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A Student's Guide To Networking At GDC

A guide to networking at GDC geared towards students, by a student. Also applicable to those attending GDC for their first time or any similar big industry event.

Devon Wiersma

March 10, 2017

13 Min Read

This year marked my first year attending Game Developer's Conference in San Francisco, California. Needless to say as a Game Design student in Canada whose never left my country on my own before, I was pretty stoked.

In a nutshell, Game Developer's Conference was an amazing experience. I met so many cool new people as well as some industry professionals who I admire very much. I even got interviewed by IGN for the game I'm working on for my co-op! (It's called Riverbond you should totally check it out it's going to be rad /shamelessplug)

Anyway, I thought it'd be helpful for some people to write some Hot Tips™ I found useful about networking at an event like GDC from the view of a student.

Here goes!


Tip 1: You're Not A Student

Weird right?

Let me elaborate. Obviously you're a student (why else would you be reading this?) But being a student is different than announcing to the world you're a student. GDC is full of industry folks and for all intents and purposes you're at this event so you're an industry folk now! I know students who refer to themselves as 'aspiring game developers' but no, if you've developeed a game - any game, no matter how crummy - you're a game developer. So drop the mindset that you're any less than others by virtue of your status.

There's nothing wrong with going to GDC as a learning experience, but if it negatively affects the way people treat you don't be afraid to dial it down a notch, you're as much a game developer as anyone else there.

Some of the more disappointing interactions I had at GDC were a result of someone finding out I was a student.

The first was when a promoter for a sponsor came up to our table at an event and was seeking industry people to pitch their product to. This made sense - they're sponsoring it, so why not? She took turns asking everyone at the table what company they work for, but when she found out we were students she gave us the cold shoulder.

The other was when I was meeting with a fairly accomplished indie developer who took time out of his trip to give me some advice. Our conversation was interjected by an disgruntled-sounding developer who decided to impart some wisdom on me which I was already well aware of (and wasn't relevant to our conversation). He told me "to get hired you have to make an indie studio and ship a game" and then lectured me on how to do so for the next ten minutes. In my 3+ years of schooling trust me, I've heard it before.

Also, note to any senior industry folks reading this: Please refrain from giving advice to students unless they ask for it. You'd be surprised what we've heard already!


Tip 2: You're Absolutely A Student

I know, I'm a hypocrite.

But really, as much as being a student can hinder some of your experiences, it can be a very useful crutch to lean on. You'd be surprised how much time people are willing to take out of their day for you to mentor students like you .

I managed to talk to a few very kind developers at GDC who were willing to take time out of their busy schedules to just sit down and chat with me about their journey and offer wisdom for my road ahead, and all it took was me saying "Hey, I'm a student. Wanna get a coffee?" (I think I said it much more professionally but you get the jist).

Being a student has its ups and downs, but it can definitely be a useful card to be able to speak to industry professionals. After all, who doesn't love to mentor others!


Tip 3: Don't Get Starstruck

Depending on the type of person you are, this may or may not be much of an issue.

Personally I found seeing industry figures at GDC humbling - for someone who follows a lot of devs on the World Wide Web™ it was sobering to see they were just people too which really helped me be less intimidated by the idea of introducing myself to them. Besides, if I didn't let them know I appreciate the work they do then I might never have had another opportunity to do so!

I recall an instance where a few of us were talking and my friend couldn't stop looking over my shoulder. I asked what she was looking at and she responded, "Tim Schafer is right over there". Sure enough, he was ten feet away checking out some board games. One morning as I was waiting for the expo hall to open I was watching someone play Ooblets and looked to my right only to see Danny O'Dwyer having a coffee. Nina Freeman (who hosted the IGF awards this year) was also just hanging around at an event I had attended. I told William Pugh I liked his work and he thanked me and asked if I knew where the bathroom was. Criken waited in line to play a game right after we did. I think I passed Stever Gaynor like eighty times throughout the week and turned around only to lose sight of him.

Dude's a ghost.

The number of prominent industry people can be staggering, especially as someone who's new to seeing it all in person. But avoiding the temptation to beg for a photo op and instead just saying 'Hey, just wanted to say your work is super cool' and maybe handing them a card will make the experience feel less awkward for everyone involved. At the end of the day, cool people are still just people.

Oh wait! That reminds me:


Tip 4: Print Business Cards

The best way to remember someone is to give them a business card, often with your face or a nifty design splattered all over it. It's also good to collect these - you never know when you'll be hiring people for a project in the future.

Handing out cards does take some getting used to (avoiding the 'I'm a slimy businessman' feeling took me quite a while) but at GDC it's common practice, most people are here for business and to meet people after all. Take about a week to work out a colourful, interesting design and ask others what they think of it and don't leave it till the last minute - getting a card people will remember is arguably more important than just having a card itself.


Tip 5: Reach Out

It's surprisingly easy to find who's going to GDC. A simple Twitter search of GDC a month beforehand will yield lots of results, and the GDC connect app essentially catalogues most people attending the expo (which is actually pretty creepy now that I think about it).

With a bit of searching it's not hard to find people who you's be interested in meeting up with. Following that all it takes is shooting them a simple email asking if they'd be interested in meeting up to impart some advice on a student and chat a little (See Tip 2). Before I went I sent emails to some people a few weeks beforehand which was too early for most of them to schedule anything, so I followed up again during the week and actually got to sit down with a few of them.

Reaching out can give you the opportunity to meet with some very cool people, and all it takes is a little initiative. The worst they'll say is "No". Don't forget to thank them too, even if they reject you they still took the time to do so.


Tip 6: Manage Your Time

Most of the time at GDC everything is happening at once. You won't be able to go to every panel, every party or every event, and that's okay! Here's what I found to be a useful breakdown:


Go To Parties

Parties are by far your best means to meet new people at GDC, but finding the right party is something else entirely. Usually, you'll know if a party is good for meeting folks with a simple Google search or at most within a half-hour of getting there. GDC parties cover a wide spectrum, from huge club bashes like That.Party to smaller more intimate get-togethers.

Usually, anything at a club or a dark, loud venue is (as you'd expect) bad for meeting people, so unless you're going to the party have a good time with your friends, these might not be your most time-effective events to check out. Some parties like itch.rl were phenominal for meeting people from all walks of game development, smaller get-togethers focused around local devs from my area like the Ontario Media Development Corporation party (it's a mouthful, I know) were also great for introducing me to cool new folks from my area and made it feel like I wasn't so far from home.

There is a caveat to this - try to avoid drinking. Waking up with a hangover would certainly put a damper on the GDC experience and chances are you'll need to go to bed at a reasonable time if you want to make the most of the next day!


Go To Some Talks

If a talk is going in the vault you can always watch it later. In fact if you're paying for your own pass I'd say its better to buy an expo pass and just stay for the week instead of filling your schedule with talks and panels.

Of course, I say 'some' since if there's a talk you really want to see there's no better way to experience it than in person. Also I was tipped off by a Microsoft employee to check out one of the free sponsored talks Microsoft was offering since he claimed, "it would definitely be worth my time"...

I got a free Mixed Reality devkit out of it so...uh...that was pretty cool.

The way I see it though, most of the opportunities GDC presents are the ones you can only get by going to the venue, like meeting people, talking with business representatives and learning about different games new and old so to me, the talks didn't seem like an overall good use of my time (also it was more expensive to go to talks and I'm already going broke so there's that).


Hang Around The Show Floor

Oddly enough, most of the people I met at GDC were strangers I chatted with while watching games at the Indie Megabooth, trying Train Jam games out or even just loitering around the Expo Hall. It's as simple as making a comment about the game you're observing and opening a conversation with any who respond. It felt surprisingly natural - after all, most attendees are there to meet new people, so what better way then to bond over new games. 


Care For Yourself

There were a few days at GDC I went without eating, drinking or even going number two for most of the day. With so much going on, it's surprisingly easy to forget your basic survival instincts.

Hand sanitizer is a must as well - with most of the devs who attended GDC I know now being sick the week after I feel like the only way I even survived was by wiping my hands down after every time I touched someone or something.

In terms of energy, I tend to do fairly well when I need to be 'On' all the time, but my girlfriend needs a little more quiet time than I do. If you're like her, some days you'll find yourself so tired that you might choose to turn in early and spend the evening watching Netflix. At some point it might feel like you're wasting time but in reality you're building much needed energy for the next day at the show, and by the end of the week that energy is valuable. Don't ever push yourself harder than you can go, at GDC or otherwise.


Tip 7: Follow Up

I know, I know, I can hear you shouting: "But Devon I met so many sweet folks, how do I possibly let them all know how rad they are?!"

Emails, my friend. Lots. Of. Emails.

Or Tweets. Or LinkedIn. Basically anywhere their business cards direct you to.

Following up is an important step in networking. A simple "Hey it was great meeting you" not only helps remind someone else of your conversation but also of who you are and shows you actually paid attention to them.

Avoid using form letters or anything that sounds too generic, make it personal. The last thing anyone wants to read is "Hello [their name], it was nice meeting you at [event] and am looking forward to seeing where your journey takes you. Follow me on Twitter and tell me about any work you have for me."

This leads into my final (and most important) Hot Tip™:


Tip 8: Qualify, Don't Quantify

There was a moment of awe at the end of my GDC trip when I was packing the business cards I gathered from the event - the stack was as fat as a hamburger. I felt like I achieved something by meeting so many people!

I turned to my girlfriend and said "Look at all the cards I got!", then I mentioned I was thinking about taking a picture of it to commemorate the occasion which she aptly told me not to do because it was really tacky.

It was a pretty powerful lesson that struck me: I had quite a few people's contact information, but that didn't necessarily mean I valued them all equally. There were certainly some people I distinctly remember from GDC who I loved speaking with and even others who made me feel like I had known them my whole life.

But most of the cards I had weren't any of those people.

Most cards I had were people who I exchanged cards with as a courtesy - meeting them briefly in passing and only saying a few words before taking off.

When I started practicing networking it was a year before I had to find a co-op position for my school and the idea of talking to people to get something from them was (and still is) completely abhorrent to me.

I believe the primary purpose of networking should be getting to know people. Everything else is secondary.

The people I want to follow up with are the people who make me feel like I've known them forever. Anyone I want to stay in touch with is someone I want to hear more from, whose work keeps me interested and wanting more. Not the people who I talked to for half a minute in passing. Onviously I'm not saying those people have no value, but I think the relationships built out of meaningful conversations are more worth pursuing than those made for the sake of getting another LinkedIn connection.

By fawning over my business cards I got very close to considering all those people who I enjoyed speaking to just another number in a big ol' stack of numbers which is a terrible thing (to me, at least).

When I returned home I made every effort to make sure I'd never forget the people who made an impact on me.



Boy that got pretty heavy! Yikes.


Anyway, I could probably talk about GDC and networking all day but I'm not going to because you have bigger, better things to do. I hope these Hot Tips™ helped you as much as all the GDC-centric articles I read before going helped me.

Thanks for reading and good luck on your networking, folks!

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