This year I was lucky enough to attend the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. Having just finished filling out my GDC feedback form, I wanted to share my diary of the event. This was a very exciting trip for me, as it was my first time at GDC and I had an absolutely incredible time at the conference. I was fortunate enough to be awarded my pass by the New Zealand Game Developers Association, so I would like to thank them for the opportunity to have all of these amazing experiences. This blog is a casual, personal account of the experiences I had at the conference, some thoughts and reflection on the talks I attended and a little advice for others planning on going for the first time.
Naturally, I arrived a few days ahead of the conference to get my bearings and explore the city a little. I went on the customary tourist tours of the city, visiting the Golden Gate Bridge, Chinatown, the Palace of Fine Arts and more excitingly I got to visit Lucasfilms and the Walt Disney Family Museum. I would also highly recommend the penny arcade Musée Mécanique located on Fisherman’s Wharf for anyone who likes to check out some very old school retro-games.
San Francisco is a beautiful city, but if I could describe it in a single word it would be juxtaposed. The city is a strange place of new on top of old, beautiful frescos covered in neon lighting, Irish pubs in Little Italy that made the best Indian food, high end department stores and a lot of homeless people. When I arrived, I was told about the serious homeless problem the city faced. I was warned to avoid sporting any tech industry paraphernalia because many people, in fact, blame the rise of the tech industry and Silicon Valley for the rise in housing prices and the displacement of some of the city’s poorer people. Having lived in Africa before I moved to New Zealand, I went to San Francisco with a sense of awareness that I had been used to back home. I was very aware of my surroundings at all times and tried to avoid areas like the Tenderloin in the city.
With that said, I would have to say that people in San Francisco are some of the friendliest I have ever met, a little eccentric and rather boisterous. People were extremely polite and I had one of the nicest conversations with a thuggish looking gentleman over a cigarette outside my hotel at 4am. If you’re heading to GDC, go a few days earlier – the city of San Francisco is one worth exploring.
Photo credit: Blake Wood
The day before, I had the chance to go and pick up my GDC pass, I picked up my pocket guide and proceeded to circle out every talk I wanted to attend. I also got to go to a pre-GDC mixer hosted by Dutch developers. The most notable game I saw at the event was Super Totem Stackers by Pillo Games, a game, as their studio name implies, controlled using pillows. I love games that diversify their controllers, also I like snuggly things, I would highly recommend checking their site out.
The first day was really exciting – there were so many talks I wanted to see, resulting in me having to choose between them. Fortunately, with a conference pass you also get access to the GDC vault, which lets you catch up on the talks you may have missed. I started off with some talks about lighting and art direction, then moved on to some talks about social media integration in games. There was a particularly good one which provided excellent and direct evidence between social media reach and game sales, with it being made even better by the fact that it was by Patrick Corrieri, a local New Zealand developer who worked on PolyBridge.
The next highlight of the day was bumping into one of the developers from Keep talking and nobody explodes. We ended up having lunch together and I got to hear that the idea for the game originally came from one of my favourite TV shows. I then went to a talk about the game’s asymmetrical gameplay which I really enjoyed. I love exploring games where the act of playing is not solely based on human-computer interaction, but rather the interactions between players.
I then attended some talks on narrative in Dragon Age: Inquisition. Considering that Bioware has made some of my favourite games, it was really exciting to attended the Q&A with the writers after their talk. I moved on to a talk by the developers of Super Hot, which turned out to be more about how they brought intuition into their game design choices. The next talk was by Nigel Lowrie about publishers. I highly appreciated this talk, as an independent developer we had been approached by publishers before. This talk focused on what publishers should provide to development teams, what to ask for from them and what to expect.
After the first day, I got to go to the Kiwi Cocktails mixer – it was wonderful to catch up with old friends and meet some other local developers. It was great to hear more about the future of New Zealand gaming. Furthermore, I really appreciated getting the chance to meet up with some of the people from New Zealand Immigration and chat with them about the importance of encouraging more developers to come to New Zealand. I got to catch up with the reps for Education New Zealand and had a great chat about the things that they’re doing to encourage more people to study game development and encouraging more diversity in the industry. I was also grateful for the chance to thank some of the people who had sponsored the NZGDA scholarships.
I started day two at the Unity special event. While not a Unity developer myself, I enjoyed the showcase of Unity games and what to expect from the engine in the future. I particularly enjoyed the section which spoke about Unity’s developer education plans, and their new certification program. I love hearing about new opportunities for developers and bigger companies taking an interest in diversifying the people who makes games.
The next talk I went to was a little out of my comfort zone, opting to attend a talk about AI. I would recommend anyone going to GDC to just try going to a talk they normally wouldn’t, something that is not their primary job or interest. It was wonderful to gain a deeper understanding of AI functions; even though I only do little programming, it was still highly educational and would argue that it has improved my ability to understand and communicate with the programmers in our team.
For lunch, I had the opportunity to attended a Women in Games meetup, this event was the precursor to the Bethesda recruitment event. I thoroughly appreciated the chance to talk and network with more women in games at this event. It was an easier and quieter opportunity to meet and talk to women about their experiences in the games industry. It was considerately set up by Bethesda before their main recruitment event, where I had the chance to meet with some incredibly interesting developers and chat with them about my favourite Bethesda games.
After this, I headed back to the conference and attended a talk about “what level designers can bring to VR”. This made me more passionate about testing out VR in our next game. For level design, it is interesting to consider playing with perspective and scale using VR in games. Considering these things could offer players completely new experiences outside of the game. Finally, I decided to wrap up with another Unity talk about building the world of Firewatch. I thoroughly enjoyed their talk about their approach to building a large open world in Unity. They were very honest about the mistakes they made during their production, difficulties with greyboxing and how they managed the open-world loading system. It offered me new insights for different ways of building open world environments and innovative ways to better manage these.
After the conference, I had the chance to catch up with some close friends from Australia and attended an after party with them. I got to head to one of their mixers and catch up with even more friends I had met at Game Connect Asia-Pacific. I got to meet up with more people at this event and had the chance to network with more Australians. After the networking event, we headed down to the Destructoid party, which was a loud change of pace but was a really fun party.
I started day three on a bit more of a serious note with a talk about Shame and Vulnerability by Renee Nejo. She discussed her experience as a minority game developer and how she used video games to help her better identify with her native american heritage. I thoroughly enjoyed her perspective, I wish that more was done to encourage diversity talks like this and even more done to encourage more people to attend them. I feel as though this can only add value to the games industry as a whole – I would love to see more that encourages game developers to expand their perspectives and explore different cultures.
I then headed to another Firewatch talk, this covered similar aspects that yesterday’s talk did about building the world. However, it was from an art leads perspective with Jane Ng, where she talked about their prototyping and stylization choices along with how they built the world. Next talk was another exciting one for me, Fallout 4’s Modular Level Design, I have done a lot of research into the creation kit for Skyrim but haven’t had a chance to explore Fallout’s kits. It was really interesting how they complied them to be more dynamic, and how they got over the over-complications of the dynamic pieces with pre-built ones.
I bumped into some friends while going for a short break and got informed and involved in the GDC flower game – they had bought a whole bunch of poppy seeds, and poppies are a seasonal plant. The goal of the game was to plant a few seeds somewhere random then pass on the bag and ask another person to do the same, hoping to return to GDC in a year and see a bunch of poppy seeds growing everywhere.
Photo credit: Farah Khalaf
Unfortunately, the IGDA Romance and Sexuality SIG Roundtable I was really excited to attend with Kathrin Weekes was full, however Michelle Clough and Patrick Weekes held an impromptu meeting outside in the hall of the conference. This was probably one of my favourite talks, it was totally improvised and the goal was to create a safe group for people to discuss issues around sex and sexuality within games. It was a wonderful opportunity to discuss the issues that some people had with the representation of gender, homosexual, transexual, polyamourous people etc. I enjoyed hearing about other people’s views and enjoy having my own perceptions changed a bit. I even managed to gain the opportunity to speak to Patrick Weekes about his writing and character choices and design, I ended up passing on the flower seeds to him.
Afterwards, I got to head to the IGF awards and watched the developers from Dinosaur Polo Club’s Mini Metro walk away with an award for best sound design. Really great to witness their awesome win and their game being nominated for so many awards. Afterwards, we headed to That Party, a gig which held a lot of loud music, dancing and some really interesting games. My favourite was made for the NES called “Super Russian Roulette”, using the old NES gun, players would play russian roulette with a cowboy. Unfortunately, as the party filled up it became impossible to talk, after paying for entrance as well as drinks I was a little disappointed. So we headed over to the Epic party, hosted by Epic Games, there was an improvement in the music and free drinks, happy to say the Epic live up to their namesake.
Photo credit: Robert Curry
With a bit of a late night, the first talk I ended up going to was one about character design for diverse audiences. The talk focused on the psychological and behavioural perspectives of character design and what to consider to ensure that we design diverse characters.
At lunch, I wandered over to the expo wanting to check it out for about an hour before heading to my next talk. I ended up completely losing track of time and wondering around the expo for 4 hours, there was so much to see, the Google booth was a nice place to relax, the Epic booth had a VR party going, Allegorithmic had a lot of cool Substance displays. I ended up getting lost in the Sony and Xbox booths playing a variety of unreleased games, and spent some time trying out various VR headsets.
Next, I headed to Farah Khalaf and Rami Ismail’s talk about the representation of Muslims in video games. While I have known Farah for a few years now, I found their talk enlightening and it made me consider a ton of different aspects of how Muslims are represented in games. It made me frustrated that something as simple as showing them as normal or empowered people is such a rare thing, too often they are painted as terrorists or extremists in games. The Middle East is always shown in a war-torn state instead of how it actually looks and without paying attention to the culture or architecture of the places. It was certainly something to consider and I am glad I went, it made me more conscious of my own perceptions of Muslims in games.
Afterwards, we got to head to the Zynga St. Patrick’s day party, I was amazed at just how big their studios was, it had a huge amount of fun things to do, there was a photo booth, delicious food and a bar where you could order sundaes. After Zynga, we went to a Sony event, I thoroughly enjoyed the professional nature of the evening. I had the opportunity to chat with some reps and get a huge amount of sound career advice, I also got to meet a variety of industry professionals with a huge amount of experience. I spent all evening at the party and had a wonderful time. I was really pleased with the professional nature of the event, especially after I saw what happened at the Microsoft party and the resulting issues then ensued. Considering that two friends were at the heart of the issue, it’s something I wish to talk about at length in another blog.
With most of the conference coming to an end, we decided to take another field trip around San Francisco. A rep from Education New Zealand kindly organised a trip to Google for us, it was really exciting, I honestly didn’t expect much from the trip, but was utterly overwhelmed with how amazing the Google campus is. Some highlights included cute Android exhibits and a really funny dinosaur bone exhibit, the inter-floor slides and basil flavoured ice cream (trust me it was delicious). We spent all day wandering around the campus with our guide, I was amazed at just how big the place was and so impressed with the care Google took of its employees.
After a week of really fun parties I was ready for a quiet night, so we organised a dumplings evening with some of my friends from the Australian game dev scene. It was great to catch up with these friends at the end of GDC. I ended up having some wonderful conversations. We have an industry filled with exceptionally talented, kind and inspirational individuals.
So I started this blog after filling out my GDC feedback form and wanted to share my answer to the question:
What I would like to see more at GDC
I would like to see more sessions about social media integration within games, there were a few sessions but I really liked the ones like “Poly Bridge and Social Media”. Talks in general which can provide direct statistics and correlation between social media impact and game sales.
I found that many talks came from a place of experience, but it is great to see talks based on statistics that provide a direct link between what the speaker is talking about and some sort of evidence and visualisation. The talks about Firewatch did a good job of this too, they provided very good visualisation and evidence for what they were speaking about.
I also really like the variety of diversity talks there were, I liked the inclusion of talks about Homosexual and Muslim representation in games. It would be great to see more of these encouraged and for attendees to have a greater interest in these, I feel like more could be done to encourage people who normally would attend these talks to do so.
How would you describe GDC to someone who has not yet attended?
GDC is a crazy week full of information, it is not very hard to find something fun or fascinating. It is impossible to get bored during that week and I would recommend wearing comfortable shoes.This has truly been a valuable experience for me and I would consider it an essential event for bringing more business and a higher amount of opportunity to New Zealand.
The best thing about GDC is not the expo or the talks though, it is having the incredible collection of game developers, which these events attract, under one roof. I had the opportunity to talk to amazing people I never thought I would. I got to speak to the lead writers of my favourite games, have lunch with designer of a very famous game only to find out that their game was based off of one of my favourite TV shows. I had dinner with a beloved, shakey developer and drinks with a woman I idolized, only to find out she was thinking about a trip to my home country. I got to catch up with old friends and make some new ones; the people that GDC draws in are some of the best in the world.
I would simply describe GDC as an adventure, there is so much to do and so much to see, it would be impossible to describe the experience. If you’re going to GDC it is great to wander around alone for a while and see what you find, I guarantee it will always be someone or something interesting.