Interview: AIAS President Defends E3's Relevance, Criticizes Publishers for Spoiling Games Too Early

As the president of the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences, Joseph Olin certainly has a lot to say.

Head of an organization dedicated to advancing the entertainment software community, Olin helps promote gaming via the annual DICE summit, the accompanying Interactive Achievement Awards, and the Into the Pixel gallery of game-related art.

In an interview with Shacknews, the one-time Eidos marketing VP gave his opinion on a number of topics, from E3's relevance to Metacritic ratings. He had some particularly harsh words for gaming journalists, expressing his belief that certain outlets often report on issues that "probably aren't relevant since the game isn't done," and saying that some game reviewers are "lazy."

Olin even called out many video game publishers for spoiling their games too early in the development process. "You're new once. Why not use new as an advantage, as a point of difference, and be able to promote when it is fresh," he asked. "It's hard to keep something fresh over 18 months."

Shack: What's your take on this year's E3?

Joseph Olin: This year's E3 is fabulous from the perspective of the games, the software and the titles that are being shown.

The things that have been shown so far this year harken [back to last year] and could possibly be superior to anything we played last year. How can you not be excited about that?

The venue itself, I don't think E3 is as exciting as the products that are within it. I think, perhaps [at] the old E3, the frame overpowered the print. And now, I think it really is the opportunity to focus on the work, which is the most important thing.

Shack: How do you feel about critics, like 3D Realms' Scott Miller, that claim E3 has become irrelevant?

Joseph Olin: Those are fair comments, and they probably are geared towards the perspective of 'Does E3 have the ability to influence the sales orders or pre-orders for a game six months from now?'

You wouldn't review a movie after only the first reel.
And probably not in the same way it once did. Publishers now have direct relationships with their key accounts, they have daily dialog, and the relationship between retailer and publisher is pretty established.

I do believe that what E3 brings to the gaming eco-system is the ability to still focus an unprecedented amount of spotlight on interactive entertainment and those things that are unique, different and noteworthy in advance of when these products will see the light of day.

I would like to personally see brighter lights and more media and more opportunities to promote these games over the course of an event like this, but I think whether it's a little too small versus the way it used to be--so big and expansive that things got lost--I still think that it's a great vehicle to have.

The challenge of building a playable demo that will be stable, solid and enjoyable, for a single purpose, is difficult. Any time you compile and assemble code, you're building a version of the game. That requires man hours and team resources that are going to take away from a build date or submission date that is always looming larger and closer.

I can understand and appreciate why [developers don't like E3]--"No, don't make me do this"--but at the same time, I think that they would all be sad if they didn't have the ability to showcase where they are and why they believe their work is important.

Shack: After a poor showing of Too Human a few years back, Silicon Knights president Denis Dyack has repeatedly stated that a game shouldn't be shown to the press of public until it nears completion. Where do you stand?

Joseph Olin: Personally, I don't disagree with Denis' sentiment. If you look at other forms of entertainment, certainly...

There may be an announcement, like in the case of [the film version of] BioShock being helmed by, given the green light by and put into production by Gore Verbinski as a result of speaking at DICE and meeting Ken Levine and the 2K Boston team.

It got more coverage in the game enthusiast and general press than it did in the trades, where it was given about this much [pinches fingers] and that was the end of it. They won't talk about it until they either announce primary cast and, or they're done with principal production--that'll be a trade release.

Then they really won't talk about it until about six months out, perhaps the first trailer will start winding its way through the internet and into theaters.

I think that's a very solid approach. Something is new only once. The window may be months, as opposed to moments. In the guise of our game marketing, once we've announced this game and it'll be here in 14 months or 18 months or whatever, hopefully--Spore comes to mind. Not to single out Spore, there's no shortage of titles that have been announced...

Shack: Duke Nukem Forever.

Joseph Olin: That is the archetypal example.

You're new once. Why not use new as an advantage, as a point of difference, and be able to promote when it is fresh? It's hard to keep something fresh over 18 months.

It's just hard. It becomes a distraction to the teams. It also becomes tough to be in the competitive set of all these titles that are under development.

"What's really interesting? What's really new? What angle do you have for me because I've been talking about your title now for six months or a year?"

I think Denis is on to something. I think the challenge is how to accomplish that. Every publishing team has a different perspective on the best way to reach their audience.

Shack: That makes me think of Grand Theft Auto IV. Despite an abundance of media and trailers, Rockstar actually revealed very little--I had no idea what was going to happen when I started the game, whereas most publishers throw out tutorial and introduction movies weeks in advance.

Joseph Olin: We'll point no fingers within the media outlets, but I think there is such a need for, within the void and the online space to fill, that we uncover and go undercover for so many things that probably aren't relevant since the game isn't done.

You wouldn't review a movie after only the first reel and make a proclamation that "this will be the greatest film of all time", or not, or "this film will never be able to deliver on its premise or its promise," until it's done.

Yes, once it's done and you do advance screenings, they work the film media to try and get positive headlines and things like that. But the film is done.

Because Kenneth Turan doesn't like the movie, they're not going to change the movie between the ten days when he saw it and when it's going to go to 2200 screens. I don't think that we should do anything differently within interactive entertainment.

So far, there are rare examples [of this in games]. Rockstar is a good one. Capcom has been very smart, very clever and very studios in terms of looking how or when to market their titles and when to release their titles in order to minimize the amount of noise, well in advance of a title coming out and allow the title to get a fair review and fair exposure.

They've done pretty well with that. Dead Rising and Lost Planet were both released at times without a whole lot of consumer fanfare, and all were critically ...above average and commercially successful. So, there's hope.

Keep reading for more on Olin's views of gaming journalism, game reviews, and criticism. _PAGE_BREAK_

Shack: But what about constructive criticism for games that are in-development? I've seen developers change things because of press writings.

Joseph Olin: I don't know that within the realm of interactive entertainment, games in particular, we have a very evolved form of constructive criticism.

I think that there is a lot of game critics, but very little critical analysis. Any time that we can take a step back, and I think sometimes games are given very meaningful reviews where they provide a point of view, they give good coverage as to what the game maker was trying to do, how they were trying to involve you, and I think it's only fair to also point out in the review that some things work better than others, there's some things that were disappointing or didn't live up to the premise or the promise, and I think that's fair.

Metacritic score is a factor. It's the SAT scores [of the industry].
As someone who wants to buy a game or is a fan of games looking for something to play, that's helpful and useful. If I have a trusting relationship with the writer or the publication, it has more or less importance than others.

When I just see a score, whether it's a Metacritic star or 5 stars or 4 thumbs, whatever, that doesn't tell me anything. My pet peeve is that game reviewers are lazy.

Not all, but in terms of the reviews, "this game isn't as good because let's compare it to that game over there and that game was great." Who gives a, you know, bleep?

My feeling is that games live and die on their own merit, and I am always, thankfully, never surprised when there's as much as a 40% or 50% variance between Metacritic numbers and user numbers. Most people who play games buy games, whether they bought them and traded them in or they rented them for a weekend, they enjoy them. They got some entertainment value out of them above and beyond their expectation threshold when they first did the transaction.

Ultimately, we should be celebrating the fact that more games. If you like games, there's a great variety. A thousand titles a year, there's a whole sub-series and species of genres that are out there that some people probably haven't played.

People who play NCAA pre-ordered it, they have their strategy guide, they have their fantasy draft on paper before launch, getting them tuned up for Madden 09. It's like, "you ever thought of playing something else?"

Part of the fun is trying to get people who do one thing to do something else. There's so many cool things that are happening within the realm of interactive entertainment.

Shack: Then what about video game journalism? Can it even be called journalism?

Joseph Olin: I think you can. I think it exists. I think that there's plenty of writers and members of the Fifth Estate who are thoughtful, serious, credible representatives of interactive entertainment.

And then, I think there are others who aren't. I'm not in a position to do more than to challenge everyone. How can you review a game, how can you give a comment about a game like GTA 4, that has 40-plus hours or more of gameplay, if you've only spent 2 1/2 to 3 hours playing it?

It would be like reviewing a movie but only seeing the opening, first reel. I don't think that's fair, or is it accurate. I also understand the challenge of how anybody can possibly play through everything game. It's an impossibility. There's not enough hours in humanity to be able to beat and review 30 or 40 games in a given month.

Some games obviously don't require it. I don't think you need to go into Franchise Mode in Madden to get the joke.

I do think you need to play all the way through something like Metal Gear [Solid 4] to appreciate what Kojima-san and his team did with that game.

The jury's out for me on GTA 4, as to if you really need to play all 40 hours, but I know you have to spend more than 3 hours. That's the challenge with games as they become more involved and more involving, that they absolutely, positively [become] more time-compelling, and it's a challenge to spend all that time.

Shack: How do you feel about publishers that use a game's Metacritic score to determine bonuses and such?

Joseph Olin: I'm not in a position to comment on business practices of my members. I think that would be taking Metacritic out of context.

Some of our studio members, if their teams win Interactive Achievement Awards, they get bonuses. They get compensated. That's a serious form of recognition.

It's hard to keep something fresh over 18 months.
I don't think that having benchmarks for performance is wrong. Whether Metacritic is a good benchmark is a fair question, and personally, I wouldn't necessarily want to live or die by it.

Unfortunately, within the ecosystem of how games are created, sold and marketed at retail, Metacritic score is a factor. It's the SAT scores [of the industry]. Is the SAT score really an accurate indicator of the potential that my 17-year-old daughter has within the ecosystem of college and her potential as a human being?

On some level, it probably does. Is it the only parameter? No. Is it the most important parameter? I certainly hope not.

Reviewers get advance copies of games, they have unprecedented access to teams in most cases, because it's so important. I think the opportunity is, "how do we find the things that best showcase the potential of the title and promote that to the widest audience possible?"

I think that reviews are important. The relationship between reviews and developers and publishers has always been an up and down, tenuous kind of thing. At the end of the day, it's important, but not the most important [thing].

Ultimately, games live or die based on, hopefully, how well they perform to what they were supposed to do.

Chris Faylor was previously a games journalist creating content at Shacknews.

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