You’ve probably heard of E3, the huge game conference where companies splash out on ridiculously lavish press events, new games are announced, and everyone in the audience goes “WOO” and it’s incredibly annoying. You may even know Gamescom, the smaller, European cousin of E3, which is roughly the same except the “WOO”s are in German.
But perhaps you don’t know GDC, the Game Developer’s Conference, which is also gigantic but with significantly fewer “WOO”s and an emphasis on the people behind the games rather than the ones who should be buying them.
GDC is, to put it simply, a fantastic place. Where E3 and Gamescom are about business, making deals and trying to pump up your sales, GDC is more like a gathering of friends. People sit in clumps in the park, chasing the sun until the late hours; they congregate in the common room of the “indie hostel”, an unofficial title for the HI San Francisco Downtown hostel that gets taken over by hundreds of indie developers each year for the conference; they huddle in corners of the show floor swapping stickers and congratulating each other on their recent game releases.
It feels more like a celebration here than a networking event. Indie development can be tough, but incredibly fulfilling, and at GDC there are the IGF awards to reward the hard work that goes into games like Firewatch, Hyper Light Drifter and Inside.
These games are worked on by handfuls of people, staying up late, eating more pizza than anyone should ever consume, and dedicating their lives to making something beautiful and new. Triple A studios making games like Dishonored 2 and Overwatch are here, too, but this conference isn’t about them as much as E3 is - it feels like a time to revel in how amazing indie games are and how far they’ve come.
When you’re not on the show floor, you can attend talks, and these talks are something that people come from all over the world to see.
They’re not the typical fare that you might expect at other conferences - slides full of graphs, statistics, sales numbers and market value - but instead they’re about the industry, the community, this little slice of society that everyone adores.
Games in general is not an incredibly diverse place to be - the current number of female developers is estimated to be around 22% - but indie games has a much lower barrier to entry, with game making tools being easily accessible, free, and well-supported with manuals and instructions. Because of this, indie game developers are a much greater and more representative cross-section of society, creating games that showcase diverse subjects like 29’s exploration of the gender binary and Christine Love’s games that feature explicit, fetish-driven sex.
The talks are similarly diverse, with an obvious drive to continue to push the boundaries of this industry in its adolescence. Speakers talk on subjects ranging from hardware games, to cuteness as a radical and subversive statement, to the #1reasontobe panel that sprang out of a hashtag from two years ago that came about in response to a movement that attempted to harass women out of games.
In the #1reasontobe panel, women, LGBTQ people and minorities stand up for the beauty of variation in a creative medium. It is at once a celebration of our differences and a meaningful, important cry of “we are here, and we matter” in defiance of all the people who tell us we don’t, the people who resist change like it’s a bad thing.
The weird and wonderful
In amongst the vitally important panels and talks that encourage game developers to continue to push games outside their comfort zones, there are so many corners of GDC that allow you to discover the people who are already doing that in some way.
At Day of the Devs, a curation of indie games run by studio and publisher Double Fine, Microsoft’s ID@Xbox booth, and the Indie Megabooth, you can find stunningly beautiful, weirdly novel and fantastically creative games that represent how tiny teams of motivated creators can make the most wonderful things.
There’s Ooblets, an adorably sweet game in the vein of Pokemon where all the creatures are named things like “Shrumbo”, “Gloopy Long Legs” and “Wigglewip”. You can play Old Man’s Journey, a game that looks like a painting and a Mediterranean holiday all at once, as you hike across hills and beaches, reminiscing about a lost past. Or perhaps you could try Mineko’s Night Market, a game that celebrates cuteness, cats, and a dystopian society where felines take over the world.
And then, in between all the Triple A games and the incredibly accomplished indie games, there are beautiful little things like Train Jam, an idea born in 2014 when founder Adriel Wallick went on a train from Chicago to San Francisco and thought - what if I did this with a bunch of lovely nerds? And so Train Jam was created: a 52-ish hour train journey that crosses almost the entire United States, during which everyone on board makes games. This year was the biggest one ever, with over 300 folks making weird and wonderful games, most of which were being shown off on the show floor alongside games made in 52 months rather than hours.
In short, GDC is a unique and incredibly valuable place, as both an experience and a place that’s constantly testing, pushing and expanding the limits of what games are capable of. It’s important to have a place like GDC as the games industry continues to expand and attract more and more people. We’re going to have to talk about diversity as the community grows and gets more diverse, and we need to make sure everyone is as welcome as possible. Luckily, GDC is one of the most welcoming games conferences out there - and hopefully it will continue to be so.