Evolving the IGF

First, A medium-length disclaimer:

It’s tough to write about the IGF critically in the current internet climate — actually, to be honest, it’s tough to write about anything critically in the current internet climate without accidentally devolving the conversation into a polarizing flame-war. It’s especially dangerous to write critically about the IGF as someone who has seen how the sausage is made — I’ve been a general selection juror once, and on the design jury twice.

So I want to be super clear about what I’m trying to do here — I want to have a thoughtful conversation about some aspects of the IGF that I think could be changed in a way that would improve both it’s value to us as a developers, and its value to those in the culture at large that use the awards as a window to the world of independent videogames.

And if ultimately we don’t think these are good changes, that’s fine too. I think the IGF is still great as it is — I think the jurors and the chair-people (Brandon Boyer in the past, Kelly Wallick this year and into the future) have done a tremendous job working with and improving the system that they’ve inherited. In their stewardship the IGF has undergone many changes, from removing the ‘best tech’ category, to having an entirely new backend developed, to giving away passes as incentive to volunteer jurors to do their best in their important jobs, and more.

But the IGF is in some ways a lumbering beast. It’s an institution, and part of being an institution means carrying your history with you, and changing slowly. This history is part of what gives weight to the awards the IGF bestows, but it also can be a drag, pulling the IGF behind the times, especially in the rapidly changing field of independent videogame design.

I originally wrote this as a private email to IGF organizers, but upon further reflection I think it’s better suited as a public letter. While the IGF is ultimately managed by a few, it’s a community institution, and I think if this a conversation worth having, it’s a conversation worth having openly.

So with that, here are some thoughts:

Both years I was on a jury we ended up having the same conversation, and it’s also a conversation I heard about from other jurors, on other juries. Essentially the conversation deals with how to handle every category eventually breaking down into “design”.

Imagine for example, that you are on the Best Audio jury,

and you encounter a game with great audio (lets call it Game A), but terrible gameplay — the audio basically has nothing to do with the game, but is utterly fantastic.

Then imagine another game, with mediocre audio, but extremely solid audio design (Game B) — the audio integrates with the gameplay really well, and supports it in all the right places to make the game feel great.

Which of these is more deserving of the Audio award?

The one that has great audio but it doesn’t have anything to do with gameplay (A), or the one that has okay audio, but uses it well in the context of a game (B).

Well, if you answered A, then you’re prioritizing the category over the whole, and if you answered B, then you’re looking at the whole over the category. Essentially, if you answered B, you’re really judging the Game Design, with a slant towards audio, and if you’re judging A, you’re judging strictly audio.

The problem here is that with B, every category becomes about game design, and the design category becomes a micro-grand-prize, and with A, you get a bunch of selected games that aren’t actually that great, but excel in small areas.

The IGF is about showcasing the best of the best, how are jurors to square that with the component-style structure of IGF categories? This is not just an issue for jurors, but also a problem for developers submitting games. It muddies up the waters on exactly what criteria their games will be judged upon, and I can imagine, has contributed to some confusing feedback recieved by devs, and some heartbreak (although to be honest contests will always include heartbreak).

All of the jurors I’ve ever talked to always want to go with B, but feel like they’re supposed to go with A. Ultimately, B tends to win out, and that leads to games that are very well designed making it into multiple categories, like for example, Her Story this year, which (very deservingly!) made it into Grand Prize, Design, Narrative, and Nuovo.

From a community perspective, it’s not great when games make it into multiple categories, because essentially they’re taking up slots that could go to other games. I’d rather see the IGF promote 44 unique games each year rather than the only 27 unique games promoted this year. Admittedly the grand prize is always going to be an amalgamation of choices from the other categories, but even taking that into account, we’d still only be at 27 out of 38 this year, and I think we can do better.

Before I get to my proposal, there’s another problem with the categories beyond their inward collapse towards design — they substantially bias medium-length, single-player games.

- Long games tend to be difficult for many jurors to play through (especially if you get a random selection of more than 1 very long game).

- Short games like twine games, flash games, or mobile games don’t get a fair shot against medium length games because they just feel less significant, even when they’re great.

- Multiplayer games are harder for judges to organize play-sessions of, and because repeat plays are tough, mastery is often not reached, contributing to these games not feeling as significant as medium-lengh games.

This to me is a huge communal loss. Mobile games are an increasingly important sector of the videogame-space, both culturally and economically, but their context demands light, small, experiences. Should we be excluding those games from the IGF because of a contextual incongruity? Likewise, Twine and web-games have always been a bastion for the experimental vanguard of indies, should we unfairly avoiding these games because of their size? And multiplayer games have come and gone in mainstream popularity, but we should definitely be talking about them. Right now, all three of these types of games are pitched against each-other in the nuovo category.

Lastly, very long games shouldn’t be punished because jurors don’t have 20 hours to play each one. Obviously time is never going to be something we can solve for, but there are ways to mitigate this problem.

Here’s one way we could address this:

Right now the IGF categories are as follows:
Seumas McNally Grand Prize
Excellence in Visual Art
Excellence in Design
Excellence in Audio
Excellence in Narrative
Nuovo Award
Best Student Game

I propose we change these to:
Seumas McNally Grand Prize
Best Long-form Game
Best Short-form Game
Best Micro-form Game
Best Experimental Game
Best Multiplayer Game
Best Student Game

In case it’s not clear: 
Longform games would be 10+ hour games, multi-part games, or games with long-form stories or experiences within them.

Short-form games would be 1–10 hour games, or games with shorter form experiences in them.

Microform games are 0sec-1 hour games, or games with super short experiences in them.

Obviously many games that are microform can be played for ages and many short-form games can also be played over and over again and for a very long time, but the above distinctions are about where the meat of the game lies. The meat of a game like Threes shows up in the first minute of gameplay. It’s not the full experience certainly, but it’s the core of the game. Compare that to something like Fez — certainly you see how the game works in the first 10 minutes, but the meat of Fez doesn’t show up until you’re steeped in it and uncovering mysteries many hours in.

Because of this, I think what submitters tag their title as will be very informative towards what kind of experience they’re intending, and more importantly, the sort of context they intend to be competing in.

This would serve a few purposes.

1- It would all but eliminate cross-category pollination (outside of grand prize), although potentially experimental could have some minor crossover.

2- It would allow for submissions to self-tag their category, giving jurors a more appropriate random selection of games (only 1 longform, for example), and would make it easier for general jurors to browse for the kinds of games that they themselves like to play before the more exclusive jury phase.

3- It would give space to mobile, web, flash, and multiplayer games without pitting them directly against experimental games,as has been a problem in previous years. A conversation I’ve heard about often from the Nuovo jury is whether or not to promote a game that is radically and excitingly experimental, but not a great game. It’s hard to push for something like that if it’s going to push out another more substantial multiplayer or mobile title, but I think promoting some half broken but brazenly exciting experimental games would be good for the IGF and the community.

Of course, there are also reasons to want the system to stay as it is. Graphics, Sound, and Design are the sort of categories that respect just how many people it takes to build a game. In a world large teams, like the AAA space, it’s important for individuals or sub-groups on a team to be able to be recognized for their achievements, and it is true that indie teams are starting to baloon up again from 1–2 person teams, towards 3–5 person teams.

For me personally (and for many of the devs i’ve spoken with), even for slightly larger teams, I think it’s important that we keep pushing the idea of games as beautiful wholistic objects, and judge them as such, since that cuts to the heart of what separates indies from AAA. I also think our awards should at least be tilted towards smaller teams, since that is also in the spirit of scrappy indie-ness.

Ultimately, the IGF categories should promote and support the kind of indie community we want to have, and I think the proposed categories above would do a better job supporting a diverse and exciting community than what we’re working with now.

Thanks for reading!