For taking the “toys to life” category to the future. Whether it’s Activision’s Skylanders, Disney Infinity, or Nintendo’s new Amiibo, the so-called “toys to life” category has never been hotter–but among all those big names, the lesser-known Anki may be the one to zoom ahead. The company’s first product, which Apple’s Tim Cook unveiled at the 2013 Worldwide Developer’s Conference, is Anki Drive, an iOS game that controls actual, in-real-life motorized mini race cars as they speed around a track. Infrared light and a camera on the underside of the speedy micromachines help them stay on course. So far the $150 Anki Drive has racked up 800,000 miles of racing, and new cars with special powers are added regularly. (Spektrix, for example, is a car that can jam a rival’s steering, so the car spins out of control like a real-life Mario Kart.) Anki promises the racing game is just the first implementation of its robotic AI technology. There’s certainly reason to believe there’s more the company isn’t talking about just yet: In September Anki announced a new round of $55 million in financing.
For making watching games just as fun as playing them. The online live-streaming service Twitch has proved that young men love to watch skilled video-game players battle against each other online. Today more people watch live streams on Twitch during prime time than the number of people who watch cable networks like MTV and CNN. Viewers watch an average of one hour 45 minutes of content every night on the service, which is available on computers and mobile devices, as well as Xbox and PlayStation. No wonder Amazon purchased the company last summer for $970 million. While YouTube may currently be the gold standard for archived video, Twitch has the chance to become the first stop for live programming on the Internet. And games were the start: This summer the company aired its first live concert, featuring DJ Steve Aoki.
For proving that every mobile game doesn’t have to be free to play. Want to enter the mobile games space? Conventional wisdom suggests you need to make your game free to play to have a shot at success. London-based design firm USTwo bucked that trend with the release of Monument Valley, a stunningly beautiful M.C. Escher-inspired puzzle game that has won an Apple Design award and has sold over 1 million copies for $3.99 each. Since UsTwo makes most of its money from designing user interfaces for projects like J.P. Morgan’s foreign exchange system, founders Matt Miller and John Sinclair were able to take a risk on Monument Valley and prove that premium products command premium prices. Next up for this 200-person design firm is Land’s End, a game for the Oculus Rift.
For redefining real-time player feedback. About a year ago, popular PC game creator Garry Newman was looking for players to test an early version of Rust, a survival game where you craft items and battle wolves and other players in a barren wasteland. Overwhelmed by the interest, he started an online auction for 10 alpha keys every hour. The price of each key started at $240, then dropped down $10 every hour until it reached $0.50. With keys selling for an average of $70, Newman realized that players would pay big money to bug-test his latest creation. Now on Steam’s Early Access program for $20, over 1.9 million players are inside the “alpha” version of the game, giving feedback in real time to Newman and his team of about 20 developers in Walsall, England. “We wanted people to play it as soon as possible so we didn’t develop it in a direction that wasn’t going to work,” explains Newman. And the best news: So far he’s issued fewer than 100 refunds and booked an estimated $35 million in revenue.
For finding success in unexpected places. A year ago, game-industry analysts wondered if Blizzard Entertainment had hit its peak. World of Warcraft was shedding subscribers, and the company’s top-secret follow-up, Titan, was in development hell. (It was eventually cancelled in the summer of 2014.) Yet a funny thing happened along the way: In early 2014 Blizzard released a small, free-to-play digital card game called Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft on the PC and iOS. To date, tens of millions have played this one-on-one battle game with 400 digital cards. Players are spending money too, buying millions of card booster packs and expansions. Blizzard doesn’t release specific game data, but Activision’s second-quarter digital game revenue was up 19% year over year to $383M, no doubt largely due to Hearthstone’s success.
For turning charity into good business. How do you enter a market with a deeply entrenched competitor? You do it by thinking differently–or, in this case, humbly. Back in 2011, Humble Bundle made headlines by creating a pay-what-you-want digital store to purchase groups of independent games. The twist? Consumers decided how to divvy up their contribution between the game creators, the Humble Bundle team, and a charity. With $190 million in sales and $50 million in donations later, the Humble team expanded last summer to sell audiobooks, ebooks, and digital comics. Now the newly launched Humble Store is a competitor to Valve’s near-ubiquitous Steam platform, but with an appropriately humble twist: The company only takes 5% to 15% of revenues from independent developers, versus the industry standard 30%.
For supercharging a peer-to-peer economy. Seattle-based Valve is no stranger to letting its community monetize its games. In Team Fortress 2, players have made upward of $150,000 a year creating digital hats for cartoon characters. For The International, Valve’s massive e-sports competition for the online multiplayer game DOTA2, the company took its player-first approach a step further. Held at Seattle’s Key Arena in front of 12,000 fans in July 2014, The International’s prize pool was entirely funded by the community. Players contributed over $11 million to the “Compendium,” a digital booklet about the tournament that served as a funding source for the prize, with stretch goals that added new features to DOTA2. The result: Players ended up paying the winning team, NewBee from China, more than $5 million.
For breaking down language barriers in gaming. There are gamers all over the world, but language barriers often prevent them from communicating with each other. Machine Zone Games solved that problem with Game of War: Fire Age, a massively multiplayer Greco-Roman strategy game that supports 33 different languages. The real innovation comes from the company’s in-house translation software that handles 1,000 in-game messages within a second. The software allows players who don’t speak the same language to communicate in real time. Game of War has been a success for Machine Zone, and now there’s little doubt its translation software will start showing up in nongame applications as well.
For playing the long and short game. Facebook purchased this virtual reality company for $2 billion in 2014. The Rift’s 360-degree 3-D technology is jaw-dropping, but questions lingered about the price, the release date, and what heavy-duty PC hardware will be needed to power the experience. So imagine everyone’s surprise when Oculus came out of nowhere to announce a partnership with Samsung to create Gear VR, a cost-effective solution that brings VR to life by mounting a Samsung Note phone inside a plastic VR headset. Oculus innovative technology is now paired with an equally innovative business model, and content–produced by partners that include the NBA and Red Bull–began rolling out in early 2015.
For demonstrating the long tail of crowdfunding. Two years ago, Wing Commander game creator Chris Roberts launched a $4 million crowdfunding campaign for a new space combat game. Today, Roberts and his team have convinced 600,000 gamers to invest a staggering $52 million dollars in Star Citizen. Roberts has written the playbook on crowd funding by transparently developing Star Citizen in front of the community, releasing content every few weeks to demonstrate progress and re-energize the fan base. With no ceiling in sight, Cloud Imperium has an endless set of stretch goals in mind, including plans for real-world linguists to develop three full alien languages for the game. All told, Roberts expects to raise over $100 million from the community before Star Citizen is officially released.