I got the opportunity to finally attend what is possibly the biggest game developers conference globally: GDC!
My employer Resolution Games kindly offered to partially sponsor some of the costs of travelling there, which I’m super thankful for since tickets to GDC are so expensive, and San Francisco itself is also really expensive!
Here, I’ve written a short blog post about my experiences at GDC 2023. Feel free to reach out if we met here, or if you’re looking for advice about going to GDC yourself.
After a quick hop from Stockholm to Copenhagen and an 11 hour flight to San Francisco, I took the opportunity to explore a little of the place before. I spent a significant amount of time at the Museum of Modern Art, wandering through all 7 floors and admiring the exhibits there. In particular, I really enjoyed The Visitors, an hour long film shown over 9 different screens of a musical performance, directed by Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson.
I also popped over to the well-known City Lights bookstore (though I was too jetlagged to buy anything), as well as visited Alcatraz with colleagues. I also managed to pick up my GDC pass on Sunday, which turned out to be a good thing since the lines were really long over the next couple of days and some people didn’t even make it in on Monday. It was also great to hang out with Tom Hall, who is both a legendary game designer best known for DOOM and Commander Keen, but also a colleague from Resolution Games based in the US!
It begins; the first day of GDC!
The very first session I attended was a talk that was part of the Tabletop Summit and was called Reimagining Historical Settings in Game Design by Cole Wehrle from Leder Games and Wehrlegig Games. This was a fascinating talk about Wehrle’s thought process around designing games that are set in a particular historical setting. Frequent references were made to Settlers of Catan and how the differences in art between editions caused the theme (and its implications to change). One of Wehrle’s focuses was on identifying the agents in the chosen time period and then figuring out what they cared about. At the same time, games should be treated as historical fiction (after all, being historically accurate might not make for a good game, and the game should still have good UX) but not forget its pedagogic responsibility, since every game we play about a subject also changes our understanding of that subject.
Next, I sat in the audience for a talk that was part of the Tools Summit and was called How Fortnite Designers Made Their Own Tools, by Eric Carter from Epic Games. Here, Carter stressed the many benefits of designers being able to make their own tools (in this case, within Unreal Engine). In particular, designers that are able to make their own content, meaning that gameplay teams are free to improve existing gameplay features and work on new features rather than adding new content to the game.
I attended a short talk that was part of the Online Game Technology Summit and was called How Online Games Get Hacked by Adrian Bednarek from Overflow Labs. Bednarek pointed out that with the rise of digital assets and player-to-player economies, hackers have become more motivated to exploit games for profit. Various tools were discussed such as debuggers and OS monitoring software, as well as things game developers could do to ensure the amount of attack vectors were kept to a minimum, such as handling possible integer overflow issues, performing permission checks and not assuming the UI will limit actions taken by players, as well as using sync primitives or semaphores to handle the possibility of race conditions when processing messages in parallel. Unfortunately, as of yet, no real game security standards exist.
The last talk of the day was part of the AI Summit and was called Advancing Content Creation with Generative AI, by Stef Corazza from Roblox. Here, Corazza spoke about the impact he believed generative AI would have on game development, particularly focusing on two areas: productivity, and learning. In terms of productivity, programmers could use these models to generate code and documentation, while artists could generate materials, with the hopes that they could generate entire models and levels in the future. Programmers could also use these models to better understand the code and to debug it. Corazza’s belief was these models would allow developers to shift their focus on user intent while letting the model handle content creation. He also stated that bringing AI models to players would allow for democratization of content creation, but stated that content moderation would be an even greater challenge.
I then attended a party organised by Dataspelbranchen, a trade organisation for Swedish game companies, at an arcade bar called The Detour. It was great fun hanging out and speaking to other game developers based in Sweden, and we were provided with a bunch of coins to make use of the arcade machines too!
The second day of GDC!
The first talk of the day was part of the Math in Game Development Summit called Heat is Magic, by Squirrel Eiserloh from SMU Guildhall. Possibly my favourite talk of the entire week, Eiserloh spoke about the simplicity and power of heat maps in games, and the various ways in which they could be used. Game development applications included knowledge maps (such as in fog of war or knowledge confidence), influence maps (such as in faction control, light, sound, or smell), signed distance fields (such as in SDF maps or fonts), while analysis applications included bottleneck maps (to find choke points), player data maps (to gather data about deaths/kills, achievement claims, save points, or other player events), and attention maps (to figure out what objects would be in the player’s view while playing and to generate secrecy maps from that).
The second talk I attended was part of the AI Summit called Bots at Work: Lessons on Deploying ML Bots in Your Game, by Ricardo Sisnett from modl.ai. Here, Sisnett talked about various requirements in order to integrate machine learning techniques into games. One such requirement was better data gathering, making sure that it was:
Another requirement was changes to the game architecture, such as for example making sure game dependencies such as login servers were mockable, and separating player inputs from the resulting actions. Data driven paradigms are particularly AI friendly.
I then sat in the audience for a talk that was again part of the Math in Game Development Summit and was called Visual Guide to Quaternions & Dual Quaternions, by Hamish Todd from Imagination Technologies. This was a math heavy talk that revolved around gaining a better understanding of how quaternions and dual quaternions worked.
In the afternoon, we were invited to Unity’s offices in San Francisco for an XR developers meetup. This was a fantastic event where I got the opportunity not only to connect with developers from Unity and Meta who were eagerly looking for feedback on the tools they provide us and how we work with them, but also with other XR developers. It was a great networking experience and I met a bunch of awesome people!
Finally, I attended an AI mixer event organised by Riot and modl.ai. It was fantastic to be in the same space as other developers in the game AI space and was a great networking event as I met a bunch of people there and had a ton of super interesting discussions.
Third day of GDC, and the first day where the expo hall is officially open.
I took the opportunity to go round the expo hall and visit the stands. A lot of the major suspects were at the convention: Unity, Unreal, and Godot all had booths, as did Meta, Pico, Adobe, Perforce, Discord, and many others, and it was a good opportunity to speak to developers there and pick up some expo swag. There were also quite a few stands from companies that were offering a variety of services, ranging from changing the sound of your recorded voice using AI, content moderation, fonts, game testing and localization, networking solutions, and so much more. It was super cool to see so many people showing off VR or AR in their stands, both as game developers as well as hardware manufacturers; seems like VR is thriving after all. It was also interesting to see just how many booths put together by trade organisations from individual countries were at the expo to help promote game developers from that country; I spotted at least 17 countries represented at GDC! Attendees could also try out the games nominated for the IGF and GDCA awards, as well as try out more games with more experimental controls at the alt.ctrl.gdc booth. I also took a look at the GDC merch shop as well as the bookshop; as much as I would have liked to grab many of the books there, carrying them all back to Sweden would have been a bit difficult!
The first session of the day was a roundtable called Being an Effective Ally moderated by Josh Samuels from Raindrop Games. Most of the conversations here dealt with hiring and retaining people, such as:
I then attended a talk called Playing for the Planet Climate Check: 10 Steps to Climate Leadership by Sam Barratt from the UN Environment and Playing for the Planet. The role of game development in the climate crisis is a subject that I’ve increasingly become interested in, but I feel isn’t being discussed enough. Here, Barratt had us go through Playing for the Planet’s Climate Check, which is a checklist to determine how well you’re doing so far and what more can be done. It was super interesting to hear that larger game development companies such as Rovio, Sony, and Ubisoft were all taking this seriously and had dedicated resources to this.
I was then scheduled to man the Resolution Games booth for 5 hours, where I got to demo our game Spatial Ops to a multitude of game developers and people from press. It was great to be able to speak to people eager to try out VR and AR and to show them what we were able to do at the company.
We then sat in the audience for the GDCA awards, hosted by the fantastic Marina Díez. It was inspiring seeing so many talented games being nominated for awards, and I definitely need to play through them all now.
And thus begins the fourth day of GDC.
The first session I attended was an Accessibility Roundtable called Proven Techniques and Healthy Navigations moderated by Tara Voelker from Xbox Game Studios and Morgan Baker from Electronic Arts and presented by the IGDA. The first half of the discussion centred around accessibility within the workplace:
The second half of the discussion focused on accessibility within games:
The next talk was called Your DEI Initiatives are Making Your Culture Worse by Anita Sarkeesian from Feminist Frequency. Here, Sarkeesian claimed that DEI was working exactly as intended, and that was the problem. It was built on the idea of othering people, and an attempt to produce equity in a system that is fundamentally inequitable and resists equity. Sarkeesian goes on to state that harm (which she defines as manipulation, coercion, gaslighting, shaming, abuse and assault, misuse of power, and perpetuating sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of oppression) does not happen in a vacuum, and we should be identifying the conditions that allowed it to happen in order to break cycles of harm and prevent future violence. Furthermore, we should ensure that the people who were harmed are supported in their healing, and the people causing the harm be held accountable.
I then sat in the audience for a roundtable titled Games as Cultural Representation moderated by Charly Harbord from the Global Game Jam. Various discussions were had here, such as:
We then attended the Nordic Party, an event that was attended by a significant amount of game developers from the Nordic region. It was great fun meeting people there, and I even got to say hi to game developers I knew from Denmark back when I lived there!
Fifth and final day of GDC!
The first session of the day was a talk that was part of the Game Career Seminar series called Boss Mode: Making the Most of your Manager, by Jennie Lees from DeepMind. This talk was about understanding the point of view of your line manager and introducing different techniques to best make use of their time and to best help you. Such techniques included asking for feedback on a specific topic you’re focusing on (rather than asking for general feedback), creating a done document to best showcase what you’ve worked on during a performance review, performing a gap analysis between your current level and the next level to attain, and making sure your work is visible to your manager.
I then attended another talk in the Game Career Seminar series called An Impostor’s Guide to the Industry, by Leyla Johnson from Mohawk Games, Rebekah Saltsman from Finji, and Yaprak DeCarmine from Game Jolt. I struggle heavily with impostor syndrome, so it was fascinating to hear such successful figures in the games industry describe their issues with it. While some level of impostor syndrome is natural since it shows you where you need to grow, it’s not OK if it’s used by others in a way to make you feel like you do not belong. A good way to combat it is to have some form of community of friends that understand games and the industry that can help you grow into the person and professional you want to be.
I attended a Localization roundtable moderated by Katrina Leonoudakis from Deluxe Media Entertainment. This was a fascinating roundtable because while I have an general interest in localization, I’ve only tangentially worked with it, so it was awesome to hear seasoned professionals talk about it. In particular, they stressed the importance of terminology management, where specific terms that were important to a game or platform were collected into a glossary so that translators would be aware they existed and to prevent them from being changed. This is particularly important with terms that are specific to your game (such as invented words used in items or quests) or specific to particular platforms (such as PlayStation). It’s also important to provide as much context to the localisation team about the game mechanics and how they work, and to leave a note if terms are expected to be used in a pun or in a form of humour. The rest of the session was spent discussion localisation engineering techniques and platforms that are commonly used.
The final session of GDC 2023 was a roundtable called Giving Credit Where Credit is Due: IGDA Game Credits Policy Feedback moderated by Trento van Lindenberg, an independent developer, and Nazih Fares from The 4 Winds Entertainment. This roundtable was motivated around the fact that movies, music, and TV all have better crediting systems that games, which either has nothing or has something that lacks formal structure. This makes it easy for people in the industry to not get the proper recognition for a game they worked on and can be a form of gatekeeping. Here, we discussed a draft of the IGDA’s Game Crediting Guide published in March 2023 and everybody provided comments and feedback that could be used to make the guide better.
And with that, GDC was officially over. I staggered out of the expo hall exhausted, and headed over to the Yerba Buena gardens to sit in the sun with other attendees and game developers, recovering as best I could from the intense experience that was GDC.
On the Saturday after GDC, I took the opportunity to head to Fisherman’s Wharf with a few colleagues and explore the area a little bit. There, we ate some amazing seafood, visited the sea lions basking in the sun at Pier 41, played a couple of arcade games at the Musée Méchanique, and popped into a couple of shops there. We then headed back to the airport to catch our flight back to Stockholm, where I promptly fell asleep on the plane which really helped avoid any jetlag issues!
GDC is a fantastic opportunity to meet with talented game developers from all over the world, and I highly recommend visiting if you manage to get the opportunity to do so! I got the chance to speak to so many awesome people, meet up with existing friends from around the world, and even meet people I follow and interact with on Twitter!
Thanks once again to my employer Resolution Games for partially sponsoring the costs to attend the event.