How I Crashed GDC

And why You Should, Too

2015 marks my sixth time making the trek to San Francisco for the annual Game Developers Conference. A lot can change over five years, but this is the very first time I’ve attended GDC without attending GDC.

To be more specific, this year I didn’t buy a pass. I flew to SF, stayed in the indie hostel, went to the parties and generally bummed around town, striking up conversations (whenever I could pop that pesky bubble of shyness)–but I stayed out of the conference proper, and you know what? Everything was fine.

Before getting into the pluses and minuses of crashing a conference, I should briefly describe what GDC means to me, and you, dear reader, should consider what GDC means to you. Crashing is not for everyone. In particular, if you’ve never attended, do yourself a favor and attend for real. For me, the event has shifted gradually from an exciting opportunity to meet the pros, learn about the wider industry, and maybe get a foot in a door somewhere, to more of a pilgrimage, a yearly chance to see both new and familiar faces (and not just those of devs). And hey, maybe talk shop. The GDC itself sort of became the excuse to go. Initially I took the pass cost as a given, but in recent years, with pass prices rising and my flight shrinking one time zone at a time, it became a greater expense than all other costs combined for this thing I do that…really isn’t about GDC anymore. So I saved $800 by skipping on a summits pass.

I had a good experience “missing” GDC. It was the right decision for me, and depending on how this year goes, I might do it again for 2016.

This isn’t so bad.

I was a bit nervous going into the week; I didn’t know what to expect. Being shunned and ridiculed, I guess? Dismissed as a fake? Fortunately, that’s not what happened, but I did note a few drawbacks. First and foremost, I didn’t have a large yellow thing dangling from my neck. Fashion-wise, a plus, but decidedly a hindrance during an event where the objective is to find and talk to other people with large yellow things dangling from their necks. At events like GDC–you’ll see this too at PAX and others–the badge becomes more than just the right to enter; it becomes a shared identifying mark, like a gang symbol or something. It says to everyone in the vicinity, “heyyo! I’m a game developer!”

Of course, lacking GD bling doesn’t prevent you from recognizing others who do and saying hi (hooray, First Amendment). But it does add some friction to those chance encounters. I learned to be very clear about why I was in town, even when beating around the bush was a more natural conversational flow. Not doing that led to some nonplussed developers and one genuinely awkward moment with a journalist who blinked in surprise and said “oh, do you make games?” You could practically see the lightbulb over his head. It was glorious.

By the same token, the traditional GDC experience involves chatting with folks milling about the Moscone Center. It’s a fertile ground for connections that you lose if you’re crashing. The next best thing is milling about Yerba Buena Gardens, which is cool too, but somewhat less fertile on account of the interspersed public and/or those who are actually trying to find a moment of solace. Or maybe it’s overly timid of me to let happy sunbaskers be. Either way, mere entry to the Moscone Center has some value that you’ll miss if you decide to crash.

The second drawback is a simple lack of structure. Attending a series of talks (or just circulating between areas) imparts a certain cadence to your day, with regular checkpoints to trigger your mental “sitrep”. The passage of time is very clearly defined. Without that framework, the day becomes more free-form, demanding deliberate attention to where you’re spending your hours. I spent an entire morning jamming in the lounge at the hostel, realizing around 2pm that I still hadn’t been to the convention center yet. Oops.

Finally, and most obviously, skipping the pass means that you won’t have access to events like the awards ceremony, happy hours, megabooth and so on. I’m sure you could and sneak in; the security isn’t exactly military-tier. I didn’t. It’s rather poor form for a professional, even in this scrappy industry, and I wouldn’t recommend it.

Perhaps most tragically, I didn’t get a T-shirt. Unfortunate, but it’s something I can live with in light of the positives.

This is kind of cool

First and foremost, there’s the cash savings. Especially if you’re located on the west coast, it’s a significant chunk of change, relatively speaking, to attend formally.

Without the expense of a pass looming over me, I was able to approach the conference with a more relaxed attitude. It felt more like a vacation than an important business trip. With less pressure to perform, a curious thing happened. I found myself lingering to chat with people, rather than exchanging the vitals and circulating. I made fewer, but stronger connections. Now, your mileage may vary because you are not me, and I’m certainly not saying that quality is strictly better than quantity when it comes to networking. I am, however, saying, that I’m kind of okay with actually remembering everyone whose card I came back with for a change.

Besides avoiding the nagging feeling of costs to recoup, skipping a pass means skipping hours each day with your mouth shut in a lecture hall (which is not very conducive to meeting people). Instead, I filled the 9-5 block with exercise, sunshine, getting shit done, and actually following Twitter for once. The extra free time during the day also made for better recovery between parties: I even slept in on Friday, because what the hell.

In fact, this is the first year that I’ve managed to hit a party all five nights of the conference (well, some event at least). From my go-to favourite POW to the surprisingly fantastic Marioke, I enjoyed myself fully each night and mellowed out afterwards in the hostel lounge before passing out.

This works because GDC parties don’t (typically) actually demand a badge to enter. Nor do any of the unofficial meetups, or the Lost Levels unconference, which you really need to attend if you haven’t already. In a way, GDC has taken on a life of its own and become something larger, more organic, and more beautiful than an expensive conference. The official event sponsored each year by UBM plc is just the excuse to do it.

And I’m okay with that.