This post contains three things: a list of talks I think are probably interesting to IF people, if you’re an IF person attending GDC this year; some thoughts about where to look for GDC-related content even if you are an IF person who cannot go; and finally some general strategies for first-time GDC-goers.
If you are going, here are a bunch of things that might interest you:
Monday, 10 AM: Narrative Innovation Showcase. Includes Aaron Reed and others with varying degrees of IF community connection, on what I’m confident will be a nifty tour of recent work.
Monday, 2:10 PM: Meg Jayanth on writing NPCs with agency.
Monday, 3:00 PM: Tanya Short and Tarn Adams on practices in procedural generation. There is some talk here about procedurally generated myths, which certainly makes me curious.
Monday, 3:50 PM: Randy Smith on environmental storytelling in Spider: Rite of the Shrouded Moon. In full disclosure, I haven’t managed to get far enough with this game to be told very much story by it, but that may be more about me than about it. Curious, though.
Monday, 4:40: Cassie Phillips on choice and consequence and building a story that makes sensible use of its branches. I don’t know enough about this one to be sure whether it’s likely to be advanced or more of a 101-level introduction to IF narrative design, but it’s certainly a relevant topic. At the same time, there’s Rob Morgan on storytelling and VR/AR; Rob is another Failbetter freelance writer, among other things, and I’m curious what he has to say about this space.
Monday, 5:30: Life is Strange case study; and unfortunately simultaneous with that, Nina Freeman on the use of mechanics to enhance the player’s experience in Cibele. And there’s also an AI panel that sounds fun. Argh. I’m going to be Vaulting some of this material.
Tuesday, 11:20: Sam Barlow on Her Story.
Wednesday, 2:00: Jane Ng on the art and design for Firewatch: not mostly a narrative talk necessarily, but a lot of the story of Firewatch is told through the environment, so I’m curious about this one. Outside at the same time there is also this Chris Crawford presentation on the Siboot project.
Wednesday, 5:00: Meg Jayanth on making your game more diverse, drawing on experience from 80 Days.
Thursday, 4:00: a panel on the representation of Muslims in games, something on which I have heard Rami speak passionately and persuasively in the past.
Friday, 11:30: Dietrich Squinkifer on Designing Discomfort, drawing from their work on games that create awkwardness and explore challenging social spaces.
Friday, 1:30: Me! I will be talking! Specifically, about visualizing systems and structures, which will include some narrative visualization points; that talk is part of this panel. Or you might also like the Experimental Gameplay Workshop, which I generally enjoy; or maddeningly scheduled at the same time as those, Joseph Humfrey’s talk about ink, the inkle tool now being made available to the public. Why did They put all this at the same time? I do not know. I wish They had not.
If I have missed something awesome, I apologize — feel free to mention it in comments. And if you’d like to meet and talk to me, please do let me know. My schedule is filling fast, but I’m happy to have coffee with new people as well as old friends; and if you’re an IF person specifically looking for social events involving other IF people, I may be able to help you find some.
If you are not going but wish that you were:
GDC is expensive unless your badge is bought by an employer or you’re presenting something. Staying in San Francisco is expensive. Depending on where you’re coming from, traveling to San Francisco can be frighteningly expensive. This has an inevitable unfortunate effect of excluding a lot of people that I wish were not excluded. Also, it can feel very daunting or indeed pointless to submit a speaker submission if you aren’t already part of the system. There’s a lot to do and say about this issue, more than I can put here.
I will try to write up as much as I can about any interesting/IF-relevant material I discover. Naturally I won’t be able to see everything, and in particular I am not going to be present for Joseph Humfrey’s talk introducing ink because I’ll be speaking in another room at the very same time. However, if you’re part of the Oxford/London IF Meetup, inkle will also be presenting the ink tool at our April 26 Meetup.
You may also want to check out Gamasutra for coverage during the event; if there’s a talk you have your eye on, checking Gamasutra a couple hours after it’s given sometimes provides a summary. Some weeks later, most talks also turn up on the GDC Vault. Many of these will be behind a paywall, but some will be available to the general public.
Likewise, it’s often worth Googling the speaker of a talk that interests you. They may well have a website or blog with some related interesting material, even if you can’t see the talk itself; and sometimes people will post a precis or slides of their presentation.
Of course one of the other things GDC sometimes offers is company and social connection. I can’t export that, but if you’re an IF-adjacent person seeking those things, the euphoria &if chatroom has a fair amount of discussion that allows for synchronous and asynchronous chat and encouragement. If meeting in person is more your speed, my blog sidebar also lists some of the live in-person IF meetups that happen in various parts of the world. If there is no meetup where you are and you want to start one, I would be happy to help you publicize it. I also try to post regularly about interesting-to-IF-people conferences, jams, and events in whatever part of the world they’re being held. Here are my end of month link assortments that list some of those events.
Finally, if you’ve never been to GDC before, here are some thoughts about strategizing for the best experience, and about mental and physical health during the conference. This is completely based on my own personal experience and may or may not apply to you. What I try to do:
— pack thoughtfully. Dressing as a woman in tech is its own Whole Thing, but whoever you are/whatever your gender presentation, I recommend making sure your shoes are comfortable.
Then I also bring a small backpack containing business cards, protein bars, water bottle, painkillers in case of headache, my iPad and iPhone. It is worth having multiple devices for taking notes, reading Twitter, contacting people, etc. A full day at Moscone searching for the barely-there wifi signal or contesting for access to the networks tends to drain their batteries fast. You can sometimes find a place to recharge if you’re willing to sit on a hallway floor next to a socket, but you will not be the only person with that idea.
If you’re staying someplace far from the venue (because it’s cheaper staying far from the venue) you need to be even more prepared not to go home and drop stuff off/pick stuff up very often; on the other hand having a really bulky pack is itself a pain in tightly-packed seating situations.
— plan a schedule in advance, using Google calendar to mark every talk I want to see; if two overlap, mark both because it’s possible that the preferred one will turn out to be unavailable for some reason.
As a rule I value meeting other people over attending talks, since talks can be picked up afterward on the vault; if two talks are in contention, I tend to prefer the one being given by someone I know or would like to say hi to at the end, or where I anticipate having questions. If that doesn’t decide matters, I play it by ear on the day.
— feel free to tweet about talks while in them, if I can get the signal; it’s a neat way to get cross-conversation with other people also in the room. I try to be aware that the speaker is quite likely to search that conversation later: I don’t want to be a jerk, I do want to highlight things I think are cool or interesting, and point out additional connections if I think of them.
— contact people I know I want to see and schedule when to see them in advance, as much as I possibly can. There are always some of those meetings that don’t come together after all for some reason; there are always some serendipitous encounters; but vaguely agreeing I’d like to encounter a particular person often leads to our not having much time together, or missing each other entirely.
You can do this, by the way, even if you don’t yet know all that many people at GDC. The first time I went, I emailed several people I’d sort of seen in passing on blogs — we’d written about each other’s stuff but never actually spoken to each other — and set up coffee/etc. If that seems like too much, you can also plan to visit someone’s IGF booth or talk and introduce yourself and say why you’re into their work. After a talk is generally a bit zooey, so be prepared not to get a long response in that context; at a booth is easier and more relaxed usually, unless they happen to be really swamped with players at the time.
— where possible, consciously schedule one or two rest and recharge options each day. Your mileage may vary on what restful looks like, but for me this often means: having tea with someone at Samovar (get a reservation or there will be no seats); meeting up with an old friend rather than a relative stranger; going somewhere away from Moscone for 45 minutes or so; even just attending a talk about something that isn’t related to my core topics of interest, so that I can sit in the dark and let the talk wash over me and not feel like I need to track precisely.
I don’t rely on drinks meetings to fulfill the recharge role, since a) they happen too late in the day and b) if I were trying to use cocktails to medicate for mental overload and social exhaustion, I’d be tempted to drink more than I otherwise want to.
Generally, I try to balance the desire to get the most possible out of my GDC time with the reality that I can only soak up so much information or be socially “on” for so many hours at a time without burning out. It is okay to go outside and lie on the grass in the Yerba Buena Gardens and try to get your breath back.
— touring the Expo floor is not a restful activity. It’s worth a look around and I usually tour the IGF booths, but there are relatively few IGF games that are best played in this environment; better to notice stuff and plan to play it later, and then say hi to the creators or listen to them talk about their work. The alt controller exhibit is cool and worth looking at, and is something that you won’t be able to do at home.
— do not expect to have an extensive conversation at any large evening party such as the speaker party, ticketed parties, etc. Definitely do not imagine that you will conduct actual business in that context. It will be far too loud and chaotic. Evening parties are generally best for meeting new people briefly or touching base with people you know a bit but don’t need an actual coffee session with. Try to be kind to your voice because you may well be losing it by the end of the week.
Having drinks with a few people rather than going to a party is often a good trade. (Though some bars are so loud that they’re almost as bad as the parties in that regard. Beware the bar at the W.) This will sound like old-person advice, but drink lots of water, don’t overdo the alcohol, and don’t be afraid to go home from a party at a semi-reasonable hour.
— if you have an encounter in which someone is very unpleasant to you — this hasn’t happened to me all that often, but the times it did happen sure made an impression — it is okay to seek a friend and debrief as a matter of priority.
In the context of GDC it is easy and common to have a rapidly fluctuating sense of whether you even really belong there, what you have to offer, and what GDC has to offer you. This is especially true if you are doing alt games; if you’re relatively new to the industry; if your gender, age bracket, ethnicity, etc are not what people expect when they picture “game designer”. Talking over the gross moments helps me manage them rather than dwelling and feeling weird about them for the rest of the day.
— this one can be tough to push through, but I adopted it last year and I’m trying to be disciplined about it: write some form of diary entry at the end of every day before sleeping. What I saw, who I met, what we talked about, what was interesting that could go into a blog post in the future. I have a less-good memory than I would like.
The diary also helps deal with one of the positive-yet-hard-to-handle aspects of GDC, the total overload of exciting ideas and projects I want to hear more about and people I want to follow in the future and so on. Outputting that stuff somewhere helps clear my brain for the next day.
— if you don’t come from San Francisco and you’re not familiar with it, or even if you are familiar but you spend most of your life in a different context, you may find it a mentally painful place. The city combines extreme wealth and extreme poverty, and around Moscone you are likely to see homeless people obviously struggling with sickness or mental illness, immediately outside coffee shops where guys in khaki pants are confidently discussing their plan to seek another $100 million of venture capital. I have no fix for this fact, and I don’t know what to tell you about it. If you find yourself fighting off sudden angry tears on a street corner in the middle of a professional conference, all I can really offer is that you are not alone. Sometimes mentally reviewing my charitable-giving strategies and my reasons for those strategies helps me cope, if only a little a bit.
— there may well also be tightly-dressed women hopping around outside the Moscone advertising energy drinks, and working on the rather obvious assumption that GDC attendees are mostly male heterosexual crunch-hour-workers. I have no fix for this fact either. Of the two things, though, I find it less horrible than the homelessness.