Why is every Dream-Build-Play winner a 2D platformer with grass?

This week, Microsoft announced that Dream-Build-Play 2012 (DBP) is open for registration. The contest (now in its 6th episode) is a showcase of the year’s best of games that have been developed using their XNA game-creation-tools. I will of course be entering City Tuesday in it because the deadline is close enough that it really gives me the motivation to finish.

I took a look back at the past grand-prize winners and remarked at the uncanny similarities of all the games. Here is the list of ever grand prize winner with screenshots:

If you pay close attention, you might notice some similarities among the grand prize winners:
– Every single game has been a 2D platformer.
– Four of the five have featured an adorable lead character (Some may even consider James Silva’s Dishwasher a lovable gremlin).
– Four of the five have featured hyper-saturated cartoon graphics completely devoid of blood (again the dishwasher is the outlier).
– Similarly, three of the five have featured particularly verdant environments replete with green grass and blue skies. (The dishwasher does feature some grassy environments all-be-it desaturated).
– And, only one had any type of firearms (yup dishwasher again).

Yes yes I know there are only so many genres that a small, independent game developer can make in a year or two. However, XBLIG has had been known for its dual stick shooters, SHMUPS , RPGs , and Zombie games. Yet, not a single one of these genres has been featured in the grand prize. Heck even the second and third place winners of DBP show more diversity of what is in the service.

So why does Microsoft keep picking essentially the same type of game year after year? The dream-build-play (as if the name wasn’t clear enough) is a competition of wish
granting. It is trying to show the public how wonderful and great the games made by this community. This isn’t a chance to show some rough-around-the edges yet brilliant re-imagining of an over-done game convention. DBP is not supposed to be challenging your conceptions of what a game is.

Instead, the games that win are beautiful even in a static screen shot. They control well and the animation is really smooth. The games are inoffensive and they are generally pleasing to the widest possible audience.

It is the easy-listening music of game making.

I am not trying to dismiss the games that won. Each one has the high-level of quality that I could only dream of getting my own game to.
However, I am tired of the same type of game winning every year.

The Dream-Build-Play competition reminds me of this really great segment on This American Life about two artists who hired a marketing research firm to poll people what they consider to be a beautiful painting. The leader of the project, Alex Melamind, found that the most widely pleasing painting would be a landscape with blue sky, wild animals, water, and mountains. You can see the painting here:

You can listen to the segment here.

Sound similar to the games that win?

I once asked the Microsoft community manager who the judges were for the Dream Build Play competition. Unfortunately they said it was a secret. I was trying to figure out if they maybe contracted with some of the more famous critics in the game industry. I would really like to see someone like Kotaku Editor-and-Chief Stephen Totillo (who in 2007 -same year as portal – picked Desktop Tower Defense for his game of the year).

I have a feeling the project leads of each of the departments that have a stake in the XBLIG community get a vote. My bet is that it is something like the project manager of XNA, the marketing director of Xbox Live, and Larry “Major Nelson” Hryb. So, if you are making a game that you hope will take the big prize, forget about making one that will redefine what people consider a game to be. Lose the abstract art. Ditch that wonderfully ironic and violent grind-house game. No bloody zombies. No bullets. Just grass, blue skies, cute animals, pretty animation.

Dream Build Play Winners: