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Last week I spoke at the international Design, Innovate, Communicate and Entertain Summit 2014. It is an event commonly known as the DICE Summit, and it is organised by ‘the Academy’ – which is short for AIAS, or the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences. In fact, there are more abbreviations to the event, and in general the name of the event couldn’t be much tougher to remember.
The event itself was a two-day event in the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas, which is one of those cities that might be the furthest removed from my personal preferences. I don’t drink, gamble nor like spending money on superfluous luxury, but here I was in Vegas – In-App Purchase City. It’s a city that shouldn’t exist given it’s location, but was built to sustain an economy that the city itself created. To me, the motto of ‘what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas’ sounds pretty awful. If what you do there is so commonly upsetting to the world that you’re not supposed to tell people about it, that doesn’t sound like a place I want to be at. On top of that it’s just really sad to see a legion of desperate people trying to gamble their social security checks back into the Vegas economy.
DICE itself was completely contained within the Hard Rock Hotel. I was surprised to learn that each hotel is a micro-city in itself, sprawling buildings with shops, restaurants, bars and clubs – which isn’t that odd – but the scale of everything is sort of overwhelming. I arrived at the hotel a night early, but could only find the actual event in the conference hall fifteen minutes before my talk. I’ll immediately admit that I was extremely nervous for my talk. All I knew about the audience is that it consisted of more than hundred executives and CEO’s of the larger gaming companies and events, and that there might be tens of thousands of gamers watching through the livestream.
Of course, seeing this slew of anonymous people before walking onto the TED-like stage didn’t really help, nor did my subject of choice: with some encouragement from Shawn Allen, Davey Wreden and Robin Arnott I decided that an audience like this could probably use a quick introduction to the concept behind technological democratisation and the history of a ‘typical’ indie studio.
I’ll admit that I’ve never been more nervous for a talk. Not only is the DICE stage elevated, it also doesn’t really have a podium to lean against. On top of that, as everybody is used of me by now, I walked into the venue ten minutes before my talk, meaning I literally had no idea of whom my audience existed.
The talk went over really well. For many people at DICE these concepts are still really new. The AAA industry and the indie scene, although they overlap in some places, are still two separate worlds – something that becomes painfully clear when you put someone like me at DICE, or someone from AAA goes indie. It takes time to adapt to this other world – this world where people don’t have Twitter but love LinkedIn. A world where ‘making a game that doesn’t sell well’ means risking 200 mortgages rather than eating noodles for a few months.
Regardless, it turns out that the people leading AAA companies are in many ways similar to the indies of today. I spent a lot of time with Randy and Kristy Pitchford of Gearbox, Joe Kreiner of Epic, Mike Capps, Warren Spector, Mark Cerny and several others – and I had a good time as soon as I realised that what drives these people is the exact same thing that drives me: they care about games. They care about the future of our medium, about the advances that the medium can make, and about making sure the people they work with are happy. Some of them are the indies of the 80s, who just happened to have grown beyond their original scope.
On an intellectual level I understood all of this already, but on an emotional level having these conversations were eye-opening. I truly believe indie games and indie developers push this medium forward in many ways, but AAA games push the technological boundaries within which we can create. My goals of getting as many perspectives and games in the medium do include Call of Duty, Gears, Borderlands and FIFA ’14, and it was reassuring to sit down with some of the people responsible for the companies behind those projects.
Not everything was great: there were some atrocious remarks made during the conference – I feel Trip Hawkins completely missed the mark in many ways in particular, the general audience at DICE could use a few lessons in gender-neutral expressions and a few of the jokes made at the event weren’t quite great. It’s obvious that the event has a long tradition and that a lot of developments outside of the group of common attendees of the event do not reflect within DICE’s audience yet. That doesn’t mean they’re oblivious to change – a lot of the conversations I had reflected interest from the attendees in the mobile and indie gaming space. They seem genuinely excited about all the movements in our industry, and not at all antagonistic regarding them either.
In other words, I left DICE with a really positive feeling. Reminiscing over old programming languages, discussing games education, talking about the art and business of making games – DICE was a small and cozy conference that allows people to really sit down and get to know each other – not unlike Fantastic Arcade or GameCity – but with different people. It’s obviously way more expensive than any conference I’d normally go to, but it allowed me to talk to people I wouldn’t be able to reach at events where they’d already be absolutely swamped with media and fans.
On top of that, I am under the impression that this year featured one of the largest indie contingents at the event. Davey Wreden, Lucas Pope, Steve Gaynor and Karla Zimonja of The Full Bright Company and the people behind Brothers were all nominated for a DICE Award, and Robin Hunicke, Greg Rice, Nathan Vella and a few other indies were in attendance as well. I hope that next year, there will be even more indie developers attending.
It was nice leaving DICE to visit students in Zurich and flying out to IndieCade straight after that. Moving from AAA games to student projects to experimental and artistic games was a nice amount of variation the last week and a half. DICE does get a bit overwhelming, and I could use the 20 hours of flight to order my thoughts a bit.
Beyond being a really positive experience, DICE was also a stark reminder of how happy I am making games with the little two-man studio that is Vlambeer. If anything became really clear to me at DICE beyond the above thoughts, it is that I’m perfectly fine with staying small. Vlambeer is a wonderful little thing.
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