I haven’t blogged for two weeks due to getting ready for, attending, and recovering from the week long Game Developer’s Conference held in San Jose, CA, USA this past week (3/20-3/25/06). Before I left, even though I was too busy, I contemplated writing a post about why I didn’t think GDC was worth it for Indie game developers. Oops, I just gave away the answer to the question posed in the title of this article. So, the direct answer is NO, GDC is not worth it for Indie game developers. But, since you are still going to want to go, I’m going to give you some survival tips for getting the most out of GDC, or any conference for that matter.
Admit it, you’ve got fanboi’ism. Will Wright is giving a keynote. Man, how much can I learn about game design from this master? Phil Harrison runs Sony World Wide Studios and he is going to tell ME how to run my own little studio. Oh yeah, Saturo Iwata of Nintendo is going to explain to me how to “disrupt” the gaming world with my little Indie game. In addition, there are hundreds of sessions and tutorials, plus 10-12,000 of my good game development friends are going to be there. Man, this is going to be a BLAST!
OK. Here is the downside to all of that. First of all, you will have no access to all of that fun. You’ll be on the outside, and feel insignificant (check this great post by Josh Dallman). You will overpay for information that will soon be free, you will pay for what should be free and considered hype or advertisement, you will overpay for rooms, food, and travel. You will lose development time on your own game. It all adds up to a big negative.
First a quick primer on the costs. A Giga Pass is $1,800, a Classic Pass is $1,400. Air travel, say $400. Motels are scarce and command a premium, so even the roach motel five miles from the conference jacks its price up to $125 per night, not including tax. Staying that far from the conference will require a rental car or a lot of taxi rides (note- San Jose is not known for it’s awesome number of taxis, so plan on waiting a LOT if you use that strategy). Figure in $40 per day for transportation. Nothing is cheap during GDC, especially food, but let’s say you can hold yourself back and eat two meals per day. The minimum is going to be $25 for food. Beer, mixed drinks, coffee, etc. add in another $20 per day, rounding your total expenses up to around $100 a day for four days. The total damage adds up to ($1,400 + $400 + $500 + $400) = $2,300, not counting your down time for traval and recovery which is a week or so.
If you are following my advice and have right sized your life, you have just spent enough money for five weeks of development on your game. If your plan was to spend six months on your game, you just used up about 20% of your development budget. But, the knowledge I gained was worth it, right? Not really. Let’s debunk that thought.
If you want to learn about game design, buy a book. It will be written by the same person that was shamelessly promoting their career by giving a talk at GDC. But, it will be edited and written in a more thoughtful manner than the off the cuff presentation you will get at GDC. Sure, in a personal presentation you get some window into the presenter’s mannerisms and personality, but that will not help you get your game finished.
My take on it is that you don’t even need to buy a book. Most of this information is presented for free on the Internet. In fact, you are reading about it now for free! But, more to the point of GDC content. I did a simple Google search for “Will Wright GDC 2006″ and got ten pages of summary information about his presentation. Even though it is interesting, Will is just pimping Spore. In fact, all of this is backed by the Electronic Arts PR and hype machine. Will is everywhere lately. On the cover of Wired and Game Developer magazines, and many more to come. EA is banking a LOT on Spore, and you will be completely tired of reading about Will in the coming months. That said, Will is a true game developer and his brain is bursting with incredible thoughts, so his keynote would absolutely be the best and most true to the audience, but what about the others?
Nintendo and Sony are both still positioning about their next generation consoles. They are interesting speeches (of which you can find the entire transcription on-line), but they have little real meat. Again, they are barely hidden PR messages. And Battlestar Galactica? No thanks. That might appeal to the geek in you, but it is totally not relevant to getting your game completed.
If you follow me so far, maybe you are thinking you’ll just buy an Expo Pass. It’s only $195. Screw that! Expo passes should be free. Every single vendor in the Expo paid exhorbitant fee to be on the floor. You should not have to PAY to see what they are advertising or pimping. Not that I am condoning it, but I did see a lot of people exchanging badges to get onto the expo floor.
Even if you do happen to score an Expo pass, here is what you see. Huge soulless booths by Intel, Sun, Nokia, etc. There are some fairly interesting booths around the fringes, but for the most part, PR shills and watered down booth babes are giving away some crappy pin and brochure. You won’t get to talk to anyone genuine or interesting, unless, of course, you come to the GarageGames booth:)
So, if the sessions are not worth it, and the Expo does not give you a return, what can you do to get a return on GDC, or any other show for that matter?
The biggest, and only real, reason you should go to a trade show is for business development as this is a great resource for inspiration. You need to turn into “Tradeshow Man”, willing to talk to anybody, relentlessly pimping your schtuff, acquiring contacts, and making industry friends that will last the rest of your career. Before you go, make every attempt to get a meeting with people that you think can help you either make or sell your game. Be relentless. Have a mission and a plan. Contacts begat more contacts. Be fearless in spreading your word.
Between the few little meetings you are able to set up, here are a couple of methods of “working the show.” First of all, find a book about “working the room” and making contacts. This will be a sales oriented book, and will probably be in the self help section of the bookstore or library. Don’t pay for this book, just check it out or read it at the Borders coffe bar. The entire book will take about an hour to read/skim. You may think you don’t need this information, but it is invaluable. Sales, PR, and marketing people all use these proven social techniques, and you, being a good geek, have spent most of your time learning your craft, and have not had time to practice social interaction. Shameless self promotion, social interaction, and spreading your own word will be EXTREMELY painful, but the pain will eventually subside, and it will become a normal part of your business skills.
Now, back to GDC, and the cheap to free way to get 99% of show’s benefits. Start off easy. Arrive at GDC, ogle a little bit, feel a little helpless, then dig in. The halls are free, but that is where much of the action takes place. Your mission is to get in on as much of it as possible.
Hang around the IGDA’s IGF competition to start. The IGF takes place in the halls, so it costs nothing. At both the IGF and Student Showcase you will find about 20 or so developers that are feeling just like you, i.e. dazed and confused. The difference is, they have a game, a computer, a home base, and automatic access to the show. Befriend an IGC contestant. They are accessible, they want to talk about their game, they want to talk about development and are just like you. All of the IGF contestants have been deluged with business propositions, pseudo publishing offers, job offers, press contacts, etc. But, most importantly, they have probably been invited to some of the after hours parties.
At, GDC, or any other trade show, parties are not parties. They are bizdev on alcohol. Your mission is to get an invite to a party. Not only are the contacts good, but the free beer and food will pad the budget. However, that is probably fodder for an entire blog post, so back to the show itself. Here are a couple of proven techniques for “running into people”.
Bank Fishing: Sit at a table and wait for people to sit down. Read the name on their badge and just start talking. Anybody from any company will talk to you in this situation. Some might be dicks, but if they are, just move on. Most of the people at GDC are very willing to talk outside of the booth where they are just being normal people taking a small break. A lot of bizdev does happen at the tables, so don’t interrupt an obvious meeting. The results will not be pretty. If you see an interesting prospect in a meeting, just wait until they are done, and try to run into them after the meeting.
A note on running into people. Have a list of people you would like to meet. Don’t be afraid to talk to anybody. In the hall they are fair game. If you do have a chance to meet one of your heros, make sure you have a relevant question, and don’t just babble. For instance, back in the DOS days I always thought it would be cool to talk to Bill Gates. My saved up question for him was, why don’t you create an operating system for games? Well, a few years after that DirectX appeared, then XBox, and XB360, so that obviously wouldn’t be a relevant question any more. Today, I would open with something about Marble Blast being a successful download on the XB360 then I would ask him about his kids and relate it back to why there is no longer good educational software or would they ever consider downloadable educational content for XB360. Whatever, you need to have a plan for what you ask if you run into Gabe Newell or Shigeru Miyamoto or Will Wright.
Trolling: This is a more active version of Bank Fishing, but the real time aspect makes it a little more difficult to acquire your target. To Troll, you simply walk around the halls, looking at the various demos, art on the walls, IGF entries, etc. All the while, you are paying close attention to the names on the badges. If you see somebody that would be worth talking, use your “How to work a room” skills to strike up conversation. If you score, you will end up sitting down at the tables, and will now be engeaged in a more active version of Bank Fishing. Once you have a conversation going, more people will tend to join in.
Make sure you always end up with business cards. Follow up those contacts after the show. Set up meetings with those people the next time you will be coming to the show. Your little network will grow, and soon, you’ll be working the bizdev just like the big boys. Some day, the people that you meet will be CEO’s, Executive Producers, running divisions of big publishers, writing frontline blogs or magazine articles, etc. You will have access to them and consider them friends, not just business contacts. That is when you will really be rolling.