Games Developer's Conference 2018: Expo Unpacking and Getting Cracking

This job involves doing strange things. My wife and I have a combined total of more than 30 years of print design experience. That means we don't know everything. Someone always knows more, and on certain matters, like, for example, electronic games, our experience is lopsided: she simply has more experience when it comes to electronic games. She's also the better gamer.

Our personal styles are different, too. Where I am reserved, tentative, and cautious, she is more daring and open. My feeling is she tends to introduce me to more new things than I can ever show to her. Is it complementary? Maybe, but I also think there's a congruent aspect to each of our approaches. But when it comes to developing a game? Design? The market is swamped with games. There are a lot to be seen everywhere. We needed to know more, and quickly.

So we went to GDC.

Which was never on my radar, and I think that was because I didn't know it should have been. I've been to perhaps one science fiction convention in my life, Expo 85 in Tsukuba, Japan, and several Society of Vertebrate Paleontology Meetings (both of which represented stepping far far out of my own personal comfort zone), but in spite of over 20 years in graphic design, I've never even once attended a career-specific convention. It wasn't from lack of interest, but. Mostly funds. But if I could make SVP, surely I could have made it to AIGA once. Well, never mind. The winds have shifted our ship towards new, demanding directions which require we tack away from print, and towards more digital and ephemeral destinations.

I'm told that GDC 2018 had over 27,000 attendees. As of this writing, it remains to be seen if either of us catches the notorious "con crud" involving some variation of the flu, but we went down with eyes, ears, and our minds as open and as receptive as possible in order to learn what we could, since, as Raven put it, "we don't even know what we don't know."

GDC’s flood of ambience? We were soaking in it.

That doesn't mean we went in as completely credulous naifs. Skepticism is a part of our complete critical thinking-fast, and these are companies/corporations, after all (although even universities should be afforded comparable considerations when encountering their booths and representatives). Just because I happen to belong to an LLC myself doesn't mean I'm going to cut anything or anyone else a pass.

I should make it clear we were only in for the Expo itself; the conference track was much too expensive—and anyway, as it is, I'm grateful. The expo is a pretty important part of GDC, and it would have been far too taxing to try to make all of the talks on our first attendance. As it was, the expo floor was gigantic.

Day One Was Wednesday

Of all the booths representing the games industry, I think the best one was also one of the largest: Amazon. This was a surprise (one of what would turn out to be many surprises).

Things which surprised me:

  • The presence of Amazon. No, really. If someone had told me Amazon had representation within a game conference I would have assumed they were only selling other people’s games. Turns out, they were not.
  • Also the publisher, Taylor & Francis Group, had a booth filled with reference books. I had no idea they published stuff for game development. We mostly knew them from being the publisher of the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology for SVP.
  • Several localizers had booths. It seems absolutely obvious in retrospect, but I didn't expect it.
  • Universities and trade schools also had booths.
  • A dearth of tabletop games, though there were a couple.
  • The sheer number of game engines represented (Unreal, Unity, Improbable, &c.)
  • The obsession of developers with VR applications. Some of this was neat, but really, the best tidbit about VR we picked up was at the Qualcomm both.
  • Analytics. This is almost an obsession with this crowd, but when it comes to users, game devs sure do seem to want to know a lot about their users (otherwise why would there be all of these tools available). I'm not afraid to say that even as a creator, it was more than a little creepy at times.
  • Game tech companies, for gods' sake, consider shapes other than cubes for your products' logo(s). Yes, I'm saying that knowing full well how hypocritical I may sound. I don't care, I've had my little 2D cube logo since 2006, but it was interesting seeing how interchangeable most of the branding here was (which, of course, could well be considered a branding failure). Incidentally, we are available for logo design. Call us.
  • People there actually knew what a Lytro camera is. I brought it every day, but it was only on the last day that I brought it out and started taking photos with it. It generated more conversation than just about anything else we did. I'm not mad, it was great.
  • Cryptocurrencies—several of them. Seriously.

Things which did not surprise me:

  • The presence of in-game ad delivery companies. Lots of them. This makes sense, since makers of games need to earn a living somehow.
  • A propensity to automate a lot of things. Natural enough for games in many contexts, but this sometimes extended to sticky user engagement, and I find this to be a repellent annoyance whenever it’s tried on me.
  • The size of the PlayStation booth. Or field. It was pretty huge.
  • The presence of Microsoft and other large players in the games-making industry.
  • SideFX was demonstrating Houdini. There were presentations, but I was unable to spend time in any of them. I acquired a shirt, but I have to be honest, it’s vacuum-compressed into a tiny square and I may never open it. It’s just too perfect.
  • Wacom had their impressive new Cintiqs on display. (Ours are old—2007 vintage, and they always had issues with gamut. These new ones clearly do not.)

Amazon had the best presence in terms of informational accessibility, presentation, and sheer organization. It was impossible to not keep coming back to it, and as a consequence, absorb a lot of information relatively rapidly.

And there was a lot to absorb. AWS Cloud is the backbone of many projects on the internet (which can have its own consequences in case something goes wrong), but it’s also the host for their Lumberyard engine. I wasn’t there to evaluate engines myself (that would require a great deal more capability and experience than I currently possess), but the level of integration on display was impressive. I couldn’t find anyone to answer questions I had about how Spectre and Meltdown might affect AWS; possibly because these were not technical presentations, but marketing.

Apparently, Amazon had also purchased Twitch. That was news. (Twitch is also one of the many internet things I’ve just had no real time for. So it was news which had no effect on anything we’re currently doing.)

It takes a lot to impress me, and I’m honestly predisposed to regard companies like Amazon unfavorably, but their effort here was legitimately impressive, and I think it’s fair to say I spent most of my time there. Whether that means I might use Lumberyard (or even AWS) for anything in the future remains to be seen, however. (Our first project doesn’t require anything close to what was being offered.)

For the second day, I decided to spend time with more of the other exhibitors.

This was our first time attending GDC. It was made possible by Anthony Ruelas, who not only sponsored our tickets and access to the Games Developer's Conference Expo itself, but permitted us to crash on an air mattress on his living room floor during our stay in San Francisco. We owe Anthony a Great Debt. I don't think we could have had a more solid introduction to the world of games production in a purely business context without his help and hospitality.