Why GDC matters more than ever

With the recession battering even the resilient video games industry, this week's confab gives attendees a chance to find jobs, reunite with peers, and learn best practices.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
5 min read

SAN FRANCISCO--For Brenda Brathwaite, a longtime video game designer who avoids flying, the annual Game Developers Conference is such a can't-miss event that she is driving cross-country, from Savannah, Ga., to San Francisco (and back again) in order to be there.

GDC, as it's known, kicks off Monday with a series of two-day topic-specific summits and begins in earnest on Wednesday. And while there may not be too many people driving 5,400 miles round-trip to attend, there is no shortage of people who, like Brathwaite, see the show as indispensable.

"It's the mecca of the game development networking industry," said Brathwaite, a professor of game development and interactive design at the Savannah College of Art and Design. "This is where everybody goes. Every other conference has some fraction, but this is where everybody goes."

While the video game business is growing and may even be recession-resistant, it certainly hasn't escaped the wrath of the downturn, with a series of studio closings like those at ACES, the Microsoft division that made the Flight Simulator franchise, game productions shutting down and people losing their jobs. So as what may well be the world's largest gathering of game developers, GDC could not be more important to those in the industry right now.

And though thousands of game developers will flood GDC's Moscone Center halls for keynote addresses and talks by the likes of Nintendo President Satoru Iwata, The Sims and Spore creator Will Wright, Fable creator Peter Molyneux, and countless others, many say the conference really matters most because there is no other place on earth they can network with more of their peers, talk about jobs with more decision makers, or reunite with more of their friends.

"It's the best place both to get business done, as everyone is here, and to keep an ear to the ground to help gauge where the industry is heading," said Kim Pallister, a business planner on Intel's Larabee project. "These are tough times, especially for some studios that have had publisher funding cut and the like...For those affected, it's a time to scramble for new ground by striking deals, finding new work, or leaning about alternative platforms."

Pallister said this year will mark his 16th GDC, and there are many who see the conference as an annual pilgrimage. But it's also seen by many veterans both as a chance to pass the torch to the next generation of developers and to check in with peers about the state of the industry.

"The core of GDC is about making better games," said Robin Hunicke, the lead designer on Electronic Arts' MySims. "For younger developers and students, it's a chance to meet some of the best minds in the business and learn from them. For developers who have been going for years, it's a time to share war stories, swap best practices, and communicate about what makes life as a developer so challenging--and so fun."

This year also marks a changing of the guard for GDC. Longtime behind-the-scenes organizer Meggan Scavio is heading the conference for the first time after former director Jamil Moledina left for Electronic Arts. But while there will clearly be thousands in attendance this week, Scavio faces a challenging environment.

In an interview in February, Scavio told CNET News that she expected GDC 2009's attendance to be about 18,000, roughly on par with last year. But asked last week about rumors that ticket sales were down, she acknowledged that things have slowed, hardly a surprising development given that many conferences are seeing smaller-than-usual populations.

Still, she said, sales are "strong considering the current economic downturn."

And for people like Ron Meiners, a veteran community manager who recently was laid off from a position in Los Angeles, GDC could not be more important, both as a place to explore possible future employment opportunities and to meet more of the industry's leading thinkers.

"As a consultant or job seeker, the ability to make new ties, or explore existing ties, is key," said Meiners. "I think we're happiest when we have a sense of (who someone is), so we can offer or recommend a job to them. It's a frontier industry still, and there are always very exciting new developments that are hard to understand. The conference gives us a chance to explore them and learn from successful practitioners, those who have made the next great innovations we'll all be talking about for the next year."

Added Meiners, "I think most important, really, for me, (GDC) gets me inspired again about games, about the social aspect of games, about games as a world-changing force and about games as a potentially important part of people's lives."

For many outside the industry, GDC may not have the name recognition of E3, the annual blowout at the Los Angeles Convention Center famous for its ear drum-shattering displays, huge parties, and booth babes.

But over the last few years, E3 has gone through a serious identity crisis, first scaling way down from a 60,000-person free-for-all to a 7,000-person, invite-only show focused on press and analysts. Now, for 2009, E3 looks ready to resume its massive scale, but to some, it may have lost some of its edge.

"We're thinking of vastly scaling down our presence at E3," said Jane Pinckard, a business development analyst for game developer F9. "GDC remains our most important show, in terms of business development...Part of it is, of course, the density of clients and partners and the ability to really focus on meeting them. But also, it's a show that celebrates development qua development. More than E3. So in terms of PR and perception, it's important that we are involved...GDC has credibility."

Asked to quantify GDC's credibility, Pinckard said, "We just look at new business opportunities we can generate by the end of the week. And for GDC, that has historically been really high. Publishers are there to meet with developers specifically. Whereas, at E3, for example, there's some of that, but there are other distractions for them."

Pallister agreed.

"E3 is still trying to find itself following the 'E3 Supernova' of a few years back," Pallister said. "Even in its heyday, though, E3 was a very different show than GDC. E3 was aimed at showing the industry's upcoming wares to the channel and to the customers who would buy them. GDC has always been about developers, about making games."