The IGF is still standing

Part of what I was writing about the other day in my support of the IGF was because I was getting responses from Jenn Frank as I was sending her questions and she was replying back. I was reading the distillation of a journey from someone I respect trying her hardest to be a judge within a program that might not be the best, might be full of people giving what time they had, but was still trying to highlight indie games anyway.

I was trying to avoid the situation of further drama by asking her what it was like behind the curtain and what her struggles were knowing, at least one some level, that she might only be the tip of the iceberg and that other judges who are not as forthcoming might be having troubles too. I wanted to cut through the PR and to try to paint everyone as human in this, specifically in contrast to the sometimes vicious comments I had read on both Unwinnable and the Rotting Cartridge.

Not everyone feels as I do it seems.

Now, I like working with Tom Auxier. I think he writes neat stuff and we have had a few conversations about some topics that were not strictly about Nightmare Mode. He seems like a nice guy. However, and this is where it turns from saying nice things to questioning his words, I don’t understand his latest post.

While he may think (I hope) that these options he is proposing would help the IGF, I don’t think they would work at all. As a programmer and indie game developer in my own (limited) right, I have some major problems with the points Tom makes.

“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.”

Setting aside that “which are finished” and “not necessarily… finished” are contradictions, this is a very difficult question for those of us that just make Flash games and the occasional XNA prototype. What is feature complete? What is an early alpha or a tech demo for an indie game? What does “lacking some final edits and a coat of polish” mean for us?

In my mind, and in the very limited experiences I have had, indie games are vastly different from the commercial space. Some indie games (i.e. mine) will never get “demos” because there is not enough time to make a whole separate experience to demonstrate some mechanics that the Flash game has. We also, when others assume that we get to the “tech demo or early alpha” part of the process, might actually be “done” depending on our time and goals.

The thing to remember is that we are all human. That is what I wanted to bring up in the interview and what I was trying to get at the other day in my blog post. Those of us who dare to make games in our “free time” do so under our own passion. We are not getting payed and have to make our own deadlines. It’s not a matter of reaching certain goals at a certain time like it would be in an office environment. Speaking only for myself, I often code and write dialogue around 1 and 2 AM. That’s after I’ve worked all day or gone to class and I get home for the evening. I work on these thing because I love what I do, not because I want it to win awards.

I laugh at the idea that I would get to the point where all I need is “some final edits and a coat of polish.” I finished Indigo Protocol a few hours before I released it. I don’t talk about it much because, although I am proud of the work, I still think I could have added more to it. There are still items, animations and even characters I want to add to it, but I stop myself because I know that I need to move on to the next project.

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.

Sure, yes, this sounds fantastic in theory. Democracy in action! However, when I have seen or been a part of systems that tried this, it nearly always turns out very bad.

There is no way, to put it simply, to trust the votes. Public voting on websites only works when you can base it on two assumptions: 1) people act rationally and 2) no one cheats. Now, think about the comments that were on just those two earlier posts. Do you think, given that level of… discourse, that someone somewhere would not try to “game” the system? We are talking about programmers after all. And, if there is anything I have learned as a programmer myself, it’s that every system can be broken into given enough effort.

At some point, as I assume the IGF did, you have to select some people who you know to be trustworthy, of a diverse background and, as I asked about, who can be articulate about games. You cannot invite everyone to take part because feelings we be hurt as the “crowdsourced” voting will move toward one title over another. Maybe that happens now with an even smaller “crowd,” but it would be far worse with many more people.

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.

I get that supporting Proteus is important, but I have to ask a simple question here: whose “narrative”? What do you mean when you say “narrative” here? And what exactly, since I can only assume you mean it in a pejorative way, does “Jonathan Blow inspired, ‘gameplay first’ titles” mean? (Are you saying Braid and, once it comes out, The Witness do not have “narratives”? As, in my opinion, that is a ridiculous assertion.)

I could (and have) spent thousands of words trying to figure out how games invoke narrative, what the embedded narrative of a game might be and if the emergent narrative is more important. These are complex issues that I cannot answer to any satisfaction and I feel, just as someone who has done some extended research on the topic, that it is an unreasonable judging criteria. While I might be read up on some reader-response theory and know the sources and meaning of the terms “magic circle” and simulation gap off the top of my head, others may not.

There are numerous books on the subject of “narrative” in video games. I have read some of them and nearly all of them disagree with each other. It is not a good idea then to put such a controversial subject as a judging category. If we can’t decide what it even means, how can we agree what games fit it?

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.

This is a VERY BAD IDEA. You want people or even studios to pitch to the IGF without a product? Seriously? This is so wildly unrealistic it’s nearly comical.

Okay, so you want studios, which in my case and many others are just a single person, to make “assets”, a video and what… a PowerPoint slide? Even respected studios like Double Fine have a hard time pitching to publishers. Indie studios, especially towards my end of the spectrum, do not have time to do that. We make what we can when we can and then try to do better the next time.

4. Create a Pirate Kart award… 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…

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.

This is working off an assumption that I think is wrong about some of the scene: not everyone wants to sell their games. While, yes, I think it might be great to have a “fifteen year old kid” (or 26-year-old programmer for that matter) get to go to GDC for free, that’s not really the sole purpose of the IGF.

To quote from one of the many Gamasutra provided GDC talk summaries:

“The IGF shouldn’t be as big a deal as it is… it gets you a lot of press, and it’s cool to have your announcement be with the IGF because it shows you’ve got some big balls,” he asserts. “But it’s just an award show. And a lot of people are saying we have to preserve how the IGF ‘brings up’ small indies, but it totally doesn’t do that.” — Mike Boxleiter

The IGF is not there to exclusively uplift struggling artists, it’s there as a showcase. If you have “big names… [putting] games in,” the smaller indie studios are less likely to win. If it’s a competition of polish and money versus passion, the passion will often lose.

It’s not the money people are after, it’s the fame and recognition. It should, perhaps, be more about peers pointing out some of the most promising games, projects or even just ideas that are up-and-coming. It’s professionals highlighting excellence and not free PR just for paying to have your game entered into the competition.

I like that people are talking about the IGF. I like that we are questioning some things but, honestly, they have it under control. Sure, yes, there are problems sometimes. It’s human judges trying to figure out libraries and run-time environments that can often be complicated and not at all easy to navigate. (Again, as a programmer myself who has dealt with and tried to walk people through the process of finding the correct files to run things, I understand this frustration.)

Maybe the IGF stumbled a little bit this year. But they didn’t fall. They kept going and next year, I imagine, will have both its controversies and its victories.