Two weeks ago I had just come off an amazing honeymoon in Mexico, and then upon returning to the U.S. headed straight off to Moscone Center in San Francisco for GDC 2012. The Game Developers Conference is where people who work in all areas of the video game industry (or hope to) come to attend talks and presentations, check out the new games on the horizon, and get drunk together. Last year I had attended while still in grad school, hoping to make connections so that when I finished I’d have some composing work lined up. I learned a ton from industry pros like Jack Wall (Mass Effect 1 and 2) and Marty O’Donnell (the composer for the Halo series), but made next to zero connections due to my crippling fear of talking myself up to strangers and tendency to answer every question with a question when I’m nervous:
“Hey, I’m Ross. What’s your name?”
“Uh, what are your thoughts on Palestine?”
“Wanna guess how many marbles I can fit in my mouth?”
“WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE POWER RANGER MINE’S THE BLUE ONE.”
And so on.
This year went a lot better, mainly because I learned how to network between now and the Spring of 2011. Once my eyesight returned after the shock of going from an environment filled with tan South Americans to an expo hall filled with super-white Scandinavians (I call it “Swede Blindness”), I was able to learn a lot, meet some really cool people, and get my card out there. Below, I’ll talk about my favorite things at the conference, and if you’re hoping to go next year, I’ll give you a few tips on how to get there and how to get more out of it.
I had an Expo Pass this year, which is one of the lower level passes that gives you access to the expo floor (where a ton of game companies have booths set up to show off their latest and upcoming work), but not any talks or presentations. I was lucky enough to get this for free, since Tom Francis (creator of Gunpoint, the game I’m scoring right now), received a bunch of passes from GDC, since he’d been asked to present his game there.
Aside from the expo floor, the pass I had also got me into an exhibit called GDC Play, where people had stations set up with games-in-progress. You could try them out and talk to the creators about what they were working on in real time. This was the first year that they ran the Play exhibition, and I’m kind of baffled how a video game industry convention waited until 2012 to set up an area where you could actually play upcoming games, but that’s why I’m not a businessman, I guess.
This was one of my favorite parts of the show. All the developers were very friendly and excited to show off what they were working on, and while a few people had playable stuff on the expo floor, it was way easier to ask questions about their projects when you could actually try them hands on.
Tip: If you’re heading to GDC next year and looking go get your name in with possible job prospects, check Play out. A lot of the developers there were start ups looking for new people and hoping to expand, and they’re there to show off their work so they’re eager to talk. I traded business cards with six or seven devs in about a fifteen minute period the first time I stopped by.
God, did I hate this part last year. I’m usually pretty good with strangers, except when I have to sell myself. When I went to GDC in 2011, I felt a lot of pressure to try to get the conversation to move toward job opportunities with every game dev I talked to; I felt like my trip would be a waste if I didn’t get offers from a bunch of people. It felt awkward because it was awkward, both for me and for whoever I was trying to worm employment promises out of, someone who may or may not have been in a position to offer music work in the first place.
I’ve learned a lot since then, and most of it came from HERE. Darius Kazemi knows a lot about networking the right way, especially in the games industry, because he’s been doing it for a long time. It sounds like the guy made a lot of the same mistakes I was making, and the comprehensive guide he wrote on how to make connections with people without looking like a desperate freak (me) was easily the most helpful thing I read on the subject. It’s not about trying to get jobs right away, it’s pretty much just about being yourself and having conversations with people, maybe trying to make friends. With everyone I talked to, the topic of me being a composer came up often, but since I never outright started prying about whether or not the person in question might need music, things never got weird. Instead, I was able to trade cards with a lot more people a lot more effectively. They all know I’m a composer, and hopefully they’ll remember me for being fun to talk to, and think about giving me a call if they need my services. If not, well I met a bunch of cool people anyway, and maybe I can hook them up with people I know (artists, level designers, stuff like that) that they might need and do them a favor instead (although, I’ve already gotten a few people who’ve said they have future projects they’ll want me to take a look at).
Tip: Seriously, just read that link above. Even if you consider yourself super awesome at networking, I pretty much guarantee you can learn something from that guide.
The IGF Awards
The Independent Games Festival Awards are kind of like the Sundance awards, but for indie games instead of films. There are a lot of people making really great stuff out there without having the resources (or oversight) of a big publisher like Nintendo or EA. The IGF awards is where the best indie games and developers get honored, including ones that aren’t even finished yet (you can be a finalist and be up for an award as long as you’ve finished enough of the project for the judges to see how awesome you are in your category).
Getting to go to this was one of the coolest things I’ve done in my career so far. Gunpoint was up for an award in the Design category, and so the whole team (myself included) got to sit in the VIP section, up in front of the massive general audience seating. There we were all arranged at dinner tables, and wine and hors d’oeuvres were served. And yes, I had to look up how to spell it.
It was amazing getting to sit in the same area as Notch, creator of Minecraft, Cliff Blizinski, one of the devs on the Gears of War series, and even the guys from Mega 64, who you’ve probably heard of if you’re a nerd like me and a fan of making people in public uncomfortable on camera. Unfortunately the entire Gunpoint team couldn’t make it out to San Francisco, but along with Tom Francis, I got to meet the crazy-talented Francisco Cerda, the composer for Jamestown (which you really need to check out) and one of my co-composers on Gunpoint. I was also sitting next to the team that made Nous, which is such an awesome idea that I can’t even explain it without screwing it up, so just click the link and download it already.
In the end, Gunpoint didn’t win in its category, but it was still a finalist, which is amazing (especially since this is Tom’s first game, and it’s not even done yet). Congrats to him and the rest of the team, and here’s hoping we’re up for an award again next year (maybe in the audio category?).
Tip: Even if you don’t have Mr. Magoo or Inspector Gadget levels of good luck like me and you’re not currently working on a game that’s up for an IGF award, go anyway, There was a ton of general seating in the theater (though it fills up fast) and a movie theater-sized screen outside where you can watch the show if you can’t get in. You’re gonna want to know which games are blowing up (both the ones that are already out and the ones that are still in development) and take note of some of the important names that show up. If you happen to spot them later at the conference, congratulating them on their award or nomination is a really easy way to start a conversation.
Meeting Rad Dudes
Seriously, this was probably the best part of the whole conference. I got to meet in person a ton of fellow audio people who up until then had only been names on Twitter. It was extremely satisfying to get to talk about both the awesome and troubling things about writing music and sound for games with people who’ve also been through it. Shared stories, talked about current projects and dream jobs, and went to the Minecraft afterparty. Good times.
Tip: GDC is worth it for this alone, no matter what field you’re trying to get into in the industry. As an audio guy, it’s easy to feel isolated, working from a small home studio, so it was great to meet a bunch of people in the same boat, some who were more established, some just starting out, and all of whom had something awesome to teach me.
Final Advice: For many people, getting to GDC itself is the hardest part. Through some ridiculous cosmic fortune (I’m assuming a version of me in another dimension is an evil-empire destroying superhero and a bunch of his good karma got sent my way instead; I can fax you my hastily-scrawled, poorly-xeroxed comic book if you want to check it out!) I live only an hour from where GDC takes place. But for many, it means flying from across the USA, Europe, or further to attend, not to mention contending with thousands of other attendees trying to find a hotel room or a friend’s place to crash during the convention. Everyone working or trying to work in this industry needs to get out here if they can, so here are a few tips to make it happen.
Join an Organization: As a composer, I’m a member of G.A.N.G. (the Game Audio Network Guild), a nationwide organization of game-audio professionals and soon-to-be pros. They offer discounts on GDC passes for members, making it just a tiny bit less costly to get to the show. If you’re not an audio person though, I recommend the IGDA (International Game Developer Association). You can join via their website, get in with a local chapter, and they too offer discounts on passes, and sometimes hotels and other accommodations for the show. It’d be worth checking out organizations for your specific field if you haven’t yet; if you’re a graphic artist or level designer, see if you can find anything tailer to your field specifically. Most game-industry guilds and networks offer some sort of discount on heading to GDC.
Book Hotels Early: Like, now would be good. It goes without saying that rooms right by the convention center fill up fast, but pretty much every hotel that wasn’t the entire city away was full within a few months of the conference this year. If you don’t want to be stuck living in a cardboard shanty in Union Square fashioning a bathroom out of some loose fliers and your GDC swag bag, I recommend getting on this as soon as you can.
Check out Craigslist: The games-industry is a pretty close-knit community, and often complete strangers are willing to help each other get to GDC. If you poke around on Craigslist as we get closer to GDC 2013, you’ll find people attending the show looking to split a hotel room, share passes (swapping a pass between two people every other day, for example), and in a few cases, people living in the area have even offered up couches to incoming travelers to crash. I don’t necessarily recommend the last option because I’m not a fan of having my organs harvested and turned into lampshades and desktop curios, but to each their own.
Good luck, and hope to see you there next year!