Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

5 March, 2007

Why the GDC sucks
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 7:19 PM

I’m going to do something a bit impolitic: I’m going to criticize the GDC. In a small industry, this can be a dangerous thing to do.

But, I want to provide a counter opinion to Damion who says he loves the GDC. I’m going to explain why some of us don’t particularly like the Mecca of game developers. I’ll try to be constructive and keep the swearing to a minimum.


Now, let me say that the GDC is a great experience for new developers. After you have worked in the industry for a few years and are sure this is what you want to do for a living, convince your company or save up the dough to go at least once. It’s a great way to meet other people and rub shoulders with some cool people. And, the opportunity to hear Will Wright talk is really worth it.

Or, if you’re on the prowl for a job, the GDC is the place to be. Given that I have a long-term contract that is paying me rather well, I’m not interested in hearing about the latest job offers. I’ve actually got quite a bit of work to do on the various documents that are due this week, and I’m flying to China on Saturday. So, yeah, I’m not eager to wear myself out at a conference before landing in another country.

Otherwise, there are a number of reasons why the conference is generally not worth it.

Many of us are introverts

Damion says he gets “recharged” from the conference; this is a classic sign of an extrovert. However, many of the rest of us developers are introverts. We know we should go and keep in touch with other people, but that doesn’t mean we like it. Some of us are painfully introverted, and some of us probably even have Asperger Syndrome (it’s almost a job requirement for some positions). So, a week of hanging around other people and trying to maintain our social manners is actually draining for us, not invigorating.

For online developers, we also tend to be pretty well connected. Many of us are on social networking sites like LinkedIn, and some congregate in IRC chat rooms and others have blogs. We usually don’t lack for contact with our peers. And, up until CMP bought the Austin conference, online game had our own conference to focus that was a lot more interesting. But, speaking of the Austin conference, we come to….

The cost

This is the reason that a lot of developers were dismayed when CMP, the organizers of the GDC, bought the Austin Conference. The relatively affordable prices are almost certainly going to increase. You’ll see why we think that in here:

I suspect one reason why Damion doesn’t mind the conference is because he’s not footing the entire bill himself. He’s speaking this year and that means he gets the Giga pass (retail price: US$1850.00). Working at a large, well-funded company probably means that his airfare (~US$250.00) and hotel (~US$125.00 per night) are covered. So in all likelihood, all he has to do is come up with meals (~US$25.00/day if you’re frugal) and drinks (cost varies by alcohol tolerance skill, figure $6/night if you nurse one bottle of beer).

So, let’s take a look at the costs for someone footing their own bill:
Pass: $1850.00
Airfare: $250.00
Hotel (6 nights): $750.00
Meals (6 days): $150.00
Total: $3000.00

Note that over half of that expense is the pass itself. When I was making $12,000 per year from my own company, that’s a hefty chunk. Of course, I’m lucky enough to live in the area so I don’t have to spend airfare or hotel, if I don’t mind spending a few hours driving or on the train each day.

But, let’s go more modest. Let’s take the Classic Pass and only spend 4 nights. Let’s also assume we bought everything a year in advance (or as soon after as we could).
Pass: $1000.00
Airfare: $200.00
Hotel (4 nights): $280.00
Meals (4 days): $100.00
Total: $1680.00

Not quite half as much. The pass is still the big ticket item.

The really cheap method? Go write a few articles for a media site. Get a free press pass and get into everything (and get treated as a VIP on the Expo floor). Live in the area so you don’t have to spend money on airfare or hotel, only gas ($3/gallon!) and parking (which was much cheaper down in San Jose). Skip out a bit early to drive home and avoid nursing that $6 bottle of beer in a lame attempt to socialize.

And, yeah, keep in mind that my figures above do not include the heavy drinking that is a hallmark of a GDC experience. And why do you have to drink so heavily, because of…

The talks

This is the reason why you’re forking over at least a grand to attend the conference, right? Well, this tends to be the weakest part of the conference.

Sometimes you happen to attend a really great talk. This is usually by accident. Many people giving talks are just there to get their free pass. Some people do put some effort into their talks, but some don’t bother to put together their slides until the night before. ;) I can count the number of truly great talks I’ve seen, but have completely lost count of the number of disappointments I’ve had.

Allow me to share a one of my disappointments. One of the first GDCs I went to I saw a talk by Greg Costikyan, a designer who I respect greatly. However, his entire presentation was him reading from the paper he submitted to the conference previously in essentially a monotone voice and not looking at the crowd. Try to imagine my disappointment after being excited about hearing one of the most noted designers talk! Now, I know Greg is a smart guy and can be a very dynamic speaker, so I figure he was just off his game that year. But, it was a disappointment.

Another big disappointment was when I went to a talk about community in games. Being an online game developer, the talk sounded interesting because it was talking about arcade games. Well, it turns out the developer of the Golden Tee games thinks you have a “community” if you allow an arcade game to be plugged into a phone line to report high scores to a central server. The talk was interesting, but it wasn’t about “community” as it is normally discussed. My gut feeling is that someone played “buzzword bingo” to get the talk accepted.

And, speaking of getting talks accepted, that’s another issue. Despite being a repeated and (according to most accounts) popular speaker at many other conferences, I have yet to get a talk approved. I’ve submitted talks on a wide variety of issues, but it’s always the same stony rejection letter. I can’t even get any meaningful feedback on why my proposals are rejected, because that would “take too much time.” (I suspect that most people are rejected for petty reasons. For example, I don’t have a big game credit on my resume, so my talks wouldn’t appeal to most conference goers on a name basis.)

Unfortunately it seems that people who speak on a topic one year get an automatic invite back the next year to talk about the same thing. Boring! For new people, the established route is to run some roundtables for a few years before you get to sit at the big boy table and give a talk. I’m not eager to do that because of that introversion thing mentioned above. Introverts tend not to make the best moderators in a free-form discussion; we like to sit back and listen and throw in an interesting tidbit when we feel confident.

Of course, this post will probably ensure that I do not speak at a GDC in the future, barring that I become a mega-superstar like Miyamoto. I wonder how likely it is that I will speak at Austin….

The audience

The conference is not all bad, of course. One of the best sessions I have been to was Nicole Lazzaro’s talk about emotion in games. Her presentations were very interesting and were really informative. Of course, the session was still pretty basic, but it presented new information.

One of my biggest complaints is that there are few really “advanced” topics discussed at the GDC in the sessions. The few truly advanced sessions I have been to were when the speaker ditched the script and just went into overdrive. Of course, the problem is that if you try to go advanced, you’ll lose most of the audience. Most people in a talk aren’t advanced.

But, this makes sense once you realize that the intended audience for the conference isn’t the game developers, it’s actually the wannabes that want to break into the industry. The game developers are going to come as speakers or on their company’s dime. Who is going to fork over several thousand dollars for the conference? Young people with some disposable income that want to get into games. These people would get completely lost in an advanced session. Of course, even the most experienced game developer will need basic information on some topics. Nicole’s talk needed to be basic because it was new information (based on research, even!). A talk on Intellectual Property will probably be basic, because advanced topics tend to be specific to the situation and are what you pay a lawyer for.


So, really, the GDC isn’t worth it for some of us. The expense is too much and some of us are just bitter about not getting our talks accepted. Overall, I think a comment on Slashdot said it the best:

spend a grand or two after hotels and passes, see same old windbags talk about the same stale ideas, silently chuckle to self that everyone seems to claim expertise in what is probably their weakest area, make weak effort to pass out business cards and ignore the fact that conglomerates are sucking the life out of the business as surely as they did to the music business in the past ten years, silently cry at seeing the 15th copycat game of what was an original idea ten years ago, drink, sleep, repeat, go home

Not my idea of a productive week. Now, if you’ll pardon me, I have some documents to write.

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  1. And writting documents is your idea of a good week? Don’t you realize no one reads design documents yet? tisk, tisk..

    Comment by Jason Booth — 5 March, 2007 @ 8:00 PM

  2. Maybe if he came to my talk, he’d learn to write design docs people read!

    Comment by Damion Schubert — 5 March, 2007 @ 10:39 PM

  3. Don’t you realize no one reads design documents yet?

    The person that approves my paycheck reads the documents. That’s the only audience I need, really. :)

    But, the documents have actually been read quite a few times. The trick I use is to make multiple short and to the point documents instead of trying to cram everything into one giant document. Believe it or not, I’ve done this “design” thing before.

    Anyway, those stupid programmers need something to refer to! Luckily they can bask in the brilliance that is my documents. :)

    Comment by Psychochild — 5 March, 2007 @ 11:03 PM

  4. Ug. Stoopid programmer like design documents.

    Good bedding.

    Comment by Rich Bryant — 6 March, 2007 @ 3:15 AM

  5. By the way, is there an inherent difference between introversion and common-or-garden misanthropy? Because, y’know, i don’t feel introverted but large concentrations of many types of people (especially star wars fans) make me want to kill everyone in the entire world.

    Comment by Rich Bryant — 6 March, 2007 @ 8:05 AM

  6. Anyone know what the daily hit requirements are on your press site to qualify for a press pass? The GDC site doesn’t give a figure.

    Comment by Cameron Sorden — 6 March, 2007 @ 10:53 AM

  7. Hmmm. Makes me feel better about the crappy academic conferences I attend. ;)

    Comment by JuJutsu — 6 March, 2007 @ 11:58 AM

  8. Hah, so nice post. Now, let’s everybody go to GDC while Psychochild is writing documents ;)

    P.S. Your interview will be online “soon”…

    Comment by Juuso - Game Producer — 6 March, 2007 @ 12:28 PM

  9. For $3000 you could buy more than 50 books, and a nice bookshelf for them. $350 gets you GDC 2005 on CD, $65 gets you 2004 or 2003 on CD. 2006 is a bit pricey at the moment ($99 a disc, of 8), but that’ll likely drop when GDC 2007 ends.

    Sure, meeting people is great, but that’s a ridiculous amount of money to do it for. At least, until you’re making money from it, then you don’t need the conference for it’s meat anymore. Indie is such a paradox of game development. An introduction to indie games talk should start with “Don’t spend $3000 to visit GDC”. :P :D

    Comment by PoV — 6 March, 2007 @ 12:44 PM

  10. You still get rejection letters? I’ve submitted talks for 4 different years at this point and I only received a rejection letter for one of them. I always just assume that my talks have been silently rejected after they start taking pre-registration and I haven’t heard anything.

    I always come away from GDC with new ideas. It’s happened every single time I’ve gone down there. 5 years ago it was debug info in pack/unpack methods for serialization. 2 years ago it was metric collection and APFs for AIs. Last year it was Test-Driven Development and some tool ideas. I would love to get a great new idea from each talk, but you’re right to say that most of them are crap. But I always find one or two that make the trip worthwhile.

    Networking is hard for me. I hate talking to strangers, and pretty much have to force myself to do it. Once I get over that and get to know people a bit (which gets easier every year because I know more people every year) it’s usually pretty rewarding too. People tell you the real scoop over drinks; they say things they never say in talks. And it’s those real hard-won experiences that I really learn from.

    I like GDC. I’m kinda sad that I’m not going this year.

    Comment by Joe Ludwig — 6 March, 2007 @ 1:28 PM

  11. Rich Bryant wrote:
    By the way, is there an inherent difference between introversion and common-or-garden misanthropy?

    Yes. :P If you’re just introverted you can deal with it. Asperger Syndrome can be dealt with, but most people think sufferers are a bit “strange” since they don’t always react properly to or give off proper nonverbal cues. Sociopaths like yourself are beyond hope. ;)

    Cameron Sorden wrote:
    Anyone know what the daily hit requirements are on your press site to qualify for a press pass? The GDC site doesn’t give a figure.

    Just try applying. There’s no cost, and the worst they can do is reject you.

    Joe Ludwig wrote:
    You still get rejection letters? I’ve submitted talks for 4 different years at this point and I only received a rejection letter for one of them. I always just assume that my talks have been silently rejected after they start taking pre-registration and I haven’t heard anything.

    They usually send them out late. They’re easy to overlook because they’re thin and look like other types of junk mail.

    But, that’s just an extension of my complain. I wish they would at least give some feedback so you could try to improve your submission. As I said, I think the reasons for being rejected are probably often petty, so revealing a real reason would make them look bad.

    Meh. Hope to see people on Thursday.

    Comment by Psychochild — 7 March, 2007 @ 3:34 AM

  12. i agree developers rarley inovate they continue to regergitate the same old plots and create ports in a quick atempt to rape the cash cow for a quick buck.were is all the developer personal inovation, developers like ubi a lazy period.

    Comment by sol-kacort — 7 March, 2007 @ 10:56 AM

  13. A few more thoughts.

    The good thing about the GDC in San Jose: A long-haired, bearded guy wandering around without a pass is probably a game developer that didn’t buy a badge.

    The bad thing about the GDC in San Francisco: a long-haired, bearded guy wandering around without a pass is probably just a homeless guy.

    Oh, and in case you didn’t think pass prices were high enough, you can get “GDC Prime” for a mere $3100! Invitation only, please! :)

    Comment by Psychochild — 9 March, 2007 @ 3:01 AM

  14. Well, GDC is damm expensive for me, though it is one of my dreams to come there – just to see, just to be a part of it. And I love United States and have never been in SF area so that’s one more reason for me to come there :)

    Comment by Roman — 11 March, 2007 @ 9:21 AM

  15. GDC 2007 Event Coverage…

    GDC 2007 is over for this year. First place to proceed to is GamaSutra’s own GDC 2007 Live Coverage that lists stories and news about what happened at GDC. There are good notes like Future of Indie Games and others, so browse the list and check i…

    Trackback by GameProducer.Net — 11 March, 2007 @ 10:01 AM

  16. Indie MMOs, conferences, and international opportunities…

    I had the opportunity to speak at the Indie MMO Game Development Conference ( this last weekend. I spoke on the topic of “Taking Your Indie MMO International”.
    Overall, it was a really great conference. I was really glad to …

    Trackback by Psychochild's Blog — 18 April, 2007 @ 4:17 AM

  17. In Austin next week

    [...] how the conference turns out this year. Since CMP, the lovely administrators of the GDC (and, oh, how I love the GDC) have taken over, it’ll be interesting to see if the conference remains useful. CMP is already [...]

    Pingback by Psychochild’s Blog — 29 August, 2007 @ 2:43 PM

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