There has been some talk about the way judging works at the Independent Game Festival and I figured I would try to contribute my experience. Last year I was in the IGF student competition, and it was such an amazing experience that I contacted the IGF and begged them to be a part of it this year. I was honored when they gave me with a chance to be a judge.
I was assigned 18 games to judge in the Main Competition and 14 games in the Student Competition. That is a lot of games to play and digest in a short period of time. I tried to judge a game every few days but they eventually piled up. Instead of directly putting my scores into the website I kept a notebook (I guess I was just nervous about being the first the judge a game) and ended up entering most of my scores and comments in a single day.
Prior to that I had been receiving emails fairly steadily from the IGF letting me know that other judges were commenting on the games I needed to score. I totally disagree with Anna's viewpoint on the comments section being useless. For several of the games that could have been potential finalist there were long debates on the merits of the game. In one case there was even a discussion about what exactly counts as 'indie spirit' (check in the rules under restrictions/eligibility) and if a certain game could/should even be considered.
There were several games in my group that had no comments, mainly because there really was no need for discussion. There were over 300 games submitted, only 20 games were chosen as finalists. That means there are a lot of games that simply are not that good, and most of the judges realize they are not in the same league as the cream of the crop.
Now, to move on to the actual idea of the 'indie game' scene and the idea of innovation. I do think that I have had more than enough puzzle-platformers (honestly, it is getting ridiculous) and physics-based puzzle games. However, I understand that platformers and puzzle games are, in fact, the easiest sorts of games to make with a small team and limited assets. Therefore, I expect the IGF to be overrun with them. To be honest, I do not think I will ever understand the games that are put in the Nuovo Award category. Few (if any) of them interest me, and in my opinion I think some of them should not be labeled as "games". I like games to be fun first and provocative second.
The problem with getting upset about the lack of innovation is that not everyone sees it in the same way. I love a game that is only slightly innovative on a concept that I am already familiar with (check out this Mario/Tetris mash-up, it is excellent). When a game like The Graveyard (I still do not think this is a "game") becomes a finalist, it is tough for me to be on board with it. However, I can totally respect how some people love this sort of experience. Just from the discussions I had within my group of games I am totally confident that there is a diverse set of gaming tastes among judges.
I have spent a while trying to figure out what I think would make IGF better. There are certainly some problems, but I could not really come up with many better solutions. For a while I considered advocating for different categories based on genre, but that broke down after realizing how tough it is to even pick a genre for some games (guess what, it is hard to pick a good category for some of the finalist as well). Now that the IGF has sort of reached critical mass I think we will see the competition start to mature.
The most important thing for me, as a judge, was to really spend as much time as I could giving feedback to the contestants. I tried really hard to write thoughtful and useful ideas and to do my best with constructive criticism. This is the value of the IGF. For those brave developers that put their game (and some money) in the spotlight of dozens of hyper-critical judges, their pay-off is in that feedback they get in return not in the chance to be in a competition. That sort of feedback is required for all judges, and I think it is the main reason any developer should actually enter the competition. The people judging these games are amazing designers and indie developers (I was well outclassed by almost all the other judges in skill and experience).
The experience of being a judge was great for me as as a gamer and as a gamer developer. There is a certain challenge in looking at a game critically and being forced to judge it. It is extremely good for anyone interested in designing games to try and understand why you absolutely loved that double jump mechanic or why you hated the way that level was laid out (not just that you hated it but why). This sort of distillation of ideas, the actual process of breaking a game down, is so valuable that I cannot wait to judge more games. I do not think I was alone in this opinion either, all of the judges in my group took this very seriously and put a ton of work into the feedback.
The IGF will only continue to grow and get better. I encourage everyone that is tempted to submit a game to do it. Realize that it will only make your game better and it will likely even make you a better designer. The chance at being a finalist in the competition is just icing on the cake when you realize the amount of awesome feedback you will receive.
Best of luck to all of the 2010 Finalists and thanks to the IGF organizers and all the other judges for making it possible.