Interview / Joseph Olin

Scouring the halls of E for All earlier this month, we got to chat with Joseph Olin, the President of the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences (AIAS). AIAS is an organization that is composed of many industry leaders and promotes awareness about interactive entertainment, and you might know them as the organization responsible fo the D.I.C.E. Summit. Olin himself has 25 years experience with videogames, and served as vice president of marketing and business development at Eidos (Tomb Raider, Hitman).

We got a little one-on-one time with Olin and he was happy to share his opinions about the future of narrative in games, the causal market, and how videogames are stepping up to Hollywood.

That VideoGame Blog’s Antonio Hernandez (TVGB): There are a lot of things going on this generation, and that is trying to reach the same level as movies on an artistic level. Do you think games are at that point where they can contend with movies?

Joseph Olin (JO): Well I think that games do contend with movies. I’m not sure that they are always on par with movies on terms of artistic expression. But I think that game developers and the products themselves are becoming much more competitive in that type of comparison. Furthermore, I think that there are more games each year that are “art” games, or if we are comparing them to film, they are the equivalent to an art house movie. For example, even though it is commercially very successful, Metal Gear Solid 3 and 4 are the equivalent of an art house game, they are certainly not games for casual players. Not for someone who bought a new system, it would be a very unrewarding experience for them.

Consequently, what’s impressive about the game beyond the craft of how they render things on screen is the dynamic story. It’s really your battle against Kojima, in terms of an expression of wills, what he wants you to feel and what he wants you to learn. Another example of these “art house” games is the game Okami. While Okami was critically acclaimed, it was not commercially successful for Capcom, but you have to celebrate the fact that Clover Studios took a risk, in terms of building the game in the first place, and then rebuilding it in more of the image they wanted. The game went beyond the simple mechanics of using brush strokes to manipulate the world and your character, but I think that using the Wii-mote to make your brush strokes really brought the player into the experience.

Of course another great example is BioShock, which was a game that was very movie-like in the way it used narrative and the camera to bring the story to life. Mechanically I think there is a lot in GTA4 that is very movie like, in terms of how the game unfolds and the choices you get to make, and controlling the story arc to a certain extent. I think that we are a very young medium and we show a lot of progress and promise; I’m sure games will continue to have more serious emotional content and engaging narratives as game makers themselves mature.

TVGB: As a follow up to that, what problems do you see in getting narrative across now? What problems prevent the player from getting emotionally involved with their avatar?

JO: Well, the conventional methods for building a game today is always in terms in how the camera is used and what the camera’s roll is. Within film, the cameras roll is really to convey the narrative. Yet within game design the cameras primary role is to enable the player to see and react to the world. Within games you don’t have ways to use the camera to convey more emotional moments, because the camera is either locked down first-person, or over the shoulder to give you the more wide scope of the action. So I think that visual scientists will have the ability to create more fluid engines, that is the ability to seamlessly move between different perspectives. That’s going to give game developers a different way to draw their worlds and to put you into that world.

However, I don’t think there is a problem in story telling per say, I think there are a lot of game makers have story’s that are very well thought out and developed. They hire great screen writers, and dialogue has gotten much better. A good example is what Valve has done with Half Life, Half Life 2 and its subsequent episodes. They have put a lot into the craft of performance as a means of enriching the experience. But that takes time and money, and not every game and idea is worth that investment. But as they say, the rising tide brings up all boats. That is to say that as the bar for game development keeps rising, more and more teams are putting greater time into their stories, and more time on fleshing out not just the primary character, but the secondary characters that you will interact with. This of course creates a game with multiple story arcs.

TVGB: As developers move forward with the way we tell their stories, do you think that the old-type cinematic, disengaging the player from the experience and letting them watch the events, is a good idea?

JO: I’m on the fence. Personally, I don’t think they’re that enjoyable anymore. One of the reasons I personally enjoy the hobby is the act of playing, the challenge—physically and emotionally—in terms of solving the problems the game presents. On the other hand Kojima, for example, has strong moral convictions, and the cinema is the way of expressing that because he may be convinced that you as a player would never be able to find this on your own, without him guiding you through it. We’ve come a long way though from having to use pre-rendered cinematic that set the story and justify the need for your character. I don’t think that anyone wants to, if you just finished a level, watch a 10 minute movie about what happened to the boss you just beat. I think we expect more now.

TVGB: Do you think that developers who make “epic” games with large budgets will start gravitating to the casual market, since it may cost less money to develop a casual game, and it could be said it will yield more profit in the future.

JO: That’s true, but there are plenty of examples of expensive casual games. If you think that Rock Band or Guitar Hero was inexpensive to create, you would be wrong. Were they $100 million endeavors, no, but the development was long and complicated. However, I don’t think that a games “cost” or budget is a guarantor of good or bad results. A lot of success is guaranteed by the team’s experience and not the budget they are given. Also, I don’t necessarily believe that the casual games market is the driver of change. I think that basically it’s like how television changed how movies were handled. Television created these hour long programs, instead of these long, epic movies. Movies just went a different direction, they went to make these 2 and half hour movies complete with intermissions.

I think that causal games speak to an audience that has 15 to 30 minutes, and want to play a simple card game or such with my friends. These needs are valid, and I think that the market fill that expectation.

TVGB: Do you think we are done with the “console wars”?

JO: No. I think that they will always be hyper-competitive. I don’t think that PSN network or HOME would have been here if it wasn’t for the success of LIVE, so obviously it’s good for gamers. In terms of technology, everyone is asking “what story do I want to tell, what environment do I want to build, what’s the best way to produce that in real time?”, and I believe that the hardware of each console can govern that to a certain extent, but the great talent is really in the developers, and their ability to bend those rules to suit those needs.

TVGB: Well, thank you very much for your time Mr. Olin, I hope that we can speak again farther down the road as games continue to grow.