Olaf Olafsson, a bestselling novelist (Absolution, 1991) in his native Iceland, confesses that he still writes his first drafts in longhand, using pen and paper. Yet he is founder and president of Sony Electronic Publishing, which has produced CD-ROMs such as The Haldeman Diaries, Mickey Mania (in collaboration with Disney), and Johnny Mnemonic, based on the William Gibson short story. Ensconced in his New York offices with a panoramic view of Manhattan, Olafsson is mild-mannered and diffident - almost embarrassed by his influential status in the company. A tall, blond, youthful figure who speaks with a faint Scandinavian accent, he frankly admits that interactive entertainment is neither mature nor profitable yet - although, he tells Wired, this doesn't bother him at all.
Wired: In addition to your literary career, you also have a background in science.
Olafsson:Yes. Originally I got a scholarship to come to the United States and study positron physics. Physics fascinated me because of its philosophical approach to solving problems. There's a lot of poetry in physics. But I've always been more interested in literature than I've been in science.
How did you end up at Sony?
The first company I worked for manufactured components and peripherals for Apple and IBM. Then I met Mickey Schulhof, now the CEO of Sony Corporation of America, who was then in charge of a couple of divisions. He offered me a job before Sony got into the entertainment business, when it was still a technology company. I came to New York six years ago, and started Sony Electronic Publishing in 1991.
Will your division be recycling movies and music owned by other Sony divisions?
Electronic publishing is a separate creative process. Some entertainment companies try to get into inter-active, but it's a flawed strategy. This isn't an ancillary business to anything - if you treat it as such, you will never attract the people you need to attract.
But there have been successful interactive movie tie-ins.
You've seen Jurassic Park videogames, that kind of thing, but they've been somewhat disappointing because there is very little creative collaboration between a Jurassic Park movie and a Nintendo videogame. It's just a marketing operation, promoting the game when the movie is released. Also, the technology of a 16-bit platform restricts the content; because of the limited time you have to create the product, its quality suffers.
You don't regard Sony's Johnny Mnemonic videogame as a tie-in?
It's based on the Gibson story, not on the movie. And with CD-based technology and 32-bit systems, you have an entirely new medium that allows you to tell a real story. Our version takes the premise of the short story and evolves it for that form.
What are the prospects for the 32-bit Sony PlayStation in this country?
It's out in Japan and has sold more than a million units to date; it's being sold in the US this autumn. I think we will probably ship around 30 titles - Twisted Metal and sports products that appeal to the average 25-year-old. And we'll have the typical games for younger people. This hardware is basically an expensive computer that we're trying to price as low as possible. The life of technology in this industry is only a few years, so we have to get the installed base up quickly, which entails aggressive pricing.
Where does your heart really lie - in technology, inter-active entertainment, or books?
I'm very much a book person. I feel good surrounded by books. Technology for its own sake doesn't really do it for me; I don't find 16-bit videogames interesting, quite honestly. But the new technology will allow the community to come up with ideas and stories no one has ever seen.
Would you want to create interactive entertainment?
I have never tried and wouldn't be interested in interactive stories. As a writer, I like to control my characters, or at least allow them to control themselves within the scope of my imagination.
Can interactive entertainment ever be as serious or profound as a good novel?
We've been writing books and making movies for a long time, but interactive entertainment is only a 15-year-old business, and it started with Pong, just a ball bouncing back and forth. Products have been naïve and primitive till now - cartoonish, almost. But we're starting to see some interesting things.
Who's going to write serious interactive entertainment?
The interactive community is expanding, and some young people today, instead of aspiring to film school, are going to enter this business. When I go to our studios, I'm considered old - and I'm 33. People in their 20s grew up with this stuff; they may feel more comfortable creating interactive entertainment than they would writing conventional fiction.
Will electronic distribution have any immediate impact?
The bandwidth won't be there for the next five years. Also, if a movie is released straight to your TV, you lose that communal experience of going to the theatre, smelling popcorn, and discussing the film afterwards. People won't walk away from that. People don't change overnight just because a new technology is available.
So, what are your hopes for the future of this medium?
I'd like to see interactive content take that next step in creative sophistication. In the early days, we were selling puzzles and finger exercises. We're now seeing the beginnings of storytelling and character development, and we'll soon be able to extract some type of emotional response from the user. We have rarely done that in the past, beyond getting the adrenaline flowing. Within the next decade, we'll be able to create computer characters that look and walk like real people. There'll be no technological excuse for lack of creativity.
Charles Platt (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes science fiction books and science articles. His most recent work is The Silicon Man. He is a frequent contributor to Wired.