A Slice of DICE

AIAS president Joseph Olin talks about bringing the key conference to Singapore, and the challenges faced by the region

A few weeks ago the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences announced that it had partnered with LMI to produce a day of sessions at this year's Games Convention Asia.

Here, AIAS president Joseph Olin explains the Academy's background, and why bringing a slice of the DICE Summit to Singapore is a good thing.

Q: The DICE Summit is one of the key international stops on the calendar - but for anybody that's not aware of AIAS, summarise your aims.

Joseph Olin: Well the Academy was started... we're about to enter our sixteenth year. It was started by the IDSA [now known as the ESA], leading publishers and some of the development community as a means to provide peer-based recognition of our best talent and best work as a medium.

It might have been a little ahead of its time back in 1995, but at the same time the intention was that the other professional media all have an ability to separate great work from good work, and we should really celebrate the special talent that it takes to make great work.

The Interactive Achievement Awards were created specifically to do that - and along the way we've modified the Academy's charter to embrace the development community, and to really have that community be at the forefront of what we should be recognising and how we do so.

But the Academy first and foremost was designed to recognise our best talent, and I think that one of the ways that we do that - and one of the things that's become so difficult as our craft has become so complicated - was to try and give our best and brightest an opportunity to talk about the craft of game-making without necessarily being a nuts-and-bolts GDC approach about how to implement a new shader... but really more about where we're going, what do we enjoy, the nature of creativity, and to try and provide a forum to bring in outside influences that also depend upon creativity to be successful

And so when DICE was started in 2002 it was done as much because the academy was looking for a way to fund itself and remain independent, and at the same time we just felt that no one ever got together in a small group was able to share ideas.

DICE was smaller because I think no one was sure what to do - there weren't as many conferences or gatherings on the landscape, and I think that over the last seven years DICE has grown in stature as much because the people who attend have grown in stature, as the industry has grown in stature.

The medium is now legitimately one of the prime entertainment choices that any consumer can make today - am I going to turn on and watch something on Fox News, or am I going to plug in and continue online where I left off last night on my Burnout race?

Those things all provide the underlying currents for what we try to do. Along the way, during my stewardship, I've looked for other programmes and opportunities to bring game-makers together to share ideas and to try and, if not purely collaborate, then to spur each other in what's interesting, what trends we should be thinking about, and to allow people who are concentrating on doing MMO work to also be exposed to the casual games phenomenon, and people who are used to dealing with mass entertainment audiences - but do so in a different way.

I think that the success of the DICE conference has been the success of our ability to walk the line, the tightrope without a net, to try and gather some interesting people each year. I think if anything our safety in numbers approach this past year, where we had 33 different speakers, meant there was bound to be something for every different taste or interest - within the spectrum of interactive entertainment, and also the outside world.

When I look at how game-making - we all talk about it as a global phenomenon, and I think the creativity has been tied together on a global basis. So many of the US publishers were used to going to France, to England and somewhat Japan, to acquire original IP or development talent to create their titles for sale here in the States. We take that all for granted now, and there's no place you can go where there isn't a large level of collaboration on any given triple-A title.

Ubisoft is probably the best example, with its 17 studios across all points of the globe. Looking at the Continent, Crytek has certainly managed to put studios in a number of different places on the globe... Electronic Arts, Activision, they all have their outposts because that's the nature of where the talent has grown, and you need to have talent to really be successful today - at least as far as triple-A games go.

Q: It's interesting that as the industry has grown, so has the number of events - you recently announced that you partnered with LMI for Games Convention Asia, so what does that partnership entail?

Joseph Olin: It entails that we're actually going to take one of the days of GC Asia and programme it - and use it as a foundation to create a DICE type of experience that will really be tailored for the Pacific Rim. I think that the one thing that DICE has always tried to do is bring in game-makers and creative talent from around the world, even though probably no more than 20 per cent of our Las Vegas attendance is international... it's 120-plus people who aren't from California or Seattle who come in and try to pick up, meet and share ideas.

I think that the opportunity in Singapore is that it's a place that no one necessarily doesn't want to go. It's not geographically that difficult to get to Singapore from China, Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Tokyo... so it just seemed right to be able to capitalise on... I hate to say the growht, because we've been enjoying no shortage of titles from Asia over the last ten years, but I think that the change in connected gameplay and the enjoyment that everyone seems to have from these different MMOs means that we should bring all these talents together and see if we can get them to share ideas. DICE seemed to be the right format to do so.

I also thing that GC Asia was more a business conference initially, similar to what Leipziger Messe was doing with GCDC and Games Convention consumer show for the past eight years. In our conversations - and I sat on the advisory board of GCDC and always tried to push the group to try and acknowledge that they want more game-makers to talk about game-making than some of the sponsored sessions and what have you.

This is the opportunity, and I think that to get to the next level, to try and create a gathering of game-makers, that we needed to try and programme a little bit differently and that DICE was really an experience that would be relevant and hopefully enjoyable for the senior members of the Pacific Rim creative community.

Q: Singapore is seen as a neutral platform in that area of the world - I've been there the past two years for GC Asia, and I was intrigued by the notion that it might be a unifying force for a host of local national developer associations. However, that doesn't seem to have happened yet - do you get the sense that there are too many agendas?

Joseph Olin: I don't know that they're separate agendas, it's just the differences that come from each of the territories in terms of serving their markets. I think that Nexon is a great example of an enterprise that was first and foremost designed to create an entertainment service specific to the Korean market, and based on the success that they enjoyed in their home country it wasn't too difficult for them to think maybe they could export it.

Obviously they've been very successful - KartRider enjoys large audiences globally; MapleStory, even though it's geared towards a younger player has enjoyed pretty much equal success - if not in raw numbers, at least in terms of attaining critical mass in every market they've launched in.

You then look at China and that market is so massive potentially, even if you just isolate the 16 connected cities in China you're dealing with a population that's greater than Western Europe... the numbers are mind-boggling, so I think that you look at that, and the traditional creative power that's come out of Japan, and I don't know that we've ever done a good job as an industry to embrace the differences across the region - let alone globally.

So not to isolate the Pacific Rim from Europe or the United States, I think if anything the Academy wants to recognise and capitalise on the universal great talent, period. The opportunity to use DICE as a form to not just talk about our own agendas, but talk about and share the experiences that allow our IP, products and services to enjoy success globally and look for the common threads - that seems to be a natural starting point.

Because I think the commercial side is the least interesting... okay, it pays all of our bills and it's not that it's unimportant, but I don't know that the commercial side - we don't get to talk about it unless the creative side does a good job.

Q: While people look at Europe as a big mix of cultures - at least in terms of localisation - that's nothing really compared to the differences found in South-East Asia...

Joseph Olin: I think if you individually spoke to many of my friends in Korea, they would be able to articulate what they believe to be the strengths and differences between their country from Japan, from Thailand, and moving down the peninsula.

You do, it's such a melange of cultures - you look at the peninsula and you have Kuala Lumpur which is really a Muslim nation, more so than Asian, in terms of cultural influences. And even Singapore itself embraces so many different nationalities in its history... it was one of Britain's colonies not too many years ago, a couple of generations...

Q: From that point of view then it's easy to look at common interests and talk about talent and creativity - but even just in terms of games, are people really speaking the same language?

Joseph Olin: That's a good observation, and you're right. At the same time I think you have companies who choose to grow and are successful by focusing on their home market, and their home market exclusively - but at the same time if you are a practitioner of game-making you get to a point where you want to be seen as relevant to a larger - a global - audience.

I think that the success of KartRider and Nexon is certainly a great example of doing something well, and then looking for something that would work well on a larger stage.

Q: Japan's an interesting case - the market there seems to understand now that it needs to work harder to appeal globally, because the domestic market is saturated and no longer growing enough to cover increased costs of development. But I find it hard to see the other Asian territories in the region coming together... because if they did they'd stand a much better chance of being a force on the global scene.

Joseph Olin: It may be a long way away, and it will probably always be out of reach unless we take steps to try and provide a forum, to see what we can do and find out what the common things are.

I'm not sure - beyond the fact that there's a desire among the brightest and best in the interactive entertainment companies to want to play on a global stage... if that's the only thing they have in common, I guess that's as good a starting point as any.

I think that for years, at least during my tenure at the Academy, every time I go to the Continent, or the UK, someone always comes up to me to talk about creating a DICE for Europe. I think that the national boundaries and cultural differences are much stronger on the Continent than what I've experienced personally in my role at the Academy in the Pacific Rim.

Maybe it's because the newness of their entrance into interactive entertainment - isolating Japan for one second, because so much of our success can be traced back to Nintendo and the creation of the home market with the NES - but nevertheless I think that there seems to be less dogma in terms of "I'll never go there; I have no interest in listening to them."

Because they are trading more internationally in terms of IP than they have in the last ten years. And do I think the DICE Summit Asia will be the bridge to all the areas and problems? No, I'm not that na´ve, but I think it's a good starting point for conversations, and I think what I'm trying to do in terms of programming for this first attempt is to look for game-makers, people responsible for the creation of games, to talk about how they view the global market and what they create for it, and the things that everyone has in common.

Joseph Olin is president of the Academy of Iinteractive Arts and Sciences. Interview by Phil Elliott.

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