in Conferences and events

So Much to See, So Much to Do: Getting the Most out of GDC

It’s that time of the year again: days are getting longer, the weather is slowly getting warmer, and a hint of change is in the air. That can only mean one thing: the Game Developers Conference is approaching again! This article will help you navigate your way around GDC more successfully and help you get the most out of this year’s conference.

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GDC can be a little intimidating the first few times you attend. With well over 10,000 attendees and 30 simultaneous sessions at any given time, as well as keynotes, expo floors, roundtables, special events, and parties, it’s natural if things feel a bit overwhelming at first. This article will help you navigate your way around GDC more successfully and help you get the most out of this year’s conference.

Get to know people

GDC is all about the talks, the tech, and the expo, right? Bzzzz… Wrong! GDC is first and foremost a great place to meet new people in the industry, exchange ideas, talk about different topics, and network in general. My memories of past GDCs are not so much about specific technical details (those come and go pretty quickly), but are about people: people I met, presenters whose talk I went to see, old friends I ran into, etc. If you do only one thing at GDC this year, make sure you make an effort to meet new people. You won’t regret it.

  • Talk to the person sitting next to you. I’m serious. When you go to a talk and have a few minutes before the session starts, introduce yourself to the person sitting next to you. Chances are he (or she, although that’s significantly less likely at GDC unfortunately) is interested in many of the same topics you are since you’re both attending the same talk. He might have worked on some games you played, or the other way around. Don’t do it just at the talks either; breakfast or lunch is another great opportunity, and so are parties or other special events.
  • Bring business cards. Talking with new people is a start, but continuing to have some contact after GDC is over can be really valuable. Make sure to bring a good stack of business cards with you and hand them out to anybody you meet and talk with for a while. You never know where your next contact is coming from, and it’s always good to know how to get in touch with the people you meet. If you don’t have business cards, have some printed right away, even if you’re a student or are currently out of work. It’s not for appearances’ sake, it’s just that it is much more convenient that having to write down people’s email address on the spot.
  • Vary your social circle. Going with coworkers or friends to GDC can be very rewarding. You all go through a similar experience, compare notes, etc. It can feel much more secure when you’re thrown in such a chaotic environment. But make sure you vary your company a bit. If you just hang out with your coworkers all the time, you’ll miss out on meeting lots of new people. Strike out on your own at least some of the time.

Tutorials

GDC traditionally opens up with two days of tutorials. These are day-long sessions on one topic. They are not part of the regular conference, and you need to register for those two days separately (or get a GigaPass).

  • Mix and match. Committing a full day to one thing is not something you want to do lightly. I find that I end up getting a lot more out of mixing and matching my tutorials. Tutorials usually start out with introductory material, and then get more advanced as the day goes on. So my usual strategy is to start with one I don’t know much about, and then move to others for which I’m only interested in the advanced topics. Sometimes I’ll even go back and forth between two or three, switching at every break, trying to hit the parts that interest me the most.
  • Warming up. The meat of the conference is the last three days. That’s when everybody comes, the expo floor opens, and everything is moving at full steam. In comparison, the tutorial days are like a nice warm-up. There’s only a fraction of the people, not many events, and things are less frantic in general. If this is your first time at GDC (and you or your company can afford the extra price tag), I would suggest coming to the tutorials at least once.

Choosing sessions

If meeting people was the most important aspect of GDC, attending good sessions is the second one in the list for me. With so many simultaneous sessions going on over the last three days, it can be really challenging to decide what to attend. Unlike the tutorials, mixing and matching is not really an option because the sessions are usually only one hour long without any breaks. So, how do you go about choosing what sessions to attend?

  • Does it benefit from a presentation? It sounds like a silly question, but really think about it. Is the topic something that would benefit from a presentation? A presentation that is highly mathematical might be easier to parse offline just reading the paper at my own pace rather than having it forced into my brain in one hour. On the other hand, just reading the slides for a session about the speaker’s experiences and anecdotes just won’t cut it. Peeking at the slides or paper before the presentation sometimes gives you a good idea how much you’ll get out of the session itself.
  • Choosing the right depth. Usually that means the topic is something I don’t know much about so I’m looking to get a nice overview in a digested format to get me started, or it’s an advanced topic and I’m looking to get lots of tasty insights and an interesting question-and-answer section after the talk. If the talk is going to present a topic I’m familiar with at an intermediate level, there’s probably not much point in attending.
  • Try something different. The first couple of times I attended GDC I made the mistake of sticking very closely to sessions that were directly relevant to my work. I think that was some misguided attempt to “maximize” what I got out of GDC since the company was sending me there. Sure, don’t blow off all the relevant sessions, but make sure you find some time to explore other topics and even different tracks. If you’re a programmer, go to a design or an art talk. If you’re into graphics, you could spend all your waking time going from pixel shader session to fancy lighting model session and not see anything beyond that. Take a break and hit an AI session instead, or a networking one. I guarantee that you’ll get a lot more than you think out of trying them.
  • The speaker is very important. When you’re reading a paper, all you care about are its contents, but a speaker will completely make or break the presentation. I have learned over the years to really pay attention to who the speakers are, what their experience is, and, most importantly, how well they can present things. If there’s an interesting-sounding talk given by a speaker who totally butchered a presentation from another year, I’m going to think hard about the alternatives and I’ll consider getting the slides afterwards. On the other hand, there are some speakers whose talks I will unconditionally go to, since I know it’s going to be an awesome experience. For example, I really don’t care what the topic of Will Wright’s session is; if he’s talking, I’ll be there. I’ve attended enough of his talks to know he’s an amazing speaker with really good insights. Besides, his presentations are perfect examples of ones you just can’t get the same thing out of by looking at the slides.
  • Create a schedule. Don’t wing it. There are lots of choices to make and there isn’t that much time (or places to sit down) in between sessions. I recommend deciding what talks you’re going to go to ahead of time, preferably the night before. Lately at GDC, you get a fold-out schedule of the full conference, which is great for marking what sessions you’re interested in and knowing at a glance where you’re going next. Another schedule-making tip: decide what roundtables you want to go to, but don’t add them to your schedule until the end. They’re repeated three times (once each day), so you might be able to fit them in a slot when there isn’t much else going on.
  • Keep some backup. I don’t really want to encourage people to come in and out of a session while it’s going on, but there’s also nothing worse that being stuck in a session that you know you’re not going to get anything from it while there are all sorts of good sessions going on at the same time. If you’re not too sure about a particular session, keep another one in mind. If things are not going anywhere in the first five minutes, make a beeline for your backup session. If you do that, please sit towards the back or near an exit row to avoid disturbing people when you leave. Since you selected your backup session ahead of time you’ll waste no time selecting a new one and you’ll be able to make it for most of the second session.

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Roundtables and keynotes

Roundtables and keynotes are the two most popular session formats after regular talks. Roundtables are small(ish) sessions with up to 40 or 50 people, in which the attendees engage in discussion on the roundtable topic. Keynotes are very large sessions of general interest, so they’re usually scheduled in an auditorium or some other large theater-like venue.

  • Come prepared to talk. A roundtable is not a regular talk. Don’t walk into a roundtable expecting to sit on a corner and learn from other people. Come prepared to talk, or at least with questions of your own. If you just sit there and listen to other people, you’ll probably won’t get as much out of it as you could and it’ll be more boring for everybody. A good roundtable is a controlled, lively discussion where everybody participates, and can be much more rewarding than any regular talk.
  • Continue the discussion. If you end up participating in an interesting discussion and you’re still interested in the topic when the roundtable ends, don’t let it die there. Go up to the moderator or the other participants who were part of the discussion, exchange business cards, meet up for lunch, or just say hi and perhaps continue some conversation through email.
  • Don’t get discouraged. The same way that a good roundtable can be the highlight of a conference, a badly-run one is an awful experience, with a couple of people shouting at each other and the discussion drifting all over the place without giving you a chance to participate. If that happens, don’t get put off from roundtables permanently. Give another one a try sometime (maybe on a different topic). They really can be very rewarding.
  • Go to the keynotes. Unless the topic is something you really, really don’t care about, make a point of going to the keynotes. They are usually general and interesting enough that appeal to everybody. They are often given by fairly big names in the industry, so this is your chance to see them in person.

Expo floor

The expo floor is open during the main three days of the conference. There you can see all the major companies involved in the industry trying to sell you software, hardware, books, services, or anything in between.

  • Give the expo a try. I have to admit that the expo is not one of my favorite parts of GDC, but it’s still worth checking out every year. I particularly like browsing the small booths of unknown middleware companies, or of products I hadn’t seen in person before. I don’t really see much point in the big booths (NVidia, ATI, Microsoft, Sony), other than to say, “we have a presence here.” You will have plenty of time to visit the expo in between talks, after the sessions, or even during some of the breaks they make in the schedule specifically to let people visit the expo, so don’t skip any sessions just to walk around the expo. It’s usually not worth it.
  • Swag hunt. If you’re in the hunt for swag, the expo floor can be a fertile ground. In years past there was a never-ending supply of t-shirts. One year I walked away with 18 new t-shirts, and some of them were being literally thrown at me as I was walking by a booth. Now it seems that companies are tightening up and the t-shirt supply has dried up a lot, but there’s still a lot of swag to be had if you’re into that kind of thing.
  • Job fair. I can’t really say much about this. There are usually lots of companies there, but the booths seem to be mostly full of HR people, so it’s not like you can walk up there and start talking with the developers and find out how things really are at the company. Their booths are usually so packed with candidates walking through and filling applications that I can’t help but feel that your stuff is going to be thrown on a pile and will get lost in the shuffle. Is it really much better than submitting your application online? I’m not quite so sure.

Parties and events

I’ve heard of people who come to GDC and don’t even get a pass. They just go for the parties and apparently they have a blast. Whatever floats their boat, but it seems like a monumental waste to me. Parties have their place (especially if, unlike me, you actually like to drink alcoholic drinks), but to me the real GDC happens during the day.

  • Look around for parties. There are many more than you probably know. Apart from the official parties, there are lots of invitation-only parties going on (usually all the big companies throw parties: Microsoft, Sony, EA, middleware providers, etc). Getting an invitation is usually just a matter of asking for one. Keep your eyes peeled and ears open and you’ll hear about them. Worse comes to worst, just swing by their booth and ask them what you have to do to get a pass.
  • Meet people. You can try and use the parties to meet more people, but the setting is less than ideal (dark rooms, loud music, and lots of drunk developers).
  • Check out the events. Apart from being another great opportunity to meet new people, some of the events can be quite entertaining. The Game Developer Choice Awards are the closest thing to Academy Awards for the games industry, so it can be an interesting event to go to. Besides, if you last all two hours, you get your GDC t-shirt at the end. The Independent Games Festival is always very interesting, and at the very least you should check out the games in the expo floor. It’s amazing what some of the independent developers can do with a budget of exactly zero dollars. We can certainly learn a thing or two from them.

Logistics

  • Hotel reservations. If you don’t have a hotel reservation by now, you’re in trouble. You usually need to book those months in advance (December is a good time to do that—make a note for next year). Your only option right now might be doubling up with someone else who already has a room and split the cost.
  • Trip. I don’t know why, but lots of people assume that the last day of the conference (Friday) is less interesting than the rest and leave early. Don’t do that. There are enough interesting talks all around to last the full three days, and more if GDC lasted longer. Don’t leave until Friday evening or Saturday morning.
  • Location. By now I could give you great tips about San Jose, where to eat, what places to go to, which ones to avoid, but this year GDC moved to San Francisco, so that’s totally new to me. I’ll have to ask other people for advice instead.

And that wraps it up. Make sure you get lots of rest and sleep before GDC. You’ll need every ounce of energy for a very exhausting, but extremely interesting week. This is our industry’s biggest event, and it only happens once a year, so make the most out of it. And remember, make an effort to meet new people and say hi if you see me 🙂

Photos courtesy of the Game Developers Conference.

  • Rob

    Good pointers. I’m working a lot more on the schedule this year than I have in years past. Too many times I’ve missed a session I didn’t know about or gotten in late because I found it at the last minute.

    The conference is a great time to try something different. To get the most out of a session on a new topic though, I’ve found that there can be a lot of benefit to doing a little search online for those unusual topics. The speakers often have a body of work that can help you understand where they’re coming from.

    As far as getting around in San Francisco, I found driving to be a real challenge – many of the roads have a ridiculous slope. The Wharf is the big tourist trap, but that doesn’t mean there’s not fun to be had down there.

  • Thanks for the run-down of how to approach the GDC.

    This will be my first year attending (saving money by doing it as a volunteer) and you’ve provided some interesting insights.

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