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The 2004 IGF Awards - A Dark Day in Indie Gaming Printer Friendly Page



The 2004 Independent Games Festival Awards
A dark glimpse into the future of indie gaming?
(by Russell D. Carroll)

Having attended the IGF Awards ceremony on Wednesday night, I went through a range of emotions. There were some awards that I felt were obvious such as Anito and Dr. Blob for sound in their respective categories. There were some positive moments such as Oasis winning the overall award for the downloadable category and Spartan winning the art excellence award for the Open category. Then there were some disappointing moments such as when Gish was unbelievably shut-out of the awards, and the domination of Savage. The full range of awards was as follows:

Innovation in Game Design
Bontago (Open)
Oasis (Web/Downloadable)

Innovation in Audio
Anito: Defend A Land Enraged (Open)
Dr. Blob's Organism (Web/Downloadable)

Innovation in Visual Art
Spartan (Open)
Dr. Blob's Organism (Web/Downloadable)

Technical Excellence
Savage: The Battle for Newerth (Open)
Yohoho! Puzzle Pirates (Web/Downloadable)

Audience Award
Savage: The Battle for Newerth (Open)
Yohoho! Puzzle Pirates (Web/Downloadable)

Overall - Seumas McNally Grand Prize Winners
Savage (Open)
Oasis (Web/Downloadable)

Project Goldmaster Winner - (game to be developed online for AOL/Cartoon Network) - Flashbang studios

Though you can read about the winners just about anywhere, but there is a lot more going on than awards being handed out. Spending time at the IGF awards on March 24, 2004 I cannot help but think that it was a very dark day for the future of Indie gaming. As was perhaps both expected and dreaded Savage took half of the awards that it could take. While that was something that the team at S2 worked hard to earn, having Savage in the IGF, and leaving as the overall winner in its category sets a precedent that will greatly change Indie gaming if the blurring of the lines between indie and non-indie is not reversed.

Among the games shown at the IGF, none were more discussed than Savage. The game was backed by more than a million dollars in development money, an amount that very few indie games ever earn. This money allowed the S2 team to take their innovation much farther than other teams were able to do.

Sitting through days of endless sessions at the IGF it is clear that money is one of the biggest limiting factors in game development. Nearly every session discusses ways to make money go farther so that development and innovation is not limited by the lack of money. The issue of Savage being included in the IGF inter-relates directly with that exact point. There is a point where having less money to create a game forces the developer to do less and to scale back their innovation, fitting their imagination within what is financially possible for them to accomplish.  Conversely, having more money allows developers to do more with a game as they are not forced to sacrifice ideas and features to a financial inability to deliver their ideas.

Savage was the grand winner in the Open category. The first award given to the game was the technical excellence award. For weeks I've been talking about this award as I assumed Savage would receive and based on my experience with the game, an award I believed should have been given to another game.

Savage is the only game that I have not been able to get to work on my home computer in the last year. While that may not mean a lot for many people who do not install many games, I believe that it is quite meaningful due to the number of games I have installed on that computer.  Over the last year, I have played more than 200 games on that computer this year. Most all of them were indie games, and despite the indie developers small budgets and lack of ability to beta test their games for possible code errors like a typical production game would, they all worked. However, when it came to Savage, the game continually crashed and never let me actually start a game.

However, even that information isn't all that meaningful as I'm just one person. Sometimes games don't work for some people. While trying to correct the problem, I checked into the S2 support forums and found that the problem is clearly much larger than me. The number of people posting problems in the last month shows that the technical issues in this game are in large quantity.  In fact for March I double-checked and of today, March 25th, there are 55 threads and many more posts regarding problems getting the game to run at all, in addition to performance issues on this game, so far THIS MONTH.  As Savage has been out for quite some time and has delivered multiple patches correcting technical issues, but is clearly a product with multiple issues still correct, the fact that the game received the technical excellence award despite these glaring problems, more than any other game in the category, shows a clear area of lack in the judging system, and an opportunity for improvement.

The second award that Savage won was the audience choice award. Savage was a mainsteam game that nearly everyone coming to the conference were already familiar with. It was one of the least played games at the Independent Games Festival Pavilion throughout the day, but ended up being the most voted for anyway. It was in-fact the audience's familiarity with the game that lead to this award being rendered a complete shame as it was awarded to Savage. A large part of the joy of the IGF has been the discovery of new games. In this year's awards, fans of the game just came by and showed their support of the game they already knew.

Finally by winning the Overall award Savage crossed the final line. The question has been posed "Why should they be left out because they were able to raise some money to fund their game?" However a much better question is "Why were the other games punished because they didn't raise the money to fund their innovation to the same level as Savage?"

As the conference has pointed out, having more money allows developers to make their innovative ideas reality.  It then becomes more than curious that the IGF has this year shown that a team's ability to raise money is as important as innovation itself. Consider this, if Savage was done on a $50,000 budget instead of a $1.5 million dollar budget, how would it be different? Would things that are in the game have been left out?  I believe that the clear answer to this question is yes.  When finances run out, no matter what you think you want to do, you are done developing.  I believe in the case of Savage that the developers would not have had the funding necessary to create "their game" had the budget for Savage been equal with the other developers in the IGF. I highly doubt that it would have been a finalist, and certainly not the winner as it would have been limited in its ability to deliver the concept. Thus, the IGF has clearly stated by its awards that developers must be able to raise money in order for their game to succeed at the awards.

For an example running the opposite direction consider the games Bridge Construction Set and Bridge It!  The real differences between these games is $100,000 of art work.  BCS was a finalist last year as Pontifex II.  It did win the audience award, but had it the money to make the art that is shown in Bridge It, I believe it likely would have won the overall award.  This is an easy example that shows what money can do to a game, and in this case the point is only being made in regards to graphics.  With innovation, having the money to make what you envision in your head show up on the screen is just as affected by the money or lack of it as the graphics were in Pontifex II.

Another issue that occurs from the inclusion of Savage is that it opens the door for nearly any studio to submit their games to the IGF. The reality of the gaming world is that there are hundreds of small studios making games and ever more new publishers willing to pay studios to make games. However the IGF simply limits those entering based on their connection with specific publishers. This allows any development studio to be considered as long as they are good at getting money from any source that is not on the list. The game industry did not consider S2 to be any different than any other studio, as witnessed by their being nominated for the rookie studio award during the main GDC awards ceremony alongside the other mainstream studios.

What the IGF has done is created a precedent where any mainstream studio can enter the IGF. Formerly the IGF had been focused on innovation by the unheralded few.  Those who worked grueling hours with no monetary gains in sight. Having such a lack of funding, the developers who entered the IGF had been required to push themselves farther to create things that they did not have the finances to do any other way.  That lack of funds itself helped push their innovation even further. With the inclusion of mainstream or Triple A studios in the IGF, the innovation of the indie developers is ignored.  Instead, in addition to the GDC Game Developer Awards for the mainstream, a mainstream studio has taken the awards that supposedly were intended for independent developers.  In so doing the purpose of the IGF, in rewarding innovation in independent games has not occurred.

Considering all these factors I believe that March 24th, 2004 may go down in history as the day that the IGF lost its luster. This was the day that marked the end of the IGF representing the indie community and spotlighting the efforts of unknown developers. Instead the IGF has set itself up to being a complete facade, being just another place where mainstream developers can get accolades for their games. The change is sad to see and it is my great hope that the IGF will talk earnestly to its finalists to determine a resolution to stop the bleeding of this self-inflicted wound so that in the future, indie developers will be the finalists and award winners instead of mainstream studios. If nothing is done, this will go down as the point when the IGF turned away from Independent Innovation and turned to the innovation of the mainstream masses hurting both innovation and indie developers in the process.

  

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