Draft-but-published: BAFTA! Tough Love

by danhon

This is an unfinished draft post (if The Triforce can do it, then I can too) in response to the news that BAFTA are tweaking their videogames awards.

Because this is an unfinished draft, it’s slightly more poorly researched than normal and lacking in links. Many paragraphs probably just trail off or contain placeholders.

The file has a last-edited date of 31 October 2007.

BAFTA! Tough Love

Disclaimer: I’m a video games member of BAFTA and have previously served on the jury for Technical Innovation last year; my company Six to Start is currently working with Matt Locke and Alice Taylor at Channel 4 Education for a major project to launch during 2008.

Last Tuesday, I was at the British Academy Video Games awards, one of the highlight events of the London Games Festival and the second held by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. Over the last few years, I’ve gotten more and more involved in the games industry and now appear to be completely unable to escape its addictive grasp after my work at Mind Candy on Perplex City, and now at Six to Start.

Now, I love video games. Different kinds, too. I love beat ‘em ups, I love first person shooters, and, like most right-thinking people, I love the newly minted genre of black-comedy-first-person-puzzle-shooters. I love racing sims, I love real-time strategy games, I love rolling around collecting ever-increasing balls of stuff and making things that are mostly plants. I love pointing and clicking (though I miss some of that) and I love wiggling and waving, I love suturing and excising and I love grinding and levelling. I am, for all intents and purposes, a ‘gamer’, and I’m incredibly proud of the industry that I work in.

I also love BAFTA, but I say this as someone who hasn’t really been a part of the institution and isn’t privy to the politics or, even, its history in any appreciable depth. But my overwhelming impression of BAFTA as an outside is one of pride – to me, it’s one of those august British institutions that seeks to recognise and reward excellence in the art of the moving image, and I feel honoured to be a part of it.

It’s with tough love, then, that I feel I have to say something about this year’s British Academy Video Games Awards. It started with this year’s nominations, which were announced on 25 September. I remember running down the nomination shortlist at the pub with James and Tom, my co-conspirators in organising the London Gamer Geeks Quiz, and there were quite a few points that jumped out:

  • The Action and Adventure category was notable in that two of its shortlisted games, Orange Box and Ratchet and Clank: Tools of Destruction, both for the PS3 had not yet been released. More than that, though, Halo 3 didn’t appear to be shortlisted, either. It’s also unclear whether Orange Box counts as one title or three: is Half Life 2: Episode Two a title in its own right, or was the jury evaluating the trifecta of Half Life 2: Episode Two, Portal <strong>and</strong> Team Fortress 2?
  • In Artistic Achievement, again, we’ve got the as-yet unreleased Rachet and Clank for the PS3.
  • In Best Game (which also is hard to distinguish from “Best Gameplay”), we’ve got both Crysis on the PC and Kane & Lynch: Dead Men for the Xbox 360, neither of which have been released and the former of which appears to be ready for public consumption in demo only. It’s further unclear why Kane & Lynch: Dead Men would be listed for Best Game, but wouldn’t be listed for Action and Adventure given that it’s, well, an Action and Adventure game. Hang on, so’s Crysis. And Bioshock’s quite adventure-y, too. What’s going on there?
  • In Casual (also apparently, and deservedly so this year, in my opinion, the Nintendo Cleans Up category), we have Singstar for PS3, which is similarly unfinished.
  • In Gameplay (again, how does this differ from Best Game? I’m not asking to be difficult, more for illumination), we’ve got Crackdown, Gears of War, Sega Rally, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, Warhawk and Wii Sports. __ problem here about what Gameplay is about __
  • In Innovation, we had Flow, Okami, Super Paper Mario, The Eye of Judgment, Trauma Centre: Second Opinion and Wii Sports.
  • In Multiplayer, we’ve got Battlefield 2142, Crackdown, Guitar Hero II, Wii Sports, World in Conflict and World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade. Again, it’s unclear here what the remit of the category of ‘multiplayer’ covered. We’ve got an MMORPG expansion  (World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade, which if we’re stretching the film and movie metaphor could be described as a ‘short film set in the World of Warcraft universe’), casual games that can be played with other people in your living room (Wii Sports, Guitar Hero II), ?????
  • Original Score is a welcome new category to ensure that we don’t have to go through the embarrassment of a franchise like Guitar Hero winning “best soundtrack”. Instead, this year we’ve got Original Score and Use of Audio.
  • In Sports, we have Football Manager 2008, Colin McRAE: DIRT, FIFA 08, Motorstorm, Virtua Tennis 3 and Wii Sports.
  • In Strategy and Simulation, Command & Conquer: Tiberium Wars, Forza Motorsport 2, Medieval II: Total War Kingdoms, Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Vegas, Wii Sports and World in Conflict.
  • In Story and Character, Final Fantasy XII, God of War 2, Heavenly Sword, Okami, The Darkness and The Simpsons Game. Again, I was worried here at the inclusion of The Simpsons Game. Not to denigrate the work of EA, but I feel that having a licensed property where the story and character are as strong as in the Simpsons franchise compete against other (more) original stories and characters such as Okami, isn’t necessarily fair. Now, this isn’t to say that a licensed property couldn’t or shouldn’t win in a category like Story and Character: this would be like saying that there’s no room for a film like Lord of the Rings: Return of the King to win in a film category such as Best Film, Best Screenplay or Best Actor.
  • In Technical Achivement, we have Crackdown, Gears of War, God of War 2, Motorstorm, Okami and Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. I would argue here that Technical Achievement is perhaps one of the worst categories in which to admit unfinished games: Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune may well be an impressive technical achievement when it’s released and hits GM, but until then, considering it as a candidate for technical achievement works as much against it (its pre-release code may well have been stuffed full of debugging symbols and working much more slowly than release code) as for it (who are we to know if Uncharted was judged purely as a pre-rendered technology demo, a la Killzone 3?).
  • In Use of Audio, we have Crackdown, Elite Beat Agents, Gears of War, God of War 2, Guitar Hero II and Skate.
  • BAFTA’s One To Watch Award in association with Dare to be Digital was perhaps, along with the fellowship award, was probably this year’s saving grace. The sheer achievement of the student teams inside of ten weeks

Going through the nomination list reveals two main problems: they include games that demonstrably aren’t finished yet, and they also possibly reveal some sort of confusion as to what the categories are and why some games were included in some categories over others.

I’ll cover unfinished games first. The whole issue of including unfinished games in the nominations list is puzzling: films are only eligible for the main BAFTAs if they’ve received a theatrical release during the release year, and must have been available to the public for seven days.

Now, last year, I received advanced screeners of films that had not yet been released in the UK, but would have been released in time to be eligible. There was even the interesting case of going to see a screening of _Kevin costner movie_ which turned into somewhat of a farce as a BAFTA representative announced that while the film had been planned for release such that it would be eligible, its release date had been bumped, with the result that the film turned out not to be eligible. About a third of the audience left at that point.

So far, so British Academy Video Game awards. But the thing is, none of the movie screeners I received were unfinished. None of the screenings I went to had temp tracks, or needed more editing, or had rough CGI in place of the final version. They were all done. Finished. Final article.

What I find hard to take seriously is a set of industry awards that seek to reward excellence, but judge said excellence on unfinished work and, further, judge finished works against unfinished works. It’s just not fair: I’d bet that a movie studio such as Pixar would rather cut off its own cutely rendered feet rather than submit unfinished work to an industry award. Now, I don’t know why Halo 3 wasn’t included in any nominations – rumours are that Microsoft weren’t happy to give off-site access to the Academy for unfinished code – but from my perspective as the head of a games studio, if I were submitting for an award that was going to be judged by my peers, I’d want it to be for my best work, not unfinished work. And I’d consider it unfair for unfinished work to be judged against finished work.

Now on to the categories.

I’ve grouped them here because that might be helpful in terms of thinking about the sorts of categories we’ve got.

Genre awards
Casual
Action and Adventure
Multiplayer
Sports
Strategy and Simulation

I can see the pull of the genre awards: [...]

Production awards
Gameplay
Artistic Achievement
Innovation
Original Score
Story and Character
Technical Achivement
Use of Audio

The interesting thing about gaming and production-based awards are that, unlike films, television and music, games can be as much about the hardware as the software, and this is an area in which I think the Academy needs to be careful and precise about what excellence it’s awarding. It’s important, for example, that if a game like Wii Sports wins the Innovation award that everyone who needs to understands that the award is about gameplay innovation, rather than, say, hardware innovation or in the case of the Wii, controller hardware innovation. Then again, it may well be that the innovation award covers not gameplay, but innovation in the industry, in which case Wii Sports is merely the conduit through which most people will now agree Nintendo has used to radically transform console based gaming.

Now, if we take the film and television analogy further – and given the history of BAFTA, I think that’s a perfectly fine tactic to take – there’s a point to be made about comparing the production-based awards in video games with their non-interactive, linear media cousins. With film and television awards, we frequently see awards that single out individual achievements. We’re familiar with awards such as Best Actor, Actress and Director, but even with what appears to be on the surface an easy equivalency such as Director to Lead Game Designer, we don’t see the latter being recognised and achievements awarded. If we want video games to be a recognisable part of culture, perhaps it’s time that we recognise the individual achievements of members in the industry so that they get the public recognition that they deserve? This isn’t a question that I particularly have an answer to, but it’s one that the game industry may well want to address in terms of its relationship with the public and media. This isn’t to say that games don’t require teams to be made, but more often than not there can be seen the influence of one person in guiding a project in, for example, the same way that Spielberg directs a film that can’t be made without a huge team backing him up, either.

We’re already seeing a move toward this with the Fellowship award that went to Will Wright this year. It’s deservedly so, and shows that BAFTA is in some ways serious about its relationship with gaming, and I’m sure that the nomination of Will to the fellowship has no detractors whatsoever. But if BAFTA’s going to be looking for more and more members to elevate to its fellowship over the coming years, particular in video games, how is it going to identify that individual talent if not through knowing who’s worked on particular games?

‘Gameplay’ is hard. Artistic Achivement, though, is easy. Innovation, as above, is hard. Original score is easy, and Story and Character, unfortunately, right now is pretty easy too, but I’d argue that there’s a case to be made down the line for the category to be split in two.

With Technical Achievement, it needs to be made clear that [...]

Headline
Best Game
BAFTA’s Ones To Watch
PC World Gamers Award
Fellowship

Media presentation

I understand that the British Academy Video Games awards are young – only two years, this year – and for that reason I’m prepared to cut BAFTA a whole bunch of slack I wouldn’t otherwise. I also recognise that the genre of video gaming is young as well – well, relatively speaking. But if we’ve got an industry that’s striving to be taken seriously and at the same time suffers from a media problem, I would have thought that perhaps we could collectively get at least our own awards sorted out.

Five suggestions for the British Academy Video Games Awards:

*No more unfinished games eligible for entry*

If it’s out, it’s eligible. If it’s not, it’s not. If games are to be taken seriously, then we should treat their awards seriously.

*Work out who your awards are for*

Are they for the industry? If so, then get serious about opening the Academy up for video games members. All BAFTA members may elect to be involved in voting for the main BAFTAs, and I find this somewhat puzzling – I know nothing about television or film other than being a consumer of such media, and yet I’m allowed to vote in the awards. Let the people who actually make the games and have a track record of making them vote for excellence.

I’ve got no problem with visible, smaller juries making the final voting decision on a shortlist, but at least open up the nominee list to video games members.

*Think long and hard about your categories*
Last year, we had the frankly humiliating situation of having the following happen:

* Guitar Hero winning the category for Best Soundtrack when, really, it should’ve been winning the category for Best Selection of Quite Arguably Very Good In Its Own Right Licensed Music.

This year, the categories are different, and I’m pleased that more thought appears to have gone into them. The problem is, though – and I’m not blaming BAFTA here, more making an observation that this is a Hard Problem – that games are difficult because they cross categories much more than, say, film or television.

That said, the categories need a little more work, but once they’re done, they need to be done, and no more fiddling.

* If your awards are entertainment for the public, then come straight out as having them as entertainment for the public. Let the public vote for them. Keep C-list celebrities doing unbelievably patronising puff-pieces of VT extolling their (undoubtedly scripted) views on story, character and __. __ from So Solid Crew telling me about realism in driving simulators? Give me a break. Jeremy Clarkson would be better.

* Don’t televise the awards until you’re ready.

I find this puzzling given that, even when BAFTA allows films that haven’t received a theatrical release (they must have been released for at least 7 days) to be eligible for a Film award, [...]