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Annual Video Game Awards draws attention and celebrity to games, but not to game makers

The tenth annual Spike TV Video Game Awards was a lavish affair. Packed with celebrity, the VGAs was entertaining, informative, amusing; it just wasn't really an awards show.

While gaming was certainly the focal point of the live two-hour show on Spike TV Friday night, the awards, and the people winning them didn't just take a back seat, they weren't even in the car.

Not counting the commercials, the programming lasted about an hour and a half. The award-winning developers and their on-stage acceptance speeches took up less than five minutes of that time. That's about 45 seconds for each of the televised acceptance speeches. While that matches the time given to Oscar acceptance speeches, only a quarter of the 24 awards were announced on TV for this year's VGAs.

The result was a spectacle that cast a light on the medium of video games, but still somehow forgot to humanize it. Game creators, publishers and players seem split on the resulting show. While some voiced concerns that the VGAs seem to have less in common with the Oscars than the commercials that air during movie's night of awards, others think that a mainstream audience won't be drawn to a show packed with unfamiliar faces, even if those faces belong to the creators of billion-dollar video games.

"I think the show has gotten a lot better," Rob Pardo, chief creative officer at Blizzard, the company behind World of Warcraft, told Polygon during the red carpet lead up to the show. "I've seen it evolve over time and I feel like it really started almost as a show that was more about Hollywood with games as an excuse to have all that. Now it feels like it's much more about the games than it once was. I think they've come a long way. They're trying to do an entertainment product that's interesting to viewers but still celebrate the right games. It's getting to the right place. The only thing I'd still wish for is to really honor the game creators more on stage and talk about the teams, I still feel they could push the show a bit further that way."

The result was a spectacle that cast a light on the medium of video games, but still somehow forgot to humanize it.

Celebrating its tenth anniversary, this year's show included an impressive list of on-stage celebrity presenters and performers. The show included performances by a live orchestra, Linkin Park and Tenacious D. Samuel L. Jackson, Zachary Levi, Snoop Lion, Norman Reedus, Danai Gurira, Steven Yeun, Adam Scott, Zoe Saldana, Jack Black and Neil Patrick Harris all took to the stage, or popped up in a pre-recorded skits, throughout the night.

Many of those appearances on stage were to introduce not an award winner, but rather a new trailer for a video game.

The presentation afforded a level of anticipation that grew steadily throughout the night; unfortunately, that building buzz wasn't for the award winners but rather those trailers advertising unreleased games.

The awards, a bulk of which weren't announced during the television presentation, seemed shoehorned into the night of gaming. Only six of the show's awards were handed out on TV. The rest were announced on a companion online stream of the event during asides or, oddly, during the unaired red carpet event before the show started.

When developers did take to the stage, they kept their talks succinct, often thanking the gamers who play their creations.

It's inauspicious that the awards were so buried in the celebrity of the evening, because more than any of the show's before it, this year's VGA winners offered a telling glimpse into an evolving medium.

Take for instance the winner of the best musical score: Journey. Just days earlier, composer Austin Wintory announced that the soundtrack for the game had also received a Grammy nomination.

"Well, I don't really have words right now..." he tweeted shortly after finding out.

It turns out he didn't need them for his VGA award either. The award wasn't announced on stage. But when we spoke to him on the red carpet, shortly before the win, he seemed OK with the already-known nature of the award show.

"I think the VGAs have carved out their own space in broad culture and in the game culture and they're the only ones occupying that space," he told Polygon. "I think that's great. If they want to be a hub for premieres and new trailers, I don't have a problem with that. As with the Video Games Live tour, they are adding a populist, mainstream, palatable look at the gaming community and that's pretty cool. We're used to living in the shadows a bit, so I think it's great."

It's too bad that moment was lost in the pageantry of a show that should be celebrating such moments.

What should have been the biggest surprise of the night could have easily been missed among the bombastic, surprising, often alluring video game trailers: The winner of the game of the year.

Taking home four awards, Telltale Game's The Walking Dead's achievements are a sure sign of a changing industry.

It's not just that The Walking Dead is an adaptation, the game is also an amalgam of everything that typically doesn't define a big success in video games.

Released episodically as a download only, The Walking Dead is also a point-and-click adventure game, where decisions matter more than dexterity. That's essentially the opposite of the industry's most purchased franchises, like Call of Duty.

The Walking Dead being named Game of the Year, Best Adapted Game and Best Downloadable Game (it also picked up an award for Best Performance by a Human Female, for good measure) is a sure sign that the industry, or at least the people who judge it, are not just ready for change, they're embracing it.

It's too bad that moment was lost in the pageantry of a show that should be celebrating such moments.

Geoff Keighley, executive producer of the Spike TV Video Game Awards, was unable to comment in time for this article.

Good Game is an internationally syndicated weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Brian Crecente is a founding News Editor of Polygon. He is also a judge for the Spike TV Video Game Awards.

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