A video game that turns players into virtual rock stars won a top industry award this week, beating a field of action titles featuring lush graphics and complex stories.
In a move that reflects growing enthusiasm for games with broad appeal, the Game Critics Awards named "Rock Band" as Best of Show for the industry's annual E3 convention held last month to showcase upcoming products.
"The most interesting thing to me, when you look at the winners, is that new, original franchises really dominated this year," said Geoff Keighley, co-chairman of the awards.
"A lot of pundits look at the industry and say that it's so franchise-driven, there are so many sequels. Then you look at the winners list and it's a bunch of fresh air."
"Rock Band", to be published by MTV and distributed by Electronic Arts Inc, allows up to four players to strum guitar or bass, pound drums, or sing in time to any of dozens of modern and classic rock songs.
The game topped creepy underwater shooter "Bioshock", combat game "Call of Duty 4", science-fiction role-playing game "Mass Effect" and apocalyptic title "Fallout 3", which all wowed critics with stunning graphics.
The Game Critics Awards have been around for a decade and are decided by 36 journalists who submit nominees in more than a dozen categories. The games have to have been playable by journalists at E3 rather than just shown in videos.
A far cry from the pomp and circumstance the Academy Awards bring to Hollywood, the low-key Game Critics Awards nonetheless give bragging rights to developers and publishers.
For example, in its quarterly earnings report on Wednesday, THQ Inc boasted that four of its games, including "Stuntman: Ignition" and "de Blob", were nominated for awards, though none of them won.
In another nod to the popularity of casual games, Sony Corp's "LittleBigPlanet", which lets users create environments for photorealistic cloth characters to frolic in, won Best Original Game.
Sony's "Killzone 2" pulled in a Special Commendation for Graphics, a notable achievement in a year with an abundance of outstanding visuals.
Despite the immense popularity of its Wii console that is widely credited with triggering the casual games boom, Nintendo walked away with only one award, Best Handheld Game for "The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass" for its DS device.
"It was a lack of really new stuff from Nintendo," Keighley said. "I don't know if it's the canary in the mine shaft that shows Nintendo is not doing so well ... also, the judging body is geared toward the hardcore gaming crowd."
Microsoft Corp.'s "Mass Effect" for its Xbox 360 game machine won Best Console Game while "Halo 3", the next installment of its wildly popular alien-blasting title, won for Best Online Multiplayer.
Electronic Arts, the world's biggest game publisher, won six awards, though several of those were linked to titles such as "Rock Band" that it is not developing itself. EA's "Madden NFL 08" football title won Best Sports Game.
Keighley said he was open to the idea of making the awards a higher-profile event, but indicated he was leery of anything that would detract from casting a serious critical eye on a medium often dismissed as appealing only to teenaged boys.
"I think we're extremely over-conscious of not trying to commercialize the awards in any way. The last thing I want is for a TV producer to come in and say, 'Great, but let's put in an award for hottest virtual babe'," Keighley said.