Anniversaries have a way of creeping up on us.
The game academy’s annual DICE Awards event is now in its 20th year, while the DICE Summit event is in its 17th. I’ve been to all of the summits, which gather the elite of the game industry in Las Vegas every year. I’ll be going to the summit and awards again this week in Las Vegas, and I thought it would be nice to reminisce about the past 20 years of an event that honors the artists of the game industry.
Now world-famous, the DICE Awards and the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences had a slow start. The awards show and the academy only got off the ground because a handful of people thought that games should get the same recognition as movies, books, and music.
In 1992, entertainment lawyer Andrew Zucker started early efforts to create an academy that resembled the Academy of Motion Picture Artists, which puts on the Oscars. It held its initial show in 1994, hosted by actors Leslie Nielsen and Jonathan Taylor. A second show was held in 1995, and the ratings weren’t good.
“I think maybe five people watched it. There were more people in the room than were watching it on TV,” joked Joseph Olin, who served as president of the AIAS from 2004 to 2010, in an interview with GamesBeat. Olin now serves as department chair for digital entertainment at the Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana, a private university in Medellín, Colombia. “Can you believe it’s 20 years since the academy started?”
In 1996, a second effort was rekindled to establish AIAS as a nonprofit group. Nintendo executive Peter Main, Sega’s Tom Kalinske, and game industry trade group leader Doug Lowenstein helped get it started. They chose game developer Glenn Entis as the first president of their fledgling group, and Lowenstein’s group, which had changed its name from the Interactive Digital Software Association to the Entertainment Software Association, provided the early funding.
The organization evolved and went through a few different leaders. The ESA withdrew funding for a while. But the idea of video games as an art form didn’t die.
Rich Hilleman and Lorne Lanning, two veteran game makers, wanted to start the DICE Summit (short for Design Innovate Communicate Entertain) in order to fund the academy, which started holding its DICE Awards (then known as the Interactive Achievement Awards) on an annual basis starting in 1998.
“The awards were given out based on peer recognition, which was — and still is — novel versus the other award systems,” said Ted Price, the CEO of Insomniac Games. “As a game developer, I found this incredibly compelling. Receiving an award from other craftspeople in the industry is arguably the highest form of praise.”
Price joined the effort, helping to fund the academy as it struggled. He saw too many narrow-minded individuals who didn’t recognize games as an art form. Like many game makers, he wanted everybody to get past the idea that video games caused violence and weren’t good for much else.
“I remember being in a board meeting where we asked, how can we make the academy more relevant?” said Price. “While the awards were great and growing in popularity, we saw a chance to add more to the conversation around games. Rich Hilleman proposed holding a limited attendance conference in Vegas where the best and brightest were invited to share their ideas with the industry. It was at that moment the DICE Summit was born.”
Started in 2000, the summits turned out to be inspiring in ways that the founders didn’t imagine. They featured memorable talks from game leaders such as Jason Rubin, Seamus Blackley, Mark Cerny, Doug Lowenstein, Bing Gordon (as far as I could understand him), Jenova Chen, Bobby Kotick, Todd Howard, Rhianna Pratchett, and Jesse Schell. Behind the scenes, Olin recalled it was very hard to get some of these people to talk.
“There was a lot of negotiation when Bobby Kotick finally decided to speak,” Olin said. “The drama is more about who wins the poker tournament.”
Schell, however, scored lots of laughs and video views for his talk on the gamification of everything.
“The question for each DICE is, will someone speak from the heart? Because those are the talks we like the best,” Olin said. “The challenge is to find people who are interesting who will say something.”
For me, the networking at the DICE Summit was always great, and I was able to meet people at DICE who gave me interesting scoops on the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3. The event is part of the joy of covering video games. I remember one moment during DICE when Cliff “CliffyB” Bleszinski pitched Ed Fries, then at Microsoft Games, on a new title. Fries said he might give Bleszinski a chance. Fries turned to me and said, “You didn’t hear this.” And not long after that, work began on Microsoft’s Gears of War.
The DICE Summit also brought together artists from different media. Gabe Newell and JJ Abrams gave a memorable talk in 2013 about the differences between movies and games (their collaboration still hasn’t surfaced). And Metal Gear Solid creator Hideo Kojima went on stage with filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro last year.
“To me, what’s magic about the AIAS is its mission to elevate the art and craft of games. It’s easy to forget that just a few years ago, we were under siege,” Price said. “Legislators were drawing parallels between games and controlled substances. We were on the verge of being censored and having our creative rights stripped away. While the ESA commendably led the battle all the way to the Supreme Court, I think the efforts of the AIAS to demonstrate the value of games to society helped quite a bit. Games are complex, vibrant works of art, and the AIAS continually reminds us of this via the awards and DICE.”
The work of fighting for the cause of gaming as an art was exhausting. Olin left the AIAS in 2011 in part because he was worn out and because everything took a few more calls to get done than it should have.
“I felt pretty good about what I had accomplished in my tenure, and I was tired of fighting,” Olin said. “It was time for a change.”
In 2012, after Martin Rae had taken over, the summit reorganized its format and renamed the awards show as the DICE Awards. Jay Mohr, the comedian and longtime host of the awards, was dropped from the show.
“I mixed the framework up, added roundtables, and shortened the schedule,” Rae said. “I wanted to have one or two talks that, after people left, could change the course of a business.”
Now the AIAS’ mission is to promote and advance the worldwide interactive entertainment community, recognize outstanding achievements in the interactive arts and sciences, and host an annual awards show, the DICE Awards, to enhance awareness of games as an interactive art form.
“Twenty years ago, the industry was still young, but one thing was clear. Video games were just as much an art form as an entertainment medium,” said Don James, the executive vice president of operations at Nintendo of America and one of the initial instigators. “A small group of game designers and industrial professionals felt the art form should be recognized. That was how it all started, and I am proud to still be part of the Academy and the DICE Awards. They are unique, as they are the only game award given by peers in the industry.”
Rae said he noticed during his tenure that the rise of social media made game developers more conscious of what they were saying on stage. In the age of livestreaming and Twitter, everyone was aware of how their words could be taken out of context. #GamerGate, the rebellious anti-games-press and anti-feminist movement, didn’t help.
“In the current entertainment climate, awards shows are difficult to do and be relevant and meaningful,” Rae said. “We’re a really cool industry. Patting ourselves on the back is good for people in the room. Making it relevant for people outside the room was hard.”
He added, “The conversations you have with people before they hit the stage are extraordinary. By the time they hit the stage, they’re conscious of social media and press. It’s always hard chasing great talent for the stage. I definitely saw people become more cautious. In the #GamerGate stage, people could have an opinion, state it, and then be eviscerated for it.”
Rae said he tried to get more diverse people on stage as it reflected not only who made games but also who was playing games. But that fear of social media also hurt that effort, he said.
Going forward, Price believes that the academy can expand to become more relevant.
“As the games industry continues to expand in new directions — with virtual reality and augmented reality for example — I think it’s even more important for the academy to continue its mission in helping the world understand why games are culturally and socially relevant,” Price said. “This is beneficial for all of us in that, at least in my opinion, it gives even more meaning to what we do in game development.”
Games are more global and diverse than ever before. They’ve become a $100 billion industry worldwide.
“I think one big opportunity is for the AIAS to reach more developers and invite them to participate in the academy’s mission to elevate our craft,” Price said. “Whether this is through joining the peer panels, speaking at or attending DICE, or just voting in the awards, the more voices we have, the better it is for our industry. Since the AIAS is non-profit, we do have limited resources. My hope is that existing members and the press can jump in and help introduce more developers to what we do.”
Mike Fischer is the new president of the academy, replacing Rae, who left last year. In an interview, Fischer said, “I have been in the industry a long time. I was fortunate to have my career rise with the industry itself. I wanted to give something back, and what drove me crazy is I never felt our interactive art gets the respect it deserves as an art form.”
Fischer wants to make the AIAS more global and get it involved with the lives of members on a year-round basis. There are more than 30,000-plus members, though the U.S. alone has more than 220,000 game developers and other related employees.
“We can continue to become more global,” Fischer said. “The summit is still in its awkward teenage years, and it will continue to evolve.”
He looks forward to new technologies, such as the AR technology of Magic Leap. Magic Leap’s Graeme Devine will speak at this year’s event while Price and Oculus’ Jason Rubin will speak about VR.
On Thursday night, for the 20th DICE Awards, the academy will have a video retrospective on the past two decades. And as part of the 20th anniversary celebration, the AIAS is releasing a video series dubbed “The Game Makers,” a series of interviews on the craft of making games.
“We are not the movie industry,” Rae said. “I get it. But they do an extraordinary job year-round cultivating the art. They treat the art form with reverence, and I think our industry can do a better job of that. The industry would do itself a service to rally around and do a better job of it. We need a vehicle for high-visibility recognition for people in our craft.”