GDC (and, Is It Worth It?)

I’ve wanted to attend GDC for a few years now, but I’ve always been hesitant. I hear many game devs talk about what a great and inspiring time it is, I see all my Twitter dev pals posting about the fun they’re having when they go — it sure sounds incredible, but I always doubted whether it was worth the time and money. Every year I’d spend waffling up until the last moment deciding should-I-shouldn’t-I, but this year I resolved to just go and see for myself whether it was worth it. Maybe this post will help someone else decide the same questions! I’ll start with the cost, weigh that against the various reasons for going, and close out with my final thoughts along with some general tips and observations.

A shot of San Fran from a GDC building!

Let’s start with money: GDC is expensive. It cost me $1,500 to go, and I was being relatively cheap about it. I only stayed for four days (many seem to stay up to five or seven) and I stayed in the “indie hostel” (the HI San Fransisco Downtown hostel, which is full to brim with indie devs during GDC.) I also bought the cheapest pass, the Expo pass, which gets you into the expo hall, the IGF awards, and a very VERY limited number of talks. For reference, if you want the All-Access pass, you can add another $2,000 to the total (no, not a typo.) I could have saved more money by getting connecting flights and skipping the pass altogether (some people do this, focusing on the social aspect) but I wanted to not be too stressed, and to get at least a bit of exposure to every aspect of the experience.

So, with the cost established, what are the reasons to go to GDC as an indie? I’ve seen a few, namely: to meet up with dev friends and party, to go to talks and learn, to get inspired, to network, and to meet with and pitch to developers and publishers. I’ll go one by one and describe my experience with each aspect as best I can!

The park and food court right next to GDC!

Meeting up with dev friends and partying: This was the aspect I was most indifferent to going in, but strangely was the most fun I had at GDC, by far! There are great opportunities to meet fellow devs: there’s a food court and park right next to the conference where tons of them hang out, there’s a common area in the indie hostel that is constantly occupied, and every night there seems to be at least two parties (whether you can score an invite to some of them is another matter, of course.) I met tons of people, including some I’d followed on Twitter for years or even worked with (like finally meeting Jukio and catching up with Joonas, which was a blast!!) At the same time, most of them I only got to talk to for about five or ten minutes each — GDC is so packed and busy, people are usually being pulled all over. I also had a fairly large network of friends there from the dev community in Toronto, or that I had met at PAX last year. I can’t imagine what it would be like without those already-established friends, or specific people I wanted to meet — probably insanely lonely and, if this was the experience I had prioritized, unsuccessful. I’m very awkward/shy when it comes to meeting new people, and having some familiar faces around helped a ton.

Selfies with Jukio and Joonas, to prove we occupied the same physical space at one moment!! Sadly not all at once!

Going to talks and learning: Conversely, this is the aspect I thought I’d enjoy the most, but was really underwhelmed by. I actually lucked into the use of an All-Access pass (amazing!!) and made constant use of it (how could I not?) I went to talks on AI, porting, in-game reward structures, classic game post-mortems and more. I know the speakers themselves are all pros at the top of their game, but damned if the actual talks weren’t generally super basic and surface-level. In the best talks I saw, I felt like I was gaining interesting insight or trivia into these games and people, but never did I feel like I was learning something vital or specific that I could apply to my craft. Maybe I went to the wrong talks, maybe I went in with the wrong expectations. Some friends went to talks that were more explicitly “fun” (like “a panel of indie devs ranting about what pisses them off” or “a panel of indie devs talking about how they totally messed up their latest game”) and seemed very entertained! But personally, that’s not what I’d spend $2,500 on a pass for. Compound this with the fact that many talks to up on YouTube for free afterwards, and I’d call the talks a poor choice for going.

The hostel common area. Pretty chill!

The last couple reasons for going, I have much less to say. You can go to get inspired, but… that’s pretty individual, haha. Maybe you will, maybe you won’t? I remember attending my first PAX like 4-5 years ago and getting inspired by the dev talks and people they had there, but these days it’s a bit old hat and doesn’t give me the same feeling. If you’re new to this kind of thing (or possibly less of a pedantic/jaded/analytic jerk than I) there’s a good chance it’ll leave you feeling jazzed! Most people I know say they were.

I didn’t meet with any publishers, but I have friends who did, with varying degrees of success! I obviously couldn’t promise you any kind of fortune here, but GDC is literally crawling with developers and publishers so if you want to meet them and do it in person, this is the place to make your deals, and you can find success here, so maybe it’s worth a shot! Again, people I know say it was worth it for them in this regard.

The IGF awards! You know who’s on screen.

So, whew! All that said, would I say it’s worth it? For a first-timer with some friends, or someone with concrete business goals and realistic expectations — probably! For repeat visits, or people with less-defined objectives, I really don’t know. I met lots of exciting people, had a bunch of fun socializing, and saw some interesting talks, but was it worth $1,500? It comes down to how you value both $1,500 and socializing! If I’m in the same financial place a year from now, I’ll probably pass — it’ll make me sad, because I did have a really fun time! But I also probably couldn’t justify the expense for what I feel I got out of it in a concrete business sense.

A talk. I’m just trying to break up the text walls. :D

I was going to finish with tips and tricks, but nothing comes to mind save one thing: the hostel and location. The indie hostel is located on the perimeter of “the tenderloin”, a notoriously rough area of town, and before I went I heard and read some pretty wild stories about how bad it got — by the time GDC came around I was damn freaked out. For what it’s worth, if you’re debating going and the location is giving you pause, it’s my experience that you’ll be fine if you’re smart. Do a bit of research beforehand on where to avoid and stick to it. Don’t do anything obviously stupid like eyeballing shady folks or mouthing off to strangers or waving your expensive stuff around, and stick with groups at night for maximum safety. I got this kind of advice before going and it only freaked me out more, but it’s not meant as “INSTRUCTIONS ON HOW NOT TO DIE”, they’re just common-sense precautions to take. You should be fine if you stick to the good areas. Just be smart!

That’s it! I just got back from showing Bleed 2 in the PAX East Minibooth , which was lots of fun. Maybe I’ll post about that in the future too!