Ahead of the 19th British Academy Games Awards, we spoke with Luke Hebblethwaite, BAFTA’s Head of Games, about the importance of the awards and BAFTA as a whole within the industry.
As a prestigious organization, BAFTA has a unique social appeal that can help bring wider attention to the games industry.
Hebblethwaite said: “We highlight the best of games in ways that many people in the mainstream may not realize, the skills behind them, the talent in them, the diversity of people in the industry. We have the kind of media reach that can cross barriers in ways that few other organizations can.
“Categories like Best Family Game and Game Beyond Entertainment show different aspects of what games can be and I think break some people’s ingrained understanding of what games are to them.
“Because we’re that prestigious institution, people who I think understand what its role is within film and TV, and seeing that we choose to recognize games in that way certainly crosses a lot of those barriers.”
Talking about the treatment given to the team behind Returnal – which won best game at last year’s BAFTAs, he continued, “We invited Harry Krueger, the game director, to BAFTA headquarters to do a master class along with Jane Perry, who had also just won lead performer, and I think it took them both somewhat by surprise because they were getting this kind of full BAFTA treatment.
“Exactly the same kind of thing we would do for Margot Robbie or Quentin Tarantino if they came, so that also when people come into BAFTA headquarters, there are games people in the pictures on the walls, so you see and understand that games are recognized in that way.”
Hebblethwaite also touched on how BAFTA brings the game industry into the fold of the broader entertainment scene: “We recently did a master class on The Last of Us for our connect members, so these are people in the first few years of the industry, but it was actually with the TV team, talking to the set designer, the prosthetic designer and the clothing designer telling how they translated from the game to the TV medium and what the limitations were, but also how it was different.
“It was a really great opportunity to bring those two worlds of games and TV together, of course the TV show is hugely successful right now, but a lot of the conversation was also about those people in the TV industry working on this game and actually getting their heads under the hood of games for the first time and understanding the design choices, that the outfits that people wear in games aren’t just there by random choice.
“There’s a lot of focus on that in exactly the same way a costume designer would approach it for TV.”
Within the game industry, BAFTA works to facilitate growth and connections. Hebblethwaite said: “We’re really good at bringing the industry together to have discussions and meet and kind of create a melting pot.
“We’ve hosted social events for games, the last one we had 200 industry professionals, from BAFTA winners and household names to people just starting their own indie development studios.
“We bring people together and help make those connections that can change lives and generate those random moments where cool ideas are generated; I’m sure people have gone off and formed companies with people they met at BAFTA.”
Hebblethwaite explained how these sessions help share knowledge and improve understanding in the UK: “Looking at MMOs, something very different from movies and TV, there is no real equivalent, and also very different from single player games in the way they are made. I held a panel discussion with Creative Assembly’s Hyenas team, Fall Guys’ community management team and Space Ape’s Boom Beach creative director.
“Talking about what the process is for making an MMO game, there’s a little upfront where you have ‘What are your design constraints from the beginning?’ This is going to run on X number of servers, it has to have so many people, and can only draw so many triangles or the server melts through the floor like it’s an alien.
“We kind of touch on the analogy that there is no light at the end of the tunnel, once you launch, there are two tunnels. One is continue to develop and keep keeping what we have, and there’s a second tunnel that’s a little bit like next year’s update, which is where you want to go.
“You’re always competing with the challenges of a live community and an evolving game, maybe it’s broken here, falling apart here or the players aren’t happy in this area. You’re constantly trying to maintain and grow, but then you also have longer-term goals that you’re trying to achieve at the same time.
“Having that discussion in, if you will, almost in layman’s terms, trying to figure out exactly what that means, was really enlightening. A lot of people there found that it kind of unravels a lot of what’s in these rather opaque things.”
He continued about how winning a BAFTA award is invaluable to a studio’s reputation and future business. Hebblethwaite joked: “I’m sure it’s good for their sales. Certainly, it brings a lot of prestige to those companies, sort of whatever scale you have. It’s invaluable in terms of how that company is seen by the industry, by people in the industry, by developers and other people they might want to work with. It’s an understanding that it’s a real recognition of the craft and the expertise that goes into it and the kind of investment in things that they care about.
“Probably for smaller publishers, it’s an incentive to consider games with different kinds of appeal, if you look at our Games Beyond Entertainment category and the games that are selected within that, there’s a lot of recognition that comes into that and I think, because a lot of smaller publishers are involved in important conversations, and come up with a lot of issues, it’s a nice way to recognize them as well.
“For developers it’s a huge award to win, winning a BAFTA is very difficult. We had I think 248 games entered this year and only one winner per category, so it’s stiff competition, you’re competing against the biggest games in the world.
“So when people win, that BAFTA can open a lot of doors, no matter how big your company is. For larger companies, it’s a recognition of the skills and talents out there, and brilliant for recruitment.
“For smaller companies, indie developers, that BAFTA opens a lot of doors and a lot of opportunities for the future that you’re conducting with publishers, with investors and all these kinds of things. Indie development is a tough gig, and I’m sure the BAFTAs are well appreciated by those who have them on their mantelpieces.”
“BAFTA is that prestigious institution, people understand I think what its role is within film and TV, and seeing that we choose to recognize games in that way certainly crosses a lot of those barriers.”
BAFTA also has initiatives such as their breakthrough program, connect program and young games designer competition to foster the next generation of gaming talent.
Hebblethwaite praised these initiatives: “Fundamentally, what we do is about creating opportunities to both learn and expand your network and opportunities within the gaming industry for the talent.
“Whether that’s young people who come up through our network of young game designers and are winners or nominees, for that we stay in touch with them throughout their career, that’s a really fun and wonderful community that builds.
“We get them involved and they get roles in the industry. For people in the early stages of their career, we have the whole connect program, which provides learning opportunities, both in terms of craft, but also in terms of the fundamental skills you need to succeed in any job.
“Building both simple but sometimes structured ways to network and bring people together and meet people they wouldn’t otherwise meet is really important to cross some of those barriers, we have all kinds of people in our network.
“Bringing those people together and sometimes having them network themselves, or other times bringing those people together specifically to participate in conversations and roundtables, talking about industry issues or ways to help individuals, is all fundamental to what we do, and why we’re going to create the content ourselves.
“We hope that from those great ideas come, brilliant new companies are created and great new games fundamentally grow out of all of that.”
Hebblethwaite spoke specifically about young developers, explaining: “It’s great that young people are making great games, and it’s a really good tool to be able to talk about what’s in games and how they’re made, what goes on behind the scenes; the kinds of stories that those young people choose to tell in the games that they enter into the competition, all about social issues, their own personal identity, they talk about climate change, they talk about mental health.
“I think anyone who sees that competition and the output of it, comes away from it pretty well, is really influenced by the importance of that medium to young people and I think that changes the perceptions that people have, especially with older generations.”
The 2023 BAFTA Games Awards will take place on March 30 from 18:50 BST. You can tune in to watch the ceremony live via BAFTA’s official Twitch channel.