GDC 2017 report by Esther Bouma

It’s been a week now since I left the United States for the Netherlands, and I think I’ve finally shaken off my jetlag. I took my time to contemplate what actually happened at GDC (it’s been hectic!) and write it down to give readers a general impression of my GDC experience, and to give some (hopefully useful) tips to anyone going to GDC for the first time.

So why did I go to GDC in the first place? I’m currently working on my graduation project concerning small narrative games, and I wanted to see what kind of perspective other developers/researchers/professors have on this trend, and if they are making small narrative games, what their workflow is.

In hindsight, I’m very glad that I was well prepared for this trip. I emailed and used twitter to reach out to developers and researchers that I’d never spoken to before, to ask them if they would attend GDC and if they wanted to meet up. I was pleasantly surprised that a lot of people reacted, however, most of them weren’t actually attending GDC. After a suggestion from Alessandra, I used the GDC site to find speakers, and I tried to contact them through the same channels as before. Even though GDC talks have a wrap-up session after a talk (this is where you can approach them personally), it’s nice to get some sort of affirmation from the speaker, so you’ll know for sure you can talk to them afterwards.

One thing that didn’t really work out well though, were the questions I had thought of before GDC. They didn’t really invite the interviewee to come up with diverse answers, which was kind of disappointing. Luckily I came up with a better idea for questions, as I remembered a “failed” project (we didn’t get the result we wanted, but we learned a lot from it) on narrative games that we did last year. When I presented the speakers with the problems I had had with this project along with asking how they would solve this, I did get a lot more interesting and diverse answers. If you’re planning on interviewing people, I suggest having a little bit of both (general questions on the field, and specific questions on a specific problem) in addition to questions that were raised during the talk. This allows you to adjust your interview and get the most interesting answers in a short amount of time (speakers are generally very busy, and a lot of other people will want to ask them questions, so you might not have a lot of time. I actually planned in ten minutes for every speaker, but this varied wildly in practice).

Even though I’m generally not a morning person, it was a good thing most of the talks that I wanted to attend were early in the morning, because you have time left afterwards to meet other people in a more spontaneous way. In addition to this, your jetlag will probably not allow you to sleep in anyway (sadly it isn’t uncommon to wake up at 4 am thinking it’s time to get out of bed), so you might as well use your mornings in a more effective way.

Another thing that also surprised me, is how open and nice people at GDC were. I somewhat expected people to look down on me for not having anything released yet, so I was reluctant to show my work to people, even though I was advised by others beforehand to show my work. When I did show my own work at request, people were actually very positive and were willing to help me solve some of my design problems. If you plan on showing your work (or actually even if you are not), it really helps to have images and videos on your phone in addition to having them on your laptop, because you might not want to take your laptop with you everywhere you go (I did not take mine when we went out in the evening, it’s no fun dancing and watching your laptop at the same time).

Since we’re on the topic of evenings, try to do something every evening as well. In addition to having fun at GDC parties, this is also a great place to get to know people better as well as getting to know new people. For some reason, it seems to be more socially accepted when you randomly talk to someone at parties or at the bar than in the expo hall for instance (even though this also happened a lot). It might sound counterintuitive, but it actually did help for me to just get to know someone first without asking what they do or what they’re working on, as it allows you to break the ice before you even get to any business-related topic .This felt like a more natural way to converse, and when we talked about projects afterwards, this felt more natural as well, as you already know someone’s style of conversing. This approach can be very different for each individual though, and if you’re not sure how to deal with this, I suggest trying out different approaches long before GDC.

Something that I also heard a lot about before going to GDC was how the indie scene exists out of cliques, and that it’s hard to get into when you’re not part of a clique. I didn’t really notice this myself, but perhaps it’s because didn’t go to GDC by myself. When you do feel this way though, I recommend just asking what people are up to (for instance for that day or evening) and politely asking them it’s okay if you tag along, but respect their answer if they’re having a private thing. Approaching people might seem intimidating at first, but if you’re asking politely, you will find that it’s really rewarding.

Last but not least, try to think about how you want people to remember you. Business cards are a necessity, and for us (me and my partner in crime, Lisa Mantel) it’s something that must be unique and makes people smile. I really feel that in a creative industry, your business cards has to reflect your own creativity (especially since we haven’t released anything yet). Last year at Amaze we had wooden cards made with a lasercutter, which you could click into each other like jigsaw pieces (one with my name and one with hers). It turned out to be a good idea, as people still remembered them and talked to us about it almost a year later. We even got tweets about it! This year we had cards containing glitter, which left a lasting impression (literally, the glitter was everywhere). It was a lot of fun to see people playing around with it and throwing it everywhere, and it also made it easy for people to remember us (though we did have a few cards without glitter for the rare sort of person that hates glitter).

All in all, I would like to advise anyone who has the money (or even barely) to make the trip to GDC. It was really helpful career-wise, and helpful as well for my own inspiration and motivation. I’m pumped with good ideas and I have a fresh insight on my project, so I’m definitely going to save so I can go again next year!

Other tips for preparation:

  • Find out if your provider has some sort of option for using internet in the States. This is crucial, as everyone at GDC uses internet to communicate spots for meeting up etc.
  • As said before, try to contact people some time before GDC, as this makes it easier to (re)introduce yourself (after their talk). They might’ve already thought about your subject, and have done some research to help you out.
  • Try to keep up to date with events that happen during, but outside of GDC. For instance, there was a really good Devolver area near GDC, but it wasn’t on the program of GDC. Raw fury also had their own site, which was announced on Twitter. Another event which is very popular at GDC is That Party. Buy the tickets fast, as they were sold out in only three minutes this year!
  • I used Trello to keep track of things that had to be done. This might seem obvious, but it’s a great help to avoid forgetting things.
  • Some useful apps that I’d recommend in San Francisco are (if you get lost as easily as I do) and Lyft (usually I’d recommend Uber, but because of the controversy it will be better for your conscience to use Lyft).
  • Remember that the people you really want to meet and look up to are human as well, so try to converse with them as you usually would to make the conversation enjoyable to them and less awkward for both.