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JUDGE NOT, LEST… (PART ONE) [Author: BruceR]

Release estimates for SWG range from Fall, 2002 (Gone Gold) to Spring 2003 (CGW). What Koster was showing the journalists is best described as a \’e2\’80\’9cpre-alpha\’e2\’80\’9d build, with alpha and beta still to come. Some would say it is merely a graphics engine.

No problem, you can always play the previous MMOG award-winner, right? Um, well, no: the 2000 award went to Bioware\’e2\’80\’99s Neverwinter Nights, which isn\’e2\’80\’99t out until this winter or maybe next spring. And it\’e2\’80\’99s not just MMOGs. In fact, out of the previous two years\’e2\’80\’99 awards, a third of the games nominated have yet to appear. In many cases, as with SWG, they won awards on extremely early builds of the game in question. If this were the Academy Awards, it would be comparable to giving Oscars to rehearsals.

But so what, right? SWG is cool. It has wookiees. Why not give it an award? Only one problem many other games that ARE ready, and will be released before the next E3, never got a chance. Even next year, when SWG may be ready, it will be eligible to win again — and likely will. But Dark Age of Camelot, Everquest: Shadows of Luclin, Anarchy Online and World War Two Online will be in players\’e2\’80\’99 hands. They may be good, they may be bad: but they never got a chance at what is perhaps the most prominent award in the computer game industry.

Founded in 1997, the Game Critics Awards advertise themselves as the \’e2\’80\’9conly independent\’e2\’80\’9d awards given out at the computer industry\’e2\’80\’99s largest trade fair. In an industry that has nothing to compare yet to the Academy Awards for movies, a judgment of games by \’e2\’80\’9ceditors from nearly every major online and print magazine and newspaper that covers games\’e2\’80\’9d about what impressed them the most has a lot of weight. Why, there\’e2\’80\’99s even a logo you can download and put on YOUR website (should you happen to be promoting one of the lucky winners) so that you can bask in the prestigious accolades. The award website goes into great detail about the stringent measures taken to ensure the voting is not biased. However, an examination by our writers shows a couple biases that the industry\’e2\’80\’99s leading bauble still needs to rise above.

‘It’s the way the industry works’

Rob Smith is a big man in the game media scene. In addition to being editor of PC Gamer, the largest magazine devoted to computer games, he is a co-organizer of the Game Critics Awards. And he sees nothing wrong with the granting of the laurel to SWG this year.

Star Wars Galaxies was playable enough to be qualified based on our criteria. It’s early, so what? It’s playable, there’s an engine, there’s wandering around looking at monsters, characters, technology. It’s the way the industry works.

But other journalists have different opinions about whether what Koster was showing qualifies as \’e2\’80\’9cplayable.\’e2\’80\’9d Said Tom Chick of QuartertoThree.com: Let me be the first to distance myself from all the praise being heaped on this tech demo. Because that’s all that was showing at E3: a tech demo with the sound of developers in the background making promises. And Geoff Keighley of Gameslice, who actually co-organized the awards with Smith, also seemed to have his doubts, saying in a recent editorial Star Wars Galaxies is really nothing more than a glorified 3D rendering engine at this point.

Smith disagrees that there\’e2\’80\’99s any problem: There has never been an issue with trying to vote for games that were near launch to my knowledge.

But that may not be EXACTLY TRUE. While the editors of PC Gamer and Computer Gaming World were among the judges, the third North American computer game magazine, Computer Games, declined to participate this year on exactly these grounds. Says editor Steve Bauman: We declined to participate because we don’t feel it’s appropriate to judge and give awards to incomplete games, particularly ones that have no demonstrable gameplay or are only controlled by company representatives.

It\’e2\’80\’99s not making some people in the industry happy, either. In a column this week in the Adrenaline Vault, developer Brad Wardell said the palm to Star Wars shows only that game writers are more in bed with corporate PR than was previously thought.

The gaming press essentially picked titles that weren’t really at the show in the sense that mere mortals (aka independent observers) could see them. To see Star Wars: Galaxies you had to go upstairs to the private LucasArts suite. Only VIP press people were allowed. How can such a game be “Best of E3?” If the game is so good, why not put it out on the show floor for everyone to make their own determination?

Wardell isn\’e2\’80\’99t the only one. Game columnist Jessica Mulligan said essentially the same thing in her column for Skotos.net:

As always, the computer gaming press came through with flying colors with their “Best of E3” lists and, as always, they all pretty much picked the same games for the same awards, i.e. those with the best marketing machines, parties and gifts\’e2\’80\’a6

For these and other remarks, Mulligan’s column would be EVISCERATED by angry game writers, who closed ranks in an indignation-filled discussion thread at QuartertoThree. Insulting the integrity of game journalists, or the awards they put out, never makes you friends in this industry.

But even some of the other award organizers are beginning to question what’s going on here. In a fascinating mental excursion in Gameslice, organizer Geoff Keighley astutely identifies the growing perception problem his awards have, then, apparently realizing where his thought process is going, drops the entire question abruptly:

The good journalists in this industry often debate these questions. After all, is Max Payne a better game than Star Wars: Galaxies? One game is shipping in a matter of weeks; the other likely won’t be out for a matter of years. Do you reward completeness E3 or sheer potential? It’s not an easy question to answer\’e2\’80\’a6 Nevertheless, there’s no question that Best of E3 lists serve their purpose\’e2\’80\’a6

Just keep backing away slowly, there, Geoff\’e2\’80\’a6

Industry pressure, or game critic caving?

Part of the problem here is the E3 award rules are SO VAGUE: while they state a game can only be nominated if it\’e2\’80\’99s playable, the judges\’e2\’80\’99 definition of PLAYABLE is\’e2\’80\’a6 somewhat different from most people\’e2\’80\’99s: \’e2\’80\’9ca game in real-time running on its native platform.\’e2\’80\’9d Games can be shown on the show floor, or not\’e2\’80\’a6 games can be in beta, alpha or pre-alpha: it clearly DOESN’T MATTER.

It wasn\’e2\’80\’99t ALWAYS this way. Back in the award\’e2\’80\’99s second year, 1998, 11 computer games won E3 awards, all after showing beta builds. On average, they were released six months after the award ceremony: the exception was Homeworld, which ended up delaying its planned fall, 1998 launch\’e2\’80\’a6 but even it was evaluated on a (very) early beta. But for the last three years, as game companies have taken more and more interest in an \’e2\’80\’9cindependent\’e2\’80\’9d award they can gloat over, the judges have awarded their prizes to games much earlier in production. Two other winners from 1999, Freelancer and Team Fortress 2, still haven\’e2\’80\’99t appeared, 26 months after E3.

The problem is exacerbated because fewer games are GETTING awards as well, with multiple awards for many titles (Only six PC titles won all the awards in each of the last two years, down from 11 in 1998). That concentration means games coming from smaller development houses, like Funcom, Croteam and Mythic, risk being ignored. As an example, in 1999 Funcom\’e2\’80\’99s The Longest Journey was shown at E3. Reviews of this game have been fantastic, with it being called “arguably the best adventure game ever made.\’e2\’80\’9d So what beat it as the best adventure game for E3 1999? There wasn’t one: as opposed to the previous year, that category was changed to “Action/Adventure:” allowing the action game Oni to win an award without having to deny the actual action game winner, Team Fortress 2, an award. (Oni is a lot of things, but it does not qualify as an “adventure game” in any sense of the word.) An excerpt from the rules makes it clear that the categories for each year can change largely on the whims of the Chairman:

Before E3 the Game Critics Awards Chairman, in consultation with the Associate Chairmen and Judges, determines the list of categories that will be voted upon each year. The Chairman has the final say as to which categories will be open for voting. The inclusion of a category one year does not necessarily dictate that it will be included in future years.

In 1998 the category for MMOGs was “Online Only.” Of course the winner, EQ, was probably the only game at E3 in 1998 that even qualified for that category (Asheron’s Call was released in late 1999, UO in 1997.) But that heading was then changed in 1999 to Multiplayer Online (dropping the ‘only’), allowing the judges to grant Team Fortress 2 yet another prize. (and denying AC its chance to win). Of course, Team Fortress 2 still has not been released over two years later. One has to wonder, what form was it in, in May of 1999? (In 2000, Neverwinter Nights, also far from having a full game at that point, took the multiplayer category; it has also won the best RPG award the last two years running.)

So what changed after 1998? PC Gamer\’e2\’80\’99s Smith attributes it to industry pressure. \’e2\’80\’9cThe industry has changed, and developers/publishers are showing their games earlier — though the credibility and importance of the [E3] awards to all these organizations is such that they have ensured that playable code is available to see [to the judges]. I’m delighted and proud of that fact.\’e2\’80\’9d

But if one is to believe Wardell, that kind of passing the buck onto the marketers is just typical: Obviously, the game magazines are free to cover what they want. It’s just obnoxious to see them also complain about how little originality and innovation there is in gaming when they are one of the causes of that sad state of affairs. I wonder, how long [will it] be before the magazines complain about companies with private suites at E3, when there wouldn’t be private suites at E3 if the magazines didn’t cover them.

What is the upshot of a select group of \’e2\’80\’9cstar\’e2\’80\’9d games being judged on their alpha or pre-alpha builds, and more and more behind closed doors to a select group of industry-friendly media? For starters, it\’e2\’80\’99s a clear encouragement for developers to delay their product, even though they\’e2\’80\’99re hyping it early\’e2\’80\’a6 with the proper marketing savvy, a game now can win one E3 award for its alpha build, and another one for its beta build. Games from smaller publishers (like Mythic or Wolfpack) or those with original and creative ideas find it harder to build up word of mouth because only half-a-dozen of their peers, who may have very little in the way of an actual game to show, took that year\’e2\’80\’99s award away from them. For game fans, it means their need for news is more and more in the hands of a few behind-closed-door marketers, and the journalists they think they can control. (Not to mention the awards themselves are based on less and less information: knowing what we know now, would you have picked Oni as the top action title of 1999? No doubt it looked pretty good when it was just Konoko jumpkicking around a level, though\’e2\’80\’a6 maybe even as good as Star Wars does.)

But there\’e2\’80\’99s an even WORSE potential problem with the E3 awards: an entire class of computer game journalists that are largely excluded from its proceedings altogether. In our second part, we\’e2\’80\’99ll look at who doesn\’e2\’80\’99t get a voice in selecting gaming\’e2\’80\’99s premier awards, and what the backers of E3 itself need to do now if they want to bolster a legitimacy that is now increasingly under question.

(Story by Myschyf and BruceR)