A First-Timer’s Guide to the Game Developer’s Conference (GDC) in San Francisco
Hello, readers! My name is Jeremy Lim. I’m from Vancouver, Canada and I write music for video games and films.
Every year, thousands of people gather at the Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco for the Game Developers Conference, or as it’s more affectionately known, GDC. A celebration of video games and a gathering of some of our industry’s brightest minds, GDC is a week of reflection, learning, parties, and friendships both new and old.
This year, thanks to the generosity of Power Up Audio (disclaimer: I do photography and music work for them), I attended for my first time, and it was amazing. It’s a week later, and I’m still buzzing about all of the brilliant minds I met. I’ve never been around so many people who love the gaming industry as much as I do. I found my home.
Leading up to the conference, I found many people had questions about navigating GDC, and I’d like to help future attendees get the same experience I did – and hopefully better! Here’s a list of what I did – and what you can do too – to get the most out of the Game Developer’s Conference.
Schedule with the Official GDC App
On the note of having options, download the GDC app [Web / iOS / Android] and bookmark all of the sessions that interest you – even if they overlap. Sometimes, you can’t make it to the other hall in time. Other times, perhaps you’re tired of hearing about monetization and need a design break.
Wear the Right Clothes
GDC is largely a casual affair in the bootcamps, talks, and expo floor. Most folks wandered around in t-shirts and jeans. That said, if you’re going into meetings, upgrade to business casual; grab a blazer, a collared shirt, dressy jeans or slacks, and a classier pair of shoes. Suits were rare and virtually unseen.
Wear the Right Shoes
When you can’t walk anymore, your day is over. I missed events because my feet seized up, and limping around San Francisco is no way to get around. Get a comfortable pair of shoes or insoles to keep you moving.
From Matthew Marteinsson (Sound Designer at Klei Entertainment): “2 pairs of shoes. day time and night time. Shoes need to rest to get their cushion back.”
Get a US Number and Data Plan to Stay in Touch
If you’re making friends at GDC, you’re going to want to spend time and get in touch. Phone calls are always faster, but even if you prefer messaging, know that the WiFi at Moscone will be slammed with the thousands in attendance.
After hours, you’ll be moving between venues a lot; GPS will streamline your experience greatly. If you’re not a walker, Uber and Lyft both require confirmation by text message to get started.
For Canadians, we have Roam Mobility. (HUGE disclaimer: they sponsored my trip with store credit and I’m an affiliate of theirs. Here’s a non-affiliate link to Roam, if you’d prefer.) Had I not been sponsored, my 9 days of unlimited voice calls, texting, data, and a US number would have been $37.33 – much better than what my provider would have cost me.
For visitors from other countries, I heard a handful of people were visiting T-Mobile for a temporary number. Here’s one just a few minutes away from Moscone.
Book a Hotel Near Moscone Convention Center
Time is short, the days are long, and the majority of the outside events happen around the convention centre. If you’re not nearby, you may have to start and end your days earlier, meaning less sleep and less people met.
When attending industry events, know what’s happening in the scene. For example, if you’re going to an awards party, it’s helpful to know the nominees and to try their work. That same thinking can be extrapolated everywhere.
Join Facebook Groups to Meet Others and Plan Your Trip Before the Conference
For many people, the GDC conversation starts long before the actual event.
For outside events, The Fellowship of GDC Parties is the definitive place to go.
For audio, the Game Audio Denizens group was constantly abuzz.
Finally, if you’re from Vancouver, join us at Vancouver Goes to GDC!
Register for Parties Early
The parties may be plentiful, but they do sell out. Be sure to get in early if you’re set on a particular event!
Bring Quality Earplugs
After hours, things can get very loud. Save your hearing and your voice by wearing high-fidelity earplugs to keep the volumes down without muffling speech.
Leave Extra Room in your Suitcase for Swag
Unless you avoid the expo, you’re going to get swag. Make sure you can bring it all home!
Kindness is King
We all know the honey/vinegar adage, and it remains true. For the week, you are part of a large, but tightly-knit group of people who all love the same; in some ways, you are family. Kindness breeds kindness (and hopefully new friendships).
For example, the prolific Dren Mcdonald took the time to meet me before the conference and show me the ropes. I remember that generosity, and now here he is on this list. (He also has a video game cover album that’s raising funds to help kids learn music; you guys should hear it.)
Quality Over Quantity
I have to be honest – I’m in the middle of following up with people and I’m having a hard time remembering some of my interactions.
A card without a story is just a piece of paper. Indiscriminate card tossing serves no one. Slow down, make friends, and create memories so you can continue those conversations after the conference.
Plan and Then Let It All Go
I’m a planner. I like certainty, contingency plans, and maximizing ROI. That said, reality seldom plays along and we need to adapt.
Planning is good. It gives you options – but they are only options. Throughout the week, there will be many opportunities to learn, party, and meet people – the vast majority of them good. Go with what is most exciting to you. We are at our best when we can be in the moment. There is no missing out.
Be Aware of Your Body Language
It’s amazing how far a smile will take you. If you’re looking for new conversations, take up a friendly stance; for example, unfold your arms, turn towards people, and use open-palm gestures. If you see someone trying to join your group, shuffle over and make room for them.
Always Have Business Cards on Hand
Sometimes, interactions are fleeting. Don’t miss out by not having a card ready.
Make Connections for Others
Not everyone you meet is going to be a good fit for you – but they may be great for someone else. Listen carefully to the needs of your peers and make connections happen when you can.
Don’t Be Afraid To Move On
Sometimes, there’s a fit for someone else. Other times, there isn’t a fit at all. It’s okay to leave a conversation without a connection. Not everything is meant to work.
Don’t Monopolize Conversations
There are a lot of talented, high-profile people roaming the conference. Again, time is short. Give others a turn!
On a broader scale, we don’t learn by talking, but by listening. It’s often better to ask questions than to talk about ourselves.
Play With Others
There will be many titles – both from independents and large studios – on display. We’re go to GDC because of games. What better way to meet people than through play?
Treat the Volunteers Well
It may not be obvious, but the majority of the volunteers are folks in the game industry. They work incredibly hard to make sure you have a great time, so the kindness thing goes double for them.
Thanks to Jacob Burgess (voice actor), Auston Montville (developer for Sportsball and the upcoming Starr Mazer), Sarah Roland (artist), and all of the other volunteers who made things happen!
Embrace the Lines
There’s no better place to meet someone with the same interest as you than in a line for a talk. Turn around, smile at the person behind you, and say hi! The same goes for the quiet moments before and after a talk.
Never Eat Alone
Food takes time and what better way to spend that time than with new company? Meals make memories, not to mention that dining as a group gives you a chance to eat a wider range of foods.
Stay in Touch with the Official GDC App
The GDC app also features its own social network akin to Twitter. If you don’t have plans or need a question answered, make a post on there! The stream is the first thing everyone sees when they log in.
Get Uber and Lyft for Free Rides
Uber and Lyft are cheaper, faster, and more convenient than taxis – not to mention great ways of meeting people with their carpool options.
The other big advantage is their referral system. As of this time, whenever you refer a friend and they take their first ride, both you and your friend get up to $20 in credit towards a single ride.
Travel Incognito and in Groups when in Tenderloin
Moscone is close to an area called Tenderloin and it has a reputation for being rough. When passing through, go with a group, hide your badge, and hide your phone.
If You Have an All-Access Pass, Branch Out
If you want to meet people from other areas of game development, branch out to talks beyond your own discipline. With an all-access pass, you have access to the GDC Vault – a collection of video recordings of all past GDC sessions – so you don’t have to worry about giving up lessons for connections.
Spend Time With Your Own Country
It takes dedicated to go to the Game Developer’s Conference. Regional meetups are a brilliant way of meeting your most committed neighbours in the industry, not to mention others who want to work with your country’s talent.
Canada and its provinces were great at supporting their talent, hosting a number of parties, pavilions, and resources for us. Of note is the Canadian business lounge hosted on the 5th floor of the Intercontinental Hotel just a block away from Moscone West.
See Your Favourite Expo Booths on Wednesday or Thursday
The GDC expo runs from Wednesday to Friday, but the hours are short on the last day and it’s the only day for those with student passes to attend. If you’re keen on seeing a particular booth, be sure to get to it early on Wednesday or Thursday to avoid the rush.
Take Notes and Group Your Contacts
If you add all of your business cards to the same pile, you’re going to have a hard time knowing where everyone came from. Personally, I like writing notes on the back of each card and storing them in paper folders by date and location.
Follow Up and Stay In Touch
All of the hand-shaking will be for naught if you don’t keep the conversation going. Write emails, or even better, add your new friends on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook; all of these networks have list functionality so you can easily what’s new with your friends.
This post was much longer than I had planned, but I hope it helps! Even at this length, I can’t speak to all experiences, so should you have any favourite tips of your own, let’s keep the list growing in the comments!
If you’d like to meet online, next year at GDC, or even here in Vancouver, give me a shout on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Soundcloud, or by email. I’d love to hear more about what you do and what you’re working on!