Opinion// What is Wrong with Video Game Awards

Does BAFTA Not Get It?

Posted 21 Nov 2011 17:44 by
Smaller, lower budget games that may contain some fantastic new game mechanic, or wonderful bit of game design, or brilliant art, or ingenious level design, or clever new physics technique, are unlikely to also excel in all other areas of game production as well. Only the big budget games can offer a whole package, even if it's merely above-average work in each skill category.

Awards based on whole games are always going to be biased towards big budget games that do lots of things fairly well, at the expense of cool little games with a single brilliant idea that deserves recognition.

Notch up two points to a big-budget bias.

There are four awards that aim to recognise distinct skills (Design, Original Music, Performer, Story), but this small group of awards is most notable for the skills that aren’t recognised.

While the definition of the Design award is great, and appears to recognise good game design - which is a central and unique feature of video games - it strikes me as odd that the other three 'skill' awards are for skills that are also central to film and TV, but on the periphery of video game development.

The heart of any video game development team is the programmers, the artists, and the content creators. These guys do most of the work and put in most of the hours, yet there's no award specifically recognising great examples of work by any of these guys.

Does BAFTA as an organisation not 'get' what these people do, because they don't have familiar roles in film production? Having an award for best mo-cap / voice performer, story writer or composer (all roles that might be taken up by somebody who works in film or TV as well), but no award for best level designer, 3D modeller or programmer seems like a big oversight to me.

There are, however, three grand achievement awards (Artistic Achievement, Audio Achievement, Game Innovation).

(A quick note on the Game Innovation award: For an industry based so squarely around new technology, it's odd that there isn't a specific technology award. Game Innovation is closest: "For the best innovation in gameplay and/or technology." As this is the only award definition to mention technology at all, it's pretty much guaranteed to be won by a big technical achievement, as gameplay is covered by other awards. This should really be considered the Technical Achievement award.)

Perhaps these three 'Achievement' awards are there to recognise the others guys, the programmers and artists? Well, to a certain extent, but the value of these awards is compromised by the word 'achievement', which, unlike the four skill awards (each of which could go to a talented person, or individual piece of great work), means that these awards are defined in such a way as to celebrate the work of big teams, rather than individual examples of excellent work.

Massive, high budget AAA games with millions of dollars spent on armies of programmers, artists and musicians, building enormous worlds with endless orchestral soundtracks, or realistic towns full of virtual people with believable faces and speech patterns, are always going to win ‘achievement’ awards due to the wide scope and ambition of those projects.

They will win not because all the programmers, artists and musicians did the best work, but because the sum of the work of all those staff in one single, massive game - even if they each only worked to an average standard - will always represent a more impressive achievement than an absolutely wonderful bit of art or design or programming or audio in a lower budget, less ambitious game.

Essentially these achievement awards are for how much money has been thrown at a project, not necessarily how great the work is.

Notch up three points to a big-budget bias.

One new award category this year caught my eye: Debut Game. I have no idea what the purpose of this award is. The definition says it’s for the best game which happens to be the first release by a development studio. Development studios open and close all the time.

We hear of a major development studio closing down or laying off staff about once a month at the moment, and in almost every case one or two new studios will be formed by some of the experienced developers who have been canned.

So, a game by one of the dozens of new studios formed by grizzled 20+ year industry veterans is eligible for the Debut Game award? What's the point of that? By all means offer awards to new talent, but an award for a new studio is meaningless.

There we go. Other than the DESIGN award, that just leaves one other award category - BEST GAME - that I don't think there's any problem with. But of course, BEST GAME is always going to be won by a big budget AAA title (and maybe that's just fine).

Solutions, solutions
From the off-putting entry fees, to the categories designed only to suit the publishers of safe genre products and sequels, to the bias towards big budgets in so many of the award definitions, everything about the video game BAFTAs seems designed not to recognise talented game developers. Nor does it to seek out and reward great examples of creativity and excellence wherever they occur, but to support the marketing of big budget AAA console games.

I think this is a failure of BAFTA to meet their stated aims.

What could be done to improve the BAFTA video game awards? A radical rethink of the award categories is required, at the least.

• Ditch the old-fashioned genre and platform based awards.
• Formulate new award categories that reflect the skills and talents of game developers - game design, programming, use of hardware, cameras, lighting, 3D modelling, animation, graphics, level design, scripting, play control, game mechanics, UI design, sound design, game structure - and look for more ways to recognise specific examples of excellence within games, not 'achievements' which revolve around a massive development spend.
• Improve the submission process so that developers or BAFTA members (or even gamers themselves) can spot and nominate examples of great work for award consideration, rather than requiring the actual developer or publisher to pay to submit their finished games.
• And maybe even give some awards to actual developers, rather than just to games.

Where does this leave our low budget, original, critically acclaimed but non-award-winning iOS title? After a couple of days weighing up the pros and cons of submitting we decided to save our £475 and not bother this year, which is why Magnetic Billiards: Blueprint has no chance of winning a BAFTA.

Ste Pickford is one half of the successful UK development team, The Pickford Brothers. The opinions expressed here are, of course, his own. You can find out more about Ste and his company’s games right here.

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