Opening the IGF's doors

In an alternate world, I have the power to fix the IGF. Why this alternate universe exists instead of a fun one where we can all fly I cannot tell you.

I don’t, of course, and I don’t even think I would have changed it this year. When Fez, a game that had already been entered in the competition years previously, whose development team were jurors last year, won the grand prize and a cool $30,000 prize this year, outrage spread across the internet. For those who looked it was already there, with great pieces like this one from Rock, Paper, Shotgun.

Fez is a still-uncompleted wunderkind, made by people who have a contract with Microsoft for the game’s release. Certainly they be in debt from making the game, but this is consistent with a four year development cycle. The trouble people have is that it was up against four other extremely deserving titles—Dear Esther, Spelunky, Frozen Synapse, and Johann Sebastian Joust—which are all playable titles in their own regard. Or maybe they object to Fez taking a spot from an unheralded title like Antichamber or FTL or Proteus, titles that received honorable mentions.

Or maybe they just object to the whole clique-y system. The IGF are the cool kids at the top of the cafeteria, and they want you to stick to the status quo. Justified or not, that’s the impression.

So the question is, is the system broken? And how do we fix it?

According to Phil Fish, developer of Fez, the reason the IGF admitted the title for a second time was because it’s looking for legitimacy: it wants people to care about it. Fez, despite it’s near vaporware status, has been the biggest and the brightest indie hope for a number of years. It’s a title deserving of the grand prize; it’s why we weren’t surprised when it won. The thing is, legitimacy doesn’t come from the quality of the submitted materials. Or, rather, if Fez was submitted to prove the competition’s value to the wider world, it’s backfired: instead of “These are the best games”, it’s become, “We brought this game back down from the major leagues because we didn’t think anything else was good enough.”

We get these impressions from the previous controversy this year’s IGF cycle generated, when the developers for iOS game Kale in Dinoland reported that nearly half the judges assigned to their work didn’t play it. Certainly there are good explanations for this, that the judges are human and technical difficulties exist, but it’s still not a good impression. It gives us, the impartial (even pro-IGF; I’d consider myself pro-IGF, since I’ve interestedly followed the competition for years) viewer, the impression that the IGF already knows who’s going to win. Of course, previous years’ winners like Monaco, which was in existence for a very short time before winning the grand prize, stand in opposition to this fact. But the fact remains that the Kale in Dinoland incident created a definite atmosphere of suspicion, which has only been built on.

The IGF seems caught between being a way to support young game developers with radical ideas and being Sundance. Is the IGF a ceremony through which to tell people, “Anyone can make games,” or is it a platform to shout, “These are the best games being made today”?

As imagined czar of fixing the IGF, I lean towards the latter idea, with a strong nod towards the former. They don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Here a 5 edicts which might not completely fix the IGF, but would definitely make it more entertaining and more relevant:

1. Only consider games with public demos or which are finished at the time of submission, those which project to be feature complete (not necessarily released, or even finished) before the IGF. This would create a Sundance-esque atmosphere: these are the best games, and they are finished, just maybe lacking some final edits and a coat of polish. You’d get less placeholder assets, better games, and more complete ideas that could be judged against each other, on their own merit. Of course, after the IGF more features could easily be added: what’s important is ensuring that the works submitted are near finished pieces, not tech demos or early alphas.

This ensures a serious, competitive atmosphere: these will be games on the cutting edge, and they’ll be at a stage of completion where they are easily comparable. And they’ll be fully playable, which leads to #2…

2. Crowdsource the preliminary judging. Not all the judging, just the early stages. If every game has a public demo, then these demos should be released. Let the gaming public play the games, and then let them vote on them.

This is a no brainer, right? The present judges do the best job they can, of course. They’re great people: we’ve interviewed one and I’m sure I’ve talked with others without even knowing it. But they’re not being paid for something that the entrants paid for; both sides in this debate have extremely legitimate claims. So crowd source it: let us all vote on the games. Involve the kind of people you want to be your judges, people who think deep thoughts about games, by mentioning blog posts about titles. Let Little Johnny from down the street play the games, write articles about the games, and then have them posted on the IGF page for that title. Involve the crowd. Make us feel like the IGF is a great thing.

Here’s how you avoid the public screwing it up: you increase the number of nominees for each category to ten. The fans nominate ten games from public demos. Now, yeah, you might get some title using social media to get itself nominated, but that’s okay. With ten slots, the good games are going to get in there, too. The cream is going to rise to the top.

Once you’re down to ten games in each category, you can assign them to jurors. This way, there’s still a strongly curated element to the awards, but the audience feels involved. We’re gamers, not Sundance: we’re used to being involved in our awards. We grew up with social media, not some far off academy deciding who’s the best. Let us make some decisions.

3. Create an award for Narrative. Personal preference is coloring this one, but I remember the third, smallest controversy regarding the IGF: how rarely games outside the traditional “indie” paradigm win. Namely, the Jonathan Blow inspired, “gameplay first” titles win, the narrative games lose. Whatever your opinion on the topic, realize the IGF is a big deal, too big for little philosophical issues like these. People think games should involve narrative devices, so there should be an award for them.

Notice I didn’t say writing. I don’t mean writing. I mean narrative devices, the game mechanics through which stories are told. This way it’s not an award for just how well written a title is; it’s about what kinds of stories the game told, the game can tell. Which game tells the best story. This effectively doubles as an expansion of the Nuovo Award for Best Experimental Game, because I cannot imagine the IGF not rewarding more abstract narrative titles. I could see Proteus, a game with no text, winning this award from how it inspires players to tell their own stories. Speaking of expanding the Nuovo Award…

4. Create a Pirate Kart award. Here’s how I’d imagine it would work: outside of the normal submission process, create an “open” submission process for games into the Pirate Kart. These must be finished, “playable” games, and they will feature in the same submission process as the others: fans play Pirate Kart games, and they vote for them. This will get a little wacky, of course: some of these games might not be played by a single person! That’s okay. You aren’t paying a cent, so there’s no sense of obligation.

Because here’s the reward for being one of the ten nominees for the Pirate Kart: you get an IGF pass. Free of charge. You have to get there yourself, of course, but you get a golden ticket to take your game to the site. The ten nominees share space on sight, and people can play their games.

Wouldn’t this be a fantastic prize? Some fifteen year old kid could make a brilliant game in her basement, submit it for free, and then poof, her game’s on display at IGF. She gets the chance to network, listen to talks about development, and become a much better developer. There’d be a token prize for the winner, but what this would do is it would encourage everyone to make games. It would encourage young developers to submit titles and get recognized for their prowess. Sure, big names could put games in, too, but winning wouldn’t make you a lot of money (let’s say $250). It would be unpredictable, volatile, and a little wild. Just like we like it.

The “Pirate Kart” award would represent the scholarship origins of the IGF. It would give young developers a chance to be noticed, put them in a position to make money off of their games in the future.

5. Create an award for unfinished games. Work with someone like Dear Esther funder the Indie Fund to create an award where prototypes can get funded for completion. Instead of full demos, developers would submit Kickstarter-esque pages describing the purpose of their game, a video, some assets, et cetera. The crowd judges would vote on which presentations impressed them the most, and then the ten finalists would be selected from by the Indie Fund folks.

Again, we’re trying to recognize the dual nature of the IGF here; we’re recognizing how games are different from films. You’d have all the traditional major awards (plus narrative device) to reward complete or nearly complete titles for being fantastic; the winners would be the best video games have to offer, and you’d be getting every entrant a lot of publicity because the crowd judges would be directed to their games, would post about their games in the hope of getting their words featured on the IGF site. IGF entry time would become a major event, with games journos scrambling to cover all these fantastic titles, and the rank and file gamer would love being able to play all these demos, check out all these new excitements. This would be combined with two awards designed specifically with new developers in mind, giving them ample chance to get involved in the festivities.

I’ll be honest: the IGF Awards aren’t broken right now. They’re good awards. But they could be so much more interesting.