For bringing a television production schedule to the video game industry. Game makers have struggled for years with episodic gaming--the rigors of producing bite-size game chapters in quick succession has proven impossible for most. Telltale, meanwhile, has cracked the code. In 2012, its five-episode The Walking Dead, based on the epic comic book series, sold 17 million copies. Now Telltale is ramping up production, with a second season of The Walking Dead started in December, alongside a new series, The Wolf Among Us, which is based on writer Bill Willingham's popular comic book series, Fables.
For making a game console that can be all things to all players. Sony spent 15 years digging its own grave by trying to monopolize media formats--MiniDisc, UMD, Blu-ray--as well as consumer electronics. The PlayStation 4, designed by veteran game maker Mark Cerny, is an apology and a rebirth for Sony's gaming business. No more bizarre proprietary media. It hosts blockbusters like Bungie's Destiny and lets independent developers self-publish their wares. It brings Netflix-style game streaming to the living room with the PlayStation Now service. Many consoles have claimed to be an all-in-one living room hub, but the PS4 is the first that stands a chance to deliver it in an affordable package with few of the inconveniences of a PC.
For playing upon the love of trivia to build communities--and one of the year's hottest games. On QuizUp, players can challenge best friends or total strangers in niche interests--from ancient Greece to Breaking Bad to Beyoncé. The result? An addictive, real-time trivia game that also establishes microcommunities of users who can chat, compare rankings, or discuss ideas on the more than 300 quiz topics available on the app. Within three weeks of its November launch, QuizUp had attracted more than 3 million users, becoming the fastest-growing iPhone game ever. Determined not to let its hit become a fad like other mobile games, Plain Vanilla raised $22 million just after Christmas, and by the end of the year, QuizUp had been downloaded 5 million times. Call it a nod to the power of community.
For discovering the secret to big revenues in the free-to-play business. Companies like Zynga proved that free-to-play--play for free, drop small amounts of money to advance--was profitable, but F2P titles have never fiscally matched console titans like Call of Duty. GungHo's game Puzzle & Dragons creates an ingenious stew (part Bejeweled and part Final Fantasy) that is compulsively playable without feeling like a cheap cash grab. GungHo's secret sauce earned it $763 million over the first half of 2013, with year-over-year growth of 945%.
For thinking creatively and strategically to become the next Finnish success story. The success of the Helsinki-based Supercell belies its age: The game-development company began developing titles for phones and tablets in 2011, yet its two flagship games--Clash of Clans and Hay Day--bring in a combined revenue of $2.4 million per day. Supercell excels at the free-to-play model partly by listening to its fans, as it uses its website's community forums to surface ideas from creative (and frustrated) players. Last fall, the studio sold 51% of its company to Japan's SoftBank, which pushed its total valuation to more than $3 billion and set it firmly on the path to dominate Asian markets.
For making video games high fashion. Toronto-based Capybara Games spent the past decade making smart, artful puzzle games like Critter Crunch, but it has stepped up its game in the past two years by working on breakout collaborations. Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP reimagined the point-and-click adventure game as a sexy, playable prog-rock album with tunes by Jim Guthrie. IPad players especially bought into the hipster style, which helped the game sell 1.5 million units. Capy's 2013 game, Super Time Force, applies the style to the old-school run-and-gun shooters of the '80s.
For devising a sweet formula for success. Sure, Stockholm-based game developer King created last year's biggest mobile game, Candy Crush Saga. But despite the game's 500 million downloads and the estimated $1 million in daily revenue it generates (from iPhone players, alone), it's King's development strategy, not its Bejeweled-like match-three game, that makes it innovative. King publishes games first to its website and analyzes player usage and feedback, then tweaks the mechanics before sending the game to Facebook, and then--if it proves worthy among the social crowd--to mobile. If other successes like Pet Rescue Saga and Farm Heroes Saga are any indication, the company has discovered something other game makers haven't. Read more >>
For developing a one-stop shop for mobile fun. Chinese social-networking giant Tencent's ubiquitous mobile app WeChat (or "Weixin") gained a whopping 400 million users by offering everything to everyone: private messaging, chat rooms, shopping, and, of course, gaming. Within WeChat, players can compete in CrossFire (a military shooter) and League of Legends (a fantasy RPG), which reached No. 1 and No. 2 last year, respectively, as the top free-to-play games. In a clear sign that it sees both mobile and console as part of gaming's future, Tencent also acquired a sizable stake in Activision Blizzard, maker of the massively popular World of Warcraft and Call of Duty games.
For reinventing the choose-your-own-adventure option. Interactive fiction has always been a niche in the gaming landscape, but Failbetter Games' StoryNexus platform has helped make playable novels a populist pursuit. Writers use StoryNexus to make their own novels and short stories that place the reader inside, where they make decisions in multiple-choice questions that feel deeper and offer much more nuance than the traditional "open door" and "don't open door." Random House leveraged the platform last year to help sell new authors--and to diversify its genre fiction business--with projects like Rob Sherman's recently launched game-novel Black Crown Project.
For turning preservation into a noble and profitable business. It may seem counterintuitive to call a company whose primary business is remaking old games innovative, but the gaming industry is awful at preservation, letting old games languish on dead hardware. Bluepoint Games has thrived in the past two years by pumping out bespoke HD remasters of classics like Metal Gear Solid 2 and Shadow of the Colossus. Like Criterion has done for film, Bluepoint repackages the past in lovingly crafted modern media. (It's currently hard at work on a secret project for Sony.)
[Image: Flickr user Michael Nugent]