This list is by no means exhaustive, and we invite you to share your own favorites in the comments!
DrinkBox Studios was the unsung hero of the PS Vita's dull thud of a release back in 2012. Marquee games like Uncharted: Golden Abyss certainly made Sony's second stab at a handheld gaming machine look pretty, but when it came to absolute must-plays, there was only Tales From Space: Mutant Blobs Attack. It took the promise of the company's 2010 PlayStation 3 game Tales From Space: About A Blob and turned it into a slice of platforming glory that felt right at home on a machine with both traditional button controls and a touch screen interface. It was funny without trying too hard, and your progress from wee blob to planet-devouring monstrosity gave a delectable sense of scale. Just a year later, Drinkbox came out with Guacamelee, one of the best exploration action games on any platform featuring all the humor, style, and design savvy of its previous games mixed with a whole new Lucha Libre aesthetic. After years of working as a backup studio, doing for-hire work with bigs like EA and Activision, DrinkBox has in just a couple of years found a wholly distinct voice in the gaming landscape.
Overkill Software accomplished a great feat when it launched Payday 2, a much deeper and more replayable version of its heist simulator introduced in the original Payday. While the first game was fairly hollow and didn't have much to keep you coming back, the sequel is full of intricate multi-day jobs, tons of stuff to unlock and unrelenting police forces hellbent on you dying in a hail of gunfire. Through better class differentiation and the implementation of Crime.net – a database for browsing jobs and linking up with other players – Overkill launched one of 2013's best games – and perhaps the best crime game ever conceived.
Tribute Games, a small indie outfit in Montreal, is great at taking established genres and conventions and twisting them just enough to feel new and interesting. The latest from Tribute Games, Mercenary Kings, is a beautiful 2D run-and-gunner in the vein of Metal Slug. The studio's first game, Wizorb, combines Breakout with elements from role-playing games, making it one of the most interesting mash-ups of the last decade. Tribute Games proves you don't have to reinvent the wheel – you simply need to modify it in order to make a compelling video game.
Though GungHo long ago earned minor fame as a publisher of other company's titles – it brought the world Dokuro and Ragnarok Online, among others – it wasn't until the company opted to develop its own mobile games that it took on real prominence. GungHo's flagship title, Puzzle and Dragons, is a cross between Bejeweled and Pokémon, but like peanut butter and chocolate, those disparate tastes go great together. So great, in fact, that the free-to-play game boasts 20 million players in Japan alone, and in November it surpassed two million downloads in the United States.
For the most part, Harebrained Schemes is a board game company. It dabbles in mobile titles as well, but the reason to keep an eye on it comes down to a single game: Shadowrun Returns. Our review from August was glowing, but couldn't do it proper justice thanks to a design that takes time to appreciate. Less a game and more a platform on which creative roleplayers can build adventures, the true potential of Shadowrun Returns is only now being realized with complex, branching, and most importantly, free player-made campaigns that satisfy every cyberpunk fantasy you could possibly have. Shadowrun creator and Harebrained Schemes head Jordan Weisman has proven that great analog games can very easily translate into fantastic video games, if only the development team cares deeply about the source material.
Swedish developer Simogo Games makes some weird stuff. Like, really weird. Take the two games it released in 2013, Year Walk and Device 6, for example. Year Walk is a first-person supernatural vision quest set in 19th century Sweden that takes ample inspiration from ancient Swedish myths and legends. Device 6 is a thriller with 60s-era spy overtones that uses the shape of its text to tell the story as much as the words themselves. The subject matters may be as alike as chalk and cheese, but what both games have in common is an innate appreciation for the mobile platforms that host them. Simogo crafts exceptional experiences, tailoring them perfectly to take advantage of a mobile device's strengths and shortcomings. Their portfolio to date shows a diverse assortment of inspirations, game styles, and creative thoughts; there's just no telling what weird places Simogo will take us next.
Dejobaan Games first turned heads with the Katamari Damacy-like The Wonderful End of the World, but the studio truly established itself as a creative force with its abstract, crazily fun skydiving sim AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! - A Reckless Disregard for Gravity. Dejobaan's excesses reached ridiculous new extremes in Drunken Robot Pornography, and we're eager (and a little scared) to see what the team comes up with next. Whatever it is, our brains are probably not equipped to handle it.
StarQuail Games has a keen eye for compelling platforming mechanics. Its spacefaring side-scroller Astroman combines tight, challenging level layouts with Metroid-like exploration, and the result ranks as one of the best Xbox Live Indie Games released to date. StarQuail's Tiny Barbarian DX recently hit Steam after a successful Kickstarter campaign, proving that the team's meticulously detailed approach to level design works especially well in the context of a brutally satisfying hack-and-slash action game.
There are many games in the world that are worth your time and attention, but few are what we'd call "important." But that's what Minority Media gave us when it produced Papo & Yo, a game that's every bit a metaphor about alcoholism and domestic abuse as it is a puzzle/platformer piece of entertainment. The studio's next game, Silent Enemy, takes place in a mystic land of perpetual winter, where humans and crows are bitter enemies. Underneath the surface however, it's a game about bullying. It's inspiring to see studios tackle such serious topics, and the care with which Minority Media executed the concept of Papo & Yo has us hopeful for their future catalogue.
Hungary's Digital Reality has been around a long time, stretching all the way back to Reunion on the Amiga, when the company was known as Amnesty Design. The studio nestled quietly in the PC space, but a temporary partnership with Grasshopper Manufacture brought it into recent limelight. With Grasshopper's aid, Digital Reality showed a particularly deft touch with 2012 release Sine Mora. The arcade shoot-em-up combined deep, intense play with an intellectual and dark story. The two elements felt sharply in contrast, epitomized by the game's bright bullet-hell overlay set against a grim diesel-punk backdrop. Yet it worked, and how it worked. The studio has had other successes, but nothing quite as standout as Sine Mora. So, was that game a one-off gained by the help of an outside team, or the first entry in a new, blossoming library? Watch this space.
The detail and beauty found in the iOS/Android puzzle title The Room should almost be expected from a handful of ex-Criterion developers once at the helm of the mighty Burnout franchise. Though Burnout featured indirect puzzles with high octane chases and crashes, The Room presents players with intricate and challenging mysteries to solve. Its recently-released sequel, The Room Two, continues this trend with even more detailed environments and perplexing objects to examine. Fireproof Games is the internal studio of Fireproof Studios, a haven for outsourced assets that has been tapped for work on major games including PS4's Killzone Shadow Fall.
Established by two University of Helsinki students, Otto Hantula and Olli Harjola, Facepalm Games launched its only title to critical acclaim in May 2013. The Swapper is an ability-based progression puzzle game (aka "Metroidvania") with gorgeous assets, some of which were lovingly crafted from clay, and a haunting score from Carlo Castellano. Financed in part by the Indie Fund, which helped bring players such hits as Braid and Castle Crashers, The Swapper was featured in the PAX 10 and won numerous awards, including a Special Recognition prize from IndieCade in 2011.
Hardcore PC gamers will immediately call foul for Paradox being here, which shows exactly how well Paradox has played its image since it began in the 90s. The publisher of games such as Magicka and War of the Roses, along with being the developer for Europa Universalis and Crusader Kings, Paradox has made a name for itself at being unapologetically niche.
Although its niche mentality is unlikely to change over the next several years, the expansion of digital distribution on consoles means the publisher may find new opportunities for the gamepad set. With three internal development studios now, a wealth of AAA talent being produced in its home country of Sweden, along with the technical expertise being shown from neighboring countries, Paradox is a company primed to take advantage of a niche console market concept.
The largest video game developer in Bulgaria, Haemimont has been making games since 2000, hitting the global stage with its revamp of the Tropico series in 2009 with Tropico 3. Not only was the third installment in the banana republic simulator great from a technical standpoint – something we're getting very used to with developers from eastern Europe – but the writing in it was also spot on. Tropico 4 added a stronger narrative and in-level objectives. Haemimont became so far ahead of the curve on innovating and streamlining the simulation genre, by the time EA launched SimCity it was already antiquated (beyond that title's other multitude of issues).
Haemimont has started branching out from Tropico with Omertà - City of Gangsters (an XCOM-esque gangster game) and next year's Victor Vran (a Diablo-esque game with platforming elements). The studio has shown a great amount of talent in the editing and streamlining process. Its first crack at something doesn't produce the best results, but acknowledging and incorporating feedback is where Haemimont shines.
Robot Entertainment was one of the bright spots to emerge from the closure of Ensemble Entertainment after the release of Halo Wars back in 2009. While Ensemble had been known primarily for the Age of Empires real-time strategy series, Robot has made its name with the action-oriented tower defense game, Orcs Must Die, and the turn-based strategy game, Hero Academy.
Orcs Must Die and Orcs Must Die 2 add a fun wrinkle to the tower defense formula by mixing in third-person action. Rather than playing from an omniscient perspective, players take direct control of a hero who must cleverly place traps before unleashing a horde of orcs. While most tower defense games have you sit back and hope your defenses hold, Orcs Must Die asks you to get your hands dirty, cutting down orcs with your own sword if necessary. Meanwhile, Hero Academy brought excellent turn-based strategy to iOS and Android (and eventually PC). Great production values and funny animations compliment the rock-paper-scissors strategy, and the turn-based structure is perfect for mobile platforms. It's like Words With Friends, only much more violent.
These games show off Robot's ability to craft solid mechanics, but it's the production value and humor that make them so charming.
Amplitude Studios has a creative range that's pleasantly surprising. Not only can the team build aesthetically different games that feel as if they all belong in the same sci-fi-fantasy universe, but it builds these worlds well, making each new approach feel like the only way to experience the Endless story. Amplitude launched its 3D, 4X strategy game Endless Space in July 2012 and by March 2013 it'd sold 300,000 copies, and the game still receives DLC and updates. Meanwhile, Dungeon of the Endless is a roguelike, pixelated action game with similar strategy elements, and Endless Legend is a gorgeous (even in early production), land-based strategy title heavy on fantasy and world-building. They're all vastly disparate, but have one thing in common – they're all beautiful.
Owlchemy Labs has a carefully calculated system that allows it to generate revenue and make original games such as Snuggle Truck and Jack Lumber in a seemingly infinite cycle – and it recently turned that process on its head with Dyscourse, a crowd-funded, ambitious survival game that raised $44,000 on Kickstarter this month. Owlchemy has business savvy and a quirky development edge, and it will be exciting to see what the team does with Dyscourse's eccentric art style, narrative-laden mechanics and some serious cash.
Wadjet Eye Games was founded in 2006 by the husband-and-wife duo of Dave and Janet Gilbert. The indie studio develops adventure games, and while its focus has been primarily set on PC, lately the developer has taken interest in iOS and Android. Along with others, Janet adapted the Adventure Game Studio PC engine to iOS and tested the waters with one of the developer's finest games in April, Gemini Rue. While the must-play adventure first launched on PC in October 2011, it was adapted perfectly to the mobile platform and is now also available on Mac, Linux and Android. Those looking for their point-and-click fix on the go should stay tuned to Wadjet Eye Games' upcoming projects, as the developer plans to bring its catalog to iOS as well, which includes games like Resonance, the Blackwell series, Primordia and The Shivah.
Few developers remain as staunchly and optimistically dedicated to making games for the PC than Stardock Entertainment. It first made a name for itself with a sci-fi themed Galactic Civilization series, which wonderfully captures the classic feel of Master of Orion. It also shows that you don't necessarily need to have the name Sid Meier attached to your company to produce satisfying turn-based strategy games. The studio later assisted with the development of Sins of a Solar Empire, the strategy game that combines the deliberate plotting of turn-based strategy with the excitement of real-time action. It also helped with the often underrated Demigod, an arena style action strategy game that could be thought of as a distant cousin to Defense of the Ancients.
Stardock released Fallen Enchantress: Legendary Heroes last May, which is its third (and most successful) try at combining fantasy role-playing elements with strategy. Although Stardock's games might get more benefit from word-of-mouth than launching massive advertising campaigns, the company has a reputation for putting out quality and challenging strategy games. The company is also very dedicated to its fans, demonstrated by the fact that everyone who purchased the disappointing Elemental: War of Magic during its troubled launch received a free copy of the follow-up game – Elemental: Fallen Enchantress – as an apology. In 2014, Stardock will return to the game that started it all with the expected release of Galactic Civilizations 3.
As it turns out, tower defense and first-person shooters go together like coffee and chocolate. Leave it to a developer named Coffee Stain Studios to figure that one out. The Sanctum games satisfy both the cerebral puzzle solving perfectionist and the player who wants nothing more than to shoot aliens in the ... is that its face? Coffee Stain has remained committed to ensuring that Sanctum reaches all its potential, starting with the addition of multiplayer in the first game, and then taking it all to the next level with an RPG-like progression system, multiple characters, challenges and a storyline to tie everything together in Sanctum 2. Now, groups can come together, select complimentary skills and weapons, then argue over the best way to deal with the waves of incoming aliens before they can destroy the power core. It's co-op at its best, really.