The Pioneer Award (formerly known as the First Penguin Award) celebrates those individuals who developed a breakthrough technology, game concept, or gameplay design at a crucial juncture in video game history - paving the way for the myriads who followed them.
Brandon Beck and Marc Merrill
As lifelong gamers, Brandon Beck and Marc Merrill co-founded Riot Games in 2006 with a vision to make a different kind of game company – one focused on changing the way video games are developed, delivered, and supported for players. Headquartered in Santa Monica, Riot's mission is to be the most player-focused company in the world.
As President of Riot Games, Marc leads development, publishing, people, and service operations. Previously, Marc worked in corporate marketing at Advanstar Communications. Brandon drives Riot's strategy and creative vision as CEO. Before founding Riot, Brandon worked at consulting firm Bain & Company, where he focused on media and entertainment, technology, and consumer products. The founders were recognized as Young Entrepreneur of the Year award winners by Ernst & Young in 2011.
Through their combined leadership, Marc and Brandon have grown Riot's debut title, League of Legends, into a game that's played by over 27million players every day and by over 67 million players every month. These players spend over a billion hours a month in the game, a level of engagement that makes League of Legends the most played video game in the world by hours played.
In 1962, Steve "Slug" Russell, a computer programmer working for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), invented Spacewar!, the first popular and earliest known digital computer game. Throughout the years, Russell's iconic computer game generated multiple imitations including Asteroids, a popular and now classic arcade title.
Russell produced the concept and first version of Spacewar! in 200 hours with a team of four people. He wrote Spacewar! on a Programmed Data Processor-1 (PDP-1), an early Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) minicomputer that allowed two users to share the computer simultaneously. Russell's work on this seminal game and use of the original PDP-1 computer influenced technological advances and gave rise to the cultural phenomenon of video games; Spacewar! created a model for game development, establishing shooting as a core game mechanic, and inspired space and science fiction themes for future games.
"More than 50 years ago Steve blew the world's minds with Spacewar! and the game's influence is pervasive throughout the industry, from cornerstone arcade titles to the team-based model of game development," said Meggan Scavio, general manager of the Game Developers Conference. "We are very proud to honor Steve with the Pioneer award for paving the way for so many developers when gaming was only in its infancy."
This year's honoree, Dave Theurer began his trailblazing career in the video game world in 1980 with the release of Missile Command, a seminal trackball-based shooter that was a milestone in early computer games.
Following on from this in 1981, Theurer created the iconic, vector-based tube shooter release Tempest, the original psychedelic shooter, which inspired a slew of other innovations in arcade video games and was an early title to use 3D perspective in gameplay.
As his final title in the game industry before moving to a successful career in enterprise software, Theurer then designed cult, groundbreaking arcade title I, Robot. This 1983 arcade game, not commercially successful at the time, is legendary for being the first commercial video game with filled 3D polygon graphics, as well as being the first video game to feature camera control options - and was years or even decades ahead of its time.
Suzuki himself first joined SEGA® Corporation in 1983 and is well known for his many industry firsts and genre-originating titles. In 1985, Suzuki created innovative arcade game Hang On, one of the first ever titles where the player's movement on a motorcycle facsimile was copied by the onscreen avatar.
From there, Suzuki's output defined a 'golden age' of Sega arcade games, including all time classics such as Out Run, Space Harrier™, After Burner, Power Drift™, and Virtua Racing™. Following this, his pioneering work in 1993 created Virtua Fighter, which spawned the 3D fighting game genre, and has been recognized for its contribution in the fields of Art & Entertainment by the Smithsonian Institution.
His work continued with multiple acclaimed iterations of the Virtua Fighter franchise, as well as the F355 Challenge™ arcade game and pioneering action adventure franchise Shenmue, which first launched in 1999 for the Sega Dreamcast™ console and showcased open-world gameplay and complexity of an unprecedented nature – including some of the first-ever 'QTEs' ('quick-time events') in 3D action games.
Newell, who co-founded Valve in 1996 after his departure from giant tech firm Microsoft, was instrumental in creating the company's first product, the critically acclaimed first-person shooter Half-Life, which brought sophisticated narrative and cut-scenes to the FPS for the first time, and has sold over 8 million copies. The company's keen, unprecedented encouragement of modding and community based around the Half-Life engine also led to the creation of the Counter-Strike and Team Fortress 2 franchises.
Recent years have only buoyed Valve's reputation, including 2004's debut of the much-acclaimed Half-Life 2 episodes, the signing of the DigiPen team behind Narbacular Drop to create 2008 Game Developers Choice Awards Game Of The Year Portal, and the Seattle-area firm's work to support and co-originate the co-operative centric Left 4 Dead franchise.
Steam, Valve's PC digital distribution platform, is another particular reason Newell is receiving this honor. Revealed at GDC in 2002 and made available to the public in 2003, the client has evolved from a method of seamlessly delivering game patches to a full community-based digital download ecosystem which regularly has more than 2 million concurrent users. Thus, it has become a key way for many smaller and larger PC game developers to gain fans and make money without requiring a physical retail publisher.
Alex Rigopulos and Eran Egozy
The duo created Harmonix Music Systems in 1995 after graduating from MIT, and the Boston-area company experimented with early music games such as The Axe, before developing electronic-based rhythm games Frequency and Amplitude for the PlayStation 2.
Beginning in 2005, Harmonix developed Guitar Hero, and followed that up with Guitar Hero II, Rock Band, and Rock Band 2, fueling the explosive growth of the music games category to over $1 billion in sales. In 2006, Harmonix was acquired by MTV/Viacom. In 2008, Eran and fellow co-founder Alex Rigopulos were named to the Time 100 -- Time Magazine's list of the 100 most influential people in the world.
The Pioneer Award celebrates those individuals responsible for developing a breakthrough technology, game concept, or gameplay design at a crucial juncture in video game history, paving the way for the myriad developers who followed them. Ralph Baer, best known as the “Father of Video Games,” holds the pioneer patents covering both the method and apparatus of video games.
His work in the sixties resulted in the Magnavox Odyssey game system, which was the first commercial home video game. His early video game hardware already resides in such places as the Smithsonian and the Japanese National Science Museum, and replicas are on display all over the world.