Is GDC the Most Important Week of the Year? Probably.

The Runaway team at GDC 2017

GDC is game developer Mecca. A collection of 26,000+ passionate designers, artists, engineers and producers mushed together in a few square blocks for five action packs days of learning and connecting with friends new and old. I’ve been lucky enough to attend around 10 times now, and each year I leave feeling more inspired and grateful to be part of an industry that is so inclusive, collaborative, and aspirational.

Every industry has their ‘tribe’, but this feels like a family. A collection of freedom fighters jointly striving for a better future not just for themselves but for everyone around them, gamer and non-gamer alike.

Maybe it’s the joint struggle of devoting our lives to a craft so demanding, so fraught with changes and risk and uncertainty. Perhaps it’s a product of growing up as outcasts, preferring to lock ourselves indoors with imaginary worlds instead of playing outside like normal kids. Whatever it is, the product is something truly heart-warming, and it makes me immensely proud to be a part of it.

To most people the idea of sitting in a whole week of conference talks would seem dreadful. But the presentations at GDC are polished, entertaining, and most importantly: filled with useful information. Speakers are often fully transparent with the performance of their games, happy to offer up hard data on what has worked for them. In such a ridiculously tough industry, this insight can be invaluable.

And here’s what seems like a weird contradiction. Despite the massive competitiveness in the market, everyone genuinely wants their peers to succeed.

There is a sense that we are all trying to grow the total industry together. That instead of scrapping over some fixed available consumers, we are collaborating to expand the total market size; the reach of games in popular culture.

Perhaps it’s because we are so routinely humbled by market shifts. Even the best of us are taken by surprise. This year was a massive wakeup call for the mobile industry. Just when we thought we’d reach peak mobile, that Supercell had shown us the ultimate execution of mobile games strategy, along comes Pokemon Go, doubling the #1 spot for total daily revenue, and invading popular culture like nothing else that had come before it.

But our response to this overwhelming market volatility and competition is not to fiercely guard our secrets or lock our developers away in the safety of their cubicles. It is to come together and share everything we have learned, encourage our teams to mix and inspire each other towards success. To stay humble and generous even when we reach the greatest levels of achievement.

I was fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to speak at the Mobile Summit this year, delivering a talk which shared the lessons learned from our journey at Runaway to becoming a self-publisher. I’ll do a summary post on the key takeaways when the video goes online in a few weeks’ time, but the core message I was trying to get across is that while everyone dreams of the opportunity to be the master of their own destiny, self-publishing is not something to be underestimated. This is especially true within a free-to-play model where so much of your success relies on well executed live operations. All of those less ‘sexy’ functions like customer support, account management, marketing, and community are just as important as any bit of engineering or art that goes into your product. I got some really nice feedback after the talk and am now anxiously awaiting the review scores that come through from the audience (if you’re an attendee of GDC, this reviews are really helpful so thank you for taking the time to complete them).

You can check my talk out online here with a GDC Vault account!

I also got the chance to talk to the crew at Gamasutra about the talk ahead of the show, the recording of which you can check out here if you’re interested:

Not only were there eight of the Runaway team in attendance this year, but two of us speaking! It was a huge point of pride to be able to see another Runaway team member on stage at our industry’s most prestigious event, and Lisa did an incredible job of sharing the lessons learned from growing our Facebook community. She talked about not just driving likes, but boosting meaningful engagement with the social channel content by ensuring that it reflected the core values of the brand, with each post standing alone as a piece of entertaining, sharable content that extended the experience beyond the game.

With our speaking responsibilities done, we all went out for far too many burgers and beers. Ah Super Duper burger, you are so dangerously good. Also when else do you get the chance to party with a bunch of other nerds and dance to chip tune music?

From Wednesday, it’s time to get on with the main conference. The audience swells as the expo floor opens and the number of talk streams expands to encompass every possible development discipline you could imagine. Far too often there are clashes that leave you tearing your hair out over which talk you’ll go too. Some time slots had 4 different talks that I would have happily sat in on. Many popular sessions would also pack out the room they were in, leaving you sad-faced at the door unless you were there well ahead of time. It’s almost like some nerdy music festival where all your favourite bands are playing and you have to race between the different stages to catch you favourite acts.

But even the biggest rock stars in the world of games are incredibly humble. The best presented talk that I saw of the whole week was by the Lead A.I. Programmer on Final Fantasy XV, a game that miraculously actually came out last year, and even more astonishingly was actually great. One of the core things that makes that game so endearing and sweet is the interactions between the four main characters that are sharing the road trip adventure with one another. Sun walked us through the conceptualisation and execution of the A.I. that drove Prompto, the amateur photographer in the group. Prompto takes photos each day in the game, and when the group makes camp for the night, you get to review the snaps, highlighting all the exciting things that happened during the day.

The talk was insightful, fun, and heart-warming. This along with the talk by FFXV Director Hajme Tabata the day before, gave me great hope for the future of Square Enix and the Final Fantasy series (my favourite of all time).

Lisa and I got to meet Sun at the speakers party on Thursday night, and the guy could not have been nicer. We chewed his ear off for half and hour, mostly just gushing about how great his game was, but he was so gracious and funny. Just like me, Final Fantasy 7 was his favourite game and had inspired him to dedicate his life to creating games. He even suggested we get a Prompto style selfie.

Everyone in the games industry is like this! You feel like you are sharing the week with 20,000 friends, and that nothing is off limits. Parties are great for meeting new people, but my favourite part of the show is sitting with friends talking about deep design challenges. As each year passes I find myself spending less time partying and more time sitting for long coffees or meals getting into the nuts and bolts of the challenges that we’re facing in our current projects or in the industry.

Back to the talks, and the Deus Ex Portmortem by Warren Spector this year was a particularly special session. Not only is the original Deus Ex one of my favourite games of all time, but Warren played a crucial role in the direction my career would take back in 2002 at my first GDC. In his session Practical Game Analysis with Doug and Warren, these two design superstars recreated the sort of dialogue and critique they would go through in their studio. As the leads of two separate game projects, they would be able to approach the work of the other objectively, and had developed such rapport with each other that they had no qualms about tearing each other’s work to shreds. This was a fascinating display to watch (I literally caught myself with my jaw open at one point), and taught me two things:

A) I want to be a game designer

B) This ego-less peer critique is one of the most crucial skills an individual and a studio can develop to make their games better.

This conversation has stuck with me ever since, and one of the things I’m most proud of at Runaway is the environment we have built where this sort of critique is supported and encouraged, not just between designers, but across all disciplines. Everyone’s voice is crucial, from the executive through to customer support. I have GDC and that very special session to thank for that.

As far as straight up inspiration goes, Richard Lemarchand’s Pecha Kucha style “Micro Talks” are usually my favourite session, and this year did not disappoint. Brie Code expanded on her wonderful Videogames Are Boring article with a peek into her non-gamer friend’s emotional adventure through Skyrim. Stone Librande took us on a wild ride through his attempt to develop a modern notation for drum scores, which led to a visualisation for game rhythm. Then building off that beautifully came the highlight, Christine Love’s treatise that pacing is everything in videogames, which I could not agree more with. Christine is such an eloquent, fascinating speaker, and her work is incredibly twisted and original. She did an encore performance as part of the micro-post-mortem the next day, sharing lessons from the three year development of her latest, critically acclaimed, visual novel (which has an especially innovative dialogue system, where your potential responses dynamically change as the conversation progresses).

These industry leaders are not up there to parade their successes. Uniformly they stand humbled by their struggles to create a great video game. Even when they have succeeded, it does not go to their head, and does not keep them from sharing whatever secrets they may have uncovered in that process.

It leaves you wanting to do better. To contribute to this industry in a lasting way. I’ve always wanted to make games because I want to spark the same wonderful feelings I had as a child growing up with games. That stays with me today, but GDC takes that inspiration a step further. It conjures a new extension of that desire, to benefit not just the end users, but the creators. To help perpetuate this tribe. This family.

Thanks to those mentioned above for the inspiration you have provided and thank you GDC. See everyone next year!