The Hot 100 Game Developers of 2009
100. Toshio Awamura
NowPro is one of the so-called Japanese “ninja” developers, a huge production house that has historically not taken the credit for its massive volume of work. But the company has come a long way since it took its first job (the Famicom version of Namco’s Metro-Cross) in 1986. These days, the company Awamura founded has been taking credit for at least some of its work, with its most notable 2008 project being the US strong seller Mario Super Sluggers—the company provided a majority of programmers, artists, and sound staff to the game.
99. Keita Takahashi
Takahashi is one of the industry’s most whimsical designers. He’s also one of the bravest: most in the field know him as the creator of the completely unique Katamari Damacy, but many will also remember his eagerness to distance himself from the game’s many inevitable sequels (he only worked on the first one of those). He’s in the limelight again for last week’s release of his latest work, Noby Noby Boy. That’s a game he specifically designed to be indescribable, to the point where even he has trouble describing it. So Namco Bandai’s marketing team probably also doesn’t stand a chance, but Takahashi is one of the few working designers with the desire and clout to get away with something so experimental and unlikely.
98. Lyle Hall
Heavy Iron Studios
Hall has a history of influence in the industry—he was a lead on founding RTS title Dune II, and the creator of Gex the 32-bit Gecko. This experience has served him well as the overseer of Heavy Iron Studios, a role he has held for most of the decade. During this time, his studio has created many of the games for THQ’s most valuable licensed properties, Spongebob Squarepants and Pixar. Many children found that his company’s 2008 effort, Wall-E, paired well with the fantastic film.
97. Masaya Matsuura
In 1996, Matsuura’s company NanaOn-Sha collaborated with artist Rodney Alan Greenblat on a little game called Parappa the Rapper. That project gives Matsuura a credible claim at being the father of the modern rhythm genre, yet in recent years his company has been frittering away the man hours on the Tamagotchi Connection franchise (which, admittedly, is a sales monster in Japan). But 2009 sees the return of the Matsuura/Greenblat collaboration. The game the two are working on, Major Minor’s Majestic March, is one of the Wii’s most bizarrely charming upcoming titles.
96. Jeremy Gordon
SEGA Studios San Francisco
Gordon founded Secret Level in 1999. His studio quickly gained a reputation for being a strong house for quality port work, with Xbox conversions of the Star Wars Starfighter series being highlights of the company’s early days. Purchased by SEGA in 2006, the studio Gordon leads today is a full-fledged developer, releasing two retail console titles in calendar 2008. Neither did well critically, particularly Golden Axe: Beast Rider, but Iron Man was a sales leader for the publisher and there’s reason to believe that the scars of the last twelve months have made for a hardened and battle-ready development house.
95. Robin Hunicke
Hunicke’s devotion to the advancement of game design is admirable—not only does she act as a proponent of the medium in the world of academia, she co-organizes workshops where bright talent have unveiled revolutionary new ideas. Hunicke’s industry resume is likewise a formidable one. She’s a lead at EA’s Sims division, and with the team there evolved casual game design with MySims and Boom Blox. She’s currently the lead producer on the 2009 sequel Boom Blox Bash Party.
94. David Sirlin
Former Lead Designer
Before entering the world of game development Sirlin was actually a renowned game player on the Street Fighter pro circuit. It was clear before he even touched a game that he had formidable knowledge on how to balance a professional-grade product, and so Backbone hired him to do just that. He worked on some console ports of classic Capcom arcade games before taking a leading role on Super Street Fighter II: HD Remix, arguably the highest-profile downloadable console release of 2008. 2009 sees him no longer with the company, however; now he is working on his own card game products, both in digital and cardstock form.
93. Eric Lindstrom
Former Creative Director
Lindstrom’s industry history begins in 1990, when he worked on documentation and script writing for multiple EA titles of the era. But most of his career has been spent at Crystal Dynamics, where he has acted in a variety of roles since 1995—he is credited alternatively as a scriptwriter or a game designer, depending on the project. The versatile Lindstrom was made creative director of the studio for the holiday 2008 release Tomb Raider: Underworld. The game was a million seller but was a market disappointment by Eidos’ metric. Lindstrom was let go in a mass downsizing at Crystal Dynamics in early 2009.
92. Denis Fung
Co-Founder, Director of Development
Page 44, the studio Fung co-founded in 1998, is one of the unsung journeyman studios of the industry. When other houses were pushing forward with next-gen development Page 44 stayed behind, plumping publisher’s bottom lines with hockey games and franchise ports for last-gen systems that actually had an installed base. 2008 saw the company’s first effort for the current hardware era in the massive Disney license High School Musical 3: Senior Year DANCE!. It was an effort that a lot of parents bought, and that a lot of children appreciated.
91. Blair Fraser
Co-Founder, Lead Designer
The Rockstar Vancouver alum’s early 2008 project, Sins of a Solar Empire, has since become a cult classic and strong market performer, and the textbook example of how to make a successful high ambition game on a low budget (Sins was built in Fraser’s basement, to the tune of $1 million). Now Fraser’s studio is using Sins as an experiment in keeping a small indie studio liquid. The “micro-expansion” model Ironclad is employing is delivering a handful of new features to the game’s most devoted fanbase, while at the same time bringing in $10 one-time payments for each expansion. It’s an interesting idea, and one that other independents should be watching with great interest.