The game developers who've NEVER made a bad game

We don't mind telling you, this was a damnably tough feature to research. You'd think it would be easy. Just pick out all of the top flight, triple-A devs of the modern industry and you're half-way there, surely?

But no. Given that we set ourselves the rule that we would only include currently active studios with a relatively lengthy history, eclectic spread of output, or both, skeleton after skeleton sprang from closet after closet, and countless reputations were crapped upon by long forgotten stinkers from the early "We needed the money, okay?" days, as we tirelessly scoured through ancient back catalogues (Blizzard, we're looking at you). Many fell. Few maintained dignity. But this friends, is the hall of fame inhabited by those few. Read on, and find out how they managed it.

Selected notable releases: Black & White series, The Movies, Fable, Fable II

Say what you like about Peter Molyneux's ebullient enthusiasm; the man makes good games. Maybe not always as good as he wants them to be, but if a developer's biggest problem is unrealistic ambition then there's not really a great deal to complain about. Lionhead might not always turn in everything they initially plan (just like flamethrowers aren't always great for ice sculpture), but that just means that even the studio's 'failed' ideas usually overshoot those of the average jobbing dev.

Lionhead is also notable for the fact that it's one of the few triple-A studios left whose games still have a uniquely British sensibility. Where the Brit voice and sense of humour so apparent in '80s gaming was largely homogenised out of the industry years ago (Rare excepted), Lionhead steadfastly refuses to lose its identity, however risky that may be when selling to a global audience (though given the success of the fiercely provincial Fable II, perhaps the larger market is starting to want more of that voice now). Driven by ideas rather than genres and always pushing innovation, even past the point of realism, Lionhead is one of the most unique and intriguing studios currently affiliated with any first-party, and one which Microsoft should be very smug indeed to have on-side.

Selected notable releases: Half-Life series, Left 4 Dead, Portal, Team Fortress series

With the ability to digitally self-distribute to the PC market through Steam, Valve has engineered a high-yield, low overhead model which has left it a good deal more free to explore original ideas and designs. Couple this with a powerful radar for recruiting emerging talent from the amateur, indie and mod scenes (see the origins of Portal, Left 4 Dead, Team Fortress and a good number of Valve's staff in general), and you've got a developer in a very healthy state when it comes to freshness, originality and fun.

And it's not just the component parts, but the ways in which they interact which keeps Valve exciting. In contrast to the compartmentalised hierachy of most corporations, there are no set job roles at the House o' Gabe, cultivating a vastly collaborative atmosphere where cross-pollination of ideas and fresh perspectives on design decisions can come from anywhere. Top it all off with a "When it's ready" attitude towards release schedules and you've got possibly the most autonomous and commerically and artistically successful developer around.

Selected notable releases: System Shock 2, Freedom Force, Tribes: Vengeance, SWAT 4, Bioshock (as 2K Boston)

Irrational was primed for success from the very start. Formed by previous staff of Looking Glass Studios, lauded creator of Ultima Underworld, System Shock and Thief, it promised very interesting things from day one and has delivered ever since. Working together at the "game design university" of LGS gave founders Ken Levine, Jon Chey and Robert Fermier a comprehensive grounding in innovative design and well-told story, and if you need any more evidence of the importance of that heritage, note that the eventual end of Looking Glass also freed up a couple of guys called Warren Spector and Harvey Smith to work on a little game called Deus Ex at Ion Storm. Look it up. We've heard that it's not bad.

But while depth of story and realisation of environment have often earned the studio its plaudits, it would be wrong to put everything down to Ken Levine's screenwriting background. Rather, 2KB is a studio which emphasises player empowerment through solid, stimulating and consistent gameplay mechanics. Yes, Rapture is a stunningly original achievement, but it would be nothing unless built around Bioshock's vastly differing AI models. The genetic apocalypse, Ryan's rampant Objectivism and that plot twist might stick in the mind long after completing the game, but all are essentially literary offshoots of Bioshock's central gameplay concepts. In 2K Boston we have a studio with a fierce respect of the player experience, but also one with the brains and artistic sensibilities to make gameplay central to a truly affecting whole.

Selected notable releases: Frequency, Amplitude, Guitar Hero series, Rock Band series

Of course, the rhythm game has been around since the launch of Parappa the Rapper and Dance Dance Revolution, but just as happened to platformers with the release of Super Mario Bros., Harmonix began the true evolution of the genre with Frequency and Amplitude in 2001 and 2003 respectively. And just like Nintendo did, with those two games the studio made the genre its own. The central concepts and mechanics of those early titles can be seen threaded throughout the majority of the dev's work, and it is this iterative approach which is the studio's greatest strength (aside from the repeated, gratuitous use of Freezepop on its games' soundtracks, obviously).

Rather than seeing the music game as a novelty or gimmick, as many have, Harmonix has made it its mission to understand and hone visual interaction with music, taking its basic concept and pushing it further and further with each new version, be it by mechanics, peripherals or social interaction. This is a company which operates outside of traditional gaming and uses that placement to its advantage, focusing on attaining a single goal through all explorable avenues and becoming ever more ambitious each time. The fact that it achieves this via a slyly clever blending of hardcore gaming skills and simple, casual gaming goals just cements Harmonix's place on this list.

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  • ThundaGawd - January 30, 2011 9:22 a.m.

    I don't know if Renegade Kid could qualify as a candidate, they've only been around since 2007, but it's founders have been in the industry for over 15 years, plus, they only have 3 games so far: Dementium I, Dementium II, and Moon. All of which are pretty badass
  • Ninja-Monkey-91 - January 29, 2011 4:56 p.m.

    Good article but What about Naughty dog? Even jak x was still a good game. From crash to jak & daxter to uncharted I can't think of a bad game they've made
  • Shuuvuia - January 29, 2011 2:23 p.m.

    Insomniac definately deserved a spot. As of January 2011, they've made 13 games, all of which are classics. Heck, they have two games coming out this year, both of which have a 99.9% chance of being amazing. :D
  • celticsfan645 - January 29, 2011 12:17 a.m.

    Naughty dog should be here. I have an xbox, but i have fond memories of playing Crash Bandicoot on my playstation. The closest thing they made into a bad game was jak: combat racing. But im not even sure that was them.
  • Ganonpork - July 16, 2010 11:20 p.m.

    XD....... Suda 51.
  • mrmorozov987 - June 1, 2010 2:43 p.m.

    Uhm, where's Rockstar? Grand Theft Auto I, II, III, Vice City, San Andreas, IV, and Red Dead Redemption. All awesome.
  • Kytl - January 27, 2010 3:41 a.m.

    Hooray for Intelligent Systems, I love the games this team makes, especially their Fire Emblem series. Hmmmm Mario and Luigi 3 release at the end of last year and that Wario Ware DSi game that lets you make your own microgames should be coming out soon....i wonder when they'll make another Wars or Fire Emblem game...
  • AlexMercer1337 - January 26, 2010 10:53 a.m.

    What about Tim Schafer, heading Double Fine? Psychonauts and Brutal Legend are pretty hard to top.
  • HunterWolf84 - January 25, 2010 1:58 p.m.

    @xFnKxTaLeNtx: LOLs, WHAT !!!! .. "Myth" worst games on the planet .. WTH really .. it's one of the best Strategy games i ever played and is highly acclaimed as one of the most interesting, fresh and innovative games made by Bungie in market stagnant with copy-cat games .. their scores are around 9 to 8 on most gaming sites .. whatever you are drinking you should really stop it ... "worst games on the planet" my $%^ .. Gamespot renounces it saying "Myth II is about as good as a computer game can possibly be" and i wholeheartedly agree. Bungie other games are also extremely well made .. not perfect but far from bad ... Oni was a very interesting 3D action brawler a little bland to look at but heaps of fun to play .. Halo doesn't nearly need any introduction .. it sold the XBOX for Microsoft and made FPS on consoles main-stream that all FPS console games afterward keep copying mechanics from it till today (rebounding health, limited weapon choices, grenade throwing button, ... etc etc etc) They deserve to be on the list along side Level 5 (Dark Cloud, Rouge Galaxy, Professor Layton, White Knight) and VanillaWare (Grimgrimmore, Odin Sphere, Muramasa).
  • damnstraight - July 3, 2009 8:02 a.m.

    WTF WHERE THE HELL IS BLIZZARD!!!!!!!!!!!!!!??????????????? LAST
  • linkganon - May 10, 2009 5:37 a.m.

    kojima, how does he do it. not a single mistake in the mgs series, except for the exception of (cough cough) raiden's existance. 1 in 10 people don't realize this but raiden was kinda a joke character made in rataliation of a girl's comment. one point the president, which is inaccurate since he's barrack, not this other guy, actually grabs him below the belt before realizing he's not a girl. back on topic, you know, technically in mgs's timeline, raiden would have killed george sears a couple of days before this comment, April 30th/09 to be exact.
  • flyhighj65 - April 29, 2009 2:31 a.m.

    Wat about Infinity Ward? Cod, Cod 2, Cod 4? I consider those pretty succesful
  • XxGHOST666xX - March 14, 2009 11:54 p.m.

    Um... What about Good Ol' Blizzard, I don't think they could make a bad game if they tried. Even their arcade classics are amazing.
  • MakutaYnot - March 9, 2009 8:28 p.m.

    Ok, Insomniac, why aren't they on this list? Or Naughty Dog for that matter?
  • Backfire001 - March 8, 2009 7:33 a.m.

    Valve has left 4 dead OOOOOOOO buuuuuurn.....(Ps. i dont like left 4 dead.....its the SAME THING OVER AND OVER,and its not fun)
  • screath - March 6, 2009 8:58 p.m.

    Bioware doesn't have as perfect a record as you may think. Remember Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood?
  • reyalejandro13 - March 6, 2009 2:59 a.m.

    Yeah, Valve and Haarmonix have yet to disappoint. Both are epic wins forever. About Kojima... i srsly need to get the MGS games.
  • mlaborem - March 6, 2009 12:59 a.m.

    Blizard?........!!!!!!!!!! It's a real miss!!
  • Nutter87 - March 5, 2009 11:40 p.m.

    To any one asking why Square-Enix isn't on the list Tho I am a big FF fan, FF 2,X-2 are totaly rubbish.
  • thochaos - March 5, 2009 5:21 a.m.

    Lionhead makes average games so I don't think they belong on this list. The rest do though. Good article.