An exploration game described by its creator as "weird" has won first prize in this year's KiwiGameStarter competition.

Caves, a story-driven exploration title from Matthew Gatland, was announced as the winner at last week's New Zealand Game Developers Conference in Auckland.

Lunar Rooster's FPS brawler Sky Noon claimed the runner-up position.

(Here's a piece we did on Matt last year, and here's one on Sky Noon.)

"It's great, it's awesome. I was really surprised I won, because some of the other finalists' games look way more polished than mine," said Gatland.

"So it was very exciting, and I'm happy that the judges saw something in my game, because it's kinda scrappy, it's very weird and indie. So that was really great."

Feedback from the judging panel is still making its way to Gatland, but one told him that his son played the game and really got into it.

"I think that might have been what sold him on it," said Gatland.

KiwiGameStarter is an annual competition organised by the New Zealand Game Developers Association (NZGDA). It tasks individuals or teams with submitting business plans and playable prototypes to its a selection panel.

The finalists were evaluated by Dinosaur Polo Club (Mini Metro) co-founder and engineer Peter Curry, Renegade PR director Tim Ponting, and Runaway Play (Flutter) managing director Zoe Hobson.

Originality, technical and creative innovation, and commercial prospects are the key judging criteria; the judges look for the game and team with the best chance to succeed commercially, and for whom the prize may make the most difference.

"I know it's a bit of a cliché, but it was difficult to rank the finalists this year," said Curry.

"They all have something great going for them, and all could have done some real good with the prize money. It took Zoe, Tim, and I a good long while to discuss the pitches and rank the top two.

"Caves is just genuinely fun and engaging; there's something about it that we couldn't quite put our finger on, but is definitely there. It's the sort of game you sit down to play for half an hour, yet find yourself still playing two hours later."

Curry also had kind words for Sky Noon.

"Lunar Rooster is tackling one of the most competitive genres around with Sky Noon, and we came away from the pitch with an appreciation of their confidence," he said.

"They've built a solid, fun multiplayer shooter and we have every confidence they can pull it off."

First prize is a monetary award, software, and services, and the runner-up receives some cash as well.

Notably, this year the competition's top sponsor was Rocketwerkz founder Dean Hall.

"We’re extremely grateful to Dean Hall who personally contributed to ensure Kiwi Game Starter would be funded this year," said the NZGDA.

"Dean is a strong advocate for NZ game developers and we appreciate him extending that support to KGS."

Gatland is currently working on the story for Caves, and aims to release the game within 12 months.

"It's a lot better than it used to be, it's still got a long way to go," he said.

"I've been showing it at a lot of events, and keep fixing things that confuse people, and add features that people think are missing.

"I think now it's at a point where people really do enjoy it. But it's still not finished."