GDC 2016 report by Moniek Schilder

Moniek Schilder was one of the winners of the Student Grant for GDC 2016. In this report she shares her experiences, so others can benefit from the things she has learned.

With GDC behind me I’m writing this blog post hoping to give an impression of my experiences in San Francisco. I will also give advice for students who haven’t been to GDC yet.

My goal for GDC was to get a better image of what the industry is like and what my options are when I graduate. I wanted to meet people from different parts of the industry and ask them about their experiences. In the end I talked mostly to people from AAA studios, but I hung out with some indies as well.

So first off, there are a lot of people at GDC and it seems the numbers are growing every year. Chances are you won’t run into the person you admire unless you know exactly where and when they will be. It’s good to try to make an appointment beforehand. Be aware, though, that many of them are busy and many things won’t go according to plan. A lot of people I wanted to meet weren’t at GDC this year for example. Some didn’t reply to my messages and some I couldn’t contact at all.

To get in contact with people it’s good to use as many platforms as possible. A few artists I really liked answered me through Instagram, Supergiant Games answered me on Twitter and Miles Johnston (great illustrator) talked with me on Facebook. Try to message as many people as you can and when they don’t reply on one platform try another one.

Arriving in San Francisco was super exciting! It’s so different from The Netherlands and I had the feeling I was on vacation. I traveled to my hostel together with someone else, which was nice cause I was a bit nervous being in America for the first time. I booked a room at Hostelling International Downtown, better known as the Indie hostel because a lot of indies are staying there. I recommend getting a room there, since it’s affordable and easy to get in contact with other game developers. It’s best to book a few months earlier since you can cancel a month beforehand without extra costs. When we arrived it was pretty busy already and when I sat in the lobby it didn’t take long before I was in a conversation with someone.

The first day I didn’t do anything special, because the jetlag was quite something. I ended up staying awake for twenty-five hours (I couldn’t sleep on the plane). I did visit some friends at another hostel, but they told me to go to my hostel when I started to fall asleep on their couch.

In the morning I woke up around 6 because of my jetlag. The fact that there was a homeless guy screaming racist slurs in the alley next to our window didn’t help either..

At GDC there are a lot of interesting talks you can go to. The ones I found the most interesting were the Failure Workshop, Polishing The Boots (about Downwell) and the Experimental Gameplay Workshop. During the Failure Workshop, three people spoke about their past mistakes and what they learned from it. I think this workshop was important, because you often hear about success and that can make you feel less competent sometimes. One guy, whose name I unfortunately forgot, talked about his depression after he released his game. How he felt all this pressure to deliver something just as good as his previous one and he didn’t want to let the community down. I recognized this feeling, although on a smaller level, and it made me feel like I’m not alone in this. The talk about Downwell was very informative design wise. Ojiro Fumoto talked about how he designed the whole game around one core mechanic, the gun-boots. It was very interesting to hear why he made certain choices. During question time a few people asked about certain elements in the game they were excited about, to which Ojiro replied that he didn’t think about it at all. This happened a couple of times
and shows that you don’t always have to overthink everything. Sometimes your first try just works and that’s fine. And my all-time favorite talk was the Experimental Gamplay Workshop. It was more of a compilation of talks from different game developers where they talked about their games. I loved the first one about Fantastic Contraption, a VR game where you build these funny weird vehicles that need to move to a certain location. The most interesting part was when they talked about designing a menu for your tools.

On Monday I had a meeting with Dan Olthen, CEO of Smartillery. He was one of the few people I managed to get an appointment with before GDC started. I showed him my portfolio and he gave me feedback. We also talked about getting a job at Blizzard, which is apparently pretty difficult when you live outside of the USA. It can take up to four or five years, including meeting the right people and getting accepted at the company. He said that it’s possibly easier to move to Montreal first and get into America through there.

After meeting Dan I went to the Dutch Showcase in the evening where you could play games and meet people. Jesse van Dijk, art director at Bungie, was there as well and he recognized me from another event where we talked, which was nice. He gave me feedback as well and he didn’t hold back. He made me think a lot about concept art and how it’s important to be original. He said to not try to be the best at painting good looking girls cause “for one of you there are a hundred Chinese that can do it better”. I’ll work more on originality in the future.

You can also meet a lot of people through others. I met Denis Rogic through Wytze Kamp (my boyfriend) for example. Denis is an art director at Goodgames Studios located in Germany. He told me as well about how hard it is to get into America. Apparently Blizzard asked him to come work for them, but after they discovered he lived in Germany it was put on hold. Through Denis I met Peet and Liz Cooper. Peet is the art director at Riot Games. Liz is his wife and CEO of Gamers for Good. http://www.gamersforgood.com/ I had lunch with the three of them, which was fun. They were super nice and I we exchanged business cards.

Peet and Liz also organized a booth at GDC where you could get art feedback from professionals in the industry. I went there twice. The first time I wanted to get feedback from Kathy Zuniga, an art recruiter at Blizzard, but the queue was so long that I missed her. But after I got my feedback I saw Liz and told her. She said Kathy went to the Blizzard student mixer and told me to contact her so I could tag along. So I got her card and tried to e-mail, but she didn’t reply, so I just went outside. There I ran into Dan Olthen again who happened to be talking to a Blizzard designer. He was just about to go to that mixer and I asked if I could come too. He told me he couldn’t make any promises, but that I could tag along. When we got to the Blizzard mixer I was allowed to enter, so I was really happy. In the end I didn’t get to talk with Kathy, but there was another art recruiter there who reviewed my portfolio. She told me about what it’s like to work there as well. It kind of sounds like Disneyland, because apparently they organize these random workshops for employees such as sword fighting. The atmosphere isn’t formal at all, with employees having cluttered desks and lots of figurines. Everyone there loves the game they’re working on, so I guess all those times I played Heroes of the Storm pay off.

The second time I went to the feedback booth I got advice from Andrew Bosley, a freelance concept artist/illustrator http://bosleyart.com/
He was really nice to talk to and he said I have potential (which wasn’t the reason why I thought he was nice). He gave some advice I didn’t get before and he wanted to keep in touch, which was nice.

On Wednesday I went to That Party in the evening. I met a few people there, although I mostly danced. I really recommend going there, but be aware that tickets sell out fast for this party, cause it’s one of the most popular ones.

I didn’t visit the expo floor often, because most of the time I was listening to talks or meeting up with people, but I did go to the booth of FZD School of Design. I hoped to get to talk to Feng Zhu, an amazing concept artist and the founder of this school, and I did! He said I had potential and if I were to do a program there that I could become very good. He also gave advice about freelance work but recommended to find a stable job first. That’s because as a freelancer you have to have some experience a client can use as reference. If you don’t, it’s hard to know if it worth it to work with you. Besides, it’s a very competitive business, so it’s better to develop your skills first.

Another great place to hang out is the park near Moscone center, especially if you want to meet a lot of indies. It helps if you’re outgoing and approach people. All in all it was a great experience and I’m super grateful I was able to go. I actually met way more people than I described, but it wouldn’t all fit in one blog post. I hope this tells you a bit what it’s like to go to GDC and what to expect.