Destructoid interview: Geoff Keighley on the Spike VGAs

This Sunday, December 14, Spike TV will air the 2008 Spike VGAs, the network’s yearly videogames award show and only televised industry event. 

This year, Spike are coming hard with some top-tier exclusives, with first looks at God of War III, Grand Theft Auto IV: The Lost and Damned, and more. On paper, this looks like a show packed with must-see exclusives looks that gamers should definitely be excited about.

“I promise you that, [if] you give us two hours of your time,” says the show’s producer, veteran gaming journalist and GameTrailers TV host Geoff Keighley, “that at least every five to seven minutes there’s going to be something you’re going to want to see.”

Earlier this week, I caught up with Geoff to chat about how the show was coming along, some of the exclusives we can expect to see, and how the awards show has continued to evolve.

The VGAs definitely look hot this year. This is the fifth year for the awards, right?

Sixth year.

Oh, wow … well, how have the awards changed since that first show?

Yeah, there’s definitely been some changes. I think that the first show — which I was not involved in — it was in Las Vegas, [and] David Spade hosted it. It was really about awards for games and had a great celebrity component to it.

I think over the years we’ve refined it, year after year. GameHead came on the air in 2005 on Spike, and now GameTrailers TV, we’ve been doing that for three years. There’s been a lot of learning about how gamers are really wanting to see exclusives and the first looks at new games.

So [we’ll] look back at the hottest games of the year, absolutely, but we’ll look forward to what we’re going to be excited about playing next year. And you know, one of the key things I’ve been saying to everyone at Spike is, “Let’s make the VGAs more like E3.” I know, as a gamer, how excited I get around E3 — the big trailers, the big unveils at the show. You know, the past couple of years, E3 hasn’t nearly had the ammo that it’s had in past years, like the 2005 Sony briefing was Killzone and Fight Night Round 3. That was such a memorable briefing in my life, just the excitement around that. I said, let’s try to capture that excitement at the VGAs.

We’ll take all of the major publishers, all of the console companies, and get them together in one room. Make a killer two-hour broadcast that says, “Let’s look at the best games of this year.” Then we’re going to have Hideo Kojima there, Todd Howard from Bethesda, Alex Evans from Media Molecule, Cliffy B … all those guys are going to be there. We’re giving an award to Will Wright … let’s recognize the biggest games of this year, but let’s blow people away with these megaton-level exclusives that folks have never seen before.

[We’ve been] working really closely with publishers over the past couple of months to try to get them on board, and let’s make this like the new E3, with huge world-exclusives, so if you’re a gamer, you’re not going to want to miss this show. We’re going to show you things you can’t see anywhere else.

What are some of the reasons for moving the show to Los Angeles this year? I know it took place in Vegas Last year. 

Yeah, it’s been in LA in previous years. I guess we were in Las Vegas last year. We were in Vegas in year one and year five.

I think there’s a number of factors as to why we decided to do it in Los Angeles. There’s a lot of us based here in Los Angeles, so that’s helpful. I think it’s just a good venue. We’re doing it on the Sony lot, and actually right now we’re building the set. And it’s going to be a really special evening. It’s going to be a smaller venue than last year. You know, we’ve done huge arena shows with thousands of people. This is a much more intimate thing, it’s more sort of Golden Globes-style. It’s going to be a really spectacular stage, and a really spectacular experience. Because we get to create our own vibe for it.

The theme this year is “Gamer Heaven,” and we’re going to take people on a trip to the future of gaming. So I think once you see it, it will feel a little different than past years, but I’m really excited with where it’s going. And I think people are going to be blown away with some of the surprises we have in store.

You’ve talked a little bit about these huge exclusives — God of War III, Uncharted 2 … can you talk a little bit about some of them?

Yeah, we’re going to show people ten never-before-seen games on the show.

As you mentioned, there’s the first-ever look at God of War III, first look at gameplay, which people are excited about. There’s no screenshots out there, really no information on the game at all besides the CG trailer at E3. So we’re going to unveil for the first time, and it’s pretty spectacular.

You’ll see Grand Theft Auto IV: The Lost and Damned, the new downloadable content coming in February to Xbox 360. Besides the screenshots and the announcement, there’s been no real details on this thing, so you’re going to see the first footage and the first trailer. I think people will be surprised at the scope of this; even though it’s set in Liberty City, there’s a lot more going on, so you’ll see that for the first time on the show.

Brütal Legend, which is the perfect time since Jack Black is our host. We’re really excited that Jack is not only hosting, he’s also bringing a world premiere with him, so you’ll see Brütal Legend with him and Tim Schafer unveiling the first-ever gameplay footage of that live on the show. So you’ll have to check that out.

And then we have Uncharted 2 from Naughty Dog, which we announced — there’s a teaser trailer on GameTrailers. So you’ll see the first trailer for that, which is a big game coming in 2009 from those guys.

And then the list just keeps going on and on — we’ve got Fight Night Round 4; Peter Moore, the president of EA Sports, will be there presenting. You’ll see the first trailer for that, which is sort of all the greatest legends of boxing going head-to-head.

Then the list continues with Mafia 2; you’ll see a new trailer, which is completely in-game footage — the one last year was computer-generated, and it looks almost as good as the CG; it’s phenomenal.

You’ll see Watchmen and you’ll see Terminator: Salvation, which are two huge movies next year, with some pretty big games coming alongside them. And I’m probably forgetting some other stuff. We have a lot of surprises in the show, and I think people will be very impressed.

Basically every act of the show, there’s going to be a huge world exclusive. [And] there’s also a big Gears of War 2 announcement we’ll be making at the show.

I promise you that, [if] you give us two hours of your time, that at least every five to seven minutes, there’s going to be something you’re going to want to see. And between all that, we have some amazing musical performances, and we’ve got some other special moments that we haven’t announced yet. So all in all, it’s going to be a jam-packed two hours.

After seeing God of War III, David Jaffe kind of freaked out, and in true Jaffe fashion, started cursing up a storm over how awesome it looked. Have you seen it yet?

Uh, I have not seen the game running real-time. I’ve seen the trailer they’re working on, and I’ve seen some clips of that. I think it will speak for itself; I think people are going to be really excited by what they see.

Film has the Academy Awards, television has the Emmys, music has the Grammys … the list goes on. Is it safe to say that you’re trying to capture that and fill a similar role with the VGAs for the videogame industry?

Absolutely, yeah. I think we’re coming at a great time in the year in December, so we’re absolutely trying to award the best games of the year. Right after all the hot games come out for the holiday. And I think we are kind of establishing ourselves as that hallmark show on television for the industry.

But I think what’s different from the Grammys or from the Emmys is that we’re really trying to look forward as well. That’s sort of what I bring to the table as a journalist is, saying as a gamer, I want to celebrate Grand Theft Auto IV, which I played in April, or Metal Gear Solid 4 in June, but I really want to know what I’m going to be playing next in 2009. That’s sort of the E3 idea creeping into the show and saying let’s look forward to the hottest stuff of next year and also celebrate the best of this year.

So I think that we’re similar to those award shows, but we’re taking a different focus on thinking about the future of gaming. Fortunately, the publishers have stepped up with some truly phenomenal first looks at games that you’re only going to see on the show.

There’s a behind-the-scenes process in selecting nominees and winners. You actually have a pretty nice board of respected industry journalists; there must have been a clerical error, because I’m actually one of them.


Talk a little about the process and that board, just to assure people you’re not picking winners out of a hat.

We have an advisory board of 27 of the top journalists, including top bloggers and top print journalists and myself, who all vote on the best games of the year. And then the nominations are sent back to us and we select from there.

So it really is chosen by the journalists, although there is the user-voted category, which is the “Best Independent Game Fueled by Mountain Dew” — that’s Braid versus Audiosurf versus World of Goo versus PixelJunk Eden. So that’s a user-voted category, but it’s really sort of a critic’s choice awards show.

In designing the show and its format, do you find there’s a struggle in an attempt to appeal to both “hardcore” gamers and the more casual audience?

I think one of the learnings we’ve had over the past couple of years on Spike is that you’ve got to focus on the hardcore. They’re really the evangelists for what you’re doing, the mavens who are out there sort of evangelizing what you’re doing on air.

So with GameHead and GameTrailers TV, the reason those shows have been around for so many years and why they work is because they’re focused on the gamer. They’re not super mainstream. I think a lot of other cable networks and a lot of other TV networks have kind of tried to program for this mythical mainstream gamer and haven’t had a lot of success.

I think my focus, coming from the background of game print journalism in the game industry and being a gamer, is to say: “Let’s focus on the show that doesn’t talk down to gamers, but really celebrates what it’s like to be a gamer, and gives you the information they need for a half an hour every week.” I think that’s what kind of influenced the VGAs, and we’re going to focus on these hardcore games.

We’re not giving people a first look at My Japanese Coach from Ubisoft as one of our world exclusives. I mean, that stuff is great and those games are right for a certain audience. But we’re really focused on the big games for the big consoles for the big gamer audience. I mean, you look at the number of copies that these games sell, from a God of War or a Grand Theft Auto, I mean these are multi-million-unit hits. So we’re really programming this show for gamers, through and through.

There’s surely a mainstream appeal sometimes. I mean branding, celebrities, and bringing in music. I think what we’re doing over the past couple of years is really finding those celebrities that really are gamers. Absolutely you’ll see, when we announce our talent, there’s going to be lots of talent there. It’s exciting. I think there is an appeal to bringing people that you don’t necessarily see in the gaming industry giving out these awards. It helps make it into a bigger event. You and I both know that we live in a celebrity culture, and having a celebrity as a partner in this in a smart way and a strategic way with people that really are gamers. I think it really makes a lots of sense.

So … best Spike VGAs ever?

I’ll let you call that. But based on what we’ve announced so far with our exclusives and our nominees and our line-up, I would hope that people are pretty excited about it. Jack Black and his writers have helped us with some phenomenal ideas; I think he’s going to be a great host for the show, along with our phenomenal exclusives.

I think the stars are aligning, and I’m really excited about. I think people should hopefully tune in.  And if you’ve watched the show in the past and didn’t like it, give us another shot, because I think people will want to see the games that we want to show. And I hope that it will appeal to an entirely new audience, because we really are rewriting the books with this show. Everyone here worked really hard, and we’re incredibly excited about what we’re going to deliver on Sunday night.

So I hope people tune in, and I’m sure I’ll be reading about it on Destructoid afterwards.

The 2008 Spike Video Game Awards airs on Spike TV this Sunday, December 14, at 9 PM EST.

Be sure to come back then to watch it with Destructoid, as our very own Chad Concelmo will be liveblogging from the award show floor, bringing you pictures from the red carpet, behind-the-scenes looks, and more. Bring pants!

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Nick Chester
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