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.
22nd Annual Game Developers Choice Awards (2022)
No Pioneer Award was presented at the 22nd Annual Game Developers Choice Awards in 2022.
21st Annual Game Developers Choice Awards (2021)
Growing up in the town of Perkasie, PA, Tom Fulp had a total obsession with video games. He wanted to play every game possible and dreamed of making his own, even mailing his game ideas to game companies. At the age of 13, Tom was running video game clubs on Prodigy and publishing a Neo Geo fanzine called New Ground.
Throughout high school, Tom animated Deluxe Paint cartoons on an Amiga and programmed dial-up BBS games in PASCAL but wished there was one program that allowed him to do both together. His family got dial-up web access in 1995 and each account was provided two megabytes of hosting space. Tom quickly set up a web page named after his fanzine.
Several years later, attending college at Drexel University, Tom discovered what would change the course of his life forever. Macromedia Flash, software for making interactive web content, was the tool Tom always dreamed of; a place where he could combine both animation and code. With Flash and the web, Tom could make anything and share it with anyone on his website, now registered as Newgrounds.com.
By 1999, Newgrounds was a top 600 website and in a small corner called The Portal, Tom showcased Flash for those who didn’t have their own websites. It wasn’t long before Tom was inundated with daily files and updates, at which point he hired friend and PHP / MySQL wiz Ross Snyder to automate the process of adding Flash files to Newgrounds.
Launched in 2000, the Newgrounds Portal was the first system to allow instant publishing of games and movies to a website, something we find more commonplace today. A whole scene emerged around making things and sharing them on Newgrounds. Users could leave reviews and even vote on entries with a score bar styled after the classic score icons from Game Pro magazine. Voting earned you XP, inspired by the daily allotment of forest fights in Legend of the Red Dragon, Tom’s favorite dial-up BBS game.
In 2002, Tom teamed up with artist Dan Paladin to make a web game called Alien Hominid. Dan’s co-worker John Baez believed in the game so much, he got Tom and Dan onboard to create a console version, giving birth to the Behemoth. They succeeded in developing Alien Hominid for Playstation 2 and Gamecube in 2004, ushering a new wave of indie console games. Their follow-up game, Castle Crashers, won XBLA Game of the Year in 2008 and PSN Best Downloadable Game of 2011.
Other regulars from the Newgrounds Flash scene would follow, creating hit games such as The Binding of Isaac, Among Us, Rogue Legacy, Super Meat Boy, My Friend Pedro and Friday Night Funkin’.
Tom continues to operate Newgrounds as a champion of web gaming, animation, art and music, as well as Flash preservation, thanks to NG alum and the Behemoth developer Mike Welsh’s open source project, Ruffle. Tom has released several Flash-based web games in 2021 and is in his ninth year of developing Nightmare Cops, a game that expands his dream of creating living cartoons with frenetic gameplay.
20th Annual Game Developers Choice Awards (2020)
Roberta (Heuer) Williams was born on February 16, 1953. She was raised in La Verne in southern California, which is located about 30 miles east of Los Angeles. When she was a child, her father John Heuer was a horticulturist and worked for the County of Los Angeles as an agriculture inspector. Her mother Nova was a housewife and a very good oil painter. She has one brother, Jim, who is 18 months younger than her. She met her future husband, Ken Williams, in high school, and they married on November 4th, 1972. They have two sons, D. J. (1973) and Chris Williams (1979).
Roberta is often referred to as the "Queen of the Graphic Adventure." With Ken she founded On-Line Systems in 1980, later known as Sierra On-Line (1982). Together they created the very first graphic adventure game, Mystery House (May 1980). As the game sold very well, they were able to leave Los Angeles and move to Coarsegold, a small gold mining town in the Sierra Nevada foothills just south of Yosemite National Park, where Roberta's parents had an apple orchard. Later on, the first real office of On-Line Systems was opened at Oakhurst, seven miles from Coarsegold.
Mystery House would become part of a series of six adventures called Hi-Res Adventures that were published in 1980-1982. The first adventure that Roberta designed after Mystery House was The Wizard and the Princess (1980), the first adventure game with colored graphics, that became the number one game on the Apple II. Time Zone (1982) became her first game for which outside artists were used, a very huge game with about 1400 rooms (where an average game had 90 rooms).
Her next game — made on request of IBM — would become the first episode in a series that would make her famous: King's Quest, the first animated 3D (in fact 2.5D) adventure game (1984). The King's Quest series, a saga about the adventures of the royal family of Daventry, would comprise eight adventure games. The series sold millions of copies. The reason of its popularity is, according to Roberta, that it springs from the fantasies of a child and that it allows adults to experience again the stories and fables they loved as a child. For children it is the ultimate cartoon, and for both it is a chance to outwit the designer (herself). Roberta designed the later episodes (V-VIII) with the help of co-designers.
In the period that Roberta was working on King's Quest VII, she also designed Phantasmagoria (1995), a horror game with a $4 million development budget and 2 years of development time, that had a script of about 550 pages and was published on 7 CD-ROMS. It sold over 1,000,000 copies before, according to Roberta, "the new management essentially killed the product."
Roberta remained active in the development of games for Sierra till it was sold in 1996 to CUC International. Her last and first true 3D game for the "New Sierra" was King's Quest: Mask of Eternity (1998), a game that departed from the original series as it had a gloomy atmosphere and included RPG elements (1998, with co-designer Mark Seibert). Many years later, Roberta said that in hindsight she would have omitted the RPG elements and would have thought more in terms of physical puzzles that could be better done in 3D than in 2D.
With her games she won numerous awards and a special tribute was paid to her with The Roberta Williams Anthology (1997), which included 15 games (seven King's Quest games, six Hi-Res Adventures and two Laura Bow games).
After Mask of Eternity and 18 years of game production, she took a well-deserved rest and left the spotlight in favor of reading, traveling, and learning Spanish. Roberta and her husband divide their time between their homes in Seattle (where Chris lives) and Cabo, Mexico (where D.J. lives), and they travel with their boat (a Nordhavn) almost non-stop.
In 2009, after three years of research, she started to write a historic novel, tracing Irish history, the Potato Famine, and the Irish immigration to the US.
19th Annual Game Developers Choice Awards (2019)
Rieko Kodama was born on May 25th, 1963 in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture in Japan. In 1984, she began working at SEGA in the design department. She decided to look for work in the relatively new field of video games. Her industry debut was Champion Boxing for the SG-1000. After that, she created designs and pixel art for other titles like arcade games Sega Ninja and Quartet and the Sega Mark III In the Mega Drive era, she continued to work on the art for Phantasy Star, Altered Beast, Alex Kidd in the Enchanted Castle, and Sonic the Hedgehog. For Phantasy Star: The End of the Millennium, she transitioned into a Team Leader role (known as a director today), while continuing to work on graphic design and pixel art. In the Sega Saturn era, Kodama was director for Magic Knight Rayearth (the Saturn version) and a producer on Deep Fear. In the Dreamcast era, she was the producer for Skies of Arcadia and the GameCube version Skies of Arcadia Legends. For Nintendo DS she produced Brain Training games like Mogi Kenichiro Hakase Kanshuu Nou ni Kaikan Minna de Aha Taiken! In 2009, she produced 7th Dragon.She would later also produce 7th Dragon 2020 and 7th Dragon 2020-II. Currently, she is currently serving as the lead producer and director of the SEGA AGES series on the Nintendo Switch.
17th Annual Game Developers Choice Awards (2017)
Jordan Mechner began his career as a video game creator in the 1980s with Karateka and Prince of Persia, two of the first Apple II games to combine arcade action with realistic animation and cinematic storytelling. Both titles became #1 bestsellers and all-time classics. Prince of Persia has been a major influence in the development of the action-adventure video game genre.
Jordan next founded independent developer Smoking Car Productions to create the critically acclaimed 1997 adventure game The Last Express, patenting the first automated digital rotoscoping process.
Jordan joined forces with Ubisoft to reinvent his best-known title for a new generation of gamers in 2003 with Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. Its breakout success launched a global franchise including toys, graphic novels, LEGO sets, and over 20 million games sold. Jordan became the first game creator to successfully adapt his own work as a film screenwriter with Disney/Bruckheimer's Prince of Persia (2010).
Alongside his work in the game industry, Jordan continues to work as an author, screenwriter and filmmaker. His Chavez Ravine: A Los Angeles Story won the 2003 IDA Award for Best Short Documentary and was short-listed for an Academy Award. His New York Times best-selling, Eisner award-nominated graphic novel Templar was published by First Second in 2013. He is currently working on an unannounced project.
16th Annual Game Developers Choice Awards (2016)
Markus Alexej Persson, also known as Notch, is a Swedish video game programmer who started programming at the age of seven, using his dad's Commodore 128. He was born in Stockholm, Sweden and spent his first years in Edsbyn before moving back to Stockholm. In 2005, Markus joined King.com as a game developer. After four years he left King in 2009 to move to Jalbum, where he worked as a programmer for two years. In 2009 Markus also founded the company Mojang and started producing Minecraft, eventually shifting his duties to focus solely in Minecraft. In 2011 Mojang AB sold their one millionth copy of the game, several months later their second, and after several more their third. Mojang hired several new staff members for the Minecraft team, while Persson passed the lead developer role to Jens Bergensten. Markus Persson has consistently participated in the Ludum Dare 48-hour game-making contests. Some of his creations are Breaking The Tower, Metagun, Prelude of the Cambered and Minicraft. He also takes part in other competitions, such as the Java 4K Game Programming Contest. In 2014 Markus Persson sold his company, Mojang, to Microsoft for $2.5 billion, thereby handing over the Minecraft game's intellectual property to its buyer.
15th Annual Game Developers Choice Awards (2015)
David Braben OBE is Founder and CEO of Frontier Developments (AIM: FDEV), a game development studio employing over 200 people in Cambridge, UK and Halifax, Canada. He is also Co-Founder of the Raspberry Pi Foundation - a registered charity making very low-cost educational computer equipment, a member of Cambridge Angels, chairman of the SkillSet approval committee for university Computer Science courses, sits on the BAFTA games board, and is a fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering. David and Frontier are known for their innovative, proprietary technology and many successful games across many platforms and mobile devices including Kinectimals, Disneyland Adventures and LostWinds. Franchises including Elite and Rollercoaster Tycoon have been big sellers over a long period. David and the Frontier team released Elite: Dangerous on PC in December 2014.
14th annual Game Developers Choice Awards (2014)
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 27 million 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.
13th annual Game Developers Choice Awards (2013)
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."
12th annual Game Developers Choice Awards (2012)
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.
11th annual Game Developers Choice Awards (2011)
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 the 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.
10th annual Game Developers Choice Awards (2010)
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.
9th annual Game Developers Choice Awards (2009)
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.
8th annual Game Developers Choice Awards (2008)
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.