Today, March 25, the Game Developers Conference kicks off in San Francisco, attracting up to 25,000 people from around the world. Now in its 26th year, this sprawling event offers game makers a chance to hang out, share knowledge and show off. How has it endured for so long?
The first GDC
People say it took place in his living room when, in fact, it was in his bedroom. The largest room in Chris Crawford's remote mountainside house, it had a huge window overlooking the San Jose valley far below.
The furniture, even with the aid of chairs from the kitchen, wasn't up to the task. Some of the guests had to sit on the floor. They were young, so it wasn't a huge problem.
This was 1988, the first Computer Games Developers Conference, in Crawford's house. There were 27 people in attendance.
Crawford remembers that one of the guests ignored a plea to drive slowly up the newly laid driveway and was yelled at on arrival.
Not knowing how to feed everyone, and being miles from restaurants, Crawford bought a massive sub-with-everything from a deli. Strictly speaking, the first GDC was catered with a single sandwich.
One of the few original attendees still making games, Gordon Walton, recalls the extraordinary sensation of being in the same room as 26 other people, who, just like him, also created computer games.
"We knew what we were doing was changing the world. We just didn't know how."
"I'd only ever seen other game developers in ones or twos, in waiting rooms at the offices of games publishers," he says. "This was the first time we'd ever gathered together."
They introduced themselves, spoke for a while about their specific projects and the challenges they faced, their shared commonality. But the conversation really sparked when they talked about the future, about what gaming might look like in, say, 25 years' time.
Walton recalls, "We knew what we were doing was changing the world. We just didn't know how. Each of us talked about how we had seen people engaging in what we made, how it transfixed people. We knew we could do cool stuff and we wanted to understand what it all meant, where it would go. We thought gaming might become something everybody would do in generations ahead."
Crawford says, "It was very exciting. There was a lot of emotional intensity. People were realizing just how much they shared, how much they could learn from each other."
Every GDC since has sought to replicate this intensity. It hasn't always succeeded.
This week, some 25,000 game developers and assorted industry hangers-on will visit San Francisco's Moscone Center, located about 60 miles from Crawford's old house, and they'll all be looking for the same bang as those first 27 attendees — the buzz, the pleasure that comes from knowing just a little bit more about doing the thing that you love.
The original GDC was cobbled together by Crawford and some like-minded pals. Today's show is owned by a multinational media organization. Much has changed. Part of the nature of those changes has to do with the fact that, when he launched the event, Crawford made a decision that he would later regret very, very much.
Hearty greetings on passing escalators
GDC is just like all the other conferences. There are registration lines, badges, bad food, clusters of conspirators in corridors, hearty greetings on passing escalators, and sore feet.
It's also different, and the difference is in the attendees, in their molecular structure. They are game developers right to their core: idiosyncratic, iconoclastic, quietly rebellious, very clever. They are palpably different.
Mainstream marketing evaporates here under the gaze of the sort of person who is good at chess, knows how to make a computer, can explain the LBW rule and its inherent flaws and has played out heady dialogues in which Q makes a cast-iron case for humanity's destruction.
Of course, plenty of people are clever. Lawyers, doctors, architects and so forth. But game developers are different. They have dedicated themselves to the business of manipulating on-screen images in such a way as to produce the intangible, invisible resource of fun. They create worlds that exist in flickering images and in the twists of a game controller. This is the thing that sets them apart, that which GDC seeks to capture.
The organizers of GDC are aided by one crucial aspect of game developers: They love to show off, to talk about their marvels of creation, to share.
Gordon Walton, who has been to every GDC, has spent recent years working on MMOs like Star Wars: The Old Republic and Ultima Online. He says, "I have been in game development for 35 years, but I've also done a few gigs in other industries. Most businesses, you'll have 30 percent of the people who are very bright and really passionate about the work they are doing, with the rest showing up for a paycheck. In game development, the inverse is true. If they weren't getting paid for this, most of them would be doing it anyway.
"You see them together and know there is something different about these people."
Of course there's another side to this: Game developers are not angels.
Andreas Zecher is part of an indie outfit called Spaces of Play, maker of puzzle game Spirits. He says, "GDC is the one place where literally everyone making games or working in the industry comes once a year. Everything that's great and everything that's questionable about the game industry, you'll see it there."
GDC is a trade between game developers, where they share the thing they value the most. You show me your brain and I'll show you mine.
Most conferences are about deals: sales people grinning and touching each other's elbows, buying drinks and stitching up next year's big contracts.
GDC is not that.
Even within gaming, GDC is unique.
E3 is where marketers woo retailers and media with gaudy pyrotechnics. It is a show about money.
PAX is a gift to gamers where they display their appreciation with tribal displays, community festivals and cosplay. It is a celebration of love.
GDC is a trade between game developers, where they share the thing they value the most. You show me your brain and I'll show you mine. It is a marketplace of understanding.
But, like all great game stories, GDC has a dark past, a mythos steeped in treachery and destruction. A show that grows a thousandfold in 25 years must necessarily suffer from growing pains.
"I'm a shepherd."
Each year, Meggan Scavio is always the last attendee to leave GDC. She and some other bosses at GDC-owner UBM host a champagne send-off at the end of the last day. She says goodbye to them as they drift off, exhausted, to their homes.
She says, "One year, the catering people actually took the tablecloth out from under me."
Scavio has been working on GDC since 2000. Her job is to coordinate the event, and she likes to say thanks to the people who work for her, who take line responsibility for the speakers, the signage, the registration, the helpers, the hotels.
Because, it turns out, putting on a five-day event for game developers, in the middle of a major U.S. city, is a lot of hassle.
She worked her way up through the organization and has been living and breathing this show for 13 years. It has made her one of the most well-connected people in gaming. (Even during our lunch interview at a random San Francisco restaurant, she is recognized by some out-of-town developers, just flown in to seal a deal.)
She says, "I worked in operations and I worked in content. I know how much goes into it, how stressful it can be. There are a million pieces, and once it all gets put together it's pretty exciting. And then I feel really sad at the end of the week, when we start taking everything down."
This year, over the five-day event, there will be 450 sessions and 800 speakers. There are eight tracks, including "audio," "design" and "advocacy." There are a further eight summits, including the Independent Games Summit and the Game Narrative Summit.
It is not possible to attend every session you want to see. There are always too many interesting things going on: gaming contests, networking events, museum spectacles, dev-jams and two awards ceremonies. Plus a metric ton of parties, off-site invitationals and meetings. The organizers place hotly anticipated sessions against one another on purpose, in order to avoid congestion.
Parent company UBM operates business conferences, awards ceremonies, connectivity mishmashes all around the world. It is responsible for trade shows for everything from tissues to concrete. But Scavio sees her role as protector of the same event that launched back in 1987, something that retains the spirit of game developer-ness.
"It sounds ridiculous," she says. "It's probably really vain. But I'm sort of a shepherd. I understand … I think that I understand why GDC has lasted and grown for 27 years. I think it's my job to make sure we stick with that, and we don't deviate from our core values.
"This is an event for game developers. It's not an event for the press. It's not an event for consumers. Our audience, our customers, are developers. That is our super-narrow focus all the time. I make sure that everyone keeps that focus."
Ice cream and acrimony
After that first heady event, Chris Crawford announced through a game design journal he'd launched that the next year's CGDC would be held in the Holiday Inn in Milpitas. This time, 125 people showed up.
In the years that followed, a pattern emerged. Each year they'd move to a bigger venue, and the audience would increase significantly.
In the early years, Crawford and a board of friends he had appointed understood that the show would grow, and would need to be a legal entity. The original notion was to create a not-for-profit.
He says, "In the end, we made it a for-profit, because the guy who agreed to be the treasurer said that it would be a huge legal hassle setting it up as a non-profit. It would be a lot easier to set it up as a for-profit, but just choose to not make any money. That turned out to be a catastrophic decision."
The justification was that they could just make sure that the show cost as much to run as it pulled in through entrance fees. Problem was, it was just making way too much money. They couldn't spend the dough fast enough. They even tried goofy stuff to get rid of the profits, like free ice cream, all through the show, for everyone. It didn't make a dent.
Attempts to cut the price of admission meant that more kids would show up, hoping to meet well-known game-makers. This proved to be unpopular with attendees, so prices were pushed up, increasing profits.
Crawford says, "As the years went by, different board members would leave, and when bringing in a new board member, we made it clear that this was a community service we were doing. They all agreed to that. However, as we grew, the thing got too big for a bunch of amateurs to run. Moreover, we couldn't help but make a profit."
The decision was made to simply run the show as a profit-enterprise, to sell it on. This is when the board fell out, acrimoniously.
Crawford says he wanted to create a share system, so that board members who had contributed but had moved on would get a fair cut of the windfall. This was voted down. So was his chairmanship.
He tried to buy GDC himself. His offer was rejected. After he was kicked out, GDC was sold to a company called Miller Freeman for $3 million. He sued for a share and a settlement was agreed.
Crawford admits that he may have rubbed some of the board members the wrong way, but says he was angry for a long time about how he says he was treated. Even so, although he believes GDC will never retain the spirit of those early years, he says current owner UBM is doing a good job.
"The wild days of the 1980s, when things really were done by the seat of the pants, and progress was made by inspired individuals, well, nowadays it just costs too much money to pull this stuff off. You need serious marketing, closely working with the game designers. It needs a highly professional, highly commercial annual conference. GDC is precisely that."
But, no, he says, it's not like the good old days. Not at all.
Not networking, just saying hi
Looking at posts online about GDC, fond memories often refer to a special early-career moment when the writer recalls meeting or even just seeing some game development hero, Will or Sid or Shigeru, or even people who have long since passed from glory. This is the part of GDC that rewards those who make the effort, who pay the ticket price. It inspires.
Networking is a word that is used a great deal to describe GDC's benefits, and stories abound of folks turning up at GDC and winning life-changing jobs, or even a life partner.
There are also very practical payoffs. DeNA's Ben Cousins gave a talk at GDC about the death of consoles. It was a media sensation, picked up by dozens of news outlets. He says there's no doubt that GDC can act as a career catalyst.
They see themselves as a breed apart.
"Before I left EA, I spent GDC in face-to-face meetings with a huge number of developers, publishers and investors, and it was actually at a certain high-level invite-only party that year that I was offered my eventual position with ngmoco. Speaking at GDC is a huge booster. Not for the list of talks on your resume, but because of the networking and publicity speaking can expose you to."
But seemingly, not-networking-just-saying-hi is also an important game industry rite-of-passage, a moment when game developers understand that they are a part of this thing now, that they have passed from the childish realms of fandom to the grown-up world of making things.
This notion of the peculiarity of game developers may be a touch romantic or archaic, but they certainly, definitely see themselves as a breed apart. They relate to the kid who wants to crouch in the bushes to see exactly how a beetle crawls, while the other boys and girls are chasing a ball. GDC is proof that they belong. It is a club that every nerd wants to join.
It's about programming
At GDC, the people you pass in the corridors are all going somewhere, and that somewhere is probably a session, a debate, a panel, one of the many morsels of programming that make-up the event's "content."
It is difficult, even for GDC's critics, to argue that the sessions are anything other than catholic in their breadth, detailed in their depth and animating in their nature. I have a free pass to the online video archives called GDC Vault. For the curious, that place is a maze, amazing, an education just sitting there waiting to be consumed. The talks are freakin' great.
GDC is not without its critics, mostly to do with access and costs. Noah Falstein has been attending since the Milpitas days, and is a fan. He says, "I know there are people who say it is too expensive and [a ticket] is a lot of change, especially if you are starting out, but they [UBM] have done a good job with student rates and the associate program."
The cost of a full pass to the entire five-day event is $1,500. The "main conference," which lasts three days, is $700. There are limited passes for specific portions of the show costing less, most notably the Indie Games Summit. A Student Expo Pass, for the last, quietest day, costs $75. Of course, there's also the cost of flights and hotels.
Scavio says accusations that GDC is all about raking in profits could not be farther from the truth. "We turn down money all the time, because it just doesn't seem fitting," she says. "We won't have program content sponsored. There are a lot of people who want to use GDC as a marketing tool, and not in the traditional way, where it's on the expo floor. That's something we're always trying to keep at bay."
GDC runs an "associate program" in which young developers and students can exchange their labor as gofers in exchange for a free pass. They split their time between checking badges and other chores, and going to the conference sessions they want. Often, the guys checking badges at a session have specifically asked to be there, combining work with what they want to see.
Meggan Scavio says many successful developers have spent time as associates, including Kim "Portal" Swift.
Hotel rooms are shared. Lifelong friendships are made. "It's a good deal," Scavio says. "There are some CAs [conference associates] that become active, working developers and continue to go back into the program, because it becomes a little family to them."
When asked what improvements he would make to GDC, Ben Cousins says the show might benefit from free live-streaming, a popular notion among many people.
He says, "I think GDC would benefit by throwing itself more deeply into the digital age ... I can see a potential boost in revenues, and certainly reach, if they live-streamed every session over the internet for free."
Some sessions are streamed via game news outlets like GameSpot and IGN. But Scavio says streaming the whole show is not possible, bandwidth being one problem.
"We have close to 450 sessions at GDC, with a minimum of 28 sessions happening in any given hour. The amount of equipment and staff needed to pull something like that off is a little more than daunting."
She points out that full-pass attendees have access to the GDC Vault, an easily searchable repository of content for all GDCs that streams video bookmarked and synced with speaker slides. The GDC Vault also releases free videos on a regular basis. "It has become a destination point for folks to view some of our best and most memorable sessions," she says.
But one of the big impediments, she says, is that GDC would not be GDC if it became too easily attended from one's bedroom: "This is an event to learn and network. Nothing really showcases the charm and experience of GDC like being there."
Meggan Scavio's team operates a programming quasi-democracy. She explains, "We have close to 1,000 people submit to speak at GDC. We actually take a couple hundred of those, and then we invite the rest. People want to speak at GDC. We don't have to work to get people to speak.
"No matter how many games you've shipped, if your submission doesn't have a takeaway for our attendees, then we're not going to take your talk," she says. "Whether you're talking about some of the biggest games of the year — Journey, Dishonored, Assassin's Creed 3 — yes, we're always going to have those talks, because everyone wants to see how they made those games. But those guys also want to come and see how Halfbrick made Jetpack Joyride. That was one of our biggest talks last year. Everyone's learning from everyone else. Everyone's finding inspiration from everyone else."
The submissions are then evaluated by a cabal called the Advisory Board, made up of established game developers and experienced GDC speakers. The current group includes former Electronic Arts executive Louis Castle, PlayStation 4 tech designer Mark Cerny, Valve designer Clint Hocking, Blizzard executive Rob Pardo and former Epic Games CEO Mike Capps.
The board sits down in a room for a weekend to winnow out the program. The obvious bad ones are rejected. The good ones are enthusiastically agreed upon. Then begins what Mike Capps describes as a "kung fu match to the death" as the board argues about the rest.
A key factor for admission is if a speaker has appeared before at GDC and done well. Session ratings, as decided by attendees, go way back to 2000, and a badly rated speaker can have a difficult time getting re-accepted.
Capps says, "That meeting — it's fun and it isn't. It's very easy for us to accept the great talks. We know this is a great speaker, his history is excellent, the material is dead on, we all love it, everyone nods. And it's really easy to reject the folks who haven't put in the time for their proposals, when it's really clear that there's not going to be much there.
"The arguments, of course, come in the middle, where we have someone who we know is a good speaker and we know it's a great topic, but they didn't give us much to go on or it doesn't look like they put a lot of effort in. Someone's going to have to go get that into good shape. It's a mix of bargaining and, 'Well, I'll give you this one, I'll give you that one.' That sort of thing. It's more art than science. It's two pretty grueling days of arguing. But the end result is worth it."
"There are only two people who get to speak, no questions asked: Shigeru Miyamoto and Will Wright."
Each session is assigned to an Advisory Board member who must mentor participants through the process. Mentors are competitive and so they take this seriously. Pre-GDC, Skype sessions and back-and-forth PowerPoint exchanges take place. None of the Advisory Board members want crappy ratings on their watch.
This also has the effect of binding experienced people in the biz to those who are up-and-coming, of creating new affinities.
Capps says, "The typical presenter at GDC is someone who is mid-point in their career. They've shipped a game that's well-known, or maybe two. But they haven't given a lot of talks. They're really excited about being mentored, especially if you look through the Advisory Board ranks. There's a lot of very senior, well-known people in the industry. It's a really neat opportunity."
Speakers can be invited by the board, but they still have to submit to the review process. This really does create an event where standards are extremely high.
Scavio says, "There are only two people who get to speak, no questions asked. That's Shigeru Miyamoto and Will Wright. Nobody else gets an automatic in. Everyone else has to submit."
The problem of scale
Apart from the high price of attendance ($1,500 on the top end), a recurring criticism of GDC is that it's getting too big.
Even back in the middle part of the last decade, when the event was held in San Jose, it felt more intimate than now, spread across three buildings in the middle of San Francisco.
Noah Falstein has been coming to GDC for years. He's a game design consultant. He remembers, "Everyone would congregate in the same bar. You'd be walking to a conference session and then you'd get wrapped up in a chat with some old friends. Now I'll go to GDC and I'll meet a thousand people, which is great, but I'll realize that, even though I know they're at GDC, I've not even seen some of my oldest friends."
Gordon Walton says, "It's like anything that grows. You lose things and you gain things. We have lost some of the intimacy but that was always going to happen as we grew as an industry, as the nature of what we do changes.
"The people who make mobile games don't have as much in common as the people making AAA console games. The beauty of what we have now is that we still have a place where we celebrate the ethos of making games, and all the challenges and the rewards that suggests."
GDC has to cater for super-specializations as well as broader themes of game development. "There is still an uber community, as well as lot of micro communities," says Walton.
Scavio says this need to make sure people are able to network is a core problem. "Now that we're in [the Moscone Center], it's much harder to see your friends and mingle with them. Our struggle is to always try to find ways to allow people to find each other in that way. Ultimately, I think, networking is why people really come to GDC."
Mike Capps says, "Ten years ago, in San Jose, pretty much everyone you knew was out that night at the bar at the Fairmont. That was nice. A very collegial sense of community. When you're in a bigger city like San Francisco, everyone goes their separate ways. It's hard to have that central social hub. I miss that. But what I really am happy for in the industry is that the Game Developers Conference is a huge event for us now. I wouldn't trade it. I wouldn't go back. The old grumpy Mike wishes, sometimes … I wish there were only a thousand of us. I know some people wish for back when it was only 200 for us. But I think it shows the health of the industry. I'm glad to have it keep on growing."
GDC fulfills the same function it did when Chris Crawford founded the event, back in 1987, when he bought that super-sub sandwich. The difference now is that the number of people making games, and wanting, needing to talk about this unique experience, has grown immeasurably.
Crawford explains why he made GDC in the first place: "There was clearly a need for game designers to talk with each other, to share ideas, to learn from each other."
In some ways, it hasn't changed much at all.
Image Credits: Official GDC Flickr