GDC 2012: How to use it & what to think of it

I had my fourth year of Game Developers Conference this year. GDC is like “the week of the year” for the game devs, even though most of them actually don’t see any presentations. They are there for the business meetings, and perhaps for the parties. But presentation-wise: this is the place to be if you want to understand the industry.

GDC is a good place to have an overview of the industry. It is not like people are telling you directly what is the future, but you can read a lot between the lines and from the general atmosphere. The one of the reasons I keep coming back to this conference and prioritize this over academic ones is that people are actually pouring their ideas instead of vague and abstract notions of historical theories of whatnots. Academia can be so slow and stupid from time to time. But it is not so that the whole GDC is gold. It requires some skill to get best out of it.

GDC 2012 at Moscone North

Let me first tell you my tricks how to “use” the conference and then share my thoughts on what this particular year is telling me.

Some of the tricks I have inherited from the veterans and some of them I have developed myself:

  1. First of all, let yourself shop. The conference has altogether over 400 sessions spread for 5 days. It is most probable that you will not be able to see all the sessions you find mildly interesting. You have to prioritize the sessions, but leave second or third options too: eventually you only need about 5 minutes of the session to know whether it is going to be good or not. If you feel agitated, just leave the session and go for the second best on your schedule. This will not insult people. The worst-case scenario you end up bashing the presentation on Twitter as you feel trapped inside bullshit generator. That might be insulting.
  2. Follow Twitter #GDC. You can read the best bits from other sessions while they are happening. Feel free to jump to that session if something caught your eye. Unfortunately this is not the best trick, since ultimately the best presentations are silent during the presentations; people are really focusing every word of the speaker.
  3. Utilize the Vault: most of the sessions of GDC are recorded and if you have all access pass, you can check those later. My advice is that you DO NOT prioritize those sessions that are the most awesome information-wise. Just leave them to check from the vault. Think it this way: will you REALLY have time to watch the session online later when the buzz has gone? If so, you are ok with that session to be left for the Vault. If not, go and check it NOW. So if you have to choose; go for the second best; the ones that are slightly peripheral to your interest. This actually relates to the next rule:
  4.  Don’t go (only) for your core. If the session will address something that you already know through and through; chances that you will get something new out of it are small. It is best to go and browse something that is interesting but not necessarily your domain. This way you learn more and get bigger picture.
  5. Lastly, there are certain formats of speeches that always work, or names that always indicate a good speech: my personal favorites are game design challenges and rants as well as design postmortems, experimental gameplay session or year in reviews. And favorite speakers include: Eric Zimmerman, Nick Fortugno, Paulina Bozek, Sott Jon Siegel and Jason Rohrer to name a few from this year. I also like to go at least one Japanese session with simultaneous interpretation, just to amuse myself by the interpreter and to get at least one Japanese thought in my head to spice the bias of Northern American speakers. On my pooplist based on this year is at least Sid Meier. He really had nothing to share other than his fame – and the room was packed. I would recommend anyone with a moderate understanding of game design to avoid his speech. But if you are a total beginner he might deliver points that really get you going.  Also Spry Fox Daniel Cook was not that great. But average is not always bad. You need to mix proven formats and safe names with totally random speeches. Go and listen also nobodies, they can be the next big things on this industry.

So those were my tips. Now, let me explore what I think that this year was oozing for me:

  1. Bifurcated maturity. Summits were surprisingly good and main conference was highly detailed. Past years mobile summit and other summits have been a bit less great. Social, casual, smartphone areas have matured. The processes are well thought; there are bigger players involved and there is no difference in the quality of the speeches comparing the “new” and the “old” players. On the other hand, the main conference was very detailed, loads of detailed technical speeches. Nothing that striking or revolutionary: perhaps even slight stagnation: Uncharted 3 was covered by eight speeches, similar to four presentation of Saints Row: The Third.
  2. Metrics are here. It is not that crazy anymore – it is not about evangelizing the power of metrics within the innovation process. Instead the speeches were subtler and more detailed including loads of formulas and best practices. Metrics are like bread and butter for at least social game developers and A/B testing is the thing.
  3. It is time for design. In the meanwhile as we wait for another technological leap (if there is one coming), it is time for design. For the past years, there has been a lot of innovation within business models and even though I did not take part of any myself to verify this, I heard that business track was poor this year. Nothing new under the sun. But I think that after couple of years of technological changes and business oriented innovation; there is a lot of pressure for design innovations. We do have the improvements in 3D, probably also in motion detection in upcoming year, perhaps something rather new like brain controllers etc. But in general, the potential of these have not been actualized for various reasons. Whether we can actually have push from the design side is yet to be seen. The strength of the indie track within GDC is one of the indicators that it is time to let designers play more.
  4. Developers hate free-to-play (at least some of them). Last year the hatred was cast on gamification. Last year it seemed that the bastard child of serious games was taken over the whole conference. Loads of jokes on how to lifificate games or even gamify games were addressed. Now this year the joke was on free-to-play. During the decades of digital games, a strong identity has evolved. Now there is need to maintain it. It is time for ludological manifest number two. Games for their own sake.
  5. And as a last point, which is not necessary visible in the presentations: This year is the GIRL year. I had never ever had to wait in line for a toilet at GDC before. This was the year one. I also overheard two girls behind me discussing in deep details of social game design on a street one morning. Never happened before too. I mean, I don’t think there has not been someone discussing passionately about viral design last year or years before, it is just that what are the odds? I bet this year the odds were much higher than last year. I only wish we will see more girls also on triple-A productions. This might be the last year guys own the industry. Who knows?
Thou shalt not monetize thy neighbor
"Thou shalt not monetize thy neighbor." & "God hates game designers."

Altogether, it seems that industry is in a somewhat stable situation. Casual/Social/Smartphone has been established it’s position within the industry, we are waiting for design innovations from that side; business innovation has cooled down, f2p is not going away; Triple A companies do what they know best: better tech, better stories, deeper engagement and so on.

Perhaps it is quiet before the storm… Who knows? Am eager to see GDC 2013. If it is not any different from 2012 – I am definitely disappointed. 

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Game researcher, lecturer, designer and a jamtivist.

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