I volunteered to be one of the many judges for the IGF this year. Here are some of the random observations that I jotted down while working my way through the batch of games I was assigned to evaluate. Hopefully these observations will be useful to people entering the competition next year.
Observation #1: you can’t win a competition if the judges can’t play your game.
Out of all the games I was asked to judge, approximately half did not run on either of the two different Windows PCs in my home. One is my laptop, which is much more powerful than a netbook but isn’t one of those “desktop replacement” models with a $400 video card. The other is my brand new gaming desktop, a machine probably more powerful than 99% of computers in US homes today. I could also have tried the games on my wife’s laptop, but if by some chance a game somehow corrupted her PC she would have killed me, so I opted not to risk that. ;-)
I’m not surprised half the games wouldn’t run; the compatibility-related frustrations of PC gaming were precisely why, after many years of shunning consoles, I eventually threw up my hands and made the Xbox 360 my personal gaming platform of choice. And this isn’t a knock against the organizers of the IGF; they screen every game to make sure it runs before they submit it to judges for evaluation. The IGF can’t be expected to try every submission on fifteen different PC configurations… that’s the individual game developer’s job. But this isn’t even a knock against developers, because I appreciate how challenging traditional PC game development can be.
And that’s really the point of all this (I know, it took me long enough to get there.) If you’re an independent game developer working on a downloadable PC game, you really need to ask yourself if the benefits you get from your engine actually outweigh the portability benefits of Flash, and to a lesser extent, solutions like Unity. I doubt that consumers are, in general, much more forgiving than IGF judges. Requiring a download probably drives away half your potential customers right off the bat — the actual percentage varies depending on the game and the audience, of course. You’d better be certain that the game concept and technology you’ve settled on is so compelling that it justifies not only losing customers to a download, but also losing another large percentage to compatibility problems!
On a final note, this seems like a good time to once again reference Danc’s flash love letter: a worthwhile read for all PC game developers.
Update: After much additional effort, I was eventually able to play 70% of the games in my batch. I had to give up on the other 30%.