Develop 100 - 2009: Profiles of the top 10

Develop 100 - 2009: Profiles of the top 10

By Develop

May 11th 2009 at 10:05AM

This month we've published the latest edition of the Develop 100. The Develop site is publishing major extracts from the book - here we present the details of positions 1 to 10â?¦

1. Blizzard Entertainment

Founded: 1994
Owned by: Activision Blizzard
Head count: 2,700
Address: P.O. Box 18979, Irvine, CA 92623, USA
www.blizzard.com

Fast Fact: 16m - The number of quests completed by World of Warcraft players every single day

Wow! WoW! Launched back in November 2004, Blizzard’s appropriately acronym-ed World of Warcraft continues to do the sort of numbers previously reserved for crime syndicates and smaller members of the United Nations – now over $100 million a month from subscriptions alone.

It’s not just the monthly revenues that impress, either – although they are incomparable, and the principle reason for Blizzard’s 46 place jump up our recalibrated chart. The late 2008 release of World of Warcraft’s second expansion pack, Wrath of the Lich King, also put all but a handful of rival titles into the shade.

Hitting the shops last November, Wrath of the Lich King sold 2.8 million copies within 24 hours and four million in a month – enough to make it the fastest-selling PC game of all time (a record hitherto held by the previous expansion pack, The Burning Crusade).

Blizzard delivered $1.34 billion to Activision-Blizzard’s bottom line last year. Thanks to Guitar Hero and Call of Duty, the Activision side of the family raked in $2.15 billion, which might make Blizzard seem the weaker partner. But Blizzard generated revenues of $1.1 billion in 2007, and $638 million back in 2006, dwarfing pre-merger Activision’s income. Barring nuclear Armageddon, Blizzard will take well over $1 billion this year, too.

Such is the power of World of Warcraft’s subscription base. The Wrath of the Lich King helped pull in a new batch over Christmas, and WoW ended the year with 11.5 million.

The cost to keep World of Warcraft turning is hefty. According to Blizzard, the company employs 250 people in game development, but the total global headcount is likely ten times that number. Analysts were advised in September that it all added up to around $200 million since launch, with the bulk spent on customer support.

Yet that still leaves literally billions to spend on new titles – the company is working on Diablo III and not one but three Starcraft II releases, as well as a new MMO – and spare change to contract Lord of the Rings special effects house WETA to build a 12-foot high WoW statue for the company’s Irvine, California offices.

But you can never have too much money. Besides the upcoming new games, a World of Warcraft movie is in development, Blizzard signed an ad deal with Massive for Battle.net, a WoW-themed restaurant opened in Beijing, and Blizzard even introduced a new $15 sex change facility to WoW.

Peanuts? Hardly. If a million subscribers decide to explore their feminine side…

2. Nintendo EAD

Founded: 1947
Owned by: Nintendo
Head count: 1,400+
Address: 11-1, Kamitoba hokotate-cho, Minami-ku, Kyoto 601-8501, Japan
www.nintendo.co.jp

Fast Fact: 96m - The lifetime sales of Nintendo DS by the end of 2008. Tens of millions of new DS owners meant a ravenous demand for Nintendo’s DS back catalogue

Such is the depth of Nintendo’s back catalogue that it would occupy this position even if it hadn’t released any new games in 2008, on the strength of its DS games alone. Nintendo-developed DS games like Mario Kart DS, Brain Training, Nintendogs and New Super Mario Bros each saw sales of three to four million units over the course of 2008. All but Super Mario were released in early 2005.

It may seem strange to start Nintendo’s entry in the Develop 100 talking about old games, but we wish to emphasise the extraordinary durability of Nintendo’s games and franchises. Where other publishers have been recently expressing surprise at the shelf-life of some of their titles (particularly casual games, as well as hardcore best-sellers kept fresh with downloadable content), for Nintendo that’s business as usual.

2008 saw the release of some huge Wii games created by Nintendo’s internal development resource, but the real story is that its games will still be selling well in 2010. When it comes to multi-product game development – and despite rivals benchmarking and name checking the Kyoto-based company for years – Nintendo remains in a class of its own.

Disregarding Wii Sports, the 40-million seller that has been bundled with the Wii console everywhere except Japan since launch, Nintendo’s biggest game of the year was a toss-up between Wii Fit and Mario Kart Wii. The latter, bundled with the Wii Wheel accessory, sold 13 million copies in 2008, and was well-received by reviewers.

Wii Fit also sold well over ten million units in 2008, and with its higher retail price and envelope-pushing gameplay it was Nintendo’s key release of the year. Sales could almost certainly have been higher, too. Consumers left their couches in droves to buy the fitness-based game, resulting in periods where the game sold out at key retailers in the UK and US.

And there’s more. Wii Play, which is bundled with a Wii Remote, was the best-selling game in North America in 2008, where it sold over five million units. It shifted around ten million worldwide. Animal Crossing: City Folk sold more than three million units, and Wii Music 2.5m, though neither game was particularly highly-rated by reviewers.

The stellar Super Mario Galaxy, which enjoyed unanimous adulation from critics on release in late 2007, also kept selling to reach 7.6m in lifetime sales. The fact that such a lavishly garlanded game is being outsold by more modestly rated, yet much more accessible, titles tells you much about why other publishers have been scrambling to release casual Wii games during the past 12 months.


3. Rockstar North

Founded: 1988
Owned by: Rockstar North
Address: Carlton Square, 1 Greenside Row, Edinburgh, EH1 3AP, UK
www.rockstarnorth.com

Fast Fact: $710m - The total revenues generated for Take Two by the GTA franchise in 2008

Just one game was enough to put Rockstar North into the number three position of the Develop 100, but what a game. Very few releases have been more commercially successful than Grand Theft Auto: IV, and has any third-party title ever achieved such universal acclaim? GTA: IV is the highest-ranking release by some distance on both Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, according to the review aggregation sites, rated 98 on both platforms on Metacritic.

Sticking one in the eye of every publishing insider who has sniffed at such high review scores, Grand Theft Auto: IV sold 3.6 million on its April 29th 2008 release date, and had shifted six million (or $500 million worth) by the end of its first week of release. Take Two says it had shipped 13 million copies as of January.

Lauded by everyone from university professors and op-ed writers to fellow boundary-pushing Brit developer Peter Molyneux as a significant breakthrough for storytelling and the medium, it’s hard not to suspect that GTA IV will mark a high water point for the series and its creator.

But the Edinburgh-based dystopian dream factory and its guiding lights and Rockstar label founders, Dan and Sam Houser, have long walked even better than they talked. EA says it’s putting more focus on quality across its Need for Speed franchises, and then releases Undercover, which only just scrapped a pass. Dan Houser says Rockstar will never compromise Grand Theft Auto, never pursue a cheap movie tie-in nor allow a shoddy port.

It was this combination of swagger, clout and scruples – plus their track record, of course – that enable the Housers, together with Rockstar North studio director Leslie Benzies and other cornerstone members of GTA IV’s development team, to hold out when renewing their employment contracts with Take Two. A long-term agreement incorporates profit sharing and a commitment to fund and publish new IP from a new company set up by ‘key Rockstar Games team members’. A near unprecedented agreement, but in a world where Harmonix co-founders are paid $150m earnings in related fees years after selling out to Viacom, we’d argue Take Two got the better end of the bargain to keep the Housers and Co. aboard.

Since GTA: IV’s release, Rockstar North has officially been working on two downloadable episodes (the first of which, The Lost and The Damned, arrived in February).

4. EA Canada

Founded: 1992
Owned by: Electronic Arts
Address: 4330 Sanderson Way, Burnaby, British Columbia V5G 4XI, Canada
www.ea.com


Fast Fact: 7.8m - Total sales of FIFA 09 across all formats in the last quarter of 2008

While it’s unlikely any division will entirely escape the long arm of EA management’s escalating lust for redundancies (current ambition – 1,100 staff must go) EA Canada might take some security in the fact it delivered EA’s best-selling title of 2008, FIFA 09.

Sure, the global appeal of football makes the franchise even more magnetic than EA’s Madden series, but FIFA 09 reviewed well across its many formats, too. And while it may stick in the craw in some quarters that Europe’s national sport is rendered in best-selling digital form by a Canadian company (when it’s not being done by the Japanese), it’s worth noting the lead producer of the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions, Dave Rutter, is a Brit. Indeed, while we’ve not seen official figures to put numbers on the theory, we’d imagine EA Canada’s workforce is as cosmopolitan as the Starship Enterprise.

The attractions are obvious. Besides the chance to work on stalwart EA Sports brands, the main EA Canada studio is located in the British Columbian suburb of Burnaby, just to the east of quality-of-life superstar Vancouver. EA’s largest campus sprawls across 400,000 square feet, and boasts its own volleyball and basketball courts, a football pitch (or ‘soccer’ pitch in EA Canada-speak), gym and theatre, as well as extensive multimedia toys and work spaces. Before the job cuts began it was home to at least 1,700 staff – more than many a rural Canadian village.

While EA Canada has taken the occasional diversion, such as the Wii version of Medal of Honor: Heroes 2 (released in Europe in 2008), it’s really all about the sports. The studio’s CV includes most of the games in EA’s now quietened Big label, such as SSX and the various Street titles. Aside from FIFA 09, last year was also graced by EA Canada developed NBA Live 09 and NHL Live 09, Freestyle brand launcher Celebrity Sports Showdown on Wii, Facebreaker and UEFA Euro 2008.

Rumours of EA Canada job losses still occasionally surface, but following the trail of EA’s axe men is an unrewarding guessing game. With the Burnaby campus welcoming the surviving members of the EA Black Box team and plans for a second Vancouver office reversed in the light of the cutbacks, we think EA Canada’s campus will remain among the busier places for employees in 2009.

Those staff are currently employed on a raft of titles including the usual annual sports iterations, plus less regular outings such as Fight Night Round 4 and EA Sports Active. And you can bet your bottom Canadian dollar that FIFA 10 is half done already.

5. Capcom

Founded: 1979
Owned by: Capcom
Head count: 1,200+
Address: 3-1-3 Uchihirano-machi, Chuo-ku, Osaka 540-0037, Japan
www.capcom.co.jp

Fast Fact: 40m - Total lifetime shipments of Capcom’s Resident Evil series, as of March 2009

Daring to develop new IP has paid off for Capcom. Whereas certain Japanese rivals have failed to recreate the glory days of yesteryear on the back of yesteryear’s games, Capcom has better balanced its prestigious back catalogue – bulging with Street Fighter, Resident Evil, Mega Man and more – with new properties.

Unlike some of its Japanese peers, it’s also kept a weather eye on Western tastes, which have become increasingly important as domestic demand has dried up.

It’s somewhat ironic then that Capcom’s most successful new IP has sold so well at home. The likes of Lost Planet and Dead Rising – released in 2006 – both shifted well over a million units, earning their sequels now in development.

But they hardly compare to the mighty Monster Hunter.

First debuting just five years ago on PS2, Monster Hunter has become a phenomenon in Japan, where later sequels have saved the PSP almost single-handedly. As of December 2008, the Monster Hunter series had sold 8.5m sales collectively over its lifetime, and Capcom recently named the brand its leading franchise – ahead of the likes of Resident Evil.

Monster Hunter Freedom 2G was released in March 2008. It sold one million in less than a week and became the first Japanese software title to sell two million units, an achievement that took it barely three months.

Another massive seller for Capcom in 2008 was Devil May Cry 4, the latest instalment of the Devil May Cry series first launched in 2001. Helped by a very credible 84 rating on Metacritic, Devil May Cry 4 has gone on to sell over two million copies across Xbox 360, PS3 and PC as the first true multiformat release for the series.

Taken collectively, the Devil May Cry games have sold more than 10 million units, and Devil May Cry 4 is also being translated to other media including comics, an anime and a novel due in 2009. Capcom’s stated ambition is to exploit more properties across multiple media like this – as well as taking them to new hardware – through its ‘Single Contents Multiple Usage’ strategy.

Capcom’s thinking, which mirrors Western rival EA’s recent direction, has been buoyed no doubt by the commercial success of the three Resident Evil movies, which together have generated revenues of $300m. The CGI movie, Resident Evil: Degeneration, has sold well too – over 1.5 million copies since its release at the very tail end of 2008.

6. Ubisoft Montreal

Founded: 1997
Owned by: Ubisoft
Head count: 1,850
Address: 500 boul Saint-Laurent, Suite 5000, Montreal, H2T 1S6, Quebec, Canada
www.ubisoftgroup.com

Fast Fact: 4,350 - Ubisoft’s global development roster, out of a total staff of 5,450 (as of December 2008)

There was no new Assassin’s Creed – although Ubisoft upped its sales forecast for that late 2007 smash by two million in January 2008, as the game kept selling – but a development complex of over 1,850 souls never rests.

Standing out among its new releases were Far Cry 2, Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six: Vegas 2, Shaun White Snowboarding and Prince of Persia. The latter was praised for its eye candy, but traditionally tougher scorers marked it down. Far Cry 2 did better, selling 2.9m over the crucial Christmas period, and Wii-Balance Board compatibility helped Shaun White Snowboarding sell particularly well on Wii.

While Ubisoft’s global footprint ever expands, the Montreal team is expected to remain pivotal, with plans to grow the studio’s headcount to 3,000 – helped in part by the Quebec government’s tax credits and other financial incentives.

7. Treyarch

Founded: 1996
Owned by: Activision
Address: 100 N. Sepulveda Blvd, Suite 1100, El Segundo, CA. 90245, USA
www.treyarch.com

Fast Fact: 35m - Collective sales of games in the Call of Duty series since its launch in 2003, as of December 2008

While Call of Duty: World at War didn’t quite live up to the critical adulation accorded to its predecessor, by any normal measures it was judged an excellent title on all the formats Treyarch was responsible for – Xbox 360, PS3, Wii and PC. The return to World War II certainly didn’t hurt sales, either. World at War sold nearly six million copies worldwide in 2008, making it the fifth best seller of 2008 and enough to place the Santa Monica developer very firmly towards the top of our list this year.

The Activision studio’s other release of 2008, Quantum of Solace, didn’t match World at War’s critical reception or its sales. Review scores weren’t terrible though – merely middling – and the Bond licence will surely have helped the Santa Monica studio’s PS3 and Xbox 360 versions get well beyond the million mark.

8. Infinity Ward

Founded: 2002
Owned by: Activision
Head count: 100
Address: 15821 Ventura Boulevard Suite 590 Encino, CA 91436, USA
www.infinityward.com

Fast Fact: 15m - The total number of unique users who have been logged playing Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare via Xbox Live and PlayStation Network

Californian superstar developer Infinity Ward makes Call of Duty games. Its last, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, was the best-selling game of 2007. The studio hasn’t released another game since then. So what’s it doing in the Develop 100?

Well, nobody told Call of Duty 4 the war was over. The game carried on shifting in huge numbers. As of March 2009 it has sold 12m copies – five million of which changed hands in 2008 and early 2009.

According to Infinity Ward, Call of Duty 4’s performance makes it the number one shooter of all time, and the second best-selling game ever.

Then there’s the downloadable content. April 2008 saw its Variety Map Pack hurdle the million paid download mark on Xbox Live after just nine days on sale, generating another $10 million.

Infinity Ward is now working on Modern Warfare 2, which drops the Call of Duty prefix.

9. Epic Games

Founded: 1991
Independent
Head count: 100
Address: 620 Crossroads Blvd, Cary, NC 27518, USA
www.epicgames.com

Fast Fact: 2m - The unit sales of Epic Games’ Gears of War 2 achieved on its opening weekend

While rival engine licensing middleware companies construct arguments about the drawbacks of a developer licensing its own engine, Epic Games continues to get on with doing both with phenomenal success. The engine that powers everything from EA’s Mirror’s Edge to Midway’s Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe also made for a beautiful backbone to Gears of War 2, the company’s all-conquering sequel, released November 2008.

The 360 exclusive sold four million copies within two months of release – twice the sales pace of the original title. Designer Cliff Bleszinski says Gears of War 2 is more ‘a platform’ than a conventional release, thanks to extensive online modes, and fans have enjoyed a steady supply of DLC since its release.

2008 saw Epic acquire Utah’s Chair Entertainment. It also struck an unnamed game development deal between Polish subsidiary People Can Fly and EA.

10. Bethesda Softworks

Founded: 1986
Owned by: ZeniMax Media
Address: 1370 Piccard Drive, Suite 120, Rockville, MD 20850, USA
www.bethsoft.com

Fast Fact: ZERO - The amount of downloadable content released for Fallout 3 on PlayStation 3. Analysts speculate that Microsoft has paid Bethesda to keep the DLC Xbox exclusive

If Bethesda Softworks has had several hot and cold periods during its 25 years in existence, then the current era is positively nuclear. Following 2007’s much-lauded and commercially unstoppable Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, which it produced for 2K Games, it returned to self-publishing with Fallout 3.

Long-time fans of series developer Black Isle Studios fretted. But the game, positioned 36 years along the post-apocalyptic timeline established in previous Fallout games and realized in full 3D for the first time – thanks to the Emergent-created Bethesda favourite Gamebryo engine – proved a hit with the critics, and won over millions of new fans.

Bethesda shipped 4.7 million copies worldwide for Xbox 360, PC and PlayStation 3 for the global launch. By January this year, the Xbox 360 version had sold over a million units and the PS3 version half a million in the North American market alone.