The DICE Summit (Design, Innovate, Communicate, Entertain) is well under way this week, bringing some of the game industry’s best minds together in Las Vegas for a few days of networking, thinking, talking, back-slapping, and partying. Staged by the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences, it is a chance for the best of the business to shine, from an opening keynote by The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim game developer Todd Howard on why we create and play to the game industry’s equivalent of the Oscars, complete with a red carpet show.

More than 700 game developers and other professionals will attend the event this year, according to Martin Rae (pictured below), president of the AIAS. He said in an interview that he believes that the industry is doing very well, with new platforms flowering and indie designers sprouting up all over the place.

“Some people call me crazy, but the game business is in a golden age,” Rae said. “Anytime the game industry goes through a transformation, some parts of the business won’t grow like they used to. But if you truly measure everything, games are growing like crazy. There are so many more demographic groups playing games, including my mother. It runs through the whole population, and you have to believe 2012 will be a great year.”

I’ve been to every one of the DICE Summits over the years, and I always find them fascinating and valuable for networking. By no means are they extravagant or elegant by Hollywood standards. Even though there are a few velvet ropes at this event, if they let me past some of them, well, it can’t be that exclusive. We will see more social and mobile game developers there, but the core game developers have decided that the new guys won’t bring down the party standards.

“We’ve got [Zynga chief game designer] Brian Reynolds and [Nexon America cofounder] Min Kim from the social and online industry, and that’s a recognition of how they represent the new industry,” Rae said.

This year, Rae hopes the audience will find the sessions to be more conversational, with speakers on a dais that extends into the audience so that they’re surrounded on three sides by the viewers.

To me, DICE is like the watering hole of the industry. Executives from rival publishing houses and enemy platforms laugh and party it up with each other as if they were the best of friends.

There are so many movers and shakers at the conference that I always wonder what kind of deals take place there. At one past summit, Cliff “CliffyB” Bleszinski, lead designer at Epic Games, gave a pitch to Ed Fries, then the head of Microsoft Game Studios. And soon enough, the Gears of War franchise was announced, with Microsoft as the publisher. It makes me wonder what would have happened if Bleszinski had bumped into the Sony guys at the bar that night.

Another time, I saw a Microsoft chieftain chat in the corner with a prominent Sony game developer. Years later, that developer finally started making games for the Xbox 360. I can always tell there’s some wheeling and dealing going on because when I show up, people exchange furtive glances and stop talking. One of these days, I’ll catch them chatting about how Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo are going to build the XboxStationWii 10,000 together, so they can gang up on Apple.

I fondly remember one summit where a developer took me out of the main room and showed me a web page on a laptop. It displayed the first known patent filings for the Cell microprocessor, the brains of a box that Sony would eventually call the PlayStation 3. After I wrote a story about it, hell broke loose. I learned many years later that IBM, which was co-producing the Cell chips, was pissed at Sony because the Japanese company put the names of its engineers on the patent filing but not the names of the IBM engineers. After threats of a lawsuit, Sony added the names of the IBM engineers to the filing.

On stage, the speakers aren’t always sensational, but they’re inspirational and memorable. In 2010, Jesse Schell, a game design professor at Carnegie Mellon University, gave a talk entitled “Beyond Facebook” where he envisioned everyone would copy the game industry’s success and offer achievements and rewards for things like brushing your teeth or riding the bus instead of taking a car. Two years later, the trend that Schell observed has turned into the “gamification” industry, where corporations try to get users to get more engaged with products via game-like rewards.

Among this year’s highlights: On Thursday, Xbox co-creator Seamus Blackley talked about his new Innovative Leisure startup, followed by a discussion from the startup’s creative team: Rich Adam, Ed Logg, Ed Rotberg, and Owen Rubin — all former arcade game designers who worked at Atari during its golden years. They talked about how mobile games have become the new arcade, and 99 cents is the new quarter.

Today, Eric Hirshberg, CEO of Activision Publishing, will talk about his perspective coming into the game industry from the marketing and advertising side of the world. Tim Sweeney, CEO of Epic Games, was inducted into the Academy’s Hall of Fame and give a speech about the next 20 years of technology and games. Transmedia (making game properties that spread across different media from comics to TV) is a topic for multiple speakers.

The Summit’s 15th Interactive Achievement Awards was once again emceed by comedian Jay Mohr (pictured top). Brian Crecente, news editor of Vox Games, referred to the ceremony as “the Other Academy Awards,” oft overshadowed by the movie and music equivalents. These, as well as the Game Developers Choice Awards coming in March, still aren’t televised. The lack of visibility is due to the fact that, in the grand scheme of things, the video game business is still a young industry. As more and more entertainment becomes more interactive, Rae said, and as the game industry matures, then the recognition of developers will become more and more relevant to larger groups of people. The awards will be livestreamed on GameSpot.

Sebastian Haley, our GamesBeat reviews editor, is attending DICE for the first time along with me. Please check the GamesBeat section for our stories. A few of the sessions will be webcast on GameSpot, and post-show videos of the talks will be aired. And if you hear about any big deals happening in the hallways or the poker tables, let me know.

Here’s hoping that this DICE will be another memorable one.

[Photo credits: Dean Takahashi and AIAS]