to translate Charles Babbage’s paper on his Analytical Engine, an early mechanical general-purpose computer. In the course of expanding upon Babbage’s findings, Lovelace developed what we now recognize as the world’s first computer algorithm. Lovelace remains an inspiration for women in technology to this day.
Known as the father of artificial intelligence, Alan Turing began his professional career as a fellow at King’s College at the unheard-of age of 22. In 1936 Turing outlined the concept of the “a-machine” (what we now know as a Turing machine), a hypothetical device capable of simulating any computer algorithm. His Turing test, by which machine intelligence can “fool” a human participant, remains a reference point in the field of AI to this day.
Grace Hopper enlisted with the United States Naval Reserve during World War II, where she served on the Navy’s Mark I computer-programming staff. Following the war, Hopper stayed on with the Navy to work as a research fellow at Harvard, where she coined the term “debugging” (after a literal moth became stuck in a Mark II machine). In her post-Harvard work Hopper developed some of the world’s first compiler programming languages, including FLOW-MATIC, a forerunner to COBOL.
An electronics technician and computer programmer, Ian Sommerville came to prominence among the Beat Generation of writers and artists. In 1960 he programmed the random sequence generator used by Brion Gysin in his cut-up technique, a Dadaist literary style later introduced to, and popularized by, William S. Burroughs. A lover and “systems adviser” to Burroughs, Sommerville collaborated with the author to produce “Silver Smoke of Dreams” and also developed the Dreamachine, a stroboscope device billed as “the first object to be seen with the eyes closed.” We think he’d have made for a great indie game dev.
As co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons, Gary Gygax was instrumental in evolving the tabletop wargaming scene of the late 1960s and early 1970s, providing the foundation not just for later generations of rules-based role-playing and strategy games but also an expansive body of role-playing lore.
Naughty Dog “They are incapable of making a bad game.” - @Luc1ferous
SNK Modular arcade systems are pretty neat. We, too, miss the MVS.
Rockstar Games Grand Theft Auto is more or less a cultural icon.
Insomniac Games Insomniac got a whole lot of love from our Twitter readership for making great games. We at Game Developer like Insomniac for a different reason: They’re always willing to talk dev tech and technique, often within the pages of our magazine.
From Software While From Software has been around forever and done a ton of awesome work, we suspect that most of the nominees are folks who really, really, really like Dark Souls and Demon's Souls.
Bethesda Softworks “Bethesda has taken away probably 300 hours of my life.” - @Randy_Floustine
Black Isle Studios Game devs really liked Fallout 2 and Planescape: Torment, apparently.
Double Fine Everyone loves Tim Schafer.
CCP Games EVE Online is the game everyone loves to read about, whether we’re reading stories about the players doing amazing things in-game, or stories from the devs as they explain how they designed the game to facilitate those amazing player stories.