This may seem old hat to those who are comfortable in their own skin or have already been to GDC. But as a straight from high school to college student it took me some time to find myself and understand the dynamics of GDC. If this is your first time at GDC and you’re an introvert like myself than I hope that my experiences and tips will be of use.
For context, I’m a recently graduated student who studied Game Audio over the last 4 years. Each year I have also traveled to GDC, mostly with other students, but often I have faced networking and events on my own.
This GDC was the most enjoyable GDC by far. I was more confident and comfortable with the area and was able to connect with so many more people and actually genuinely connect and make friendships out of them. The difference for me sparked from a conversation I had with my colleague Taylor Riviera while reflecting on our time spent on the Train Jam which was also a fantastic experience worthy of its own write up. We talked about how there is this perceived barrier of entry in the games industry or the idea of the Imposter Syndrome. At least as a student more often than not you feel as if you don’t belong, or you haven't enough experience working in games, or that there is a pressure to find a job and that's all you should focus on. This barrier makes it daunting to have a conversation with anyone, and I personally wasn’t able to talk with anyone at my first GDC. But the fact of the matter is this barrier of entry doesn’t exist, it’s a myth.
People are People
Wanting a job is important but unless you’ve already made a connection or are meeting a potential employer for an interview, hunting for someone to give you a job is not going to yield anything for you. The way you find a job at GDC is through honest and genuine connections. You make these connections by being interested in someone else and by not trying to push yourself onto them. The phrase “You’ve got to put yourself out there” is misleading as you don’t need to and shouldn't promote yourself to others, all that phrase is trying to say is you should push to be willing to start a conversation. By showing interest in what someone else does it invites them to the opportunity of asking you to share something about yourself. This is something that took me almost 2 years at GDC to figure out. And it isn’t an exact science, some people just aren’t interested in you and that is okay. You don’t have to meet everyone. But starting a conversation just shows that you see more value in them than what they can offer.
"Put your interests in others out there" - Michael Schwalbe
As far as the level of experience for attending GDC is concerned, it is so widely varied that there is no reason to feel like your experiences aren’t enough. There will always be someone interested in hearing about what you know, even if that knowledge isn’t game related. People have interests outside of their work. Being able to talk and share about something other than games makes you a more interesting person. It might seem like you can only ask someone about what they are working on but by asking someone what games they like to play, what the super power would they want or almost anything else it can lead you to getting to know them as a person rather than just a developer. And always always start a conversation by wanting to learn more about the other person. It’s not only a good networking thing it's a good human thing! And you won’t regret it.
Talking to People
Once you’ve started the conversation don’t feel rushed to finish it. I’ve been and met a lot of people who will start talking to someone only to hand out their card and leave. This not only makes it less likely for the person to contact you but they also won't remember who you are next year and you’ll have to re-introduce yourself. Spend time with people don’t be in a rush, you have a whole week dedicated to just talking and getting to know people so enjoy yourself. The only way I hand out my card now is if I want to know more about someone or our conversation is being cut short by talks or lunch plans. To reiterate, please don’t throw your card at people. Even if it’s in the shape of a throwing star, that’s just dangerous.
Eat food it’s good for you!
If you’ve met someone you want to talk to again later instead of just saying good bye ask them out to lunch or dinner. There are some great options right next to the convention center and grabbing food with someone can make your conversations more memorable for you and for them, because you’ll be associating each other with food which is almost always a positive. I’d recommend Mel’s dinner, Oasis Grill, Super Duper Burger, California Pizza Kitchen, Sushirrito and Thirsty Bear Brewing Company. These are all good places that are local to the area and less than a block from the convention. You don’t have to eat at the restaurant, grabbing food to go and eating in the park (Yerba Buena Gardens) is a great option. Especially if you didn’t have lunch plans with someone, grabbing food to go will give you yet another opportunity to network. For audio folk, or even non audio folk, behind the Carousel next to the Children's Museum is another hot spot to meet people. Last year was the first inaugural Carousel Con, a small collection of micro talks hosted by Matt Martinson and the audio community. These talks are not only free to attend they also provide a common topic to discuss with your new lunch friends. A similar less audio focused thing happens only on Thursday, in the park, around the same time called Lost Levels. Though I’ve never attended I’ve heard good things and would assume you would get similar results from hanging out there. Last year I saw the event from afar not knowing what it was and thought it was some kind of cult gathering. But again I’ve heard good things!
Other things that don’t need a ranting paragraph (maybe one)
Get a Twitter account and use it. There is a lot that goes on twitter at GDC and it’s the easiest least intrusive way to staying in touch with the people you meet. #gdc is the main thread and there are many other GDC hashtags you can follow and look up on your own for the different gaming communities. One that I think would be valuable to start for this year would be #new2gdc if it’s your first time and you are by yourself at GDC meeting someone who is also new can be a powerful friendship starter. It will also let those like myself who have experienced GDC before reach out to you and give you guidance. If you’re #old2gdc maybe give some advice there or say something about your first GDC experience.
Your first time at GDC is a great conversation starter, “Hey I’m Grey, It’s my first time at GDC”. Bam! You already have something to talk about.
Try to find lodging near the convention, it can provide you with an escape from the hustle and bustle of the expo floor. You’ll be doing a lot of walking at the convention, so the less you have to do to get home can save your feet.
Avoid walking alone! San Francisco is a lovely city with a dense homeless population and while 9 times out of 10 you’ll be fine it’s better to be safe! Also when walking to or from the Moscone Center I’d recommend taking your badge off, this will make you less of a target for shady business.
Talk with the developers at their booths. This can be the best way to practice talking to strangers since you don’t have to say much. They want you to play their game and/or use their product, and you’ll be able to ask people later if they saw what those people are doing at booth “X”.
Congratulate the nominees and ask them about what they did on the project. You’ll learn more about how others make games and get to share a cool story whenever someone brings up their game. Even if they are your game development hero say “Hi” and introduce yourself! Everyone appreciates being recognized for their hard work so tell them what you appreciate about them. Obviously if they are busy don’t be rude but generally they will appreciate the compliment.
Being 21+ definitely helps but it is not required. With the amount of bars and parties that happen at GDC, they are a big part of the experience. Not having to worry about being kicked out or making your friends go somewhere else reduces the stress of an already stressful environment. However there are plenty of non 21+ parties and events most often help by community organizations (which you should join) such as IGDA, VGDA, IASIG, GANG. Also, familiarizing yourself with the area while sober before walking home at 3 am after a party will definitely help.
If you do go to a party and meet someone you want to talk to, ask them if they’d like to go find a quiet corner or go outside to escape the noise. The parties at GDC are typically very loud, bring earplugs and save your ears. That being said there are some parties that aren’t meant for networking and if there is dancing and really loud music. That’s a good indicator to maybe go somewhere else or enjoy hanging out with your friends instead for a night.
Go to GDC with friends or make friends early on and hang out with them outside of GDC. Making stories with people you already know is way more valuable and you’ll have those memories forever. So go explore Fisherman’s Wharf, Chinatown, or visit the Golden Gate Bridge. Alcatraz is also cool but you’ll need to make reservations weeks in advance. These are also experiences you can share with people when talking to them at GDC.
Be early to talks and sit next to someone, ask them why they chose to come to the talk and what they hope to get out of it. Ask them about the talks they’ve been to or what they plan on doing after. The talks at GDC are amazing, but don’t worry about missing them or filling up your schedule with them. You can purchase access to the GDC Vault later and if you're a student your school should have access already. Meeting people is more valuable to you network where talks are more valuable for your research so pick your balance.
It’s okay to forget names while at GDC. It’s not okay to not acknowledge someone because you forgot their name and feel embarrassed. Relearn it and try again, there is no shame in not knowing someone's name.
If you’re a student and your professors are going, hang out with them, ask them where to go and who to talk to. At least at DigiPen our professors always want to help us make connections and are super proud to see us at the conference.
Above all else have fun at GDC. The first 3 years I went I had a miserable time because I was measuring my fun with how many business cards I collected. This not only is a horrible view on networking, it also made it so I couldn’t reach out to someone unless I felt like I needed something from them. Your success at GDC is what you make it but relating it to the time you spend with people and the stories you make with friends just makes those connections you make a 100% more valuable. And you’ll have something to look back on other than the amazing talks and cool new technologies.
Being a student has its challenges at GDC but had I known the game community as the friendly and open place it is when starting out, I don’t think I would have hesitated at all to start conversations. I encourage you to do so, to stay humble, to reach out to those around you, to ask as many questions as you can and find people that you can relate to, don’t limit yourself to just finding your future employers.