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Back in 2005, when the game industry was awash with huge risk averse studios and sequelitis, things were looking bleak. I wrote an opinion piece for Gamasutra about the future rise of the indie scene, where I talked about how personal expression (including the a-word), experimental funding & distribution models, and creative production cost management would become hallmarks of the successful indie scene. (Today, I know, predicting that doesn’t sound like rocket science, I was just trying to cheerlead at the time.)

One of the key elements of a thriving independent game development community that I brought up is an established circuit of festivals throughout the year. These festivals are meant to help bring attention to the works that need it the most – the games that will have a profound impact, that will advance the medium, that will touch people, and that otherwise would not get made were it not for a small team of very passionate, underpaid, people.

At this year’s IGF Pavilion at GDC, the entrants were amazing. While previous years always had worthwhile entries, this year the level of polish, thoughtfulness, and balance between approachability and uniqueness were at a high without a doubt.

In previous years, the IGF was more forgiving towards games in development. I remember early requirements (maybe in 2002?) were such that you barely had to have a level running. The requirements are still vague, but it seems impossible to judge partial works against a field so impressive.

Here’s where film has a leg up on games. Filmmakers can bring a first cut to a festival to show it to people and get feedback. They can submit a short from a film they are hoping to make or in the process of making – the attention they get can very well help them find the last funding they need to finish it.

With games it’s so much harder to define an in-progress work – Andy Schatz, creator of one of my IGF favorites, Monaco, is still planning on adding new characters and changing existing ones. Does that mean it’s not done? Can the existing work be judged on it’s own as “complete” in the sense that it’s playable and the mechanics might work fine (despite the fact that the creator has an expanded vision)?

Anna Anthropy criticized the unfinished games in this year’s IGF, saying “the igf shouldn’t be a place for commercial titles to find publishers or to build their pre-release hype machines.” Then she goes on to talk about what the IGF should be:

“the igf is a press event where we trot out our most mainstream creations in an attempt to get the mainstream press excited about them and, by extension, (in theory) about independent games as a whole. i would argue that that doesn’t happen, that the press only gets excited about super meat boy, and that the whole event exists only to serve those developers who are already entrenched in the business / marketing cycle…

but my real anger, my frustration with the igf, is that it could be so much more than what it is. a celebration of the diversity of people who make games outside the big industry and outside of the mainstream. confront the people from the offices next door with genuinely interesting, provocative games and ask what’s taking them so long to catch up. we could prove, with the right selection of games, the value of our work for now and ever. but we don’t.”

There’s some confusion going on in that argument – why can’t a work-in-progress meet those same goals for the IGF? Yes, obviously a completed work is better, but the goal of getting enough attention to that work to help the creator complete it *can* be more idealistic than just spinning up the hype machine.

It’s about taking an interesting work that has the potential for greatness and pushing boundaries, and putting it in front of the right people – to give the creator feedback they need to make it better (from the audience at the IGF and not the judges, because I’ll grant you the judges’ feedback seemed poor across the board), and to encourage them to continue their work. Five minutes of conversation time with 40-50 people playing the game at a festival pavilion is a billion times more valuable than what 4-5 heavily time-stressed judges barely can scrawl down.

The solution? Add a “Most Promising” category. It shouldn’t be broken down into different categories or genres. Other awards should become stricter in only allowing finished work (solving some of anna anthropy’s problems), thereby pushing more in progress work into this category. This helps rewards the game makers that have gone the extra mile as well, by trimming the competition in the other award categories.

After GDC, I headed to SXSW Interactive, where The Unconcerned was up for an award in the Casual Game Design competition. I would by no means use “casual” to describe the game, however it is definitely a short form game, which is an sometimes-used more specific definition for “casual”. The competition description also seemed to highlight that it was about cutting edge, boundary pushing designs, so I figured I’d submit it and there you go. Each finalist gave a 7 minute presentation about the design, with 3 minutes for questions by the judges.

That’s one method to highlight games in development (one of the games, Paper Balloons, was actually already out on the App Store, although the other two only seemed to be on paper). It suffered a bit because the judges’ criteria were all over the place – hard to know if it’s a meaningful place to submit your particular work when the criteria ranged from most marketable/broadest appeal to something that pushed the boundaries of games. A game that should be highlighted for achieving the former probably is not going to achieve the latter, and vice versa.

It was somewhat unsatisfying to see a bunch of presentations, though. I think it would be better if festival competitions allowed interactive play sessions with in-progress work, and judging at the show (obviously more presentation would be be required than with a completed game, but relying on it much less). A time constraint on judging at the festival would help clarify judging in-progress work, because judges can only rely on first impressions of play. Games in various states are put on more equal footing, instead of judges having more time pre-festival to play the more complete games.

Now that we’ve hit a critical mass of entrants to these festivals (and judging has become incredibly difficult due to the number of games and naturally limited number of volunteer judges), increasing the constraints on entrants will help judges give better feedback on games that do make the cut. Meanwhile in-progress games still get a venue to be highlighted to support their creators.

Ultimately the definition of in-progress will be up to the judges to decide. As a creator, you know you can shorten your work, leave out levels, anything that will make the it a cohesive, closed, experience. There are certainly still problems with that (if you get cut out for being unfinished, and think another game has gotten in with a similar level of completeness, who do you complain to? The internet-at-large?), but hopefully the separation helps better promote categories of games. Festivals will be able to more fully realize their ability to support worthwhile independent games.

All this makes me look forward to Indiecade – the size and focus of the festival last year was just right, including finished games and work in progress, dealing with it effectively – but that’s probably in part due to what I’ll guess is a lower number of entrants (closer to the IGF of years gone past). It also included previews of new work by established indie developers – if the previews were granted to entrants based on the judging process, that would be another great way of highlighting in progress work. I don’t know that it yet has the press draw of something like IGF, but hopefully will grow year on year. I encourage you to check it out!

5 Responses to GDC & SXSWI: Thoughts on Indie Game Festivals

  • Personally, I found the whole IGF awards event rather disturbing. I appreciate the goal is to get the word out on indie titles, but it appears to me like all it does is serve as a press machine for some very well established players or as a means to create a cult of celebrity for specific designers.

    It feels to me that the whole thing has become so successful that it is more a parody of itself with the presenters reading hollywood style from a teleprompter in front of a huge telivised audience. What exactly is indie about that?

    It also feels to me like the whole thing is about the popularity of the creators and not about the games themselves, although of course nobody wants to say that. I’m just not that impressed with the number of “unique” games that are unique in such a way as to be fairly similar. Its almost like alternative lifestyle choice where the alternative is exactly the same as everyone else.

    But I suppose it serves its purpose enough and I really don’t have any alternative, so maybe I should just keep quiet.

  • Borut says:

    I didn’t go to the award ceremony itself, but I heard the same thing from a number of people.

    There’s inevitably going to be in-crowd for these kinds of things, but I do think the large number of entries skews judges’ perception to favor known folks. i f you have to play a ton of games in a short amount of free time to judge them, and if all the games are decent, you’ll probably prefer someone you know of.

    I totally agree on the uniqueness (or lack thereof) of the spectrum of games. I always think of the South Park episode where all the goths are trying so hard to not conform by all wearing the same thing. :)

    Ideally the festivals are meant to separate the more unique games out – I guess with film festivals usually a successful person moves on to do more established work, but the economic situation with even the successful indie game makers is that they can just barely keep making their games. Hopefully that’ll naturally change over time as the market grows.

  • Simon CARLESS says:

    FWIW, I don’t think ‘known’ creators are honored particularly. We have over 160 judges in the IGF and the majority of them are not even in the indie ‘in crowd’.

    If you look at some of the finalists and winners this year – games like Star Guard and Limbo – they aren’t really made by the usual suspects. (And often, people are known in the indie scene just because they make good titles reliably!)

    I disagree with a number of other points in here, of course – I don’t think a hard line on ‘finished’ vs. ‘unfinished’ is every going to work, for one. But I appreciate the thoughts about it.

  • Borut says:

    Wow, that is a damn lot of judges, fair enough – I was just kind of half-assed theorizing there.

    On my point about the unfinished vs. finished tho – I realize there’s no way to really concretely define it, I just meant to delineate them *more*. For a small number of judges, it’s not a problem, because everybody can more easily get on the same page about what doesn’t make the cut in terms of a definition of completeness, but with 160 judges that seems like a pretty tough communication challenge – more stringent rules seem like the clearest way to avoid the natural haphazardness of it.

  • Borut says:

    Also, something that was probably lost in my ramblings was that I was trying to point out the benefit of seeing work that was *more* in progress (than even the rules of the IGF as it stands allows, or other festivals). Considering the 2-3 year pre-release press time on Braid, as a big indie success, worthwhile games still need a lot of encouragement as far as festival press goes.