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Joseph Olin finds size is relative at Animfx

There’s little that is small about the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences (AIAS), of which Joseph Olin has been President since 2004. A US-based industry organisation (with 22,000 members) which can afford, along with the equally US-based Visual Effects Society (VES), to be a principal partner of Animfx, doesn’t really do small – at least by NZ standards.

The programme for its annual awards bash runs to 64 very glossy pages; the programme for its annual Design Innovate Communicate Entertain (DICE) conference, an equally glossy 48.

The numbers Joseph quoted in his presentation Small is the new Big weren’t exactly diminutive either.

100 million: the number of Wii, Xbox and Playstation units in use.
Ditto: the number of handheld gaming devices.
1 billion: the number of personal computers in use.

Those figures add up to a substantial international market, of which you only need a very small niche to be successful as a game-developer. We could quibble about how many of those 1.2 billion people play games, but there are other – even larger – numbers.

US$2.9 billion was the growth in the value of worldwide games sales in 2008, US$800 million the drop in value of the worldwide games sales expected in 2009.

What was the value of the industry last year? It had sales in excess of US$20 billion. That $800 million drop this year, while it’s obviously going to hurt some organisations, is hardly the bottom dropping out of the market. It’s a 4% fall and already recovering.

Joseph is a cheerleader for the industry. That’s his job, what he gets paid for, and he’s good, very good, at being upbeat about the industry, the opportunities within it, and the value of the work both the industry and the AIAS does. His presentation drew contrasts between the good and bad news for the industry at the moment, but the bad news is actually quite hard to find.

Unless, of course, you are one of the 1,500 people about to be laid off by Electronic Arts, which just posted a second quarter loss of almost $400 million. Even if you are one of those, the industry as a whole is still moving forward, and EA is still investing in its future. It might have lost money, but a chunk of that went on buying Playfish, which makes free games, for $275 million,

Joseph is equally passionate about and critical of the pathways into the industry. The fact that tertiary institutions seem to teach and reward mostly task-based competency bothers him. It’s training for a job not a career, in his opinion. For the industry to achieve its potential, it needs leaders.

It isn’t that he believes the ability to perform necessary tasks to a high standard isn’t important, but that the teaching seems to stop once those competencies have been achieved. The liberal arts approach of tertiary education focusing on learning how to learn is closer to both his own experience and his preference – not just for entrants into the games industry but more generally.

Games companies internationally are short-staffed or, at least, short of the quality of staff they want to attract. It’s a growth industry, despite the 4% drop in revenue this year. However, despite it existing increasingly in virtual form, it’s subject to all the rules of the real world, like supply and demand.

The supply of good people sits below the level of demand for their skills, which creates expectations, even at entry level, of generous pay and working conditions.

If you’ve got teenagers who seem to spend all their time playing games, and you’re tempted to tell them to do something with their lives, it’s probably annoying to you to realise that they might be on the path to a successful career in a booming industry.

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