5 March, 2007
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....
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:
Hotel (6 nights): $750.00
Meals (6 days): $150.00
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).
Hotel (4 nights): $280.00
Meals (4 days): $100.00
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...
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 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.