Develop 100: The top ten

Develop 100: The top ten

By Owain Bennallack

May 7th 2010 at 11:03AM

Proflles of the leading studios in this year's book

This month we've published the 2010 edition of the Develop 100.

Published in association with Deep Silver and based on data compiled by GfK Chart-Track, the Develop 100 ranks the world's games developers based on the amount of revenues their games generated at UK retail.

The Develop site is publishing major extracts from the book - here we present the details of positions 1 to 10…

Click here for a guide to all the Develop 100 - 2010 Edition content available now on the Develop site

 


1. Nintendo - £203.63m

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

Top title: Wii Fit

It’s hard to believe Nintendo EAD was placed down at 28th in the Develop 100 in 2005. What changed to see it bag the top spot in 2010?

More success, obviously – but not from its game designers. Even in the dark days of the GameCube, Nintendo produced some of the best entertainment software of the era, with the system’s Zelda outings a particular highlight.

But the fact is even if Super Mario Sunshine had been a genre-definer like Mario 64, Nintendo would have struggled to achieve Develop 100-topping sales. Fanboys don’t like to be reminded, but GameCube didn’t achieve a chart-topping installed base.

This changed with the Nintendo DS, and later with the Wii. There’s now 125 million of the dual-screened handhelds out in the wild, while the Wii is in over 68 million living rooms – triple the final count of GameCubes sold to gamers. At last, Nintendo EAD has the mass audience again that its games deserve.
To focus on the hardware turnaround is not to decry the software innovation that the touch interface of the DS and the motion control of the Wii teased from Nintendo’s internal teams, however. No other format holder – or publisher, for that matter – could have had any real confidence that their in-house developers could rise to the challenges of two revolutionary console launches in two years. Nintendo’s revelled in them.

All that said, from the vantage point of 2010, Nintendo’s internally-developed output looks less inspiring. Take Wii Fit – even its cheerleaders would admit it’s more a ‘Eureka!’ moment followed by a marketing and manufacturing triumph, rather than a truly great game.
Some say that Nintendo’s place at the top of this list proves once again that only Nintendo can survive on Nintendo hardware – but that’s the point. Nintendo is able to adapt to a market that many others have failed in.

All of this points to an interesting period for Nintendo. The DS’ touch interface is nothing special in the iPhone era, and the Wii is already long in the tooth. The novelty has worn off; Move and Natal pose a real challenge.
Regarding the DS, after some initial fantastic software such as Legend of Zelda: The Phantom Hourglass and Nintendogs, Nintendo EAD rested on its laurels a little. However the recently announced 3D DS is doubtless already inspiring Shigeru Miyamoto’s shocktroopers of innovation to create new kinds of gameplay – the opposite to so many developers, who would focus on graphical fireworks.

The Wii may prove a trickier console to reinvigorate, though if anyone can, Nintendo can. Time will tell. For now Nintendo Entertainment Analysis and Development – to give the 500-strong division its full name – is known to be working on Super Mario Galaxy 2 for Wii, due very soon, and a new Legend of Zelda title for Wii, due by the end of the year.

2. Infinity Ward - £125.58m

Founded: 2002
Owned by: Activision
Address: 15821 Ventura Boulevard, Suite 590, Encino, CA 91436, USA

www.infinityward.com

Top Title: Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2

Man fighting man on a confusing battlefield fogged by uncertainty and subject to explosions and landmines… not necessarily the plot from Modern Warfare, but a summary of the fallout between Activision and the former bosses of Infinity Ward following the game’s record-breaking success.

At the time of writing, much is unclear and more unsettled. We do know that Infinity Ward president Jason West and CEO and co-founder Vince Zampella were escorted out of Infinity Ward’s offices by owner Activision in early March, with the duo fired on grounds of ‘breaches of contract’ and the more military-sounding charge of ‘insubordination’. West and Zampella retorted days later with a lawsuit suing Activision for unpaid royalty bonuses said to amount to tens of millions of dollars. They expressed shock and bewilderment at their dismissal.

Activision counter-sued, claiming amongst much else that the pair hadtransformed from valuable employees into “insubordinate and self-serving schemers who attempted to hijack Activision’s assets for their own personal again.” It claimed they’d mounted a whispering campaign against Activision among employees, and that they’d secretly contacted the CEO of Activision’s largest competitor - unnamed, but presumed to be EA.

Finally, in early April West and Zampella emerged with a new studio cheekily called Respawn Entertainment – and a deal with EA Partners, brokered through CAA.
Where this leaves Infinity Ward and its 100 or so employees will depend on whose story they believe. Respawn’s first press release included an email address for job seekers, and it’s hard to imagine Activision can stop every one of Infinity Ward’s employees jumping ship.

The sales of Modern Warfare 2 – 14 million worldwide and counting – could underwrite a lot of persuasion, but the question is how much Activision believes Infinity Ward’s success was down to West and Zampella’s leadership? Paying less-than-crucial staff too-high salaries could look foolish after the dust settles.
The next Call of Duty game is due from Treyarch – less favoured among CoDconnoisseurs. Activision has tried to shore up concerns by confirming a brand new CoD game is in development for 2011, which will see the shooter morph into an action adventure for at least one outing – but that’s being developed by newlyminted Sledgehammer Games.

A leaked Activision memo states Infinity Ward is “central to Call of Duty’s future”. But for how long? For now the studio is being run by Activision’s CTO Steve Pearce and its head of production Steve
Ackric. DLC packs for Modern Warfare 2 are the priority.
Whatever happens, Infinity Ward will be high in the Develop 100 again in 2011. And that’s something staff of IW both past and present should be proud of – whether the studio lives to fight on, its legacy is still the one to beat for studios in the West.

3. EA Canada - £100.99m

Founded: 1983
Owned by: Electronic Arts
Address: 4330 Sanderson Way, Burnaby, British Columbia V5G 4XI, Canada

www.ea.com

Top Title: FIFA 10

As The Emperor might have said to Luke in Return of the Jedi if only the Develop 100 had been around back then: “Now witness the awesome power of the world’s greatest sports franchise at the height of a console cycle”. (Presuming LucasArts would have let the Sith Lord big up a rival, of course.) Fact is, old battles about EA Sports sequels representing the dark side of gaming have been shouted down by the masses.

Don’t be fooled into thinking FIFA 10 plays second fiddle to Modern Warfare 2 in the UK. the game sold 4.5m copies worldwide between its October 1st release date and the end of 2009, after shifting 1.7 million across Europe in its first week. Sales have now passed the 10 million mark, and even that doesn’t emphasise the full force of FIFA 10. Like any good blockbuster these days, it’s supported by DLC, in this case the FIFA 10 Ultimate Team card-trading management mode that costs around £4 to download. What’s likely to be even more gratifying than commercial success for EA Canada’s FIFA developers (headed by a Brit, Dave Rutter, incidentally), is that FIFA is now outplaying its erstwhile Konami rival, as well as outselling it. EA Canada developed the lead Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions, and both have scored into the 90s everywhere, as opposed to Pro Evolution Soccer’s high 70s.

Fight Night Round 4 and EA Sports Active also scored in the 80s, with only Grand Slam Tennis letting the developer down – but even that scored a still-respectable 78 on Metacritic. It all proves that EA Canada is a quality outfit as well as the most dependable commercial engine for EA, alongside Madden shop EA Tiburon. Yet not even great reviews and stellar sales kept EA’s Vancouver offices safe from EA’s bloodletting of the past 18 months. The first clue came when EA cancelled a planned office in downtown Vancouver in late 2008, which would have run independently of EA Black Box and the main EA Canada offices, based in the suburb of Burnaby.

Sister studio Black Box (responsible for Skate and Need For Speed) got the chop next, with surviving staff relocated to Burnaby. Finally, job cuts reportedly running to ‘hundreds’ hit Burnaby in November 2009. In all, we estimate EA Canada’s workforce fell from over 1,800 in 2008 to less than 1,500 by the end of last year.

Doubtless alerted to this decline, British Columbia’s provincial government proposed new labour tax breaks to game developers like Electronic Arts in February 2010. We presume these incentives, plus the massive success of FIFA and Fight Night 4, will finally stem the job losses at EA Canada, which is currently readying 2010 FIFA World Cup ahead of the kick off in South Africa in June, among many other projects.

4. Ubisoft Montreal - £59.71m

 

Founded: 1997
Owned by: Ubisoft Montreal
Address: 5505 boul Saint-Laurent, Suite 5000, Montreal H2T 1S6, Quebec, Canada

www.ubisoftgroup.com

Top Title: Assassins Creed II

Whether measured by headcount, IP value, or industry profile, Ubisoft Montreal is one of the world’s largest developers.

With staff numbers approaching 2,000 (and Ubisoft having stated it aspires to employ 3,000 in Montreal), this is a behemoth to give the CEOs of smaller studios a size complex – a true monster of the digital age. Appropriately, it’s housed in a converted textiles warehouse, echoing the industrial past – albeit by spinning compelling yarns rather than weaving loom.

Just consider the vast resources dedicated to Assassin’s Creed II. When Develop visited last autumn, we were told 250 employees were working on the game – but some insiders whispered the number was closer to double that. Other companies around the world may have looked enviously at the tax breaks Canadian companies have enjoyed that has enabled them to balloon to such numbers, but surely Ubisoft Montreal’s CEO Yannis Mallat just occasionally reads about a half-adozen strong developer of downloadable games and turns slightly envious himself?

If so, he surely quickly takes solace in the stellar roster of games his army of developers work on. The Montreal-originated Assassin’s Creed contrasts neatly with the studio’s other big hit of 2009, James Cameron’s Avatar: The Game; the juxtaposition between Ubisoft’s own blue chip IP and the Hollywood licence typifying the mix at Montreal. It’s worth noting too the long tail of Montreal-developed games, which further bolsters its chart placing.

Whether such super-sized developers represent the future or the past of the industry remains moot. Certainly, Ubisoft Montreal points to the usual benefits, such as crosscollaboration, flexible team sizing, and the economies of scale that enable it to develop its own game engine, Anvil. The Montreal subsidiary also boasts an animation division, Ubisoft Digital Arts, an area of expertise that was bolstered with the acquisition of CGI house Hybride in June 2008.

Ubisoft Montreal recently finished Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Conviction and Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands, while work continues on the new Shaun White Skateboarding for later this year. It’s also working on Assassin’s Creed Episodes, which will introduce an online multiplayer mode (and will buck the bannual trend by hitting this winter), and also developing Far Cry 3 – although no details have been released about that yet.

It will be intriguing to see how Ubisoft Montreal responds to the changing market, once the economic clouds have cleared and we get a better sense of how much of the downturn in game sales was structural. Arch-rival Electronic Arts has been shedding studios and staff. Will Ubisoft Montreal regret holding the line, or will it emerge as one of the few operations in the world capable of creating the volume of content required for any eighth generation of hardware?

5. Foundation 9 - £36.83m

 

Founded: 2007 (Sumo Digital formed in 2003)
Independent (Organisation consists of six studios: Sumo Digital, Backbone Entertainment, Double Helix Games, Griptonite Games Pipeworks Software, and ImaginEngine)
Address: 17600 Gillette Ave, Suite 100, Irvine, CA 92614, USA

www.f9e.com

Top Title: F1 2009

A multi-site work-for-hire developer, Foundation 9 was formed from multiple acquisitions – and, more recently, mergers and closures – and consisted at the last count of six distinct studios.

While Foundation 9 is often thought of as a largely American developer (and a rather mystifying developer, too, without many big name games to its name, or those of its studios for that matter) as its success at retail in 2009 suggests, the UK’s Sumo Digital is a key cog within the organisation. Founded in 2003 by veterans of Gremlin Interactive (later Infogrames, following Gremlin’s acquisition) Sumo shot to prominence with a superb version of Outrun, and was snapped up by Foundation 9 Entertainment in 2007, a year after the latter received multi-year VC-backing of reportedly up to $150 million.

Foundation 9 didn’t just buy a great developer when it bought the Sheffield studio – it also acquired Sumo’s CEO James North-Hearn, who immediately became MD of Foundation 9 Europe. Then in March 2008 North-Hearn became CEO of the entire Foundation 9 operation, meaning this ‘American’ developer has a well-known Brit at its helm. It’s not been the easiest time to manage a massive work-for-hire games developer, and North-Hearn and his team have had to make some tough decisions over the past 18 months. Citing ‘market conditions’, and the need to align its production capacity accordingly, summer 2009 saw Foundation 9 merge its two Washington-based studios Amaze and subsidiary studio Griptonite, with the studio head of Griptonite, J.C. Connors, taking charge of the combined operation.

As part of the same restructuring, Foundation 9 closed Amaze’s specialist handheld developer Fizz Factor, and it also reduced the headcount at Double Helix Games, the Californian outfit that it formed in 2007 by merging two veteran names, Shiny Entertainment and The Collective. The Foundation 9 group today consists of six developers – Sumo Digital, Backbone Entertainment, Double Helix Games, Griptonite Games, Pipeworks Software, and ImaginEngine – with Sumo also having an Indian division.

The company states it currently employs nearly 700 people, and stresses the benefits of a structure that combines the independent spirit of its component studios along with the financial controls and best practiceof a larger company. Foundation 9 has produced a bewildering array of games (or SKUs for particular formats) for pretty much every publisher in the business. One key title it is currently known to be working on is Dr Who: The Adventure Games – a quartet of free downloadable games for PC and Mac. These are being developed for the BBC by Sumo Digital, in conjunction with development legend Charles Cecil. Another high-profile project is Front Mission Evolved, which Double Helix is developing for Square Enix.

6. Sega Studios Japan - £35.93m

 

Founded: 1960

Owned by: Sega

Address: 1-2-12 Haneda, Otaku, Tokyo 144-8531, Japan

www.sega.jp

Top Titles: Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Winter Games

The Develop 100 has always split out the revenues generated by Sega subsidiary Sonic Team from its parent.

But that’s definitely not the same thing as splitting out the income generated by the spiky hedgehog and his friends – as a glance at Sega’s best-selling games of 2009 starkly shows.

For Sonic those ‘friends’ are as crucial as Ringo Starr’s were.

When Nintendo and Sega teamed up for 2007’s Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games, it first seemed a joke, then a novelty act – and finally, as Sonic’s solo adventures continued to disappoint, almost an act of pity by Nintendo. But similar to how Bill Gates’ backing of Apple and Steve Jobs in the late 1990s looked bizarre and unthinkable and yet has proved canny, so Sonic and Mario in partnership turned out to be vastly more lucrative than anyone expected.

By the time Mario & Sonic at the Winter Olympics was announced in February 2009, the first game had sold 10 million copies. Thanks to the greater penetration of the Wii and DS since then, the Winter Olympics title should do almost as well, despite winter pursuits leaving most of us cold. According to Sega parent Sega Sammy Holdings’ most recent financial statement, the game had sold 5.6 million units by the end of 2009.

Yet while number six in the Develop 100 is obviously a cracking result, it wasn’t supposed to play out like this when Sega exited the home console hardware business. Then, game pundits and insiders spoke about Sega becoming a ‘multiformat Nintendo’, as its famed designers broke free of the shackles of any one platform. Yet going on 2009’s performance, Sega’s internal developers are still leaning on a hardware format (and a mascot) – except one it doesn’t even control.

As a publisher Sega is enjoying more success. Platinum Games’ debut title Bayonetta, for instance, has sold well over a million copies, and the veteran-stuffed studio is making more games for Sega (though the second, the Noir-ish Wii shooter MadWorld, disappointed at retail). We’ve already seen the success of Football Manager 2010 in the Develop 100, and Sega also has Gearbox’s Aliens: Colonial Marines and Obsidian’s Alpha Protocol in the works, among others.

But when it comes to internal development, Sega’s restructuring efforts (which saw it close its UK Racing Studio in 2008, for instance) tells its own story.
The company has just shut down Sega Studios San Francisco with the comment: “Moving forward, Sega will continue to pursue external development opportunities all over the world and will continue to grow the renowned Sega brand.”

If and when Mario and Sonic’s Olympic outings come to an end, the writing is on the wall for Sega’s place in the Develop 100.

7. Capcom - £31.87m

 

Founded: 1979
Owned by: Capcom
Address: 3-1-3 Uchihirano-machi, Chuo-ku, Osaka 540-0037, Japan

www.capcom.co.jp

Top Title: Resident Evil 5

Capcom has steadily climbed the Develop 100 over the past few years, with this year’s showing a new high for the 27-year old Japanese giant. It’s ironic perhaps that it has done so on the back of two of the oldest and most enduring franchises still fit-for-purpose in gaming.

Resident Evil 5 was widely-praised for its incredible graphics and enjoyed solid reviews, although it didn’t score quite as highly as its predecessor. Less welcome were accusations of racism that dogged the survival horror title; UK ratings board the BBFC looked at certain aspects of the gameplay and rejected the claims. Regardless, within three months it had sold five million copies worldwide, becoming the fastest-selling Resident Evil game in the series’ 14-year old history. Street Fighter IV marked perhaps a more surprising return of an old slugger, with the title garnering spectacular acclaim.

Within a couple of months of Capcom’s financial results to March 2009, the game had shifted 2.5 million copies; having been released much earlier in the year than most retail blockbusters, it had plenty of time to run up impressive UK sales, too.

Not all Capcom’s big domestic success are universal blockbusters, however. Monster Hunter Freedom Unite didn’t contribute much to Capcom’s UK tally. In Japan, the series is a phenomenon, having sold well over 3.5 million copies by the middle of 2009. Perhaps Monster Hunter suffers from the disenchantment of the UK’s hardcore gaming community with PSP?

It will be interesting to see if its Wii incarnation, Monster Hunter Tri, does better when it launches here this year.
In general, Capcom prefers franchises that straddle platforms – and indeed media. Its self-proclaimed ‘Single Content Multiple Usage’ strategy aims to migrate its intellectual properties far and wide. Thus while home video games is by far the biggest of Capcom’s five operating units with nearly 70 per cent of total sales, its growing mobile business, its arcade game development and operation businesses, and even its relatively tiny moves (in financial terms) to migrate its brands to everything from music CDs to comics to a theatrical production of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – yes really – are seen as equally important spokes in the wheel.

The company also puts its recent success down to a restructuring that has made Capcom more outwardlooking than many of the Japanese old guard. For instance, it was the first Japanese company to release titles on Valve’s Steam, and its last financial report trumpeted how overseas sales had edged ahead of domestic revenues. It’s also keenly, if carefully, turned to external non-Japanese studios for sequels to the likes of Dead Rising and Final Fight.

At the last count Capcom had nearly 2,000 staff, taking in all its operating divisions and subsidiaries; there’s no breakdown as to how many work in game development.

8. Treyarch - £30.99m

 

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

www.treyarch.com

Top Title: Call of Duty: World at War

The Californian powerhouse developer Treyarch only released one new title onto the UK High Street in 2009 – the Wii version of 2007’s blockbuster Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Despite tagging the word ‘Reflex Edition’ onto the already lengthy game name, Treyarch’s Wiimote and Nunchuck take on Infinity Ward’s acclaimed shooter was more faithful than gamers had any right to expect a Wii game to be.

The title earned strong reviews, and it has sold well to older brothers and dads who couldn’t stand to bowl another ball on Wii.

Reflex Edition is another Call of Duty title in the bank for Treyarch, whose UK sales performance last year shows how far we’ve come from the old era of sixweek shelf-lives in videogaming. 2008’s Call of Duty: World at War was still selling a year later in volumes sufficient to bankroll an entire small publisher. It was helped of course by the immense publicity for sister studio Infinity Ward’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, which wasn’t released until November 2009. But further assistance came from the game’s sheer quality – demonstrated by the strong initial reviews – as well as the steady release throughout 2009 of extra World at War downloadable content, which even added zombies to the more familiar World War II mix. The undead subsequently made it into an iPhone version of the title, too.

Treyarch was founded in 1996, and is one of a plethora of Activision owned studios to feature in this year’s Develop 100. Debuting with the lamentable Die by the Sword for Interplay, the company didn’t get off to an auspicious start, and indeed unlike many great game developers Treyarch didn’t hit its stride in terms of critically well-received software until after its 2001 acquisition by the U.S. publishing giant.

According to a posting on LinkedIn by a senior animator last May, Treyarch has been at work on Call of Duty 7 for at least a year, though Activision has not officially confirmed the studio is behind the inevitable update.
Call of Duty 7 (most likely a working title) is expected to arrive this Christmas, and there’s been intriguing gossip that it could make use of some form of subscription-based revenue model, after Activision Blizzard executives pointed analysts during a conference call towards the money the company earns from monthly payments with World of Warcraft.

In 2005 Treyarch merged with another Activision acquisition, Gray Matter Interactive of Los Angeles, and while official details are scant, we estimate the studio currently employs at least 200 people. The recent upsets at Infinity Ward will presumably further strengthen Treyarch’s position in the Activision stable in the months ahead.

The studio already escaped the axe when its parent cut workers and indeed entire companies across its ranks of developers in early 2010, including shutting down Treyarch’s Santa Monicabased peer, Luxoflux.

9. Yuke’s - £30.06m

 

Founded: 1993
Independent
Address: 4-45-1 Ebisujima, Sakai, Osaka 590-0985, Japan

www.yukes.co.jp

Top Title: UFC 2009: Undisputed

When we published the third Develop 100 in 2007, no lesser publication than The Guardian singled out one particular entry with the following comment: “Number 8 is a bit of a mystery; does anyone know Japanese developers Yuke’s?”

We knew exactly where it was coming from – when we first saw the name ‘Yuke’s’ spewned out by our data-crunchers back during the first Develop 100’s production in 2005, we weren’t wildly better informed, either. Unless you’re both a fan of wrestling games and the kind of fan who looks beyond the publisher’s label to work out who made the game, Yuke’s is probably an unknown quantity to you, too. At Develop we’re certainly developer spotters, but while we’re happy to pretend to be men in tights in a wide variety of genres, wrestling has never really done it for us, making Yuke’s a perennial enigma.

And Yuke’s is certainly an oddity. The company, which reportedly numbers less than 100 staff, is independent of its long-time partner THQ, despite creating wrestling games for the publisher since the late 1990s. With that relationship spanning an era where developers were gobbled up like whitebait, that’s unusual. THQ does hold a minority stake in Yuke’s though, and the publisher and developer enjoy a long term ‘strategic relationship’ that makes it less straightforward for either company to hop into bed with another.

On the licensing level, as you’d expect with a series that has sold around 50 million copies and generated $1.4 billion worldwide, the WWE franchise has thrown up occasional spats – okay, full-blown legal disputes – between THQ and toy company Jakks Pacific, who were long the joint licensors of the WWE rights, as well as with the World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc, the franchise’s owner.

The latest of these ended in late 2009 with an announcement from THQ that the lawsuit had been settled, with THQ agreeing to pay the WWE $13.2 million and Jakks $20 million over the next four years. In addition, THQ’s joint venture with Jakks Pacific also came to an end. There were clearly no hard feelings with the WWE, however, since THQ announced at the same time that it had signed a new deal to be the sole WWE game publisher for the next eight years – three years further than the previous run.

This news alone bodes well for Yuke’s future performance in the Develop 100, but besides the blockbuster WWE games, Yuke’s has also developed a new line in Ultimate Fighting Championship games for THQ. The first game was very well-received by reviewers and public alike, selling over 3.5 million worldwide by February this year. Yuke’s has just finished work on a sequel, UFC Undisputed 2010, released in May 2010. All of which means that Yuke’s future is secure.

10. Level-5 - £29.14m

Founded: 1998
Independent
Address: 1-20-3 Kamiyo Yakuin Building, Chuo-ku, Fukuoka-shi, Fukuoka-ken, 810-0012, Japan

www.level5.co.jp

Top Title: Professor Layton and the Curious Village

While Japanese consumers are enjoying the second trilogy of the Professor Layton games, here in the Europe we’re precisely two titles in. The latest, Professor Layton and Pandora’s Box, was first released in Japan in 2007, but it didn’t hit UK retailers until September 2009. At this rate, we’ll be cradling antique DSes in our hands while taking heli-cabs to the space port at Canary Wharf before we Brits get to finish the series.

Such frustrated riffing is common among UK Layton fans, which revelas the kind of strange loyalty this outwardly simplistic puzzle-based adventure game inspires. Layton’s characters are so gently drawn – the cartoon graphics so charming, and the stories so unassumingly compelling – that most players scarcely notice they’re wandering around in what’s essentially a non-linear puzzle book. Accordingly, the Layton series has sold millions at home and abroad, and has thus underwritten the expansion of its Japanese developer Level-5, which also made its publishing debut with the franchise.

The company now numbers 210 staff, with offices in Fukuoka and – as of January – Tokyo.
CEO Akihiro Hino also spoke in February about opening a US office to expedite up the rollout of Level-5 software there.

That may seem quite some operation for the creator of a DS puzzle game – even one of Layton’s potency – but there’s more to Level-5 than its tophatted supersleuth.
Founded in 1998 and kicking off with the highprofile PlayStation 2 RPG Dark Cloud, Level-5 has gone on to make a variety of RPGs for Sony and Square Enix (plus an infamous canned MMO for Microsoft), as well as its own self-published games. The company recently teased that it’s working on unnamed Wii and PS3 games, too.
Many of Level-5’s completed games have yet to make it out of its domestic territory, however.

There’s been no sniff of a Western release for its DS soccer RPG Inazuma Eleven, for instance, bar a trademark application uncovered by eagle-eyed bloggers – and that is just one among several Level-5 franchises virtually unknown here. Indeed, we’re still waiting for its DS smash hit Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies – Square Enix has sold four million of the blighters in Japan, but has done little more than vaguely nod towards a western release.

Perhaps the Layton-inspired shine that Level-5 enjoys among the European and North American DS cognoscenti would dim if we played too many of its Japanese games. One title that did get a release here recently was Sony’s White Knight Chronicles. While some sites were prepared to overlook its multiplayer flaws and award it scores like 8/10, most were less impressed and the game has a sub 70 rating on Metacritic.

 

You can read the full Develop 100 2010 here.