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Behind the evocative graphics, stirring music, and technical programming that make a game feel complete, there must be a blueprint that holds it all together -- a design concept that establishes the game and holds all the other pieces together. The IGF Excellence in Design award seeks to highlight those titles with exceptional and innovative design ideas -- especially those that take risks to explore new and different ideas not currently found in mainstream games. Previous winners include 2D Boy's World of Goo and Pocketwatch Games' unique heist game, Monaco.

This year's Excellence in Design award will be judged by a number of experienced game industry creators. Dylan Cuthbert is a co-founder of Q-Games, creators of the PixelJunk series. George Fan concocted the wildly popular Plants Vs. Zombies. Kyle Gray designed Henry Hatsworth in the Puzzling Adventure. Robin Hunicke helped create MySims and Boom Blox, and is now working on thatgamecompany's Journey. Gary Penn worked on titles like Grand Theft Auto and Crackdown, and more recently helped found Denki. Kris Piotrowski is a co-founder of Capy, best known for games like Critter Crunch and Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes. Andy Schatz was the creator of previous design winner, Monaco. Mare Sheppard is one of the co-founders of Metanet Software, the team behind the fantastic N. The panel also includes Petri Purho (Crayon Physics Deluxe), Margaret Robinson of Hide & Seek, and Semi Secret Software's Adam Saltsman. Rounding out the judges panel is Randy Smith, co-owner and designer at Tiger Style, and former designer on Thief.

A WORD FROM THE IGF JUDGES: "Design jurists agreed that the category would reward games that demonstrated not only 'originality' and 'elegance' in their underlying design, but things 'mainstream developers are UNWILLING to do' - something 'risky, personal, arty, unconventional, niche, or dangerous.'

"QCF's 'perfectly compressed' Desktop Dungeons was just one of those games, by offering 'an entirely new design idea: literally everything in the game is a commodity to be managed,' and for 'keeping the exterior or interface simple (weapon power, level, health, and magic are your only stats - the only control is mouse clicks) but having enormously complicated and interesting choices to make,' while Steph Thirion's Faraway, a game praised for being 'lovely, deep, and elegant,' within its 'severely limiting' underlying one-button play.

"Messhof's 'riotously fun' Nidhogg here, too, was selected for its 'clean, simple controls, and new concept,' and for 'capturing a vibe of high action and adventure, and reproducing some real swordfighting dynamics,' while Vlambeer's retro-styled Super Crate Box was described as 'reductive hardcore action shooting platforming brilliance' for its juggling act of three core goals 'stay alive, get crates, prevent enemies from reaching bottom.'

"Finally, Mojang's Minecraft here was praised for aspects of its design including an appeal 'the creative side of people,' and a first-person 'living Lego' sense of imagination, and also more minute specifics, such as its crafting system that inspires deduction by requiring the player to create recipes 'spatially and logically.' Said one jurist: 'I truly don't know what I'm going to find: this is an untouched world that is mine to live and die in...[other, more traditional open-world games] feel like an authored world created by repeating the same cookie cutter pieces.'"

Other Nominations:  Seumas McNally Grand Prize
Developer:  QCF Design
Platform: Windows, Mac
Release Date:  Available Now
Price: Free

Note: This article originally appeared in the March 2011 issue of Game Informer (#215), authored by Meagan Marie

Desktop Dungeons takes the heart of the RPG subgenre roguelike and distills it into a short and sweet coffee break excursion. The finely-tuned balance of superficial fun and surprising depth makes each 5-10-minute play through unexpectedly fulfilling.

Every adventure starts the player as a level one character that must explore vast dungeons, best foes, gain experience, scavenge loot, purchase equipment, maintain piety from the gods, and ultimately prepare to take on a level ten boss.

Unexplored territory within a dungeon is valuable, as uncovering new ground via adjacent tiles renews both the player’s health and mana reserves. In this regard, exploration is an art form. One must navigate about uncovered territory to attack monsters within their skill range, level up, heal through uncovering more tiles, and then begin the process of boosting their XP once again. The result feels almost like a puzzle at times, training you to explore and take on enemies in a formulaic order. Formulaic, but undoubtedly fun.

Depth of play is integrated through ailments and status changes, potions and spells, equipment and upgrades, and so on. Additionally, Desktop Dungeons derives longevity from the comprehensive race and class systems, all of which boast unique skills and unlockable challenges to further encourage replaying. If you’re like me, little encouragement will be needed to dedicate hours upon hours to Desktop Dungeons.

Check out QFC's Desktop Dungeons Survival Guide below.

[Next up: Fly through space to create constellations in Faraway]