GDC 2016 - Adventure, Mystery, Intrigue, Games!

So I told myself I was going to write a blog post at least once a month and I left it pretty late this month, but here we go, time for a GDC post-mortem.

Last week I went to the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. I have wanted to go to GDC for many years but have never managed to quite scrape up the funds. This year was no different and I only got to go due to the kindness of others, but still I got to go! Woo!

I have to turbo-thank the GDAA for giving me a scholarship which purchased the all access pass to the conference, I literally could not have gone without this and I will be eternally thankful!

If you are involved in game development and are an Australian, you want to know the GDAA, they do great work and are pretty much the only voice trying to make game development in Australia more viable.



For those of you who read my blog but don't know what GDC is (I assume there is one of you...), GDC is the Game Developers Conference held annually in San Francisco. It is the largest and most eclectic conference for game developers because it encompasses every stage and role of game development from design, to writing, to programming, to art, to audio, to marketing, and everything else I have missed. GDC also intermingles AAA devs and indies, the person sitting next to you at lunch could be working on a game worth hundreds of millions of dollars, or something they are cooking up alone in their spare time.

This mix of roles leads to what is easily the most enthusasitc bunch of people at a large conference I have ever met. Everyone at GDC was looking forward to making games and being a part of the games industry. The reason for this enthusiasm is, I think, due to the mix of people you meet. As you roam around GDC you will run into people who work in a totally different fields, and they will happily discuss with you their latest song they are composing or the character design they just finished up. Even if you hate your job and the part you play in the giant game making machine, being exposed to new yet familiar information and topics helps keep you enthused for the end result. The general atmosphpere of GDC bodes well for both the future of the games industry and the games it will produce.

This isn't to say that at every other large conference I attend all the attendees are morose dullards who sit around discussing nihilism waiting for the day to end while hiding from the light, but no other conference anywhere near the size of GDC is so damn enthusiastic.

Another curiosity I noticed at GDC from other large conferences I have been to was when it came to question time at the end of talks. The questions asked were always on-topic and well thought out, there were no "I don't have a question, just a comment" or questions where someone was asking just to make themselves look good to the audience. This came as a pleasant surprise to me, as I have to come to associate question time at large conferences with the moment arseholes decide to make themselves known. Now this might be just because the talks I went to happened to be mostly arsehole free but it could also be for whatever reason GDC has a lower percentage of arseholes than other large conferences.

I have two competing theories as to why the arsehole ratio is so low at GDC. The first is related to the Dunning-Kruger effect, and that because game development is pretty damn brutal, requiring insane levels of cooperation and technical expertise (especially in the AAA industry but also true in the indie scene) people rapidly get over the "I AM A GENIUS" stage and rapidly into the "I know nothing" stage and so aren't as willing to make themselves look arrogant in front of a crowd of people.

The second theory has to do with game development's differences from other technical fields. Because game development needs people from so many different fields it is going to rapidly fill up with people of various skill sets and ideas about how games should be made. This blend of people and ideas is very likely going to either force arseholes to either adapt and lose a bit of arseholery or leave the industry. Either way it means the arsehole to not arsehole ratio is rather low in comparison to other large technical conferences I have been a part of (especially programming language conferences).

Another interesting side-effect of all this low arsehole ratio is that everyone I spoke to at GDC assumed I knew what I was doing (despite my business card literally saying otherwise...) and I assumed that they knew what they were doing. The low arseholery meant that you could have a discussion between a luminary of the field and a new developer and everyone involved was taken seriously.

This is something that other conferences I go to NEEDS to work on and I am not sure how to improve this yet, but I feel that GDC with its seeing luminaries as just another dev as a good starting point; hero worship is probably dangerous to a community in the long run.

Sessions and the lure of the Vault

Ok so enough about the people, what about the talks? GDC is interesting in that it is currently the only conference I attend where I am not either an organiser or a speaker, it was also my first time going so I wanted to go to as many talks as possible (something which I doubt will change should I manage to go again). I also knew from previous conferences that trying to go to everything will burn me out super fast, so I did generally pace myself.

Something that I really like about GDC, and other conference also do this, is that by buying an all access pass you also get access to the GDC vault, which is an online collection of this and past years talks. This had an interesting impact on what I went to see, when there was more than one talk I wanted to see on at the same time I tended to prioritise the one which I felt would be better live. As such I went to talks which were audio talks (giant speakers trump headphones any day), workshops (gotta get that human touch), and story sessions (personal impact).

In general the talks were stupidly high quality, every session I went to was well rehearsed, on time, and confidently presented. In the past I'd heard that GDC has a very rigorous review process and it seems to have paid off.

My favourite sessions were the Diablo post-mortem which went delved into the creation of Diablo including showing us the original design doc and had a guilty developer paying for his copy of Diablo he pirated years ago. The Lara Croft Go post-mortem was also brilliant, breaking down the process of distilling an action-adventure game into a turn based mobile app without losing the bit that made the game a Lara Croft game. Although this is only my first year I know already that I am going to go to as many post-mortems as I can in the future should I get to go back.

The session on the audio and music of Star Wars Battlefront was also another favourite, the amount of work that went into making the game audio and new music sound star-warsey was staggering. The game also won a whole bunch of audio awards at GDC, which it totally deserves, the game sounds bloody amazing.

There was a rather brutal but entertaining session on song composition where composers could submit songs to be judged by game audio pros. It was basically if Australian Idol was good, but wow were the judges brutal at times.

On the first two days I went to the game design workshop, which while it took up the first two days of the conference was totally worth it. It covered game design through discussion, paper prototyping, idea distillation, team work, mini-games, and optional micro-sessions. Losing two days was an acceptable trade off. The workshop was not only scarily informative and useful to help you think about game design but because it is all done in teams it is a great way to meet people outside of the lunch time and pre-talk queues. I think it was telling that I met six people who had done the workshop multiple times. If you ever go to GDC, even if you are not interested in game design, do the workshop!

Finally the awards, including the game audio network guild, ceremonies were surprisingly fun. Even with Her Story basically crushing all competition it was weirdly enjoyable to figure out what category Her Story was going to win next. The audio awards were a little quieter and more niche than the main awards, but also great and worth attending. The audio people are arguably the happiest of everyone at GDC, not sure why but it seemed that way. Also Battlefront won a tonne of awards and I really like the sound of that game so... yeah, I was happy about that.

Awards night

A nice little feature about GDC was that you get scanned as you enter each session, this is then used to immediately email you asking for feedback when the session ends. This resulted in me offering up feedback a lot snappier than I do at most conferences.

Party, party, party

Ah parties, what would a giant conference be without a slew of parties? I think every night I had invites for at least 3 parties. Of course not being a crazy almond I would only go to one per night.

Easily the best party was the Australian party, which I got access to by virtue of being Australian... it was not only full of people that I have actual chances of meeting again outside of GDC but it was in a great place and had a huge bar tab. Also they gave out cool portable batteries as loot. Easily the best loot I have gotten at a conference, cheers Film Victoria!

I am such a great photographer!

I didn't end up going to any of the mega-parties, I really don't see the point behind being in a giant sweaty, hotbox with music too loud to let you think and with too many people to possibly hold a conversation. Give me a few people to chat with any day.

Now it wouldn't be a GDC post-mortem without talking about the Microsoft party. Poor MS, one day I am sure you will get it right... So in case you don't know Microsoft through a party and had go-go dancers. The same Microsoft that earlier that day held a women in gaming event. I am pretty sure that I don't need to say anything about this that hasn't already been said by better writers than I, but for fucks sake MS, don't do this!

Thankfully all the parties I went to didn't have this problem, and as far as I can tell only the Microsoft party did, so yay!

The blob

I was travelling with rather a large number of people, there were eight of us roaming in a giant blob, this had some advantage and some disadvantages.

The big advantage is that it was really easy to vegetate with people you knew if you didn't want to socialise, you never had to worry about travelling alone, or having to make a decision about where to go for lunch. There was also always someone who you could split an uber with.

The big disadvantage is that a giant roaming blob is kinda scary looking from the outside, when all of us were together pretty much no-one we didn't already know was willing to join the group for a chat. To me a very large part of any conference is socialising, so this was certainly not ideal and something I'll have to work on if I ever come back.

Also with 8 of us, splitting an uber meant two cars minimum...

The meh of SF

Ah San Francisco... I don't really like SF much for myriad reasons, but I generally find the city to be a large sprawling, dirty, and very expensive mess. Heaps of the people in SF are vacuous start-up idiots who are annoying and there is a giant homeless problem everyone seems content to just ignore.

With all that said, SF was a lot nicer this time around, it rained a fair amount which I rather enjoy and it washed away the nigh-constant smell of urine and kept the annoying tech-bro's in their startup bunkers away from me. I suppose it isn't really fair to judge the entire city because of the annoying people in it, but SF does have lots of issues and for whatever reason everyone who lives there doesn't seem to want to fix it or even talk about it.

The city does have some really nice bars and restaurants. The coffee isn't too bad, but certainly no Yellow Bernard and once you get over the weirdness that is the city itself it does have a rather lot of charm. While I had been before I did a few of the more touristy things this time around and they were pretty good. The highlight had to be riding the cable car through the city while it was pelting down with rain, to me it felt kinda what Mad Max would be like if it was in the tropics and not a desert.


Right, so I think that is everything I can think of about GDC and the trip around it. If you have any interest in game development whatsoever it is an amazing conference and well worth attending. Thanks again to the GDAA for buying me the ticket, you are all the greatest.

I will definitely be trying to come back next year, maybe I should work on a game to help fund the trip...