Opinion// What is Wrong with Video Game Awards

Why Magnetic Billiards: Blueprint for iOS has no chance of winning a BAFTA

Posted 21 Nov 2011 17:44 by
People:
I was genuinely delighted to read last week that little iOS word game Quarrel, by Denki, won a Scottish BAFTA award for Best Game.

Delighted, but also a bit surprised.

Quarrel is a brilliant, original video game by a British indie developer that specialises in inventing new games (you've all played Denki Blocks, right?), and one which has had a difficult route to market, as genuinely original video games often do.

It started life as an XBLA title that was almost canned after being passed on by publishers. This eventually forced Denki to self-fund and publish the game themselves, before going on to earn almost universal critical acclaim upon release.

In other words, it's precisely the sort of game that I think should be winning awards. So, well done to BAFTA Scotland for this recognition of talent, excellence and an inspiring story of perseverance in the face hostility to originality, typical of mainstream video game publishing.

I was surprised at the award because BAFTA video game awards aren't usually given to low budget original games with fresh ideas.

As half of an indie team that specialises in low budget original games with fresh ideas, and who've also released a game this year that started life as an XBLA title that was almost canned after being passed on by publishers, eventually forcing us to self-fund and publish the game ourselves, before going on to earn almost universal critical acclaim upon release (that's Magnetic Billiards: Blueprint for iOS, by the way), perhaps we could hope for BAFTA recognition also?

Well, probably not...

BAFTA’s Big Budget Bias
Perhaps it's different in Scotland, but from observing the video game BAFTAs south of the border for a few years, I've learned that they go almost exclusively to hit games from big publishers. Usually to very good games, sure, but still almost exclusively to games with big budgets and big sales.

This always struck me as strange. In the world of films, summer blockbusters rarely win the top awards. Big budget, top grossing action movies tend to win technical awards (best sound design, best special effects, etc).

However, the prestigious 'Best Director' or 'Best Actor' gong winners tend to come from films aimed at more niche audiences, recognising that the kind of compromises needed to make a massive commercial hit often mean playing it safe in terms of performances, direction, script writing and so on. Making money and pursuing excellence rarely go hand in hand in the film world.

A smart, low key movie like The King's Speech is always more likely to get the plum acting and directing awards, whereas a big, daft, flashy movie like Transformers 3 might pick up some technical awards.

In video game awards, the equivalents to Transformers 3 win everything.

It's not that we don't have video game equivalents to The King's Speech. Just like in movies some of the most interesting work is done in small, niche, low budget titles, but these rarely get a look in at the video game BAFTAs.

The awards appear to be set up to help market successful AAA games, rather than to highlight excellence per se. Award categories are heavily weighted in favour of expensive, lavishly produced games rather than spotlighting great work and talented individuals across the broader spectrum of video game development.

Increasingly these days the truly innovative and interesting work is happening in the indie scene and in lower budget titles, as the mainstream console industry focuses more and more on safe sequels and glossy updates, but the awards, as they stand, don't recognise this.

What is BAFTA For?
BAFTA’s mission statement is a little vague. It covers film and TV as well as video games (not always a perfect match), but this is what BAFTA does:

"...supports, develops and promotes the art forms of the moving image, by identifying and rewarding excellence, inspiring practitioners and benefiting the public."

"...we focus attention on the highest achievements of films, video games and television programmes shown in the UK each year in order to motivate and inspire those who make them, and to educate and develop the taste of those who watch them."

That all sounds pretty good to me, and BAFTA’s film and TV awards seem to support those aims as far as I can tell. With video games though, is BAFTA really saying that excellent and inspiring work only occurs in big budget console games, or that the tastes of the public can only be developed by promoting the already successful best sellers?

The last few years' winners’ lists are completely dominated by games from the likes of EA, Sony, Microsoft, Activision and Nintendo; the console manufacturers and the big console publishers. These are people who make all the best-selling, biggest budget games, but are they really the only people who produce excellent and inspiring work?

Perhaps the talented and creative indies are overlooked because they don't bother submitting their games?

For those of you that don't know how it works, BAFTA judges aren't tasked with seeking out interesting video games to bestow awards upon.

Games have to be submitted to BAFTA by the developer or publisher, for a fee of around £475 (which includes a £225 registration fee if it's your first time).
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