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Most industries, most activities, have their mothership. Their centre. One place or event with an inexorable gravitational pull, that draws everyone in siren song.

For music fans in the UK, that’s Glastonbury. If you enjoy Formula One, it’s Monaco. In the cycling world, it’s Le Tour de France. For surfers, that’s the Noosa festival in Queensland, Australia.

And for game developers?

That mothership, which calls everyone home, is the Game Developers Conference. The industry has bigger events like Gamescom and E3, or the many-headed global hydra that is PAX, but for the people who make games? GDC is the place to be.

GDC

Around this time of year, the video game world gets a little – let’s say excitable. The arteries of social media become clogged with people arranging meetings, and meetups, and discussing the talks they’re giving and the ones they plan to attend.

Advice tweets start to surface, typically well-meaning, trying to advise new attendees on how to make the most of their experience. Then like clockwork, after a few days, comes the pushback against what are – on occasion, from some individuals – smug, self-important edicts. People are told to enjoy themselves and get the best out of it that they can, however they can, which seems like the fairest advice.

Everybody generally agrees that the tweets advocating daily showering; wearing clean clothes; using Purell; not getting too drunk; and making no unwanted physical contact are solid, however.

Twitter handles change to include the almost-obligatory plane emoji-GDC suffix, and then the feeling of excitement – or fear of missing out – intensifies.

“As a university researcher I’m somewhat separated from the hustle of games careers,” begins Mike Cook, an AI researcher who also created Angelina, an AI system for designing video games. “But I see a lot of people talking about GDC as the place to get a big break, the place to find a job or make a vital connection.

“There’s also a huge social weight – Twitter is full of people talking about what they’re doing at GDC, what they’re showing or talking about, where people can find them. Around this time of year, that may be all you see on social media.”

So once a year, the great and the good of video game development descend upon the Moscone Center – the international conference venue in San Francisco, the beating heart of the western technological psyche – to commune, and to learn, and seek social and intellectual nourishment above their peers.

But with peers, comes the inevitable peer pressure to attend.

“A lot of people say it’s where all the business happens and you should go because you never know who you will meet,” Byron Atkinson-Jones, director of indie developer Xiotex, tells me. “That’s all good but it’s a lot of uncertainty to gamble a huge amount of money on. Every year I get people telling me I’m nuts and I should be going. If I had spare cash to hand I would go, but I don’t, so I can’t.”

“It certainly feels like there’s a general assumption that you are going unless you state otherwise,” agrees Natalie Griffith, CEO of Identity Spark. “There’s a clear value for some people, but for others it’s either not so relevant or simply unaffordable.”

Mike Cook goes a little further.

“I mean, it’s tough, isn’t it? We all know deep down that none of this matters, it doesn’t change who we are or how valid our work is,” he continues. “But at the same time things like meeting new people, speaking to the press, learning new things, these all help us survive, help us grow, help us feel good about what we do. You don’t need GDC to be a good game developer, but there’s no doubt it can make certain things easier, and it can open certain doors. This temptation, this conflict between ‘I don’t need to do this’ and ‘This might make my dreams come true’ is something a lot of people fight with, I think?”

And now GDC has a lot of peers. From an event which began in 1988, with a mere 27 developers in someone’s front room, GDC has grown into a comparative giant. When it first moved to the Moscone Center in 2005, it hosted 12,000 attendees. In 2017, it drew in 26,000.

GDC has hosted global events, too, but one by one, these have fallen by the wayside. GDC Canada, GDC China, and spin-off events in Austin and Los Angeles are all no more. The last holdout, GDC Europe – which was hosted in Cologne in the immediate run-up to Gamescom – closed its doors for the final time in June 2016.

Now there is only one place to go: San Francisco. And in case you hadn’t noticed, San Francisco is one of the most expensive places on Earth to live and visit; that’s before you add on the price of GDC passes.

Passes to the Expo – just the showroom floor, none of the seminars or summits – range from $149 to $299, depending on how far in advance you book. The Conference pass will set you back between $999 and $1,729. The all-access pass, which includes the Expo, the Conference, the Summits, and the adjacent [email protected] event? That will range between $1,949 for the early birds, up to an eye-stinging $2,449 for late purchasers.

GDC does subsidise and supply a large number of passes for free. If you get yourself onto one of GDC’s many speaking panels, you’ll get a pass. If you find yourself on a judging committee, like the IGF Awards, then you’ll get a pass. Full disclosure: the press get them, too, in exchange for covering the event, and at Thumbsticks we’re no exception.

And while San Francisco is an expensive place to visit, if you book everything early enough – your flights, your accomodation, your transport – you can do the whole thing relatively cheaply. For certain values of “cheap”.

If you live in the US, preferably on the West Coast, your costs of travelling to and from the event will be significantly reduced. If you’ve got friends in the area and can sofa surf, or don’t mind cramming into a tiny Airbnb with your buddies, that gets the cost down even further. We’ve heard stories of people doing their whole overseas GDC experience for under £1,000 (approx. US $1,400) – including those subsidised tickets, of course.

More likely, though, if you’re flying from abroad to attend you might be looking at paying between £2,000 and £3,000 ($2,800 to $4,200) for your travel, accommodation, and living expenses while you’re there.

Lots of employers will subsidise these sorts of expenses as part of training and personal development budgets; others will just swallow it up as a cost of doing business in this industry. Similarly, those working in academic research might find a grant, or fellowship, or stipend covers these costs.

But if you were holding on to try and get a talk into the conference schedule, or a speaking spot on a panel, or onto a judging committee, you might not find out until just a few months before the event. By then, not only might you have missed the chance to pick up early bird pricing on the passes – if your talk wasn’t accepted and you weren’t granted a freebie – but you will likely find the price of flights has soared, and hotel options are both limited and expensive.

Then there’s the location of the event itself: the United States of America. As other global GDC events have fallen by the wayside, this effectively reinforces an English-speaking, western focus on the US – and its West Coast in particular – as the heart of the tech industry.

But following the surprise Presidential election result – which, frankly, still has large parts of the world in a state of shock – the United States has become an even less friendly place to visit, if you’re not from the “right” country, or of the “right” ethnicity, or don’t hold the “right” religious beliefs. Quite aside from the sheer expense of both getting to San Francisco and attending GDC, some people are literally unable to attend because they cannot obtain visas or get permission to enter the country, as we reported on last year.

These issues continue well into 2018, and they’re likely not going away any time soon. So what do you do if you can’t attend GDC – or simply don’t want to, which is also fine – but don’t want to miss out on the educational and bonding elements of the world’s largest gathering of video game developers?

Bender blackjack

We’ll build our own Game Developers Conference, with blackjack, and hookers!

#notGDC

#notGDC, as far as Cook can tell, began life as a bit of a joke on social media. One of the earliest recorded uses of the hashtag #notGDC was by independent UK developer Squid in a Box, way back in 2012, who – much like the backlash and parodies of the advice tweets doing the rounds – offered their own succinct advice on how to succeed as a game developer, for those who weren’t able to attend GDC itself.

Their simple two-step plan, from a “presentation” titled ‘How to make good games and not be a dick about it’ is as follows:

  1. Make a good game.
  2. Don’t be a dick.

Seems straightforward enough.

It was in 2016, however, when the #notGDC hashtag first started to be used in any kind of volume.

“The first real usage of the hashtag, the first one I really remember,” recalls Cook, “Is back in 2016 when Alec Holowka, one of the developers of Night In The Woods, tweeted jokingly about attending #notGDC, a real event. We mostly tweeted jokes that year (here’s me pretending to give a talk in Starbucks) but we also talked about sharing blog posts and ideas too.”

Then in 2017, developer Ben Porter decided to up the game on #notGDC.

What followed was not a disparate collection of gags and parodies, but reams and reams of genuine advice, education and support for the many who weren’t able to attend GDC that year. Porter even archived a collection of 18 short ‘non-talks’ from #notGDC for posterity.

#notGDC had grown legs and was beginning to travel.

Seeing that nothing concrete had been arranged for #notGDC 2018, game developer and UI designer Lucy Morris contacted Porter via Twitter, to get his blessing to run this year’s #notGDC event.

Cook offered to help out – somewhere in the same Twitter thread – and between them, #notGDC 2018 was happening; not just on Twitter this time, but also with an official website. While the immediacy of social media is great if you want to reach people in an instant, having somewhere to organise and arrange and archive is key to the success of an initiative like #notGDC.

But what exactly should you be expecting if you “attend” this year’s #notGDC festivities?

“Here’s the best thing about #notGDC: we have no idea what to expect,” says Cook. That’s not always the sort of thing you want to hear from an event organiser, but it’s in the spirit of #notGDC.

“I just found out an hour ago that Sean Oxspring is writing about the representation of bees in video games. Bees. We’ve been promised an essay about toilets. Someone’s sharing a world generator they’ve been building for years that you can ride across as a horse. #notGDC has no rules, no limits, we want people to write about the things they really care about – silly, sad, inspiring, scary, anything.

“The most important thing for me is that we see new things,” he continues. “I want to know about things that inspire people, I want to know the non-games skills people have that help them make games, I want to read about the games people grew up with in other countries or other decades than me. #notGDC is about hearing things you won’t hear anywhere else. Unique, unusual, and unedited.”

The great thing about hosting an event online, like #notGDC, is the opportunity to make it accessible and available for anyone who wants to take part, both giving and receiving.

“The thing that makes #notGDC really special,” Cook says, “Is passion – people are writing because they’re excited. You can see the energy and motivation in their tweets. I always think that makes it extra special. It’s also a chance to meet new people and learn about what they care about. You see new faces, new names, new perspectives. We’re hoping people will also write in languages other than English too – we want to make people feel welcome and support everyone in sharing their ideas.”

Online isn’t the only way to go, however. The geographical, logistical, and financial implications of GDC and its San Francisco home lead to a raft of other development events to spring up around the globe. One of those is UK-based #include.

Field of Dreams

If you build it…

#include

#include is a London-based development event, which – like #notGDC – takes place during the same week as the official GDC event in San Francisco.

It’s organised and run by the Indie Games Collective, a UK-based group of like minds including Byron Atkinson-Jones and Natalie Griffith, who volunteer their own time to run events supporting indie game development, and game developers as a whole. This year’s #include conference, like many of the IGC’s events, is being hosted from the (shiny new) headquarters of trade body the Association for United Kingdom Interactive Entertainment, or Ukie for short.

“Ukie have always been very supportive of the IGC events,” says Griffith. “They recognise that while it’s important that they support developers to attend the massive international shows like GDC and Gamescom, it’s also important to help enable some of these smaller, more targeted events too.”

“They are letting us use the room for free and it’s just one more example of how Ukie really do help our games industry and not just the big studios. Without them this event wouldn’t be happening,” adds Atkinson-Jones.

#include carries with it a similar remit to #notGDC, but the physical presence and sale of tickets – sales of which are now closed – also allows them to raise money for charity; this year, for children’s charity Games Aid. It’s an opportunity to good in more ways than one, while still addressing its core remit of helping out the game development community.

“I can’t claim the credit for this one – The Indie Games Collective was originally Byron’s idea,” Natalie says, “And I was very glad to be co-opted on to the team in order to help smaller devs get the chance to learn from industry luminaries even if they couldn’t afford the time or money to go to big events like GDC or even Develop.”

“Around about this time of year the whole games industry goes into GDC fever and for those of us who can’t go it gets quite depressing. So one year I thought, screw this, lets hold our own event!” Byron recalls. “The first one we did went really well and I think we had over 300 people attending it over the two days.”

While the relative size is far smaller than GDC proper, and perhaps lacks the potential global reach of #notGDC, the opportunity for people to come together adds a personal dimension to #include, bridging the gap between the major conference and its unofficial online counterpart.

“It’s a chance to get together in the UK as an industry, listen to some great talks and generally network instead of being at home looking at the Twitter feed of those just waking up to GDC in SF,” says Atkinson-Jones.

There’s also a wide range of content on offer, just like at GDC, though some of it is probably a little less leftfield than #notGDC’s bee and toilet seminars.

“We’ve got a really good mix of content again over the two days,” Griffith tells me. “The aim with all the IGC events has always been to cover as much useful info as possible – so that means not just focusing on technical/design/development topics, but also legal, funding, marketing, personal development and so on. This year’s event will be no different.”

Regional events like #include aren’t the answer to all of the issues associated with GDC, however. You can just as easily replace the expense of travelling to San Francisco with the expense of travelling to somewhere like Cologne for the Devcom conference – which has replaced the old GDC Europe slot in the run-in to Gamescom – or to Develop in Brighton. International travel is costly, however you do it.

If the current Conservative government has its way, the United Kingdom – soon to be divorced from Europe – could become a far less appealing, and more difficult place to visit; just like the United States. The removal of the Schengen Agreement, which allows for easy travel across borders within Europe without visas and permits, could make it harder for people to attend UK-based events like #include, Develop and EGX Rezzed.

The key thing to remember is that local events like #include are just that, however – local.

You wouldn’t necessarily expect people to be flying half-way around the world to attend a scrappy little conference in London like they would for GDC, but a quick Google search turns up dozens of local and regional development events that are similar to #include, all over the world.

A pick-and-mix combination of attending local events like #include, and the online presence of an anti-conference like #notGDC, allows developers and video game professionals to maximise both their learning and networking opportunities – just like attending GDC proper, but without anywhere near the same levels of expense.

The future

Byron tells me that there will be more events, like #include, from the Indie Games Collective in due course.

“I’m sure there will be more,” he says. “They usually start with me waking up one morning and thinking, it’s time for another event, and goes from there.”

Cook on the other hand is keen that the have-a-go spirit of #notGDC continues long after he and Morris have taken their hands off the tiller.

“I haven’t talked to Lucy or Ben about it,” he says, “But I think it’d be fitting to have new people organise or help run the event every year, to fit in with the spirit of an open, free community.

“I’d love to see it grow, I’d love to see us build up archives of talks from each year, help translate between languages, maybe invite people to record videos or podcasts. But right now, we’re just focusing on making this year’s work. We’re so happy with the response so far, and I hope everyone considers writing something – we want to hear everything the world has to say about games!”

So do we, Mike. So do we.


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Tom Baines

Tom is an itinerant freelance technology writer who found a home as an Editor with Thumbsticks. Powered by coffee, RPGs, and local co-op.

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