Festival of the lost
Indie games have changed a lot. Should the IGF now do the same?
When the annual Independent Games Festival was founded in 1998, indie games felt like gaming’s ugly stepchild. They were often literally ugly, for starters, and usually pale imitations of what the mainstream industry was doing or had already done. No one was buying them, no one was selling them. The idea of an indie-game millionaire would have seemed laughable, let alone a billionaire.
The IGF awards, held each year as part of the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, have been part of moving the form from the fringes to the very centre of the industry, by helping unknown games find funding and secure access to digital distribution platforms on console and PC. Now, in an age where Steam Greenlight and Kickstarter exist, and where Sony and Microsoft knock on the door of indie devs rather than the other way around, the awards feel less relevant than they once were.
Yet they seem to have only been rendered less interesting in recent years thanks to rule changes. Games are selected in their categories via a two-tier process, in which a broad selection of judges looks at every game submitted and makes recommendations, which a team of hand-selected jurors then review before picking the winners. Where previously games could be nominated for the IGF multiple times across different years, now being nominated excludes a game from ever being entered again. This discourages developers from submitting in-progress work, when the finished project has the best chance to not only be nominated, but to win.
The result is a process that regularly selects games that have, in many senses, already won. This was demonstrated most clearly by Minecraft’s selection – it won the coveted Seamus McNally Grand Prize, and the publicly voted Audience Award, in 2011 – which caused a lot of debate among judges. “There was a strong and vocal undercurrent of voices that believed it shouldn’t even be eligible for the IGF because it had already been massively successful,” says Chris Delay, whose Darwinia won the Grand Prize in 2006. “These judges believed the IGF’s primary purpose was to shine a light on new indie gems that had yet to see major press or public attention, and that this and the $20,000 prize would be wasted on Minecraft.”
Minecraft isn’t the only instance of an already successful game being selected by the IGF. In recent years the Grand Prize has primarily been given to games that were already released or at least hotly anticipated at the time they won, including Her Story, Papers, Please, Monaco, and Fez. One of the benefits of any award is its ability to lavish praise upon, and direct attention towards, work that might not have otherwise received it, and in doing so encourage the creation of still more work that’s inventive beyond the strict demands of commercialism. In this regard, the IGF fails frequently.
“Personally, I think it’s important that games are not judged solely on the basis of commercial success or popularity,” says Paul Taylor, co-creator of turn-based strategy game and 2012 Audience Award winner Frozen Synapse. “It’s equally important that the lineup isn’t dominated by obscure titles that have very few players. Really, the only ‘moral imperative’ of the IGF is to be continually interesting. Diversity and surprise are an integral part of being interesting, so they should be at the forefront.”
This year’s IGF judging chatter has homed in on games that have been out for months, such as Inside and Hyper
Light Drifter. Can a game of lower profile still break through? There’s one outlier from recent years of the award: Outer
Wilds. Taking place on a planet in its last 20 minutes before being consumed by a nearby sun-going supernova, the game existed publicly only as a prototype and was far from well known when it won the McNally prize in 2015. It’s a sign that the awards still have at least some ability to surprise even in the main category.
Delay and Taylor both agree that the IGF is still important for giving games such as Outer Wilds visibility. “Indies struggle most with visibility, and that issue is getting more challenging,” Taylor says. “In the context of massively increasing numbers of releases every year, any way to stand out is good. An IGF nomination or award can help draw attention to your game.”
“Just releasing on a platform isn’t any guarantee of making a living off it,” says
Michael Brough. As the maker of critically acclaimed but commercially ignored puzzle and strategy games, such as the IGF-nominated 868-Hack and
Corrypt, he would know. “It’s not getting any easier to get noticed, and IGF is still something people pay attention to.”
It’s clear that the IGF still has a role to play. But as indie games continue their march towards the mainstream, the industry could benefit from an IGF that spends more time with its fingers reaching farther outward towards the fringes.
“Diversity and surprise are an integral part of being interesting, so they should be at the forefront”
FROM TOP Chris Delay, lead designer and developer at Introversion Software; Paul Taylor, co-creator of FrozenSynapse