The IGF is no longer Sundance. It’s the Oscars, and that’s good.

The Independent Games Festival’s own introduction on it’s about page reads; “We wanted to create a similar event to Sundance for independent game developers – and that’s just what we’ve succeeded in doing…” The IGF has completed that goal. In fact, the formal selection of indie titles was formed in 1998 in order to shine brighter lights on games below the fold and congratulate those behind the pixels. However, with mobile platforms leading a general shift in social acceptance for games, the IGF is stepping up to the plate to offer a seal of approval. Sundance’s priority is too introduce new filmmakers, while the Oscars provide confirmation of a films impact on the industry and a recognizable stamp of quality for consumers. These days, the IGF is strained into transitioning it’s goals from finding new games to supplying an acknowledgment of the best known titles in order to prove the scene to a growing customer curiosity.

These curators and passionate and want the best for the field. Brandon Boyer took over the IGF chairmen position from Simon Carless in 2010. From my quick conversation, the generally good industry reputation and most importantly, the constant mothering of portals that birth indie game goodness, Boyer has a goal to dig up the untouched games in the basement and put them in your lap. If the game industry somehow embodied an entity, it would stop by one of Boyer’s development meet-ups to thank him for believing in it as a whole. Actively showing the world indie and experimental games is not the complete toolbox for fixing its current shame, but many believe it’s the nails that keep the industry from falling backwards. Shari Frilot is the senior programmer/curator at Sundance and the New Frontier at Sundance. I had the chance to ask her a few questions about hosting Molleindustria at Sundance and the future of New Frontier, in which all answers were served with that same passion. On Sundance’s about page, under it’s mission statement it reads; “the Institute seeks to discover, support, and inspire independent film”. Sundance strives to find totally new gems on a beach of submissions. That approach to new content is the impression many game developers use to justify the entry fee when submitting to the IGF. This impression is filled with buzzwords that surround the event asking, what will be new this year? But the IGF is shifting and it’s evolving along side the industry, its scene and its consumers. The IGF, consciously or not, is being squeezed into a new role for a growing audience. The IGF slowly departs from discovering new indie games to highlighting the popular and substantial. That may not be what some waiting-to-be-discovered indie developers want to hear, but that’s good for the industry and it’s growing consumer base.

Can you name an indie film from Sundance this year? –It’s totally ok if you can’t! Because Sundance’s primary goal is to put talented new filmmakers on a pedestal for its industry to discuss. Again, such a mission statement reads “seeks to discover, support, and inspire “. The Sundance exhibition philosophy is to actively search for new and emerging work from fresh creators. Of course, none of these topics are black and white, there is a huge motivation to get such films to a wider audience, but it’s not the primary goal. With the established increase of smart phones and saturated marketplaces (and audience!) this distribution style rewards original gaming content. The IGF is starting to assume the role of selecting and rewarding it’s Oscar like stamp of approval to allow the indie game scene to start off with new audiences on the best foot forward. Thus, the IGF also needs to further position it’s brand and reach to not only GDC attendees but to those same budding mainstream consumers. The IGF is promoted from primarily exposing new games for the industry to exposing games with its stamp for a better first impression to a new market of gamer. This is a subtle and evolving trend that originates from outside influences, not a black and white goal of any individual. Only the irrational would assume this means it’s no longer of interest for the IGF to display unknown games. One could note that there are lower walls, more submission, greater popularity in development, better games and thus more quality to show. That is true, but separate this trend is it’s own beast. These outside forces may create behavior that withholds the IGF from taking the risks and having the flexibility it has had in the past. The IGF started like Sundance, discovering amazing new games for it’s industry scene, but is shifting to become the Oscars, celebrating games the industry may already be aware of to further push them into the mainstream. This celebrates a contribution to the industry and is good progress for the game industry as a whole and it’s customers!

That waiting-to-be-discovered indie developer should be aware of this shift and not become too frustrated with the IGF’s new given goals. First, we as a community need to remind ourselves that the indie and game scene has plenty of potential customers left to educate about the awesome being made. It is not a common argument to claim that indie games compete over other indie games. There is room and a market for all these games. So when the IGF rewards commonly played games, it’s only to propel farther into the mainstream consumer base. Indie developers should be aware of this. The issue that arises is when these shifts of goals and responsibilities are not clear or fly under the radar of developers who pay to enter the competition. The duties of the IGF are changing faster than it’s ‘customers’ expectations. In 2013 the IGF took submissions from almost over 9,000 entrants! More than a few have high hopes for a launching pad from 0 to success. This can happen (and sometimes does!), but is a less common match to the IGF’s changing responsibilities. The Oscar’s take the years established work and announce the best. You probably heard of Life of Pi and Zero Dark Thirty before such an event. The Academy’s goal is to reward the best of the best, not the rest. And give a nod for the film’s that benefit the entire film industry and a logo to sell more DVD’s. We may start to see an increasing number of established games dominating the IGF. It would still only be a trend, not an equation. Just like the Oscars surprise verdict for best actress being taken by a 22 year old, the less popular game Cart Life swept the IGF in 2013. But with independent games getting more mainstream, we can see the start a shift in responsibility. In 2011, the IGF stepping up to fill this role in Oscar fashion awarded financial hit Minecraft the Grand Prize. The next year, FEZ won the grand prize in addition to an earlier win in 2009. Should be noted that since then, the rules have changed to no longer allow double wins. Indie developers often recite (mostly ironically) “the reason the IGF exists is so we all have a deadline”. And while it’s clearly a joke, a mindset has developed that you pay the fee, submit version 1.0 and hope for the best. But it is hard to ignore No one is trying to take away that hope, as it could happen to be an overnight success! But with ever increasing entry rates of almost 9,000, we can see example where the IGF is focused on further displaying established work.

The IGF is stepping up for the greater good of the industry. It is transitioning from having a discovery based exhibition philosophy to propelling the best of what the game industry sees to the rest of the world. The game industry may have to dig deeper to find the fresh content, but we can better educate the general public with a games orientated Oscars.

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