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Here's To The Little Guys

Every year development budgets balloon to unprecedented levels, as the industry's top designers strive to deliver the next big blockbuster. But not every studio has to spend millions of dollars to create a memorable gaming experience, and this year more independent developers made their mark on the industry than ever before. Here are some of the small studios that made it big in 2010.

Mojang Specifications
You can't put together a list of influential indie developers without including Markus "Notch" Persson, the creator of Minecraft. Despite having just entered beta, millions of gamers - including some big name developers like Ken Levine - have already become hopelessly addicted to Minecraft's sandbox construction set. Thanks to the game's popularity, Notch is already bringing on more employees. We can't wait to see what his expanded business brings us in the future.

Frictional Games
Over the past few years, this Sweden-based game studio has put out a number of survival horror titles under its Penumbra franchise, but when the company released Amnesia: The Dark Descent in September, it redefined the genre. A small budget and lack of triple-a polish hasn't stopped Amnesia from scaring countless players, turning hardcore gamers into whiny crybabies. Frictional Games has said that Amnesia exceeded its sales expectations by 50 percent - here's hoping the extra money goes towards another terrifying horror title soon.

Team Meat
This year Team Meat's two man dev team gave us one of the most finely tuned - and brutally punishing - platformers we've ever played. But like several other titles on this list, the small staff doesn't translate to a limited gameplay experience: Super Meat Boy is packed with levels, collectibles, and unlockable characters, and Team Meat has been constantly creating and adding new downloadable levels - for free.

Zen Studios
Let's face it: With only one manufacturer continuing to make new tables, the pinball market is pretty much dead. But that hasn't stopped Zen Studios' Pinball FX 2 from becoming extremely popular with critics and gamers alike. The recent release of Marvel Pinball added four new addictive tables to our lineup, and Zen Studios is promising more add-ons in the future. We're not sure how well Zen Studios' pricing strategy could potentially translate to other genres, but when it comes to digital pinball, the developer has hit upon a golden formula.

Hello Games
Formed by former members of EA, Criterion Games, and Kuji Entertainment, Hello Games hit pay dirt with its first title, Joe Danger. Joe Danger's fun mix of racing, stunts, and exploration was a hit with gamers. Hello Games won Best New Studio and Best Micro Studio at this year's 2010 Develop Awards.

Rovio
Mobile games are becoming more and more popular, but Rovio's Angry Birds might be the first title to reach pop-culture status. Angry Birds is exactly what a mobile game should be: it utilizes the technology of its platform well, and can be played in small bursts or long stretches. Despite the simple, unchanging mechanics, Angry Birds continues to evolve gameplay with new characters and tons of levels. If all mobile games were this good, we wouldn't need handhelds anymore.

Zeptolab
Rovio isn't the only mobile developer to hit it big this year. Cut the Rope is an iPhone/iPad game that involves maneuvering a piece of candy into a monster's mouth. That simple premise was addictive enough to sell over one million copies of the game within the first nine days of going on sale. Since its October release, Cut the Rope has sold three million copies, making Zeptolab a mobile developer to keep your eyes on.

Kairosoft
Kairosoft might not ring a bell with most gamers, but this Japanese developer has been pumping out more mobile games than you can count. Its most popular title, Game Dev Story, has already captured the attention of Western audiences, thanks to its adorable graphics, addictive gameplay, and industry in-jokes. Game Dev Story lets you live your childhood dream of creating your own video game - what more could you want?

SouthEnd Interactive
Another Sweden-based indie developer, SouthEnd has created games for a variety of companies, including Ubisoft and Microsoft. Their most high profile game was 2003's cel-shaded FPS XIII, but the studio's newest title shows the company's true promise. Ilomilo isn't even out yet (though you can buy it early if you're savvy enough), but the game is already building buzz thanks to its ingenious puzzles. Microsoft has announced that Ilomilo will be including in its Games for the Holidays sale on XBLA, and we couldn't think of a better candidate.

Playdead Studios
As this list suggests, there were a lot of amazing downloadable games from this year. But few DLGs earned the critical praise that Playdead received for its unforgettable platformer, Limbo. In addition to its great gameplay, this XBLA exclusive stood out from the pack thanks to its unique art style and surprisingly dark tone. The game's final twist got gamers talking as much as triple-a titles like Alan Wake and Heavy Rain did - not bad for a studio with only eight core employees.

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