Interview – Joseph Olin, AIAS president (part 1)

Thursday, 15 April 2010 08:26 GMT By Stephany Nunneley


The Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences has become increasingly relevant in recent years, with its DICE-based “gaming Oscars” now easily the industry’s most prestigious annual awards ceremony. While the core is always well-rewarded at the event, the AIAS is a over-arching affair, meaning games that don’t involve shooting people in the face are considered “important” as well. Bizarre.

AIAS president Joseph Olin took time out of his busy schedule to chat on social gaming trends, mobile gaming, the emerging 3D market, and how independent developers can differentiate themselves from established studios in the current economic climate.

He also talks a bit about whether games are art or not, which we’ll cover in Part 2. Part 1’s after the break.

[Interview by Stephany Nunneley]

Let’s first talk a bit bout social gaming. Do you see FarmVille and other popular social games as a trend that will gradually fall from favor in the same way as the music genre?

Joseph Olin: Well, I don’t think that’s the case with the music genre. What is happening with it now just reflects the fact that all of us who love Guitar Hero and Rock Band already have all the plastic guitars we need. There is a tremendous amount of content being downloaded due to the amount of songs available on Xbox Box Live, or the other respective platforms. Even though Guitar Hero: Van Halen didn’t do very well, DJ Hero sold particularly well, despite not being priced very attractively. Same with The Beatles: Rock Band.

People love music and they love games, so when you combine the two you have people being just as selective in their choices as they are with other things they enjoy. So, they will pick songs they enjoy, and they don’t mind paying to do so. I think that the music genre has reached the point of sustainability which is good for both the people that make the games and the people who play them.

I think with people who play social games, it comes down to how much of your time are you willing to commit towards maintaining your life on Facebook or any of the other social portals that is relative to all the other ways you interact with your group of friends. A few years ago we didn’t have YouTube, we didn’t have Facebook, MySpace was really restrictive in terms of what you could do with it, and now you have 70 million people a day playing FarmVille, you have people playing Mafia Wars, and those are huge numbers compared to what you see over on the consoles.

They are there today, and whether they will be there tomorrow or not comes down to a combination of factors, but you have developers who are integrating social networking into their games, and whether they’ll continue to be successful or not we’ll have to see.

Well, you have Sid Meier creating Civilization for Facebook. That’s a big deal because he is an industry legend and could possibly get people who never would have though of playing a Civ game to go out a pick up a copy afterward.

Joseph Olin: Sure it is. I mean, it’s not something that is new, really. As kids, we had friends, and we played with friends because we didn’t want to play by ourselves. I mean, no one played board games by themselves; unless it was Monopoly because they didn’t want to argue over who is going to be the Top Hat, or whether there’s free parking or not.

The reality is that you want to play with friends, and I think social networking at its core is about friendships – whether those are professional or personal, we want to hang and associate together, and it’s only natural that we want a device that allows us to play together.

So, it should be somewhat sustainable, but we are always looking for something new and different. A lot of us have reached the point where on Facebook where we’re looking at new additions and thinking more about how much work is involved.

At first you would play for maybe five minutes, and then all of a sudden you are playing Mafia Wars and you’re getting a thousand requests a day to respond to, and then you’re like, “You know what? I don’t have time for all this.” Then all of a sudden you’re a bad friend because, “You didn’t respond to my request, and I needed this token so I could level.”

It’s an interesting dilemma. I think that when something shifts from being work instead of fun, that’s when that tipping point changes.

Exactly. That’s why I stopped playing Metropolis on Facebook. It started taking up too much of my time populating cities, expanding, building, and all that. Do you think that with all the different options and folks playing out there, the thrill of it will burn itself out too quickly?

Joesph Olin: I don’t really think we’re gonna go from 300 million Facebook users to zero in the next five years or anything, but I think the challenge, especially with Facebook, is to figure out how to leverage or naturally integrate additional services that speak to people and connect them together, and being able to update other users like friends and colleagues with shared experiences. Facebook definitely has value to it. Whether the effort it takes to maintain that relationship says relevant or not depends on how long you are willing to continue doing it.

Microsoft and Sony have both integrated social networking into XBL and PSN, and Xbox 360 currently has more Avatar games in the works. Do you see either putting a dent in the casual market?

Joesph Olin: It’s just their way of acknowledging that their audience is socially connected with people in ways other than the console, so they may as well try to enable that as opposed to forcing people to turn on a console, play it, and then go back to their notebook or PC and log back in to see what the updates are, or answer requests, or whatever they feel like doing. This way they are already connected.

That is much simpler, really, and quite a few games allow for status update on how you did in a race or stage of the game, or even how high you are on the leaderboards.

Joseph Olin: Exactly. There are quite a number of games that will auto-publish your accomplishments now, whether you just picked up two Trophies or did well in Burnout Paradise.

I don’t really know about that, because, oh I dunno, here it will be three o’clock in the afternoon and it shows that I was playing a game and now everybody knows it [laughs]. No, I’m really working! [laughs].

With mobile games being so successful, and Apple being the King of Apps, how do you see PSP go and DS competing in the “on the go” gaming market? I mean, once again, there’s another rumor out there that Sony’s working on a phone that can download games off the PlayStation Network, and Nintendo seems to be coming out with a new version of DS every time you turn around.

Joseph Olin: Sony at its core has always been a technological leader in consumer electronics, and personal portable entertainment is certainly within their area of engineering and science expertise. From a content perspective they certainly have a number of great games, and PSP’s architecture, which is based on PS2 architecture, has a great field of development.

The problem becomes, “Do I want to spend a million dollars to build something? Will I make my money back? Will I make ten times my money back?” That is the most difficult thing to accomplish in the portable entertainment department.

But what everybody seems to forget is that despite its popularity, the iPod and iPhone are not the number one portable entertainment platform: it’s the DS, and those who forget that are silly. I don’t think Nintendo is concerned with the iPod and iPhone, but I think that they are very aware people make choices all the time, and the good thing is that you can still own both and do different things on them.

Now, could Sony enter the entertainment phone business? Sure they could. There’s the Sony Ericsson joint venture which has done well, their camera phones have done well, and while they haven’t done anything yet that is an all encompassing device, there is the PSP go that you can use Skype on and wi-fi-based calling: there is a market for it.

There’s people who have an iPod and know the limitations on it, but it’s the same with iPhone.

Part 2 of our interview with Joesph Olin will be posted next week. Be sure to check back so you can get his thoughts on whether or not independents are compromised in the marketplace, and if 3D will succeed in its planned take-over of global entertainment.