We profile the five best studios in the world today

DEVELOP 100: The top five studios profiled

This month we’ve published the 2011 edition of the Develop 100.

Sponsored by Gamecity: Hamburg and based on data compiled by Metacritic, the Develop 100 ranks the world’s games developers based on their critical reception.

Below you will find profiles of some of the best studios that made the top half of the list.

For all Develop 100 coverage, and more studio profiles, go here.


Studio’s 2010 Release
Super Mario Galaxy 2 (Wii)

Formed: 2004
In-house (Owned by Nintendo)
Location: Tokyo, Japan

Also famous for:
Super Mario Galaxy (Wii)
Donkey Kong Jungle Beat (GameCube)

Lightning may not strike the same place twice on Earth, but it must in one of the fantastical worlds that populate Nintendo EAD Tokyo’s Mario Galaxy series.

The two are some of the highest rated games of all time, having received numerous perfect or near-perfect plaudits from critics around the world. The amazing critical reception to 2010’s Super Mario Galaxy 2 pushes this Nintendo studio to the top of the Develop 100.

Nintendo EAD is one of the largest creative units at the format-holder, best known for having produced the hundreds of games that make up the Mario, Zelda, F-Zero, Star Fox and Donkey Kong franchises. In other words: Nintendo’s key properties. EAD’s roots lie in the Creative Department, which was the team of artists and designers who – when Nintendo first moved into video games – devised said staple characters and brands. Most famously, this is the part of Nintendo where a young Shigeru Miyamoto rose through the ranks, and its teams are renowned for many of the firm’s internally-made hits.

But the Tokyo studio itself was formed early in the last decade as part of a corporate restructure at Nintendo. A sister-team to the production units at Nintendo’s Kyoto HQ, outside of the Galaxy games it developed Donkey Kong Jungle Beat for the GameCube (and its Wii ‘New Play Control’ remake), plus the quirky Flipnote Studio animation app for the DSi.

The studio is co-managed by Yoshiaki Koizumi, a respected Nintendo designer who started out at the company in 1991 illustrating manuals for SNES games like The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and Super Mario Kart. He worked his way up the art and production chain, working on all the key Zelda and Mario games, in many respect as a protégé to Miyamoto.

But Koizumi has proven to have as much inventive design skill as his master; he was responsible for the ‘three-day’ time warp mechanic in Zelda: Majora’s Mask, for instance. The spirit behind that unique spin for an established, iconic Nintendo property is exactly the same as that found in the Galaxy games, which take all the established rules of Mario and surprisingly expand them and make them more rewarding and fun than ever. Not bad for a character that has redefined the platforming genre multiple times over, and who has appeared in 200 games. That same endemic quality is expected for Nintendo EAD Tokyo’s next game; a Mario title for the 3DS.

2. 2D Boy

Studio’s 2010 Release
World of Goo HD (iOS)

Founded: 2006
Location: San Francisco, California, USA

Also famous for:
World of Goo (PC)
World of Goo (WiiWare)

2D Boy’s vaulting straight to second place of the Develop 100 is the perfect example of how Apple’s iOS platforms have served small teams. The two-man outfit’s iPad release of signature IP World of Goo is to thank for this second-place in the list – the game was met with universal praise when released last year.

But while studio founders Kyle Gabler and Ron Carmel are poster boys for the indie gaming uprising – indeed, they self-describe themselves as being on the ‘front lines’ of this revolution – they cut their teeth at the corporate daddy of games, Electronic Arts. Gabler worked as designer and prototyper for Maxis while Carmel was a developer for EA’s casual games portal Pogo.

They left EA to go solo, however, in 2006. In hindsight the Electronic Arts confine was never going to hold them for long – their interests lay much beyond the commercially-safe work at the publisher; Gabler was one of the team behind the respected Experimental Gameplay Project while Carmel had previously developed visual FX software and haptic simulations.

Those diverse work/life interests all came together in the studio’s first game, World of Goo. Released simultaneously on PC and Wii to much acclaim, the title also scored plenty of praise from indie games festival judges, and also taught many a thing or two about digital distribution; Carmel and Gabler ran a one-year-anniversary ‘pay what you want’ offer which allowed players to choose their own price for the game. The limited time deal didn’t just boost awareness of the game and widen its audience, it also proved illuminating to the rest of the industry – the pair released stacks of stats about consumers’ behaviour afterwards, helping flesh out views and knowledge of the burgeoning digital market.

World of Goo, in which players pull and distort black sticky gloop to solve puzzles, naturally found a home in late 2010 on iPad and its large touchscreen. It’s one of the highest rated games for the device ever. This year, the game debuted on iPhone, too, again to rapturous reviews.

Not much is known about if/when 2D Boy will release a new game, with efforts centred on Goo and its ports, plus more general philanthropic work for the rest of the industry – last year, inspired by their successes in indie games, 2D Boy and thatgamecompany teamed up to start the ‘Indie Fund’ to offer financial support for new studios. Maybe the teams that emerge from that effort will be propping up the 2012 and 2013 editions of this book.

3. Zepto Lab

Studio’s 2010 Releases
Cut the Rope HD (iOS)
Cut the Rope (iOS)

Founded: 2009
Location: Russia

Zepto Lab’s Cut the Rope is one of those rare mobile games; it has had genuine, passionate acclaim from reviewers across the board, from core game specialists through to mass market and mobile critics.

Russian studio Zepto Lab was pushed into the spotlight with Rope, its second game. The title refined elements of its debut, Parachute Ninja, which was published by Freeverse.

During the production of that game, the team experimented with an eventually-aborted rope mechanic – that soon evolved into Rope’s gameplay, where players cut through strings and dangle sweets and candy into a hungry monster’s gaping mouth.

Cut the Rope was brought to market with the help of another iPhone game publisher, Chillingo, which also brought the mainstream hit Angry Birds to the market before developer Rovio Mobile decided to take over all the duties for its game.

You could argue that Zepto Lab’s place on the list has as much to do with Chillingo as the IP it published. Although the idea of a publisher for a platform that encourages such free self-publishing may seem like anathema to indie developers, Chillingo’s efforts have helped turn Cut the Rope into a big cultural hit for iOS.

In its first 10 days on the market in October 2010, the game sold 1m units. By the end of the year, the game had been bought three million times in three months. In the sprint, that number had doubled. And it’s all thanks to both Chillingo’s active marketing and promotion and Zepto Lab’s simple but nail biting, gameplay.

Zepto Lab has kept the game active through regular content updates, with seven ‘boxes’ of levels deployed over the last nine months.

In that same time, Chillingo has also been acquired by Electronic Arts, forming a bulk of its newer EAi division, dedicated to new platforms and business mobiles in mobile and social – a telling sign of how fast the new world of apps and downloads is already a prime target for the bigger giants of core gaming. Chillingo has already established itself as a publisher with a ken eye for indie star talent, so who knows what studios it may help nurture into shape worthy of the 2012 Develop 100.

Next for Zepto Lab, though, is moving beyond iOS. So far its headline game has only been availabke for iPad, iPod Touch and iPhone; an Android version of Cut The Rope is on the way later in 2011, and the studio says it has other new IP on the way too.

4. SCE Santa Monica

Studio’s 2010 Release
God of War III (PS3)

Founded: 1999
In-house (Owned by SCE)
Location: Santa Monica, California, USA

Also famous for
God of War (PS2)
God of War II (PS2)

God of War has fast become the emblematic brand that represents everything PlayStation has had to do in the face of a more competitive, more fractured market.

It’s bombastic, muscled up, and more willing to fight.

All that could be found in God of War III, the fifth game in the series if you include PSP spin-offs, and the franchise’s first outing on PS3.

Critics praised it for high production values, a refinement of the gods ‘n’ villains formula first debuted in the PS2 original, hardware-pushing graphical excitement and brutal content. This is the highest rated ‘mature’ game on the Develop 100, and is packed with beheadings and the vile demise of many villains at the hands of meat mountain hero Kratos.

Many reviewers said that the game was a bit too familiar to its predecessors, but few seemed to let that cloud a series of perfect-score reviews. At the time of writing the game had 101 positive reviews, 88 of them with a score equivalent to 90 per cent and above.

So the brief was fulfilled for SCE Santa Monica, Sony’s Californian studio charged with creating ‘the most immersive, enjoyable, compelling and playable experiences for the PlayStation consumer’. SCE Santa Monica is one of the most cutting-edge Sony studios.

It built and contributed to many of the internal technologies used to make PS3 titles, with detailed craftsmanship that resulted in the infamous claim that God of War III used 35 gigabytes of data. Although in-game scenes are pre-rendered, they aren’t CG renders, but produced using the game engine which was purportedly simply too powerful to run high-res assets in real-time.

Elsewhere, Santa Monica is also renowned for its sound recording facility. The studio also shares a user-testing lab for all PlayStation platforms, which puts it at an enviable place in the SCE empire. Santa Monica hasn’t just developed its own franchise for a big corporate giant, but staff have worked with smaller indie like thatgamecompany on the likes of Fl0w to help bring more flavour to the PlayStation. It’s also working with new independent studio LightBox Interactive to produce a space-bound spin-off of its WarHawk IP.

A fourth God of War seems a given – regardless of the latest game’s ambiguous ending – and more criticial and commercial success assured.

In the face of an app tidal wave, goliaths like SCE Santa Monica prove there’s always going to be life in console games.

5. Blizzard Entertainment

Studio’s 2010 Releases

StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty (PC)
World of Warcraft: Cataclysm (PC)

Founded: 1991 (as Silicon & Synapse, rebranded to Blizzard Entertainment in 1994)
In-house (Owned by Activision Blizzard)
Location: Irvine, California, USA

Also famous for
Diablo (PC)
World of Warcraft (PC)

With a career review score average of 90 out of 100 across just 14 games and as many expansion packs (five of each reviewed and ranked on Metacrtic) Blizzard is clearly the daddy of PC gaming.

Today it is known for World of Warcraft, StarCraft and the intensive production and development craft which goes into all its games. Huge colossus franchises, developed by a fantastically talented organisation of thousands (most dedicated to customer service and testing, mind), catering for an even greater mass of players.

Signature MMO World of Warcraft may have seen a recent shrink in regular users, but a new content pack was still one of the best selling PC releases in 2010 – and more importantly one of the best reviewed. Add-on Cataclysm totally revamped the gameworld of Aseroth (itself a cultural landmark name-checked in all kinds of geek-level material) giving it new horizons both figuratively for player behaviours and literally for the terrain.

The success of that release was only eclipsed by the arrival of StarCraft II, a game that was taking so long to produce that Blizzard saw fit to chop it into three. Last year’s Wings of Liberty was the first part, but it didn’t skrimp on content (despite some controversial decisions including the omission of LAN play). The game heralded the relaunch of Blizzard’s Battle.net game service as well as offering a detailed mod editor, in-depth campaign mode and compelling online multiplayer.

Blizzard’s success comes from two key strengths. The first is building and nurturing a community around its games. The second is taking the revenues made from those games to reinvest in the next updates. It focuses on expanding what it has, rather than launching alternatives. For all the talk of easy-to-update apps and episodic content, Blizzard has been doing just that since the first Warcraft III add-on disc; just in a non-download format.

Meanwhile, development of new properties or totally new games has slowed now as the studio works this service-based model. There is talk of a new MMO, and a Diablo sequel is due soon, over a decade after Diablo II, but Blizzard focuses on the here and now. It’s the perfect storm.

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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