Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Gaming Awards

The list of nominees for the 2011 ENnie awards have just been released, and I’m super-proud to say that there are three products on that list with my name in it. I have won some ENnies before (for Dawnforge in 2003 and Creatures Anathema in 2008), and I’m honored that my work has been recognized in this way.

Today’s blog post is all about the art and science of gaming industry awards, so I need to be clear up front with full disclosure: I’ve won some ENnies—I’ve participated in the ENnies process many times, and they are probably my favorite set of gaming awards in the current landscape.

All that having been said, let’s talk about gaming awards in general. What are they? How do they work—or not work? Is there a better way? These are the questions I’d like to address.

Hey now, no recursion!

Who Are the Awards For?

Of the gamers I know in my local area, roughly two-thirds of them are aware of gaming industry awards in a general sense, and amongst those, there are many who find them useful and/or possibly influential. One-third simply does not care and is not influenced by them at all.

I’ve heard it said that mostly gaming awards are for the industry, not the consumers—I guess I just like to imagine that, just like there are film buffs who discuss the Academy Awards, there are game buffs who discuss gaming awards.

In my experience, the ones that are most affected by industry awards are the industry professionals themselves. The folks who spend all that time and energy and money making games are the most invested in the recognition those games receive… and I’m fine with that. It definitely looks good on a resume, and I can speak from experience that having won an industry award is helpful getting one’s foot in the door for doing work with a professional gaming company.

I think for many gamers, relevance is the most important issue when it comes to awards—but that is also a complicated issue. Obviously, the award is meant to be given to the most qualified recipient. But what meaning does an award have if it is given to an extremely obscure product? There’s something to be said for the awards raising awareness of more niche games, and I am definitely a proponent of that… but a quality game, IMHO, is generally one that is recognizable to many, if not most, gamers who pay attention to the awards in the first place.

Now this is an award I'd love to have on my shelf...

Is There a Better Way?

My friend and colleague Kevin Wilson used to say that what the industry really needs is some kind of journalistic approach to awards. For example, printed novels have the “New York Times Bestseller List.” RPGs have no real journalistic, “neutral third party” group to provide an objective viewpoint. Having researched this issue for some time, the only conclusion I’ve come to is that there may be a better and more ideal way of handling awards… but I have no idea of what it is. I can say that I feel personally the ENnies is the most representative option of gaming awards in our industry—although there’s still room for improvement.

Which Awards?

Let’s check out the current crop of gaming industry awards. The “big two” are the Origins Awards and the ENnies. There are also smaller award groups like the Golden Geek awards, the Indie RPG awards, and the Diana Jones award.

The Origins Awards

According to their Wikipedia entry, the Origins Awards have been around since roughly 1987 and have been more of a force in the industry since 2000. I know that I first became aware of them sometime in the 90’s and started paying a lot more attention towards the early 2000’s, especially given the rocky events of that decade (see below). The Origins Awards has the prestige of being the first and probably most recognized set of game industry awards. The Origins Game Fair is built around the Origins awards, and it is the current keeper of the game industry hall of fame. For these reasons, Origins is one of the “Big Two” in the gaming industry awards set alongside the ENnies awards (see below).

The Good

The Origins awards try hard to be comprehensive; they attempt to recognize nearly every category of product you’d see in a typical game shop—from RPGs, to miniature games, to board games, and so forth.

Additionally, the Origins awards encompass the Hall of Fame mentioned above and are a proponent of the Origins Game Fair. These are all good things that I personally give them credit for.

The Bad

Unfortunately, the Origins awards have become increasingly irrelevant over time. I myself know of at least two big name game companies that refuse to have anything to do with the Origins awards. In addition, the method by which awards are nominated and which games are recognized is confusing and opaque.

Personally, the last several years of Origins awards have never failed to leave me scratching my head and wondering why certain games won awards and others were ignored. A good example from the 2011 awards is the Best Miniature Game category. While I am certain that the Blackest Night Heroclix had some quality to it, I’m very surprised that games like Malifaux were passed over in its favor.

Similarly, the 2006 awards gave RPG of the year to Burning Empires whilst ignoring Spirit of the Century… if someone can explain this to me, by all means, chime in down in the comments section, because I find these kinds of decisions absolutely baffling.

The RPG of the year for 2011, according to the Origins Awards, is Arcanis. I’m certain Arcanis is a fine product, but this is also the year of the Pathfinder Beginner’s box, the Mouse Guard boxed set, and Savage Worlds Deluxe… which (for me) makes no sense.

The actual awards show itself (hosted at the Origins Game Fair) is an impressive affair… but is noticeably lacking some of the bigger names of the industry in attendance. Even companies that participate in the awards (i.e., sending in product for consideration) rarely make an appearance.

These are some of the reasons why I believe the Origins Awards have become essentially meaningless—the awards are being shunned by significant publishers, the awards themselves are handed out without seeming rhyme or reason, and…

The Ugly

The Origins Awards are frustratingly opaque as to how the awards (and the Hall of Fame) are handled. The Origins Awards are decided by the “Academy of Adventure Gaming Arts and Design,” which is apparently a part of GAMA. I regret to say that I don’t have a lot of hard facts regarding the specific function of the Academy or the Awards, nor could I find such information on the GAMA website. It’s possible that such info is there, but it’s certainly buried beyond a casual search. 

Ultimately, I have no idea how the Origins Awards work—I presume that if you’re a member of GAMA or on the GAMA board, you can vote with the Academy… or maybe the Academy is the board… I just don’t know. And to me, opaque awards committees are basically just a recipe for disaster.

There was, in fact, just such a disaster in the early part of the new millennium. In 2004, Ryan Dancey had been elected treasurer of GAMA—Dancey had previously served as a Brand Manager for WOTC during the heady years of Dungeons and Dragons 3rd and 3.5 edition and was a key figure in the Open Game License of that era. Dancey’s election was part of a much-anticipated “reform group” that it was hoped would change the Origins Awards, the Academy, and GAMA for the better.

This scandal tainted the Origins Awards’ integrity and was one of the reasons that some publishers (mentioned above) chose to steer clear of the awards show from that point forward.

My Opinion: The Origins Awards used to mean something, but now I believe they are completely irrelevant both to the average gamer and the industry at large. The meaning and significance of the Origins Award has been severely tarnished by the 2004 scandal, and I think it would take some major effort on the part of the Academy to redeem the awards into something meaningful once again.

The ENnies Awards

The ENnies have been around since 2001 and are an outgrowth of a popular and influential RPG website known as EN World, a site built by Eric Noah focused around Dungeons and Dragons (particularly its D20 incarnation during 3rd and 3.5 edition). Initially, the awards were solely internet-based and only recognized contributions to the d20 license, but the awards have since blossomed and grown into a much more comprehensive look at the RPG industry as a whole. Since 2002, the awards have been held at a live event at Gen Con—it’s actually quite a lively and fun show, and I definitely recommend attending if you have any interest in the awards or the nominees.

The Good

The ENnies, as mentioned previously, take a good long look at the RPG industry and recognize a number of elements in that industry every year, from “Best Production Values” to “Game of the Year.” A panel of Judges are nominated and voted on each year by the public, and these Judges then select the top nominations for each category. The winner in each category is then determined by popular vote.

This means that getting an ENnie nomination is the real victory—the most popular game in each category generally wins (there was a particularly memorable sweep of awards by Pathfinder in 2010, for example).

The nomination and voting process are fairly transparent, the nominations in each category are quite relevant and generally reflect the best entries for that year, and a majority of publishers—both upper- and lower-tier—participate every year.

Even in years where one company dominates (such as 2010), the nominations list makes sense to me—in my opinion, it accurately reflects the highest quality of the games released. There are definitely some cases where I disagree with the winner, but I generally nod my head when scanning over the nominations list.

One thing that is critical to note is that the ENnies Judges review only the games that are sent to them by the publisher. As one example, the Fantasy Flight Games entries for 2010 (including amongst them Deathwatch and a number of other 40K RPG books) were not submitted in time due to some health issues, and thus they were not considered for that year’s awards.

The Bad

My only serious criticism of the ENnies is that I would like to see them widen their scope—as I mentioned during my look at the Origins Awards, I enjoy seeing comprehensive awards that look at every aspect of tabletop gaming. The ENnies has done a good job of growing and evolving since its inception in 2001, and I would really like to see that continue and encompass broader portions of tabletop gaming… maybe start looking at board games, or including more categories for miniatures, as some examples.

The Ugly

I don’t really have much to say here. The ENnies have, to my knowledge, stayed clear of any major stumbling blocks and have done a great deal to bring respect and honor to the industry in the form of official recognition—the awards themselves.

My Opinion: I’m a self-admitted fan of the ENnies. I think they’re the most relevant and significant awards you’ll find in the gaming industry, and I’m planning on attending the award show at this year’s Gen Con.

And the Rest

After the "big two," there are a few other RPG awards that I feel are worth discussing:

The Diana Jones Award

My Opinion: The Diana Jones award is quirky, but relevant, and the awardees all appear deserving. Overall, I’m a fan.

The Indie RPG Awards

My Opinion: I don’t know much about the Indie RPG Awards, so I’ll keep this one short and sweet. The Indie awards exist in part to help raise awareness of the more obscure and niche RPGs in the industry, and I think that is a laudable goal. Many of the winners of this award are definitely relevant and I am pleased that they’re around—I wish there was a way to incorporate them into the ENnies to help both sides of this equation grow and receive the recognition they’ve earned.

The Golden Geek Awards

My Opinion: The Golden Geek Awards are a very recent entry into the industry awards area, brought about by the site Lately, the Golden Geeks have added categories for RPG products, and I definitely hope to see the Golden Geeks improve in both prominence and breadth. My only concern is the opacity of how the awards are nominated and voted on… but this is a hurdle I think the Golden Geeks can easily overcome.


  1. You raise some interesting points! I'd love to see the Ennies broaden their reach into other types of games -- but the resulting workload for the panel of judges would necessitate an overhaul in the process, methinks.

    Hope to meet you at the Ennies!

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Kat. I understand your point about the workload for Judges. I imagine any kind of expansion of the awards in the areas I mentioned would probably require more Judges or different categories of Judges (i.e., RPG judges, miniature judges, board game judges, etc.).

  2. Many of the quirks in the Origins awards selection system is due to the fact that the voting happens within the confines of the game convention. People that play games at the con are often encouraged to go vote for the game they're playing. (In fact, dealer's booths and GMs often pass out ballots, then volunteer to turn them in for players.) This obviously can have a substantial skewing on the results. Especially if one nominated company has a big presence at Origins, while another does not.
    Arcanis, this year's RPG winner, has a significant presence at the show. They run a fairly large living campaign, and I think Origins is one of the focal cons for it.

    1. Thanks for the enlightenment, John. That does help explain things... although I think it doesn't make me warm up to the Origins Awards any.