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GDC: A first timer's survival guide

Unity Technologies' Liz Mercuri reflects on her first GDC experience

Editor's note: This was originally published last year prior to GDC 2016, but it's worth revisiting for those of you new to GDC

I'm sat in the airport, terrified of flying but equally excited to be attending the Game Developers Conference (GDC) for the first time. I've heard a lot about it from people who have been before and the articles I've read and, despite scouring the website a million times in case I missed something, I still don't feel prepared.

It's a massive opportunity to get to the heart of an industry that I am working super hard to be a part of, so the pressure is on. If only there was some sort of Survival Guide that I could turn to, to help me make the most of the show having never been before. Not to mention being on my own in a foreign country. And being a student...

Well, there wasn't one to read, so I wrote it instead. What follows is the ultimate guide to what to do, what not to do, where to go and where to avoid for a GDC First Timer/Student. You can thank me later...

For context:My name is Liz Mercuri. I am a Prince William Scholar supported by BAFTA and Warner Bros. (as part of Warner Bros. Creative Talent) and am studying Computer Game Software Development at Sheffield Hallam University. My scholarship means that I am super fortunate enough to be supported by both BAFTA and Warner Bros. whilst I study.

I attended GDC 2016 as part of Microsoft Women's Game Changers - an annual initiative held by Microsoft. It brings together men and women working in interactive entertainment to network, learn from one another and reward each other for successes in the industry. It does so by awarding a number of women an 'All Access' GDC pass along with an invite to the Xbox Women in Gaming Luncheon. For me, my GDC adventure wouldn't have been possible without Microsoft Game Changers and the generous sponsorship of Sheffield Hallam University.

GDC Diary: The best bits

This year GDC brought along its virtual reality sibling, VRDC, with enough VR to shake a motion-tracked stick at. As a big horror fan I was really eager to give the Paranormal Activity VR demo a try, but despite this it never happened, so here's the first thing I learnt about GDC: no matter how good your plan or perfectly you prioritise, you won't be able to do everything. Instead of the PA demo I had the eerie pleasure of trying out PlayStationVR with Supermassive's Until Dawn: Rush of Blood.

The potential of horror in VR is ferocious. On the plane over, I'd been reading an article on how far developers should push horror elements in VR, but I felt Supermassive hit the tempo and content perfectly, attaining enjoyable scare levels with the occasional shriek and recoil in terror thrown in.

I attended so many talks throughout the week, but highlights were the Unreal talk: "Digital Humans: Crossing the Uncanny Valley in Unreal Engine 4", with Ninja Theory's Tameem Antoniades; one on the implementation of DirectX 12 with the Northlight Engine; "Menus Suck" - creating more naturally cognitive and intuitive menus in VR and "Designing Asymmetric Gameplay" for Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes. The talks I wish I could have attended included the Experimental Gameplay Workshop (which appeared to be a firm favourite every year) and the crafting of horror within SOMA, but you can't get to everything.

The Microsoft Xbox Women in Gaming Luncheon was something that, I believe, everyone must experience at least once in their GDC adventures. The reputation of the luncheon is formidable and I was immediately aware of the fortunate position I had found myself in.

As such, it was initially overwhelming. Here I was in a room surrounded by women of different backgrounds and life experiences, all of whom had achieved admirable and incredible feats. Every single person in that room shared the same interest - to celebrate, nurture and recognise these achievements. It was then that I realised that I was not an outsider and that in fact, no one in that room was. Everyone was there because they wanted to be and because they believed in one another. The entire luncheon was an extremely emotional but positive experience.

"I left feeling empowered and with a sense of belonging, a stark contrast to how I felt when I first walked in and testament to what an inspiring, collaborative and positive industry games can be"

The speakers were fantastic and each person I spoke to took away something different from the event. Jennie Lee's talk about the importance of mentors - those who believe in you when you have moments of self-doubt and those who present you with opportunity - was very poignant to me. I wouldn't have been sat in that room at all had it not been for the combined efforts of those who believed in me.

I left feeling empowered and with a sense of belonging, a stark contrast to how I felt when I first walked in and testament to what an inspiring, collaborative and positive industry games can be. Having the opportunity to meet the incredible women who made the luncheon possible and those who have facilitated the Game Changers initiative is beyond explanation.

On that note - make the most of GDC by meeting and speaking to others. Hear their stories and what inspires them. I met some incredibly talented people, passionate about what they were creating, just simply by asking what had brought them to GDC or why they had chosen a career in games. GDC was a fantastic opportunity to meet new interesting and talented people and those whose work you have admired for a long time. I was extremely fortunate to meet Ryan Kaufman, the Creative Director of Telltale games, whose work I have followed since I first played the Wolf Among Us. I did my best to stay professional. I mean, I think I only told him how much I loved his work a few million times.

It's not all about about new contacts, though. I was able to spend plenty of time with friends and familiar faces from the UK games industry, too, learning more about which talks they had attended, what had impressed and enthused them...and also who's drinking what.

Hints & Tips

1. Before you go:

  • Download the GDC mobile phone app. It has details of exhibitors, talks and also a mini forum to get connected with others before you go. This is a great way to connect with other first timers.
  • Keep up to date with conference highlights on the run up to the event from @Official_GDC.
  • Check the GDC app and website to see which exhibitors have hands-on demos for you to try! For example, Sony had a multitude of PlayStationVR demos available to try out but appointments had to be booked through the PlayStation Experience app.
  • When creating your itinerary, pace yourself. I filled absolutely every minute of every day with something cool but it's not sustainable. Believe me. Try cherry picking a few talks or events or have a list and see where the day takes you, but make sure you don't burn yourself out!
A single day's program. GDC is dense.

2. Talks & Workshops

As soon as you arrive at GDC, Registration is super quick allowing you to get involved with the talks straight away! When you register, depending on your pass type, you will receive an email granting you access to the GDC Vault. Think of this as a safety net - If you don't get to see each and every talk you had on your to-do list, you can always watch selected talks at your convenience at a later date.

  • Make sure that you start queuing early for the talks that you really want to see. The more popular talks fill up very quickly!
  • Try something different or new. Most of the talks I selected were programming focussed (surprise!) but the ones most memorable are the ones that weren't work focussed. Meeting with artists and designers and attending the talks they were interested in was very enriching.
  • Don't be afraid to ask questions. A number of workshops and talks allow you to ask questions. Don't be afraid to get involved and remember there's no such thing as a stupid question!

3. Networking & Parties/Networking Events

  • Definitely, certainly, most absolutely always make sure that you have a business card of yours to hand! Both on the expo floor and at parties!
  • Research networking events beforehand! Eventbrite, Facebook groups such as The Fellowship of GDC Parties and the Twitter account @GDCParties were just a couple I found by keeping an eye on GDC news and social media feeds and also through friend's recommendations.
  • If there is a community you are involved with, such as Polycount or Scottish Developers for example, chances are there is a social event. Ask around and keep an eye open on social media and newsletters.
  • A lot of networking events & parties you will discover by word of mouth as you make your way through the week.
  • Some parties such as "That Party" are popular, require registration and get full fast so research early!
  • And if you have the chance, keep an evening free for the Game Developer Choice and Independent Game Festival Award.! The atmosphere is fantastic and it's a great compliment to the event itself!
Strangeness abounds at the Experimental Gameplay Workshop.

4. Getting around San Francisco

  • Make sure you're always available - data wise! Check with your phone provider or purchase a SIM card while you're in San Francisco. Whilst WIFI is available at the venue, you'll find that you spend a lot of time out of the venue too. If you're wanting to connect, stay in touch with others and stay up to date with what is happening in and around GDC, you need data!
  • Download Uber or Lift if you want to go a little further out and see the city. Otherwise, the street layout is pretty easy to get used to and it's the best way to take in the sights and the sunshine.
  • Food courts around the venue are always packed so venturing a little further is never a bad thing. And generally cheaper too.
  • If you want to see the San Francisco sights stay a few more days before or after GDC - you won't get time during the show.

5. Be GDC student savvy

If you're a fresh graduate looking for a job, be sure to have a demo or your portfolio to hand - you never know who you are going to bump into. I was showed a beautiful game by the Voxel Agents called The Gardens Between whilst stood waiting for food!

GDC boasts an expo floor completely dedicated to students and those wanting a career in the games industry. The North hall held both the Career Centre and the Business Centre. Further details of what companies were there and who was hiring was detailed in a little, "Who's Hiring" booklet as you went in - super helpful!

"If you're a fresh graduate looking for a job, be sure to have a demo or your portfolio to hand - you never know who you are going to bump into"

The Career Centre enables you to directly approach companies you would love to work for, exchange business cards, ask for advice and see what positions were currently available. Furthermore, career talks ran through the day giving an insight into creative processes and the recent achievements of companies currently recruiting! For example, Michael De Plater, Director of Design at Monolith presented a talk to a room crammed to capacity of students and scholars, giving details on the design elements behind Shadow of Mordor's Nemesis System.

The Business Center took the whole concept a little further and facilitated one to one portfolio reviews! Companies such as Havok, Nintendo, Warner Bros. and Blizzard allowed student to book time slots for portfolio reviews and industry advice. Unsurprisingly, you had to get there early to benefit from this and get a time slot but the intimate nature of the Business Centre is priceless to any student keen to get into games.

6. The Expo floors

The main GDC expo floor spans the South Hall of the Moscone centre. What was striking about it was not just the impressive assembly of companies, but how developer focussed they were. It was fascinating to be able to get an insight into the finer details behind technologies and systems used by companies such as Sony, Crytek, Amazon, Unity and Oculus. A number of stalls such as Substance and Epic also hosted demos and short talks, whilst others allowed you to try the tech first hand.

The North hall held the Career Centre mentioned earlier and also an indie showcase with an impressive array of super fun games from enthusiastic developers from all over the world! I regret not spending more time here.

The South Hall expo alone is vast. You can easily spend a day here.

Separate to the main show floor were other indie exhibitions including Day of the Indies, Indie Megabooth and Independent Games Festival showcases. These featured unique and diverse games which, much like the talent involved, offered far too much to get around in the time GDC allowed. Exhibitors included the lovely Ms. Kitty Powers, Robin Baumgarten's distinctive dungeon crawler and the gents behind Hue and Fiddlesticks. I would recommend giving the exhibitors a Google, you might be surprised by how many you've heard of.

My final piece of advice is this: the awful feeling that you may have missed something important is completely normal! There are so many amazing meet-ups, talks and exhibitors at GDC that you simply won't be able to do everything, so don't sweat it when you hear about something amazing which you missed. On a similar note, don't feel bad that the wonderful itinerary you spent hours meticulously preparing and writing in your best handwriting in your favourite notebook (not speaking from personal experience or anything...) didn't go to plan. Honestly, just let your passions and interests fuel your GDC adventure. Be open to the suggestions of others, expect the unexpected and prepare to be inspired.

And finally...

Right now I am sat in the departure lounge waiting for my flight back to London. It has been five days since I started writing this article and I can't believe how incredible they've been. I was told by so many people how fantastic GDC is, how it would inspire me and tire me, How I'd meet so many talented individuals and how I'd learn a lot about the industry which I love. However, no words come close to how incredible the experience actually was. You must experience GDC for yourself.

For me, it was an incredibly grounding experience. That sounds negative but actually, it's hugely positive. I spent five days surrounded by super talented, crazily ambitious and driven individuals. Every single one of those people offered advice, reassurance and camaraderie. It became second nature to feel inspired and to think more realistically about what I wanted to achieve. It also made me even more certain that the games industry is where I want to be.

This article was originally published for GDC 2017.

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