The cancellation of GDC was devastating for indie developers. The annual gathering has become crucial for new and smaller studios looking to gain knowledge, establish key connections and, hopefully, begin the conversations with publishers and investors that will bring their games to market.
GDC 2020 was among the first major industry events to be cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the industry quickly rallied to support struggling developers who had been impacted financially. Travelling to San Francisco is expensive at the best of times, and the amount of savings lost on flights and hotels alone will have crippled some studios.
Since March, all physical developer conferences and networking events have been cancelled, making it unlikely that games professionals will be able to gather together before 2021.
"There's essentially a year that's been lost in the progression and development of the game projects these indies are working on," says Karla Reyes, a volunteer for Code Coven, an online games industry bootcamp focused on marginalised developers.
Code Coven's founder Tara Mustapha adds: "There's also missed opportunities in terms of networking but also building communities. Things like the Train Jam and other events that build up networks of like-minded people, so how do we facilitate that? We know that in the Code Coven community, people learn from each other as well, so when you miss out on all these conventions and opportunities to learn, it's greater than just losing monetary expenses of travel and meeting publishers. It's been a big impact."
Both Mustapha and Reyes are working on a solution: the Elevate accelerator, an online program that aims to help developers around the world recover from the impact of GDC and other event cancellations.
Elevate is financed by the GDC Relief Fund, one of the industry efforts to help struggling developers who lost money this March. Of the $292,000 raised, $142,000 has been spent on the accelerator, with the rest helping 177 developers who applied for aid.
"This was a massive opportunity to support struggling indie developers," says Reyes. "Since we already have the infrastructure in place and already understand how to run such a program, we're going to scale that through Elevate.
"The goal is to support indie developers -- and that can be a solo developer up to teams of five -- to be able to get their prototypes or game projects to a position where it's publishable or pitch-ready. With the network of sponsors and also Code Coven's mentor network, we'll be able to provide guidance to the developers throughout the program."
The Elevate program aims to help developers with projects in prototype, alpha or beta phase, with plans to tailor the program to each successful team. Successful applicants will receive support in getting their pitches into shape and accelerating their game projects to make up for lost time.
"[Diversity is] not just about donating to certain funds, it's about taking action"
Karla Reyes, Code Coven
They will also learn more about the fundamentals of running a games business; for example, much of the GDC Relief Fund money will be used to pay teams milestone-based stipends, emulating the industry structure of working as part of a publishing deal, fo example.
Elevate is open to all developers but, as with the rest of Code Coven's initiatives, there's a particular focus on marginalised developers. In fact, Mustapha formed the organisation with this very goal in mind two years ago, observing how few systems were in place to accelerate the careers of women in games.
"If [a woman has] been in the industry for over five years, you're considered a veteran," she "What kind of turnover is that?"
She cites studies that show less than 20% of people in the games industry are women -- and that's encompassing all disciplines, such as development, marketing and PR. Even worse, 2% of all developers globally are Black.
"Considering the market and who is playing games, that's ridiculous," Mustapha says. "We want to get to a place where diversity isn't an issue. We want equality."
Reyes adds: "We want to elevate marginalised voices. Diversity doesn't just come from race, ethnicity or gender, it can also come from socio-economic status. These indie developers who are struggling financially during this time won't have the same opportunities as other studios that do have that funding in place, that do have that structure and backing.
"There are so many stories that aren't being heard at the moment, all these amazing game creations that hopefully we'll be able to discover and help to elevate those voices by connecting them with mentors and publishers. That's really important because otherwise these stories will go unheard."
Applications for Elevate are already open and have attracted developers from the Philippines, Bolivia, Colombia, Jamaica and South Africa -- just some of the markets often lacking the support others may take for granted.
"This is a global opportunity to provide access that... people who live in North America or Europe probably have much easier access to," says Mustapha. "It's a really great opportunity to level that playing field, give access to everyone, and get some really interesting stories in games out there."
Being online, Elevate is able to overcome the logistical and socio-economic barriers of travelling to GDC. It also aims to demonstrate how the industry can be made to feel more welcoming and safe for marginalised developers -- something that's particularly important to Mustapha.
"The industry can be intimidating," she says. "I remember early in my career sitting in a boardroom with the interrogation lights on, four white guys sitting across from me with leather jackets on and grilling me on mechanics of certain AAA games. I was having to legitimise that I was a hardcore gamer and I have every right to be here. And that's just through my lens.
"This is a global opportunity to provide access that... people who live in North America or Europe probably have much easier access to"
Tara Mustapha, Code Coven
"I've come through the industry, I understand that, and I think it's a behaviour we're trying really hard as an industry to get out of. You can see among our students how many like the idea of wholesome games, things like Kind Words. We're seeing that change happen, but it can't just be done on the terms of the people who are marginalised and the students who are coming up. It's the responsibility of us, everyone who is already in the industry, to learn and reframe how we're thinking about and approaching things."
Reyes also emphasises the importance of programs like Elevate in increasing the talent pool: "There's a lack of awareness, especially among minority groups, that the games industry is even a career path. In the major hubs, there will be education around that because studios will be actively recruiting at universities, but in other communities there's a complete lack of awareness.
"When you educate students or young people, you see the light bulb go on... You don't have to go to Abertay University or the NYU Game Center, there are other paths that will take you into the industry."
Since Elevate was first conceived, awareness of the struggles marginalised groups face have been brought to the fore by the most recent Black Lives Matter movement and the wave of allegations of harassment and abuse across the industry.
Major games companies have made public-facing statements and considerable donations to help address these issues, particularly in terms of funding Black developers and Black Lives Matter causes. But more active support is needed, and Reyes and Mustapha are pleased to report that -- at least among Elevate's sponsors -- this is happening.
The accelerator is supported by firms such as Google, Facebook, AMD, Double Fine, Xsolla and several indie studios and publishers, many of whom are actively looking at how they can support developers through Elevate and beyond.
"It's not just about donating to certain funds, it's about taking action," says Reyes. "Our partner studios really want to collaborate with us and co-create initiatives to run programs from a grassroots perspective. That's really promising because it's not just people wanting to financially sponsor something and step away, they really want to get involved."
Mustapha concludes: "Yeah, we're seeing a lot of sponsors saying they want to be more than just ticking a box and a logo on our website, they want to help create new programs. And our mentors are really eager to find placements for our students. Everyone is interested in trying to do better."
Applications for Elevate close at midnight PST on Sunday, August 9. You can find out more information at the Elevate website.