2021 Year-in-Review: Five Most Impressive Gaming Companies

Consistency and quality are the key in this Year-in-Review category.

It rewards those teams at larger publishers or console manufacturers with the most impact on the games industry, whether from a release, investment, expansion, influence or hardware launch standpoint. These are names most will recognize, standing at the top of their respective games. The work of their development teams and publishing arms shaped the broader industry in 2021, resulting in some of the most remarkable experiences of the year.

While I’m celebrating bigger companies here, I want to take a moment to say again how I stand behind workers fighting back against toxic regimes at companies like Ubisoft and Activision Blizzard, both of which (among others like Bungie and Riot Games) will most certainly not make this list right now. I’m excited to see efforts towards collective action and even unionization because these companies are their people, not just their executive teams. There’s no place for harassment here.

Note: My next article will highlight independent creators. This is reserved for publicly-traded or high valuation companies.

Here they are, the top five most impressive companies of 2021, in alphabetical order.

Capcom

The largest third-party Japanese publisher focused on high quality over quantity in 2021. Its two flagship launches in Monster Hunter Rise and Resident Evil Village were among the year’s most critically-acclaimed and commercially-successful, continuing a recent reinvigoration of both franchises. Round out its annual schedule with Monster Hunter Stories 2, Great Ace Attorney Chronicles, a handful of classic game collections plus even Resident Evil 4 for virtual reality (props to anyone who can play that!).

Monster Hunter Rise was made specifically for Nintendo Switch, existing somewhere between Monster Hunter World and earlier franchise titles centered on handheld play. It worked masterfully, an addicting gameplay loop that’s perfect for portable play. After shipping 4 million units in three days back in March 2021, it’s since surpassed 7.5 million units to already become the third best-selling game in series history.

Since its launch in May, Resident Evil Village has shown up on many an award list for its adaptation of the survival horror formula. Perhaps more memorably, the multi-platform follow-up to 2017’s Resident Evil 7 Biohazard spawned the vampire mother and ongoing meme that is Lady Dimitrescu. It was the fastest-selling series launch alongside Resident Evil 6, moving 3 million units across four days. After shipping an additional 2 million since, it now stands at 5 million to date.

I’m fully praising Capcom’s internal teams for adapting in a changing world and producing at least a couple of the year’s most celebrated big budget releases.

Devolver Digital

Devolver is the type of unique game company with a scrappy, start-up mentality that was also valued over $1 billion when its stock listed in London in November making it the largest U.S. company to trade on the stock exchange. Its games are all from smaller teams, and it explicitly makes fun of press conferences from larger counterparts during E3. The portion of its website showing accolades is called Propaganda.

That’s Devolver in a nutshell. And I’d argue 2021 was its best year to date.

It’s a publishing outfit, previously working on re-releases and lately coordinating with tighter-knit independent creators to market their projects around the world. Last year alone it produced the following: Inscryption from Daniel Mullins Games, Loop Hero by Four Quarters, Acid Nerve’s Death’s Door, Boomerang X made by Dang! plus Olija which was created by Skeleton Crew Studio.

These titles, notably the first three, are everywhere this award season and all signs point to solid sales as well. Inscryption is celebrated as one of the best deck-building card games ever, pushing 250K units on Steam alone. Loop Hero, which set its own genre somewhere between idle game and tower defense, has now sold well over a million units. Death’s Door is a critical darling with over 100K copies in a week. The totally rad Boomerang X flew under-the-radar, a quiet yet sensational compact experience.

Devolver is made up of smart, savvy talent finders which led to multiple games that defined the indie space in 2021.

Epic Games

Yes. Epic Games is, at first glance, Fortnite. 2017’s battle royale sensation is still one of the most relevant games because it pushes boundaries of collaboration, creation, intellectual property crossover and live event experimentation. Epic Games has effectively established a “metaverse” at a time when most other companies are talking about doing so. Which is impressive enough on its own.

This year alone, Fortnite added more characters and cosmetics from a range of different brands or gaming franchises: Marvel, Warner Bros, Halo, God of War, Street Fighter, Tomb Raider and others I’m forgetting. It’s probably the only place where Master Chief can have an epic battle with Kratos. Epic moved the game into its third chapter recently while expanding its event approach during 2021, showcasing Ariana Grande’s Rift Tour and the Soundwave Series of concerts headlined by Egyptian singer Mohamed Hamaki.

However Epic is also making deals, investments and partnerships while continuing its Epic Game Store growth with content offerings and major sales. This past year, it purchased Fall Guys creator Mediatonic, RAD Game Tools, ArtStation, Sketchfab and even Rock Band maker Harmonix. That’s not even to talk about its game engine business, moving into Unreal Engine 5 technology which was recently shown off via The Matrix Awakens and is now in the hands of developers making games for the latest generation of consoles like Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II and the next Mass Effect. It’s one of the most popular engines in the world, leveraged by film studios to game designers everywhere.

Epic Games’ valuation is estimated at upwards of $42 billion, up from under $30 billion in April. Its strategy is all-encompassing, with the ongoing, evolving ecosystem of Fortnite supplemented by various other businesses, experiences and its digital storefront.

Square Enix

When talking sheer software output, not many companies rivaled Square Enix during 2021. The Japanese developer-publisher moved a whirlwind of games and expansions, one of which was so successful that it had to stop selling it temporarily.

Its lineup ran the gamut. Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy. Life is Strange: True Colors. Outriders. Bravely Default 2. Balan Wonderworld. Neo: The World Ends With You. Voice of Cards: The Isle Dragon Roars. NieR Replicant (insert many numbers here). Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker. Even Final Fantasy VII Remake for PC snuck in during December. Sprinkle in re-releases of catalog titles, and it was a busy time for its teams.

Now some of these were better than others, granted. I’d argue there’s more good than bad. Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy is a sleeper Game of the Year contender and one of the best comic adaptations in recent years. Life is Strange: True Colors continued its franchise’s narrative legacy and produced one of the best main characters of 2021 in Alex Chen. Outriders had a major moment in April, launching simultaneously into Xbox Game Pass to reach 3.5 million players in a month. Bravely Default 2 has sold a million units worldwide.

Then there’s Final Fantasy XIV, one of the sweetest redemption stories in all of gaming since a shaky start over a decade ago. On the strength of its Endwalker expansion this year, the MMORPG became the most profitable game in Final Fantasy history, reached 25 million registered accounts and established a new record for concurrent players. In December, Square Enix had to halt new sales and trials because its servers couldn’t handle player load. If that’s not a good problem to have, I don’t know what is.

Traditional console and PC gaming isn’t the only vertical within its portfolio. Others include mobile, arcade, amusement, film, manga and merchandising of its various brands. While overall sales and profit are currently down slightly from last year’s highs, it expects annual revenue growth of 2% driven by these new launches plus the ongoing momentum of its MMORPG unit.

While I was disappointed to see a New Year’s letter from President Yosuke Matsuda talk mostly about metaverse and NFTs, two questionable corporate buzzwords I mentioned in my Year-in-Review trends post, employees at Square Enix produced several noteworthy games and continued significant ongoing player support in 2021.

Xbox Game Studios

During this same category last year, I awarded Microsoft overall a slot at the top at the start of its new Xbox Series X|S generation. This year, I’m celebrating the individual unit that is Xbox Game Studios for its dazzling array of consistent output. Major internal investment and studio purchases, headlined of course by $7.5 billion ZeniMax deal which closed in March, began bearing fruit. This was perhaps the best year in history for Xbox on the software production side.

Several of its now 23 development teams had banner new releases, even if some of them weren’t technically exclusive to Xbox or platforms where Xbox Game Pass exists. Two of these, Forza Horizon 5 from Playground Games and Double Fine Productions’ Psychonauts 2, were among the year’s five highest-rated on review aggregator OpenCritic. This, hm.. drove Forza Horizon 5 to the largest software launch in Xbox history, attracting a staggering 10 million players its first week alone.

Then there’s Halo Infinite, of course. The one-two punch of multiplayer and campaign are a franchise revitalization. While Xbox hasn’t shared statistics yet, I’m on record betting the latest Halo installment from 343 Industries had even higher engagement. Deathloop from Arkane Studios was a lock for year-end “best of” lists, while Age of Empires IV from Relic Entertainment was one of the premier PC launches of 2021.

On the ongoing support and catalog side, Sea of Thieves from Rare sailed past 25 million players back in October. It’s quietly one of the biggest success stories for Xbox in the last decade. A small team at Obsidian Entertainment released Grounded into early access, plus Microsoft Flight Simulator from Asobo Studio saw its console debut.

Because of contracts signed prior to recent acquisitions, Deathloop was actually a PlayStation 5 exclusive while Psychonauts 2 hit a variety of different platforms. To me, that doesn’t take away from the accomplishments of everyone within Xbox Game Studios whether long-time employees or recent joiners. That’s multiple Game of the Year contenders, if not winners, and major contributions to the industry made or published by Xbox this past year.

This celebration of those working at major gaming companies marks the halfway point of 2021 Year-in-Review here at the site. Check back to the megapost for all articles. Be safe, all!

Sources: Company Investor & Media Sites, Financial Review, Mohamed Hassan (Image Credit).

-Dom

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