GDC: An old timer's survival guide
Greg Costikyan reflects on how to get the most out of the show as a veteran of the industry
Editor's note: If you're a veteran GDC attendee, are you sure you're doing it right? Here's a handy guide that we originally published last year.
I read Liz Mercuri's "GDC: A First Timer Survival Guide," and was charmed by it; but as I mulled it over, felt... "What about an Old Timer's Survival Guide?" So this.
First of all, you want to go to GDC. You know you do. And maybe you're driving toward a milestone, and your studio is in crunch, and you can't get away, but you know what? Screw that. Happens all the time. You see the people in your studio every day, but you get to see old friends from the industry rarely. You can at least do Wednesday to Friday, and your managers can deal.
"You'll want to check out the IGF entries. Anything to make yourself believe that the industry isn't a brain-dead agglomeration of people working on version VI of a franchise, or a clone of something else"
Second, the conference is expensive, no doubt about it. Maybe you got it together to put together a talk proposal, and maybe it was accepted or maybe it wasn't; or maybe your employer will spring for a full pass. If you get a free pass, of course there will be sessions you want to see. The Experimental Gameplay Workshop, for sure. You'll want to check out the IGF entries. Anything to make yourself believe that the industry isn't a brain-dead agglomeration of people working on version VI of a franchise, or a clone of something else, or some VR piece of crap because that's the new hotness and it's what the VCs want to see... Certainly you'll want to avoid anything with "marketing" or "monetization" in the title. And some sessions you can sniff from a mile off; we've been on the "story vs. system" debate since the '80s, and recasting it as "narratology vs ludology" just means the academics have awoken to an ancient argument. The arguments have all been made, no need to hear anyone rehash them. Most sessions are eminently skippable; find the ones that aren't.
But if you don't have a free all-access pass because you got a session past the powers-that-be, or because your employer will pay for it, well, screw it, save yourself some money and get a floor pass. It gets you in the front door, you can meet up with other attendees, and while you'll miss the sessions, you won't miss most of the sessions you'll miss, and you know it.
San Francisco hotels are expensive too, but by now you surely have figured how to navigate this system. I typically stay at the Hayes Valley Inn, which is a Euro-style hotel with the bath down the hall, not en suite. It's cheap (by San Francisco standards). Not close to Moscone, but there's a Bay Area Bike Share station in front of City Hall, a short walk away, and another docking station at the Moscone. $22 bucks gives me unlimited bike access for the duration. If you're unemployed and looking for work, there's always the North Beach Hotel - kind of skanky, but very cheap, and similarly well-positioned for bike share. And while the place itself is rundown, it's blocks away from North Beach and Chinatown, so your culinary options are stellar.
You need to prepare for the show, not just show up on the day. By which I mean you need to start at least two weeks before hand, and preferably up to a month. Figure out who you want to talk to; this will likely be a mix of old friends you'd just be delighted to see, and business contacts who might be useful to you whose company you can at least stand (and preferably enjoy). Reach out, via whatever channel makes sense, and set up times and places to meet. If you don't have a lunch and dinner partner for every day of the show, you're doing it wrong; and more is better. Monitor your social feeds; friends may be setting up group meetings on such; those events will at least be fun, and may be useful. Meet for drinks, meet for coffee, meet to play boardgames, whatever; in many cases, you'll go in without an agenda, but you don't know what will come out of the conversation.
"You need to prepare for the show, not just show up on the day. By which I mean you need to start at least two weeks before hand, and preferably up to a month"
Go in with the attitude that you're there to socialize and have fun; if you have another objective (a job, a deal, funding) that's fine, but you don't know ahead of time how your other objectives will materialize, and meeting people will make it likelier that synchronicity will lead to your objective. Some will be along the lines of "I'm meeting to pitch my venture;" others will be along the lines of "I'm going out a friend's house in the Outer Sunset to play boardgames," and you'll find that you meet a VC there with whom you connect, leading to a later meeting.
If you have downtime, resist the introvert's instinct to go back to your hotel and crawl into your shell; wander the floor, strike up conversations, go check out the bars at nearby hotels and see if you run into someone you know semi-randomly. You can veg out when you get home.
Eat no bad meals, even if you have no current companion for one. You're in San Franfuckingcisco. It's no New York, to be sure, but there's no excuse for going to Chipotle in the city that invented the Mission-style burrito.
And stay the weekend instead of flying back to whatever the hell repulsive suburban landscape you live in. Have lunch at the Ferry Building on Saturday with people who are staying on, or with contacts who live in the Bay Area. Rent a bike and go for a ride through the Presidio. Take a day or two to explore.
Yes, it's business. It's also Old Home Week. Don't take it too seriously, but reconnect. And enjoy yourself.
Greg Costikyan is a veteran game designer whose career has spanned roles at Boss Fight Entertainment, Disney Playdom, and as CEO of Manifesto Games. This article was originally published ahead of GDC 2017.