Is Game Developers Conference Worth the Investment?

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.

-Jeff Tunnell, Game Maker
Make It Big In GamesGarageGames

  • MrPhil

    Here are some tips for indie’s going to GDC based on my personal experience:

    1. The most important thing to know is that San Jose has a great light rail system called the VTA. Twice I’ve enjoyed GDC without a rental car because I planned around the lightrail.
    2. Register early! You’ll save money on the conference and you’ll find a cheap motel with rooms available.
    3. Go Giga because it includes breakfast and lunch, and free beer at the booth crawl
    4. Go to the San Jose Art Gallery: Its free and amazing

    There is no way to make this super cheap, which is why I don’t go every year but when I do I always have a great time learning new things, seeing cool stuff and I’m always pumped up afterwards.

  • Keith Sink

    Great article. I’m glad you’ve articulated alot of the reservations I’ve had about going to GDC. I can never bring myself to spend the money when IGC is a much better value.
    One thing I think might be missing in your budget calculation is the salary you loose by going(or vacation time you’re giving up). This of course would only apply to those of us who are still working full time and doing the Indie thing on the side.

  • Preston

    Excellent post!

    I look foward to the next one.

  • TimS

    Here’s a refigured estimate based on volunteering to be a CA at the conference…. You won’t regret the experience….

    New figures (mine):

    Giga pass: $0

    Flight: $440

    Hotel: $280 (SEVEN nights…. this is shared with other CA’s)

    Food is free if you eat everything the Convention has to offer (you’ll eat outside the conference but not much if you don’t want to…)

    Travel: $3.50 per day (light rail… once TO the conference per day and once home… last train was at 12:31 am… plenty of time for whate’er you might be doing)

    Total: $740 + alcohol. Alcohol I’ll keep out of the equation because depending on how hardcore you are about networking, it can become a significant portion of your budget (or not).

    As for “Shameless self promotion, social interaction, and spreading your own word will be EXTREMELY painful”… huh? You certainly don’t need to bring yourself to the point of even minor discomfort whilst plying your trade at the conference. Everyone I ran into was extremely friendly and more than happy to find out what you do and hear your pitch, alongside giving their own. Hell, not only were most of these people friendly, they were INTERESTING… what’s painful about talking to interesting people? Such encounters are more rare outside of GDC than in, and I for one appreciated every moment of it.

    One more bit… if you really want to go to this or that party… ask one of the volunteers (Conference Associates) about it. This year was my first as a volunteer, and I was amazed by the amount of information that was circulating within the lounge regarding who’s party was where and when and if you needed an invitation and how to get one, etc. Just remember… the lowly conference slaves have a lot of information (in my brief experience)… it might help to ask one (or more than one).

    Lastly — I am an indie… I went to GDC (my first) for the education of it… I ended up meeting countless fantastic people (I think I met the entire GarageGames contingent EXCEPT Mr. Tunnell and Melv… :( ) that had a lot to do with my path, as well as even more numerable publishers, venture capitalists, retailers, etc. etc.. If it is within your budget… I say GO… especially if you’re willing (or at least able) to drink and socialize and be merry (and bring business cards). Good luck all.

  • Psychochild

    Great information, Jeff. I agree with your assessment, completely. One of the few reasons I go to the GDC is because I’m local: I can get away with not paying for hotel/rental car. Of course, I pay for it in higher rent the rest of the year. :P I also get in for free using some contacts and by helping out a friend.

    I think it’s worth going to a few times. Once to really absorb what’s going on in the industry, and then again later once you’re more experienced in order to network with other developers. But, go with a plan so that you don’t waste your money.

    From what I’ve heard, the conference will be in San Francisco on an ongoing basis from now on. It’s even more expensive up there, making it even less worth it.

    Oh, and here’s a great primer for networking for us introverted geeks: That’s a really great page filled with great suggestions. Highly recommended reading.

    Have fun.

  • Psychochild

    …what’s painful about talking to interesting people?

    Most game developers, especially on the technical side of things, tend to be very introverted. Socializing and talking to people doesn’t come easy, so for some people it can be painful to actually go around and talk to people. It sounds like you don’t have this problem. I know I did. :)

    If you’ll allow me to go on a bit of a tangent here, I’d like to recommend a great book for introverts, called The Introvert Advantage. It’s an excellent book that describes what introversion really is and how to use it to your advantage. There are a ton of misconceptions about what being an introvert is. The good news is that you can learn to extrovert and socialize with others; however, it will never be as easy for an introvert as it is for an extrovert. One example from the book: find a quiet spot to escape if you get tired. Socializing is very draining for introverts (whereas extroverts actually get energy from socializing with others), so having a place to catch your breath will keep you from getting overwhelmed and worn out. Anyway, that book is highly recommended.

  • TimS

    Psychochild said:

    Socializing and talking to people doesn’t come easy, so for some people it can be painful to actually go around and talk to people.

    I don’t mean to imply that it’s easy for everyone to socialize… and I suppose I’m not truly introverted dispite being primarily a programmer… but at the end of the day, isn’t there some spark from finally being able to discuss things you’re interested in with other people who are interested in them? I mean, for most of the otaku class, things like High School didn’t provide heaping piles of folks who were keen to discuss the things that kept us awake into the wee hours. Almost everyone I ran across at GDC had an otaku streak (if not a literary streak) a mile wide, and for me it was ridiculously refreshing. Those people that we talk to online, via forums, blog comments, etc… — those were the people at GDC. I’ll agree with you though, if socializing is truly a painful experience, then there’s certainly not much at GDC worth paying for. It would certainly be overpriced from an education or entertainment ticket standpoint. In my opinion, the value of the conference IS the people attending the conference. Everything else is just set up to get ‘em there.

  • Dustin Quasar Sacks

    Good post, I agree with your conclusion (which is why I wasn’t at GDC). Another piece of advice for anybody with a finished game is to make sure to submit it to the IGF competition. If you become a finalist then you get a free ticket and are much more “on the inside” throughout the conference. Even if you don’t think you have a chance, if you expect to sell 5 copies of your game then pony up the $100 IGF entrance fee.

  • Don’t let the blog die!

    Cmon Jeff Post some new stuff! IT’s always interesting to read!

  • Darniaq

    > 1. The most important thing to know is that San Jose has a
    > great light rail system called the VTA. Twice I’ve enjoyed
    > GDC without a rental car because I planned around the lightrail.

    Hehe, yea, wish I read that BEFORE going. I registered late, so could only get a flight back home out of San Fran. The taxi ride was, shall we say, a bit on the pricey side :P

    Otherwise, I think the show is worth it for some. But maybe not for indie game developers, unless there’s some new hyped development tool they didn’t know about yet, or they made an appointment with a publisher.

    Great advice though on how to maximize anyone’s time there. The expo floor and keynotes are just social enablers for those seeking professional growth.

  • Bob Bates

    Great article, Jeff, and I have a few ideas to add. By way of background, I’ve been going to GDC since the late 80’s and I have developed strategies for dealing with the conference that work for me (although, of course they may not fit everybody).

    First of all, there are two great ways to get into the conference for free. One is to volunteer. They need tons of volunteers and are very organized about it. The volunteers do great work, and also get to attend the sessions for free. Check it out. The second way is to give a talk. If you give a talk at the conference (or run a round-table, or sit on a panel), you get a free giga-pass to the whole thing. As much as I hate to speak in public (and I do!), that is the strategy I pursued to knock down the cost. It is a myth that the conference only accepts “name” speakers — I know for a fact that they look for “fresh blood” every year. So study the guidelines in their call for papers and try to come up with a proposal that they think will be of interest. Indie games are a big part of the biz, and they know it.

    Moving on to “working” the conference itself, I have some other shameless techniques that have worked for me. The first is to analyze the talks not for their content, but for who you want to meet. Go to their talk. Think up some question, however lame, to ask them in the cluster of people who gather at the podium after the talk is over. Give them your card. Get theirs. It might not turn into anything, but then again it might. After a while, people think they know you just because you’ve met them often enough.

    Next, find a “connector.” You know the kind of guy who seems to know everyone? Go hang out with him. Sit down in the lobby bar. Talk to him about what you’re up to. Before you get halfway through, someone else will come up to him, possibly even some bigwig. As a “connector” type of guy, he’ll probably introduce the two of you. Boom – another connection.

    I don’t know much about the big parties because I almost never go to them. The music is often so loud that conversation is impossible, and conversation is what counts. I hang out at the lobby bar instead.

    Things to get over:
    * The sense of loneliness. I still have it after all these years. No matter how many people you know, there will always be more whom you don’t know.
    * The sense that everyone knows more than you do. Maybe after I’ve been at this another 20 years that feeling will change, but I doubt it — this industry is so big that no one can wrap their arms all the way around it.
    * Shyness. It takes actual courage (or at least it does for me) to stand in a room full of people you don’t know with a drink in your hand feeling like an idiot among all those professional schmoozers who have obviously known each other forever. Do it anyway. True story: When Legend Entertainment was just starting out, I was at one of those dumb receptions, by myself, new to the business, and wondering what the hell I was doing there. I spotted another guy who looked every bit as uncomfortable as I did. I said to him, “I hate these things.” He said, “So do I.” We got to talking. It turned out he was the founder of Accolade. We didn’t have any business to talk about then, but a few years later when Legend needed a new publishing partner, I remembered him and he remembered me, and they became our distributor. All because I forced myself to go to that stupid reception and stand there with a drink in my hand, feeling like an idiot.

    Business aside, however, there is one other reason why GDC *is* worth it (I think). And that is the flat-out inspiration. You go to talks and round-tables — not the big PR keynotes, but the one-on-one stuff, conversations with people who are really doing the work. You hang out in the halls. You talk about games from morning until night. Often you get new insight into problems you’re having. Just as often, someone will make me mad by declaring something “can’t be done,” which of course makes me want to prove them wrong.

    But I always come back from the show feeling like a true developer, not like a business guy, nor like one of the fictionalized versions of who the public thinks we are, but a guy with a game in his head and passion to get it out and onto a player’s screen.

    To me, it’s worth it.


  • Jeff Tunnell

    @Bob: Awesome advice. BTW, thanks for stopping by the blog!

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  • James Morgan

    I just stumbled upon this blog as I was looking for tips to give my fellow students as we head to SIEGE in Atlanta. I run a game development group on campus called “The Orlando Game Developers.” I too have been to GDC and must agree that the sheer inspiration is priceless. Whether you obtain it from seeing other work coming out, talking with other developers, or just being in the presence of gamer-greatness, it is just something to be experienced.

    Reading all of the comments and through the article, I can’t help but notice that GarageGames gets some serious points from everyone on here…I must say, at GDC SanFran this year, I could not have found a better booth for talking about a product than the GG booth. This year they were demo’ing Instant Action and everyone there genuinely LOVED their product and loved talking about it. Kudos to anyone on this blog that may work for GG, you all seem to love your company.