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Surviving GDC: Tips for Game Conference Success

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My first GDC experience, in 2010, was terrifying. I had just started my studio the month before, and, as excited as I was to see all the amazing games and meet the incredible teams, I was also very intimidated and overwhelmed. I felt small, and was anxious whenever I tried to initiate a conversation or meet a new person at the conference. What do people talk about? How do I join a conversation? Who should I talk to?

After a few years of conference-going, I've learned a few tricks that were useful at GDC '14 last week. Hopefully, you'll find some of them helpful for your first few game conferences, as well!

1. Preparations: Before You Get There

Find Accommodation

Most conferences are held in big cities, and finding accommodation can be tricky. This can be an opportunity to network and get to know your fellow developers and conference-goers. Reach out to people in your city to find attendees to share a room with. Even if it's someone you are not too familiar with or a new acquaintance, the fact that you are going to the conference creates an immediate bond, and it's always nice to have someone to share rides with during the conference. 

A week before GDC 2014, there were multiple threads in the Seattle Indies Facebook group, where people, like me, who decided to attend the conference late were looking for others to room with. On top of the benefits of finding (more) affordable accommodation by sharing rooms, it's also a great way to re-connect with your local game devs!

Join a Group Before You Arrive

Networking at GDC starts from your local dev scene and your other existing networks. I was added to a GDC 2014 Group Chat on Google Hangout, and it was a great way to stay connected before and during the conference. People invited each other out for food, helped with moving equipment, shared rides, hooked up party invites, and informed each other of which areas of the city to avoid going. 

If you go to GDC by yourself, having a small conference community can be useful and make the whole experience less daunting and more fun. Find them on TIGSource.comigda.orgMeetup.com, Craigslist, Twitter, and Facebook, and ask your developer friends to introduce you to anyone they might know who plans on attending.

Ask to Help; Volunteer

A great way to get involved at GDC is by volunteering. Not only do you get to go to the conference for free, you also go with a default group of friends to network with. Alternatively, you can volunteer to help out at other developers' booths on the expo floor. Manning a booth is an exhausting effort and people are always looking for help, so look out for opportunities or offer yourself up!

Buy Some Cough Drops!

I learned this lesson the hard way! Now, I always make sure I have cough drops and throat candies on me during a conference. You'll be constantly talking and shouting while competing with loud background noise or music, so taking care of your throat is key if you don't want to lose your voice during the conference.

Your throat is your primary weapon at conferences. Take good care of it!

RSVP for Parties in Advance

With great conferences come great parties. After a long day of conference, the parties are where a lot of meaningful friendships and connections are built.

First thing's first: RSVP. The hottest GDC parties will sell out very quickly, so as soon as you know you are going to the conference, start RSVPing to the parties you want to go to. Ask around for a list of GDC parties. There were three lists this year that I used: a Google Docs spreadsheet, a Facebook group, and a pocket gamer list that I found via forums and Facebook groups I'm in.

The entire week was full of evening parties, starting even before the conference, so make sure you pace yourself for the day and the week. Identify the key parties where you should try to meet more people and be more chatty,  so that you know when you can be a bit more relaxed. Most parties will have an open bar, so if you drink, definitely plan out your week so you can be physically ready for what's important to you during the day. The endless booze can definitely take its toll!

2. Conference Week: Where to Meet People

The Conference Starts at the Airport

One of the first places a conference often starts for me is the airport in my city. Chances are, many people at your flight gate and sitting next to you on the airplane are going to the same conference. There are always several hints: game logos on t-shirts and bags, people traveling by themselves on the same flight.

The great thing about meeting people in the airport and on the flight is that you have natural conversation starters. Small talk about the food, the in-flight drinks, the weather, how long the flight is, and so on, are all great openers for a conversation.

On my flight down to GDC '14 on Monday, I sat next to a gentleman who I suspected worked in the game industry. Half way through the flight, coffee was served in awful plastic cups, which added a distinct and nasty taste to the coffee. I made a quick comment to the guy about the unfortunate smell in the coffee, which led to a quick chat about the coffee and airplane food in general. He then asked if I was traveling for business—and that's when we found out we were both going to GDC. He was going to the conference as a marketer for PopCap, while I was going as an indie developer. I learned a few things about mobile game marketing and, on top of making a good connection, it also made the flight much more enjoyable.

Use the Lines to Meet and Greet

With over 20,000 GDC attendees, expect to see long lines at popular talks, popular local food/drink spots, and restrooms. But, unlike in many other situations, the line is your friend at conferences. It creates an opportunity for you to connect with the people in front and behind you in the line. The waiting time creates a good environment for networking.

You and the people around you are in this together, and no one is in a rush to leave, which makes it perfect for a nice chat to kill time and make the wait more enjoyable. You can talk about how long the line is, what you've heard about this talk or place, or comment on how the line is barely moving (but don't complain or be too negative).

Another thing you can do with lines is to ask people what they are lining up for—this is often a good way to find out what's not to be missed and to start a conversation.

Line for Sony's VR session at GDC'14

At GDC this year, Sony was making an announcement about the new VR device, and their session had one of the longest lines I was in. The line was barely moving and we seemed to be going in circles. I turned around and commented on how the line seemed never to end to the woman behind me. We had a quick chat about the line, then I asked if she was a VR developer; since we were in line for the VR talk, that's a common topic we shared. It turned out that she was a storyteller from Pixar who was at GDC to explore narrative design in games, and we had a good chat about how some of the most interesting narratives are done in indie games, and her take on in-game narration vs. in-film narration. It was fascinating to learn about how people from different media see games as a storytelling medium.

Chat to People Sitting Near You in Talks

By the same token, people sitting next to you, in front of you, or behind you are prime candidates for networking. First, you are already in the same session and share common interests which yield natural conversation starters. Second, everyone is sitting down and relaxed in a quiet environment before the session starts or after the session ends, so you won't have to fight the background music as you do at parties. Use the confined space to your advantage and say hi to your neighbors. Similarly, this extends to people sitting next to you in rest areas and on sofas, and to those standing next to you in conference stores.

Strike Up Conversations in Coffee Shops and Food Areas

Blue Bottle Coffee in San Francisco, full of game developers

Coffee shops around the conference center are often where attendees go for meetings, to relax, or to do some work. I decided to take it slow one morning to check out a famous coffee shop in San Francisco, Blue Bottle. I noticed the person sitting across the table was reviewing slides, so I hazarded a guess and asked if he was preparing for a talk at GDC. It turns out we have some common friends from Sony and we had a nice chat and talked about potential collaboration in the future. We exchanged cards after talking over our breakfasts.

If a conference provides food, the food area is a great place to meet new people. Simply go up to people and ask whether a spot is taken and if you can join them. At Unite last year, I sat next to one of the co-founders of Unity during lunch, chatted about the early days of the company, and had a play of his latest project! Everyone's an equal at the food court.

GDC goers at a food court

Go Up to Speakers After Their Talks

This is one of my favorite things to do, especially early on in the conference to get myself into networking mode. After talks, go up to the speakers at the front, even if you don't have much to say but just wanted to say hi and thank them for the talk. Speakers want to know if their talks are useful, and it's always nice to be appreciated. Plus, this is an easy way to get you started in the mode of talking to people you haven't met. 

Often there will be a line or a circle around the speaker, and the speaker will go from one person to the next until she has spoken to everyone who's waited to speak to her. A quick "I enjoyed the talk", a comment or question about the topic, and a "I'd like to introduce myself" has gotten me connected with some of my gamedev heroes after their talks.

Expo floor

Attend the Parties

GDC parties!

For me this year, the Cartoon Network/Adult Swim party on Tuesday and the Unity party on Wednesday were the two key parties I wanted to attend. I made sure I was well rested beforehand, and that my Thursday morning was free in case if I needed the rest after the Unity party the night before (and I certainly did!).

Finally, when you first arrive at a party, scope it out, chat to a few people, and find out if it's the type of community you want to connect with. You can then decide if you want to stay or go to a different party, since there will be several on the same might. There are conference parties put on by different organizations—publishers, advertisers, service providers, developers—and it's totally fine to leave one for another if you find yourself having a difficult time relating to people there.

Check Out the Lost Levels "Unconference"

Lost Levels unconference

I did not know about Lost Levels until the day before, but it turned out to be one of my favorite moments at GDC this year.

This "unconference" consists of 5-10 minute micro talks by fellow game developers and pretty much anyone who would like to give a talk. Unlike the main conference, these talks are spontaneous, and the topics and activities range from making a game in ten minutes, to defining game study, to performing music.

If you find yourself wanting something different after a few days of GDC, check out Lost Levels for a change and to meet other creative thinkers along the way. My favorite quote from this event (paraphrasing) was:

We don't make games. We make software. Players make the game when they play it. Game study is the study of the transformation from software to games.

3. How to Start and Hold a Conversation

Use Props

It's a good idea to give people something to talk about. I carry around a space invader keychain on my bag from a metro gaming museum in Germany given to me by a fellow developer. (Make sure your prop has a story behind it you can talk about.) A friend gave out oranges to people standing in line waiting to go into parties—he kept everyone healthy and had a great way to introduce himself to more people!

My Space Invader keychain

Have Default Conversational Topics for Different Types of Attendees

Many different types of professionals will be at a gaming conference: programmers, artists, designers, advertisers, publishers, platform holders, middleware developers, outsourcing service providers, and more. I usually have a few different topics that I can talk about and different questions to ask for different types of professionals.

For example, with advertisers, I might ask about conversion rates, comparison with other types of advertisements, and their experience with non-gaming apps. With platform holders, I might ask about what type of content they are looking for and what new technology and features are coming to their platforms. Once you've identified a few categories, all you need is a few questions for each category and you can use the same topics and questions for anyone you meet.

Big Indie Pitch at GDC '14

Know When a Conversation is Private!

I made the mistake of joining in a conversation at the Cartoon Network/Adult Swim party without realizing that the two other people were having a private conversation until I heard the words "deals" and "agreements". 

Sometimes it's difficult to tell, especially if you are in a party with loud music in the background, but pay attention to keywords like "contracts", "deals", "agreements", "sign", "budget", and "confidential". If the conversation involves legal terms or monetary discussions, quickly figure out whether it's a private conversation, and excuse yourself if it is.

Be Sure to Say "Hi" to Your Gaming Heroes

One of the most exciting things about GDC is meeting people behind the games you love. It can often be intimidating, but I usually go with "Just wanted to say hi and let you know how much I appreciate your work," and then introduce myself. For the most part, people are friendly and approachable, so don't be afraid to go up to some of the biggest names in the industry.

4. A Few Other Must-Know Tips

You Can Skip the Main Conference if Cash is an Issue

Conferences can be expensive. If you are just starting out as an indie game developer or hobbyist, don't let the $2,000+ ticket price keep you from heading to the conference. I've found some of my best GDC experiences were from activities outside of the talks, the expos, and the award shows. Many of the parties and offsite events will be open to the public (as long as you know how to find them—see the topic on the party list above), and as you can see from some of my experiences, you'll still get to meet lots of great developers.

Write Notes on Business Cards

This is an old trick, but it works amazingly well. You will meet a ton of people at the conference, and it's hard to remember who's who and where you met without a little help. Every night after the conference, I review all the business cards and write notes on them: where we met, what we talked about, and what I need to follow up with them on. It doesn't take more than a few minutes, but it's very useful, especially if you are as bad with names as I am!

Be Well! 

At the risk of sounding like your mother, make sure you drink plenty of water, eat regularly (despite the urge to skip meals and go to the next cool thing), and have a source of vitamin C ready during conference week. It's easy to get sick, especially if you have to travel to the conference, so make sure you do everything you can to avoid it.

Also, if you've had a heavy night of drinking, a full glass of Emergen-C before bed can help you avoid the hangover headache the next morning. This is a tip I learned from a fellow developer this time and it worked like a charm! It won't stop you from feeling tired, but at least the headache won't be there and you can still hold a conversation with people the next day without wanting to curl up in a ball.

People Want to Talk to You

Everyone at the conference is there to do the same thing: meet other cool gamers and developers. Even if people don't seem to want to talk to you, give them the benefit of the doubt. Going to conferences is exhausting and, sometimes, even when people really want to talk to you, they might not look like it physically.

There's a developer whose work I've admired over the years. We've met a few times before but never had any long conversation so I'd assumed that he just wasn't that interested in talking to me. I met him again this time and finally realized that, even though he's great at giving talks and always appears to be talking to people, he is not a natural conversationalist. What I previously took as a sign of disinterest was simply the way he is. As soon as I removed this self-imposed mental block, we were able to have a meaningful conversation. The problem was all in my head!

My exhibitor pass this year—thanks tinyBuild!

Take Some Time for Yourself

GDC is exhilarating. You have your senses stimulated from all directions. Remember to take time for yourself to recharge and enjoy the city. I took a couple of hours off one afternoon to check out some of the design shops in San Francisco, absorb the city's energy, and decompress from all the conference activities. A great added bonus is that now you have even more topics to talk about when meeting new people: the different spots in the city that they should check out!

Ask Questions, Don't Take Anything Too Seriously, and Have Fun

Finally, remember that the best way to connect with people is to ask questions and be curious about what they do. GDC is full of creative talents, and everyone's got an amazing story to tell. And as much as it is a professional conference, it doesn't mean that you have to be serious all the time. It is your conference to be with your type of people. Relax, smile, and most of all, have fun!

Spatial Stories: Augmented and Virtual Realities at GDC '14

References

All photos owned by Brandon Wu and used with permission.

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