Every entertainment industry relies on collaboration to achieve the very best results, and that may be more true of games than any other. The number and variety of disciplines now required to create, release and operate a game make effective teamwork more important than ever before. Examples of individual excellence can still be found, of course, but there are occasions when great achievement cannot be attributed to a CEO or a public figurehead. When preparing the annual shortlist for our People of the Year, we strive to represent both.
Not every person or team can make the cut, of course, and they are no less deserving of recognition. Ilkka Paananen led Supercell through the launch of another mobile hit, Clash Royale, bolstering its value ahead of Tencent's huge acquisition deal. Fred Wester navigated a successful IPO with Paradox Interactive, but one that gave precedence to the company's employees, fans, and the public in his native Sweden. Six years after Limbo, Playdead released an even better and more beautiful game in Inside, while Simon Andersen made good on nine years of work with the excellent Owlboy.
All would be worthy inclusions on any list of 2016's best and brightest. Here are those picked by the staff at GamesIndustry.biz.
The former retailer took full control of Team17 in 2010 via a management buy out, and has since transformed the company from being 'that Worms developer' into a fully fledged independent games publisher (although she would prefer to use the term 'label').
In 2015, Team17 helped launch The Escapists, which went on to sell huge numbers and turn its sole creator, Chris Davis, into a very rich man indeed. It also signed major Kickstarter success Yooka-Laylee, which was recently named 'indie game of the show' at EGX.
"Under Bestwick's guidance, Team17 is a very different looking business 27 years after its debut"
Team17 has carried that momentum into 2016. It's not all been plain sailing - namely the cancelled Allison Road project that the firm was funding - but year has seen the launch of hit indie multiplayer game Overcooked and the new Worms WMD, which has rapidly become one of the most successful games in the history of the franchise.
Behind the scenes, Bestwick secured £16.5 million ($20.8m) in investment for Team17 via a deal with Lloyds Development Capital. The firm's first move was to acquire The Escapists and its development studio Mouldy Toof.
Yet it's not just her business that has thrived over the last 12 months. Bestwick has been an active advocate for diversity initiatives and has spoken at events and offered support for indie creators looking to make their break - regardless of whether they're working with Team17 or not. Her tireless support for the business saw her awarded an MBE by the Queen this year.
Under her guidance, Team17 is a very different looking business 27 years after its debut. With Yooka-Laylee and The Escapists 2 due next year, international fame now beckons.
No list of the most influential games of the last ten years would be complete without Braid. Jonathan Blow's first game as an independent developer launched on Xbox Live Arcade in August 2008, when Microsoft's online service was largely a repository for snackable experiences that called back to (or were directly culled from) the days when games were played standing bolt upright at large wooden boxes. Braid was different; its ingenious design and painterly visuals were juxtaposed with a melancholy tone and introspective, gradually emerging themes of memory and loss. With Braid, Blow helped to reset our ideas of what a console game - and an 'indie' developer - could be.
"Blow committed every cent of the small fortune he earned from Braid to realising the grand vision in his head"
Blow's second game, The Witness, launched on PlayStation 4 this year, at the apex of the trajectory Blow set back in 2008. 'Indie' now represents the vanguard of artisty and creative freedom, and the games bearing that mark have broken out from discrete sections of online services to grace the stage at events like E3 and Gamescom. The Witness makes progress in both respects: a dauntingly heady exploration of how games communicate ideas, eschewing the dual crutches of words and dialogue, all set in a gorgeous, lavishly produced world with enough hours of gameplay to edge into territory normally marked out as 'triple-A.'
The Witness is testament to both Blow's talent and singular focus. He committed every cent of the small fortune he earned from Braid to realising the grand vision in his head - even going into debt to avoid the possibility of external influence. "20 years from now, I am not going to care about whether we took an extra six months or a year in development,” he said. “I am going to care about the quality of the game people got to play.
The eight years that have passed since Braid have afforded ample time to wonder exactly what The Witness would prove to be. Hit or miss. Triumph or folly. We needn't have worried. The Witness is a resounding success in every sense, and one of the best games of 2016.
Full disclosure: I bloody love Firaxis. The particular strain of complex yet friendly strategy that Sid Meier and Brian Reynold's studio has honed over the years scratches a very specific itch, and Civilization alone has brought more hours of entertainment than the output of any other studio, or indeed publisher, combined.
"By producing two of the finest games of the year, both from franchises celebrating their 25th anniversaries, Firaxis given a masterclass in reinvention and dedication"
So the last couple of years have been a bit hard to watch. Civilization: Beyond Earth disappointed with an oddly anodyne take on interstellar colonisation, and Civilization Revolution 2 upset much of the positive balance imbued into a new branch of iteration for one of gaming's greatest IPs. With Sid himself in semi-retirement, the studio seemed to be meandering.
But all of those doubts were dismissed this year with a triumphant return to form. Both Civ 6 and Xcom 2 are near perfect windows onto their own avenues of in-depth strategy, taking risks and pushing these venerable franchises into fresh new areas without compromising on the complexity and compelling mechanics that define them. On top of that, we're virtually guaranteed that there'll be excellent and innovative DLC to come for both, bringing even more life to what must already be one of the best pound-per-hour value propositions in games.
Firaxis knows everything there is to know about the racing clockwork heart of a satisfying and multilayered strategy game, perfecting the thrill of the short engagement and the rewards of the long marriage. By producing two of the finest games of the year, both from franchises celebrating their 25th anniversaries, Firaxis given a masterclass in reinvention and dedication. Sid's legacy is in safe hands.
Amy and Ryan Green
At 12-months old, Amy and Ryan Green's son, Joel, was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Joel lived for another four years, defying the initial outlook of doctors who feared he may only have months. In That Dragon, Cancer - co-developed with Josh Larson - Amy and Ryan expressed the pain and the struggle of that experience, but also the moments of tenderness and joy they shared with Joel before he passed. That Dragon, Cancer was released at the very start of 2016 after three years in development, and has since been honoured by the IGF and The Game Awards, among others.
"That Dragon, Cancer is a truly eloquent account of a situation that most would find difficult to even contemplate"
Words are a cumbersome tool in even the most accommodating circumstances; when it comes to a game like That Dragon, Cancer they seem impossibly clumsy, each attempt at articulation thudding anvil-like onto the page. What Ryan, Amy, Josh and Numinous Games have achieved, though, makes any other description unnecessary. That Dragon, Cancer is a truly eloquent account of a situation that most would find difficult to even contemplate, and its eloquence is directly tied to what makes this medium such a powerful tool for expressing ideas and telling stories.
We frequently talk about the need for those very things - new ideas, better stories - without ever really knowing what, exactly, we're asking for. With That Dragon, Cancer, Ryan and Amy Green have put forward and answer. They turned their grief into something beautiful, and in doing so offered a glimpse at what games have been missing.
Less than 24 hours before these words were written, Vivendi edged its stake in Ubisoft past 25%, moving ever closer to the 30% threshold where, under French law, it will be required to make an offer to buy the company outright. The signs for Ubisoft's management are ominous: a year ago, Vivendi held only 10% of the company's shares, and this year it used that exact process of creeping control to complete the takeover of Gameloft, the French mobile publisher started by the same family as Ubisoft.
"We may find out in 2017 if this is a fight that Ubisoft can win. Thanks to Guillemot, we now have a better understanding of what's at stake"
That family is the Guillemots, and the force that rescues Ubisoft from the same fate as Gameloft may prove to be the desire of one of its members: Yves Guillemot, who has led Ubi since its foundation in 1986, and this year demonstrated that even a huge, publicly traded company can seem like a personal matter in the face of an existential threat. Guillemot made his desire to fight Vivendi's apparent advances clear from the very beginning, seizing every opportunity to strengthen the company's position, win the support of its other shareholders, and continue the policy of public defiance.
In the midst of all the corporate wrangling, the media has been flooded with impassioned testimony from Ubisoft's employees, most of them fearful of what a Vivendi takeover would mean for the creative culture that Guillemot has nurtured in the 30 years that the company has existed. "When they wake up in the morning they don't want to make money,” said Ubisoft's Michel Ancel, referring to Guillemot. “They've got money for ten lives if they want to stop. It's not a question of power or money now. What reason has this company to live? Is it to beat competitors? No… It's being able to create things that have never been created before.”
We may find out in 2017 if this is a fight that Ubisoft can win. Thanks to Guillemot, we now have a better understanding of what's at stake.
Jeff Kaplan and Team Overwatch
With a game like Overwatch it can be difficult to separate the people from the machine. By the time it launched, Blizzard Entertainment had brought the vast sprawl of its resources to bear on the task of making it a success. A beta test managed to support the weight of almost 10 million players, the longstanding tradition of the midnight launch was forsaken in the name of maximising launch day sales, and, as you read this, its part in Activision Blizzard's plans to conquer the eSports world is starting to take shape.
"Kaplan and his team are on this list because of the human story of Overwatch, one that can easily be lost amid so much grandstanding ambition"
This kind of success can inspire awe, but there's something about it that feels inevitable - even mechanical. Jeff Kaplan and Team Overwatch aren't on this list because Blizzard is very good at building commercial success, or even because Overwatch is a great game - and it is most certainly that. No, Kaplan and his team are on this list because of the human story of Overwatch, one that is easily lost amid so much grandstanding ambition.
Prior to directing what is arguably the most successful new game of 2016, Kaplan and much of Team Overwatch spent years on a long journey with a painful end: Blizzard's Titan, the MMO conceived in 2007 as a successor to World of Warcraft, but that was ultimately cancelled in 2014 at a cost of some $50 million. In the months leading up to the launch of Overwatch, Kaplan spoke candidly about the “devastating” collapse of Titan, which “failed horrifically in every way ... In every way that a project can fail.”
As a company, Blizzard is synonymous with commercial success, and Kaplan and his team wore the mark of Titan like a self-imposed stigma, using that pain and pressure to make their next project unarguable proof that “we're worthy of being at Blizzard too. We can make something that makes the company proud.”
Point proved Mr. Kaplan. And then some.
A crowd rushes across Central Park, phones in hand. The explanation? A Vaporean spawned nearby. Such visible mania has yet to be achieved by any other game, core or casual. While Candy Crush ensnared millions with its gem-matching simplicity, it never achieved the mainstream awareness of Pokémon Go. I was once on a BBC News segment about King and the TV crew had never previously encountered Candy Crush - and yet every news network sought to cover Niantic's location-based sensation. Hillary Clinton even shoehorned mentions of the game into her presidential campaign.
"Niantic took complex concepts such as geo-location gaming and augmented reality and refined them into a title that users of any age can understand and enjoy"
It's easy to dismiss Niantic's success as the residing appeal of the Pokémon IP, the ongoing wave of '90s nostalgia, the incremental refinement of previous title Ingress, or the perfect storm of all three and more. But that would undermine the hard work that went into one of the most phenomenal successes our industry has ever seen.
In Pokémon Go, Niantic created a title that took complex concepts such as geo-location gaming and augmented reality and refined them into a title that users of any age can understand and enjoy. Nintendo itself couldn't have done better. The Pokéstops drew attention to points of interest in local areas people may never have noticed before. While direct player-to-player battles are not yet available, millions of people are engaged in a real-world massively multiplayer game thanks to the gym system.
Finally, the impact on the Pokémon franchise itself cannot be understated. Nintendo's 3DS console and previous titles in the Pokémon franchise flew off the shelves, propelled back into the charts to rub shoulders with more recent releases. Last month, Pokémon Sun and Moon became Nintendo's biggest UK launch ever, and this almost certainly applies to other territories, too. While these games are to be commended for shaking up the 20-year-old formula, there is little doubt a significant part of their success is due to Pokémon Go.
Epic Games and Microsoft may have partnered together on Gears of War, but it's clear they don't subscribe to that series' "Brothers to the End" tagline. In March, Epic co-founder Tim Sweeney penned an editorial in The Guardian taking Microsoft to task for its Universal Windows Platform initiative, calling it an aggressive step toward monopolizing the traditionally open PC platform. Microsoft of course denied the charge, but Sweeney kept hammering the message home, repeating it on-stage the GamesBeat Summit in May and again in a PC Gamer interview in July.
"It's not often gaming executives go out of their way to pick fights with ex-partners for the betterment of the industry"
While his speculative worst-case scenarios drew plenty of derisive scoffs, we're already seeing evidence that UWP has negative consequences for users. Take last month's Windows Store release of Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, for example. Those who purchased the game through Windows Store not only couldn't play against Xbox One users (even though native cross-platform play is a big UWP selling point), they couldn't play against other PC users on Steam, either. Microsoft said it supports that functionality for partners who want to enable it, but the very fact that this sort of thing can't be accepted as a given does plenty to back up Sweeney's concerns. It's not just that the Windows Store could cut users off from non-UWP portions of the player base; it's that the Windows Store so clearly would work the best if there were no non-UWP parts of the player base at all.
Maybe Microsoft course corrects with UWP and creates a convincing reason for developers to support it and for players to buy games that use it. In the meantime, we'll just give Sweeney this little nod of approval. It's not often gaming executives go out of their way to pick fights with ex-partners for the betterment of the industry.
Every day, Electronic Arts seems more and more like a publisher that 'gets it.' The industry is changing, digital and mobile have been gaining bigger shares of the global pie, and game companies are looking to have more direct conversations with their audiences. EA has been successful on all these fronts, and a lot of that has to do with the "Players First" mantra put forth by CEO Andrew Wilson.
On its face, it sounds like a corporate marketing initiative, but in reality it means that for every key decision EA makes, the management team is asking, "Is this good for the player?" You can take that with a dose of skepticism, and it certainly hasn't worked for EA in every scenario, but ensuring that decisions are good for the player and serving the interests of shareholders don't have to be mutually exclusive. And the results are there to prove it. In the last nine months EA's stock has jumped to more than $77 a share, up 40% in that period and nearly double where it was two years ago.
It's also notable that EA has been a staunch supporter of LGBT rights for players and people in its workforce (Wilson, by the way, has a 95% approval rating as CEO), stressing the importance of diversity to the company and industry as a whole. And that arguably stems from a Players First attitude also, because as Wilson has said, "if you're going to make games for a community, you have to have a true representation of that community."
The Players First attitude can be extended to transparency among online influencers too; it's laudable that EA has taken steps to ensure that players understand when a video on Twitch or YouTube is part of a paid sponsorship. Steps like this help build trust between the player and the publisher and that can only enhance the value of the EA brand moving forward.