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To GDC or Not to GDC?

To GDC or Not to GDC?
Game Developers Conference is almost in full swing (technically the main part of it starts tomorrow) and it's always mind blowing to me how this event seems to draw out every single game developer on the planet. There are a lot of game developer events through out the year now, but for some reason GDC still is the main one for a lot of people.

I almost wasn't going to attend this GDC, but thanks to a lot of good luck and a lot of help from friends of mine I was able to make it happen in the end. I feel like every year I weigh the good and bad sides of attending GDC which is what ultimately drove me to decide to not attend this one. I'm not sure if the bad was necessarily out weighing the good, but I don't think a conference like GDC or a conference in general is always 100% a good idea to attend.

Let's get the worst things out of the way first:

Game Developers Conference for me is the most expensive conference to attend all year, and I'm just a two hour flight from where it's at. I got lucky with airfare this year and found a really good deal which made my round trip cost only about $150, but that's a pretty rare circumstance. Staying anywhere remotely close to the Moscone center can end up running anywhere between $500 to $1000 easily! That's my rent for the month usually. On top of all that San Francisco is one of the most expensive cities in the world so even a basic food budget can super inflate to hundreds of dollars for the week. If you want to scrape by with basic essentials for food you totally can, but so many developers and events sync up around lunch and dinner it's hard to pull that off. On top of all that good luck with getting a pass. The most basic bass that I used to grab cost almost $400 for just two days of content. This year I was able to find an extra Expo pass from someone and that by itself runs over $200. It's absolutely bonkers.

I was talking to a friend of mine how going to something like GDC is almost like an amplifier on whatever you're currently feeling. I've heard that people shouldn't do certain kinds of drugs if they aren't feeling like they're in a good head space, and I kinda feel like GDC is similar to that. I think back to the GDCs that I've attended where I had just shipped a game, or was about to ship a game, and those conferences felt absolutely amazing. I felt like I was on top of the world and all of my interactions were so incredibly positive. Compare those years with the years that I haven't shipped any significant games in a long time, or the years where I was stuck in the trenches of a long project, and it just didn't feel that good. I felt like I was falling behind everyone. It was this weird sense of almost shame that I'm not keeping up with my peers, or I'm not doing well enough for the people I really respect to recognize me. I know that this is probably not the reality of the situation, but it's tough to just pull myself out of a self reinforcing mindset. Going to GDC when I'm in a slump doesn't really pull me out of the slump, and it can sometimes make it even worse.

A five day long conference of back to back 8 hour days can be absolutely exhausting. I think when I was in my early 20s I could keep up with the pace, but now I feel like I need a vacation from my vacation when I get back home. I think for the past two or three GDCs I've come back to my workstation with some kind of illness that just wipes me out for another week on top of the week I just spent at the conference. If I come back in a slump feeling then that makes it all the worse.

It's not all bad though, I promise! There are plenty of reasons to still go to a conference like this even with it's not so ideal results:

Game Developers Conference is known in the industry for being a family reunion, and over the years I can definitely see why. When a lot of my closest friends are scattered around the world it can be really hard to get them all together for obvious reasons. With GDC being the landmark event of the year it means that all of my international friends come into town and hang out for the week. It's always a lot of fun to catch up and find out what people have been up to and actually interact with all of these fine folks in person instead of seeing what their Facebook feeds are spitting out.

This doesn't happen with every single GDC, but a majority of the time I feel like I walk away equipped to be a better developer than I was when I walked in. A lot of knowledge bombs go off during the conference, and talking to some of my favorite people in the world usually results in me learning a boatload of stuff about my craft that I didn't know before. A lot of times I show up to a conference like this with a lot of thoughts bundled up into a big ball of spaghetti, and somewhere inside of those thoughts is the thing I'm actually looking for. Talking with a lot of smart people can help me unravel those thoughts into something more realized and beneficial for my process.

I was talking to a friend of mine and I said something along the lines of "going to these things makes me feel like a real person again." A lot of times when it comes to game development, and especially on the more indie side of things, I can end up just spending all of my time at some sort of glowing rectangle with a lot of buttons and forget all about the outside world. Working on a project in isolation can be a long and tiring road, and stepping off of that track for a much needed break can be a huge relief. I'm reminded that even though I work solo on my projects that I am not alone in the slightest. There are plenty of others fighting the same battle that I am, and knowing that can be a huge pillar of support.

A conference like this can be a huge source of feedback for my projects. If I end up stuck somewhere on something I'm working on usually talking with enough people about it at GDC will get me going again. Most of the time the best feedback you can get is just watching someone play your game, but I think GDC is actually an exception to this where sometimes just sitting down and talking about what you're hung up on with other developers can be even more beneficial. Since most expos and conferences surround me with more players than developers I opt for the method of just watching people play, but when I'm surrounded by immensely talented game developers I really want to know what they're thinking. Related to my previous point it can also be a huge relief to know that other developers have also run into the same or similar issues with a design that I have.

Alright this is getting a little long, and I'm currently sitting in my San Francisco lodging typing this out instead of going out and enjoying the conference, so I better go ahead and get back outside and enjoy my limited time here. Maybe after this week I'll finally feel like jumping back into my projects. I am working hard on my contract stuff, but still unfortunately I can't really share what I'm doing (yet!)


Levi Kaplan
Levi Kaplan
Do you have any experience on what other conferences like PAX West are like? Are they any better than GDC in terms of pricing and overall usefulness?
Posted March 8th 2017 5:51 PM
I think PAX has always been a blast for me. It's a fan facing conference meaning instead of a bunch of developers and press you mostly just have a bunch of people that love video games around you all the time. If you're looking to show off a game PAX can be a great place to show it off but it really depends on what your goals are...

If you're just looking to have a bunch of people play your game and get a ton of feedback you're probably going to get it. If you're looking for your big break of exposure then be advised that there's a very low chance of that happening. The expo hall is FULL of games, and the competition for standing out can be fierce. If your goal is to sell merch and copies of your game then I think you'll also find PAX to be the perfect place to do that.

If you're just attending PAX as a dev looking to meet up and network and whatever with other developers I think you can find a lot of developer focused parties at night just like at GDC. You just have to keep your ears open to find out when and where they're happening.

I think at this point I would actually rank PAX West higher on my priorities to attend but mostly to show off my projects. GDC and PAX are very different, but I think PAX ends up being the much more affordable thing to attend, and if you can attend it I think it will end up really worthwhile if your goals align with what it can provide!
Posted March 26th 2017 3:55 PM
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