Don't D-I-E at GDC: Getting the Most Out of the Game Developers Conference

Ahh, Moscone Convention Center, where careers are made and a cup of coffee and a granola bar cost 20 fucking dollars.

Ahh, Moscone Convention Center, where careers are made and a cup of coffee and a granola bar cost 20 fucking dollars.

The Game Developers Conference, or “GDC” if you’re one of them “I know what an acronym is” types, can be very intimidating, especially if you’re new to it. I should know; as a struggling composer I once held the door to Moscone West open for Reggie Fils-Aimé and somehow managed to refrain from asking him about his time at Pizza Hut, or if he came up with the idea for the Bigfoot Pizza because he knows where bigfoot is, or perhaps, is bigfoot himself. You have no idea what I’ve been through. Where’s my parade?


Anyway, whether you’re new to the industry, new to the conference, or just one of those people who hurriedly brings up Biker Mice From Mars in every socially awkward situation despite the fact that only a very slim subset of people remember that show existed, GDC can be nerve-wracking. If there’s one thing people in the game industry aren’t exactly known for, it’s the ability to confidently meet and talk to a ton of complete strangers without vomiting under-ripe concession stand bananas into each others’ shoes.


Game audio folks, despite, in my objective experience, being some of the most socially adept, cunning, and attractive people in the industry, are not immune to this. In fact, because music and sound effects are often, sadly, an afterthought in many dev cycles–and because audio people are far too frequently the weird orbiting satellites of a dev team, isolated and left out of the loop–GDC can feel even more daunting to us sound-oriented types.

Well, I can help! This March will mark my 10th year at GDC, and in that time, I’ve made about every dumb mistake you can make at a major industry conference, from giving my email address to the cute lady at the food truck for a “free” burrito made of wet leaves (I paid for it later), to picking up an abandoned trade magazine off a table, thumbing through the Minecraft cover article, and thinking to myself “Man, this Notch dude seems like a really cool guy.” So I should be primed to help you avoid those same mistakes and get the most out of your GDC, because that’s how self improvement works, right? You piss away all your errors and social faux pas and then you’re smart and good forever? Well y’all better hope so, because you’ve already read four paragraphs of this thing and that’s the sunk cost fallacy, so buckle up. Let’s roll:


NETWORKING

By far, the main reason we all go to GDC is to meet people. Preferably people who are willing to accept sound and music from us in return for money we can use to buy fifty Waves plug-ins we’ll forget to install. But how do you, uhh, do that? Who do you talk to, and where? The blanket answer is “everyone” and “everywhere,” but let’s refine that a bit, ok?

Best Buds: When I was first starting out, I walked around PAX shakily thrusting my business card into people's’ hands and handing out hastily printed demos of my work, and literally every single dev who didn’t just put them in the trash right in front of me while making direct eye contact is a goddamned hero. I did it not because I liked it (I couldn’t stand it), but because I thought that’s how networking was done. And maybe in some industries, it is, but I wouldn’t know, because it turns out in games, the way to network is to make friends.


No, literally. That’s it.

People want to work with people they like. Would you rather hire someone with an incredible portfolio who’s emailed you a hundred times but whom you’ve never met, or that awesome guy/lady/person you met at the Xbox lounge who you grabbed cupcakes with after? Because your potential clients will pick the cupcake bud almost every time. Absolutely hand out cards, point people toward your music or sounds if the opportunity seems natural, but mostly? Just hang out, and be your cool self. Stay casual, stay relaxed, or fake it (my strategy) until it feels real. It might sound nepotistic as hell, and maybe it is, but that’s how the game industry works, and if given the choice between grabbing bubble tea with some new acquaintances and talking about how olives are salty demonic buttholes and don’t belong anywhere near a pizza (don’t @ me), or doing a weird, sweaty American Psycho cosplay on the expo floor, I’ll pick the first thing every time.

Sure, but, where the hell do I go?: I wasn’t kidding when I said “anywhere” at GDC can be a good opportunity to meet someone, but let’s get more specific.


Yerba Buena Gardens - I know it sounds like a Final Fantasy side dungeon, all fulla old machines an’ weird crystals an’ shit, but the park area on top of Moscone East is a goldmine for hangouts. People are all over the place, enjoying ice cream, chatting casually, and breathing in air with the least amount of fecal particulates in the whole neighborhood. Last year, I literally spent the first three days of the show here, without ever setting foot inside the convention center. The nearby food court makes it really easy to turn meetings into lunch and lunch into macaroons and macaroons into a bond of diarrhea that will serve as the yucky bedrock of your new friendship.

Career pavilions (FMOD, Sony, Xbox, Expo Hall Career Theater, etc.) - These are valuable, but in my opinion, not for meeting people. It can certainly happen, but everyone is so focused on finding work prospects or asking questions of the experts and presenters on hand, that you’ll have a tough time making new friends here. Still, if you’re looking for some career advice or have questions about a particular company’s work culture, they’re definitely worth checking out!

Lounges - These are great, considering people often come here to wind down and get away from the bustle of the show floor. Just use your best judgement; if someone is on their phone or zoning out, give them their space, but if they seem approachable, feel free to give it a shot. It can be a great, quiet venue to have a conversation.

Parties - Itt largely depends. Some are a wonderful place to meet folks and have a chat, others are like the Lust level of Dante’s Inferno; a writhing mass of wailing, moaning bodies from which there is no escape and within which you cannot tell where your face ends and Derek’s rum-soaked polo shirt begins. One of my favorite parties at GDC is the Humble Party. It’s invite-only, but if you can get in (or know someone who’s going and they can get you in) it’s chill, relatively quiet, and an awesome place to meet some really high level game devs!

Carousel Con - Run by the amazing Matthew Marteinsson–sound designer at Klei and the crankiest Canadian I’ve ever met (meaning he swears sometimes but is otherwise super nice)–this informal mini-conference is held behind the merry-go-round across the street from Moscone West, and features impromptu talks and just a bunch of great audio folks hanging out. It’s an incredibly friendly place, but if you’re wondering “why the hell would I want to meet other audio people, aren’t they my competition?” then don’t worry. Audio people hook each other up with work all the time. We’re always letting each other know about openings we can’t take or gigs we don’t have time for, so grab some pupusas from the food truck beneath the overpass, avoid the bands of venomous, hyper-intelligent snakes that roam the area around Market Street, and come on over!


Expo Hall - This is the most crowded area at GDC, but also a great place to run into people. Everyone is milling about trying new things, and so there are tons of excuses to strike up a conversation. My recommendation would be to head over to the IGF pavilion, where you’ll see lots of fun and unique indie games, and meet plenty of nice people to talk about them with. Alt Control is also a good bet; it’s hard not to feel a bond with strangers when you’re all playing games controlled by doorbells or teaming up to help a giant animatronic elephant poop or whatever.


Make your own space - A trick I learned from my good friend Akash Thakkar, sound designer for Hyper Light Drifter and all around hot piece of ass I would take to brunch if my door swung that way. Put out an open invite for ice cream at a certain place and time on Twitter. Ask that group of people you just met if they wanna continue this conversation by the weird coffee robot in the food court. Set up an informal hang out in the park or suggest a walk through China Town. Some of the best networking opportunities are the ones you make yourself!


Where not to bother people - Honestly, anywhere they’re peeing, pooping, or working hard. If they had one of the crazy dense muffins at the expo’s breakfast bar, they could be doing all three in the same place. But also refrain from bothering people for hangouts at their booths too much. Chatting is fine, but just remember devs currently showing off a game are there to work, and probably don’t have the mental space to talk to you about potential career opportunities.

Balancing things out: Fine, but what’s the best ratio of expo hall time, casual hangouts, talks and panels, and huffing furiously into a paper bag while slumped against the toilet tank of a gender neutral bathroom? Well, just like the proper ratio of boiling water to pasta, there isn’t a correct answer, so just wing it. If you’re doing well and meeting people, you’re set! If not, try moving to another venue and giving it a shot. I’ve had GDCs where all I did was go to talks, and others where I barely entered the convention proper at all, and I’ve had great experiences at both. Just stay positive and keep at it.


Oh, and for real, Moscone has gender neutral bathrooms, which is pretty cool and helps karmically balance out the fact that the area around convention center is littered with used hypodermic needles and feral coyotes.


Celebrities: If you get the chance to meet someone famous or whom you highly admire, just be cool. It’s ok to tell them you like their work, but just try not to freak out. Treat them like a normal attendee who’s done some cool stuff you like, and they’ll thank you for it. Whenever I ask why there aren’t enough story-driven FPS games, someone shrieks “bUt WhAt aBoUt bIoShOcK?????”” at me and I don’t like it. Garry Schyman doesn’t like it either.

Practice Makes Perfect: If you’re like me, the idea of going to a packed conference center and being tasked with meeting dozens of strangers sounds horrifying, and you’d much rather be at home with a bag of cool ranch Doritos over your head. I know I was scared as hell my first couple of GDCs, and even now, I’m still nervous every time. But just remember; networking is a skill like any other. You WILL get better at it if you keep trying. Brace yourself for some awkward moments. They’re going to happen, and that’s fine. Just shake it off and move on. Remind yourself that, just by being there, you’re doing infinitely more than the 99% of game audio folks who didn’t or couldn’t go. Keep at it.

This Katamari Is Made of Jobs: Networking is a slow, cumulative process. While it can happen, you’re unlikely to leave GDC with a job offer already in hand. That’s ok! Instead, if you’ve made friends and connections, keep in touch with them. Try to see them the next time you go, and the time after that. Be consistent, or as consistent as you can, about going (obviously, not everyone can afford to make it out to SF every year, and that’s ok too). I’ve gotten plenty of work from going to GDC, but it’s almost always from someone I met there getting in touch weeks or even months later. Maybe they hire you directly, maybe they know someone who needs a composer. Maybe the sound designer you went to Beard Papa’s with gets in touch a while after the show; she has too many projects on her plate right now and is willing to throw you some. You kind of never know how it’s going to manifest, so just focus on making as many meaningful connections as you can. Be patient, and don’t kick yourself for not landing a job immediately. It doesn’t work that way.

PRE-GDC

If you want to get the most out of the conference, you can’t just show up. Lots of people do that, and that’s fine, but if you really want to have an edge on them, make sure all your ducks are in a row before hand. Then put your highly-organized ducks away, weirdo, and make sure you’re ready for the show.


Business cards: These are good to have, and make sure you have more than you think you need (I usually pack about a hundred when I go, and I almost always run out). Like I mentioned above, GDC doesn’t have to be about sweatily pressing these into any open hand you come across, but if someone offers you theirs or asks for more info about you, it’s great to have these ready. If you don’t have any made up already, I recommend moo.com. They make it really easy to design nice looking cards, and the price and shipping ain’t bad either.

Show your work: Before you head out to SFO, make sure you have your absolute best work available online. This can be a demo reel on your website, a YouTube playlist, a link to your Bandcamp, etc. I myself simply curate the Spotlight section on my SoundCloud to show the best balance between my most recent and best work. Whatever you post and wherever you post it, it should follow these two rules:

  1. It should be the absolute best work you’ve done and

  2. It should take almost no effort to listen to it.

We live in a hell dimension where no one has time for anything. If a potential client has to dig around at all to find your stuff, they’ll move on. Worse, when they get there, if the first thing they hear isn’t amazing, even if there’s something stellar just a little bit down the page, they’ll move on thinking you’re mediocre.


Make a list: Going to GDC to meet friends and potential clients is great, but it goes even better with just a little preparation. Instead of showing up blind, do a little research before you leave. Who are the people you’d like to meet? What have they worked on? Are they giving any talks? What might be good topics of conversation? If you feel confident, you can even send them a message or email asking if they’d be down to meet up! Make a list of the people you’d like to talk to and actively seek them out. I know it can feel a bit creepy at first, but as long as you don’t write the list in pig’s blood, you’re probably ok.

POST-GDC

Your work doesn’t stop once you’re back at home and you finally don’t have to wear pants anymore. In fact, you can do some really important work when you’re bottomless and just full on Donald-Ducking it in your living room.

Follow up: Time to break out any business cards or @’s you may have gotten at the show and reach out! Follow people you made a good connection with on social media, send them an email saying how nice it was to meet them. If they live near you or you’ll be at another event together, try to set up a second meeting. Networking isn’t just meeting people once a year; if you stay connected (without overdoing it) in between conferences, you’ll have much more success finding work. Plus, you’re friends now, after all. Why wouldn’t you want to stay in touch?

Reflect: How did the show go? What did you do well? What could you do differently next year?


HEALTH AND WELLBEING

It’s really easy to let your human body completely fall apart at GDC. We’re all basically just skeletons piloting Gundam suits made out of hamburger, and that’s neat. But that burger mech can’t run on dreams and wishes; it falls apart if you don’t remember to do repairs and fill it with beef fuel every now and then!

This metaphor really got away from me. Anyway:

For the love of god, eat: It is incredibly easy to forget food at a conference like GDC. There are so many things to do and people to see, and only so much time to do it. But if you forget to eat, you’re going to crash, and it’s going to suck. The people wandering about the expo floor like hollows? Clawing at the FanGamer display case because it’s the only thing they remember from their human lives? Well, those people forgot to eat lunch all week, and look where it got them. Eat meals and carry snacks. I know I look insane when I pull a full slice of lasagna out of my messenger bag, but who’s laughing when I still have energy on Friday and you can barely stand up, Derek?


Water: I have a super strong immune system. I basically only get sick one time a year. That time is GDC.


I have gotten the hantavirus every single time I’ve gone, with only a handful of exceptions, all of them within the last few years. The only times I don’t get sick are when I not only drink water when I’m thirsty, but when I’m not thirsty. Carry a bottle on you at all times, and keep it full. Slam it whenever you’re not using your throat to make talky sounds.

Mindset: Remember, if you work in games, have worked in games, or want to work in games, you belong at GDC. Remind yourself that you’re not less valuable if you haven’t shipped a popular game, or haven’t shipped a game at all. If someone asks you what you’re working on and you haven’t actually landed a game yet, feel free to talk about what new things you’re exploring with sound. Maybe you’re trying a new genre, or messing with some new effects and processing. You have as much right to be there as the big AAA guys or the super successful indies, so act like it.

DEAR GOD THIS WAS LONG, PLEASE WRAP IT UP

GDC is the largest game industry show in North America. When audio people ask what conventions they should travel to, I tell them if they can only get to one, make it this one. If you’re going, you’re already better off than the many, many people who didn’t. Try to enjoy yourself, make some friends, and have fun. You got this.


Just remember to steer clear of the free burrito truck. It’s full of ghouls who want to steal your identity and make your butt explode.



Where the Water Tastes Like Wine now available!

After years of work, Where the Water Tastes Like Wine–a narrative game set in a dark folktale version of America in the Great Depression–is finally out on steam!

Which means the soundtrack I’ve been waiting to share with everyone is finally available! You can grab it on Bandcamp right now; 30 tracks and well over an hour of music, featuring folk, bluegrass, country, big band jazz, and more, and enlisting the talents of performers from all over the country.

I’m incredibly proud of this album, and of all the hard work everyone put into it. This thing wouldn’t be what it is without the input and artistry of the performers who played on it. I want to give a special shout out to Joshua Du Chene, who not only plays guitar and/or sings on almost every track on the album, but took care of mastering everything, and was in general a huge source of creative input and inspiration.

Me, the musicians I worked with, and everyone at Dim Bulb Games, Serenity Forge, and Good Shepherd Entertainment poured everything we had into this game. If you check it out, I hope you enjoy playing (and listening) to it.

-Ryan