I went to the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. It’s a big conference. It was fun and interesting but it wasn’t all that great. I will tell you the why but first: Why did I decide to fly to the other side of the planet and spend over a €1000 for the largest game developer conference there is? Because I thought it would help me make new contacts, Profile myself as a game maker and spread word about the two games I’m working on. One of these games did not fare so well.
First there is Penarium which I make with my friends at Self Made Miracle It’s a crazy arcade survival platformer. Words don’t do it justice so here’s a trailer:
We got invited to pitch the game to representatives of a major game/console manufacturer in a hotel conference room. This is one of the things we did. The presentation was very informal and the other side showed a neutral/positive reception. We can’t really tie any conclusions to it yet. The other game is Mutant Gangland. A turn-based strategy game for mobile and desktop. Inspired on Advance Wars and set in a future war between robots and mutants. I make this game with Bacioiu and Grace.
I love this game but not many people got to see it. Penarium is easy to introduce to people. It’s a platformer with almost no premise but ‘survive’ and ‘collect barrels’ through jumping an running. Mutant Gangland is harder. Most turn-based games have unique mechanics that only show their elegance after multiple turns. It requires easing and explaining and on a conference not everybody has time for that. I feel like this is one of the reasons Mutant Gangland did not get the attention it deserves and I need to find a way to fix that for future events. Another reason is that I found it very hard to spread word about two games simultaneously. Meeting new people (and potential future supporters) on the conference floor can be a very short ordeal. When I meet someone who asks me what games I make I feel like the time shortage forces me to pick just one. Most of the times I picked the instantly understandable one: Penarium.
I also booked the trip, the tickets and the hotel together with the Penarium team. Often this conference felt like a Penarium mission and it would feel like a jerk move to plug another game during that. I need to find a solution for this because I really love both games. On the other hand the TBS (turn-based strategy) genre has some hardcore fans. Some people straight up love these games. I think it’s up to me to find those people and maybe a conference is not the best place for that. Or maybe I just don’t know who made what cool strategy game and did I just not pull the right people on their sleeves. A good move for next time would be to get in touch with the people at 17Bit who made the extremely amusing Skulls Of The Shogun or the people from Xcom. They were probably there at the conference and it hurts my head just thinking about this in hindsight.
I think that’s the one great thing about GDC. There’s a lot of people there and if you really want to hook up with them you can. I saw many people who I think I know somehow. I just didn’t know what to say to them. Maybe it just feels unnatural to me to force myself into a conversation or to steer a conversation to “play my game!”. Not everybody has. I met some people who seamlessly eased a nice conversation into just basically boasting about all the things they did and what they were known for. I also heard a lot of namedropping. Like “I went to school with famous dude X”. This was often followed by a short moment of silence because I don’t know famous dude X. I am an ostrich. Maybe on purpose. Maybe I just want to make friends and maybe those friends will one day be supporters. Maybe that’s why Mutant Gangland rolled so slow.
I also noticed how people come to this conference with various intentions. Before I went there I thought everybody at the GDC would have the same mission as us: To show the world what they are working on, Spreading the word hoping someone would pick it up. But no: We booked 3 beds in a 4 bed room and the fourth guest turned out to be a Ohio student and artist who also attended the conference. His goal was to find a job but he also took part in many a drinking game with his fellow classmates who also slept in the hostel. It’s not that he did not take this seriously but the way things were done is going to the conference floor at day, Going by all the career booths to show his portfolio, And go out to a beer party at night. Get boozed up. Hope to randomly run into a bigshot and then maybe get a job offer somehow.
There are also people who attend the show to learn things. There are a lot of talks being given and some of them can be extremely useful. I myself have a hard time sitting still on a chair. This is one of the reason I did not go the IGF Awards, Which is apparently some kind of relevant award show for games. I never heard of it before but it looked like a bunch of people sitting in a giant hallway listening to one category after another. I thought that to be a detraction from my mission. We saw this GDC as our only shot to show the world what we are up to. We need to actively work and lobby our game in order for it to generate results. Then there are the AAA studio people. The programmers, designers and artists who are already in the clear. Their PR person takes care of all the talking and for these folks GDC is just one big school trip where every night is about partying for the sake of partying. We party too. But only in the hopes we get to make connections somehow.
This brings me to the next point: Don’t rule people out based on their appearance. First of all because this is a vain and mean thing to do and second because everybody is a potential friend and supporter. We went to a dance party in an industrial area. The doorman sat on a stool and he looked pretty savage. He was a big guy with spiked bracelets. He had had piercings and tattoos all over his face and body. He wore a shirt with a skull on it and had a list with names of people who were allowed in. When we were up he asked us if we made games and gave us all his business card with a huge Sony logo. This badass brutal doorman worked at Sony and just managed a club as a side thing. We did not know this but we were friendly and it paid off. So be friendly, Always.
It’s also safe to be careful about what street you walk in the dark. San Francisco has a dark side. Many drunks and addicts roam the street and many homeless people also. I have no problem with this but some are extremely persistent about getting your money. Like walking along with me while begging for change, Not taking ‘no’ for an answer and shouting “f*ck you you one armed b*tch” when they give up. To even beating you up and taking your wallet after dark. This did not happen to me but it happened to others in seemingly safe areas. I think it’s best to not travel alone in the evening and night.
Something I need to better prepare next time is the reservations for the parties. The five days of GDC go like this: Until 6 PM the conference floor is open and in the evening there are multiple parties spread all over the city. All of these need reservations and I felt this was always this buzz around the air of “Where are you going?”. Always that feeling I might miss out on the coolest crew or the hippest party. It’s not good for me at all. Also: going out for five days is a row is extremely tiring.
So tiring that I was sick twice during my stay in San Francisco. I think due to a number of reasons, I didn’t sleep enough, I did somehow not get enough vitamins and I came across a lot of people. And man San Francisco can be expensive! Somehow a bowl of fruit was one of the rarest and most pricey things on many menus. At all the places I went people looked at me like I was crazy when I said “Just fruit”. Sodas are cheap though. You can get cola everywhere and I paid many visits to the deli across our hostel. I thought Cola, with all its bubbles and chemicals would help me fight the cold. I’m not sure it did.
Then there is the Indie hostel. Somewhere in time one of San Francisco’s 57890 hostels was dubbed The Indie Hostel. You have to make reservation quite early. It’s pricier than the surrounding hostels and it’s chock full of game people. If you haven’t booked at the hostel you can’t get in though (as in all SF hostels). But reading from Twitter it seems like the most fun place in the world. Meetings, parties, Cool indies hanging out. It’s all there and if you haven’t booked you’re missing out. There’s people tweeting about how much fun they are having, Making inside jokes about things nobody understands. It makes me feel left out and I can totally understand if the rest of the world would rather turn Twitter off during the week of GDC.
I believe there are a number of people saying their GDC was super awesome because they thought it was so but I also believe there is an even greater number of people who had a mediocre GDC but will still say it was super awesome because everyone else says it was super awesome. For me it was just mediocre. It should’ve prepared better but even then I doubt I’d have much from from seeing way too much faces for five days. Afterwards I’m still not sure the total experience paid off. Maybe this is a thing that benefits from repetition. One of the days I saw a kid with a laptop sitting outside asking passers by if they would play his game. Many people did and he paid $0 for it. He never bought a GDC ticket. He just sat outside hustling his game. For now that kid is my hero.