Notes from GDC

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Tagged: gdc, interactive fiction, networking, if, obduction, conferences

I could have titled this post "Survived GDC!" Maybe even "Surviving GDC," since I've worked up some tips about the experience. But before I get there...

GDC was great. Had a blast! Involving no literal explosions! So a big win all around.

I got to see a whole lot of people. If I start listing names it'll get boring and I'll forget some anyway. So I'll just note that I met Alexis Kennedy (of FailBetter Games) and Jeff Vogel (of Spiderweb Software). Among lots of others. And of course even more people that I know from the IF world or the game conference circuit and was happy to see again.

Excellent talks:
  • Narrative Innovation Showcase (lightning showcase by many designers, assembled by Clara Fern├índez-Vara and Matthew Weise).
  • Meg Jayanth on NPCs in 80 Days. (Here's a related talk she gave at Practice last year -- Vimeo.)
  • Alexis Kennedy on narrative in Sunless Sea, and also boozing it up on stage.
  • Sam Barlow on Her Story.
  • Adam and Rebekah Saltsman talking about how they decide what games to develop at their indie studio.
  • Jane Ng on the art design and implementation of Firewatch.
  • The development of the Hitman and Tomb Raider franchises into Hitman Go and Tomb Raider Go.
  • Tetsuya Mizuguchi looking back on 15 years of Rez.
  • I didn't even attend any of the Friday talks, such as the extremely interesting open-source release of Inkle's game engine.

I am not going to do per-talk writeups, but you can read Emily's posts (Mon, Tue/Wed, Thu/Fri). Also Aaron Reed's post.

Then there was the show floor. Enough corporate wealth on display to make the most hardened Wall Street analyst weep. After my first walkthrough, I tweeted:

Getting all my GDC sizzletakes out of the way up front: There are some great games. But I'm still not buying an Xbox or PS4. And VR is bunk. (@zarfeblong)

Yes, that's snarky (even for twitter-compressed punditry) but I meant it. Not that VR is vapor -- there were plenty of functional devices on demo. But the amount of... stuff... invested in that VR tech is really absurd. Feature-adds like air movement and AR; middleware and tools; colleges offering VR training; every single game bragging about VR support. You know most of it will fail. The whole point of industry expos is to show off products most of which will fail. The only question is whether it will all fail.

I suspect it will all fail. I say that because it provides the maximum humor value if I'm right. Go on, tell me you have a better metric.

Anyhow, on the fringes of the Unreal/Oculus/Sony/Unity/Microsoft/Amazon hellscape, one could find the good stuff:

And, of course, the most exciting demo -- don't judge me -- the live preview of Cyan's Obduction. It got a trailer a couple of weeks ago, but only GDC attendees have gotten a chance to wander around the opening area. It looks great! It's very definitely a Cyan game: strange empty landscape, machines, staticky holograms. But up to modern graphical standards, of course. (Cyan got space in Unreal's expo booth because they make the engine look good.) I wore my Myst Online shirt, shook hands with a couple of Cyan folks, and felt generally elevated about the coming game.

I want to talk about the GDC experience, because the conference is big, scary, expensive, and not for everybody. My first GDC was four years ago. I had a pretty good time... but it wasn't worth my time and effort. This year was my second GDC and it was absolutely worth my time and effort. The difference is important.

Four years ago, the talks were okay. I had the "summits and tutorials" pass -- intermediate between the indie pass (cheapish) and the full-week pass (no way unless your company picks up the tab). I went to a bunch of talks, and they were pretty cool, but they weren't about the most interesting games or the most interesting authors out there. The show floor had the IGF showcase, but nothing else relevant to my life.

This year, the narrative track was on fire. Positively. Just one awesome presentation after another. The indie track had some great stuff too, but really, you wanted to be at the narrative talks. You wanted to go chat with the narrative speakers in the post-talk wrap-up area. Or just sit around listening to the conversations! That's cool too. So big props to the organizers.

Another thing: four years ago, I didn't know anybody. I mean, I knew people in the IF world, and some of them were there. Emily gave a talk on Versu. We had a big IF dinner meetup. A couple of people said "Hey, you're Andrew Plotkin! I love your work!" But it was not a very social event for me. And, great talks or not, it's the social that makes GDC memorable.

What was different this year? I know a lot of people. I've been to lots of smaller game events -- Indiecade, Boston FIG, Wordplay, Practice, gaming tracks at sci-fi conventions. Our own Boston IF meetup. PAX -- well, PAX isn't a small event, but it's cheaper than GDC and you can find cool folks there.

Perhaps you are terrible at meeting people. I am terrible at meeting people! I didn't meet very many people at GDC 2012. But if somebody says hi to me at an event, maybe I'll say hi back the next year, and at another event we'll chat a little, and the following year we'll go out for lunch somewhere. And after four years of that, GDC actually worked out great for me, socially. I was surprised too.

So if you're new to the dev scene and meeting people is a scary prospect, maybe don't start with GDC! Go to smaller events. Say hi to interesting people. Heck, try coming to the Lost Levels meetup -- it's in Yerba Buena park during GDC but you don't need a badge, you can just show up and chat. The cool people will be there.

I realize, of course, that I have an unfair advantage. I have a history of famous games -- people say hi to me. I can't apologize for this or say I don't rely on it. But I don't think that you need to be pre-famous to meet people at conferences.

(I used to freak out when people came up and squeed at me. Now I try to freak out very briefly and quietly, because the conversations wind up being pretty awesome.)

So that's my thesis about GDC. Work up to it if it's intimidating. Try to swing the "summits" pass if you possibly can, because the narrative track is the best. If money is so tight that you can't even afford the "indie" pass, there's all those other events -- some of them are free. Suggest talks, too; not everybody with a speaker's badge is a Big Name in gaming.

A few quick non-GDC notes:

I am featured on two recent episodes of the Clash of the Type-Ins podcast. In the first, I recite Bigger Than You Think while Ryan Veeder and Jenni Polodna shout commands at me. In the second, we do the same for (part of) The Dreamhold. Also we have a lot of fun and joke around and talk about very tangential things.

Sam Barlow curated an indie game feature on Apple's App Store earlier this month. He included Meanwhile and Hadean Lands. Which was great! Thanks, Sam. (Sam has now won every possible award in the past twelve months for Her Story, possibly including the Fields Medal and the America's Cup. If it were me I honestly might switch to competitive origami just to take off the followup pressure.)

And finally, I got my head scanned. Jason Scott threw a party celebrating five years at the Internet Archive, and one of his friends brought a handheld 3D scanner. So now you can download my head. Sorry about the nose blivet; it's not a perfect scan.