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Conflicts of interest in the IGF

Add Comment! By Jeffrey Rosen on January 10th, 2009

The Independent Games Festival grand prize is one of the highest honors an indie game can receive. More important than the $20,000 check is the fact that it can rocket indie developers out of obscurity and into headlines; if we won, we wouldn't have to fight to get people to return our emails, they would contact us first! World of Goo, Aquaria, and Braid are some of the past winners. Heard of them? I thought so.


Wolfire is too young to have any games entered in the contest yet, but we are definitely going to enter Overgrowth next year. Since we are still outside observers, I feel like it's easier for me to say what a lot of people are thinking.

There are some serious problems with how the judging is set up.

After hearing that the new IGF finalists have been announced, I looked at the panel of judges, and was surprised by two things: first, the IGF proudly invites winners of the previous IGF to judge for the upcoming contest, and second, a few people on my buddy list, and even some members of Overgrowth's Secret Preorder Forum, are among the judges.

Let me preface what I'm about to say with a disclaimer: I'm not accusing anyone of anything -- I trust all of the people I know on the list. I'm not calling foul play or anything like that. Also, I'm not blaming anyone for being a judge. It is a great honor, and I would sign up in a second if I was in their position.

However, this system of inviting IGF winners to be judges is flawed. Let me express my problems with it first, and then let's explore some possible solutions. We have a whole year to discuss this so let's get started early and constructively.

Indie developers are not one hit wonders.
Here is the problem with bringing back IGF winners as judges. They are going to enter their games in future IGFs. These future IGFs will have judges who have been judged by these judges. And so on. It doesn't take a time-manipulation game mechanic to see why this is a bad idea.

Should peers review each other's work?
These judges won IGF, so aren't they the most qualified to judge other indie video games? Maybe, but being a great designer doesn't necessarily mean you should be a judge. To make an Oscars analogy, it's as if Brad Pitt was judging Edward Norton's movie or Matt Damon was judging Ben Affleck. Sure, Brad Pitt is an award winning actor and probably knows a lot about movies. Should he really be judging his peers though? Probably not, especially when he is in the middle of filming a new movie, or talking with the contestants every day.

Indie politics
Lets say I'm a judge. Am I allowed to sell the game I'm reviewing, as an affiliate? Obviously not, right? Well, if I'm an indie game journalist, can my website accept advertising from a video game that I'll be judging? How about posting articles about it?

It's a messy gray area that I don't really want to think about. Suddenly people who I freely correspond with are now holding the keys to the kingdom, and tremendous power over Wolfire's future.

Another example: I've been floating the idea of having an affiliate program for Overgrowth so other indies can sell it next to their games, in exchange for a generous commission. It sucks that people will have to choose between doing business with us or accepting the honor to be an IGF judge.

The solution
Here are a few possibilities. Please add your own thoughts in the comments.

  1. Get some academics in there. One of my biggest problems with the judges is that many of them have huge financial ties to the industry. Let's get some people who aren't financially involved, for instance, professors. I nominate my graphics professor from last semester.
  2. Get more industry veterans. I'm thinking John Carmack, Tim Schafer and other giants who are well into their career.
  3. Increase the volume of judges.

Unfortunately, as soon as I write these suggestions, I can already think of problems. A graphics professor might be biased towards games with great graphics instead of say, You Have To Burn The Rope, a finalist this year. A bigwig like Carmack might not like games that are built on the Source engine like Zeno Clash, another finalist this year.

It is really hard. Does anyone else have ideas? How do the Oscars work anyway?