A Sit-Down With AIAS President Joseph Olin

Now nearly 10 years old, the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences (AIAS) is the best kept secret videogame enthusiasts have never heard of.

Operating similarly to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the non-profit professional organization is composed of thousands of individuals who work in the interactive entertainment biz.The goal of the collective artists, musicians, programmers, publishers and game designers who make up its membership: To promote awareness of the art and science that goes into creating the countlessdigital diversions we all hold so dear.

Enjoying the support of executives at Microsoft, Nintendo, Sony, Electronic Arts, Atari and other industry leaders, the institution funds several annual initiatives designed to raise public awarenessof gaming. Not to mention, that is, shine the spotlight on outstanding developers such as Valve and id Software, plus deserving individuals including Sid Meier (Pirates!, Civilization), Will Wright(The Sims, Spore) and David Jaffe (God of War II).

Joseph OlineFor example, regular gathering theD.I.C.E. (Design Innovate Communicate Entertain) Summit, which brings game creators together to share ideas and discuss the state of their craft. The annual Interactive Achievement Awards, whereinspecial commendation is afforded to the most deserving games and personalities by an elite group of peers. And, of course, who could forget Into the Pixel, the E3 art exhibition (making its Europeandebut this October at the GameCity festival in Nottingham, England) which showcases masterpieces by gaming’s top visual talents.

Next up: A televised awards program arriving in Q1 2007 that’s being built in conjunction with Dick Clark Productions, plus a new system for specially promoting prize-winning games as movie studioswould Oscar-winning films. Given the big year ahead, we touch base with AIAS president Joseph Olin to see where the Academy’s come from, where it’s headed, and why it’ll soon be at the forefront ofeveryone’s mind:

Q: For all the readers who might be wondering, please enlighten us – why does the gaming industry need an institution like The Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences?

A: Well, I think that the Academy’s mission is really to broaden the awareness, to people at large, of the craftsmanship that goes into this business. And about some of the other aspects of the bizthat come out of that, such as the artistic contributions it makes to society. That’s why we run exhibits like Into the Pixel and hold events like the Interactive Achievement Awards (our 10th editionof which will be held in February 2007).

We’ve managed to achieve some major milestones given the relative youth of our industry, especially given the leaps and bounds gaming has taken over the last 5 to 10 years. Things have changed sincethe late ’70s and the days when you could play Lode Runner on an Apple II. Gaming is now part of pop culture and entertainment in general. And the 150,000 – 200,000 people who create thisstuff, they should be recognized for their excellence. That’s the message we try to get across.

It’s taken a decade for the Academy to come close to fulfilling this mission. The challenge partly comes from the fact that our members aren’t the sort of people who really like to applaud eachother. The field is incredibly competitive. It’s unusual: You don’t see film score composers hacking off or ragging each other on blogs like people do in our business. Go to magazines and blogs andyou’ll actually see flame wars going on about what’s a great game and what isn’t. It’s definitely a unique situation…

Q: When did the organization first form?

A: Things really came together around, oh, September 1996, I’d say.

Q: That’s what we suspected. But gaming was huge even before then. What was the catalyst – the advent of CD-ROM finally bringing the topic to mainstream computer and console users’attention, or…?

A: I think having a more stable medium. The ability to put more assets into the consumer’s hands via plug and play technology (which Windows 95 and PSOne brought to the table) changed the dynamic ofwhat creators could offer someone who wanted an interactive experience. Unlike with disk-based product, the industry was suddenly delivering much richer content, on par with anything other mediumscould offer. And it’s not like people weren’t trying to get something like the Academy together beforehand.

As with any new medium, the struggle was to determine what should be publicly recognized as deserving of acclaim and what shouldn’t, and for what reasons. Plus, even as little as five years ago, gamedevelopment wasn’t as compartmentalized as it is today. A handful of friends could still get together over the course of 12 to 18 months and create something. Now, you could take 18 months alone justin the planning phases to come up with a product before you convince someone to spend $20 million on making it.

Anyhow, so back then, game makers weren’t necessarily interested in recognizing what they did. All they were focused on was making the game. Today, as gaming has become more of a dominant institutionthat people spend increasing amounts of leisure time and spare dollars on, people are finally deciding they want to be recognized for doing a good job. They care what their peers think.

It doesn’t matter if they sold 200 copies of a title at retail or 6 million. I think Katamari Damacy is a perfect example of a game that wasn’t particularly commercially successful, but wasconsidered critically to be one of the best games published in the last 2 years. So we try to recognize people’s artistic vision and risk-taking, and simultaneously hope that by having thatrecognition, you can convince more people that it’s a great game to play.

Q: Who would you say the Academy was designed to serve then? Is it more for the individual game makers, the publishers, the people who promote these titles… who are you standing up forexactly?

A: We try to stand up first and foremost for developers, the individual artists and sound and design people who are really at the core of the game-making process. I don’t want to take anything awayfrom publishers – without their financial resources a lot of great titles would never see the light of day. But the Academy is really here to recognize the work itself, not necessarily thebrilliance of a marketing decision.

I think for publishers, what the Academy does is provide an extended window to market and promote a game. Why? Because it was recognized by game makers as being a singularly great title out of the800-plus titles which might ship in any given year.

Q: As with any major industry organization, a quick look at your board members reveals the Academy is primarily dominated by major players like Nintendo and Electronic Arts. What are youdoing to reach out to all the indies out there?

A: Well, the advent of direct and digital distribution is definitely changing the game, as it allows people to craft interactive experiences without having to follow the rules of big-box publishing.I think that our goal is to embrace all those people. We do our best to reach out to casual game developers and independents… Many of our members hail from indies, and command the same respectand stature as their peers at giants like Microsoft and Atari. Board members are basically the folks who believe in our organization and are willing to underwrite the costs of it and support it sothat we can have the recognition as an industry that we believe we deserve.

Q: Ah, yes… funding. Many people know that The Entertainment Software Association (ESA), which deals with politics, government policy and game piracy, is paid for by publishersthemselves. Truth time: Does the Academy operate on a similar system?

A: Kind of. We are a non-profit. Although we do run ourselves as a solid business so that we can continue to run and endorse programs and put on events like Into the Pixel. This allows us to improvethe types of resources we bring to the membership at large. Also, we have to be very mindful that anybody can stop writing a check at any given moment. So I always need to demonstrate that theorganization has value for all its constituents, including corporate members as well as individuals.

Its challenge right now is trying to bring games and gaming’s message in general to a group outside the core gamer market. One of the Academy’s first missions was to put an award show on television.But, of course, we’re a body of individuals who aren’t necessary comfortable in the spotlight. Developers aren’t always exactly an outgoing bunch. They’d rather someone else dress up and get uponstage, be singled out and talk about their work. For instance, [Half-Life 2 mastermind] Gabe Newell… When his company Valve won nine awards for the game, he started opening up around thefifth award and telling some good stories. But at first, he was just like "Thank you very much."

We want the kind of people who know very little about gaming – only that they like sports or action or adventure titles or whatever – to look at a game that bears our seal of approval andbe able to know they’re getting a great game. The same way that the Academy Award logo on a DVD at Best Buy can help spur sales, that’s what I think publishers, game makers and developers would loveto see happen with our Interactive Achievement Awards stamp. But to do so, we have to get the word out to the mass market, and the best way to do that is via television.

Q: Interesting theory. But as with the Oscars, you only have so many slots to hand out awards for, and such a huge volume of product to sort through, meaning it’s usually the largerproperties which hog the spotlight. This devalues the Interactive Achievement Awards’ value by making winners kind of predictable, don’t you think?

A: Good question. I’ve actually been making a lot of changes here over the past two years in terms of what we’re reviewing, what evaluators’ responsibilities are. The way the rules were originallywritten, publishers would submit a game for consideration for a $1000 fee per title. Submissions could be considered for multiple craft categories [e.g. Outstanding Achievement in Art Direction orAnimation] and only one genre.

In other words, you couldn’t try to win Handheld Game of the Year and Action-Adventure Game of the Year. But that method obviously has some bias to it. Not everyone’s a publisher and things fallthrough the cracks for various and sundry business reasons such as Majesco’s Psychonauts [rights to which changed hands between multiple corporations].

So what I’ve tried to do is set up and run peer review panels on a yearly basis that play a ton of games and have been tasked with coming up with the games that they think should be submitted eachyear. Some are going to be officially submitted by publishers, and others will be written in by the Academy’s management. It’s our way of making sure everything’s considered, nothing slips throughthe cracks and that the playing field is even for all companies. This way no one can stack the deck by excluding certain titles for consideration, does away with possible bias, and makes sureanything goes, so you never really know what’s going to walk away with any given award.

Q: By the way – we can’t say as we’ve seen any titles with that Interactive Achievement Award stamp on them yet. What gives?

A: It’s just started. You’ll see some titles from Nintendo with it. Sony has also told me that they have put the Interactive Achievement Award on the God of War packaging in the UK andEurope…

To show you that we’re not a tool of the publishers, I have to go engage them and demonstrate to them that there’s value in featuring the Academy’s mark as well, because there’s a cost to it. As apublisher, I have to sticker hundreds of thousands of boxes… There’s an expense to that. I have to show these people there’s a value to that.

Q: Rewinding a bit, you talked about TV earlier. Some of the broadcast initiatives you currently have in the works are?

A: We’re creating a program called "The Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences Presents: The Year in Games.” It’ll cover the top 15 award categories in a way that’s not typical of astandard award show. We’ve teamed up with Dick Clark Productions on the program, and it should air sometime early next year.

Q: Going forward, what do you hope to have achieved through the Academy within the next 5 to 10 years?

A: I’d like to think within the next 5 years that we can get the word out that there’s an organization comprised of game makers who have come together to recognize each year’s best works. And that ifI’m looking to buy or play a game that any title that carries our sticker or logo on it is going to be a guaranteed hit.

Q: Good deal. But one of the inherent issues we see is that while this sort of approach inherently appeals to hardcore gamers, it’s going to be hard to gain mainstream audiences’ attention.How do you plan on addressing that?

A: Good question. I don’t think we currently have anything in place today that speaks to a 14 year-old, for instance, and tells them what they can take away artistically from a game like God of War.Awareness is key to almost everything. I’d like to think the award show goes a long way towards saying "Here’s an interesting reason to buy a specific title if you’re interested in a buying agame."

On the flip side, let’s face it, though. If you’re not planning on picking a game up, I’m irrelevant to you. And I don’t think there’s much I can do to change that. There’s a lot we still don’t knowabout who games and why they do so now. But the more we keep putting the message out there, the more we hope it raises awareness, and the more it hopefully sticks.

Q: We’ll keep our fingers crossed on that then. Thanks for your time and good luck!

A: My pleasure. It’s always a treat to talk about gaming, because its reach extends far beyond what you see on your computer monitor or TV screen. There’s as much art and culture featured here as inany other entertainment business. You just have to open your mind a little bit to see it.

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