Indie insurgency fails to topple old guard at Games Baftas

Destiny: big budget, but what about the gameplay? Ferino Design / Bungie, CC BY

The Bafta Games Awards showed a promising future for independent developers, as they went toe-to-toe against multi-million dollar behemoths at the little brother of the academy’s established and prestigious film awards. Judging by the results, though, it’ll be years until the efforts of small studios in the games industry are acknowledged as anything but exceptions to the continued rule of the big publishers.

There were undoubtedly some notable successes for the independent games scene. The most surprising victory was innovative two dimensional skateboarding game OlliOlli, which bested annual instalments of FIFA and Football Manager in the Sports Game category. The M C Escher-inspired puzzler Monument Valley picked up prizes for Best Mobile and Best British Game. The beautiful paper craft visuals of Lumino City got a deserving nod for Artistic Achievement, and The Vanishing of Ethan Carter won for Game Innovation, likely because of its unique use of realistic photo-scan technology for its visuals.

Fun in just two dimensions.

Annual awards bring annual success

While these are impressive wins, much of the night was inevitably spent noting the work of traditional studio-publisher models, including the praiseworthy likes of Shadow of Mordor, Titanfall, and Hearthstone.

A good deal of respect was paid to the inevitable franchise instalments of the past year, too. This was particularly clear in the nominee list for some categories – puzzle darling Threes was the only indie in the running for Game Design. Monument Valley stood alone for Best Game. The Multiplayer, Audio, Music, Family and Performer categories showed no nominations for independent studios at all.

Part of the challenge for indie studios to get nominations and wins is how BAFTA categorises its awards. This is a change from the film awards, which mark out clear categories for technical skills such as Cinematography, Set Design, and so on. This means that despite (or perhaps because of) how games are made, Assassin’s Creed Unity, a rushed release plagued by bugs which made the game at times look laughably bad, was nominated in the Artistic Achievement category when smaller, less technically impressive works failed to make the list.

Even in areas where indies triumphed, the strangeness of how Bafta arranges its nominees meant shortlists sometimes seemed incomparable. When The Vanishing of Ethan Carter was given the victory for Game Innovation, it was against titles that showed creativity in completely different ways. How can Shadow of Mordor’s brilliant nemesis system, which generates semi-random foes unique to each player, be meaningfully compared with Ethan Carter’s new way of creating game visuals in terms of innovation? The two are as different as apples and orcs. Categories which separated technical and artistic achievement would avoid much of this problem.

Shadow of Mordor creates ‘nemeses’ unique to each playthrough. Monolith / Bago, CC BY

In another example of the oddity of categories, survival horror game The Last of Us won two awards this year that it won last year as well –Best Performer and Best Story – because it released a downloadable prequel called Left Behind early in 2014. As good as The Last of Us was, it’s hard not to feel that a separate category for downloadable content might have been a good idea. On a different release schedule, Left Behind would have been covered by last year’s victories.

Destined to win

The most stand-out result of the night was undoubtedly Destiny, if only for dubious reasons. The first-person shooter by the makers of Halo won Best Game despite failing to take home Best Multiplayer, Best Persistent Game or Best Game Design – all qualities on which its success as an online, multiplayer based shooter should hang. The game, which received a muted critical reception, is reminiscent of the oft-stated adage that Best Picture awards tend not to go to the best film but the least controversial one.

Worse still, aside from the breakout Monument Valley, the other nominees for Best Game were all marquee releases for major publishers, including licensed monsters Shadow of Mordor and Alien: Isolation. Also featured were franchise instalments Dragon Age: Inquisition and Mario Kart 8, the latest in a series which began in 1992.

Of course, awards in any artistic medium are a matter of opinion. A majority of Bafta’s voters and jurists may genuinely feel that Destiny was the finest game 2014 had to offer. The results seem to suggest that most indie titles can only compete with the big-budget monsters in one or perhaps two narrow areas, leaving bigger games to claim most of the biggest awards by sheer force of wallet size.

It seems the still-fledgling ceremony needs to develop its structure to better fit the industry before it can truly stand alone. There’s nothing wrong with giving prizes to inoffensive instalments of well-loved, long running series, but at the same time we should think carefully about how we compare the qualities that games possess so that some can win a small gold award.

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