My GDC ’19 (Part One)

My story starts in November, I am a naïve game dev that  had never really heard much about the Game Developers Conference – other than it was in San Francisco, and was therefore shockingly expensive. I’d put it out of my mind, filing it under “Things I’ll never do”.  But recently my fellow devs started talking about it in our Discord chat and it seemed like something I should be interested in.

So this January I looked into it, and sure enough, it is crazy expensive to attend. The highest priced ticket, the “All Access” pass, gives you everything for the whole five days –  summits, classes, design workshops, major conferences, and everything else for $2500. Remember this price is just for tickets! Transportation, lodging, and food are all on you.

I was also really unsure about the lodgings. I didn’t want to wind up in some cheap, open bay hostel, sleeping with 30 other people in a room and having to walk down the street to a bathroom or something. Also, bedbugs, lots of lots of brain processing time was devoted to worrying about bedbugs.

For transportation I’d thought I’d just drive down there, park in the hotel parking lot and that would be that. Oh no, San Francisco hotels mostly do not have parking, and parking garages charge upwards of $80 to park for three days. Another big expense I hadn’t even anticipated, and yet another reason that maybe this was a bad idea.  

My biggest source of doubt though was that  I really didn’t know what I’d be doing there. What was the purpose of me spending my precious time and money going to this place? I am just a poor solo dev, my one release so far will earn me  exactly zilch, and my current project feels light years from completion. I asked in my game dev Discord what was the point of it all, and their answers ranged from irrelevant to decidedly not helpful. In the end I decided that I should go because some of the lodging doubts were relieved when I found someone else looking for a roomie to split the cost of a decent hotel. In addition, I really wanted to see how the “big boys” (game companies) did it. What are they like, and can I maybe promote myself or find possible team members. In the end, I decided to go do something rather than sitting in my room sweating over design and code and fret over whether I made a mistake.

Then in the middle of February something big came up. I would need to deal with what was going on, and I wasn’t going to be able to go to GDC after all. With a heavy heart I began the process of cancelling. However the convention wouldn’t cancel my ticket because I missed the deadline, but my would-be hotel roomie did return my money that I gave him for the room.  Then after all that, it turned out that I jumped the gun, I wouldn’t have to deal with the emergency until April, but I’d already pulled out of everything. So that was that, GDC would have to wait … I thought.

Then a San Francisco Uber driving friend made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. He’d drive me every day, from Sacramento to San Francisco and back for free. I was blown away by his generosity. This meant I didn’t need to worry about lodging or transportation. Suddenly it was imperative that I go.

GDC started with a bang. On Monday I watched the Unity Keynote speech and was wowed. I was especially impressed with the “Megacity” project. It has such magnificent detail and tons of working pieces without gumming up the processor. Then on Tuesday I watch Google’s Keynote, and was thrilled yet again by their Stadia game network service I pondered the rest of the day what it all actually meant to me as a gamer and a developer.  

It was finally Wednesday, and so on the morning of the 20th of March at about 10:15AM, I hopped out of the car, walked into Moscone Center, got my pass and made my way down the escalator and saw this:

Moscone Center is really three multi-story buildings, North, South and West. North and South are connected underneath Howard Street, and together make an incredibly massive room. This is where the Expo is held. West Moscone is on the next block, completely separate from the North and South buildings.

After staring for a long moment at the gigantic Unity kiosk, I remembered to look at my schedule. I was in the wrong building!  I found myself going back up the elevator, running outside and through a driving rain, dodging fellow pedestrians, getting to Moscone West and making my way up to the second floor, completely soaked.  I managed to make it with plenty of time to spare, and tried to dry off as best I could. This session was called “Down the Rabbit Hole with Oculus Quest”. I sat front and center, by chance sitting next to a representative from the Chinese manufacturer that is making the Quest. She and the speaker, Quest Developer Chris Pruett, were well acquainted with each other, and as a former product engineer, it kind of thrilled me to see that part of the business again. I was interested in this session for several reasons, I wanted to see what this new Quest was about, I wanted to know more about VR and their systems, I wanted to know what it would take to make my game into VR, and if someday VR could be played through Stadia (Google’s new game networking system).

As a result, I now  have a better idea of the issues around  VR gear, especially the Quest. I’m pretty sure the Quest is NOT the right fit for my game – I’ll have to go with a tethered one. It also seems like an action game networking relationship in VR is many years away –  the latency is still too great.

I wandered the South Hall Expo a bit. It’s all huge, while it is mostly targeted to the game developer and trying to sell them tools, gear or systems, there were plenty of actual games to play including an ongoing Overwatch 3 vs 3 Pros vs Joes tournament at the Intel booth.  You could also grab a beer and appetizers over at the Epic booth, and grab a controller and play a wide variety of games in their mini living room set ups, complete with giant comfy pillows.

I got into a “GDC Pitch” event, sometime later, where five game companies make a pitch toward three venture capitalists to see if they can get funding. I was kind of disappointed that it was more of a workshop on how to make a pitch. I had a hard time relating to the “pitchers”. Every single one came from a more or less successful game company that had already had a hit, and they were just seeking more funding to expand their already popular titles. There was no big risks here, all of them had proven track records. I did correctly guess the winner, a small group that had come up with a nuclear war mobile game and they wanted to expand it to more platforms.

It was at this time that I began to feel the full force of an imposter syndrome attack. I suddenly felt incredibly alone and small, realizing all the massive challenges I have yet to face working on my game. I began to feel very intimidated by it all, and had to take a moment to regroup. I felt like a velvet Elvis artist trying to hawk my wares to the Louvre. What am I doing here? Why am I here at all? I really had to get a grip on myself and get my head back on before I could continue.

What really turned me around was just talking to people. I got in a huge line at Unity to get a free t-shirt. The line was inching along very slowly, and I had nothing better to do, so I chatted up the lady in front of me. Turns out she had just graduated from art school and was looking for work. Since I was a bit starved for company, I gave her the full spiel, I had her play Vault, told her the long story about my Space Mechanics game and where I was going with it. The whole thing and she didn’t run off screaming or laugh at me. I asked a bit about her background and it turns out she does hard surface 3D modelling, and concept art. Her portfolio was full of the things I am looking for, old and used looking models and while it wasn’t “used sci-fi” I am sure she could handle that style as well. I have her card and will probably be calling on her for freelance work when I figure out exactly what I need.

It was only afterwards I realized that I really wasn’t alone out there – that there were plenty of people in this convention who were just like me. Some of them were in much more desperate situations and had just started their careers with no experience at all. I began to see things in a different light.

I found the Megacity display in the Intel area, and was talking with the presenter and his friend, and mentioned that it was exactly what I was looking for in my Space Uber game. The presenter’s friend’s ears perked up, and he paled a bit.


“You’re working on a taxi game in space?” he asked.

“Well yes, sort of…” I tried to explain that it was a phase in my project. He calmed a bit and led me to a nice open spot in the Unity booth. He opened his laptop and showed me his game “Hover Cabby”, it was a good game and well developed. You zoom around a colorful stylized futuristic city collecting fares and doing other odd jobs. It was much more refined than mine and he’d clearly been working on it for some time. I had him play what I had of the Asteroid Bullet Hell scene for Space Uber, and he was much happier. Even if I made Space Uber a full on game, it would be nothing like Hover Cabby. I could relate, though, nearly the same thing happened to me when I showed off Space Salvage the first time, and the salvaging game “Stardrop” parked right behind my display.

So now it was time to party. GDC is known for its after parties, and so I’d done some homework and registered for a couple. The first one was the “Level Up Mixer” at the Harborview Restaurant and Bar. OK … let me just say I have never lived in a city, I have been rural and I’ve been suburban, and in both of those cases you drive everywhere.  So I was trying to find someone to split a cab to get there. I found someone from the GDC discord, a coder from Colorado, and when we looked it up on the map, we found out it really wasn’t that far away, so we just walked together.

Harborview Restaurant

The party had just gotten started. I am not a fashionably late person, you give me a time, and I try to hit it precisely. Right off the bat I met with the organizer and professional event director and he introduced me to various people that were working with him. One of them said she was a dancer, which turned out to be important later. I met all kinds of interesting people. I met a guy from Cardiff, and I learned that he was working on a VR walkthrough of Cardiff Castle, and that he couldn’t say “Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch” – the one question everyone asks people of Wales. There was a composer from Maine looking for work and a few other recent graduates from various game and art colleges. The din started to get louder as more people showed up, and I slunk off to go get a plate of five chicken wings for $10. San Francisco, yer killin me!  I talked with several other people, including another composer in a blond wig, a dev from Utah, of all places, and things were starting to really click; people were having a great time, the drinks were flowing, and they were showing a beautiful indie game on the big screen behind them. So I left.

Actually it wasn’t quite as abrupt as that. I was supposed to meet some fellow Sacramento devs at the Unity HQ, where we were presenting what we were doing in Unity. I thought I was going to get a ride .. but there was no ride. I should have left earlier to walk there, but I didn’t and wound up being very late.

I walked in and they looked at me like I had just asked if I could date their moms, collectively. I explained I was there with the Sac Dev Collective and there was a presentation … I was wondering if I was speaking English. The guard said suddenly, “Oh, you must mean the other Unity building.”

“The other building?”

“Oh, yeah, it’s just around the corner from here, on Mission.”

“Oh … kay”, I said reluctantly. The SDC had been pretty clear.

I stowed whatever misgivings I had, and dutifully I headed out, following his instructions. As I suspected, there was absolutely nothing there. I’d likely had already missed the meeting anyway, so I used my temporary superpower… I called my Uber friend, bugged out and made the long trip back to Sac. It had been a long Wednesday.

… To be Continued

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