How to Prepare for the Game Developer’s Conference

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The Game Developer’s Conference, “the world’s largest professional game industry event,” took place this year from Feb. 27 to March 3 in San Francisco. For those who don’t know, the Game Developer’s Conference, or GDC, is a massive convention that attracts gamers and game makers from around the world. Companies large and small, indie or AAA, show off their games and products. GDC has a lot to offer but there is a lot to do before attending.

GDC has a full schedule of talks in which industry professionals lecture about varying game-related topics. For example, one of the Overwatch talks revealed a new character and in another, a champion designer from “League of Legends” explained how new champions are made.

The expo floor has booths covering everything from new games to multiplayer server companies, gaming accessories, tech demos and more. This is not the normal convention where there is booth after booth selling items for fans. Rather, it is a convention for professionals in the gaming industry. GDC is the event for professionals in the industry and students and programmers looking to join the industry. GDC is a lot of fun and an amazing experience, but it is also hard work.

The first thing to do if you are considering going to GDC is doing your research. That starts with a very simple question: “What are my goals for GDC?” Determine what you want by listing specific goals for the conference. Do you want to network? Do you primarily want to learn from the educational talks? Are you there looking for a job? Do you have a game that needs a service from another company?

The answer to these questions will affect what ticket you will need. As a student, chances are you will be looking to network, learn and job hunt. If you are not interested in attending any of the talks (no doubt a missed opportunity), then a simple Expo Pass will be fine. The ticket is $150 if you buy it early, but will cost you $250 if you wait too long. The Expo Pass will let you onto the show floor and a very limited selection of talks. It is a good basic pass, but you are locked out from some important aspects of GDC.

In order to be let into the talks, which are certainly worthwhile, you need to buy a Main Conference Pass. This pass is a significant price jump compared to the Expo Pass. The early bird price for a Main Conference Pass is $1,000 and if you wait until close to the convention it is $1,700. So, what are you getting for that money? The answer is a lot. These talks are not average lectures, these are industry insiders sharing their knowledge.

Some of the talks from this year were “Motion Wrapping in Gears of War 4: Doing More with Less” presented by Steven Dickinson of Microsoft, “Future of Art Production in Games” presented by Andrew Maximov from Naughty Dog, “Get Journalists to Cover Your Game: Lessons from Online Dating, Praying, and No Man’s Sky” presented by Thomas Reisenegger from ICO Partners, “Overwatch Gameplay Architecture and Netcode” presented by Timothy Ford from Blizzard Entertainment and a number of others. The full schedule for all the talks is 42 pages long in the “pocket guide” for GDC, so there is no shortage of selection.

Now you have an idea which passes you’ll need, but there is still more prep work to do before actually attending GDC. Business cards are a must. Even if you are buying the Expo Pass, you will need business cards to give out on the show floor. Networking is king in the gaming industry, so make it rain business cards. There are many websites that print cards quickly, easily and on a budget. Always carry some with you, for it is a key part of making connections. Strike up a conversation whenever possible whether it is standing in line for a talk, at a booth or in Starbucks. Find anyone wearing a GDC badge and say hello; it might feel weird, but it is how connections are made.

There are two things you have to know about surviving the physical demands of the conference. This conference takes a physical toll. I learned these lessons the hard way:

  1. Wear good shoes. You are going to be walking a lot and I mean a lot. I walked almost eight miles on the first day and never walked less than four miles a day. Wearing good shoes is key to not being miserable. If your feet hurt, it will show in your conversation, so make the right preparations.
  2. Keep water on you at all times. Walking several miles a day is enough to make you dehydrated; talking all day will do nothing but add to this. Keep a water bottle on hand to always ensure that you stay properly hydrated and energized.

There are also the famous GDC parties. Companies host parties across San Francisco during conference week. While the parties are meant to be networking opportunities and a way to drink with your dream bosses, in actuality, they are not so great for career purposes. You cannot drink your way into a job. It just isn’t going to happen. Lunch time meet-ups and mixers are far more likely to help you professionally. That is not to say the parties are awful, but the reality is hard to ignore. If you want to go party, do it, but make sure it is not going to hurt your participation in the conference. Partying too late could mean you miss a talk in the morning and you can drink just about anywhere. GDC is not about booze, it’s about the gaming industry.

My final bit of wisdom, if you can call it that, is not about GDC itself but rather the city in which it takes place. San Francisco is massive and incredibly different than Salt Lake. If you have never been to a city larger than Salt Lake, be prepared because it might be a shock. San Francisco is crowded, there are over 800,000 people in the city compared to Salt Lake’s 190,000. People are everywhere and there is no escaping the crowds. Simply walking the streets of SF is an experience. You will pass street bands, vendors, food trucks and more in only a few blocks.

Not only is SF crowded, but it is expensive. San Francisco is the most expensive place to live in the country. Things are pricey. So, when going to GDC, be sure to set aside a good chunk of money. I blew through $200 in three days just getting around the city, having meals and going to bars. The sticker shock will be real, but if you are prepared you can prevent going broke.

GDC is an incredible experience and if you want to work in the gaming industry it is something you should see at least once. The conference is an experience to remember, but you must be prepared. Research what you want to take away from GDC and ensure you are equipped for what it takes to reach your conference goals. With this survival guide in hand, make sure to have fun.

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