A few years ago, videogame awards shows were almost as irrelevant to the games industry as they were to players. Most considered community feedback and expert reviews to be more in touch with what mattered to gamers than a bunch of meaningless trophies handed out by panels of publicists. While films proudly displayed their nominations and awards on posters and DVD covers, videogame boxes remained bare, resigned to the fact that awards were unlikely to influence a gamer’s purchasing decision. But with major institutions like BAFTA spending more time and effort to give their game awards an increasingly high profile, this may be set to change.
In a break from tradition, industry professionals are beginning to see these awards as useful in furthering their careers. Lucy Bradshaw, General Manager of Maxis and Executive Producer of Technical Achievement award-winner Spore, says their BAFTA brought recognition to the team. “The technology behind Spore was a major achievement in my mind,” Bradshaw says, “and I love it when the team sees that the industry recognizes efforts like this.” EA’s Amir Rahimi, Senior Producer of Boom Blox, picked up the BAFTA for Best Casual Game at this year’s awards. He says that the increasing regard that developers have for these awards is a sign that the videogame industry is really starting to come of age. Media Molecule Co-founder David Smith, who won the Artistic Achievement award for his work on LittleBigPlanet, says the best thing about winning a BAFTA is how well the award is known outside of the games industry. “Our friends and parents all understand what a BAFTA is,” Smith says, “so it instantly has credibility.”
The credibility and prestige of these honors are both key to the increasing role awards are playing in games marketing. The instantly recognizable brand name of an award such as a BAFTA gives a non-gaming audience something they can relate to more easily, and sanctions videogames as worthy cultural and media objects.
Perhaps more important than the prestige these awards shows bestow on a lucky few each year is the sales boost an award can give a product. Can the BAFTAs do for videogame sales what they and other awards shows do for films and music? On a trip through an outlet of U.K. retailer GAME, I found unusual stickers adorning a few boxes proudly announcing which games had been nominated and which had won awards in the 2009 Video Game BAFTAs. Terry Scicluna, COO of GAME, says that acknowledging these awards has created a “real buzz” amongst their customers. They’re not alone: Play.com reported a 14 percent increase in new customer sales following the March 10 ceremony.
However, Media Molecule’s Smith argues that there are plenty of critically acclaimed games that have poor sales, so there currently isn’t a clear connection between awards and sales. Still, he’s optimistic about the eventual effect these awards can have on game revenues. “Our sales figures are pretty healthy and are steadily climbing. Hopefully our marketing push can incorporate these awards to make the game seem more attractive to people who are less familiar with it.”
Rahimi reasons that the positive press coverage that followed Boom Blox‘s BAFTA win couldn’t hurt sales, although the eventual effect of these awards shows may be less tangible. “My guess is that as time goes by, we will build a rich history and legacy with videogame awards, and with that the overall prestige and the influence over fans will increase.”
Ultimately, sales will only increase if these awards shows can begin to match the prestige of the larger shows in the eyes of the mainstream public. Are the BAFTAs at the forefront of those shows looking to establish themselves as the Oscar equivalent for the games industry, or are there any other equally prestigious awards coveted by developers?
“The AIAS and [Game Developers] Choice awards are also very important,” says Bradshaw. And although she is quick to point out that none of these shows has come close to achieving the status of the Oscars, she believes they demonstrate that games are being recognized for the unique entertainment experience they bring their audience.
Smith is more skeptical of the whole endeavor. “I think there’s a sort of land grab for game awards at the moment,” he says. “There are so many that nobody really knows which ones are credible, and I think that all the awards ceremonies are keenly aware of this.” On the upside, he adds, there are signs that the awards are maturing: “There was a time when most awards were voted on by PR and marketing people. Now there’s a much stronger emphasis on voting by game developers themselves. You see the quality of the shortlists for many of the awards these days and it feels like the awards are a more accurate reflection of the innovation and quality in the games industry. The days of high-visibility, low-quality film tie-ins filling the shortlists are hopefully long past.”
There are certainly signs of these changing attitudes in this year’s BAFTA winner’s list; most winners have had substantial commercial success over the past year, but they have also received good reviews from the games press and positive feedback from the gaming community. The nominees and winners also represent a healthy and varied spectrum of games, with titles such as Boom Blox and LittleBigPlanet sharing the limelight with blockbusters like Super Mario Galaxy and Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.
Clearly awards shows have changed their standards to better recognize the games consumers and developers consider worthy of respect. But will there soon be the expectation that a good game must necessarily win awards to prove its worth?
“Good games definitely get recognized,” Bradshaw says. “I would not say that there is an expectation of recognition by awards, but I can definitely say that when you do get noticed, it feels good. The teams who have put their blood, sweat and tears into making a game really do get pumped up when the game wins an award.”
“I think it’s as true to say that good games are expected to win awards as it is to say that good movies are expected to win awards,” says Smith. “There’s always some degree of ‘unfairness’ depending on who you ask. There are many different definitions of ‘good,’ so there will always be outrage from some quarters. But I think in general games awards aren’t too far away from films when it comes to fairness.”
Rahimi believes that “the next big change in goalposts will come when most of the games nominated will not only need to have great gameplay, but will also move people emotionally in the same way that great films, novels and paintings do now.” Only after games are able to tell stories that are “as compelling, insightful and influential as any film, TV show, painting, album or novel,” he says, will these awards have the prestige of those of other media.
Media coverage for the Video Game BAFTAs is still substantially more limited than for the Film and Television branches of the award, in spite of the fact that game industry revenue far surpasses that of the other media industries. Despite the lack of A-list celebrities and the accompanying glitz and glamour, Smith thinks the game awards “are definitely being seen as more important. The ceremonies are bigger-budget affairs with lots of celebs, which perhaps reflects the huge amount of money that’s now in the games industry. Perhaps the current trend of imitating film awards will transition to a format that is less celebrity-focused and more game-focused.”
But Bradshaw believes that games will borrow some of the flashiness of their glamorous Hollywood partners. “There’s always been interest in games from the visionaries in Hollywood,” Bradshaw points out. “George Lucas created his own games company in LucasArts. Steven Spielberg has worked with Electronic Arts. There are plenty of examples of collaboration between the games industry and film.”
The lack of credible, well-known and well-respected awards was one of the last major obstacles that the games industry faced in being accepted as a major player in the media and cultural spheres. Now games seem ready to take themselves seriously and start playing in the big leagues. The fact that the awarding institutions are also willing to welcome games into the fold shows that it is only a matter of time before game awards are as assiduously coveted and proudly displayed as their film and television counterparts. And once gamers begin to take awards into consideration in their purchasing decisions, the games industry will never look back.
Alice Atkinson-Bonasio writes for games™ and 360 magazines. She was research assistant for the recently published book Playing With Videogames and is involved in the groundbreaking film project The 10 Pound Horror Film.