Fes­ti­val of the lost

In­die games have changed a lot. Should the IGF now do the same?

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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

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