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No Room for Integrity in AIAS Awards?

Friday, February 22, 2002 by TheDoc

The public relations agent must have been speaking in his or her sincerest Pooh Bear voice. “Interactive Academy voting is supervised by the same firm that certifies Oscar voting,” the representative said. “The integrity of the system, coupled with a broad-based voting population of Academy members, make the Interactive Achievement awards the most credible, respected, and recognized awards for interactive entertainment software.”

Think about the last part of that statement: “the most credible, respected, and recognized awards in interactive entertainment.” This is what a representative of the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences (AIAS) said last week when asked about the absence of 3D Realms’ critically lauded shooter, Max Payne, from the organization’s nominations for Game of the Year. Gamespot, wondering how the AIAS could have overlooked Max Payne for its top award, called the Academy for a quote and was handed the corporate line. Their question was a good one: Why was Max Payne not listed among esteemed titles such as Black & White for PC, Halo for Xbox, ICO for PS2, and Civilization III? Perhaps the Academy’s members felt the technical and artistic merits of these games outweighed those of 3D Realms’ shooter? Actually, these electors, who work in the games industry and paid a fee to join the Academy, never had the chance to consider these things.

Max Payne was excluded from AIAS’s Game of the Year nominations because neither 3D Realms nor developer Remedy Entertainment threw money down to place their game on a list of possible nominees. The upshot of this statement is immediately apparent: How can a list of Game of the Year nominees be accurate if the nomination process excludes certain titles from consideration? The real transgression is not AIAS’ oversight of Max Payne, but that the organization’s awards program does not take all products into account.

The AIAS’s nomination process for its 29 craft, console, PC, and online award categories operates like this: Peer panel review boards, made up of individual Academy members with expertise in each of the categories, are established to determine the finalists. To be fair, this process can be exhaustive. The panel for Outstanding Achievement in Music Composition and Outstanding Achievement in Sound Design, for example, chiseled their list of nominees from a starting field of 105 titles and used a multi-tiered process that involved dozens of game audio professionals engaged in vigorous debate [see hugesound.com]. Award recipients are then determined by a vote of the Academy’s membership.

The Academy solicits nominations from member publishers, who pay an arguably steep nomination fee for each entry. (The AIAS does not notify non-members about the call for nominations, although this will be changed for next year’s awards gala, we have learned.) While this charge can be a barrier to certain games being nominated, it’s also a significant element of the Academy’s fund raising for its awards show, which includes extravagant $1000 trophies. In an effort to balance this, the Academy allows peer panelists to submit, as finalists, any titles they deem worthy in a write-in space for each category. Here’s the catch: The ballot for the Game of the Year category does not have a write-in option. This eliminates games from both member and non-member publishers who did not buy their way onto the list of potential nominees.

This process also enables conflicts of interest. Some deep-pocketed publishers, including Electronic Arts, pay the membership fees of employees who meet the Academy’s criteria [see interactive.org]; this makes it feasible for larger publishers to pack the nominations. Consider that the Computer Sports of the Year category contains three titles, all from EA: FIFA 2002, Madden NFL 2002, and NHL 2002. True, EA makes great sports games, but what about the exclusion of Max Payne and its influential Bullet-Time gameplay from the Innovation in Computer Gaming category, which has entries for EA’s Black & White, Mythic Entertainment’s Dark Age of Camelot, EA’s Majestic, and, laughably, EA’s The Sims: Hot Date expansion. Admittedly, the members of the Academy might never have played the Virtual Valerie series of adult computer games, but what does Hot Date have that Max doesn’t? Once again, EA dominates the category, provoking questions about whose agenda is being promoted.

Although Max Payne’s exclusion from any organization’s Game of the Year category could be argued, the product’s absence from other categories is suspect. What can be said about Max, a compelling new hero, being overlooked in the Character and Story category while Black & White lands a nomination? What character and story, one might ask about Peter Molyneux’s innovative, but open-ended, masterpiece? Similar to Jethro Tull’s winning a Grammy for Best Hard Rock performance, this either reveals flaws in AIAS’ nomination process or shows the organization is clueless when it comes to trends in video and computer gaming. It definitely shows companies cannot rely on write-in votes, in part because the awards are publisher-driven and, therefore, more about promoting products than peer recognition.

AIAS supporters might argue the membership and entry fees are necessary to support the organization’s efforts. There must be more effective ways for the organization to raise money, however, so it’s time to re-evaluate the process. Besides, if the awards are to truly recognize the best games, then the interactive entertainment community should be submitting nominations for free. Some people might suggest companies such as 3D Realms adopt an “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” attitude and join the AIAS. Joining the organization, however, indirectly supports its defective nomination structure.

At least there’s a better, and increasingly prestigious, alternative in the IGDA’s Game Developer’s Choice Awards, handed out at the annual Game Developer’s Conference. By developers, for developers, the awards are more credible than AIAS’s honors for three reasons: One, the IGDA allows all game developers to participate, and nominates the five titles with the most votes; two, no marketing, administrative, or public relations staff can participate; and three, being nominated is a hassle-free process. There are no entry fees to pay, no memberships to purchase, and no hoops to jump through to be nominated. Companies simply receive a congratulatory email -- a clearly superior process that results in more sensible winners. (The IGDA honored The Sims in 2001 while Diablo II won AIAS’s Game of the Year prize.) The AIAS awards have a long way to go before achieving the same degree of credibility as IGDA’s honors.

Imagine if the XPD8 required a fee for its Seal of Approval award; how much integrity would we have as a publication? The bottom line is this: AIAS members’ games have an advantage over those of non-members, which leads to glaring omissions in their award nominations. This, in turn, makes the AIAS awards a far cry from “the most credible, respected, and recognized awards in interactive entertainment.” Without taking anything away from the accomplishments of 2001’s Game of the Year nominees, the AIAS clearly misrepresents the industry by focusing on members’ products. Unfortunately, gamers who see the list of nominees and the eventual winners will not know the awards are based on a flawed system.

When the AIAS hands out its 5th Annual Interactive Achievement Awards on February 28 at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas during the D.I.C.E. summit, the recipients will smile broadly as interactive entertainment’s most prolific minds applaud their accomplishments. But same as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is annually criticized for its highly politicized process of awarding the Best Picture Oscar, the deficiencies in AIAS’ nomination process will cast a disheartening pall over the proceedings. Currently, the AIAS awards exist in a world where achievement operates entirely apart from financial sway. Even Pooh Bear would say the most deserving games should be nominated instead.

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