Who are the people who contributed to gaming the most in 2014? Who made the positive changes that helped make it such an extraordinary year?
This is Polygon's list of 50 people who we think made a difference in the past 12 months. Whether through acts of creativity, community, perseverance, bravery or brilliance, they grappled with the challenges of the day and made the world of gaming better.
Some of the people on this list are individuals who act on their own, but most are part of a larger team. Our recognition of these individuals is also a recognition of their teams and their supporters.
Polygon's editorial crew worked together to create this list. We know it's not perfect, but it fairly represents us and our view of gaming right now. Feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments.
Actor brought an amazing villain to life
Pagan Min was one of the most memorable game characters of the year, brought to life by actor Troy Baker (The Last of Us, BioShock Infinite). Given a reasonably free hand to interpret the character, Baker rendered this psychotic despot with a frightening individuality that managed to steer clear of iconic sadists such as Batman's Joker.
Amazon chief is getting into games
Amazon is arguably the most interesting company operating in games right now. In 2014, the retail giant turned its enormous resources on staffing up Amazon Game Studios, backing Fire TV and buying fast-growing online streaming service Twitch. Bezos is building the first games company that simultaneously embraces hardware, publishing, development, retail and media.
Steered the return of Elite while working on Raspberry Pi
Mild-mannered and urbane, Braben spent 2014 delivering on a promise to recreate the excitement of Elite (1984), the game that made him famous, with a wholly online 21st-century successor. Elite: Dangerous is seeking to reimagine the entire solar system as a trading and combat platform. He was also honored in Britain with an OBE for his work on Raspberry Pi, a low-cost educational computer.
Innovating on Oculus Rift
For Oculus Rift, this was a year of preparation. As the likely 2015 launch draws closer, new prototypes were introduced, new development projects embarked upon. Facebook bought the company, promising to fully realize commercial VR. Chief tech officer Carmack rolled up his sleeves and delivered the Oculus VR Mobile SDK, which led to the release of Gear VR, a consumer device for the Galaxy Note 4.
Created the gorgeous look of Sunset Overdrive
Sunset Overdrive's art director spent two years gathering together a loose collection of ideas and synthesizing them into the visually distinctive style of the final game. Chew merged together concepts such as grotesque humor, urban traversal and a riotously diverse color palette for a game that proved to be an eye-catching win for Microsoft, as it sought to differentiate in the holiday market.
Maker of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter
One of the major talents to come out of Poland's game development hothouse, Chmielarz has been making games since the 1980s. Formerly head of People Can Fly, he started up a new studio called The Astronauts. In 2014 it delivered The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, a gorgeous, constantly surprising and innovative mystery adventure that wowed critics around the world.
Lead designer of Hearthstone
Back in 2012, Hearthstone lead designer Eric Dodds received an email from a coworker warning him that the online card-battle game was claiming addicts among Blizzard staff members. Two years on, Dodds released a bona fide classic into the world. Already boasting more than 20 million users, the Warcraft-based game is an object of fascination, even obsession, for many of its devotees.
Re-imagining the idea of war in a video game
This War of Mine is set in a besieged and war-torn modern city. It follows the troubles of a small group of people who are trying to scramble for resources and safety. Design director Drozdowski and his team at 11 Bit Studios have shown how games can be dark and fraught, while still offering entertainment and revealing truths about ugliness in the world.
Bringing some big talent to a new operation
Lack of money is the usual problem facing game start-ups, but sometimes, that isn't a problem at all. Lack of talent is the issue at hand. When Amazon decided to create a global network of game studios from scratch, it turned to Michael Frazzini to create an organization that would bring in the skills. So far, he's helped nab Kim Swift, Ian Vogel, Clint Hocking, Tom Leonard, Eric Nylund and studio Double Helix.
Lead writer on Dragon Age: Inquisition
Dragon Age: Inquisition is everything that a role-playing game ought to be, a sprawling universe packed with interesting places, people and challenges. It's oozing with romance, adventure and humor with tons of things to do. Lead writer Gaider and the BioWare team have borrowed many ideas that have gone before, but in doing so have created an important RPG that's set the tone for a new generation.
Creator of BrokenFolx
This year, indie game developer Arielle Grimes released BrokenFolx, a tiny, tender game about "the lived experiences of individuals who are queer." A simple and free game, it deals with important issues for many LGBT people, such as coming out, harassment and misgendering. 2014 saw a continuation of more games that demanded recognition for LGBT gamers and issues.
Blake J. Harris
Author of entertaining history book Console Wars
While writing Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle That Defined a Generation, Harris interviewed more than 200 sources who lived through the industry-defining era of the early 1990s. His book tells the often-entertaining story of a time when game makers were drafted into a battle for dominance between the console giants, and when companies fought hard and dirty.
Kristoffer Von Hassel
Kid who helped Microsoft fix a security breach
Back in April, five-year-old Von Hassel exposed a significant security flaw in Xbox Live. While playing with his father's Xbox One, he managed to enter into dad's account by repeatedly hitting the space bar on the password input screen. A slightly embarrassed Microsoft fixed the error, sent the kid some goodies and credited him as one of the security experts who worked on the system.
Olivier "Luffy" Hay
Street Fighter 4 pro gamer champ
The winner of this year's Street Fighter 4 contest at Evo was Olivier Hay, also known as Luffy. Hailing from France, he competes using a PlayStation One controller, which he says is the most comfortable. He won a thrilling tournament final playing as Rose, also an unusual competitive choice. Once again, fighting games show their enduring value as mass entertainment.
Inspiring action against bias
Following his superb speech at GDC this year, excoriating game designers for their lazy depictions of minorities, women and LGBT people, BioWare Montreal developer Manveer Heir received a standing ovation. His passionate plea for a respectful depiction of minorities serves as a useful focal point for a year in which those voices calling for diversity in gaming are finally breaching years of indifference.
Sasha "Scarlett" Hostyn
StarCraft 2 competitor
Sasha "Scarlett" Hostyn is one of the few women succeeding at the top level of the StarCraft 2 pro scene. Although she has a passionate fanbase, as a transgender woman she is also coping with some of the grief she receives, in a culture that can be hostile to anything that seems different and new. She is now playing in Korea, against a community of players whose dedication and skill is outstanding.
Team leader behind Destiny
Jason Jones is the media-shy leader of Bungie, creator of Destiny, one of the most popular games of the year. Jones and his team spent years attempting to redefine shooters for the social age, while building an expansive world demanded by sci-fi fans. The reviewers had their share of criticisms, and there are elements of Destiny that provoke hostility, but the game has created a loyal following.
Now a hit game franchise
Kim Kardashian: Hollywood is one of the biggest gaming hits of 2014, generating over $200 million this year. It's not just a crappy marketing cash-in either. In fact, the game follows fairly standard role-playing techniques, offering players wish-fulfillment treats in the form of fame and riches. But it also makes room for a fluid sexuality missing from many so-called mainstream games.
Showed us his brilliance again with P.T.
The veteran game developer, along with film director Guillermo del Toro, created one of the smartest marketing tricks in gaming history with P.T., a downloadable teaser demo for the forthcoming Silent Hills. Terrifying and compelling, it's been played and viewed millions of times, discussed and analyzed endlessly, adding luster to Kojima's ability to raise the scares when it really counts.
Redefining the meaning and reach of games
Kopas creates a regular stream of wonderful digital art and short games "about bodies, relationships, and emotions" that explore humanity through play. Her games this year have included Super Consent, a text adventure that looks at the power of saying "no." She also curates Forest Ambassador, a place for short, meaningful games.
Animal Crossing leader, showing how to make a team
Nintendo is often seen as a company stuck in the past, wedded to "traditional values." But Animal Crossing: New Leaf project lead Aya Kyogoku shows how the old firm is making use of diversity within its ranks. This year she gave a great presentation at GDC that showed how "when there are women in a variety of roles on a project, you get a wider range of ideas." Most gaming teams are still, overwhelmingly, made up of men.
Hail the new champ of Donkey Kong
In September Robbie Lakeman attained the prestigious world high score for classic arcade game Donkey Kong, beating the previous record, held by Hank Chien, by 3,200 points. The high score for Donkey Kong, an ultra-simple platformer in which "Mario" leaps over obstacles, is vigorously contested, especially since The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, a successful 2007 documentary about enthusiasts.
Turned Tetris' birthday into a work of art
The Cira Centre, a building in Philadelphia, is adorned with 1,500 programmable LEDs. Frank Lee, a professor at Drexel University, programmed the facade to create a giant, communal game of classic block puzzler Tetris, which celebrated its 25th birthday this year. Players were able to control the game from across the street. Lee had previously created a similar public artwork using Pong.
Bringing civility to online games
One of the challenges facing Riot Games is keeping the culture and atmosphere of its immensely popular League of Legends as civil and friendly as possible. Dr. Jeffrey Lin is in charge of a dedicated team that is using psychological carrots and sticks to keep the most difficult players in line, while rewarding nice people. Impressively, Lin is also sharing Riot's findings with other companies in gaming.
Helping to bring gravitas to eSports
Robert Morris University-Illinois is one of a growing number of schools that is treating sports like football and soccer and eSports like Starcraft and Street Fighter the same. Associate athletic director Kurt Melcher is heading up the idea, which he says recognizes that playing League of Legends is as much about the competitive spirit as playing a more physical game like football.
Banner year for Blizzard chief, who blasted the bullies
Blizzard enjoyed an outstanding year, with the launch of World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor, Hearthstone, Diablo 3: Reaper of Souls and a beta for Heroes of the Storm. It also introduced Overwatch, the company's new team-based shooter. Laudably, company president Mike Morhaime also stood up at BlizzCon and roasted online harassers for their hate campaigns — one of the few game industry leaders with the guts to do so.
Creator of Rust
When it arrived a year ago, Rust seemed like a pretty decent DayZ clone. But the unforgiving survival simulation soon found favor among a growing army of devotees. In 2014, Garry Newman and his team at Facepunch have shown the capacity of modern developers to innovate and improve upon their own templates, rather than settling, adding better looks and expanded gameplay as they go along.
The man behind Flappy Bird
In 2012, Vietnamese indie Dong Nguyen released an unremarkable App Store game that featured heavily derivative art, a steep learning curve and shallow gameplay. In 2014, Flappy Bird rapidly picked up popularity, earning its maker $50,000 a day as well as hordes of clones. Nguyen pulled the game, citing guilt over its addictive qualities, but later released a new version for Amazon Fire TV in August.
Made a Mountain
One of the delights of gaming in 2014 is its ability to perplex and to evade definition. Mountain, from animation artist David O'Reilly, refuses to sell itself as anything other than itself, enraging those who demand that it conform in some way. The visually appealing mobile app features a mountain, plenty of ideas and a limited number of things to do. It is a sign that gaming is an art form of discovery.
Puzzling the world with Monument Valley
Monument Valley is a hit mobile game that brings together building design, visual trickery, art, magic and smart puzzles, an "illusory game of impossible architecture." Programmed by Pashley and created by a small team at Ustwo, the game's success shows that there is still a demand for smart paid apps in gaming that offer satisfaction in a short period of time, in ways that are new and fresh.
YouTube friend to millions and key trendsetter
YouTuber Felix Arvid Ulf Kjellberg has established a personal connection with his millions of YouTube followers, by pointing a camera at himself and just being PewDiePie. Down-to-earth and affable, he is able to turn enormous attention on any game, topic or charity he finds interesting, while also defining the often intense relationship between internet stars and their fans.
Michael de Plater
A new kind of action RPG in Mordor
Shadow of Mordor director of design Michael de Plater led his team at Monolith on a quest to create a Middle-earth game worthy of its material. The result is an action role-playing game that tells a fun story, presents a convincing world of combat and exploration, and experiments with the notion of enemies and vengeance by creating NPCs that display shifting relationships with you and with one another.
Bringing a game about depression to a wider audience
Depression Quest was released in 2013 as a free web-only game, but in the past year it has gained vastly wider exposure through a release on Steam, and publicity surrounding creator Zoe Quinn's status as a target for online harassers. The game tackles depression, a condition that has received much attention following the suicide of actor and comedian Robin Williams.
Designer of Super Smash Bros.
Super Smash Bros. for Wii U is very nearly the perfect Smash Bros. game, including the magic of eight-player Smash. Masahiro Sakurai, who created the Kirby character back when he was a teenager, delivered an outstanding game that makes the Wii U a seriously relevant piece of game kit. He is a game designer of peerless skill, despite suffering from repetitive strain injury on his hands.
Documentary maker with far-reaching influence
In 2014 Sarkeesian continued her excellent work on misogyny in the portrayal of women in video games, also taking her findings on the road in various speeches and presentations. Vilified and harassed by some supporters of the "GamerGate" hashtag campaign, and the target of anonymous death threats, she found an even greater audience through an appearance on The Colbert Report.
Research into brain-controlled games
An interesting exhibit at the Imperial College London's Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition used a mind-controlled version of bat-and-ball classic Pong, allowing players to interact using mind control. The science-fiction notion was created by Dr. Gregory Scott and the Royal Imperial College's Division of Brain Sciences. It tested how well players could concentrate, and measured their brain activity.
Organizer of girl gaming camp
Girls Make Games is a girls-only game development summer camp created by Learn District developer Laila Shabir, best known for Penguemic, a quirky vocabulary builder. The inaugural camp was held in June at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California and was successful enough that plans are now in place to take the idea around the world.
Taking Dark Souls forward
When Hidetaka Miyazaki stepped back into a supervisory role of the Dark Souls franchise, Tomohiro Shibuya and Yui Tanimura were brought in to work on Dark Souls 2. Shibuya said that the game would be more approachable than its predecessors, without losing its fearsome difficulty. They delivered a game that pleased franchise fans and won a new bunch of admirers.
A top actor delivering the goods in games
Reinventing Call of Duty every year is a serious problem for Activision — each game in the series must always get bigger, louder and flashier. This year's Advanced Warfare from developer Sledgehammer offered up smart design choices and a solid story that was owned by a chilling performance from Academy Award-winning actor Kevin Spacey, helped by an unusually strong script.
Reinvigorating Xbox One
Following the disaster of Xbox One's confused launch, Spencer stepped up and delivered much-needed reforms, including the uncoupling of Kinect from the system and aggressive price cuts. Xbox One sales have bounced back in the last few months, ensuring another hard-fought console war: something that is always good for consumers. Microsoft also bought Minecraft maker Mojang in 2014.
Coder who puts one foot in front of the other
Polish independent game developer Max Strzelecki is creating a successfully Kickstarted fantasy platform game called Warlocks in which platforms are beaten and monsters are slain. The 21-year-old, who counts himself as a pretty good League of Legends player, was born without arms. Remarkably, he does all his gaming and game-making using his feet. He says it's "not really a problem" and just gets on with the job in front of him.
World's biggest game collection
Online retailer Michael Thomasson spent years amassing the world's largest video game collection: a compilation of more than 11,000 games, consoles and other stuff. The collection, verified by The Guinness Book of World Records, was sold to a bidder for $750,250 in June of this year. Thomasson used the money to help out family members.
Reimagining a classic era with Shovel Knight
The past still has a firm hold on the imaginations of game developers. Few games better managed the trick of paying homage to gaming's early years than Shovel Knight by Sean Velasco's Yacht Club Games. The game managed to bring something fresh to a bygone style of play, delighting audiences who demand more than a fresh lick of paint on old ideas.
Super-powering Disney Infinity
Disney Infinity 2.0 adds interactive Disney toys to a pretty neat game world of simple adventuring. The original game proved a big win for consumers in 2013, but when Vignocchi's team added Marvel characters and a vastly expanded sandbox world, the game exploded. The addition of Star Wars is expected next year, which is probably going to be a big deal too.
Team leader behind Threes
Mobile numbers game Threes is very simple and hugely addictive. Players slide numbers to create multiples of three. Elegantly designed by Asher Vollmer and the team at Sirvo, it spawned multiple imitators and clones. Unfortunately, many of the copycats profited at the expense of the original creators.
Organizer of Train Jam
Boston-based indie developer Adriel Wallick is really into the game jam scene. She organized a unique event called Train Jam, a 52-hour game jam on a train traveling between Chicago and San Francisco, which resulted in multiple games. Wallick also tasked herself with making a game every week during much of the year.
Howard Scott Warshaw
A great reputation deservedly rediscovered
For decades, Howard Scott Warshaw's pioneering work as an Atari 2600 game designer has been lost beneath jokes about the game that ended his career: E.T. In 2014, a film documentary about an archaeological dig to find thousands of copies of the game, said to be buried in the New Mexico desert, showed his real contribution in a more truthful light.
Making a Goat of gaming
Goat Simulator is an action-packed and hilarious third-person open-world game in which the player controls a goat that roams around and creates various forms of havoc. Originally created as a jam idea by Anton Westbergh's team at Coffee Stain, it caught viral attention and became a full game hit, summing up the self-mocking, anarchic and free spirit of gaming right now.
Standing up for women in games
Revolution 60 from Giant Spacekat is a mobile adventure game featuring four women characters. Developed by Brianna Wu's team, it was praised for an engaging story and good humor. In 2014, Wu was also a vigorous opponent of the internet bullying that scarred the year, vowing to work with police to bring to justice those who make death threats.
Capturing talent for PlayStation
There was a time when Sony was known as a place for company men parroting the corporate line. Oh sure, the firm still has plenty of those, but Shuhei Yoshida isn't one of them. Affable and charming through social media, he is also relentless in his pursuit of good games to add to the PlayStation roster, reaching out to developers with terms unimaginable a decade ago.
This piece is part of Polygon's 2014 in Review series. Throughout December we'll be exploring the games, people and events that shaped gaming in the past year. You can check out more 2014 in Review stories in our StoryStream.