1. Daniel Stahl (Star Trek Online Executive Producer)
Star Trek Online's had a bumpy year, to say the least, and Cryptic Studios echoed that with a number of personnel shakeups. In the middle of the summer, Craig Zinkievich stepped down as executive producer for the title, and Daniel Stahl took the big chair.
The change in tone for STO was drastic as it was welcome. Dan Stahl's no-nonsense, up-front-honesty was gratefully embraced by unsettled players, and the game started to turn around in the public's eyes. Stahl's biggest legacy to date is his emphasis on transparency and communication, as evidenced by his massive Ask Cryptic posts and forum Engineering Reports. He's a genuine fan of the franchise, and it shows.
2. Daniel Erickson (Star Wars: The Old Republic Lead Writer)
What can we say? We like guys named "Dan." Such a trustworthy, buddy-buddy name: Dan. Hey Dan, how's it going? Dan the man!
Whoops, got a little off track there. Seeing as The Old Republic is one of most expensive, most anticipated, and most ambitious projects that EA-BioWare has ever done, I'd be understating it to say that there's a lot riding on this team. And no one bears as much of that pressure as Daniel Erickson. Since BioWare is promoting the game's story and massive amounts of writing as TOR's main selling point, Erickson and his team became the star players in this endeavor. Erickson's not only writing, but constantly promoting the game in various venues, and all with an affable charm.
True fact: No one named "Dan" ever fell to the dark side of the Force.
3. Scott Hartsman (RIFT Executive Producer)
EverQuest II players undoubtedly remember Scott Hartsman, who handled lead developer duties for the title before leaving SOE for Trion Worlds. With the advent of RIFT's closed beta, Hartsman became a highly vocal proponent of the game, delivering interviews left and right while sharing his enthusiasm for RIFT's virtues.
Hartsman always points to the incredible amount of former MMO experience that the Trion Worlds team is bringing to the game, and that includes his own tenure in the industry. I'm not surprised that Trion would want a seasoned developer in charge of this AAA project, and so far, Hartsman seems to fit the bill just fine.
4. Jack Emmert (Cryptic Studios Chief Operations Officer)
It's not so much what he did this year, but what he said. As COO of Cryptic, Jack Emmert is not only experienced in the ways of the MMO, but in charge of Champions Online, Star Trek Online, Neverwinter and whatever else that wacky studio is cooking up behind the scenes. And during this not-so-great year for Cryptic (what with Champions forced to go free-to-play and STO not hitting stellar numbers), Emmert's main mission seemed to be the voice of the industry.
In fact, it was rare for a week to go by without Emmert lending his opinion to something or another about MMOs, particularly on the subject of World of Warcraft and the future of online gaming. With a microphone and no shortages of opinions, Emmert struggled to stay relevant by speaking up.
5. Min Kim (Nexon America Vice President)
While Nexon's MMOs may be outside of some players' spheres of interest, it's hard to deny the sheer impact that games like MapleStory and Mabinogi have made on the industry. Behind the North American invasion of these games is Min Kim, who handles Nexon's strategy for growing and selling these Asian titles in the Western world.
The year 2010 was a huge year for Nexon, with the releases of Dungeon Fighter Online and the highly acclaimed Vindictus, both of which have made significant headway in the States. Min Kim gets a lot of credit for the success of these games in NA, and there's little doubt that he's just warming up for the future.
6. Curt Schilling (38 Studios Founder)
It takes a lot of clout to negotiate a $75 million loan with another state and move your entire company there amid resistance from the new governor, but that's just what Curt Schilling did -- and without a launched product to date, either. While the 38 Studios Rhode Island deal still prickles a few, it shows that Schilling and Co. are serious about what they're doing.
We got to hear a little bit about 38 Studios' single-player RPG this year, although all eyes are on Copernicus, the code-name for the MMO that Schilling's team is whipping up. Will it be the next big thing or just an expensive pipe dream?
7. Chris Cao (DC Universe Online Game Director)
Look in the sky! Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's SOE's next big hope for salvation -- DC Universe Online!
Although the title was pushed back from a 2010 release to early 2011, word on the street is that DCUO is looking remarkably strong, with a popular superhero IP and a cross-platform launch to put the wind at its back. In the middle of all of this is Chris Cao, who's been piloting this wild ride with a steady hand.
It's one of those dream jobs that a million geeks probably wish they'd have, except that there's little room for error in Cao's universe -- if DCUO fails to live up to the expectations of both players and comic book fans, he'll be the one taking the brunt of the fury.
8. Mike O'Brien (ArenaNet President)
There's little doubt that Guild Wars 2 is a title to watch seriously in 2011 (if, of course, it comes out next year), and that's due in large part to ArenaNet's talented crew and the vision set at the very top -- by Mike O'Brien.
In the infamous Manifesto trailer released earlier this year, O'Brien claims that ArenaNet was founded to innovate and that the company's not going to pander to typical MMO conventions when there's a better idea out there.
You just get the feeling that ArenaNet is a great place to work because the whole team is respected, talent is encouraged, and the leadership is top-notch. If for no other reason than that he's the papa of this family, I'm giving O'Brien the nod here.
9. Craig Morrison (Age of Conan Game Director)
A good leader not only leads from up on high, but gets down in the trenches with those he or she is attempting to lead. Some developers keep their distance from the fans, choosing to utilize solely community managers for communication. But whether you like Craig Morrison or not, as Jef Reahard said, "he's the only high-level developer I know of who directly engages customers several times per month via lengthy back-and-forth posts on the forums."
Morrison also gets props for helming a title that many had given up on, an MMO that even saw an expansion this year. Like its namesake, Age of Conan's proved to be a fighter and a survivor, and so is Morrison.
10. Kate Paiz (Lord of the Rings Online Executive Producer)
Look back up this list -- if we were to make a drinking game out of it (and we certainly will not be doing that), you'd probably die if you had to take a shot for every time I listed a white guy (double shots for balding!) by the time you got to #6. While there are many terrific people of all colors, genders and trendy forum monikers in the MMO world, it strikes me that we don't see as many women at the top as we do in other industries.
Kate Paiz didn't make this list by virtue of her gender, but it's good to see some diversity here nevertheless. Shortly before LotRO went free-to-play this year, Paiz switched over from Dungeons and Dragons Online to become the new executive producer of Middle-earth. It was a good move, too, as her experience with DDO's F2P conversion proved invaluable in this similar situation.
Justin "Syp" Olivetti enjoys counting up to ten, a feat that he considers the apex of his career. If you'd like to learn how to count as well, check out The Perfect Ten. You can contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.