An Independent Developers Look at the
Game Developer Conference

by Geoff Howland

The Game Developer Conference (GDC) is a week long event for game developers to meet each other, share ideas through lectures and roundtables and interface with publishers and hardware/software vendors who have products they might want.

The event is currently split into 3 sections, day-wise. The first two days are lecture only sessions, you can come and listen to lectures from different people involved in the industry speaking about their expertise on different subjects. I found there were several full day sessions where prominent speakers such as Lee Sheldon spoke in depth about story design or a panel of a publisher, developer and agent spoke about publishing contracts. The middle two days the expo floor is open which shows off all the large vendors products and booths from game companies looking to hire new employees. The lectures and roundtables are also still occurring as well. The final day of the GDC is lectures and roundtables only, the expo floor is closed and a lot of people have started to go home or go do other things so its a lot less crowded, generally the show is winding down by now.

The Lectures

The lectures often are fairly basic as they have to try to include people from very different bases of knowledge, so a good piece of advice that I heard before going to the show was to take sessions you knew almost nothing about; that way you were sure to learn something, instead of just covering things you already know. If you want to see what basic kinds of things were discussed you can look at the schedule of sessions here:

For independents these lectures can give a lot of valuable information from people who can share their experiences on how things did and didn't work during their previous games. Its often hard to tell which of these are going to be useful or not though, so its a bit of a gamble.

The Expo Floor

The expo floor is where all the vendors come out with the nice booths and often give away free products or beverages (often beer) to lure developers over to their areas so they can pitch to them about why they need their products. All the major brands you hear about everyday were present and all in all it was like a very much like a large commercial for 3D cards.

Other products were also displayed however, the new 3D Studio MAX v3.0 was shown as well as a number of different artistic helpers such as motion capture systems and tools to assist programmers debugging or organizing their code.

The expo floor is a great place to get a job, as all the job booths are there. Between walking around in the halls meeting people and going on the expo floor you have your best bet on getting a job in the industry in one place if that is what you are looking for. For this you will only need an expo pass which is the cheapest of the passes to the GDC.


One of the best places for finding and talking to publishers is also at the GDC. However, they don't exactly walk around with large signs on their back labeling them which makes them fairly impossible to locate without help. In this instance it really becomes crucial if you know people who can get you to find them. Going through an agent or having friends that have been around in the industry were almost the only ways I could get in contact with publishers at this show, as otherwise they are either swamped with people after a lecture or else you simply can not spot them, and without an introduction its even harder to keep their attention.

This is where this industry breaks down to it's basics: the games industry is primarily about PEOPLE, not games. Its your personal relationships with the people you work with and for that will guide you along your career in the games industry. While your track record of games you made is extremely important, and if you have a real hit you get a ton of leverage, it will be your ability to know and deal with people that truly leads you to getting the deals you need to do the work you want to do.

This is often why game developers need agents or businessmen to take care of this aspect as being a good game developer does not mean you are good at business or good with people. If I can stress anything to you, I would stress that you DO become as good as you can be with both business and people, as needing to rely on someone else creates a "weak link in the chain" which is either you or the person you're relying on. If something goes wrong it may be almost totally out of your hands and you will pay for it subsequently, so this is something important to think about.

The Independent Game Festival

One of the most important things on the expo floor this year was the Independent Games Festival (IGF), which is a competition for independent game developers to enter and get their games showcased at the GDC for publishers to see and generally get quite a bit of press. There are also cash prizes for the best in different categories and this year Gathering of Developers (g.o.d.) cosponsored the event and is going to talk with the grand prize winners about a possible publishing contract.

The IGF could be one of the great ways to launch new game ideas and new talent into the industry, and if you are working on a game independently it is a great thing to shoot for. There were some problems with it however this year which got a bit of discussion and will be taken care of by next years festival. These problems mostly centered around who was considered an independent developer, how they could be really classified as that and which types of games to show case out of only 15 choices.

As an entrant who didn't make it into the IGF this year I've had plenty of thoughts on what went right and wrong, and have a lot of ideas on how to fix it for the coming years. As luck would have it by discussing my thoughts with the creators of the IGF I have been given a position on the Advisory Board, so I will actually get the opportunity to put them in action. I truly think that the IGF will be a great thing for the industry in promoting independent teams, so make sure you consider it if you are working independently.

The Parties

Every night of the GDC, except the last, one of the big industry companies threw a party for invited guests. On Monday it was 3DFX, on Tuesday it was Miller Freeman, on Wednesday it was Sega and on Thursday is was Microsoft. I was fortunate enough to get to go to half of these and so I can share a bit of information about them.

All of these parties are invitation only, most of the invitations were mailed out to people before the GDC, so if you get to the GDC without being invited in advance you were pretty much out of luck getting into them except a few people who scrambled to the Microsoft booth at the opening of the expo floor. I didn't go to the 3DFX party which I heard went very well, or the Microsoft party which I heard was a major disappointment, especially after their last years party.

The Miller Freeman (the company that hosts the GDC) party "Level 99" was a pretty small invite list of all the heads of companies or big wigs in the industry. For instance Shigeru Miyamoto, Dave Perry and Tom Hall were all there. It was mostly a nice sit down or mingle environment so people could talk.

The Sega party on the other hand was held in a fairly large club and had a couple of small bands and George Clinton and the Parliament Funk playing on a main stage. They had a few Dreamcast systems set up to play on and at least 400 to 600 people were in attendance. While there were a lot of people there it was still possible to talk to them if you didn't mind yelling in their ear to be heard.

All in all the parties were mostly just entertainment for people who already knew each other, and wanted some time to wind down.

The Suite Crawl

This is a pretty famous event for the GDC which I found fairly useless, other people seemed to enjoy it a lot so your mileage may vary.

Basically companies rented out hospitality suites at a hotel of various sizes and gave away drinks and snacks, some having pizza, most just having pieces of cheese (with no crackers, for some reason this was a popular theme). Some of the places were giving away free video cards or joysticks but the press to stand next to those booths was a little like being in the front of a concert when the band walks out on stage.

However, if you don't have access to any of the invitation only parties this is probably the best way to spend one of your nights at the GDC.

What will you get out of it?

The question everyone should want to know about the GDC, is what will they get out of it? If they go will they be guaranteed a job? A publishing contract? Friends in the industry? Lots of knowledge about different aspects of development?

No. You won't be guaranteed any of this, but from what I have seen first hand the GDC is the greatest area of opportunity for all of these things to happen if you make it happen.

My goal for this years GDC was to talk to publishers and meet people in the industry, so I didn't go to all the lectures I was interested in, and I didn't run around trying to get free joysticks or stress balls. Instead I walked through the halls, expo floor and lounge areas and introduced myself to people I met there, or who ended up sitting next to me at lunch areas or anywhere else I could. I found that almost no one introduced themselves to me, and being that a good percentage of technical people are introverts this makes a lot of sense, so I had to start the introductions myself which initially takes effort if you aren't used to it. However, everyone I met there was pretty open to talking after I started things out and I met several publishers that I didn't know were publishers by doing so and offering information about my work.

What you need to keep in mind is that like anything, you will get out of the GDC what you put into it, and what you tune your attention to is what you will see. The GDC is a very large area of opportunity and if you come prepared with examples of your work, and preferably a way to show your work right there (such as on a laptop or to a lesser extent screen shots printed out), then you will have instant proof that you have something worth investigating further for publishers, or just conversation material for other developers at the show.

Good luck in future years and if you see me there be sure to say Hi.


-Geoff Howland

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Date this article was posted to 10/12/1999
(Note that this date does not necessarily correspond to the date the article was written)

See Also:
Event Coverage
Event Coverage
Running your own Game Company

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