Preview: DICE 2011

AIAS president Martin Rae on the thinking behind this year's influential Vegas conference

The year is still young, but already the first couple of key games industry events are looming, with the US double header of DICE and GDC. The former of those, based in Las Vegas, has become one of the most influential stops on the industry world tour, always boasting major industry names on-stage - and this year is no different.

To explain more about the thinking behind DICE and to talk about the event as a whole, we caught up with AIAS president Martin Rae, who took over from previous incumbent Joseph Olin late last year.

Q: Joseph Olin was president of the AIAS for some years, so before we talk about DICE, give us a bit of information about yourself.

Martin Rae: I have a different background probably, than you might expect - I certainly have a lot of games industry background. I started at a development studio in the Nineties and did a lot of work on Nintendo products - and some Sony products too.

But it ranges - I ran Boss Game Studios for a number of years, in the visual effects industry, but a lot of my background is business focused, with an entertainment bent. So opposed to coming in with a creative background, I think what I can bring to the Academy - with Joseph having built really great foundations and moving off to other things - is a clean look at things to see how we can grow the Academy. How can we keep moving forwards, and how will we involve the newer part of the industry in an inclusive role?

I think that's a big challenge for us, and one that certainly all of the core game companies are looking at; and one that's going to be a big focus of ours. Interactive entertainment has tonnes of new platforms, many new demographics are playing games, and a lot of people that haven't been exposed necessarily to gameplay in the past... they're our constituents.

So going forward, recognising where we come from and who our core constituents are, I think there are some ways that we can expand the reach of the Academy and the reach of the conference. "Inclusive" probably isn't the right word, because it's not that we haven't been inclusive, but to pull more people in that view interactive entertainment as a big part of their lives, and their downtime.

That's a focus going forward, and you'll see some of that at DICE this year.

Q: That's a challenge for the Academy, but also for the industry as a whole - but flipping it around, it's a big opportunity too, with new potential audiences and new ways to connect to those audiences.

Martin Rae: If you look at my biography, I'm a bit of a serial entrepreneur. When Joseph decided to do some new things, and I looked at this opportunity... One, it looked like an incredible organisation and two, because of the changing industry, it presented an opportunity to grow and expand.

That really touched the entrepreneur gene in me - and that's where I get my juice. It was a very interesting and exciting opportunity to take on.

Q: DICE has established itself in the top five of industry events globally - tell us a bit about this year's line-up.

Martin Rae: Well, as you might have read, our keynote was announced this week [a panel session featuring Mike Morhaime, Mark Cerny, Bruce Shelley, Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk] along with the rest of our speakers - and I have to say I'm very excited. We've never done this format before in a keynote presentation. The cast is magnificent. With some of the very best game makers of all time, the conversation should be provocative and memorable.

The mindshare on the stage alone is worth a ticket to the conference, and I'm anticipating that there'll be lots of great discussion on where our interactive medium is headed - a question on every attendee's mind as they speculate where they need to go next.

And we're very pleased with the overall speaker line-up - as you can see, on the Friday we're establishing a day that celebrates independent games, including the Indie Game Challenge. And also, people from the past that were really indie gamers, that grew up through the business and can speak to changes in the industry.

In the past, maybe Fridays have been a day when people catch their breath and then maybe move on, this is going to be targeted around small footprint, social, new trends in the business that I think will be extraordinarily interesting. If you've seen the line-up of the Indie Game finalists, there are some incredible games in there.

I'm also very much looking forward to the Q&A discussion with our Pioneer Award recipient Bill Budge. He's one of the true indie developers from the early years of videogames, and I think his comments following [Lifetime Achievement award recipient] Bing [Gordon] and on the day of the Indie Game Challenge will articulate a fascinating look the state of independent development from the present to the future.

Q: One of the most exciting things about the games industry is that, no matter what happens on the business side, creativity finds new ways to spring up and flourish anew.

Martin Rae: Yes - and what I like about it is that back in the Eighties and early Nineties there would be a couple of guys in a garage, or basement, or wherever - and they'd come up with something that was unique, interesting and very fun to play. And they didn't need enormous budgets.

I think with new platforms and opportunities, real raw creativity is getting rewarded right now. That's a fascinating place for the industry to be.

Q: Generally, DICE has been targeted at the senior side of the industry - will that be similar this year?

Martin Rae: We're trying to attract the same audience; we're just trying to be a little more inclusive with new players and new opportunities. That all mixes together, and the EAs of this world - the established game companies - are all working hard to make inroads into that space.

I think it you put all these people into a room, there's a tonne of creativity and a lot of opportunities So it's not that we're looking away from the core industry at all - that's the lifeblood - it's more about how we get all the people in the room...

And you know how DICE is - they get in the room, they make deals, they talk creatively, and then they leave with new ideas. If anything, it's about bringing the established players together, putting some of the new players in with them, and seeing what we come up with. I think there'll be some incredible things to come out of the conference.

Q: If there was one single thing - an impression or sense of learning - that people will take away from DICE, what do you think it will be?

Martin Rae: I'd say they'll leave the conference with, even through the industry's faced some economic challenges in the past couple of years, a sense that there are new horizons to explore. As you know, you can take core console games right now and technology's getting to the point where you can move those around on different platforms.

I think they're going to come out of the conference with the feeling that it's a reinvigorated industry - I think we've come through a period where the recession's hit some people pretty hard, some platforms have sprung up with new competition - but I think they're going to come out thinking that creative genius will win out, no matter what platform. And it'll be a co-operative thing, across platforms and people, and new creative talent. I'm very excited about that.

Q: The Awards are always a big part of the event - Red Dead Redemption's up there with a lot of nominations, among others. Are you tipping anything for success?

Martin Rae: Certainly Red Dead was a game I liked, and played a lot personally. Even though I guess that from a physical gameplay perspective it was similar to other things that Take-Two had done in the past, it had a different bent to it. No one's ever really done that genre well - but it was well-executed and a lot of fun.

Then there's Mass Effect 2, an extraordinary game that was a lot of fun. And some things that popped up that might have been a surprise to some people, and I think it's speaks to the Zeitgeist of the industry right now.

Our peer panels are all game-makers, all creators, all members of the Academy - and for them to put forward Limbo and Angry Birds was a testament to the current in the business these days. It's a testament to the Academy that those games are put up, even though some might say that they're a little less sophisticated or interesting - but I don't think that. People are really getting engaged, and that's entirely new demographics.

Not to get personal here, but my mum plays Angry Birds, and she's never played a game in her life, other than if I put it in front of her and make her look at it. Here's something where you have a mid-seventies woman who's saying she wants to embrace games - that's a beautiful thing for our industry.

Q: And Jay Mohr's hosting once more - he's a big fan of DICE.

Martin Rae: Jay loves games, and he amuses our demographic - there's no question about that.

Q: What about some of the sessions you're particularly looking forward to?

Martin Rae: Well, some of the debates are going to be really interesting, and I think what we've tried to do is find if there's someone outside the industry that can be a compelling speaker around topics we face every day. Beverly Harrison from Intel is an interesting example of that - she's working on some really fascinating user or player interfaces in the consumer world, and I think that from an intellectual perspective she might bring a view that we don't normally look at. It should be really fascinating for game-makers.

And we've tried to do that - to pick people that have something to say that will be relevant to our audience, but they don't necessarily come from the business. I think that will be a positive thing for the conference.

Certainly what Joseph's done in the past, and what we're trying to do this year, is put up provocative speakers that spur conversation. I'd hope that at the end of each day, in all the social and business interaction, that they'll walk away thinking they've not looked at something in that way before - that it makes sense in a way, and they'll take it back to their studio and do something with it.

That's really what DICE should be all about.

Q: And lastly, some words on Bing Gordon, who's receiving a Lifetime Achievement award?

Martin Rae: Obviously it's a well-deserved honour, and we're lucky to have him open Friday. You seldom find an individual that has made a tremendous mark on two separate businesses - and he's done that, certainly with EA and now with Kleiner.

With Kleiner he's really helped to define that whole social gaming space, and you could say that it's just through money or investment, but his passion about creative people is helping drive that whole side of things. I think his talk on Friday morning will be fascinating - the perfect person to lead off there.

Martin Rae is president of the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences. Interview by Phil Elliott.

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