Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Ennies 2013: A Rogue Warden's Critique



Greetings, readers!

Today’s subject is going to be another controversial one (and is bound to ruffle some feathers!), because it involves the Ennie awards program for 2013. In a previous blog post, I covered different awards for the tabletop RPG industry, including the Ennies. And at that time, I considered the Ennies to be a good—perhaps not perfect, but good—representation of industry awards. However, this year’s setup of the Ennies has definitely changed my opinion, unfortunately, not for the better.


Thank you, Mr. Jay Sherman.



To paraphrase Fight Club: I am Jack’s crushing disappointment.


Full disclosure & Counterpoint


Before I get into the meat of this discussion, I first need to address some relevant issues. Anytime you invoke serious criticism of an awards program, there are going to be questions about the critic. In this case, there are two main things I need to talk about in the interests of full disclosure: First, I had a nominee in a category this year—this blog, in fact, was a nominee for the Best Gaming Blog category. Second, a product I am going to talk about later is the Star Wars: Edge of the Empire Beginner box. While I have no direct connection to this product, I worked on the main core book for Star Wars: Edge of the Empire and I worked full-time for Fantasy Flight Games (the product’s publisher) for three years.
Here's me in 2009 with awards for Creatures Anathema,
Disciples of the Dark Gods, and Dark Heresy

As a counterpoint, I want to make sure and note before we get any further that my criticism of this year’s Ennies has absolutely nothing to do with the winners. I have no issues with why any particular product won in any particular category. My concerns for this year’s program are purely focused around the nominees (some of which, of course, went on to become winners), the Ennies ceremony, and the judging process itself.

The next counterpoint I want to make clear here is that I have no personal dislike for any of the products I’m going to mention—they’re all quality products. There are some choices made about those products that I am raising questions about, but the products themselves are not at all under fire.

Hopefully getting these points across early in this post will help us keep the discussion centered around the issues rather than doubling back onto the critic (in this case, me!).

Nominations


Let’s dive into the nominations for this year’s Ennies. The nomination list is no longer available from the Ennies site, but you can find a list online. From this year’s list, there were two nominations that I feel are highly questionable.


Let’s look at one of the nominees for Best Production Values:

If you click on the link for this product, you’ll see what it’s all about with regards to production values. It’s got a nice, solid look. Character sheets, box art, it all looks like it was aimed at an old school product from the 80’s and it doesn’t strike too far off the mark.




However, if you take a look at the Star Wars: Edge of the Empire Beginner Box, you’ll clearly see that these two products are simply night and day in comparison. The Beginner Box’s artwork, graphic design, dice, character sheets, layout, and trade dress are all (In my opinion) clearly superior. While I have nothing against the Hyperborea boxed set (and in fact would love to own a copy), I can’t help but notice that having this product nominated for production values while the category ignores the Star Wars: Edge of the Empire Beginner Box makes no sense at all. (see the Judging section below for some more thoughts on this)



Let’s hope that the judges for next year carefully consider ALL the products submitted for the Best Production Values category so that it truly reflects the best the industry has to offer.

Another nominee I’d like to talk about is for the Best RPG Related Product category:


This is definitely a beautiful book. It is a product of the literary juggernaut that is Random House, and being a Game of Thrones fan myself, it is something I’d enjoy having on my shelf.




With all of that said, however, I’m puzzled as to how this is an RPG Related Product in any way. It’s not a game, nor does it reference any of the Game of Thrones games (Guardians of Order or Green Ronin versions). (Editor's note: I suppose you could make the argument that George R. R. Martin plays RPGs, which he does, but... still seems very reaching to me) I’m also very uncomfortable with the idea of opening up this category to products from companies like Random House, who have resources orders of magnitude higher than other companies in the same category. It’s like letting a silverback gorilla take part in a weightlifting competition.

Just how far afield can “RPG Related” wander from the RPGs themselves? If a Random House collection of maps for a novel series that has been made into RPGs counts… why not a video game like the Dragon Age console series? (At least there would be a fairly direct link to RPGs there, and they would at least be games…) Why not movies like the Hobbit? (since it is connected to the One Ring).

None of the other entries on the list give me the same pause for concern that the Random House book does. I can only hope that the judges will think twice about this in the future and keep the Ennies focused more strongly on the RPG industry rather than wandering so far astray.

Judging


A former judge named Chris Gath wrote a blog post entitled “Ennies Expose” about this year’s judging. Chris was a former judge for the Ennies previous to 2009, and has often posted at RPG.net under the handle “Crothian.”

Chris claims in his post that the judges failed to discuss the nominations in real-time (according to Chris, this is normally done through skype). In this blog post, it is further alleged that one of the judges for 2013’s nominations refused to consider the Star Wars: Edge of the Empire Beginner Box for any category due to a dislike of its unusual dice mechanics.

I highly encourage you to check out the blog post and the comments section below, where other former judges (such as Jody Kline) weigh in with opinions such as “…the fact that you all didn’t convene a live panel to decide on the nominations is disgraceful.” Other posters, including judges from this year’s program, defend the decisions made in their own words.

The debate about this expose was fought primarily through comments attached to blog posts—there hasn’t been any official response from the Ennies themselves. Some other ENnies officials (such as Submissions Coordinator and Publisher Relations guy, Hans Cummings) have publicly claimed that Chris Gath’s expose is completely wrong, and point out that he hasn’t been an Ennies judge for over four years.

I don’t believe there’s much left to say here but to present the two sides of this issue and let you, the reader, make up your own mind.

For me, it seems clear that leaving the Stars Wars: Edge of the Empire Beginner Box out of the Best Production Value category was clearly a huge mistake. Its absence makes me question whether it should have been left out of other categories it was submitted for as well.

Beyond that, my largest concern is in regards to the Judging process, specifically the need for some kind of live skype call to discuss the nominations. I believe that the judges should make every effort to communicate in real time, whether that is through skype or some other interface. I believe that this kind of communication is crucial to the process, and as one poster said, “There are too many nuances that you can’t tell through the written word alone.”

Ceremony


I attended the ceremony for the Ennies this year at Gen Con, as I have every year for the last five years. This year, the ceremony was particularly noteworthy… but not in a good way. Let me explain what I mean.


I only wish the Ennies ceremony could be this cool.

The audience were, in general, not paying a lot of attention to the ceremony itself. People were talking, laughing, and mostly ignoring anything happening up on stage. This was not improved by the presenters—without going too much into detail, I’ll simply say that the presenters were very ineffective at getting the audience to focus, applaud at the right time, or even to sit down when the ceremony was ready to begin or resume after the intermission. The overall management of the ceremony failed to establish the right mood for taking the awards seriously, which stands in stark contrast to (in my opinion) how the ceremony has been run in the past.

The presenters were not simply being ignored – at least one of these presenters was clearly very intoxicated. He staggered on stage, rambled on at the microphone, and slurred his way through a few words about the category. In my opinion, this was very much not appropriate to the Ennies.

There was at least one category where no one at all showed up for the awards, both gold and silver. WOTC was likewise noticeably absent, especially when their joke-y “Imperial March” music is playing for a category they won. If the Ennies has complete absences for both entire categories and some of the largest companies in the industry, I’d have to say that my opinion is that something is very wrong.

Conclusions


Again, the points above are all illustrating my own opinion. I encourage you to check out the program for yourself--YMMV. With that in mind, here’s what I took away from the overall conduct of the 2013 Ennie awards program.

Based on the nominations and the discussions engendered by Chris Gath’s blog post, it seems clear to me that the judging process for nominating products needs some reform, particularly with regards to selecting appropriate products for the appropriate category and with regards to some form of live discussion of the nominations.

Based on what I observed at the ceremony, the Ennies have a serious problem with people simply not taking the awards seriously. Certainly not the audience—they were talking, joking, and far more intent on getting drinks from the bar than on honoring the awards themselves. Not the presenters, either--they showed a distinct lack of “giving a damn” about the ceremony as well. Some of the nominees themselves did the same by failing to even show up. Nothing sabotages the impact of the Ennies by having zero winners come up on stage for an entire category.

It’s fair to say I’m very concerned that there’s even a perception that the judges, the audience, the presenters and the nominees aren’t taking the Ennies seriously. If they won’t, who will? The Ennies should be something that we as gamers and game industry professionals can all be proud of. The Ennies should be, above all, a true measure of quality. To improve the Ennies, I believe we need some changes in the judging of nominations and the operations of the ceremony.

I should add that I am being this critical because I love the Ennies so much – to me, they were the first real RPG industry awards I could believe in, ever since their inception. I believe that the Ennies can be, and should be, the standard by which other industry awards are judged, and I hope that they can reach their true potential. Ultimately, I hope this blog post helps start a conversation that leads to discovering new solutions (one thing I wish this post could offer more of). 

Thank you for taking the time to read this!

If you agree, disagree, or had a completely different view of the Ennies this year, please don't hesitate to chime in in the comments section below! I'm particularly interested in the thoughts of other folks who attended this year's ceremony or ceremonies in years past who can compare the experiences.

4 comments:

  1. This sounds so much like the VGAs.

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  2. For the record, I am not an ENnies Judge. I am the Submissions Coordinator & Publisher Relations. I have no say in the the judging of the submissions whatsoever.

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    Replies
    1. Hm. And since, apparently Google logs me as my screen name, JediSoth = Hans Cummings, ENnie Awards Submissions Coordinator & Publisher Relations

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    2. Corrected. Thanks for letting me know, Hans.

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