I just got back from the Game Developers Conference a few days ago, and since I am just about over my personal case of the conflu (that lovely plague of germs that come when 28,000 people from all over the world are packed into three buildings for a week), I think it’s about time for me to sit down and organize my thoughts about the conference itself, and what better way to do that than present the information in a blog post for other interested parties to read?
GDC is an actual flurry of activity, and between the seminars, lectures, expos, interactive booths, parties, game displays, and meetups, there’s far more than I could possibly do in the four days I was in San Francisco. Even then, I did too much, before, during, and after the conference to break it all down into coherent pieces without turning this into a ten-page essay. I don’t have the time to write that, and I’m guessing you don’t really have the time to read it, either.
…Wow, did I just directly address the reader for the first time ever in my blogs? Why, yes, dear reader, I likely just did. This probably isn’t going to be a usual trend for me, but in my conversation about GDC, I’m undoubtedly going to be addressing the value of what I did, and I’m going to be framing it in the context of whether or not it might benefit you. This is the clearest and most helpful way I can find to both organize and present my thoughts.
What Pass Should I Buy?
There are a number of different passes at GDC. At the high end, a full access pass to everything that occurs at GDC is a whopping $2,349. On the other hand, on the low end of the spectrum (as a matter of fact, almost exactly 90% less), a normal expo pass is $249. There are a few passes in between, with a standard conference pass clocking in at around $1,500, but there are very few mid-range options available. I bought an Expo Plus pass, with the plus definitely turning out to not be worth it simply due to how I spent my time. It was supposed to grant me access to a few lectures that I wanted to attend but wouldn’t otherwise be able to. We’ll get to my opinion on lectures later, though.
Overall, an Expo pass provided me with more than enough to do. Unless you are going to GDC specifically to learn about a single, specific topic, there’s a very good chance that an expo pass will grant you access to more than enough content to fill in the time during the expo. And, despite what it may imply, there are some lectures that are open to just an Expo pass holder. Once GDC gets a little closer, you can use the session scheduler on their website to look at exactly what you can attend with any level of pass.
Conference Associates and Scholarships
If you are determined to get a full access pass despite that, I strongly recommend applying to be a conference associate, look at the partner organization scholarships, or find some other way to reduce the price, so you don’t have to drop around $4,000 dollars (once you factor in food, lodging, transportation, and probably alcohol) to attend. I fully intend to apply to be a conference associate next year, when I don’t have the school supporting my attendance. It’s about 20-25 hours of work in exchange for an all access pass, and while you will have to be present at GDC for a while longer, it’s a wonderful opportunity in and of itself.
Preparing for GDC
There are a lot of articles out there for how to prepare for GDC. Here’s a quick collection of the things I did, and whether or not they were worthwhile.
- Pre-registered for parties – Not worth it, but that’s just because I’m not a party person. If you love parties, make sure to do this step, because gate-crashing won’t work well for you. More on that later.
- Created a rudimentary schedule – Worth it, undoubtedly. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t end up attending half of the things I scheduled to do, in favor of doing other things I discovered when I was there. All the same, knowing my time blocks was very important.
- Set up meetings – Probably the most important thing to do before GDC. I was lucky in that I got to meet with a lot of people as a part of my school. If you are going by yourself, though, reach out to people you’d like to meet several weeks in advance. Networking is probably the best thing you will do while at GDC. Also more on that later.
- Read up on Preparing for GDC – Hey! This was far from the most important thing I did, but provided some valuable tips, both on what to bring to the Conference, and how to behave in San Francisco in general. Some of it, however, was unnecessarily nerve-wracking as well. People tend to exaggerate in these pieces (make of that what you will), so don’t let long articles get you down.
- Made Business Cards – Essential! In three days, I gave out nearly 50 business cards, and received almost as many in return. There’s a standing policy that pretty much anyone you meet, and certainly any one you’d like to continue talking to, you give a business card, and get one in exchange. If you don’t have a business card, people are going to have a hard time following up with you, which is a massive loss on your part. If you are going to be at GDC for the full week, or if you intend to stay longer to sightsee in San Francisco, you may want closer to 100 cards.
Summits and Tutorials
Full disclosure, I did not attend any summits, due to the fact that I only had an expo pass. All the information I’m offering up here is hearsay from several people I talked to while at the conference. However, with what they offered I am almost certain that, if I don’t become a CA next year, I will be buying a Summit pass, which grants me access to the Seminars. Specifically, I would be going to attend the Game Design Workshop on Monday and Tuesday, which I heard is a wonderful, interactive tutorial on strong design strategies, which industry experts have been refining and tweaking and adding to for many years. Even people who have been designing games for a long time have something to learn from it, let alone a young designer like me.
Ultimately, despite the fact that I went to GDC hoping to attend a number of different lectures, talks, and round tables, I only actually attended three of them. Two of which were completely unplanned, and one of which I actually regretted attending, because I missed a networking opportunity to attend the lecture.
Don’t get me wrong, a lecture can be very worthwhile, if your main goal at GDC is to learn about the thing that is being lectured on. However, the most valuable time I spent was when I was out meeting people and making connections. Lectures can be a good way to fill time. However, if you are going to GDC looking to promote a game, make connection, get a job, lectures shouldn’t take any higher part in your timetable than filling leftover time. Oftentimes you’ll get a chance to speak to the lecturer after the talk, but you’ll likely be among 10 to 15 other people, and your time could be much better spent meeting more personally with other people.
The Expo Floor
When I wasn’t meeting with people, I spent most of my time on the various parts of the Expo Hall. The Expo was divided into the North and South hall, where the south hall had a focus on tech that supports the game industry, and the north hall was focused on showcasing games that had been selected to present at GDC. If you want free swag (clothes, buttons, backpacks, water bottles, etc.) head to the south hall. Most of the large tech companies will give you something if you try out their tech, listen to lectures, play a game that demo’s their stuff, or sign up to meet with someone. If you are more interested in talking to people who have made games, like I was, head to the north hall. Most of the people there are smaller scale developers, who will gladly take the time to speak to you one on one about their game, why they are making it, and what decisions they made in the process of developing their game. I personally found this much more interesting than free stuff, although I must confess I got a really, really nice t-shirt for playing a VR boxing game. Whatever your preference, take the time to visit and wander through both halls, as they both have something to offer.
I am not a party person, and am also a massive introvert. Take that information, and use it to inform your opinion. I went to a single party while I was at GDC, and it was the Unparty. Specifically designed to not include loud music and drinking, I still barely found it worthwhile. After a long day of constantly talking to people and doing things, I simply didn’t have the energy left to expend any more on a party. However, for people who enjoy parties, my advice (beyond the usual about making good choices and drinking in moderation) is to consider how much sleep you are getting. Parties may be a good chance to meet people and have fun, but they can often go as late as 2 am. GDC is a high activity event, and if you aren’t properly rested you are going to end up missing out on good events. I like a lot of sleep, in addition to needing several hours of personal time to just play on my phone and recharge from socializing. This makes most parties far from worthwhile for me.
The Piece de Resistance – Networking
By far the most important thing I did while I was at GDC was networking. I don’t mean this in the way of “trying to get people to give me a job” (although that would be nice), but rather in the way of “making a friendly connection with a person”. If you don’t already know, the game industry is incredibly small, especially compared to many other lines of employment, and even more so among the triple a studios. It is very likely that you will run into people you meet once at a later date, and if you made a lasting impression, positive or negative, they are going to remember you for that.
Making positive connections, even if they are just soft connections, is incredibly useful, especially if you are a young developer like me. A more senior developer might be willing to mentor you, or you might be able to get your resume placed on the top of the pile the next time a job opening comes up. If you have the opportunity, find a way to meet with people, or just chat with them. Lots of studios are interested in meeting new, young talent, and you never know what connections will become valuable down the line.
The lunch hour at GDC is from 12:30-1:30. There are lots of places to eat around the event center, but every single one of those places is going to be swamped as a solid 20,000 people go out to eat. On the one hand this sucks, because you are almost inevitably going to wait 20+ minutes to get something to eat. On the other hand, this is an absolutely wonderful opportunity to meet with people. As long as you don’t try and hide away, you are almost guaranteed to end up in a place where you can talk with upwards of 5 developers, and you never know who you are going to meet. Take that opportunity, if you can.