Five Lessons I Learned From The GDC
by Mason McCuskey

Each year, game developers from around the world converge on an unsuspecting hotel in California for a week long festival of networking and creativity. The event – the Game Developer’s Conference. Ask anyone in the industry about the GDC and they’ll tell you it’s a great way to meet people. The GDC hosts workshops, an exhibitor’s expo, keynote lectures, and more, all dedicated to the passion of game development.

Unfortunately, the show, like any other professional trade show, can be daunting and unfamiliar territory for someone not in the industry. Many independent game developers come to the GDC with incorrect assumptions or unrealistic expectations, and basically set themselves up for a let down. I’d like to share a few things I learned, so that hopefully you’ll have a better idea of what to expect when you do decide to take the plunge and attend your first GDC.

So, without further ado, I present to you the lessons.

  1. Spring for the goodies. Yes, the price of a GDC workshop pass is expensive, but believe me, for the serious indie, it’s worth every penny. The best opportunities for meeting new people are in the workshops, and the cheap passes won’t get you in (unless you use a lot of creativity). Think of it this way - you’re already spending lots of money for airlines and hotels, so make it interesting, and give your GDC pass a little extra oomph as well. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing all the way.

    Also, along this line - book your hotel very early (I recommend at least 6 months in advance), or you’ll feel the pain later. Every year hotels within a 5-10 mile radius sell out for the GDC (yes, it’s THAT big). It may sound too expensive now, but that hotel room a block away from the conference will sound much less expensive after you’ve been on your feet for 12-14 hours.

    If you’re purchasing plane tickets, the same advice applies – do it early. Also, book your plane tickets so that you arrive the day before the conference starts, that way, if you’re the unsuspecting lead character in an airline horror story, you won’t miss anything.

  2. Don’t Be Shy. The GDC is one place where you absolutely CAN NOT afford to be shy. You’ve spent lots of money on a workshop pass so you can meet people – so get out there and meet them! Everyone at the GDC expects to be spoken to by total strangers. Don’t disappoint them. I think every indie developer is humbled somewhat by their first GDC. Just browsing the booths during the booth crawl can be a humbling experience, but don’t let this stop you from talking to people. If you’re not that great at introductions, here’s a few lines you can try out to get you started:

      • "Excuse me… where’d you get that bag/hat/t-shirt/etc.?" This works especially well on the Expo floor. The flip side to this is to wear interesting clothing, or carry neat stuff.
      • "When do we eat?"
      • "Have you seen the ____ booth?"
      • "What do you think of the conference so far?" "Better or worse than last year?"
      • "So… what do you do?" It sounds silly, but this is actually a great way to make a contact. The people who run the booths in the Expo are flat-out dying for you to ask them this question, and most other people in the industry will respond with "I do _____ … you?" Remember that the GDC is the one time when everyone expects to be asked this question.

  3. Keep your cool. It’s perfectly OK to go hog wild in your pursuit of contacts, but remember basic courtesy. Don’t approach people at inopportune times, don’t interrupt, and remember not to overwhelm the people to whom you’re talking. Don’t give a five-minute pitch to everyone who looks your way – this will hurt your vocal chords and irritate the people around you. When you’re engaged in a conversation with someone you’ve just met, do more listening than talking. Judge their interest – ask yourself, "If I were this person, would I want to hear my speech?" In short, remember your manners – they’re your best tools to build new friendships. A corollary to this would then be "approach the right people." There are many people at the GDC besides publishers, and there are a lot of salespeople. Having the skill to size up someone as an engineer, publisher, salesperson, etc., can save you lots of valuable time - pitching your unbelievable game demo to an HR rep wastes your time and irritates the HR rep.

  4. Gear up. The GDC is a big place, and you’re going to be burning lots of calories by just walking around it. Wear comfortable shoes. Plan your day so that you don’t have to go back to your hotel during the middle of the show. Bring a small backpack, briefcase, bag, or something (or grab a sack at the expo). Other essentials include business cards, your resume, a place to stash business cards you’re given, product packs or brochures about the game you’re making, pen and paper (or other note taking essentials, i.e. tape recorder), a wristwatch with an alarm, and believe it or not, some breath mints, gum, or something. Along that line, wear good clothes (professional-casual dress, neckties not necessary), and keep your appearance organized, and in control. It’s also pretty warm on the Expo floor, so lean away from sweaters and other warm clothing.

  5. Bring your office with you. If you’re seriously pursuing publishers, bring a laptop and make your hotel room your office. If possible, bring a printer, or find a nearby Kinko’s, in case you want to make minor revisions to your brochures. There’s nothing more frustrating than bringing fifty product glossies only to realize during the first day of the show that you screwed up big time when writing them. Also, if you’re bringing a laptop, make sure you have access to the Internet. The GDC home page is required reading every night before bedtime during the GDC, and keeping on top of newsgroups and email is essential.

By now it probably sounds intimidating, but the truth is that the GDC is one of the most fun places for an indie to be. You’ll see the latest products, meet the people behind your favorite games, and get cool free stuff – what could be better?

Above all else, remember this - you’ll get out of the GDC what you put into it. If you go in with a positive attitude and a lot of excitement, you’ll come out with something spectacular. Good luck and have fun!

Mason McCuskey, Spin Studios

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Date this article was posted to 10/7/1999
(Note that this date does not necessarily correspond to the date the article was written)

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