Observation #3: A polished game stands out from the crowd.
Some of the games that I played could really have used a few additional rounds of playtesting and design iteration before they were submitted to the IGF. The developers of those games would probably have been better off holding back their games until next year’s competition.
I know this can be tough to swallow. Perhaps you’ve worked long and hard on your game, and you really want some recognition for your effort. You might be counting on that recognition to help boost your marketing or business development efforts. I can imagine many an indie developer thinking, “My game isn’t perfect, but it shows a hint of something great, so I’m going for it!” And to be clear, that’s a fine attitude — if you wait until your game is “perfect,” you’ll probably never finish it! But unfortunately, some developers jump the gun and submit their games before they are truly fun, much less “perfect.”
If you’re creating a new gameplay mechanic (or an interesting twist on an old mechanic), make sure that you have implemented at least one very polished, very entertaining instance of that mechanic. A single, excellent level is better than five mediocre levels, in my opinion. Per observation #2, other developers are making me trudge through hours of tedious gameplay, so I’m going to be especially appreciative of a developer who wows me with ten short minutes of brilliance.
Of course, “very polished” doesn’t necessarily mean “short and sweet.” But many independent developers don’t have the time or resources to produce several hours of very polished gameplay, so all I’m saying is that if you can’t, you might as well err on the side of short and sweet. I’m fairly certain that you’ll be better off!
PS. Don’t forget to frequently playtest your game on other people. It doesn’t take long to lose your sense of perspective when immersed in a project; a pair of fresh eyes will significantly increase your odds of ultimately developing a polished gameplay experience. Also, for an example of a relatively simple indie game that is extremely polished, check out geoDefense (or its sequel, geoDefense Swarm) on the iPhone.