Absence of Excellence

Source: The Australian Games Awards

Why does the Australian Games Awards represent the industry in name only?

As the news cycle slows and we reach the tail end of peak video game release season, one theme that consistently dominates online content at this time of year is that of annual awards, “best of” lists or “game of the year” discussions.

Most of the major games media outlets will feature some kind of game of the year feature, with varying approaches and levels of repute. Some are debated internally by pools of in-house staff or nominated “experts”. Some are far more individual and subjective in nature, allowing a range of content creators or industry personalities to air their thoughts in article, video or audio form. Some inevitably treat the process much more seriously than others.

One high profile example of annual games industry highlights is the Geoff Keighley driven production, The Game Awards. A show borne from the ashes of the old Spike Video Game Awards (VGAs), The Game Awards have become a much larger premier affair that the rest of the industry rallies more strongly behind with every passing year. Much of the credit for this can be pointed directly at Keighley himself, who in addition to undergoing a personal image rebirth in recent years, has built the production from more humble beginnings into a media juggernaut that dominates mainstream headlines. The 2018 Game Awards has reported huge viewership numbers of over 26 million via global livestreams (up 128% from 2017), also becoming one of Twitch’s biggest livestreams to date.

Source: The Game Awards

“a great opportunity for some of the often overlooked elements of the local industry to share in the spotlight”

In early November, Trade Media announced that it was to run the very first “Australian Games Awards”, an event boasting the lofty slogan of “The greatest celebration of gaming culture in Australia, ever!”. According to the official website, the inaugural Australian Games Awards (AGAs) would recognise excellence across games, accessories, journalism, esports, content creation and cosplay. With the scope of the contest aiming to present a more consumer centric selection of categories compared to other Australian Games Industry awards (the Australian Game Developer Awards or AGDAs for example), it seemed to be a great opportunity for some of the often overlooked elements of the local industry to share in the spotlight. Finally, a real awards event that we could all could get behind to showcase the greatest achievements by Australian gaming talent for all the world to see!

That optimism was perhaps, short-lived.

30 categories were announced for the AGAs, but only around half of them appeared to be specifically Australia-centric. A single category was reserved for recognising games actually developed in Australia. Immediately it became clear that the Australian Games Awards had an identity crisis from its conception. It had positioned itself as a consumer driven celebration of gaming culture, but in doing so had completely undermined the patriotic side of local industry representation. For an outsider looking in, the offerings of the Australian Games Industry would appear merely homogeneous with those of the rest of the world.

For such a large number of categories, it was perplexing to see Sports, Racing and Fighting games bundled in together, while individual video content platforms (YouTube, Twitch and Mixer) were separated into their own buckets. There was a distinct lack of any diversity representation, and some strange inclusions such as “Social Media God” and “Play of the Year”. No gaming podcast category either, despite a thriving scene here in Australia (though I may be slightly biased here). As Trade Media operates websites dedicated to local esports and influencer coverage, it’s unsurprising to see a level of favouritism directed towards recognition of those areas.

The competition has been promoted as a full community voting affair. Over a 10 day period the general public provided over 5,500 nominations, which were then narrowed down by organisers through an undisclosed process to produce a pool of 282 individual nominees across the 30 categories. Strangely, the number of nominees published across each of the categories ranged wildly from as low as 4 to as high as 25 entrants. This odd approach was followed by the step of trimming these groups further publicly, resulting in highlighting the few contenders who didn’t make the final cut almost as much as those who did.

Perhaps predictably, the ultimate result of the public nomination and voting process has been a mess of mismatched competitors, and some questionable inclusions that should have been addressed by a more thorough vetting process.

An unwillingness to directly control the nominee process indicates a lack of knowledge or investment in industry talent

Several categories feature completely uneven matchups of competition, with the likes of major publisher AAA games such as Fortnite on mobile, positioned against small independent games like Paperbark from Paper House. Australian branches of leading media outlets like IGN and Game informer also find themselves matched against small independent podcasts. In a public driven popularity vote to determine the winner, it just doesn’t come close to representing a fair playing field.

Source: Paperbark, by Paper House Pty Ltd

At the time of receiving a published nomination for Tabletop Game of the Year, Scoffton, an unreleased game being developed by Vamoose Co. was still seeking funding on Kickstarter. This Kickstarter project has since (as of December 7th) announced cancellation, meaning that a game nominated as the highest example of its kind for that genre at the Australian Games Awards may never actually exist in a publicly playable state at any time in the future. An incredible lapse in integrity for the awards.

In the week leading up to the main event, accusations of plagiarism in the work of Journalist of the Year nominee, Derek ‘Dez’ Maggs have arisen in a social media storm. Additionally, the allegations have been linked to another finalist in the Gaming Publication of the Year category, “gaming marketing agency” goto.game, where Maggs currently writes. Rather than taking quick decisive action to address the numerous concerns raised and protect the integrity of the contest, the Australian Games Awards organisers left the issue hanging for 5 days before making a public response via Twitter. That announcement being that Maggs had stood down from his finalist position of his own volition. Disappointingly, no further action on this or the related questions hanging over the Gaming Publication of the Year has been forthcoming. Goto.game has however, posted their own cringeworthy response in which they attempt to justify plagiarism as a normal practice in the industry in addition to painting Maggs as the victim of a resulting “campaign of harassment”.

when an event positions itself as the premier representation of talent in an industry, there is a huge opportunity cost that comes with failing to deliver”

There is little doubt that these controversies could have been avoided by taking a greater hand in the nomination and voting process, instead of farming it out to the general public in the name of community engagement. An unwillingness to directly control the nominee process indicates a lack of knowledge or investment in industry talent on behalf of the organisers. Several conflicts of interest also exist in the form of major event partners and sponsors (Turtle Beach, Xbox, Bethesda, etc.) who are directly linked to several of the finalists.

By way of contrast, The 2018 Game Awards selected its nominees through a process of peer engagement, using a voting jury of 69 leading media and influencer outlets around the globe, the details of which were published in transparent fashion to the main event website. The overall winners were determined by a blended vote weighted heavily toward the voting jury (90%) followed by public fan votes (10%). Geoff Keighley addressed the process in the pre-show commentary this year, stating that “a lot can be socially engineered, and I don’t want awards to go to games that just happen to be able to have more Twitter followers or buy a bunch of ads to somehow convince people to vote for them.” This authentic and credible process can certainly be linked to the swell of industry support and success The Game Awards has enjoyed in recent years.

While it’s not particularly fair to compare a new event in its first incarnation to an established award show of 5 years and longer prior legacy, it’s relevant to observe that the Australian Games Awards could greatly benefit from some of the lessons in success that The Game Awards can offer. That said, when an event positions itself as the premier representation of talent in an industry, there is a huge opportunity cost that comes with failing to deliver.

The true value of an awards event lies with the platform it provides to all nominees, not just the winners.”

Whether you believe in the concept of award shows or not, it can mean the world to hard working people attempting to make a dent in an often unforgiving creative industry. The true value of an awards event lies with the platform it provides to all nominees, not just the winners. Even being considered for an award can mean shining a spotlight on some of the unsung heroes of the games industry, providing the leverage to push for a bigger audience, recognition, or even funding for their next project. They are far from meaningless, though their meaning can certainly be compromised by a poor process in selection and execution.

Congratulations to all of the finalists this year. For their sake and many others, I hope that the Australian Games Awards evolves past the shadow cast over its inaugural affair to an event worthy of representing Australia to the rest of the global games industry in the years to come.

You can listen to the Party Loaded podcast’s own annual industry wrap up in the form of our “Party Favourites” feature over 2 weeks, commencing with Episode #156.

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