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Spot On: The 2004 D.I.C.E. Summit

EA's Bing Gordon and Naughty Dog's Jason Rubin top a list of industry leaders who addressed the sold-out event.


It happens every year. In the weeks leading up to the annual D.I.C.E. Summit, flurries of e-mails are sent between industry players at every level of the game business food chain: "Are you headed to D.I.C.E.?" "Can we spare the time away from our game?" "Anybody big speaking?"

This year the speculation may have been even more intense, since the event moved from its comfortable home at Las Vegas' Hard Rock Cafe to new digs at The Palms. The event was marked by further transition because this year was former THQ exec Gordon Bellamy's first time as the event's lead producer. In November of 2003, Bellamy was named executive director of the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences (AIAS), which is the organization that produces the summit.

Ultimately, the industry showed up--and in sizable numbers. In fact, the event had been sold-out since mid-February. The rank and file, the press corps, a passel of agents, and even a gate-crasher or two rubbed shoulders with the sector's top talent. In addition to the speakers, notables in attendance included Lorne Lanning, Ray Muzyka, Greg Zeschuk, Bruce Shelley, Alex Garden, Ken Lobb, Tony Goodman, and Kevin Bachus, among others.

The event's main activities took place in the Palms' main ballroom, and the room's 450 seats remained filled for most of the day--and with good reason. The opening lineup included solo presentations by Electronic Arts' Bing Gordon, Flagship Studios' Bill Roper, FASA-founder Jordan Weisman, and Wired Editor in Chief Chris Anderson.

Panel participants included Nintendo's Perrin Kaplan, Ubisoft's Tony Kee, THQ's Peter Dille, Chip Lange of Electronic Arts, screenwriter David Hayter (also the voice of Metal Gear Solid's Solid Snake), EA's Steve Schnur, Jason Hall of Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, and Nickelodeon's Steve Youngwood.

Though the day's proceedings featured more than a dozen different sessions, there were several recurring themes, including: the challenge of broadening the market to include new gamers, especially female gamers; the challenge of creating successful, new intellectual property; the shifting relationship between developers and publishers; the opportunity to invent successful franchises for the next generation of hardware; and the goal of keeping gamers involved in a gameplay experience over the long haul.

Possibly the most provocative sessions were the day's opening and closing presentations.

Electronic Arts Chief Creative Officer Bing Gordon delivered a morning jolt to attendees in his 9:15am address. His topic was titled "Designing Games for Next Generation Machines." In it, he married ideas that reflected "Life According to Bing" with ideas that mirrored what one could call "The EA Way."

Gordon first introduced himself as a lifelong learner. He revealed that among his favorite books are David Ogilvy's classic Confessions of an Advertising Man and Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson's cyberpunk classic. (In fact, Gordon went so far as to throw praise on Stephenson with his comment, "Novelists are good storytellers.")

Gordon spun a good yarn himself and oftentimes digressed from the game exec's point of view. However, the allure of his message lay in his ability to rein in remote topics and put them into the context of his vision. This was heady stuff for an early Vegas morning, but he had the benefit of preaching to the choir.

Among his topics of discussion, Gordon touched on what game consoles would be like circa 2008; he revealed the importance of launching hardware with the early adopter in mind (because he or she establishes the standard others will be forced to follow); he divulged how to think like a kid (to make your game an integral part of a child's entertainment universe); and he divulged why it's good to hang out with nongamers (because it's only a matter of time before someone converts them into gamers…so it might as well be you).

"Imagine a world where a console can support 8GB of RAM," Gordon said. And if you "have a hard time thinking what you'll do with it, don’t worry. The kids will know." His focus on teens' abilities to multitask and their reliance on instant messaging underscored one of his general themes, which was to 'know your market.' Gordon added, "Kids got Run Lola Run'ed a long time ago, and they will have expectations of media and entertainment far different from that of 20-to-25-year-olds today." He went on to say that the challenge of developers and publishers is to recognize this fact and make games that will appeal to this mind-set.

Gordon suggested slyly that when it comes to deciding what hardware platform to support, it pays to "follow the money…and pick the winner." He reflected on the fact that since EA was founded, it has seen 140 different platform launches--and it avoided a slew of them because the business models were suspect. Even when you do hang your hopes on a particular platform, beware. "They love you when they launch, then they compete with you afterwards."

Looking toward the future, Gordon evangelized the need to recognize how important virtual worlds will become for kids. A father of a teenager himself, Gordon predicted that "virtual worlding" will become a rite of passage for teenagers.

He suggested that tomorrow's killer apps will come from "100x physics, where everything on the screen is modeled." They will reach a standard that Gordon calls "Pixar quality." He also said the future's best game would feature living worlds where NPCs are "inspired by The Sims and have complex emotions." ("GTA on steroids" is how Gordon put it.) Gordon also touched on something he called "win-win & make-make," which is a theory that implores the gamer to "beat the world together," as well as one that sees open-ended ways of winning. He also saw the day when everything in a game would be customizable, a la The Sims, and gamers would have persistent online identities--or what Gordon calls "fully baked avatars."

The brass ring, says Gordon, will be within reach when games have "the personalization of Amazon, with a Friendster application built in, and [can offer a world with] no cheating."

At the end of the day, Naughty Dog cofounder Jason Rubin delivered an impassioned plea to developers in which he advocated the need for them to "get their heads out of the sand" to acknowledge how publishers downplay their irreplaceable contribution to the game-making process. "We've allowed ourselves to be placed behind a brand," Rubin said in a fiery presentation. He further said, "The extent to which developers are disrespected is extreme." Rubin stopped short of organizing developers into a guild or union on the spot--but not by much. "If every major developer says, 'we're part of this plan,' then we're united," he said.

While Rubin led off his presentation with anecdotes about how hard it has been for him and his colleagues to even get invitations to publishers' parties (while dim-witted Hollywood talent is fawned over by game publishers' marketing and PR teams), he was clear that his talk was "not about parties" but was about what lay below this "surface" manifestation. "Games are currently sold like packaged goods. Talent is not respected," he said. "If the business doesn't change, talent suffers." As for who should foment change, Rubin was clear: "Talent must force the change."

Rubin's presentation netted him a partial standing ovation and numerous votes of confidence from attendees who did everything but raise their clenched fists into the air at the end of the session.

Overall, the tone of the conference was honest, relatively friendly, rather modest, and informal, yet it was serious. Developers and publishers from competing firms happily intermingled. Participants checked their differences at the door and used the event as a forum for discussing issues and problems endemic to the gaming industry as a whole. There was a collective understanding that the gaming industry is still very young, and there is much more learning that needs to take place before it can truly blossom and mature. As such, future challenges seem imposing, but the possibilities are exciting, and the potential is tremendous.

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