Just over a year ago, I attended my first Playcrafting expo. Playcrafting is an organization that seeks to remove barriers in game design through making the material more accessible. I met a lot of developers, which led to a lot of interesting new finds in the world of gaming. One thing I had missed last year was a humble awards ceremony recognizing game developers in the NY area. That idea has blossomed into The '16 Bit Awards, an award show that's out to celebrate some of the underdogs in game development. Here's what happened.
The '16 Bit Awards took place at the John L. Tishman Auditorium of the Parsons School of Design. After a short check-in, award nominees and guests alike had time to mingle with refreshments provided. The atmosphere of the reception was warm in every sense of the word (especially as the New York and New Jersey area was being brutalized by chilling winds). I spoke with some people I had seen at previous events (among them Francisco Gonzalez, developer of Shardlight and the upcoming Lamplight City) and had a look around at some simple exhibits set up. There were some games available to play, but I must admit that I found navigating the area a bit more difficult due to somewhat vague signage. I spent the first hour of my time there idly chatting and getting an overall picture of the event.
At 7:55 Eastern, the nominees and attendees were called into the auditorium for the show proper. I entered relatively early and sat dead center in the second-to-last row to get a good overall picture of the venue. As with many university buildings, it had the capability to range in capacity from 400 to around 900 people. To my (and the organizer's) estimation, there were just under 400 people in attendance. The auditorium was just above half capacity, but it was certainly a striking comparison to the much humbler awards presentation at an event last year that seemed to be an add-on to one of Playcrafting's many expos. Small as it was, this was nonetheless an award show that had heart and soul put into it. It showed.
Mark Vigeant of the Upright Citizens Brigade was the emcee for the evening. He did a good job warming up the crowd and being generally entertaining (though that's not to say the presenters were in any way dull, there were plenty of laughs to go around). After a quick monologue, the show itself got going. The first award category was for Best Tabletop Game. I'm not keen on repeating myself, so if you care to see who won which awards in detail you can head over to the breakdown of the winners that I put together recently.
After this award was the announcement of the winner of a $10,000 Eko Grant for developing FMV Games. Bryan Korn won the grant, and he'll be putting it together in a game that was described as "Clerks but in an RPG Item shop." Some rough, very WIP images were shown on the theater's big screen during his speech.
Next up to the podium was John Sharp, Associate Professor of Games and Learning in the School of Art, Media and Technology at Parsons. He talked a bit about the school, his program within it, and how his program focuses on developing games not necessarily fit in any one particular genre or style and how games could be a force for change. He also made a point to talk about the diversity of the program: there are around 30% women in the undergrad program, 50% women in the graduate program, and a mix of people of color, LGBT students, and people from over 30 different countries. While it was nice to hear that there are a variety of different people engaged in games courses at Parsons, I find these things wholly irrelevant to game development. It told me absolutely nothing about what the school actually did for students in terms of education.
Best Student Game and Best Style were handed out back to back, and then a musical performance took place. I have to make special note of the band. Zac Zinger, Adam Neely, Luke Marham, and Takafumi Suenaga spent the show playing classic video game music as presenters or award recipients came onto the stage. Of course the classic Final Fantasy victory music was played (do you even have to ask?), but I took particular delight in hearing the victory music from Chrono Cross at one point. It genuinely brought a smile to my face, partly because Victory - Spring's Gift and Victory - Summer's Cry are some of my favorite video game music pieces of all time and partly because Chrono Cross is often left by the wayside as compared to Final Fantasy.
Best VR Game, Best Mobile Game, and Best PC/Console Game were awarded one after another. What followed was simply titled "Let's Play" on the Playbill, and it ended up being a game of Quiplash 2 with five professional comedians on stage as the players. Suffice to say, the game featured at least one Trump joke and a fair bit of toilet humor, but that's how crowd participation games tend to go. It was certainly entertaining, and while I feel some Let's Play element is appropriate for a games show, I felt like the overall execution of the idea was a bit weak.
Quiplash 2 aside, the event did quite well with their presentation. Another audience participation/comedy sketch had audience members trying to help a spaceship captain alert a space station that they were stranded (pictured in the header image). It was fun and chaotic right up until the emcee asked everyone to point their flashlights to the rear of the theater where I was sitting. After having about 50 flashlights aimed in my general directions, I wondered if this was what it felt like to have a stroke on the International Space Station. Still, comedy sketches are also a hallmark of awards shows and it was pretty entertaining overall (despite my temporary blindness).
After the silliness died down (and my vision recovered), Playcrafting CEO & Founder Dan Butchko took to the stage. He spoke about the growth of a program that originally started up as a game developer meetup of a few dozen people; Playcrafting now has representation in four cities (New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Boston). He spoke about their overall mission of lowering barriers for developers. It gets easier every day to make games, and if you're still a bit unsure about some of the particulars, then Playcrafting could be a great way to help you work through your project. At the way the organization was growing, I full well expect to see the 2020 Bit Awards take place in a packed arena.
What I did not expect was the announcement that Playcrafting would be hosting an event on a friggin' aircraft carrier. No, really. Awards and accolades aside, the highlight has got to be the announcement that Playcrafting will be hosting an Expo at the Intrepid Sea, Air, & Space Museum Complex on July 27, 2017. I had several questions and was afforded the opportunity to ask them following the show. The short of it was that the venue was interested not only in hosting Playcrafting but working with them. Considering that part of the "museum" is an aircraft carrier that served in World War 2, I'm quite excited to see what's in store. (Seriously, how many museums have sunk an enemy ship in wartime? 'cause this one sure did!)
Following Dan was the 2016 Game Changer Award presentation. It was given to Ted Price, CEO & Founder of Insomniac Games. Most notably, he stated that he feels the award is shared with his entire team. Speaking on the topic of game development, he had quite poignant words for the audience: "For those who heed the call, it's hard to hear anything else."
The show concluded with the final two awards: the Rising Pixel awards, given to two game developers who were considered by the awards committee to be up and comers in the game development world. Once again, if you'd like to see a breakdown of all of the nominees and winners, you can head over to my article on that topic. The show concluded and most of the audience left, but I took the time to stick around and chat with some of the people there.
I managed to get just a few moments of Ted Price's time (and I'm quite grateful for it). Unfortunately. I wasn't well-equipped to properly record our mini-interview, and so I'll relate the key points of our conversation.
To start, I inquired how Insomniac Games managed to put out five games in one year: Ratchet and Clank, Song of the Deep, Edge of Nowhere, The Unspoken, and Feral Rites. Mr. Price began by stating that Insomniac Games has around 250 people in its employ but emphasized that he felt it was the philosophy of "ownership" was a key to success. While they don't quite have the flat management structure of Valve, he stated that they aimed to be light on unnecessary management or bureaucratic positions. Of course, there are project leads and the like, but mainly the devs at Insomniac get to focus on developing games.
I further inquired about his company's experiences with VR and where he thought it was heading in the future. Interestingly (and, to my reckoning, quite accurately) he felt that VR is going to be much larger in non-gaming applications in the coming years. (I certainly wouldn't take the bet that there were more computers used for gaming as opposed to office work—I'd probably lose.) He noted that the billions of dollars invested into VR isn't all centered exclusively around gaming, and it has innumerable consumer applications.
I had one final question pop into my head, and he was quite gracious enough to answer. I asked him whether he thought VR would head towards multiple walled gardens or towards a completely open standard such as OSVR. In essence, he feels that it will be both, although he doesn't feel like we're going to see the kinds of splits in exclusivity that we got in the eras when there were a half-dozen competing consoles on the market. I thanked him for his time and headed home.
All in all, it was a fun night. I got to meet some interesting new people as well as catch up with some old acquaintances from past events. I got to briefly experience what it felt like to be Jean-Luc Picard when he was held captive by the Cardassians, and I got to see a bunch of game developers get acknowledged for thousands of man hours and years of their life spent on helping the rest of us have a little more fun.
The '16 Bit Awards were only opened to the public in a limited fashion—attendees, family, and press got priority. Had I not received press credentials, it would have been $20 for the event. So here, at the end of my recap, is a mini-review of the event itself. Had you been Mr. Generic Gaming fan, would it have been worth it to spend the $20 to see this show?
In honesty, not this time around, but not for lack of effort. The '16 Bit Awards was entertaining, but the core of the show was handing out awards to indie game developers who weren't as well-known. If you had attended a Playcrafting Expo, it would be a very different thing. There were quite a few people in the audience that likely followed a game from "Hey I just made this alpha last month" to "I've sold a bunch of copies of my game, people love it, and I've won an award for it from the Expo I hosted it at!" I think without the context of knowing what the games are and what the developers went through, it doesn't really have as much meaning for the average person. To put it into practice, watch an award show from a completely foreign country—are you particularly interested in who won an award in a Hong Kong awards show? Unless you're invested in Hong Kong's cinema, probably not.
However, I think that's going to change. Playcrafting is an ambitious organization with a simple mission, and I think as the organization grows, well ... a rising tide lifts all boats. It may be a long way off from being as well known as the BAFTAs or VGAs, but the '16 Bit Awards was an excellent start for a show that can blossom into something truly great.
Disclosure: I was able to attend this event with a press pass courtesy of Playcrafting.
What do you think about The '16 Bit Awards? Do you feel the name will be as effective in 2017? (After all, I've never heard of a 17-bit game.) What would you like to see in your ideal gaming award show? Let us know in the comments below!