Editor-in-chief Michael French examines the trends in 2011's 100

DEVELOP 100: Critical Success

Who are the best games studios in the world? Who makes the best games? Who gets the most plaudits? Who deserves the kudos?

That last question is one we have tried to answer with every annual version of the Develop 100.

Whether based on the now-narrower retail sales data or our own confident judgement, the previous six editions have highlighted star performers across global games development.

Nintendo. Ubisoft Montreal. Traveller’s Tales. EA Canada. Infinity Ward. Bungie. Yuke’s. Rockstar North. Big studios, both in-house and independent, have formed the bulk of our listings.

But in an evolving market, where microstudios and bedroom coders are seeing a renaissance, a more universal metric is needed.

This year we are using Metacritic data as the backbone for the Develop 100. That means for the first time digital content has a part to play in this widely-read list, as do mobile and smartphone games.

By looking at the critical reception around the 1,600+ games released last year, using the trusted, respected and sometimes controversial data tracked and monitored by Metacritic, we are able to really boil down to that first question: Who are the best games studios in the world? This year, we’ve answered that question by polling the thousands of reviews published in 2010.

The result, which begins on page 14, makes for really surprising reading.

A few spoilers: One of those big studios named above scores the top spot. But so too do a swathe of studios that would have otherwise been left out of a retail revenues ranking, yet nevertheless are turning heads and rewriting the rules of the games industry.

Overall, this is a more diverse Develop 100 than
ever – and rightly so given the state of play in games development right now.

Half the list comprises of studios that have built a reputation for themselves and their brands through Apple’s iPhone/iPad App Store and its rivals – the rest comprise of studios using retail releases or console-based digital distribution to grow or establish themselves.

It’s also the most geographically mixed listing we’ve ever published. 19 countries are represented in the ranking this year. Core games industry markets like USA, Japan, Canada and the UK are of course represented (with North American development teams taking up over a third of the ranking).

However emerging markets and new hubs for games development are emerging. Teams from India, Slovakia, Spain, New Zealand, Czech Republic and Russia are in the list, as are multiple teams from Australia, South Korea, Norway France, Austria, Germany, Sweden, Finland and Denmark.
And as this is a snapshot of all the games released in the previous calendar year, this is a genuine reflection of where the industry is right now.

We’ve only taken 2010 releases into account, this is not a historical ranking. So while the top developers of all time according to Metacritic include Blizzard, Nintendo, Valve and BioWare, not all of them feature in the Develop 100.

That last point exemplifies one of the wider trends in the industry that this more progressive Develop 100 speaks to. Big studios missing from the ranking this year include BioWare and Ubisoft Montreal, two of the most respected publisher-owned superstudios responsible for two of the biggest 2010 games – Mass Effect 2 and Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood.

Unfortunately, they are also between them responsible for some sub-standard DLC, and some averagely-received licensed games. An aggregate system taking the average across the review scores for all those releases pushes them down the ranking and out of the Develop 100.

That will be sad news for the hundreds of staff at those studios and their similar-sized contemporaries. But in the age of the iPhone developer, the message couldn’t be clearer; the move to smaller and single-man teams has redressed the balance.

Large monolithic structures are great for job security and commercial reward, but credit is shared for good or ill. You can’t hide in big faceless publisher-owned studios if you want glory. The good or bad work of your colleagues – whether they are sat next to you, on another floor, or at an office in another state all working for the same development studio ‘brand’ – will have as much impact on the credit you can claim as your own will.

However, do note that it’s not just a handful of larger studios that will be been victim of the simple if brutal aggregation of stats. Other big commercial players with smaller team stature, such as Angry Birds creator Rovio Mobile (one of the big winners in the iPhone boom), are missing from the list due to their review averages falling out of our top 100’s ultimate 81 per cent threshhold.

And that touches on the second major gaming trend that the Develop 100 reflects – the rise of mobile gaming and the resultant fundamental widening of the market (and in some respects redefinition of gaming).

Metacritic didn’t add reviews of iOS products until March this year, but its data and results track back to releases over the last few years. The inclusion of this data with the ‘traditional’ console world here in the Develop 100 makes for sobering reading. As previously stated, half the studios in the list make it here due to the excellence of their iPhone or iPad games.

To some, this may be a flaw to our ranking, but it only underlines the migration to digital delivery that developers have loved. That said, iPhone reviews are still a nascent field in the criticism of games – the Touch Arcades and Pocket Gamers of the world are far younger and less established than the IGNs and GameSpots that have been running for years and have been key to Metacritic’s averages. But they are no less relevant, and neither is their critiques of games.

The predominance of iOS games sends out another interesting message about IP and gameplay mechanics too. iOS games are often more immediate and pure in their content and interactions they demand – a telling sign in the post-Wii era of touchscreens and camera-based tracking peripherals.

Indeed, download games (regardless of platform) may seem a risk commercially, but a risk with greater reward than the calculated ‘risk’ of a publisher’s sanity checked new IP. Almost all the digital download games in our 100 ranking are original properties, and not the over-exposed franchises we’ve seen over and over. That’s not to say well-established game series are missing from the list, but more often than not big brands and licences mean quick commercial rewards and less critical success. Here, the Develop 100 proves that good ideas are rewarded with critical kudos. Being able to point that out in a year where 2011’s new IPs – such as L.A. Noire and Bulletstorm – have been commercial and critical gangbusters is as rewarding for us as a place on the 100 is for the studios in this book.

Ultimately, this industry is changing quicker than ever – and the Develop 100 reflects that. With a wider sample of studios, games, countries, formats and ideas reflected in the 100 studio profiles beginning on page 14, I’m sure you will agree.

Michael French, Editor-in-Chief, Develop

The Develop 100, produced in association with Metacritic and sponsored by gamecity:Hamburg is published today, June 3rd, with Develop magazine’s June edition and MCV’s June 3rd edition.

Click here for a microsite with a list of the 100 and embedded digital edition of the book

Click here for a directory of all the content develop-online.net is posting from the book, including analysis commentary and much more


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