Saturday, February 22, 2014

A first-time IGF judge with IGF submission advice... and why the IGF doesn't matter?

This was my first year being an Independent Game Festival judge. As an IGF entrant in the past, I found myself confused and frustrated with the judging process. I've realized that a lot of the frustration came from not knowing how the process worked.

(If you're still frustrated with the IGF, though, that's fine. Say so! That's how it gets better.)

For the IGF, the judges are the standard front-line infantry / web-crawling search spiders. We are looking around this giant database of hundreds of games, trying to make sure popular games get critiqued and unknown games get attention, etc. If games seem interesting, we usually start a discussion about that game. Why is it interesting, what does it do, etc. During this time, judges often disagree about which games deserve the limited slots for recognition.

Judges also submit recommendations that only jury members see. The jury (a panel of super-judges with special expertise or experience) for each award sorts through everything and figures out what to give what in the end. As judges, we do not see jury deliberations. (EDIT: Apparently the IGF student competition, unfortunately, does NOT have juries, which is probably bad.)

Also, note that this judging process depends on volunteer labor. All these people are volunteering their time to play a lot of games that may or may not work, that may or may not be fun. The average judge, I think, plays and rates at least 25 games, ideally more. That's easily more than 10 hours of downloading, playing, reading, and writing. (There are also some super judges who play a hundred entries, and Tim W. usually plays like everything. Wow.)

So, a lot of this "advice", I think, now strikes me as common sense -- basically, help judges play your game so we can talk about it! -- but a lot of games weren't doing these things, and I certainly didn't do all these things before, so maybe it's not that obvious.

(DISCLAIMER: some judges might disagree with me on these points, this is not the opinion of the IGF, etc. this is my personal opinion.)
  • Don't write a long text description for your entry. It makes you look insecure about your work and no one's going to read the text anyway; we have to play 20 more entries after yours! Just write a short sentence or two about the premise or what's interesting about it, and then mention anything really important for testing. Your work (with a bit of context) will do much of the initial speaking for you. If you want us to read or notice something, just put it in your game.
  • Deploy to as many platforms as possible. Judges can only play games for which they have the hardware; if you deploy ONLY to Android 6.0, for example, that means only a small subset of the possible judges will be able to play your game. If you're using Unity, you have no excuse -- easy multiplatform deployment is probably the main reason for using Unity! Ideally, you would deploy to both Windows and OSX, at the very least, or maybe via browser.
  • Add basic keyboard and/or mouse support. Not everyone carries Kinects or X360 controllers with them everywhere they go. If your game can cope with slightly less optimal controls, then let that be an option! It's okay, we're human -- if we see the game is interesting but doesn't quite work on a keyboard, we'll probably chalk it up to the keyboard and recommend someone else give it a try too. But now, at least, you have an advocate on your behalf saying, "hey this is worth trying without a keyboard, can someone do that."
  • Test your game and make sure it works. Most judges will assume good faith and contact you if the game build doesn't work, but after some point, we just give up. Test on a mid-range Windows machine and a mid-range OSX machine, borrow friends' machines, etc. You don't need to start a QA lab, but just do some basic checks. (You might be tempted to take advantage of the judge's good faith, as an entrant... and let me tell you, it never pays off. Don't do it.)
  • Be interesting within the first 15 minutes. I think some judges would argue, "be interesting within the first 2 minutes"... I have a bit more patience than that. I generally tried really hard to give each game at least 20-30 minutes. (If you're upset that we don't spend at least 2 hours on each game... honestly, how much time do you think we have? I have to spend most of my time on things that might pay my rent. Sorry.)
  • Sometimes that's life. Judges disagree, games crash inexplicably, some gems fall through the cracks, or maybe the winds just weren't in your favor. There are many reasons why you didn't get into the IGF that don't involve your sense of self-worth nor a vast conspiracy. It just means your game didn't get picked this time for whatever reason. Keep working on your stuff and keep making games.

Again, I think a lot of this is common sense, stemming from how the IGF works: it is powered by the good grace and faith of a lot of people, of players and developers. But you don't necessarily need the IGF to celebrate that.

The IGF used to be one of the most important things ever, the Academy Awards or Sundance of games? But it was always a bit of a strange idea, that indie developers would fight to decentralize power and then put all this prestige into this central institution?

So I think the truth is more that the average person doesn't give a shit about the Academy Awards or Sundance. It's clear that winning the IGF doesn't get you millions of dollars. Instead, it just gets you a Steam deal (which is slowly getting less exclusive and rare), some prize money, a GDC pass, and quite a bit of attention. But the IGF isn't even the best way of getting attention anymore. Here's Mike Bithell talking about the effect of Let's Play videos on sales, about a year ago:
"I'll close with an example from Thomas Was Alone's sale history. The game launched in July on direct sales, and in November on Steam. The following Christmas I ran a 50 per cent off sale, which was doing rather well.

And then, on January 1st, Total Biscuit did a WTF video about the game. Thomas sold eight times more units than on launch day. In a matter of hours. I was outselling Assassin's Creed 3 on Steam."
So when people say "indie" doesn't mean anything, I disagree. I think it means more diversity and decentralization of power. It means learning new names. It means giant monoliths of culture get dwarfed by vast cities. It means a YouTube video is worth more than Christmas.

The IGF is still kind of important, but so are millions of other things! There are more venues for attention and community than ever before, and a lot of that starts with you. Support your local game scene: do meetups, do local festivals, hangout with people and foster your independent scene. Make games. Start a Twitch or YouTube stream. Start a Tumblr of funny game GIFs. Start a blog and write game reviews and games criticism.

Or maybe even start your own independent game festival. Let me know if you need any judges.