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Awards And Innovations: AIAS' Olin Speaks On Gaming Today

Joseph Olin, formerly an exec at Eidos and Microprose, runs the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences, operators of the DICE Summit in Las Vegas and the AIAS Awards, and Gamasutra caught up with him to discuss the Awards, Nintendo's 'Wiisearch' advantage, and much more.

The Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences, a member-funded, not for profit organization, seeks to elevate the profile of games -- particularly through its yearly Interactive Achievement Awards ceremony, which runs alongside DICE, its Las Vegas executive summit which takes place every February.

The president of the Academy since 2004 is Joseph Olin, formerly an executive at Eidos and Microprose, and an advocate for gaming in all its forms. Recently, Gamasutra's Brandon Sheffield had the chance to quiz Olin about the state of the video game industry. The interview also starts by touching on the the AIAS Awards -- one of two major game industry-centric awards showcases which has been labeled a somewhat controversial show.

Firstly, I want to ask something about the AIAS. You guys are not-for-profit…

JO: Correct.

You are funded by membership, correct?

JO: Also correct. We actually fund through membership, and through our registration and admission fees for the DICE summit as well as sponsorship packages we sell as far as the DICE summit.

Do companies pay for their game to get into the DICE Awards?

JO: For the Interactive Achievement Awards there is a $1000 per-title submission fee. It has been that way, I believe since the inception of the awards.

Do you think that's a barrier for certain people to enter?

JO: Only if they let it be. Only if someone lets it become a barrier. For most game development companies, even independent studios, a thousand dollar admission fee to participate in the awards does not seem to be a barrier for them, and membership fees... corporate developers start at $1000, and that would take you to a revenue of over $5 million. For a small 5 to 8 man shop, they're not doing 5 million in revenue.

So we don't believe that this structure has been a barrier and without going back and reliving the discussions of Capcom’s decision not to participate in the Academy... our Board of Directors basically stand by the Academy's policies that have been in place for going on four years now, and it seems to work for all of them, and it only seemed not to work for a couple of publishers, and we continue to believe that the things we're doing for this year in terms of our programs... that every major publisher will consider submitting their titles. And as far as the process itself, it’s the peer panels that choose the games to review.

And then it's up to the company, whether they want to participate?

JO: That is correct, and about 98-some-odd percent of the time, what was requested by our peer groups [was] submitted by the publishers. Even if they are publishers that aren’t members of the academy. CCP joined last year for EVE Online, and were thrilled to do so. A number of Xbox Live Arcade games come from small developers or side publishers. So we think the policy and procedures for the panels are very open and we really respect the 400 plus people who serve in these things. And I get a lot of feedback from them.


CCP's EVE Online


The issues with Capcom and the AIAS put me in mind of events with the ESA; it had some problems with its own members and had to scale E3 down into this strange thing. Are there any kind of changes coming up on your side?

JO: I think that right now with the advent of bringing the awards to consumers this year, we're looking for ways to ensure that craft awards, as well as genres, and what we recognize are as relevant to consumers as they are to game makers. And I have a subcommittee made up of our board members and some of our Academy members who serve as peer judges who are very diligently having some very loud, long discussions about how to make the balance between making what we do read relevant to the widest audience possible. And I think, like all things, it's kind of a balancing act.

We may move in one direction and then the other as we try to establish that balance, but were very mindful that way. When I took over the Academy, years ago, we recognized 44 awards. We're down to 32, including our Hall of Fame and lifetime achievement award, so that was a major accomplishment.

I would suggest that if given the opportunity, I'd be happy to, as we get closer to the award cycle, talk about our process and have some of our peer judges talk about why they think this is the best process for game makers, to be able to recognize a wide range of craft elements at work and genres and that’s certainly not the type of thing that the Choice Awards do, or what they intend to do.

The Choice Awards recognize different things than we do and whether it was by design or not is out of my control. But I'm very pleased and proud to represent the people who've spent a lot of time, in the holiday season, playing through 40, 50, 60 games and writing copious notes and then arguing amongst each other to come up with something. It's a fun process to be a part of.

 


 

Turning to the state of the industry - what do you see for this new generation in terms of who's going to be around for the long haul?

JO: I think that everyone is around for the long haul. We're dealing with companies whose resources rival that of nations. So I think the issue is the learning curve: what it takes to find the sweet spot in terms of audience and software and where those points intersect, and comparing the three press conferences over the last 24 hours to a year ago, you can really see the advance in comfort level, with the developers and their production teams wrestling with some of the hardware challenges.

More so with developing for the PS3 than obviously the 360... looking at how game makers have started with some additional focus in terms of looking for ways to create other means of involving the player in the experience above and beyond just “it's beautiful”. It's not about being beautiful anymore, because, at least with the exception of the Wii, all of them are capable of producing incredibly detailed, lush, complex images. So now that you can do that, what you do with it?

It's interesting that they're kind of both saying “beautiful graphics are the most important thing right now”, but both in different ways. Nintendo is saying it by saying “this is unimportant, we don't care”, and Microsoft and Sony are saying “they're not important because the tools to make them are so good, and the systems themselves are so powerful, that every game has to have good graphics -- other things define the experience”. It's interesting to me.

JO: I think that's a good observation, and I don’t think people buy games today because they look really good. I think there is an expectation level as to what a game should look like and it either meets that threshold, or it doesn't. And once you look at this expanded market of people who are entering the market because they’re new, because of the Wii, with the DS or because of age attrition... they’re no longer eight-year-olds, or 12 to 14, and they’re in the sweet spot for... interactive entertainment is their primary form of amusing themselves.

They know what they want; they are educated, sophisticated, savvy consumers. And I think that game makers are really... I'm not sure struggling, but I think they are challenged to come up with ways to do things without losing what they believe to be the core audience. And I think the new gamers that are coming up... the hardest challenge I can think of today would be if they went out and bought a Wii and Wii Fit... what would be the second game we tried to sell them? I don't know what that would be. I suppose we could come up with about ten in 10 minutes, but...


Nintendo's Wii Fit

How would you get them to a think they need another game and go out and buy it? How would you inform them about it?

JO: I think somebody just gave me the phrase of “Wiisearch”, and I am quite confident that Nintendo spent a fair amount of resources in talking to people in terms of determining where the opportunities are, and I think that they will continue to apply that. And that's really good, but the thing about game systems in the past, over the last five cycles, what you've seen was “we can have a couple racing games, a couple fighting games and platformers, a couple of sports sims...” and now for these new systems today, for the current generation of systems, you don't think about it in those terms.

You think “what’s a really great game?”, and it's not about the genre, as much as people segment it, [but] it is about what's really going to engage you, and what audience you really want to engage. I think for the first time, I really believe that as one who represents game makers, that I say gamers are not 12 to 17-year-old boys, above and beyond we’re seeing people 12 to 24 years of age, segmented by what they like and what they want to play, and if I expand that to the television-ubiquitous audience of adults 18 to 34... they’re gamers.

I presented at a national cable show, and basically got a question from the floor that said, “can you describe the gaming audience today?” and I said “well can you describe the people who watch cable television?” Because they're almost the same mass level of audiences, and the thing they have in common is that they have a device that connects to television set or a monitor that allows them to play games.

So the Wii might be the equivalent of the Lifetime network, or something like that.

JO: That's not bad, the Lifetime network is profitable and has a large audience and it doesn't bother me that people love Lifetime or HGTV, and as long as you don't force me to watch it, I'm fine with that. And I think people who watch Lifetime are just as happy saying “don't make me watch the action movie channel, and I'm good with that”.


I think one of the difficult things is that all of these companies are trying to have it all now, in a way.

JO: Shareholders.

Yeah. [laughs] They want to say “we’re keeping the core gamer and we’re going for the casual”. On Nintendo's side it's like “we're really attacking the casual but we’re keeping the core gamer” and on Sony and Microsoft’s side they’re saying “we have these things we’re doing in these areas, where we’re trying to attract the casual or expanded market...” Who do you think is doing the best job of marketing their console to the people they're trying to market it to?

JO: It's hard to say. Nintendo is nothing but successful in doing that. But whether it's through their marketing communications or whether it's just the intrinsic design and qualities of the Wii platform or the DS platform... I'm not sure where that line starts and stops. I have a lot of respect for the way Microsoft is really focused on the traditional core gaming market.

And in terms of... if not tying up day-and-date titles, but in terms of studios that they've acquired and games that they've been commissioning, first party as well as third parties, speaks to that traditional, very involving, intrinsic gameplay, traditional genres. And Viva Piñata notwithstanding, they’re not going after eight to 12 year olds. And yeah, you can download movies, but that's more of -- from my perspective -- an extra value additive as opposed to a critical core part of why they entered the game business.

Microsoft and Rare's Viva Piñata

In the case of added value, do you feel that the Blu-ray player is an added value or it an intrinsic core component of the system? Recently I read a report about some folks who bought the PS3 as a Blu-ray player and didn't realize it played games.

JO: I've seen some coverage that cites people doing that. And unfortunately, having sort of fallen out of my prime gadgetry portion of my life and being in the industry, my reason for getting a PS3 was because I wanted a PS3 to play games. I can see why someone who was really interested in high def movies and the fact that the blue ray catalog is getting pretty deep pretty quickly... it beats buying a $900 player.

I'll assume the quality is equal in terms of the hardware at its center but I think that, back to your previous question in terms of... I don't think Sony's marketing has failed, but I think that the marketing didn't help sell their proposition at a point in time when they needed it and it still comes down to “software sells hardware”. Halo 2 sold a lot of Xboxes, right?

Sony's got to find something like that. They used to have it all sealed up. Actually the whole exclusive thing was practically a Sony invention, in a way. Well, no. Nintendo really started the whole exclusive thing I would say, but Sony really used to… with the PlayStation 1 and 2, have a lot of exclusives that wouldn't be on any other platforms. Now due to development costs and the advent of better, easier-to-use middleware, it's almost impossible for people to do that anymore, except for first party products. So I wonder what it’s going to take for Sony to take the lead in this thing.

JO: Well, you look at their... the Sony studio groups have a lot of talent there, they produced a lot of great games. I mean, looking at David [Jaffe]'s team and what Cory [Barlog] has put together in terms of delivering the God of War II experience on the PlayStation 2, I would put that game up against a fair amount of games that are for the current-gen systems in terms of both look and in terms of play mechanic and in terms of how it engages you as a player, and it isn't necessarily the technology that does that.

I think it’s exclusives. I think exclusives make a difference, I think that we've all seen marketing play an increasingly more dominant role in the decision-making process of a game player today, in terms of what they buy, and a lot of the research... and the Sony brand is so powerful; it has dominated the console gaming market for a really the last two generations of machinery. And I think it's hard for some people to perhaps let go of that. Or because they are still satisfied with their experience, or that they are still trying to hold out for a PS3 at almost any price.

So you mean maybe when it's cheaper?

JO: I think that price definitely played an impact. I don't think you have to be an economist to have figured out that a $600 system is a big hit [for consumers to take]. As we've seen, our consumers now know that technology prices fall, and sometimes fall very rapidly, and some are educated enough to wait. Others are basically at a point where if they spend $1000 on a game system, all-in, for the games and all, for the course of the holiday season -- they can’t afford that, or they've chosen to spend their money on going to the Caribbean for a holiday, which is also not a bad choice.

So I think that Sony's announcement as far as the price reduction is... I think those are all good things. But I don't know that they're good enough. Time will tell. We’ll see what the units are and I guess everyone... there's a rumor that Microsoft will make a price adjustment on the Xbox before the end of the year. That's a reasonable assumption; I think they'll do it when they believe it best suits them. [Note: after this interview took place, the price drop was made.]

Activision and Infinity Ward's Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare

Is that necessary for them?.

JO: Exactly, I think they have good hardware they have good software, the Xbox Live Arcade experience is obviously very strong. It's inspired Sony to, I think, do different things with Home as a point of difference and that's exciting. Nintendo is not totally unaware of the success that Microsoft has had with XBLA, and you can certainly understand where Home is coming from. There's more choices.

It comes down to what we want to play, whether we want to be playing with friends... if you're playing with friends, it's hard to beat the Wii, playing with friends in your house in front of the screen. If you really want core action adventure games... Call of Duty 4 looked rocking. I didn't want them to stop playing! I wanted to see them keep going, finish that level, that mission, because the play mechanic just looked very smooth and very intuitive as well is the fact that what they're rendering on-screen was very attractive.


It feels like in some ways, online platforms are going to be one of the main differentiators; who has the most seamless, streamlined online experience. Nintendo is still mired by Friend Codes.

JO: There's some legacy issues there.

And Microsoft is really going full-force with it.

JO: I think that's the advantage of being the dominant operating system in personal computers in the world, and having the experience to be able to integrate things. But I would never count Sony out, I think it's in their approach. I respect how they believe the experience should be -- and again, once Home launches and real consumers get to populate that world, it'll be interesting to see what they do with it, because we don't really know.

You said that marketing plays a big part in where people make their choices. That's very true, and I think one of the reasons marketing has to step up so much is that of the easy proliferation of information on the Internet right now, such as blogs. People hear about stuff before it happens. And so if you try a marketing trick like the “All I want for Christmas is a PSP” thing, people will call you on it within a day and you'll be in trouble. So it's interesting to see how this sort of stuff can happen.

JO: I think that real-time kind of forces people from all walks of the business, and not just the interactive entertainment industry, to be much more straightforward with the audiences they want to reach because it's too easy to fall off that wagon, and it's easier just to be straightforward.

Again, I think the challenge is that today's young consumers and 16 to 18 year-old adolescents and college students... they consume so much media, and how much they parse and absorb is still in question, but they do consume a lot of it. So how do you motivate them, what do they really want to do and play, and I think when you lay three systems out... I would love to see what would happen if we put out a Wii, a PS3, a PS2, an Xbox 360, somebody's nice $2000 PC system... and put 5 games out there and see where the lines form.

That would be interesting.

JO: And I don't know if there would be as much of a differentiation between the lines as we might all believe on the surface. I think all these things have such strong, attractive play values and entertainment value. So it might be the short line can win right away and then as soon as the line is long people move over. Because I don't think any of the systems fail in entertainment. I don't think there's... as you said earlier, they do it differently.

Where do you see the industry skewing in five years, in terms of demographic? Is it really going to be a lot more mass-market?

JO: I certainly hope so. I’d like to believe that someone who is 35 and playing games today will be playing in 10 years going forward. I think the challenge will be creating entertainment options that mirror the other things in culture that people find entertaining. I don't think it's a limitation of technology. I think it's really... I don't think anyone could have imagined that The Sopranos was going to be a seven-year ratings... “stop everything, make sure you're in front of your set on Sunday night to see what happens this episode.”

So do we have those things within games? I think maybe certain aspects of World of Warcraft play, friends get together, things like that, but I think that there are other aspects of dedicated single games that I know that, for example Tuesday night, I'm playing Call of Duty. I know that Fridays are for Fallout, and it's... looking forward five years, what do you think is really exciting? If any of us could pick out what’s going to be popular five years down the line, we'd all be working for networks making zillions of dollars.

I actually wonder if this generation is going to last longer than previous ones. Because given the way the technology is moving and that sort of thing, it seems like the next round is going to be pretty daunting. How do you change this? How do you make it necessary to buy, the generation that we are in? I guess people say that about every generation, but this feels closer and closer to the plateau.

JO: I think that's true, and it's hard to know how the chipset people and scientists are going to be able to push delivery of screen [images], and audio, and voice. I think a lot of things like connectivity, are still undiscovered, and how to manifest that how to interface. And then we had things like the Wii, the Wii [Balance Board], and the EyeToy for example, from Sony.

Those are really good exercises in terms of getting people... to put them inside the story and that's one thing to look forward to, but I don't know that it's going to be because you can generate another half a million colors per second, or if your VRAM goes up to 16 or 64 megs, and I think it's... all those things are good, and a lot of engineers love more memory or bigger bytes or datapaths and I don't know that it's going to change the way a rock is rendered. It means we will do less cheats to try to master things.

They might just spend more time putting in detail that people probably won't see. Or they may, in fact.

JO: I think that the story and the way things are constructed are going to be really about the design process more so than in the engineering process. I think that some of David Jaffe's quotes in terms of what he likes to work on... it’s the design element, “how do I engage someone”, and “give me a small box, and what I want is way to break the box,” and I think that more and more game makers feel the same way. And I think that can be great for the future generations.

I certainly hope so. I understand the need to continue to sell upgrades, but I think that since most platform makers have always been about software sales over hardware, you know... the PS2 had a 10-year life, this generation should be able to go 10 years. Physically it should, store counts are pretty stable.

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