Inaugurated in 1988, the Game Developers Conference has become a staple of the video game industry. It's where industry professionals go to mingle, network, learn about games development and sign business deals. But it's more than that. GDC, increasingly in recent years, is becoming a place to shine a spotlight on real-life issues facing members of the industry. Conference organizers are well aware of the role the show plays. In a preview of the event, GDC general manager Meggan Scavio stressed the importance of the advocacy track to GamesIndustry International.
"We sort of just dipped our toe in last year. Last year, one of the most popular sessions was Brenda Romero's #1ReasonToBe panel and that was what helped form the advocacy track. I saw all that happening on Twitter and I thought we need to get all these people together in a room to talk about it, and so I invited them and built an advocacy track around that. This year we formed a committee and we had people submit advocacy talks. We got people we never would have thought to invite," said Scavio.
"One of the really cool ones I think is from Rosalind Wiseman, the woman who wrote the book Mean Girls was based on. She submitted a talk about how video games affect boys' social status and how group dynamics play into games and how possibly redesigning heroes to show a bit more remorse or sympathy might help boys function better in society, which I think is really interesting. We also have Adam Orth who worked at Microsoft and he is going to go a little more in-depth on what happened to him and what he learned from it. He's actually building a game based on that whole experience. I saw a demo of it; it's going to be great. And #1ReasonToBe is coming back as an ongoing panel. We also have Manveer Heir of BioWare doing a talk on misogyny, racism and homophobia and where video games stand in that. He's going to literally take three or four recent games and analyze them - I think it's opening a curtain on what maybe people don't realize they're doing when they're making games," she continued.
"I want the advocacy track to remind people that developers are actually thinking about these things and it's not something that the media is saying we need to focus on"
These are all serious issues that deal with our society and human nature at large, and the fact that the games business is finally taking it to heart is definitely encouraging. While some have criticized the media for pushing an "agenda," Scavio made it clear that the industry is maturing and developers are talking about this on their own with no push from the press.
"Overall, I want the advocacy track to remind people that developers are actually thinking about these things and it's not something that the media is saying we need to focus on. We [as an industry] actually are focusing on them and they are important topics to the video game community," she said.
It's clear that the industry is benefitting from the new age of social media as well. Quite frankly, these advocacy topics can no longer be ignored. "I think the reason we're seeing in the last five or so years people talking about this more is social media. It's just changed the way we discuss everything. When people discover these issues or have problems, it's out there for the world to see, whereas before you had to dig a little deeper for it," Scavio noted. "It's easier to hear about the problems in your games and therefore I think people want to address it more now. And yes, it's super important that we talk about it at GDC because where else are you going to talk about that?"
Apart from the advocacy track, another part of GDC that Scavio takes a lot of pride in is the classic game post-mortems, which started on the 25th anniversary of the conference. "It became super successful. Not only are we doing the three classic game post-mortems - which are Robotron, Shenmue and Zork - this year we're doing our first classic studio post-mortem, so we've got some of the first employees from LucasArts (at the time Lucasfilm Games) coming in to talk about what it was like in the early days of that studio. I'm very excited to keep doing this and I think next year I'm going to try for a classic console post-mortem. Stay tuned for that," she teased.
Scavio also mentioned that she literally gets Shenmue tweets weekly because the audience thinks there's a Shenmue 3 that's going to be announced at the session. "I don't know anything of the kind!" she said.
In years past, GDC felt a bit like E3. You knew the big console companies would have something to show, and usually one or two (if not all three) would present a major keynote. Some of us miss the console chest thumping, but Scavio said the removal of those keynotes was quite deliberate.
"It was completely intentional. We have an advisory board and they really, honestly dictate what happens in the conference. I do not program sessions without their approval," Scavio explained. "They personally mentor things. Mark Cerny and Rob Pardo personally mentor talks - they get on the phone with speakers and work to improve the talks. They take it very seriously and they decided at one point that the standard console keynotes just weren't really working for us any longer and what they wanted to do was to experiment and try the developer keynotes. They kept saying we're a developer conference, let's put developers on stage as our keynotes. These are the people that we should be looking up to."
"So we did that, and we put Sid Meier on stage, we put Kojima on stage and we put Miyamoto on stage. But you do kind of wonder if that's really the right thing for our audience," she questioned. "People expect a keynote to be about what's happening now, what's relevant to the industry right now, and putting a developer on stage doesn't always solve that. So we decided that we would just make the conference its own keynote and that's when we decided to do the Flash Forwards. It's very dry and not necessarily for press, but it's really cool for attendees to get a quick glimpse of what we have in store for them for the week. What we have expanded this year - with Mike Capps and Mark Cerny - is a sort of state of the industry introduction. They are going to make it a little longer this year and talk about what they see as the future of the games industry. [Big keynotes] is not something we're ruling out but we're testing the waters."
"It's continued to grow but do I think it's out of control? I don't yet. What I don't like is how we're in all three buildings of Moscone"
Compared to the D.I.C.E. Summit, GDC is a massive show. In fact, some believe it's gotten too large and too spread out. Part of that stems from all of the meetings happening in hotels outside of the Moscone Center, but Scavio has little power to control what companies arrange.
"I've been with the GDC since the year 2000 and we were in San Jose and there were a quarter of the people there but we actually have the same number of sessions or maybe just a small percentage more than we've always had. It's just that the industry keeps growing and changing and GDC is the place where we cover all aspects of the video game industry, so we do have to keep responding to that with the advent of smartphones and tablets and indie games.," she remarked. "It just builds on top of the other content and you can't just talk about the same things anymore. So yeah it's continued to grow but do I think it's out of control? I don't yet. What I don't like is how we're in all three buildings of Moscone. I'd like to make it a little more consolidated for everybody. I think that would be less stressful."
Scavio added, "The stuff that takes place outside of the convention center I don't really have any control over. We do our best to limit that but we can't limit everything. But what I'm responsible for, I think is still relevant. We also spend a lot of effort trying to perfect GDC Vault in order to help remove some of that pressure of trying to be at all places at once. So if you do miss a session because you have a meeting in another building or somewhere else it's not the end of the world because you can go back and watch it on vault later."
Perhaps part of the bulked up feeling at GDC also stems from the fact that Apple is often presenting during the same week in San Francisco. Scavio clearly isn't happy with that fact. "I could rent [the adjacent Yerba Buena Center] and block them from being there, but that's kind of weird," she joked. "Apple swears that they don't plan that during GDC intentionally."
All in all, Scavio has her hands full. Not only does she have to oversee GDC in San Francisco, but it's a year-round job to ensure that the three other GDC events (GDC Europe, GDC China and GDC Next in LA) offer a unique perspective. She's not looking to add any more events to her plate.
"No, we're not trying to expand at all," Scavio said. "I get emails weekly asking to do a GDC in a particular country and we just say, 'No not yet.' We feel Europe is a really nice place to be, attached to gamescom - I don't know if we would be there if we weren't with gamescom - but it seems to be a really good fit since there are so many developers there and they want a developer event and it's a way for us to reach people who might not be able to [attend] GDC San Francisco every year. GDC China is a similar situation where there's this thriving community there; it's a constantly growing environment... and we stick around in China just to be on the ground with the developers there.
"LA is a really interesting event - there are a lot of things that we don't get to cover at GDC because we're really talking about best practices and we wanted an opportunity to maybe talk about pie in the sky stuff. What are we looking forward to? What might be coming up in the next couple years? That's what GDC Next is meant to be."
As for expanding within North America, Scavio doesn't feel it's necessary. "We did a GDC Canada in Vancouver... and honestly nobody came! And on the east side of Canada they already have a successful event with the Montreal International Game Summit. We don't want to go and step on other toes," she said.
Scavio admitted, "I don't have a lot of downtime," but she loves the industry and "it's a nice community feeling - it makes me happy to do these things everyday." So what's her favorite part? The awards.
"The IGF and Choice Awards are really this sort of feel good two hours of the evening where you're just celebrating these people who spent so much time and energy making these games. That's my favorite thing of GDC, being able to celebrate together because we actually open the awards to anyone - you don't even have to have a GDC pass to attend. You can just walk in. It's also live streamed on GameSpot," she said.