California, GDC, and the Journey of a Lifetime

Christopher          California, the promised land of golden opportunities for entertainers worldwide. It is there that the Game Developer’s Conference has been held for the past thirty years. I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the conference this year and experience all of the wonderful things it had to offer. And experienced it I did.
For those who are unfamiliar, the Game Developer’s Conference, hereby referred to as GDC, is the single largest gathering of video game developers in the world, with attendees coming from all companies imaginable, from the smallest indie devs to massive AAA corporations. At GDC, these individuals gather to share their knowledge within the industry, their successes and failures, and the software and hardware they are currently creating. However, at the same time, many individuals make connections that last a lifetime.

My experiences with the conference followed suit. Professionally, I primarily did five things while I was at GDC, upon each of which I will expand: I presented my narrative analysis of Pokémon Black and White, I attended sessions on a variety of topics, I attended the Indie Games Festival and Game Developer’s Choice Awards ceremonies, I networked with many people, and I roamed the expo floors.

So, firstly, the reason I was able to attend GDC at all is because I entered an essay into the Narrative Summit contest, wherein entrants analyze the narrative of a chosen game, highlighting what makes it unique, its successes, its failures, and other aspects that stand out. I chose a game near and dear to my heart, Pokémon Black and White. Because of my analysis, I was asked to present a poster about my findings along with the other winners of the conference. Presenting this poster was incredible. I was able to share my love for one of my favorite games with many people, geeking out about it every minute I discussed it.

As stated above, many individuals who attend GDC share their knowledge, successes, failures, et cetera. I was able to attend several of these presentations, all of which I found interesting in one way or another. While I attended a total of seven of these talks, three of them stood out to me above the rest.

One talk was the inspirations and goals of Middle Earth: Shadows of Mordor’s Nemesis System. What was interesting to learn was that this system was inspired by sports and war, wherein sports have individual champions and heroes, rivalries and villains, while wars have grand overarching narrative struggles. The idea of the system was to create these grand struggles, but also keep them personal. By having enemies that become stronger alongside the player, each player has their own personal story within this great war.

I also attended a talk about architecture within games. The main focus was discussing how to be intentional with architectural design. Rather than merely creating a space to house the level of the game, allow the world of the game to be expressed through the level as well. Bioshock was referenced many times during this discussion. Highlights from the game include when the player first enters the city, seeing its grand structure, as well as its use of windows at appropriate times, whether to allow the player to see the underwater alcove that surrounds them or to allow them to forget that they are even underwater altogether.

Thirdly, I attended a presentation given by Cecil Kim, an environmental artist of Final Fantasy IX, an artist of the God of War series, and currently the head of Section Studios. This talk showcased his journey through the games industry and his thoughts on artists working on games. As a game artist, this was the most inspirational talk I attended while at GDC. Thinking back, the most memorable thing I heard while at GDC came from this talk: “Artists need to be surrounded by other artists.” Initially, this seemed rather straightforward. Artists are able to bounce creativity off of one another and, thereby, create better art. However, understanding that games are also art, this applies to game designers as well. We must be surrounded by others in our field to be as creative as we can be. This theory is what GDC is truly all about: industry professionals gathering together and surrounding themselves with the love of the industry.

Aside from these talks, two of the coolest things I experienced while at GDC were the Indie Games Festival and Game Developers Choice awards shows. My excitement was most likely equivalent to a film enthusiast being able to attend the Oscars. Everything about the awards was incredibly grand, from the size of the auditorium to the stage to the lights to the people. It was truly an incredible night. Unfortunately, I didn’t guess many of the winners correctly. However, Undertale won the fan favorite, so that’s all that really matters. It was an incredible night where I was able to see many designers share their joys within the industry and being acknowledged as some of the greats.

However cool the awards were, the expo floor was exponentially more exciting. Much like the awards, the expo floor was a place of grandeur. As far as my eyes could see, game companies were showcasing their new projects. Needless to say, I spent several hours on the floor several days. There were an incredible amount of great games being created from all over the world. While I was visiting game companies located in Switzerland and Sweden, I was able to fly through the sky as a bird using a unique VR device created for the game Birdly. I laid on the surface, placing my arms outward from my body and my face in front of a fan. Because of this I was able to control myself as a bird would, flying through a great metropolis. To be completely honest, this was one of my favorite experiences while on the floor. Other experiences include dogfighting through the air in twin-stick shooter Cloud Chasers, vehicle combat in 1980’s cartoon inspired Auto Age, and fighting for my life in what can best be described as a 2D Dark Souls, Salt and Sanctuary.

Finally, GDC didn’t truly stop after the talks ended in the conference center or the expo floor closed for the night. With the great amount of game designers altogether, there were numerous meet ups throughout the area where we would socialize. Most nights, when I wasn’t purely exhausted from the day, I was with my friends as we met incredible people within the industry, including Richard Dansky, Denis Dyack, and Dene Carter. We were able to talk to these individuals, not just about games, but about many things. We were accepted as up-and-coming connections, rather than merely as students, which was truly one of the greatest compliments for which I could have asked.

Overall, while it has been a few weeks since I was able to attend this conference, it almost seems like it hardly happened. From the fact that I won a conference pass, to the fact that I was with my best friends, to the fact that I was surrounded with people in my industry, it felt like a dream come true. It was one of the greatest weeks of my entire life in one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited. Now, I’m just waiting until next year.

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