Smile and Nod: What I learned at DICE

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I opened my coverage of the DICE Summit this year, and its attendant awards show, the Interactive Achievement Awards, by comparing the awards themselves to The Oscars. And I’m glad I did. It turns out to have been a more apt analogy than even I realized.

The Oscars ceremony each year gets a lot of attention because of the star power of its attendees. People tune in to see “who” the stars are wearing, who’s dating who and whether or not various celebrities will skip rehab therapy groups to party. Which is all well and good.

But all of that sound and fury is like the creamy caramel and smooth white chocolate layered over the real core of Oscars night: the awards. And although the paparazzi and tabloid journalists may dictate center stage on the red carpet, inside it’s about the award winners, as nominated and voted on by their peers, fellow filmmakers all. The IAA Awards are no different.

While Spike TV’s VGA show may have attracted a lot of attention, some of it unwarranted, the games recognized that night were nominated by and voted on by journalists. Now, don’t get me wrong, I like journalists, and I know how much most of the folks on that panel know about games. But if you had your choice of an award being offered by a couple dozen guys (and a few girls) who write about games or one offered by 400 members of the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences, who each make games, many of whom are several-decade veterans, which would you choose?

Or, to put it another way, Martin Scorsese won a lot of awards over the course of his career, but he didn’t consider himself a success until he bagged his first Oscar. Why? Because the recognition of his peers ultimately carried more weight than the opinions of anyone else. And so it is with the IAA Awards.

Spike’s VGAs made a lot of noise, literally and figuratively, but the winners of the IAA Awards will be making more of a splash, not to mix metaphors. As soon as they are able, the Academy will be slapping stickers on the boxes of award-winning games and erecting information displays at Gamestop stores nation-wide. And it’s practically a guarantee the winners will be getting a sales bump.

What will BioShock‘s five awards amount to in increased unit sales? Tough to say, but, according to Academy President Joe Olin, judging from previous years’ results, an increase of 10-25 percent wouldn’t be unheard of. So if peer recognition doesn’t float your boat, stay tuned for the Bejamins.

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But there was more to DICE than just the awards. That is to say the peer recognition didn’t begin and end with winning a trophy. The whole week was like a giant back slap fest, only the good kind, where people who’ve worked hard stepped forward to share their stories and be recognized. That some of them walked away with shiny objects d’art for their mantelpieces only made it sweeter.

From Gore Verbinski’s rousing keynote to the very last slide of the last presentation, given by Russ Crupnick, Senior Vice President of NPD Group, the people who keep track of statistics, this year’s DICE was all about the power of the individual to make great things.

From Verbinski we learned that one person, albeit an extremely talented, well-connected person, can make a movie starring a slurring, effeminate pirate against the objections of studio financiers and still bring home box office gold. From the boys behind Blizzard we learned that quality is everything and that if you don’t want to release a bad game, you probably shouldn’t. And from Crupnick we learned that the people at home respect quality, and will revolt if their store shelves are filled with the opposite. Just as the music industry. Even the CEO of EA, the most disreputably bureaucratic game publisher in the industry joined the chorus, setting his monolithic company on a course to, in his own words, empower the people who make the games, not enslave them.

For a journalist used to hearing “more of same, more of same, more of same” blared out over the megawatt sound systems at jumbotron-enabled booths at other industry conventions, it was an eye opener. Not because the idea that artists, developers, storywriters and even coders were ultimately responsible for whether a game performs well or doesn’t (for anyone who’s worked in a creative field, this is not kind of news at all), but that the powers that be in the industry cared. And make no mistake, DICE may be small by some shows’ standards (invitations were only sent to about 800 hand-picked invitees), but of that group, an unusually high number were CEOs, Presidents or “executive” thises or thats. By all accounts, what happens at DICE is a fair indicator of what the people who make the games are really concerned about at any given time, and this year, it was the importance of individual achievement.

There’s been a lot of nostalgia floating about over the past few years about the time when the lion’s share of games were developed by so-called “bedroom programmers,” folks who were coders, artists, writers and marketing managers all rolled into one. A lot of our legendary developers harken from that time. In those days, a single person’s vision drove an entire project, and you could easily feel their love and passion expressed in every pixel and mechanic. But since most games these days require upward of 50-100 people to produce, some as many as 300, it’s easy to see how that magic could be lost.

Thing is? It’s still there. A modern AAA title may be too complex for any one person to build on his own, but those of us at home on our asses can still tell the difference between a game made with heart and inspiration and those made without. Luckily for to folks who made BioShock, Call of Duty 4, Portal, Mass Effect, Phantom Hourglass, Rock Band, Assassin’s Creed[/i], Crysis, Puzzle Quest, skate, Motorstorm, Super Mario Galaxy, Command & Conquer 3 and World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade, so can the Academy.

[i]Russ Pitts is Acquisitions and Production Manager for The Escapist. His blog can be found at

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