We’ve talked a little bit about my experiences over the last year as an ENnies judge, but now the process (for me, at least) is over. The nominees have all been set; the voting has begun. At least one of the other judges this year has posted a series of really good posts about her experiences on the panel, and I think I would be remiss if I didn’t share a little bit about my own perspective, particularly because I’m hoping to be a judge again this year.
Although I’ve been a judge before, this year was by far the most rewarding experience I’ve had with the ENnies organization. Tony Law — the ENnies business manager — is a conscientious, enthusiastic guy who really cares about games — and of, course, the awards. Much of the “openness” of the process of the last few years is really Tony’s accomplishment. If you feel like you have much greater insight into what’s happening with the ENnies, thank Tony. Hans Cummings, the submissions coordinator, also did a bang-up job making sure we didn’t accidentally nominate something that was not technically eligible, and generally kept on us to ensure that we all saw the stuff we were supposed to see. If Tony is the great cheerleader for these awards, Hans is the coach making sure the game gets played right.
And then, of course, there are the judges. I had the great pleasure of working with Jody Kline, Matthew Muth, Kurt Wiegel, and Kat Boulware throughout the year. Each and every one of them were conscientious, dedicated, and passionate. When it came down to the wire, we had a few excellent debates about the merits of the various entries, and I think came up with a pretty darned good list of products for you to see. I think we all had a few personal favorites that didn’t make the final list (this has, I think, been a strong year for RPGs in general), but by and large the compromises we made were sensible, and I think helped ensure that we recognized a wide body of product from a lot of different publishers.
One thing that I suspect most people don’t know is how fluid the process of determining the nominations is, right up until the very end. Although the judges have nominal platforms, and we strive to play with as many of the entered games, adventures, and supplements (etc.) as we can, a lot of what we do decide is based on what we read. And for all the accusations we face of what “message” we are or aren’t trying to send, the stuff that gets nominated is — when it comes down to it — just a list of the stuff we liked best, collectively.
Of the hundreds of products entered, I had opportunity to use somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2 of the entries at the table (or behind the proverbial GM screen). In some cases, those are products that stood out and got nominations; in other cases, practical experience wore off some of the shine.
But they key here is that — by and large — much of our experience with these games is solitary (or at least separate). We try to play all these games, but we don’t play them together. That means, when we’re lobbying for our favorite products and/or horsetrading to ensure that a quality product gets the nomination we think it deserves, our experience with the game might not be universal. Furthermore, there are so many entered products that some of what we’re doing is triage. “Well, I thought this was a neat idea but it completely lost me in chapter 3. I guess I’ll set it aside and see if something else grabs me,” is, I think, a pretty common kind of thought process. And then we negotiate. We lobby. We cajole. We throw tantrums (not so much with the tantrums). Mostly, though, we talk. We have friendly conversations about what we like. And then we slowly pare down our lists, and (in our case, after an epic Google + hangout) arrive at a final list that maybe doesn’t have EVERYTHING we wanted as individuals on it, but does represent quality as the group sees it.
I could go on for days about trends I saw in this years’ entries. We saw a lot of stuff that would never have existed without Kickstarter. Crowdfunding has fundamentally changed the hobby, and I sincerely hope it’s not just a blip on the industry’s radar. I don’t necessarily think that Kickstarter has raised the overall quality of the average entry, but it has made it possible to produce games that are VERY narrowly targeted. Games with extremely specific purposes that — within their self-imposed constraints — just shine. I do have some fears about the loss of a “mass market” to these smaller constituencies, but I think it’s undoubtedly made it easier for creators to be, well, creative. And that’s awesome.
It’s too late to say that we’re in a PDF revolution. We’re well passed that milestone by this point. But e-publishing has taken off incredibly, with hundreds of entries that stand (stood?) shoulder to shoulder with the stuff we got in print. Further, as “tiered” crowdfunding models become more common in the gaming industry, I think we’re going to see more and more publishers using a PDF (or other e-publishing standards) as a way to test the waters before things go to print. That unfortunately can play havoc with the entry rules for the ENnies (which are based specifically on date of publication), particularly when you have a PDF edition of a game published in one eligibility period, and the final print version coming out in another. I don’t think this is the only reason that the awards are moving to a fee-free PDF or print entry model, but I think it’s a contributing factor.
With the new entry model, I suspect next year’s judges will see MUCH more of their products entered in PDF, rather than hard copy. Further, the lowered barrier to entry will likely mean that judges will see even more product than we did — and I’m fairly certain we set records for pages read and dice rolled. This will have a consequence of making the traditional way previous panels have judged things like production values much more difficult, and may force certain categories to realign as we see another explosion in electronic submission. I don’t think the new entry rules will necessary discourage publishers from submitting in hard copy, but it has effectively removed any previous incentive for them to do so. If I were in their shoes, I can’t think of a reason NOT to submit in PDF.
Finally, I hope we continue to see entries targeted at new gamers: at kids, families, and other potential newbies. I have a lot of respect for a well-made game of any stripe or color, but as a dad, I want to know that the hobby can survive me. Accessible, approachable games targeted at people other than the 5-, 10-, and 20-year veterans are important. We strongly considered adding a “Kid’s Game” or “Family Game” category this year, but unfortunately the numbers just weren’t there. Still, there were more products targeted outside the “traditional” audience than I’d ever seen before, and I hope that segment continues to grow.
By the Way…
I think it’s probably worthwhile to point out that — while I am done with this year’s awards (well, almost done: I have a small role at the ceremony) — I am running to be a judge again next year. I’m incredibly proud of the slate of nominees we came up with, and I’d like the opportunity to represent you all again. Please, consider ranking me number 1 among this years judge nominees. Honestly, you’d do very well to rank any of this year’s nominees who are running again. But I’m probably biased. Still, I’d love your support. I (probably) won’t let you down.