[Originally printed in sister industry-leading trade publication Game Developer magazine, Gamasutra is proud to present the Top Deck 2008 - the 52 individuals (plus 2 jokers!) who were most important to the game industry in 2008.]
You've seen lots of top lists before, but we here at Game Developer magazine decided it was time for a distinctly focused but slightly alternative take on the important personalities in the game business.
Thus, Game Developer's Top Deck was created to recognize those members of the game development community who have -- either individually, or as part of their company -- made particularly outstanding achievements in the past year. The picks were made by Game Developer's editors.
Each "suit" of the Top Deck represents a group of game creators and businesspeople who distinguished themselves particularly well in a specific area of the game industry-specifically, Trailblazers, Progressives, Ambassadors, and Entrepreneurs. The suits themselves are not ranked, nor are the persons within them.
This does not suggest that any given person on our list didn't contribute in multiple different arenas -- but this is where we felt they shone particularly bright this year. In addition, we are aware that the vast majority of games and product lines are not made by a single person.
So, while one individual is generally mentioned, we would like to acknowledge here that none of the people on this list would be here without the support of those who work with them. Nonetheless, individuals have to spearhead, mastermind, and create-and we're delighted to be honoring them in the first ever Top Deck. Onward:
The folks in the Trailblazers group have made the world easier for their fellow developers by going where no one has gone before-or at least, not to the extent that these individuals did, or with as much obvious success.
From standing up against piracy to simply making effective systems, these folks have evolved the business in ways that will continue to be emulated.
Ace of Spades: Rob Pardo, Blizzard Entertainment
Not only has World of Warcraft shown the world that there are at least 10 million dedicated PC gamers out there, it has undisputedly proved the mass appeal of MMORPGs. Pardo was instrumental in creating this phenomenon, and with the Wrath of the Lich King expansion and a massively successful BlizzCon, 2008 continues to be a banner year for the company. And that's notwithstanding the upcoming dual hammer of StarCraft II and Diablo III, plus the company's next MMO, of course.
King of Spades: Masahiro Sakurai, Sora
Sakurai, once a designer at Nintendo's HAL Laboratory, is best known for his creative influence over both the Kirby and Super Smash Bros. series. While he has since started his own company, Sora, he has continued to work on the Smash Bros. series, and the latest iteration is what gets him on this list.
Not only a palpable game design mash-up success, Sakurai assembled over 40 different sound composers to create music for the game, making the project almost a jam band-style get-together. In an age of licensed soundtracks, this is to be applauded.
Queen of Spades: Jason Kapalka, PopCap
The only major casual game developer to both enchant the everyday gamer, while impressing the hardcore, Bejeweled and Peggle creator PopCap has got the balance just right, and chief creative officer Kapalka has been there since the company's genesis.
Not only excellent at brand maintenance, PopCap seems to have mastered brand creation and extension, with Bookworm Adventures and Peggle Nights just two of the titles that continue the company's focus on broad entertainment.
Jack of Spades: Tim Sweeney, Epic
No other game engine out there has had such an impact as Unreal Engine 3. It is more ubiquitous than even Renderware was in its heyday, and lawsuits and quirks aside, there's got to be a reason nearly everybody uses it. Tim Sweeney, as the main architect of this beast, has opened up the market for developers looking to cut costs and prototype early, while also supporting the company's own original software.
Sure, it may not be cheap, but this little "side business" has turned into Epic's largest contribution to game culture thus far, and given Sweeney's history in game tools (see: ZZT), it's only to be expected.
Sony/Media Molecule's LittleBigPlanet
10 of Spades: Alex Evans, Media Molecule
PS3 standout title LittleBigPlanet is blazing new frontiers for user-generated content on consoles, and for cooperative content generation too. Evans, one of the top creators in the PC demo scene in the 1990s, and subsequently at key British talent nurturer Lionhead, is one of the main architects of the LBP experience.
And what's most notable about the Media Molecule success story is that it's the team's first title together -- a significant achievement.
9 of Spades: Clint Hocking, Ubisoft Montreal
One of the best [possibly apocryphal] industry stories of recent years surrounds FarCry 2, when it was discovered that this perpetual living world, led in its construction by creative director Clint Hocking, could burn to the ground. The story goes that a tester set a fire in the game's forest, and then went for lunch.
When he came back, he learned that the fire had spread through the whole world, killing the final "boss" in under two hours. Though the game has since been tweaked, that's what a living world is all about -- and Hocking, previously instrumental to the Splinter Cell series, is leading that particular charge.
8 of Spades: Mark Jacobs, Mythic Entertainment
Jacobs has presided over an already-impressive 750,000 subscriber haul for his studio's newest MMO title, Warhammer Online, not distracted by the Dark Age of Camelot creators' acquisition by Electronic Arts. Not only that, he's opinionated and passionate in public -- unusual for an executive in today's PR-removed market.
Following the removal of 400 people farming for gold on Warhammer's servers, he posted on his blog: "I hate goldfarmers with every fiber of my being." Whether right or wrong (and probably right), this kind of public passion is often lacking in today's game biz.
7 of Spades: Dylan Cuthbert, Q Games
Relatively obscure in the West until the launch of the PixelJunk games on the PS3's PlayStation Network, Cuthbert's Kyoto-based studio has close relationships with both Sony and Nintendo, working on elements of the PS3 operating system and on StarFox DS.
But by spearheading his Japanese studio to work on a largely Western medium (downloadable console games) and make it work, most recently with the transcendent PixelJunk Eden, Cuthbert deserves a place on this list.
6 of Spades: Ken Levine, 2K Boston
After BioShock debuted in late 2007, the reverberations of its unconventional original IP success impacted the industry more than you might guess. The game has one of the more sophisticated narrative structures of any released so far, in its integration of visual, oral, and textual storytelling into the actual gameplay.
With 2K Marin working on the sequel, and the movie version fast-tracked, plus creator Levine now working on a mysterious new project, his influence has not diminished.
5 of Spades: Mark Beaumont, Capcom
Of all the Japanese-headquartered publishers operating in the West, Capcom perhaps has the most invigorating autonomy from its bosses back East. Beaumont is taking great advantage of this, thanks to a major digital download initiative spawning titles like Age of Booty, and is funding Western-developed titles such as Bionic Commando and Dark Void.
Most impressively, a robust blog, community, and fanbase are letting Capcom's classic Japanese franchises breathe and flourish, even as the West grows stronger.
4 of Spades: Alex Ward, Criterion Games
Burnout Paradise is blazing new trails for an extended life of downloadable content, thanks to the "Year of Burnout" promotion. Sure, there's been plenty of DLC before, but so comprehensive, well-planned, and advertised in advance?
Not so much, and thanks to Ward and his team, many players have been convinced to buy and hold onto his title, awaiting the extra vehicles, motorbike additions, new levels, modes, and more. Its status as one of the first formerly full-price titles to blaze into extended sales on PlayStation Network further cements Burnout Paradise's -- and Ward's -- status as a trailblazer.
3 of Spades: Jonathan Blow, Number-None
Jon Blow, the creator of breakthrough XBLA title Braid, is a wonderfully unvarnished game creator -- one who is willing to voice his opinion, no matter what the reaction may be. But it turns out he's got the chops to back it up.
His latest title, Braid, tackles emotions and relationships in a very circuitous but interesting way -- appropriate for a rather complicated fellow like Blow. The lesson here? When you are beholden to no one, and make your games yourself, you can speak your mind without repercussions, and truly advance them as entertainment.
2 of Spades: Sarah Chudley, Bizarre Creations
Not only one of the UK's top developers, Bizarre Creations' acquisition by Activision has cemented its place as an important game creator at multiple levels, headed by Chudley and colleagues.
From the landmark downloadable Geometry Wars series, through the Project Gotham Racing franchise and whatever new racing titles the company may develop under Activision's wing, even partial miss-steps such as The Club haven't dampened the cutting edge at Bizarre Creations. Long may it continue.
The personalities in the Ambassadors group have expanded the market in ways that nobody would have expected 10 years ago. Games are not only increasing in users, but also in media mindshare -- the audience is broadening tremendously.
From new delivery methods to new platforms, without the recent contributions of these people, games would not be in the position they're in today -- which is a far more mainstream and influential one than it was 10 years ago.
Ace of Clubs: Gabe Newell, Valve
Under Gabe Newell, Valve's PC digital download service Steam has gathered over 15 million users. That's a lot of people, especially for a platform that some cynics are continually discounting as dead -- perhaps due to a spreading-out of revenue rather than an actual decrease.
Steam releases developers from the tethers of retail, and gives consumers a much better user experience, while providing a piracy-free alternative to boxed copies. Not only that, since it's developer-run, the service is certainly different from a traditional publisher arrangement. In 2008, this sounds like a re-statement of the obvious -- but can you imagine the current game industry without it?
King of Clubs: Satoru Iwata, Nintendo
The Wii and DS both came out some time ago, but this year, the platforms continued to deliver on several of the Kyoto-based company's rather bold promises. Nintendo has opened the idea of games up to new users to a degree that the company itself didn't even anticipate -- and can now claim the two most purchased consoles on the world market.
Even though it might be Nintendo first-party titles dominating the top of the charts -- scant consolation for third parties -- progressions like WiiWare, the DSi and MotionPlus continue to move things forward.
Queen of Clubs: Will Wright, EA Maxis
Spore has been lauded as the next big thing for several years now, and this year, it's finally released -- which should make it this year's big thing! What the game -- one of the most technically advanced and innovative so far -- does very well is introduce new users to sophisticated, evolutionary gameplay.
The Maxis masterpiece is simple and accessible on the surface, but beyond that, Wright's latest is a world inside your computer, and for scientific ambassadorship alone, gives the SimCity and The Sims creator a place on this Deck.
Jack of Clubs: Steve Jobs, Apple
For ages, mobile game companies have been touting the numbers -- billions of handsets, billions of potential customers. Soon thereafter, another North American cell phone game firm closes, consolidates, or otherwise downshifts. Now, with Apple's iPhone, the field becomes a tad more even.
Though not yet a gigantic market, with an actual store to purchase games from, a pleasant (and somewhat new) interface, and the ability to for developers to circumvent carriers and third party publishers, the iPhone can potentially truly bring games to a whole new group of people. Jobs and Apple have truly created a gaming platform here, for the first time since the Apple II.
10 of Clubs: Min Kim, Nexon
MapleStory creator Nexon, "big in Korea" since practically the year dot, has promoted free-to-play PC online games from both the consumer and developer sides for several years now. Among its ranks, the firm's Min Kim has been the most vocal evangelist of this business model in recent years, speaking at conferences worldwide, and lately it seems people have been starting to listen.
You can make hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars a month just from microtransactions and other alternative forms of revenue -- and even though too many people may be chasing that dream, it's Nexon and Kim that blazed the way.
9 of Clubs: Hideo Kojima, Konami
There are few game creators with the name recognition of Hideo Kojima, and even fewer still that can move significant amounts of console hardware with the release of a single title. Kojima did just that, giving the PlayStation 3 an extra 200,000 unit sales boost in North America this past June, when Metal Gear Solid 4 was released.
Beyond his importance to Sony's bottom line, however, is Kojima's unwavering insistence that video games are a storytelling medium on par with literature and film. Even if opinions are mixed on whether it succeeded as a narrative, the game remains a study on the power of story to engage players.
8 of Clubs: Alex Rigopulos, Harmonix
It's probably the cultural and stylistic forces at work at Rock Band (and original Guitar Hero) co-creator Harmonix that enchant us the most, and lead to Rigopulos' appearance in the Deck for Ambassadors. By which, we mean -- Konami has been making music games for years that have cultural resonance in its homeland, but Harmonix has always understood how to infuse the passion of music into games.
The downloadable content around Rock Band and Rock Band 2 is some of the most careful broadening of the market in some time -- sure, we get Metallica, but The Grateful Dead? Jimmy Buffett? Delightful.
7 of Clubs: Lane Merrifield, Club Penguin
Subscription-based MMOs are often described as the exclusive realm of the hardcore, but Lane Merrifield's bright, surprisingly soulful Club Penguin proves otherwise. In his keynote speech at Austin GDC this year, Merrifield explained why this company runs the virtual world, with its grin-inducing stories and charming demeanor.
Basically, it's not because they were waiting for Disney to buy them -- rather, that they love the kids who play the game, and want to serve them above all. That's pretty ambassadorial, selfless, and above all, genuine, which is why this grassroots creator has gone on to so much success.
6 of Clubs: Pauline Jacquey, Ubisoft
No third party has understood Nintendo's hardware and target demographic as well as the Paris-headquartered Ubisoft, a key to its recent success. From the more whimsical Rabbids through the tremendously popular Imagine and Petz series, the latter franchises have sold multiple millions of copies.
Ubisoft's casual titles -- while perhaps not of interest to many of the core readers of Game Developer -- have distinguished themselves by being well-made non-shovelware, and productions that don't try to take advantage of the innocence of the target market. Jacquey, who heads up the casual division at the firm, should take pride in the sales, the marketing broadening, and most of all, the way the company has gone about it.
5 of Clubs: Jim Greer, Kongregate
Ex-Pogo staffer Greer formed Kongregate with a simple idea-to take the Pogo "stickiness" and bring it to bear on free, ad-supported Flash-based web games. For many in the regular game industry, it might be a little scary how competent many of these titles are, and the layers of Web 2.0 chat, rating, and achievements make the site even more intriguing.
Of course, the monetization is relatively unproven for end users, at least in terms of making a living easily, but Kongregate is a key site in the democratization of gaming, and that's a wonderful thing.
4 of Clubs: Rusty Buchert, Sony Santa Monica
Some of the most interesting creative endeavors out of Sony recently have been birthed from Sony's Santa Monica studio, and veteran Buchert has helped facilitate a lot of these more esoteric first-party wonders.
From indie console breakthrough Everyday Shooter through ThatGameCompany's upcoming Flower to the unique interactive demo-scene project Linger in Shadows, Buchert is facilitating some of the titles that are truly giving the PlayStation Network its personality-and showcasing how a first-party should juice up its lineup with truly different productions.
3 of Clubs: Cliff Bleszinski, Epic
Most critics and developers agree that the game industry needs "faces" in order to be accepted by the mainstream in the way movies are. Gears of War's Cliff Bleszinski is such a face.
He's personable, perceptive, and with a successful enough game series to wind up on television, but also with the intelligence and care for the industry to actually say something interesting once he gets there. Bleszinski may be a little smoother than the average INTJ game developer, but for the future profile of the game industry, isn't that a good thing?
2 of Clubs: Tetsuya Mizuguchi, Q Entertainment
Very few Japanese creators have a distinctive style and a cross-media bent -- perhaps only Masaya Matsuura has a similar profile -- and Q's Mizuguchi is notable for his ability and his firm's ability to take abstract puzzle and action concepts (see: Lumines, Rez) and make them resonate worldwide.
His devotion to synaesthesia has, in some ways, prefigured the music game boom, and most of all, his ability to skip from games to elsewhere -- whether it be the holographic Al Gore he created for Live Earth or his virtual Genki Rockets pop stars -- makes him a cultural figure beyond the obvious game creator-geek.
These individuals making it into the Entrepreneurs list are businessmen, sure, but you have to be a little more than a penny-pusher to be on our listing.
To make it into this group, one must not simply make money-one must do so in a way that reinvents the company, advances the industry, or flies in the face of convention. From massive franchises through small indies, all of the below honorees have done just that.
Ace of Hearts: John Riccitiello, Electronic Arts
Riccitiello's return to EA has marked a turning point for the company. It's rare to see a CEO make such smooth, relatively contiguous, but still effective changes to a lineup. It's perhaps even rarer for a CEO that originally came from outside the industry to know so much about the games its company makes.
But the firm's maintenance of its top franchises and staff and simultaneous nurturing of well-made potential new ones, from Mirror's Edge through Dead Space, has meant that the company is becoming, surprisingly, less "The Man" and more "The Man You Want To Work For."
King of Hearts: The Housers, Rockstar
Sam and Dan Houser understand what very few others in the game business have managed to perfect -- that a combination of controversy and well-executed, stylish games add up to sales gold.
Sure, one might say that Take-Two division Rockstar Games overeggs the "rebel" card, but Grand Theft Auto IV's massive initial sales -- and a robust slate of other franchises, including Bully, Midnight Club, and Max Payne -- mean that the brothers continue to power much of their parent company's buzz and profits.
Queen of Hearts: Rod Humble, The Sims Studio/EA
Recently appointed the head of the Sims Label at EA [which EA Casual has now been folded into], Humble has notable street cred with developers, having created his own art-games such as The Marriage in his spare time in recent years.
But it's the diversification of The Sims line that he's now masterminding, and quite apart from the surprisingly sophisticated The Sims 3, extensions such as MySims (and the return of SimCity to greater console prominence) are showing why the original franchise of "play" is coming full circle in these casual times.
Jack of Hearts: Randy Pitchford, Gearbox
Make no bones about it, running a successful independent developer is tremendously difficult in today's rapidly stratifying market-and FPS veteran Gearbox, headed by Pitchford, is doing an amazing job of growing and expanding its company.
Starting with conversions or new versions of other companies' titles, Gearbox has created the developer-owned Brothers in Arms franchise, and is now diversifying further, thanks to games such as Borderlands and even a cheeky Samba de Amigo Wii version. Well-respected by peers and creating games that do well in stores, the company's entrepreneurial spirit seems to be swelling over time.
Sony/Insomniac's Ratchet & Clank Future: Quest For Booty
10 of Hearts: Ted Price, Insomniac
A key second-party Sony developer, what Price and his Southern California staff continue to do, perhaps more so than any other system-exclusive developer, is to iterate and create high-quality experiences on a yearly timeline.
The original Resistance was an impressive diversification, and with a much-awaited Resistance 2 out now, and the PSN-exclusive Ratchet & Clank Future: Quest For Booty being one of the first intentionally bite-sized AAA downloadable titles, and a North Carolina studio expansion planned for next year, the company seems in rude health.
9 of Hearts: Jonty Barnes, Bungie
Splitting from the mothership is a gutsy move, but if you have one of the biggest selling current console generation titles, as Bungie does with Halo 3, then setting up separately from Microsoft isn't such a stretch.
Helping them do so is Lionhead veteran and production head Barnes, and with the newly announced Halo 3: ODST being practically a mini-team side project for the now multi-project developer, we eagerly await the firm's continued evocation of its independent spirit.
8 of Hearts: Makoto Iwai, Namco Bandai Games America
The Japanese-headquartered Namco Bandai is reinventing itself in the U.S., with internal studios, externally developed Western-produced titles, and the whole nine yards.
Issues with the crumbling Hellgate: London notwithstanding, the company has been making some interesting moves recently, and much of it has to do with EVP and COO Makoto Iwai (previously development director), and his so-called "samurai mentality." Iwai has been shaking up development teams, and reforming the company from the inside-an impressive thing to see.
7 of Hearts: Brad Wardell, Stardock
Is the hardcore PC game scene the new face of independent games? Some would say so, and Stardock's Wardell is one of the up-and-comers, thanks to a rich history with the Galactic Civilizations series, and the Stardock-backed Sins of A Solar Empire reaching a super-impressive 500,000 units.
Add to that the Gamer's Bill of Rights and his firm's Impulse digital distribution system, and the rise of the independents continues, even beyond the obvious.
6 of Hearts: Satoshi Tajiri, Game Freak
Pokémon is a financial powerhouse. A new proper title in the series is guaranteed to sell at least a million within a few weeks, and the game has essentially refined, if not started, a complete game genre -- one that has brought success to even its imitators, in lesser degrees.
Game Freak's Satoshi Tajiri makes the list because his company has managed to deliver time and time again what the customers are looking for, expanding the dynasty to astronomical heights -- this year is no exception, with Pokémon Platinum a Japanese smash, and Pokémon Diamond/Pearl having sold around 15 million units. Pokémon is the giant hit that no one ever thinks about -- and that makes it all the more powerful.
5 of Hearts: John Baez, The Behemoth
John Baez has guided tiny San Diego-based indie and Alien Hominid and Castle Crashers creator The Behemoth as a company through thick and thin, using distinctly unconventional business tactics. How so? By making original action figures, selling T-shirts, going to expos, and basically hustling all day long to promote the company.
It is through strength of will that the company battled to release Castle Crashers to huge success -- over 350,000 units on Xbox Live Arcade in a tremendously short period of time -- and deliver a massive lesson on what it takes for independent developers to be heard in today's market.
4 of Hearts: Reggie Fils-Aime, Nintendo of America
While Satoru Iwata appears elsewhere in the Top Deck, Nintendo of America head Fils-Aime appears in the Entrepreneur section for one simple reason -- he's helped make the very Japanese company successful in the West through smart marketing and intelligent use of the amazing concepts created out of Nintendo HQ.
Using Nicole Kidman to advertise the Nintendo DS in gossip magazines is hardly a conventionaltactic for your average game hardware firm, but it's been all-encompassing moves like this that have helped Reggie convert the masses to Nintendo.
3 of Hearts: Shinichi Suzuki, Atlus
As the game market expands, we're seeing increasing amounts of smart entrepreneurship within those niches -- and import gaming is one of the more beloved of those. Atlus, a relatively small Japanese firm, has been rapidly expanding its Western translation of Eastern titles, with some significant success.
Quite apart from its own Persona series, which is increasingly critically acclaimed in the West, Suzuki and the Atlus U.S. team are licensing from small Japanese developers, bringing valid forms such as the strategy RPG and the surgery simulator to wider audiences, and uniting the world along the way.
2 of Hearts: Chris Satchell, Microsoft XNA
One of the signs of entrepreneurship is opening up new avenues of creativity and revenue creation, and Satchell's endgame -- using the Microsoft XNA Studio tools to have "bedroom programmers" create XNA Community Games across Xbox 360, PC, and even Zune -- is a massive step forward for user-created content on consoles.
The fact you can make money off your Community Games releases, too, makes it even closer to some of the more dynamic game ecosystems out there right now -- such as Apple's App Store. Also, with XNA's professional development on the Xbox incredibly robustly supported -- that's down to Satchell and team, too.
Folks making it into the Progressives list are largely game designers who stood out from the crowd of traditional creators. Obvious? Sure.
But how did they differentiate? Well, to make it into this section of the list, you have to implement brand new ideas in game development, perhaps branching in unexpected yet compelling directions. Alternatively, you can simply make what already works, work a whole lot better.
Ace of Diamonds: Dr. Ray Muzyka & Dr. Greg Zeschuk, EA BioWare
Over the past decade, Ray Muzyka's and Greg Zeschuk's BioWare has turned the previously niche genre of Western computer RPGs into a mass-market phenomenon. From the groundbreaking Baldur's Gate to Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and beyond, BioWare gets it.
And now that Mass Effect is enjoying impressive sales on the Xbox 360, Sonic Chronicles has reinterpreted an icon, and "that MMO" has been announced -- well, the multi-hundred million-dollar purchase of BioWare Pandemic by EA is vindicated, right?
King of Diamonds: Jason West, Infinity Ward/Activision
When Activision decided that it needed a game to compete with EA's Medal of Honor, it turned to the developers at Infinity Ward, many of whom had already cut their teeth on the acclaimed series of WWII shooters. The result was Call of Duty, and within an impressively short period of time it has become a cornerstone franchise for the publisher.
With Call of Duty 4, one of the highlights of last holiday season, Infinity Ward stepped away from the World War II setting and crafted a shooter that was as sophisticated in its narrative as it was in its software engineering. In an already overcrowded genre, the game has sold more than 10 million copies -- and that's why CTO West and his compatriots deserve honoring.
Queen of Diamonds: Chris Chung, NCSoft
The MMO market is a hotbed of exuberant investment and wildly optimistic publicity. The undeniable success of World of Warcraft has convinced many companies that a new gold rush is on with nearly limitless opportunities to print money. The reality is a little more complex, and it's been interesting to see how Korean powerhouse NCSoft has dealt with it.
Arguably its greatest Western success has been with Seattle-based ArenaNet and Guild Wars, and that's why, after some missteps with Tabula Rasa, Chris Chung is essentially running Western business for the firm. So with a sequel coming, and a pledge to flourish in the subscription MMO space, Chung seems perfectly set up to execute on a portfolio of competitive MMOs -- something not many others can say.
Jack of Diamonds: Goichi Suda, Grasshopper Manufacture
2008 will go down as the year punk broke, at least as far as upstart Japanese developer Grasshopper Manufacture is concerned. When it was announced in August that Electronic Arts was publishing a new game from Suda, produced by Resident Evil supremo Shinji Mikami and co-developed with Mizuguchi's Q Entertainment, we couldn't help but imagine the sound of Grasshopper's buzzing, three chord rave-ups transformed into the chromium roar of a new supergroup.
And with the critically beloved No More Heroes getting a Wii sequel, the bold, amusing rebel stylistic strokes are apparently coming to a much larger worldwide audience -- all for the good.
10 of Diamonds: Emil Pagliarulo, Bethesda Softworks
The Fallout series has a long history of dealing with the weight of fan expectations. Now that the franchise has transitioned to a new developer in Bethesda, lead writer and designer Emil Pagliarulo has to walk a fine line between staying true to Fallout's post-apocalyptic roots, and making its Oblivion-esque open-world RPG evolution accessible to a console audience.
By what we've seen so far, the Looking Glass school of game design graduate has the chops to do it, making it one of holiday 2008's key games.
9 of Diamonds: Jonathan Smith, Traveller's Tales
Working with licensed properties has long been a fact of life within the video game industry. In fact, it could be argued that licensed properties provide the daily working capital needed to keep the business running. Still, in this sometimes unglamorous sector, there are developers like Traveller's Tales, which does outstanding work that far exceeds audience expectations.
Titles like Lego Star Wars (and Indiana Jones and Batman and...) are witty and delightful. Smith's work may seem like an unholy promotional mélange, but it takes deep talent and craftsmanship to bring such irresistibly fun games to the whole family.
8 of Diamonds: Atsushi Inaba, PlatinumGames
Realizing that it's better to be The Man than to work for him, Atsushi Inaba and the Okami creators at Clover Studios left the relative security of Capcom for the wilds of independence. Of course, the resulting PlatinumGames studio, which includes Hideki Kamiya, Shinji Mikami, and Shigenori Nishikawa, is a powerhouse of Japanese development talent so its success is fairly assured -- but it's an important statement in the relatively staid Japanese market that major creators can strike out on their own.
And the reaction to PlatinumGames' signing of a four game deal with Sega seems to indicate that talent is dictating the terms of the deal, even in Japan -- symbolically vital for that territory.
7 of Diamonds: Ron Carmel and Kyle Gabler, 2D Boy
The development of the tremendous World of Goo -- just-debuted on PC and WiiWare, and at one point the highest ever Metacritic-rated game on Nintendo's console -- is an inspiration for game designers who believe in the DIY culture that video games are founded on, but find themselves making rote titles in cubicles.
Created by ex-Electronic Arts employees Kyle Gabler and Ron Carmel, World of Goo was built on the go with a tiny, essentially two-person team, and a "better, faster, cheaper" ethos that utilized many open source solutions and was free from the money-draining overhead of a physical office. This, ladies and gentlemen, may be the future of short-form gaming.
6 of Diamonds: Sid Meier, Firaxis
Sid Meier is part of a generation of designers who came of age in world without video games and whose primary inspirations come from the complexity of board and wargames in the style of SPI or Avalon Hill. And that's no bad thing, coming as it does from a time when games were specifically made for smart people. But Meier has an unerring instinct for fun, and his work is marked by a lovely intersection of whimsy and rigor.
Thus, with the creation of Civilization Revolution, Meier brought that experience to the widest possible audience by designing a game that played to the accessibility of consoles without diluting the central intellectual challenge-easily earning him a place on the Deck this year.
5 of Diamonds: Tetsuya Nomura, Square Enix
Tetsuya Nomura's character designs -- rendered in the spindly style of manga, but imbued with the jumping rhythms of street culture -- have increasingly become the visual signature of Square Enix. As skilled as he is at creating art that is cross-cultural in its appeal, it is Nomura's efforts behind the scenes at Square Enix that puts him in the Game Developer Top Deck.
His work on the Kingdom Hearts franchise, the ongoing Compilation of Final Fantasy VII project, and the upcoming Fabula Nova Crystallis Final Fantasy XIII project, all of which feature interconnected titles across a wide variety of platforms, is an instructive lesson in brand management. It's a fresh approach that upends the standard industry practice of providing linear sequels and instead gives fans multiple points of entry to their favorite game worlds.
4 of Diamonds: Michael Booth, Valve South
Perhaps many are predisposed to liking Valve's Left 4 Dead just on the basis of its zombie apocalypse setting. But more discerning players will appreciate what's going on under the hood. The game's scalable AI technology promises to generate a dynamic experience that adjusts to player performance on the fly.
Taking on many of the tasks that would traditionally be hard-scripted by designers, Left 4 Dead's AI stage manages the player experience from moment to moment, providing lulls and crescendos to the action that are unique to each instance of the game. As the creator of Left 4 Dead's "AI Director," Booth can justly be proud of something both sophisticated and truly next-gen in terms of visceral, co-operative experience.
3 of Diamonds: Dylan Fitterer, Invisible Handlebar
Audiosurf is a game with a simple concept and an elegant execution. Combine a music visualizer with a puzzle game, mix in a deep scoring system and the player's personal music library, and the result is a game with infinite replayability.
Almost the perfect software toy, Audiosurf provides a deep synaesthetic rush as its visual action synchronizes to your favorite music with an uncanny precision, and emailed high-scores and smart online synchronization make it even more tempting. That Audiosurf is largely the result of Dylan Fitterer's singular efforts makes its triumph all the more sweet-another indie success story.
2 of Diamonds: James North-Hearn, Sumo Digital
North-Hearn is now running much of Foundation9's development, but we particularly wanted to highlight and recognize the beautifully curatorial spirit of the UK's Sumo Digital, his original development home. Taking products from Sega (Superstars Tennis) through Konami (New International Track & Field), the level of smartly executed fan-service in the games seems to outdo even what the original companies might have intended.
Often, remakes or updates are less, well, caring-and it's beautiful to see a European company taking great care of Japanese franchises from some of the all-time greats, in a relatively under the radar manner, too.
As with any deck of cards, we need a couple of jokers in the pack. We've picked a couple of creators whom we adore, and are significant creative forces in their own right.
But they're both folks who make us grin in different ways, and play the fool -- largely intentionally -- while advancing the biz at the same time. This isn't entirely the booby prize!
Denis Dyack, Silicon Knights
Denis seems to have gotten a bit of a reputation as class clown of late, thanks to his forthright views on subjects as wide as the one console future, marketing games, and, of course, Unreal Engine. But what gets him on this list is his unfortunate trolling of the famously firey game forum NeoGAF.
Dyack stated his opinion that the forum is hurting both society and the game industry, and challenged forum members who had yet to play his then-upcoming Too Human to voice their hatred, to stand and be counted. Then when the game came out, there would be egg on their face.
The game's middling critical reception, combined with an angered mass of forum flamers, didn't help to prove him right. What's unfortunate is that some of his more outlandish statements have masked the largely excellent points he has on a variety of subjects, from journalism to the nature of flow.
Peter Molyneux, Lionhead
In general, there's the world-changing game Peter Molyneux talks up prior to a release, and the eventual game you get. While the result is always satisfying, there's generally a rather amusing disconnect there.
The designers at Molyneux's studio have set out a host of ambitious goals for Fable II (even as Molyneux himself is more careful to manage our expectations this time) -- and the entire experience hinges on getting the AI right.
From what we've seen, the underlying logic that drives contextual choices in Fable II's dynamic does indeed open up some new modes of expression in game design. But can any Molyneux-developed game ever match up to the expectations laid out for it by its creator, prior to its release?
Perhaps a happy medium behind the hype and reality is what makes it work, but with Peter already starting to hint at revealing another project, even before this one is out, the delightfully charismatic Molyneux circus continues.