Games

Gamasutra’s Best of 2020: The top 10 game developers of the year

Selecting 10 studios for our top game developers list is difficult every year, but this year was one of the toughest to narrow down.

Everyone has been through hardship this year to varying degrees because of [gestures at everything]. In that sense, all developers whose games brought any of us joy, some escape, some solace from the challenges of 2020 deserve recognition as we start 2021.

But for our small group here, there were certain developers whose dedication to the craft and community of game development resonated with us above all others. These studios not only released stellar work, but also made a positive difference in the world around them. Here are our top game developers of 2020.

Listed in alphabetical order. (And don’t miss our top games of 2020.)

Even though it was a quieter year release-wise for Blizzard Entertainment, we wanted to include the company on this list for having one of the most robust transitions to work-from-home in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. While developers large and small made tremendous efforts in supporting their workers as they moved to their home workstations, Blizzard went above and beyond in our eyes, going so far as to set up a drive-through supply station that reappropriated its office supplies for employees to take home, even as shortages for common goods were beginning to take effect.

Blizzard also committed to more programs meant to help stay-at-home workers throughout the year. Its “take your children to work day” program was transitioned to be virtual, it delayed World of Warcraft: Shadowlands’ launch in response to pandemic-driven delays, and it punted BlizzCon out a few more months into an online format well before we know how dangerous this fall would be.

Blizzard’s process for managing the pandemic’s impact on its employees is commendable, and may inform how other major companies navigate future crises.

EA Motive’s had something of an identity crisis for the bulk of its existence. Is it a new intellectual property factory for EA? Is it a Star Wars support studio? While corporate HQ worked behind the scenes to figure out what to do with the Montreal-based company, its developers took the ball into their own hands and ran with it all the way to the release of Star Wars Squadrons.

Though it’s generally true any studio working with the Star Wars brand isn’t exactly a scrappy underdog, we wanted to credit the staff behind EA’s Star Wars flight simulator for taking a risk on an oft-ignored game genre and convincing top brass that their space flight sim with MOBA influences would be worthy of the company’s full firepower. Not only that, they got the company on board with making the game a premium, standalone release in a year where EA’s prioritized live games with in-app purchases.

Now that EA has teased Motive’s larger projects, it makes it all the more impressive that the studio’s employees banded together to create a smaller game that not only celebrates their passion for Star Wars, but pays tribute to a game genre and set of developers who defined PC games in the 1990s. Hopefully, that same rebellious energy stays strong in the studio’s upcoming efforts.

When The Game Band crossed our radar first, it was with the elegant Apple Arcade title Where Cards Fall. It seemed like a studio with a similar identity to other great indies: it made great, beautiful puzzle games for casual platforms. Six months later, they blasted our expectations away with the creation of Blaseball, a game that is somehow baseball, but not baseball, but is still baseball, but is actually pure chaos.

Pure chaos, yes, but pure chaos that’s created a number of high-stakes stories that captured an audience so dedicated it’s followed The Game Band over to Patreon to support their efforts. We’ve never seen a performance or transition from a studio like this, and we want to celebrate it at the end of the chaotic hell-year that is 2020.

Since launching No Man’s Sky in 2016, Hello Games has matured into a studio that has mastered live-service development. At launch, the procedurally generated space exploration was damn good, but under the careful guidance of Hello Games it has been transformed into something truly spectacular.

Despite coming under fire from a vocal minority who decided to project their own expectations and demands onto the hotly anticipated indie title, the Hello Games team continued to plug away in a bid to make No Man’s Sky bigger and better, honing and refining its procedurally generated universe with a steady stream of updates that almost never fail to impress.

2020 was no different. Last year saw the UK studio roll out some mammoth updates including Origins which added deeper planetary diversity, new terrain, more expansive weather conditions, binary star systems, colossal buildings, a reworked UI, titanic sand worms, and much, much more. Those lucky enough to pick up an Xbox Series X/S or PlayStation 5 were also treated to a free next-generation update that delivered smoother performance, enhanced visuals, and more ambitious base construction.

Keeping players old and new engaged and happy for close to half a decade is no mean feat. The fact Hello Games keeps hitting it out of the park year after year is frankly staggering, and is at the very least worthy of a end-of-year hat tip.

How can you tell Innersloth had a good year? Well, its social deduction game Among Us became so insanely popular that the studio had to cancel its sequel.

You see, despite launching 100,000 years ago in 2018, Among Us witnessed a meteoritic surge in popularity during the second half of 2020 that saw it become a worldwide phenomenon almost “overnight.” The multiplayer title, which asks players to figure out which of their nebulous crewmates is a murderous entity, was practically made for our mid-pandemic reality.

It facilitated social interaction at a time when we very literally couldn’t get enough, created hilarious moments and meme-worthy content that doubled as perfect procrastination fodder and ready-made marketing material, and gave progressive politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez a way to use video games to bring people together and spread messages of hope. In short: it was brilliant.

It’s worth pointing out that Innersloth had to work tirelessly to ensure it didn’t waste the opportunity presented by Among Us’ second-year surge, and in the space of a few months the studio had increased the maximum player base, added four servers and three new regions, implemented color-blind support for specific tasks, added longer game codes to support more concurrent games, surprise-launched a Switch version, and looked to address server and cheating issues as the title continued to scale up.

Indeed, it might’ve been easy for the Washington studio to drown under the weight of its own success, but in meeting the colossal challenge head on, Innersloth ensured Among Us will forever come to define 2020.

In a year that brought so much pain, sorrow, and anxiety, Jackbox Games provided much-needed respite from the realities of 2020, providing friends, family, and coworkers with Zoom-friendly game sessions that let them be together when they couldn’t be together.

Known for the Jackbox Party Pack series and standalone multiplayer classics like Fibbage and Quiplash, the 40-person Chicago-based studio had to react fast to server demands driven by record daily traffic that was equal to or greater than that of a typical Thanksgiving or Christmas, as lockdowns took place. But the studio was able to beef up its servers, add stability for players, and stay on top of bugs.

On top of maintaining its existing roster of games, Jackbox also had to complete this year’s Jackbox Party Pack 7 under remote working conditions. Jackbox CEO Mike Bilder told us in May how his studio had to figure out how to finish up an in-production Party Pack, as well adapt to prototyping new games via video chat.

Bilder told us, “It’s a bit of a weird moment to find success in what is a very trying and anxious time for the rest of the world.” But Jackbox decided to pay it forward this year, leading and also contributing to over $1 million of donations to worthy causes. In 2020, Jackbox wasn’t just a sharp game maker–it was an active contributor and leader of a community.

It’s been a stellar year for the folks at Larian, earning them a place on this list. 2020 saw the early access launch of Baldur’s Gate III, landing Larian the daunting task of shepherding a long dormant and beloved IP into the hands of modern players. It’s something of a dream project for the studio; legend goes that Larian CEO Swen Vincke approached Dungeons & Dragons owner Wizards of the Coast about making a Baldur’s Gate III way back when and, after finding success with its own fantasy RPG series Divinity: Original Sin, Wizards returned and asked Larian to helm the new project.

The team scaled up to take on Baldur’s Gate III, and 2020 saw the studio deliver an ambitious first arc to its tale of tieflings and tadpoles. We reiterate every time our top developers list comes around that creating a good game isn’t enough to earn recognition here. For Larian Studios, this spotlight is earned through both the excellent execution of a game-and-studio match made in heaven, along with its excellent handling of a larger-than-expected Early Access launch. Crashes and bugs in the early days of the game were met with hotfixes and transparent blog posts about development, changes, and fun tidbits on player behavior.

Since those first patches and fixes, Larian has kept an ear to its community and paid careful attention to feedback on details like, most recently, companion NPC relationships, the downsides of tying certain moments to the luck of a D20 dice roll, and reward balancing for players opt to solve their problems with words rather than swords. It’ll be a long road to release and beyond for an ambitious early access like Baldur’s Gate III, but Larian is showing how well developers can navigate the perils of an early access launch. 

To say Mediatonic made the most of 2020 would be an understatement. The British studio arrived on the battle royale scene in a blaze of bumbling glory, not by beating blockbusters of the genre like Fortnite at their own game, but by convincing players they don’t need to shoot each other full of holes to have a rollicking good time.

The studio’s last-person-standing platformer, Fall Guys, rewrote the rulebook in that regard, asking players to forget about blasting their opponents to bits, and instead focus on waddling their way though a series of preposterous obstacle courses that took cues from shows like Wipeout and Takeshi’s Castle. It made for an experience that was ludicrously fun, bewilderingly wholesome, and endlessly watchable. It also evidently struck a chord with players, with Fall Guys quickly becoming the most downloaded PlayStation Plus title in history and shifting over 10 million copies on Steam alone within two months of launch.

Those numbers, which in many ways are the product of Mediatonic’s joyous, whip-smart approach to level and character design, marketing, and community management, speak for themselves. But they aren’t the only reason the studio is on this list. Since Fall Guys became a bona fide phenomenon, Mediatonic has shown willing to share the spoils with other developers by releasing a smattering of useful content like character design tips, marketing guidelines, and internal pitch documents. That commitment to giving others creators a leg up in the wake of its own newfound fame speaks volumes about the studio, and is rightly deserving of a round of applause.

We’ve independently gushed about Animal Crossing: New Horizons in our own game of the year write ups, but the developers behind the much lauded island life sim deserve some praise of their own.

There’s always something to be said when a studio sets out and creates a sequel that manages to introduce new mechanics and general improvements while still capturing the charm of earlier games. Particularly, expanding Animal Crossing‘s decoration shtick beyond the home and allowing players to fully personalize their islands with terraforming and item placement builds on that core Animal Crossing experience and the inherent creativity of its community.

The cultural impact of Animal Crossing plays into this all as well. Of course, Nintendo couldn’t have predicted exactly how much the world would need a new Animal Crossing game this year. It was a comfort amidst the chaos that was March 2020, and the team at Nintendo EPD managed to keep a comfortable cadence of updates and in-game events while no-doubt enduring pandemic-driven changes to their own lives. Through careful attention and design, Nintendo cultivated a cozy and creative space that provided much needed comfort and community to both experienced Animal Crossing players and series newbies alike.

Supergiant Games earns a spot on our top game developers list not only because it released the universally-acclaimed million-selling Hades this year, but also because the studio has been setting an example of how it is possible for a small game developer to make an instant classic while still being mindful of work-life balance.

For yet another year, “crunch” has been a talking point in the game industry. While Supergiant creative director Greg Kasavin has said employees do sometimes work long hours, there is an awareness at the studio about weighing often unpredictable bursts of creativity and productivity with measures that counteract burnout.

For example, there are structural steps to prevent burnout such as providing unlimited time off, requiring employees to take at least 20 days off per year, and ruling no emails allowed after 5pm on Fridays. There’s also the studio’s more disciplined approach to milestones that came from developing Hades as Supergiant’s early access game. All these practices and more make Supergiant an exemplary game studio in terms of art, business, and craft.

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