Last month's Tokyo Game Show, which broke yet another record for attendance (over 270,000 visitors across four days), was a busy time for Japanese game developers. Masahiro Sakurai, creator of Kirby and currently producing the Wii U/3DS Super Smash Bros., was no exception.
As he explained in his weekly column in the new Famitsu magazine, Sakurai was busy leading the judges committee for the Game Designers' Award, part of the Japan Game Awards given by the Japanese government each year. The committee wound up giving the design award to The Unfinished Swan, the SCE Santa Monica-developed title available on the PlayStation Network.
"When we started judging, the votes were so split that I thought more than once that we wouldn't have a winner at all," he said. "However, in the end I think we made a good selection, since there are some things to this game you won't see anywhere else."
Sakurai went on to discuss the futility of even judging such an award, especially given that he (like many devs) had to spend TGS watching videos and giving interviews instead of actually playing anything.
"Me and the other judges are all busy people and we have trouble getting time for games," he wrote. "If we spent time checking out even all the big-name titles alone, to say nothing of smartphone apps and so on, we wouldn't be able to make any of the games we're involved with. We're free to judge as we like, but if you ask us whether we're taking a fair, in-depth look at every title out there, that's not the case. Besides, it's presumptuous to judge someone else's title, in a way, since any developer has to give his all to produce any kind of good product."
Nonetheless, Sakurai continued, the design award is important work because, in his eyes, it helps provide an antidote to the sequel-laden, AAA-dominated modern game scene.
"Is there any industry that relies so much on reusing and reusing their old titles as much as video games?" he asked. "Compared to other media like movies, dramas, animation, novels and comics, the glut of franchises and remakes is at an unnatural level."
Why is this? In part, Sakurai wrote, it's inherent in the nature of the media. "You have to learn the rules of a game before you can play, and that presents hurdles from the very start," he said. "That's why you have a generally unified approach to control methods between titles, and you can usually play one by taking what you already know and adding a feature or two to it — X means jump, Square means attack, and so on."
Sakurai took pains in the column to show that he's not criticizing big-name titles for being successful, but he sees the need for an alternative as well
"Good games attract fans, and if you have fans, you have an advantage," he wrote. "You try to use that to make the title something bigger, but that doesn't mean it's okay to give up on innovation. Popular, well-made games deserve praise, but titles that have some kind of unique creative spark to them also need to be praised in this way. That's what the judges are trying to do here, and it won't work if it was just popular majority vote. That would lead to people just voting on names and past performances."