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After eight years of writing about video games, I wanted to take the pulse of the game industry. I organized this list with the criteria for influence being: how long since a studio’s last release, how many releases they had in 2013 and 2014 combined, how many copies were sold, how many people still play their games today, what do they have coming out in the near future, how unique are their games, and how much competition from other studios do they have?
The list of worthy candidates was still too immense, so these additional requirements were imposed: studios were excluded if they primarily released Web browser games, iOS/Android games, or ports of other studios’ games. Even after all of these strict requirements, close to two hundred studios were barely beat out by the hundred studios that made this year’s rankings.
Full disclosure: after almost a decade working as a journalist, I have become friends with dozens of people working within the game industry. Some inevitably work (or worked) at a few of these studios, while most of my closest industry friends work at small studios (like Gears for Breakfast) that did not make the cut. I have received no payment or press items from any of the studios on this list in the past two years. Next year I will reassess the hundreds of qualifying studios again with a new rankings list to display how much has changed in the game industry in a single year.
100. Uber Entertainment
Their real-time strategy (RTS) game, Planetary Annihilation, began as a Kickstarter project from some of the industry veterans who brought us the much loved Supreme Commander game back in 2007. They amassed over $2.2 million in funding and then spent months alpha and beta testing the game to perfect its complex gameplay. The RTS genre is nowhere as popular as it once was in the game industry, which means both less competition for them and even more support from fans wanting more strategy games to dig into. Their game was just released this month, so we’ll see how it does and whether this studio can move farther up our rankings in next year’s list.
This was one of the most successful new studios to pave the road for “keep it simple, stupid” game design as a way of actually enhancing a game and allowing small studios to receive global fame. Limbo was one of the best black and white games ever released and soon they’ll likely impress the world in similar ways again with the release of Inside. Simple artsy games with strong emotions have been adopted more now than ever in the past, and it’s largely due to small studios like Playdead showing how much could be accomplished with small staff even before the advent of crowdfunding. Another great example is Kentucky Route Zero from Cardboard Games. With a new type of Limbo game coming out soon it will put Playdead back in the minds of many across the game industry, and hopefully continue to influence gamers and game designers alike.
98. Klei Entertainment
The game industry is often obsessed with doing the same thing over and over again, finding your niche, and then sticking to just that one genre. Not Klei Entertainment. They continue to hop from one genre to the next, while exploring all sorts of exciting art styles along the way. Last year they really broke out in the industry with Don’t Starve, which was a survival adventure game with roguelike qualities matched with an art style directly influenced by Tim Burton’s films. It felt like a Minecraft version of Paper Mario and it was great! In 2013 alone it sold over one million copies and was later released for PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita as well. Since then this studio has also released Eets Munchies and is preparing to release Invisible, Inc, which has been available as an early access game on Steam since the beginning of the year. Taking big risks has worked out great for this studio so far and their influence is starting to reach several different markets of gamers. We can’t wait to see what project they work on next!
97. Grinding Gear Games
In 2012, after twelve years of waiting, Blizzard finally released Diablo III. A year later, this unknown studio released a Diablo clone called Path of Exile, and received equal or better reviews than Diablo III from various online outlets. More than two million gamers played it and if they can do that with their first game, imagine what’s next? Almost a year has passed and their game is still one of the top ten or twenty most played games on Steam every night. Now that their honeymoon is over, and Diablo III has improved quite a bit since its launch, I can’t wait to see what lies ahead for this studio.
96. Cloud Imperium Games
This studio’s only game (Star Citizen) isn’t even out yet, but I’m breaking the rules just this once because Star Citizen has broken all of the crowdfunding records to date. This astronomical game has been met with astronomical numbers of over $51 million in funding, with millions more constantly coming in until its release next year. When your Kickstarter raises $2.1 million two years ago and isn’t even a tenth of your crowdfunding totals, that means Cloud Imperium Games is showing us just how powerful the future of crowdfunding will be for the game industry. Add in its promised Oculus Rift support and we could be looking at the most influential game in the VR industry soon.
95. Spike Chunsoft
In April 2012, Spike merged with Chunsoft, which was the studio that made the insanely influential first five Dragon Quest games during the NES era of gaming. Before the merger, Chunsoft saw more than moderate successes with their Pokémon Mystery Dungeon games and 999. What really makes them influential isn’t those games or their Attack on Titan 3DS game either. It’s their persistence to explore a new genre of gaming, albeit with many stumbles and missteps to its own detriment. They’re releasing wave after wave of “visual novels” that allow players to interact with murder mystery stories in a way that marries the book and game industries in a fashion that is almost inevitably a lucrative future for both industries forever into the future. However, perhaps they are tragically ahead of their time since the high demand doesn’t seem to be there yet, but they’re still planting some massively influential seeds in two industries at once.
94. Intelligent Systems
After being major driving forces behind the birth of the Metroid and Fire Emblem game series, this was once one of the most influential studios on the planet. Later they went on to develop the highly influential Paper Mario and Advance Wars series, but they’ve been in a slump for the past year with Crashmo, Pushmo, and Pushmo World getting great reviews but with smaller audiences than in the past. Their next big breaks could be right around the corner with Code Name S.T.E.A.M. and especially the game they’re working with Atlus on: Shin Megami Tensei X Fire Emblem.
93. Omega Force
This Tecmo Koei development studio has been the force behind the ongoing Dynasty Warriors game series, but this month they’re breaking out to even larger audiences of gamers when they release Hyrule Warriors. With help from Team Ninja (another Tecmo development team) they’ve married The Legend of Zelda series characters with the gameplay from the Dynasty Warriors games, and fans across both spectrums are eagerly anticipating its release.
92. SCE Santa Monica Studio
How the mighty have fallen. About a decade ago this studio would have been close to the very top of this list thanks to its God of War game, whose series has been tapering off drastically for many years now. In 2013 they brought the God of War series storming back with Ascension, which sold almost two million copies, but this year the Santa Monica studio announced it was moving out of Santa Monica, and then also announced it canceled one of their next generation IPs (intellectual properties), leaving many of us to wonder what’s next? Their upcoming releases are collaborations with other studios that had already began and finished much of their own IPs, making this studio’s influence dropping sharply with each month that passes. I hate to say it, but I see this once-great studio continuing to fall in rank by next year’s list. Their best move might be to release a sequel to PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale, although SuperBot Entertainment already deserves the majority of the credit for that title.
91. Harebrained Schemes
Back in early 2012 before Kickstarter was completely taking over the Internet, this studio saw a $400,000 flood of funding in the first day of its crowdsourcing campaign. It ended up raising $1.8 million and last year we got to see one of Kickstarter’s first video game success stories unfold. The result was a resound success, and its Shadowrun: Dragonfall DLC that came later was an even greater success. So much so, that Cliffhanger Productions has even stepped in to help create a Shadowrun Online MMORPG after receiving $500,000 in funding from, you guessed it, Kickstarter. Kickstarter has seen plenty of controversy as some projects fall apart or exploit the service for quick cash with no intentions of ever completing anything, but organizations like this have shown how bright the future of the crowdfunding for the game industry looks.
90. Gazillion Entertainment
Marvel Heroes (later renamed to Marvel Heroes 2015) is their free-to-playMMO action RPG for superheroes. It’s had a rocky development road, but one of the creators behind the legendary game Diablo eventually formed this studio and later received $80 million in funding to follow his vision. Add to the solid foundation an impressive roster of playable superheroes combined with its free price tag make its servers successfully populated every night of the week. This is a studio that has potential to move pretty far up the ranks in next year’s list, but also needs to be careful to not be idle either.