Game Studios that Deserve our Attention

April 2018

Being a Good game developers is something sometimes hard to define, so perhaps we should start at that.

A Good game developer is not creating a great game - that is being a lucky developer who hit jackpot on the creative design; Not one who creates a AAA massive experience loved by many - that is just having a good producer and investors to watch your back; Not having a massive following on a multiplayer success - that is creating something addictive and online that by default maintain an online presence that is visible; Not even having a couple of success stories but some crappy experiences. You need homogeneity to be an actually good developer, otherwise you are just tossing the coin.

No, a Good game developer is one that hears its fans, who answer for problems and worries about quality and stability. Who apologies (truly, not PR) for misses and have a good standing with the community. It's like a good person: people know you are capable, you deliver, you are charismatic and true, and therefore, people understand your shortcomings and mistakes, but know you are actually trying. A game is much about the developer as it is about the player, and understanding that connection is key for a good development. One need the other, and both need to respect each other.

As a Gamer since the Atari days, I have seen good companies smash to the floor as they grew greedy and into cold corporations where players are just a random number. I also have seen simple problems never be addressed, but I also saw unsurmountable problems be amazingly dealt with.

The Good game developer is that one you would pay anything for the next fix, you vouch for them, and in return, they want to keep that. They will answer, in a personal non-automated way, your questions; they participate; they are constantly improving.

Why list Producers together with Developers? PRODUCTION and EXECUTION. Publishers and Producers don't actually code a game, but pull the strings. They define deadlines, budgets, goals, constrains, target audience, and often have immense say on the course of the product. Some bad parent companies force the developer studio to work under strained nearly slave conditions, demand parts of a project to be cut out, or demand characteristics that are often not consistent with the project. Others, leave the developer studio to play with their creativity, allow them extra time to test ideas and come with new concepts, give them freedom, flexible goals and understands that those tinkering with the product are the best ones to realize deadlines and Q.A.; Also, it is part of the parent company a lot of post-release jobs like feedback, Q.C., support and controlling either if the product can or cannot have professionals assigned to keep the game alive and improved for a while. A Good Game company requires, by definition, to have a good Production/Publisher and developer, as one does not work without the other. Good examples are how E.A. pressures and exploits their developers to the point of releasing buggy and unfinished products to no fault of the developers; or how some developers release terrible games despite the best efforts and flexibility of their publishers.

Here are some actual (or not so actual) companies that have earned my respect (and therefore my money and support) over the years, and why. Remember, this is not about the games, it is about the people behind the game. Some companies release awesome world-wide successes, but are terrible people - these are certainly out of this list, no matter how great a game they released might be.

Colossal Order, a Finnish studio, are the geniuses behind "Cities in Motion" and, more specifically, "Cities Skylines". These guys are currently the ones holding the "City Simulator" standard to such a high level that I frankly think they will never loose (but then again, I thought Maxis would never loose it either, until they got purchased by the devil).

As always, what makes CO great is not that they made this awesome game that is not only bug-free (while massive), but that they are active in the community and in development for the love of their product. Cities Skylines get free updates (with new features and tweaks) almost every year since release (3 years as of now), but they also release optional DLC that really add to the game, but are not mandatory to it - some of which were requested by the community. I remember dissing out at the developers (who actually would respond to my criticism on reddit or steam) on how the traffic simulation was terrible and how some simple mods fixed it, so they should add that to the base game, and people would constantly nag it was "impossible" for that to be added to the base game because it would be too CPU intensive. Enter 2018 and they release a massive FREE update that contains most of those mods, beautifully implemented, with no CPU impact, and then some extra features.

Sure, every free update came at the same time a new DLC would exploit the free features: so the new teaks on traffic, which hugely added to the base game experience, came in pair with a DLC that added a lot of new traffic features. But when you get part of the feature for free on the base game, you want to pay for the DLC that expands on that. And they do it constantly, on top of the stable game.

Developers answer your questions, participate in multiple online communities, address any bug (which don't exist for years, they fixed them all!) reported and then tweak what were not bugs, but people didn't like, and keep rolling out updates and tweaks for free, as well more content on DLC. Customers are happy with an ever expanding game, Developers are happy with a fanbase that loves them, and keeps paying for the new DLC. Win-Win.

Mosty a AAA company, Obsdian sometimes seems more like an indie company because of how close their fanbase feels with the developers, and this is exactly what we are looking for in a company. Developers of legendary games such as Neverwinter Nights 2 (the first was Bioware's), Fallout: New Vegas (also know as the only Fallout worthy after Bethesda pissed on the third installment with bugs to Neverwinter ends) and Dungeon Siege III, what most shows is that they like to release solid bug-less games that entertain both the gamer and the person behind the forum account that have nothing else to do other than praise their good work instead of whine about bad support.

Subset games is a tiny indie company responsible for a famous game: FTL. It might not be the prettiest, but it sure feels complete and bug free. FTL got an expansion, which was free for everyone, with new content and tweaks. The developers participated actively with the fans and even offer their E-mail for support, and recently they released a new game. You know developers have a good standing when the marketing strategy for their new unknown game is "From the creators of FTL" and it WORKS.

FTL, as well their new game "Into the Breach", are simple games with a nice idea and big fan following. If you don't know these games and see some printscreens, you would think its a basic HTML game. Maybe the implementation is easy, but when you worry about keeping it fresh and pleasing your fanbase, even the simplest of ideas becomes enjoyable.

What can I say about these guys. Run by only 2 developers, MinMax created "Space Pirates and Zombies (and Bounty-hunters)". This simple top-down game was very fun to play and, for what it offered, long and bug free. That it was made by only two people who almost begged you to support them is an extra: When I got this game on a Steam-sale for $1, I thought I was just being careful with such tiny indie developer. A month later, I saw myself DONATING $20 for the developers because I wanted them to keep up the good work. These guys not only kept rolling new updates and tweaks for the game, as well a free expansion (thus the "Bounty-hunters" on the name), but they eventually got a 3D sequel for the game, which I instantly bought, of course. It is not so much as their humble origins and great game, but the fact you can feel their love for the game, the need to keep it bug-free and fresh, and the always nice interaction with fans. Happy gamers and happy developers? Win-win again!

Someone once said that it is all about the fun. That someone is right. Puppy Games makes a living on releasing retro-games with an arcade feel. Pixel-art games with a lot of humor is their trademark, but what is most important, they also pride themselves on releasing complete bug-free games that often get free expansions and improvements to keep things rolling, and before you know, a new game comes up and you just have to buy, because even if you don't like the style on the new title, you know you will like, because they show you how to like it. Again, the worry in details, constant updates and a good standing with the community make this studio great, and they even managed to release some titles on mobile, and yes, I got it, nothing better than play nice games I already loved on PC in my mobile. Win-win.

Coffee what? yeah, I know, they didn't really make anything much noteworthy, but my 200h+ on Sanctum, along with about the same time on most people I know, have something to say. Sanctum was a FPS Tower Defense with co-op elements that really shone, but what made it all the more special is that they were always active in the community, they heard what their fans said and tweaked the game accordingly, added new leves based on feedback and cut out every bug mentioned. The fandom made them able to release other games based on the same concept to much appreciation of everyone.

Well, they also released Goat Simulator!

It might have been just one game (and sequel) within a niche, but you feel good when you play a game and know that, should something go wrong, the developers got your back.

You might not know this gem, or the name might jump right at you. Responsible for some of the most successful and addictive JRPG around, Nippon Ichi Software (and their western counterpart, NIS America) deserve all the applaud you can have, and it is easy to convince you why by looking at Disgaea 5 PC release. The game, highly awaited and selling pre-orders left and right, had its release postponed just 3 days before the release date because "some bugs were found while on beta test and they were not sure they could fix it either in time, or properly", during release. Not only they warned every fan, they also offered a refund should you think a postponement to make sure it was a smooth ride deserved such (I personally would pay more for that kind of service, not less), and promised to keep everyone posted.

That is NIS. Success, Fanbase, Good service and respect for their users, what could you ask more?

CD Projekt Red

Who said Good developers must be indie developers? We have an idea that big corporations are cold and evil, but there is always that one company that comes along the way to prove you wrong with honors. CD Projekt Red is the studio behind the Witcher series, and if you played the first game, and then the second, and then the third, you literally saw them growing. Sure they are a big studio now, but the hype behind their every word is well deserved, because when a totally unknown studio from Poland raises to produce one of the most acclaimed AAA game ever, you must agree something is up. Sure Witcher 3 wasn't without its bugs and glitches, specially at launch, but then again, it is not a bug-free release that make the Good studio, but they care and worry for hunting down and smashing said bugs as fast as possible. By he time you got the GOTY version, the game as stable as butter, with tweaks and improvements, and an expansion to boot. That a still considerably small studio released such impressive open-world game with over 50h of gameplay (more like 100h+ for those who get immersed on this beautiful and intricate world) is just a testimony to their devoted development. 

A big release from a big company is not without its perks, but you don't get where these guys got without some seriously good care on their product and feedback from each game into the next. This is why their new project is expected with one of the biggest hypes.

Some other big companies have a big portfolio, all worth it and with very good quality. One such company is 2K studios, who brought us fantastic series like Bioshock, Borderlands and XCOM, among others. 2K started slow with series like Mafia and the first Bioshock, but grew to prominence not only for maintaining the quality of their titles, but tweaking them based on fan feedback to create better and better sequels and DLC's. There is not much else to talk about 2K, just that they are an AAA studio with AAA care.

Guerrilla Games, part of SIE (see below), deserves extra praise. Started with the Killzone series, which were neither as creative nor as fun but was a great testbed for the developers to get their own style and pace. Not that those games were bad, they were actually as polished as the theme would let, but it wasn't the best someone could deliver, and the good fellows at GG knew it, so they decided to use the experience and manpower they got from those to develop something that they would like, that gamers would like, and so Horizon Zero Dawn was born. This game got a big hype and was pretty much the front of the PS4-Pro release, and most people just pretended to ignore how a game developed by a company that was used to FPS space-nazis games would be able to deliver something so different and gorgeous to be worth the attention ... well, they did, and what is best, without glitches or bugs. HZD is a PS exclusive, but got subsequently rave reviews and created such a following that many people decided to buy a Play-Station just for this game. Once it because clear how much love the developers had, rolling out tweaks, fixes and improvements over and over even after a year of release, just added to the value of the game. Their DLC was an instant success and lived up to be one of the best DLC's I ever played, adding to the main base and plot altogether. 

Such devotion to their product, and attention to feedback, once again produce a Win-win that cannot be ignored.

As with Guerrilla Games, Project Siren is part of SIE (Sony Interactive Entertainment), but like GG, totally worth the single-out.

Project Siren started with an old game called Siren, but what really makes them known is the more recent Gravity Rush series. These PS exclusive (originally PS Vita) games are not only awesome, but show how much the developers wanted to tell you a story in the best way possible. The 3D open world (as in, up down too) and the totally new concept didn't boggle them down for a niche, and produced one of the most exquisite games ever, even with the unique character designs. The game was so well received that the sequel follows exactly the same formula, but just adds more of what everyone loves, and even gave you some taste of a secondary character everyone loved. Once again, it is not the idea or the size of the studio that matters to call them Good developers, but the care to create a complete experience clearly thought out to please the players and tone down bugs and glitches. I would normally say it was just some normal top-quality as usual from a Sie Japan studio, but when, in early 2018, SIE decided to some online services of Gravity Rush 2 they ended up deciding to postpone it due to fan requests, I really noticed these guys were listening. An example of how publishers and developers need to work together to ensure top quality.

While listing some individual companies above, one cannot praise the parent company for their awesome homogeneity. This might be a little too broad, but I will mention it anyway. SIE is without a doubt the best big-huge-enormous conglomerate around when the subject is games. With so many subsidiaries and sub-subsidiaries (Project Siren and Guerrilla Games, for instance), its hard to say none are faulty, but the good/bad ratio is hard to ignore: Usually, these companies come up with quality content and, usually, hear for what their fans want. I always keep my eye out for any game released from SIE, check out the full list of subsidiaries here, but if you don't know much about SIE, here are some IP they own: Uncharted, Killzone, Horizon Zero Dawn, Shadow of Colossus, The Last of Us, Gran Turismo, God of War, Infamous, among others.

 

Now, for some honorable mentions. Companies that had their time, but managed to piss into the wind and ruin it with bad decisions (or bad acquisitions). Some of these don't exist anymore, some exist only in name.

  • Bioware - We all remember the awesome Bioware games. Their RPG always got attention and made you eager for the next fix ... until they sold their souls to the devil (EA, obviously) and the immediate next IP they released was the absolute oposite of what you expect from a good game developer. Mass Effect Andromeda failed everywhere a game could fail, and even with a rushed attempt to fix the mess, it remains a bad game altogether. The future of Bioware games seems bleak with profit-based games on the horizon. RIP our beloved quality RPG.
  • Interplay - It still exist in some form, but gone is the time when it meant anything. From one of the first ever "first-day-patch" in history (Freespace 2, which required a patch because the CD-DRM was buggy and would not recognize the CD), and then patches and improvements on manually downloaded patches in the late 90's, Interplay ended up being bought and ripped apart. Yet, I can't stop feeling nostalgic at the name. 
  • Valve - Valve started very good int the 90's and created some of the best games ever since, however they slowly shifted their goals from gaming to, whatever it is they do now, and their last games didn't have the love and community engage one would expect. We all hope they one day come back to the fold and produce great games, but I don't think it will ever happen
  • Blizzard - They started awesome and have some of the most successful IP ever, but with Activision merging them and the newfound focus on money grabs like Overwatch, their future doesn't seem bright.

And never forget the big noes:

  • E.A. - Money above all, nearly slave labor, once you buy, you are done with them;
  • Bethesda - Original Bethesda works are pits of bugs that they couldn't care less about fixing. Huge games like all of the Elder Scrolls, Fallout and others are so bad that the community had to roll out huge mods to "fix the bugs" because Bethesda is too busy making the next money sucking game to bother to fix old (as in, last week) releases.
  • Activision - They might have started with the game industry, and that is all "good" you can say about them. Nearly no care for the fanbase, hugely buggy games (only the top sellers get any fixing attention) and lately a shift for "money first" like E.A. make this another big no. That they merged with Blizzard might spell doom for the later.
  • Ubisoft - Aside from not knowing what creativity is, releasing over and over the same game with a different packing, their very intrusive DRM, not a care in the world if that affects you and late bug fixing (only if it affect sales) makes this my most despised company of all time.

 

Check other of my articles, like: History: a graphic representation of our evolution