Games have historically been an underrated corner of business and the culture—but no longer. People are flocking into game worlds for immersive entertainment and social connection, and celebrities and brands are following them. A concert in a video game such as Epic Games’ Fortnite or Roblox was a novelty two years ago; now virtual spaces within games are a tour stop for the biggest stars such as Ariana Grande and Lil Nas X. Non-fungible tokens were an obscure aspect of crypto culture until Dapper Labs helped them burst into the mainstream with NBA Top Shot. As gaming commands more time and attention—and as people derive more value from their digital identities—the experiences and tools supporting all this interest (and money) are growing in sophistication.
Dapper Labs has translated the fun of collecting and trading cards into a digital experience, and its Flow blockchain enables more digital games or game-like products. Roblox is the dream of the metaverse, today, and elite brands and musical artists are flocking to it to fashion interactive contests and add shopping for digital and real-world items. Epic Games’ Fortnite has extended into the fashion realm, while the company’s Unreal Engine advances what’s possible for creating more realistic clothing, hair, and landscapes. Rec Room combines gaming and creator-built items with pure social hangout rooms, because these spaces are where your friends are and where you can spend the most time with them.
As much as games have become the pretext for other forms of interaction, they’re also becoming more artistic, with titles such as the indie hit Sable from Shedworks combining an ethereal open world with a gorgeous soundtrack. Around all of this excitement are noteworthy products and services to support the gaming lifestyle. Overwolf helps tens of thousands of developers add important gaming tools to their titles, allowing players to boost skills, track their stats, and pull clips for social sharing. Venerable computer storage manufacturer Western Digital supports a better play experience for the most data-intensive titles with its solid-state drives purpose built for gaming. The surest sign that gaming is increasingly real life is the debut of Liteboxer, which uses a game-like design to turn one of the best workouts you can ask for into a frustration-alleviating exercise.
Want more innovative ideas and trends? Explore the full 2022 list of Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies, 528 organizations whose efforts are reshaping their businesses, industries, and the broader culture. We’ve selected the firms making the biggest impact with their initiatives across 52 categories, including the most innovative AR/VR, media, and music companies.
1. Dapper Labs
For mainstreaming NFTs
Dapper Labs brought non-fungible tokens (NFTs) into the mainstream with the launch of the basketball collectibles platform NBA Top Shot in the fall of 2020. Within a year, NBA Top Shot had reached a million users and notched more than $800 million in total sales. One of the biggest triumphs of the platform is that it’s not directed at the crypto community: Many of its users aren’t familiar with tokens or blockchain, but they innately understand the value of what Top Shot offers. That’s made Dapper Labs one of the most important ambassadors for mainstreaming blockchain-based experiences. Over the past year, Dapper has announced collectibles platforms for the NFL, UFC, and Spain’s La Liga (home to Real Madrid and other soccer teams). The WNBA Moments platform launched within NBA Top Shot in August. All of these experiences, meanwhile, run on Dapper’s own blockchain platform, called Flow, which is designed for consumer-friendly applications and open to developers. (Dapper created Flow after demand for its first NFT project, CryptoKitties, nearly crashed the Ethereum blockchain in 2017.) Today, some 600 companies are building atop Flow. Some are creating sports-based NFTs, for sports including for cricket and Japanese baseball. Jambb, a digital collectibles startup for comedy fans, is using it for stand-up NFTs. Game developers are building decentralized titles. The avatar company Genies, which Dapper has invested in, used Flow to create a new marketplace, called The Warehouse, where people can buy hypebeast-worthy clothing and accessories for their animated avatars. (The Warehouse is currently in beta.) Dapper also recently acquired the virtual influencer startup Brud, the company behind Lil Miquela, and turned it into its own business unit, signaling Dapper’s intention to mainstream Flow-based DAOs, or decentralized autonomous organizations.
For showing us the metaverse
While other companies scrambled to lay claim to even the smallest piece of the metaverse in 2021, Roblox was busy adding compelling new layers to its already robust digital universe, which notched 47.3 million daily active users in Q3 2021—up 31% year over year. Roblox hosted a concert by Lil Nas X at the end of 2020, which was watched 33 million times over the course of a single weekend, and sales of virtual merch from the show reportedly neared eight figures. Now companies like music game developer Splash are pouring money into creating digital-only celebrities, like the pop singer-avatar Kai, which pulled in 100,000 viewers for a Roblox concert in March, and other real-life acts taking the Roblox stage include Twenty One Pilots (last October) and Tai Verdes (November). Brands, too, are rushing in. The NFL opened a virtual store in Roblox. Nike created a Nikeland area that includes products, games, and social spaces. Vans now has a virtual skatepark where users can earn points that can be redeemed for skateboard upgrades. (Within three months, some 48 millions people had visited.) Chipotle introduced a store where gamers could travel through a digital maze to get a coupon for a free real-world burrito; it gave away $1 million worth of them. And Ralph Lauren recently expanded beyond its virtual Polo shops to create an entire winter wonderland landscape that includes ice skating, the chance to toast marshmallows, and a holiday treasure hunt that unlocks exclusive accessories. All of it has helped push Roblox’s total engagement to more than 11.2 billion hours in the third quarter of 2021, with revenue growing more than 100% year over year and surpassing $500 million for the quarter.
Roblox is No. 27 on this year’s list of the World’s 50 Most Innovative Companies.
For supporting the in-game app ecosystem
It’s not just game developers that are reaping the rewards as the industry grows. A new class of in-game app developers are creating add-on tools and modules to popular games to help players do things like boost their skills, change their voice, track their stats, and pull highlight-reel clips to disseminate on other platforms. Israel-based Overwolf has created an all-in-one platform that allows in-game developers—some 87,000 in all—to build, distribute, and monetize these products, while enabling game studios to integrate them seamlessly and safely into their titles. (Overwolf currently works with more than 990 titles, and reports 15 billion app downloads a year and 20 million monthly active users for the apps and plug-ins it supports.) In August 2021, Overwolf invested in its growing developer community by launching a $50 million Creators Fund aimed at helping its users build out an even more robust ecosystem of products. In addition to money, fund recipients get access to mentorship and marketing services. Meanwhile, Overwolf’s new CurseForge Core Software Development Kit (SDK), launched in 2021, has made it even easier for game studios to pull these apps and plug-ins into their titles. Overwolf is on track to pay creators $29 million in 2021, nearly three times as much as it did in 2020. A handful of the top in-game developers who use Overwolf make more than $1 million per year.
4. Western Digital
For storing the most data-intensive gaming titles
As gaming titles become more sophisticated, they also become more data-heavy, with file sizes that can surpass 100GB for the most immersive worlds. Western Digital, known for making computer hard disks and data storage services and devices, has responded with high-speed and high-capacity solutions for gamers under its expanding WD_Black brand. Among the several new products that it launched this year are a new solid-state drive storage device (SSD) tailor-made for PC gamers that offers high performance for entry-level prices, an officially licensed game drive for the new Xbox, and one that’s compatible with the PlayStation 5 console. (In August, Playstation 5’s lead architect Mark Cerny tweeted that it’s his SSD of choice for the console.) All of the devices use Flash and NVMe (non-volatile memory express) technology to keep prices accessible. The company has worked with leading publishers, including Activision and Electronic Arts, to create special products for their titles and has received more than 20 awards for its gaming products.
5. Epic Games
For giving virtual worlds even more depth
The gaming company behind both the hit multiplayer game Fortnite and the Unreal Engine, a 3D creation tool, amplified its mission to make online worlds more immersive than ever. The company started 2021 by launching the Unreal Engine 5. The new tool, which is currently available only through Early Access, includes several groundbreaking features: the MetaHuman Creator, which shrinks the time it takes to create high-fidelity digital humans, including clothing and hair, from months to minutes; Lumen, which imbues scenes with dynamic lighting that changes in real time; and Nanite, a “virtualized geometry system” that offers full resolution to densely detailed landscapes by optimizing for objects that are actually in view. The company plans to release Unreal Engine 5 to filmmakers and game developers in 2022, though it’s already getting good reviews based on early demos of its capabilities. In the meantime, Epic released the Metahuman Creator tool as a standalone, free cloud-based app available to anyone. At the same time, the company continues to push the boundaries of what’s possible within Fortnite. A partnership with Balenciaga in 2021 brought the label’s designs to life in the game via Unreal Engine technology—then used those characters and outfits to create real-world 3D billboards in London, New York, Tokyo, and Seoul. Fortnite also hosted the Rift Tour with headliner Ariana Grande, a collaboration that included an immersive, dreamscape virtual world based on Grande’s music. (After the concert, people could purchase an Ariana Grande “skin” and play as her in-game.) The company also added more tools and support for its Creative Mode feature, which allows players to build their own virtual worlds and experiences. (In 2020, 50% of player time in Fornite was spent in Creative Mode.) In 2021, Epic recorded more than 500 million accounts across Fortnite, Rocket League (also owned by Epic), and the Epic Games Store, all of which are supported by Epic Online Services.
6. Rec Room
For bringing your parents’ basement online
Launched in 2016, the social gaming world Rec Room, which allows players to build their own virtual “rooms,” reported in March 2021 that some 2 million people were creating content on the platform. By the end of 2021, it had 37 million users. The game’s appeal is its intensely social focus: Rec Room’s user-generated virtual environments, which can be explored via mobile devices, game consoles, PCs, and VR headsets, are just as likely to be hangout spots as they are mini games. The company says there are some 12 million rooms on the platform today. (Rec Room also creates its own games for the platform, such as a popular new VR driving challenge, called Rec Rally.) As in Roblox, users buy virtual currency to spend in the game, which the company funnels back to top creators. In March, Rec Room said it was paying out some $1 million to creators on its platform. After raising $145 million in December at a $3.5 billion valuation, the company is focused on rolling out more tools for its creative community.
For using music to get people to punch above their weight
Launched in July 2020, the at-home boxing platform Liteboxer is a connected fitness device that doubles as a game. The company’s patented hardware device looks like a high-tech punching bag. The twist is that its force-detecting pads, which track a puncher’s progress, have LED lights that sync to the company’s collection of some 300 on-demand, trainer-led workouts. To entice boxing novices and motivate more experienced athletes, Liteboxer also signed a deal with Universal Music Group to create a robust library of what it calls Punch Tracks that work with its platform in a video-game format that recalls Dance Dance Revolution. These ever-rotating tracks, along with its on-demand classes, are available by subscription, starting at $26 a month. In 2021, Liteboxer debuted a wall-mounted punching bag ($1,400) that takes up significantly less room than its original freestanding device ($1,600). The company also raised a $20 million Series A, led by Nimble Ventures with participation from B. Riley Venture Capital. In Q2 2021, Liteboxer reported that sales had doubled quarter over quarter.
For putting us on a quest even while we’re stuck at home
Shedworks is the small, London-based developer behind the hit indie game Sable. The soothing open-world title includes breathtaking visuals of a desert-like world (reminiscent of sunset on Tatooine) and a quest-like story narrative that tasks players with determining their character’s path in life by uncovering treasures, interacting with villages and cultures, and exploring the vast, open-world environment. It also has an immersive, ethereal soundtrack by Japanese Breakfast, the lead song of which the band has been featuring on its current tour. There are also ample moments of whimsy and humor, which keep players on their toes. The game, which is Shedworks’s first title, has landed on various “best of” 2021 lists, including from PC Gamer, Time, and The Washington Post. Meanwhile, Raw Fury, the publisher behind the game, recently announced a first-look deal with dj2 Entertainment to adapt its publishing catalog into film and television series, including Sable.
For creating a library of virtual worlds
Creating 3D content from scratch is time-consuming and expensive. KitBash3D makes it easier for large content producers and independent artists alike to render high-quality virtual worlds by creating a premium 3D asset library that can be used in movies, games, and more. With KitBash3D, studios are able to buy libraries of assets and reuse them across multiple projects, improving speed and profitability. Individual artists, meanwhile, have access to the same content used in top movies and games. In 2021, KitBash3D’s assets were used on Netflix and HBO productions and for parts of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and its kits helped bring to life gaming titles such as Valorant, NBA 2K, The Last of Us Part II, and The Elder Scrolls. Ferrari and Jaguar cars have used the company’s turnkey 3D models this year to showcase future products, and musicians such as Ed Sheeran and Childish Gambino have featured elements of KitBash3D’s library in live performances and videos. The company’s products also played a key role in Beeple’s NFT collection, which he sold via Christies for $69 million. KitBash3D is now used by more than 100,000 creators in 150 countries.
10. Possum Creek Games
For championing indie role-playing games
Based in New York’s Hudson Valley, three-year-old Possum Creek Games publishes independent tabletop role playing games for people who want to go beyond the well-trodden world of Dungeons and Dragons and grapple with deeper ideas. The company uses Kickstarter to fund and promote its projects, which include creative director Jay Dragon’s 2019 game Sleepaway, about counselors at a queer summer camp trying to protect their charges from an otherworldly threat, and Wanderhome, which launched on Kickstarter in 2020 but came to life in 2021 after raising more than $300,000. Following a group of traveling animals through a pastoral landscape that’s recovering from a war, Wanderhome earned praise from reviewers for quietly exploring how violence can scar communities. (In an interview last year, Dragon says he was inspired to create the game during quarantine, when it felt that “the world is monstrous and terrifying and there is no recovery from that.” He wanted to create a gamescape where such healing was possible.) Possum Creek has also published and promotes boundary-breaking titles from other game designers, including last year’s Wickedness, a magic-focused role-playing game with queer themes. The publisher is currently helping Philippines-based game designer Jamila Nedjadi raise money on Kickstarter to fund their game Our Haunt.