An Interview With Geoff Keighley About The Game Awards 2021 And The Game He'd Love To See Announced
Last year’s The Game Awards show was the biggest yet in terms of viewership. Growing more than 84 percent year-over-year to the tune of a staggering 83 million livestream views, The Game Awards has become one of the video game industry’s biggest events. But we aren’t just tuning in to find out which title will be crowned Game of the Year; we are also there for the World Premieres, which shine the spotlight on new games we’ll be playing in the years ahead. Some publishers save their biggest surprises for The Game Awards, a show that almost didn’t exist.
For a decade, Keighley was the producer and host of Spike TV’s Video Game Awards, a show that started strong in the early 2000s, but fizzled out in 2013 due to poor viewership numbers and criticism over the show’s format. For the 2014 show, Spike wasn’t going to broadcast it on TV, opting instead to stream it online. Keighley didn’t agree with Spike’s direction and dropped out of the presentation. For unknown reasons on top of Keighley’s departure, Spike canceled that year’s event in the eleventh hour. That didn’t stop Keighley from having an awards show that year. He worked with publishers to fund a new show simply titled The Game Awards. Given the diminishing returns of Spike’s show, he didn’t know if this new program would draw people in. That year’s livestream netted nearly two million views – a respectable number – but the true victory was the format and tone of the show. This was the format people were clearly looking for. In each following year, The Game Awards’ viewership has doubled and is now one of the highest viewed programs of any entertainment medium.
In October, I caught up with Keighley as he was finalizing plans for this year’s show. He once again serves the dual duties of producer and host. He has always been open about the ups and downs of The Game Awards, and always seems relaxed, no matter how close the show is to airing. This year, he tells me he has too many World Premiere reveals and feels terrible turning publishers down.
The Game Awards grew from 45 million viewers to an unfathomable 80 million in one year. Given we were sheltering in place during the Covid-19 pandemic, can you speak to how the growth was potentially tied to that?
I’m still amazed we were able to do the show last year. That happened right when the second lockdown was just starting. We were in Los Angeles, and in the days leading into the show, we were unsure what was going to happen. We had a satellite truck parked outside my house just in case I would have to broadcast the show from home. We had this set we were building every day and were worried [the show] would get canceled if the government was going to shut down the city. [The pandemic] was getting increasingly worse, almost every day as we led up to the show. I didn’t believe the show was happening until the day before. I was like, “I guess we’re really going to get a chance to do it.”
It was really challenging to pull it together and do things over Zoom and figure out how to do it safely with our team with all the testing and everything around it. The victory was just getting to do the show. I was kind of depressed for months thinking that we weren’t going to be able to do it. The fact that it actually did so well was incredible. Seeing it grow was really heartwarming.
There are always two sides to the coin, though. Success on one, and on the other, the pressure for this year. Can we keep growing? We never think about the audience numbers. We don’t sit around and plot a strategy to get another 10 million viewers. We just focus on making an awesome show for the community.
For safety concerns, the pandemic continues to throw kinks into live events. At this point in time, you are planning on returning to an in-person format with an audience. Does it feel like business as usual, or are you planning on having that satellite truck in waiting again?
The big difference this year is we have vaccines. We had a year of learning the process around how to do these things. We decided pretty early that we’re going to go back to the Microsoft Theater, and we’re going to build our set and have our orchestra there. There are a lot of protocols and costs about, like, doing a show like this, and the testing and everything involved in doing it. We’re planning to do a full-scale show at the theater. This will be our biggest set yet. It’s our biggest production. We’re going full tilt with the full experience, but keeping safety in mind. We do have contingency plans if there is another variant or issues pop up. How can we pivot and sort of do something different?
We’re doing a traditional show with some capacity restrictions on the audience and some other requirements. We have to see if people are comfortable traveling, including internationally. We are unsure about that. That’s everyone’s personal decision. I’m excited to be back in a venue. Most of the game companies, when we talk to them this year, they all like the idea of finally being able to get back to doing something in person. I’m honored that we’re sort of the first event that’s going to do something with people gathering in a safe and controlled way.
Given last year’s success, I have a feeling every publisher and developer is jumping at the chance to be a part of the show.
Generally, people are really positive on wanting to be a part of the show. And I see some of that is physical presence, but a lot want to contribute content. One of the greatest things last year, was in the middle of a pandemic, all these developers were able to make awesome trailers and give us content to put in the show. In terms of things to be announced at the show, we have more games this year than ever before. We’re in a nice position that people want to be a part of the show. And you know, it’s an award show, but increasingly, I think more we want to use it as a vehicle to kind of share news on games. So that’s this sort of internal balance that we’re striking.
The other thing that is in the background is there’s a lot of these streaming shows and movies based on games. We’re trying to figure out how to navigate some of that, like The Witcher and the Cuphead shows, as well as the Uncharted movie. This is the first year we’re trying to navigate how to include some of that stuff. They are based on games, but not actually games.
You said you have more reveals than ever. What can we expect from them?
As always, we try and balance things between brand-new games to updates on games that people really care about. There are also live-service games that could have content dropping the night of the show. This year, we have a lot of stuff being announced for the first time at the show, which is exciting. I feel like next generation has started but it hasn’t really in a way. And I don’t mean that to disparage any existing games, but there’s [new stuff] coming down the pipe from first- and third-parties. The install bases of the current consoles have limited how much stuff is coming out. I believe 2022 is when the jets really get turned on. We’ll have a couple things in our show that I think are going to be truly next-gen. Experiences that I think will excite people about the future and where games go. And I’m not just saying just first-party games. There are technical showpieces that I’m excited about. And then we also have a balance between big franchises with small developers, and smaller teams are doing really interesting things. It’s a constantly moving target. I’ve said this before, but some things drop out the week before the show, and there are also new things that show up on my doorstep a week before the show.
I always tell the story of In the Valley of the Gods from Campo Santo, the studio with Valve now. They came to me two weeks before the show. I’m like, “This is amazing. Where was this trailer three months ago?” People think [the show] is all plotted out well in advance. Sometimes it is, but oftentimes things are just shifting. I feel pretty confident that we have a really good lineup that’s going to excite people. I’ve also learned that you have to manage expectations because everyone has a different game in their mind’s eye.
I think next year is going to be really exciting for games overall. There’s so much content coming out.
Figuring out where the reveals go has to be a big jigsaw puzzle. Have you figured out what the first and last reveal will be? They always seem to be two of the big ones.
Good question. I think I sort of know the last thing, which is going to be really cool. And the first thing, I think I know, but it might shift around a little bit. The positioning of things in the show is always interesting. Some companies are very specific about where they want to be in the show. I honestly do not make those calls until probably about a month before the show when we really see everything that comes in. The minute I say yes to something, something else might show up. We keep it fluid. We definitely have a good sense of the stuff that’s early and late in the show. And then there’s a bunch of cool stuff in the middle of it as well. We want to surprise people with stuff they aren’t expecting.
Any new awards this year?
We don’t have any new awards. The accessibility award will be back this year. We’ve been toying with a couple categories that I think we’ll add in the future. We’re not quite there yet, though. I think eventually we might do an award for best adaptation with all these streaming shows, movies, comic books, and other things coming out. I think there’s something interesting there. There’s just not enough yet. I think in the next couple of years, that’ll be something. And we’re also thinking a little bit about user-generated content being made in games like Fortnite, Core, and Roblox. Again, I don’t think we’re quite there yet, but that’s one that I think is on the radar for the future. This year, it’s pretty much the same.
You mentioned you’re building the biggest set yet. I can’t even wrap my brain around what it could be. You already have giant statues on it, one of the biggest screens out there, and a complete orchestra. What is the space for?
We just keep adding more every year. We have a really cool video floor that we’re doing that’s kind of a video screen. It’s really interesting. We haven’t revealed some of the musical guests, but we’ve got amazing, huge names doing that. Every year I think we’re slowly building this show into what I hope is the biggest award show in entertainment, which just happens to be about games. We’re cautious this year obviously because of Covid, but that has not stopped us. I think you’ll see it’s definitely our most ambitious set. We’re upping the scale and scope. It’s a little bit of a dangerous game to play, but yeah, we want to keep building, create more of a spectacle.
How limited will capacity be?
It will number in the thousands, but it’s not going to be a full house. We’re just trying to control the numbers a little bit.
You highlighted something a lot of people are feeling about PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X: a lack of games that are built just for those machines. What are your thoughts on next-gen gaming so far?
I mentioned earlier that I think next-gen has started, but we haven’t really seen a ton of showcases, right? I would say Forza Horizon 5 is really spectacular. Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart is a cool showcase, and I love the DualSense – that controller just gives people so much opportunity to think of where games are going to go. We haven’t seen a lot of new next-gen IP yet. Returnal is probably the best example of that so far.
These systems are so powerful, and there’s so much opportunity there, but this has been a difficult year for developers to make these games while working from home. A lot of stuff has been delayed. I have games that we were going to announce last year at The Game Awards, and we’re probably going to announce this year. They were delayed at least a full year. Some people lost a year or two in development. There are a lot of delays that have affected next-gen and that pipeline of content. It was still a good year, but I think next year and beyond are going to be exciting. The thing that I think has happened with a lot of these next-gen boxes is people buy them yet play their old games on them. They look better, right? It’s a better quality of life. The attach rate with these new systems has not been great, partially because of the Game Pass thing, but also to play Warzone or Fortnite or stuff they already have. Even though people are buying the systems, they don’t have those true next-gen showcase titles to play. They are coming. Those are the ones that have been delayed. Performance capture is really hard to do in the middle of Covid. All of these story games that we love take a lot of time to make.
Of any game that hasn’t been announced, what is one game franchise that you want to see come back? What would you love to have as a World Premiere?
I would love to see BioShock come back. I’ve missed that franchise a lot. Infinite, I still think of. I miss that franchise. An awesome new BioShock would be hype. I’m also a Valve fan, so anything Valve-related would be fun to see. One of the best games I played in the past year was Crash Bandicoot 4. That was an awesome game. I wouldn’t mind seeing some of those classic franchises come back in a new way, like a new Jak & Daxter.
The Game Awards will be held on December 9, live from Los Angeles’ Microsoft theater. It will broadcast around the world and can be viewed from various streaming services like YouTube and Twitch.
This article originally appeared in Issue 341 of Game Informer.