Every year, companies across the games industry compete for audience’s time and hard-earned dollars. Within this piece, I’ll highlight those bigger publishers and developers that I believe consistently provided the best value for gamers.
2019 marked a number of international successes in particular. Major Japanese companies featured prominently in mind-share, from hardware manufacturing to software hits, while the world’s largest gaming company broke through a difficult regulatory environment. At the same time, publishers of varying sizes from other regions produced impressive titles (some of which I’ll cover in my next post on the Independent Studios of the Year.)
Here are my picks for the five most impressive gaming companies throughout the year, in alphabetical order.
Annapurna Interactive (United States)
Annapurna Interactive has become a premier publisher for independent video games, and I’ll play almost anything it puts out these days. This subsidiary of film producer Annapurna Pictures backs a number of exceptional, unique projects. And more importantly, has enough funding behind it to smartly market its games through a combination of grassroots campaigns and word-of-mouth.
After an amazing 2018 with the likes of Florence and Donut County, Annapurna’s output this year solidified its standing as the type of deft publisher that knows how to pick ’em.
Its standout 2019 title is Outer Wilds from Mobius Digital, a new kind of space exploration game that’s one of the highest rated and widely praised projects of the entire year. Within my review, I praised the sense of wonder I felt navigating the cosmos and discovering the story of its alien solar system and the intelligent life that inhabits it. Even if I had a tough time with its controls, reflecting back I absolutely believe it deserves its recognition.
Other Annapurna joints this year include Telling Lies from Sam Barlow, a drama presented via full-motion video, then “interactive album” Sayonara Wild Hearts by Simigo. The latter of which is a one-of-a-kind production, blending pop music with traditional endless runner mechanics for a tight, memorable experience. Most recently, Annapurna published the wacky Wattam from Keita Takahashi (Katamari Damacy) and Funomena. I haven’t played it, though critics note its creativity; how it piques imagination through its visuals and interactions.
Finally, it also brought a classic to PC for the first time: thatgamecompany’s Journey, originally out in 2012 for PlayStation 3. Annapurna shared arguably the best independent game ever made to a wider audience. It’s a must-play. For everyone.
This line-up is representative of the types of projects Annapurna hand selects. Those that are sometimes experimental, often unique, frequently emotional and always worth a look.
The resurgence of one of Japan’s most storied gaming companies accelerated in 2019, due to both the quality of its output and sheer quantity of support especially for the Nintendo Switch.
Capcom produced two of the year’s most well-regarded new third person games in Resident Evil 2 Remake and Devil May Cry 5 then produced an expansion to its best-selling game of all time in Monster Hunter World: Iceborne.
Starting strong of the gate in January, its re-imagining of 1998 survival horror game Resident Evil 2 is a Game of the Year contender with its enhanced visuals and modernized mechanics. I posed a question in the beginning of 2019, wondering if this version could outsell its predecessors in the long-running series. Within a week on market, Capcom shipped 3 million units. A month later, over four million. Then earlier this month, it passed the original’s lifetime total by eclipsing the 5 million unit mark.
Essentially, it took under a year for the remake to outsell the original. Between its critical and commercial success, Resident Evil 2 illustrates Capcom’s renewed focus on incubating legacy IP.
Both Devil May Cry 5 in March and September’s Monster Hunter World: Iceborne continued this streak of critical and financial accomplishment. The former hit 2 million copies sold within a couple weeks, already two thirds of what Devil May Cry 4 sold lifetime and “reinvigorating” the franchise according to Capcom execs, while the latter vaulted to 2.5 million in sales within a week.
Separate of these new projects, Capcom pumped out a number of legacy games on a variety of platforms. Onimusha: Warlords, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Trilogy plus a set of Resident Evil and Devil May Cry ports for Nintendo Switch.
Between creating successful newer releases and rounding out 2019’s portfolio with catalog titles, Capcom is back in the good graces of fans while also appealing to a broader audience especially with its Monster Hunter series. All it needs now is a great new fighting game! Perhaps in 2020.
It should come as no surprise that Nintendo is here. In fact, if I was ranking the list, it would likely capture the top spot.
Even if it wasn’t Nintendo’s strongest first party software year in the Switch generation, which I’d argue was its first year in 2017, its consistency of output is best in business right now. Not only that, Nintendo Switch is the place for third parties to release both new projects and older ports, and especially fruitful for independent teams.
The Kyoto-based company also released a new more compact, handheld-only version of its hybrid console in September. Dubbed the Nintendo Switch Lite, its release contributed to Switch hardware sales jumping to 41.67 million consoles this year plus the company experiencing its best week of Switch sales ever during the Thanksgiving holiday.
It’s impossible to comment on all of its 2019 output, so let’s list them to prove the point.
There’s the internal or “second party” partnership stuff. Tetris 99. New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe. Yoshi’s Crafted World. Super Mario Maker 2. Fire Emblem: Three Houses. The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening. Luigi’s Mansion 3. And its most significant 2019 release, Pokémon Sword and Shield.
Then the third party exclusives. Cadence of Hyrule. Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order. Astral Chain. Daemon X Machina. Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.
Plus the multi-platforms or ports of older games. There are a ton of these. I promise. Titles like Dragon Quest Builders 2, Mortal Kombat 11, Cuphead, Ori and the Blind Forest and even The Witcher 3 are all now playable on Switch.
Not to mention mobile. Mario Kart Tour. Dr. Mario World. And the experimental. Labo Toy-Con VR Kit. Ring Fit Adventure.
Even a, gasp, pretty good video game movie in Detective Pikachu!
It’s cliche to say that Nintendo literally makes something for everyone. Shoot, in many cases there’s a LOT for everyone. But it’s true. And it’s playable at home or on the go, sometimes even on a phone. We expect Nintendo’s internal teams and close partnerships to produce amazing content. It’s the third parties and indies that are really starting to bolster the Switch experience.
Sure, there’s room for improvement. Its online service is nowhere near its competitors. It should offer individual legacy titles rather than only as a library. Its mobile app is laughable. Its operating system lacks basic functionality. We still have to use friend codes.
These aside, Nintendo’s at its best when it both offers great exclusive titles from its talented studios that appeal to all kinds of gamers plus experiments with use cases for its technology. Its leadership like President Shuntaro Furukawa, Director and legendary designer Shigeru Miyamoto and more locally Nintendo of America lead Doug Bowser (since the retirement of Reggie Fils-Ame) aren’t afraid to get weird and have fun. This and its sheer consistency on the software development side are the defining characteristics of 2019’s most impressive gaming company.
Respawn Entertainment [Electronic Arts] (United States)
I’m going to cheat a bit here because I want to shout out a particular team within a broader parent firm for its excellent work. Respawn Entertainment, which was purchased by Electronic Arts a couple years back, is responsible for two of the year’s blockbuster titles. One of which came out of nowhere, the other a foray into a new genre for the studio.
First, there was Apex Legends. Most industry commenters claimed that the battle royale fad had passed. That there was no room for real competition to the likes of Fortnite and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG), both of which still have large, dedicated audiences. Then Respawn stealthily released Apex Legends as a free digital download on a random Monday in early February and proved everyone wrong.
A first-person game set in the Titanfall universe where teams fight for dominance, Apex Legends player counts skyrocketed within days as it enraptured gamers with smart accessibility options, a balanced hero system and top-notch mechanics. One million within 8 hours. 2.5 million in a day. 10 million in 72 hours! It made $92 million in sales within its first month. And it’s free! That means players weren’t merely downloading it, they liked it so much that they wanted to spend money on its cosmetics.
Since then, it’s boasted over 50 million players. A success story for the industry in showing that new concepts can be rewarded even in a market flooded with participants.
Respawn’s second massive project this year was Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order. To say Electronic Arts has been inconsistent in publishing Star Wars games is an understatement. That is, until now.
Fallen Order released in mid-November to widespread critical acclaim. It’s a third person action game with satisfying lightsaber combat, an intriguing story and diverse environments seemingly pulled right from the movies. Directed by God of War veteran Stig Asmussen, it’s undoubtedly one of the best Star Wars games to date plus a candidate for year-end accolades despite some unfortunate technical problems. It’s also a surprising move for Respawn to shift to third-person action when it’s solely made first-person shooters in the past.
While we don’t have broad sales numbers for Fallen Order, I wrote recently about how it was the second best-selling title domestically in its release month and nearly achieved the best launch ever for a Star Wars game, trailing only 2015’s Star Wars Battlefront. It’s already entered the Top 10 sellers of the year, and I anticipate that rank to improve when we hear December’s data.
By developing a surprise hit in a competitive genre alongside a critical darling in one of the world’s most beloved franchises, Respawn clearly earned its spot as one of the most compelling and accomplished studios of 2019.
It’s ironic how quietly Chinese media conglomerate Tencent dominates the global games industry. Because its operations are mostly in the mobile and PC market, especially popular titles within the Asia Pacific region, Tencent is the biggest gaming company in the world by revenue (near a whopping $20 billion during 2018) with less mind-share than most of its competitors.
Think of a big game or publisher, it’s likely that Tencent is involved with it. League of Legends? It owns Riot Games. Clash of Clans? Holds 84% of Supercell. Fortnite? A 40% stake in Epic Games. PUBG? Nearly 12% of Bluehole at last count. Activision? Ubisoft? Small holdings in both.
Even stakes in smaller teams like Path of Exile creator Grinding Gear Games and Frontier Developments, maker of Jurassic World: Evolution and Elite Dangerous, round out Tencent’s plethora of investments.
This isn’t even to mention its own games like mobile racing game QQ Speed or crazy popular multiplayer game on phones Honor of Kings, released in the West as Arena of Valor. If we’re talking the smartphone market, there’s none more impressive than Tencent.
Beyond that, I’m placing it on my 2019 list is for multiple reasons other than its significant holdings: More because of its navigation of China’s difficult regulatory environment, the smash release of Call of Duty: Mobile and its recent partnership with Nintendo.
It’s always a tricky regulatory situation in China, so a quick recap of the most recent events. Back in April 2018, the country instituted a freeze on new releases in the world’s largest gaming market due to addiction concerns,. This obviously impacted Tencent’s performance and market capitalization, losing a unfathomable $250 billion in valuation at one point. After ten long months, the government began approving new titles.
While Tencent earned approvals for smaller new titles, it didn’t for one of its biggest money-makers in PUBG Mobile which has been downloaded over 600 million times. The company shut down the game in May, though simultaneously released a new one in the same genre called Game for Peace (or Peacekeeper Elite in English).
During its first month, Game for Peace generated $70 million in sales. When combined with the $76 million from its PUBG Mobile counterpart, these quickly became the world’s top smartphone games by revenue. Since then, total global sales have passed $1.5 billion from these games, according to Sensor Tower. This is fully representative of Tencent’s savvy in bouncing back from the government freeze.
Similarly, Tencent’s global expansion is underway now with the release of Call of Duty: Mobile back in October. Based on the uber popular first-person military franchise owned by Activision Blizzard, this version was actually developed by Tencent’s internal team Timi Studio. It achieved a record during its first week on market with 100 million downloads and has since passed 170 million while raking in $87 million in sales. Aligning with a Western publisher is the type of decision that allows Tencent to benefit from an audience it otherwise couldn’t reach.
The final move is its recent partnership with Nintendo to sell the Switch in China, a market that’s notoriously difficult for console gaming. Just a few weeks ago, the Switch launched there albeit without much of a library. Only New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe is available, with titles like Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and Super Mario Odyssey in the more immediate pipeline and others slated for next year. Niko Partners estimates 100,000 in Switch console sales during this month alone, then a growing install base to where Switch could be the local market leader by 2022.
After a tumultuous 2018 under local regulations putting a halt to new titles, Tencent emerged in 2019 to continue its dominance in the smartphone game space especially in the East. Combine this with its global expansion alongside a smart alliance with Nintendo, and it’s the last on this prestigious list of gaming companies.
Working Casual’s Year-in-Review is far from over! Next up will be Independent Studios of the Year. Until then, thanks for reading.
Sources: Business Insider, Business Wire, Company investor and media sites, Newzoo, Niko Partners, PC Gamer, Sensor Tower, The Verge.