Saturday, February 9, 2008


DICE is always an interesting gathering. If GDC is (or at least was) a combination job fair and tech seminar for the video game industry rank and file, and E3 was the sales and marketing orgy, then DICE is where the industry celebrates creativity and the craft -- and occasionally where the creatives confront the suits.

I was there to do one of the two Autodesk-sponsored "Fight Club" sessions. My old friend Keith Boesky and I took opposing sides of the consolidation debate. I was pro, Keith was con. In the second session, Kelly Flock and Min Kim, from Nexon, debated packaged goods vs. online. It was a lively and amusing format, with questions and catcalls coming from all sides of a stage in the middle of the crowd.

There were a couple of uncomfortable moments. A guy from Sierra Online spoke out to dispute our contention that big video game companies can't innovate creatively. He said Sierra was innovating creatively. Huh? I could only feel pity as I imagined Activision shutting Sierra Online down, as they will certainly do after the merger with Vivendi is complete.

The second uncomfortable moment came when a strange guy in a baggy, cream-colored linen suit, wearing wrap-around, Paris Hilton shades, approached the microphone. He rudely suggested that I had no business talking about innovation because I published JAMDAT Bowling. This is a common fanboy posture, which I have heard many times before. It completely misapprehends the nature of innovation in mobile gaming -- a casual, accessible, immensely fun game that you can play with one thumb on a tiny screen while in line at the theater is the very essence of innovation. What made this confrontation remarkable is that the oddly dressed fellow was Mark Ollila, the head of games at Nokia. Wow. Maybe he thought he was being funny. Maybe he was bitter about the failing high-end mobile game startup he founded, Telcogames. [UPDATE: Telcogames has since gone bankrupt, torching its creditors]

I also attended a couple of the big hall lectures. The one by the senior team from Blizzard made me realize something. Blizzard is lionized for its creative independence as a developer, but remember that Blizzard has been owned by a large corporation of one sort or another since 1994. They were only independent, in the business sense, for 3 of the 17 years they have been operating. So, I wonder how useful their comments about killing bad projects, taking as much time as necessary, etc., are to actual developers, since Blizzard hasn't had to worry about the common developer headaches of payroll, milestone-based cash flow, or securing a publisher for their next project. They've been attached to a corporate teat throughout their period of peak creativity.

Their genius (aside from their immense and obvious game-making genius) seems to be in keeping the suits at bay. They have the amazing ability to retain their creative independence while under the corporate boot. It's a lesson for Activision and EA to learn (happily, from reports I heard of John Riccitiello's comments on Friday, he seems to have learned it).

The other illuminating lecture I saw was by Robin Kaminsky from Activision. She gave a brave talk about the limits of creativity and the importance of marketing -- a tough message to deliver to the DICE crowd. It was very thoughtful and well-researched (but her presentation materials were appalling -- Robin, go read Presentation Zen right now!).

What caught my attention was that Robin's talk showed, precisely, why the suits will never vanquish the creatives. Activision has been masterful at getting behind hits. Whether it was MechWarrior, or Quake 3, or Tony Hawk's Pro Skater in my era there; Spider-man, Call of Duty, or Guitar Hero in this era, they max out hits like no other publisher.

But that marketing machine is dependent on the existence of great games. Robin talked at length about engineering Call of Duty 4's success. But that was relatively safe -- Call of Duty had several successful previous incarnations, it was being built by an A+ team at Infinity Ward, and COD itself was built on the genre-making success of EA's Medal of Honor. Same with Guitar Hero -- that was the creative brainchild of Harmonix, and it was Red Octane who took the market-acceptance risk, shipping a game with a plastic guitar. The contrast between Blizzard's approach and Activision's was stark. Should make for an interesting merger.

Packaged goods executives come from industries where you can create products by consumer and market research. But in creative businesses, it's impossible to do research on something nobody has ever seen before. That's the realm of creative genius and risk. There is a quote that I've heard attributed to both Tripp Hawkins and Dan Scherlis: that a video game genre is just a successful product and its imitators. The packaged goods marketers have been great at mining existing genres, but not so good at creating the new ones.