Welcome to our first gaming article of 2014! We like to start off new years with a bang, so here is a very important article. We look back at the 10 greatest video game development studios of all time. Some no longer exist, but they’ll always be remembered for the fantastic titles they brought us, and the new standards they set.
But great games aren’t the only thing that make a great developer; in order to be one of the very best developers, you need to pay attention to your fanbase and make continuous improvement. Taking advantage of available technology and focusing on PC development is another big bonus. With that being said, let’s begin the countdown.
Red Storm Entertainment starts off our list. They are the #1 pioneer of tactical shooters, best known for the classic Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon series. Both of those game franchises wear the Tom Clancy name, although the former is loosely based on a novel. Both of those games defined new genres, and to this day Rainbow Six in particular (the first three games only) remain unrivaled. They are practically CQB simulators, super realistic and unforgiving. Their games were also very content rich and some of them had expansions, with Rainbow Six 3 even having a free expansion. And Rainbow Six at least was moddable.
They are so good that we will probably never see their like again. Red Storm Entertainment eventually got folded into other Ubisoft studios, so the name disappeared but their legacy remains. It’s too bad Ubisoft doesn’t even try to live up to what they used to be anymore, it’s up to indie studios and modders now.
The Creative Assembly is next on our list, best known for the Total War series but they also made Alien: Isolation. Their primary achievement is the former, which revolutionized strategy gaming. Total War dates back to the year 2000 with Shogun: Total War, and lives on today with its latest release being Total War: Three Kingdoms in 2019 with more games in the horizon.
Total War is a unique combination of Turn-Based Strategy and Real-Time Tactics, and the best Total War games take each of those to levels far beyond that of most strategy games; more strategy depth than most and certainly more attention to detail and depth to the Real-Time Tactics combat. Not all games hit that perfect 50-50 split between the two, but some do and even when they don’t, the results are often spectacular as is the case with the Total War: WARHAMMER games.
The video below from SergiuHellDragoonHQ is an interesting watch.
Next on our list is BioWare. They have a stacked resume, which includes:
- Baldur’s Gate (1998)
- Baldur’s Gate: Tales of the Sword Coast (1999)
- Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn (2000)
- Baldur’s Gate II: Throne of Bhaal (2001)
- Neverwinter Nights (2002) -> Runner up for Game of the Year 2002
- Neverwinter Nights: Shadows of Undrentide (2003) -> Co-developed by Floodgate Entertainment, which includes former Looking Glass Studios developers
- Neverwinter Nights: Hordes of the Underdark (2003)
- Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003) -> Game of the Year 2003
- Jade Empire (2005)
- Mass Effect (2007)
- Mass Effect 2 (2010)
- Mass Effect 3 (2012) -> Game of the Year 2012
- Dragon Age: Origins (2009)
- Dragon Age: Origins – Awakening (2010)
- Dragon Age II (2011)
- Dragon Age: Inquisition (2014)
- Mass Effect: Andromeda (2017)
BioWare was an RPG pioneer. They started with Baldur’s Gate, and while it loses to Fallout in most respects, it was the best in class in graphics and also combat. Its engine would become the standard for RPGs, and Baldur’s Gate II was a huge step up. Later, they were quick to abandon the 2D, isometric-only design and thankfully they haven’t gone back like many have.
Their 3D RPG innovation began with Neverwinter Nights, which would become their finest work, which still lives on today through Beamdog with some of the original team. Neverwinter Nights and its sequel are some of the most ambitious video game RPGs of all time along with Fallout 2, Planescape: Torment, and Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura. Less ambitious than those in quest design and role-playing potential, but more in grand scope, as the Neverwinter Nights games include classes, abilities, weapons and other items, spells, status effects than all other video game RPGs.
Neverwinter Nights would go on to become a saga on its own thanks to its two premier first party expansions, with Neverwinter Nights: Hordes of the Underdark being BioWare’s best campaign in their entire career, plus its six premium modules (smaller third party expansions). Its multiplayer also revolutionized video game RPG multiplayer and remains unmatched to this day.
While Neverwinter Nights will always be BioWare’s crowning achievement, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic was also innovative. Nowhere near as ambitious as Neverwinter Nights but nevertheless it is what the Star Wars franchise needed, especially since it gave birth to its masterpiece sequel.
After this, BioWare gradually declined. Dragon Age: Origins has an impressive “Origins” system (7 different playable introductions spanning 1-2 hours each), but beyond this is too clearly lacking in ambition, logical ruleset, and role-playing, but it’s not bad. The Mass Effect trilogy has a very narrow scope but does well within that scope, but then came the really bad BioWare games: Dragon Age 2, Dragon Age: Inquisition, and Mass Effect: Andromeda. The ambition was all gone, all common sense in game design was thrown out the window. Inquisition at least has some decent quests here and there but Andromeda is truly one of the worst AAA games ever made.
This is not even counting Anthem, the multiplayer game that they never wanted to make in the first place. It’s safe to say BioWare’s decline coincides with EA’s acquisition of them. BioWare today is trash, but their glorious early days still count for a lot, hence their place on this list.
Obsidian Entertainment is our next entry. They would’ve ranked higher if it wasn’t for their sharp decline, as with other studios listed earlier in this article. They’re best known for:
- Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II – The Sith Lords (2004-2005) -> Game of the Year 2005
- Neverwinter Nights 2 (2006) -> Runner up for Game of the Year 2006, the leader of RPG gameplay content and diversity
- Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer (2007) -> Game of the Decade (2000s), one of the absolute best games and RPGs ever made
- Neverwinter Nights 2: Storm of Zehir (2008) -> One of the best RPGs of all time
- Fallout: New Vegas (2010) -> Game of the Year 2010, one of the best RPGs ever made
- Alpha Protocol (2010)
- Pillars of Eternity (2015)
- Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire (2018)
- Tyranny (2016)
- The Outer Worlds (2019)
So their resume includes some of the best RPGs and therefore best games of all time. Their very first game was the first one listed above, KOTOR II. So they may have had the second best debut of all time (we have to give the nod to Troika Games for Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura in 2001).
By our estimation, Obsidian is tied with Troika Games for the second most talented RPG studio of all time. How one studio could bring us Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer, Storm of Zehir, and Fallout: New Vegas is insane, and then KOTOR 2 on top of that and the original campaign for Neverwinter Nights 2 plus its Mysteries of Westgate expansion.
For such a talented studio, it’s unfortunate that Obsidian is screwed over more than just about every other developer. Many of Obsidian’s great ideas were canned, like an Aliens RPG, a new Star Wars game, among others.
KOTOR II was rushed by the publisher, LucasArts, given only about a year-long development cycle. It’s amazing that Obsidian was even able to release a 60 hour RPG in such a short amount of time. But the results were felt everywhere, as it was a buggy game with lots of cut content. Some content was restored by modders, but it doesn’t help matters that much. Had it not been rushed, KOTOR II would have been an undeniable masterpiece and one of the greatest games of all time. Despite the fact that it was rushed however, the game turned out to be well-received anyway. More importantly, it is a masterpiece.
But that is the main downside of Obsidian: their games are quite buggy upon release and they aren’t great at fixing them. Bugs still exist in their older games, more bugs than you’ll find in most other games. Nonetheless, their prestigious resume and their direction and skill keep them high on our list. They actually know what it takes to make a great RPG, and this is evident in most of their games.
Though oddly enough, they seem to be moving backwards now. Pillars of Eternity was nothing but a cheap nostalgic cash grab that didn’t prioritize being a great game on its own merit. Tyranny had far less effort than that even, being a rush job with perhaps intern-level writing quality. Plus, all of these are isometric 2.5D, a style that has no purpose anymore since it was always designed to imitate 3D graphics, but 3D graphics now surpass it.
Their mediocrity streak continued with The Outer Worlds. They are sadly like any other AAA studio at this point, they don’t even try to make great games. Every element of a game is designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator only, there’s no coherent artistic vision guiding their projects anymore.
Therefore, like other studios on this list, Obsidian should be regarded as a thing of the past considering the streak they’re on. This is why Obsidian doesn’t rank higher than it does.
Nobody loves PC gaming more than Croteam. It shows in every game they develop, which takes advantage of the PC platform in every way. And for that, we love you too Croteam!
They are an independent Croatian studio, with some of the most polished PC games. They are best known for the Serious Sam franchise, and recently branched out making a unique puzzle game in The Talos Principle.
They also developed Serious Engine, the latest iteration (Serious Engine 4) being one of the better, more optimized engines available. One of a rather small amount of engines worthy of respect, praise, and use. Not to mention their tech since day 1 has been extremely impressive, industry leading during the times of the first Serious Sam game with its insane amount of enemies on screen at once with good performance.
Croteam games have among the most graphics, sound, and UI/HUD options and configuration of any game, not to mention perfect PC-designed UI’s and menus in the first place. Then there is the excellent optimization, great mod support, engine/SDK support, excellent game support. They don’t leave bugs in their games and they update games that are well over 5 years old.
Other ways in which their games take advantage of PC are the actual contents of the game. Serious Sam on serious and mental difficulties for example, the amount of AI on screen at once is beyond what consoles can do at a playable frame rate, while every Serious Sam game had no issue doing this on the recommended hardware specs. Excellent stuff. That hardware in your PC? Their games make proper use of it.
The Serious Sam games are simple, but have lots of little gameplay quirks and attention to detail unique to PC. The Talos Principle is a one of a kind story-driven puzzle game.
A picture is worth a thousand words, so have a look at these that showcase some of the excellent PC focused design and options of their games. The only things they are “lacking” are built-in support for macro key bindings (only the ArmA games and Iron Front: Liberation 1944 have this), and the FPS limiter only goes up to 60 FPS (can be disabled too of course). And if you want to really nitpick, the FPS counter option can’t be customized in its color, size, or position (although its size is probably scaled with your HUD scaling option, but no independent size option). But who can complain about this when they have already gone above and beyond?
Croteam has been around for a while, and hasn’t shown signs of losing focus like most other game studios. They have continued to grow and improve, to the point where in February 2017, they decided to bring most of those options pictured above (including Vulkan renderer and improved OpenAL) plus VR support into all of their recent PC games! Those being Serious Sam HD: The First Encounter (2009), Serious Sam HD: The Second Encounter (2010), Serious Sam 3: BFE (2011), and The Talos Principle (2014). Details on this update here.
Next up is Frictional Games. Their resume includes:
- Penumbra: Overture (2007) – Best Horror Game of the 2000s
- Penumbra: Black Plague (2008) – Best Horror Game of the 2000s (it and Overture are one game)
- Penumbra: Requiem (2008)
- Amnesia: The Dark Descent (2010)
- SOMA (2015) – Game of the Year 2015, The best horror game of all time
They’re a PC centric developer who revolutionized and brought back the horror genre. Prior to Penumbra: Overture, the horror genre was as good as dead, with Team Silent being dissolved and with action shooters like Resident Evil 4 being considered horror games. Things were not looking good.
Now enter Frictional Games, who takes a very measured, calculated approach to creating the scariest games ever made. See their development blog for their excellent and very creative ideas, and play the games if you have yet to. In my opinion, Penumbra: Overture was the first game to be truly scary. Generally speaking it was too easy to run right past or combat enemies in the classic Silent Hill and Resident Evil games, and it was easier to anticipate what was coming in those games. But Penumbra… it took suspense and terror to a whole new level.
Not only did Frictional Games bring back the horror genre, they set a new standard. Many developers have been trying to copy their example (just about all of those indie horror games you see on Steam, including Outlast, are the result of Frictional Games’ influence) but they all fall short. Their games are the pinnacle of horror games, and they want to keep it this way with continuous improvement and innovation. As a bonus, they focus entirely on PC, releasing mod tools, mod guides, and really endorsing modding. In 2015, five years after the release of Amnesia, they released a major update that added new functionality to both the game and the SDK, which is extremely rare. Let’s not forget how they released Justine, a DLC for Amnesia (with a new story and new enemies and new props and more) for free.
They again took the horror genre to a new level with SOMA, which we reviewed here. It’s very rare that a studio continues to improve after 8 years.
Their next game is Amnesia: Rebirth set to release this year, but it is unfortunately technologically behind the times. That’s secondary though; the real question is, can they produce another masterpiece or something close? We shall soon find out.
Troika Games is our next pick. Their resume only includes three games, which are:
- Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura (2001) -> Game of the Year 2001, one of the best RPGs/games ever made.
- The Temple of Elemental Evil (2003)
- Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines (2004) -> Game of the Year 2004, one of the best RPGs/games ever made.
Two masterpieces, and all three games made with noteworthy ambition. All three are also terribly buggy, in all honesty, and the community had to fix them up. The lack of polish was the result of publishers rushing them, not allowing them to finish the game.
Troika was founded by former Black Isle Studios employees, who were unsatisfied with the direction Interplay (their parent company) was going. Not just any employees from Black Isle Studios though, but most of their best. This is why Black Isle Studios went on to release mediocre RPGs like Icewind Dale, while Troika released Arcanum a year later. Icewind Dale does not at all showcase the brilliance of Black Isle’s best games (Planescape: Torment and Fallout 2), and Icewind Dale II isn’t much better.
Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura and Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines are two of the absolute best games ever made, and easily playable with the community patches for each, even at 2560 x 1440 and beyond. The amount of detail and care they exhibit in all areas (outside bug testing) makes most other games look rushed. The brilliance of Black Isle Studios is on full display with them. Arcanum in particular is heavily moddable and was also one of the earlier RPGs to have multiplayer.
Bloodlines, despite being a Source game, is less moddable than one would hope, because it is on an alpha version of Source engine. Troika had a deal that allowed Bloodlines to be the first Source game, but it was not ready for release. The instability and bugs of Bloodlines lead to sales that did not meet Activision’s requirements, so Activision shut the studio down. But Bloodlines remained a cult hit, as the game was fixed up over time and is now easily playable from GOG with no additional patches or mods needed (the GOG version includes the latest unofficial patch).
All three of their games happen to have very unique settings. The Temple of Elemental Evil is the only video game set in the Greyhawk campaign setting. Bloodlines is one of only two video games based on Vampire: The Masquerade, a tabletop RPG. It is an action RPG with more role-playing than almost all others, set in modern day Los Angeles, where you play as a vampire living within a secret vampire society unknown to mankind. Then there is Arcanum, their very first game, which is a one of a kind mix of steampunk and traditional fantasy. Steam engines, trains, even airplanes, electric lights, and guns mixed with traditional knight and barbarian armor/weapons, as well as magick from 16 different spell colleges.
The Temple of Elemental Evil is a simpler combat focused game, without a ton of role-playing or focus on storytelling. Arcanum and Bloodlines have among the most role-playing of any video game, surpassed only by one which is Fallout 2. Their world building and overall writing quality, especially the character development of Bloodlines, is bested by only Planescape: Torment. They humiliate modern day RPGs, as does The Temple of Elemental Evil’s gameplay.
Troika’s demise led to the forming of Obsidian Entertainment, who continued the legacy of Troika and Black Isle Studios, and would go on themselves to craft some of the best RPGs ever.
Valve Corporation begins our top 3. This studio has a long, storied career, including:
- Half-Life series
- Counter-Strike series
- Team Fortress series
- Day of Defeat: Source series
- Garry’s Mod (2004)
- Left 4 Dead series
- Portal series
- Dota series
Wow, where to begin? Like the rest of our top 5, Valve has a clear consistent style to their games, and it’s really apparent in all of them. And that style is best described as intelligent, maybe a bit quirky but far from over the top, but there’s nothing like it.
Valve is one of the most pro-modding studios out there, even allowing a full scale remake of Half-Life on their Source engine (which they ended up helping become a full game). Counter-Strike, Team Fortress, Day of Defeat, Garry’s Mod, and Dota all began as mods originally.
Half-Life, Team Fortress, Counter-Strike, Garry’s Mod, Left 4 Dead, Portal, and Dota were all genre changing. Valve also demonstrates some of the best long-term support in gaming history, which is why Team Fortress and Counter-Strike are the longest lived multiplayer shooter franchises of all time, they swapped engines for Dota 2 during its lifetime, they still update most of their Source engine classics.
And despite all the many different games in their lineup, every single one delivers and then some for what they go for. Their talent is quite incredible.
Looking Glass Studios is our runner up. This studio, along with the #1 pick below, really exude the most style of any game development studio we’ve ever seen. They’re known mostly for these games:
- Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss (1992)
- Ultima Underworld II: Labyrinth of Worlds (1993)
- System Shock (1994)
- System Shock 2 (1999, co-developed with Irrational Games)
- Thief: The Dark Project (1998)
- Thief II: The Metal Age (2000)
The intro videos to some of these games provides a glimpse into the style that Looking Glass Studios exuded. It was powerful.
Their Thief and System Shock games are thematic perfection, and they were genre defining. They set a bar that has yet to be reached with the two Thief games and System Shock 2; the latter gave birth to BioShock series, and Arkane’s 2017 Prey game is heavily influenced by it to the point where it’d be more honest to name it System Shock 3 instead of Prey.
Their Thief games (the first two only) were even described as simulators. Their gameplay mechanics remain unrivaled to this day, but their art design, world building, sound are all one of a kind. They can’t be replicated, those two games brought some of the most unique “Steampunk” inspired universes in gaming history.
System Shock always tried to revolutionize the FPS genre by creating horror-influenced story driven games, and System Shock 2 mixes role-playing into the mix more than any other FPS, and more naturally too. A one of a kind game.
The talent of Looking Glass Studios was just off the charts. They had names such as Ken Levine, Randy Smith, and Warren Spector in their ranks, so much of the talent behind Deus Ex also had ties to Looking Glass Studios.
Black Isle Studios ranks number one on our list. We believe them and Looking Glass Studios to be the most talented game studios of all time. They have one of the best resumes on this list, which includes:
- Fallout (1997) -> Game of the Year 1997
- Fallout 2 (1998) -> Game of the Year 1998
- Planescape: Torment (1999) -> Game of the Year 1999, Best RPG of the Decade (1990s), Best RPG of All Time, and best writing in the history of video games
- Icewind Dale (2000)
- Icewind Dale: Heart of Winter (2001)
- Icewind Dale 2 (2002)
Black Isle Studios was a subsidiary of Interplay Entertainment. So they’re responsible for a huge revolution in the RPG genre, with the Fallout games and Planescape being the major ones. In addition, they showcased some of the finest, highest level writing ever seen in video games, in the Fallout games but especially in Planescape: Torment. Quite frankly,
It really is too bad they didn’t live that long. One of the saddest things in the history of video gaming is the fact that our top two picks essentially died at the same time. And what did they die for, today’s inferior games that largely don’t even try?
Much of the talent from Black Isle Studios found its way to Troika Games and Obsidian Entertainment; the former was also short lived (the gaming industry was brutal during those times), the latter now only makes low quality games.
They also published (but did not develop) two of the other largest RPG innovations; Baldur’s Gate and Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn. Who knows where RPGs would be without them? They were bold, visionary, and exceptionally talented. Their games not only had amazing writing and gameplay for the time, they also had style and class. They were even going to make Baldur’s Gate III: The Black Hound on a 3D engine, as well as Fallout 3, but unfortunately they got canceled.
Eventually they went under, but recently they announced their return and that they’re continuing on Project V13. It isn’t the most promising project, but they’ll always be remembered for their past accomplishments and for setting such a high standard. Some of the original writers of the Fallout games worked on Obsidian’s Fallout: New Vegas.
Some Black Isle developers are now working at inXile Entertainment, which was started by an Interplay founder, Brian Fargo. But their track record isn’t so hot: Wasteland 2 starts out pretty good, but devolves into nothing but pointless menial monotonous tasks for the last 2/3 of the excessively long game. Torment: Tides of Numenera is a bust. There’s no hope for inXile I’m afraid. There will probably never be a video game RPG studio as talented as Black Isle Studios, Troika Games, or 2000s Obsidian Entertainment ever again.
So that pretty much rounds up our list of greatest game developers of all time. It may be changed in the future, there are always up and coming developers looking to make a splash in the gaming industry. Post your questions, comments, criticisms, hate messages, and everything in between in the comments section below!