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An Aberration Living the Dream: A GDC 2016 Postmortem

I came to GDC for two distinct reasons and went home not just accomplishing my goals, but utterly crushing them with even more than I bargained for. Most of all, I left with the realization I am living the dream after all.

Rachel Presser, Blogger

March 21, 2016

13 Min Read




"Why are you here?"

I was frequently asked this question by both people I knew from back home, primarily from Playcrafting events, and ones who I just met. Not in an accusatory tone or anything, but I found it curious I was being asked. Why does ANYONE go to a huge convention? To meet people, obviously. To participate in the industry. When I worked full-time as a tax law analyst, no one ever asked why I came to the IRS Nationwide Summit year after year. GDC attendance isn't mandatory for game developers the way getting continuing education credits is for tax professionals, although it's a good idea to go if you can swing it.

Still, I suppose I attended in slightly different circumstances than the average indie developer in that I represent two businesses, Himalaya Studios and Sonic Toad Consulting & Media. So I'm bit of an aberration right there. Because to really answer that question? For Sonic Toad, I came in search of indie developers in need of business help. For Himalaya, I wanted to meet people on both the dev and business sides of the mobile sector since we started a mobile games initiative in late 2015. An initiative that was actually borne of our failure to get investor funding at GDC last year and porting our flagship title, Al Emmo and the Lost Dutchman's Mine, to iOS with little to show for it but a flimsy royalty report that basically got eaten up by our iOS Developer Account membership fee. The game design document for Clam Chowder Hub Run, a motion and physics based game incorporating the gyroscope that takes place on an actual MTA bus where you have to avoid completely spilling your bucket of clam chowder before the map runs out, was born. While story and world heavy point-and-click adventures are where our hearts belong, breaking into the mobile world is a challenge we're up to on both the creative and business aspects. Mobile is a whole other animal from making money as a PC dev, which is king for adventures. Ergo, coming to GDC was a no-brainer to meet people who made a living this way.

But in addition to meeting new people and wanting to meet up with colleagues I'd formed friendships with on Twitter and right here on Gamasutra, I also wanted to take in the 80 billion things there are to see and do at GDC: go to talks and round tables, check out displays, be inspired by all the different games and ideas. 

I did just that and then some. While a blow-by-blow account would wind up being longer than the script for the entire Dreamfall series, here were my personal highlights from this year's GDC.


Kickoff Dinner & Train Jam Games

I arrived Sunday afternoon and went to the 5th annual GDC Kickoff Dinner at Canton that night. The food was amazing, but the networking aspect of this dinner happens right after you walk in. You just grab a seat at the nearest round table and immediately start introducing yourself to the people around you.

I met a variety of people holding posts at AAA studios and had shipped games with budgets well into eight figures as well as indie developers who were still working on their very first projects. There were a couple other devs who also fell somewhere in the middle. The fellow sitting next to me had a background in theater and was looking to expand into working on games. Peter Panic is definitely having an impact!

I met Ian of Ian & Elie and we had a long awesome talk all about terrible movies and old hardcore bands. He also told me about the game he put together for Train Jam, which I hadn't heard of until then: all these devs make games in the 52-hour train ride going from Chicago to San Francisco.

I'm pretty tempted to do this for 2017 if it's happening, even though I'm a little aghast at the thought of being on a train for over 3 days since I'd be heading over from NYC. No less, I decided to check out the games made for Train Jam after I got my pass. Lazy Village was by and far my favorite, and I wanted to play more of the one about trying to go home from a party and I either was supposed to play it with a controller or the functionality just wasn't there yet.

It's pretty amazing what game devs can come up with in a short period of time. Sometimes a jam-length game stays just that, a small project meant to show off what you can do on really short notice, or it can be the foundation of something much bigger. Either way, you never know what it could inspire.


Round (and Rectangular) Tables

Since one of my definitive goals of coming to GDC was to meet devs and business people in the mobile games space, I decided to attend Google's roundtables on how to build a successful business on the Play Store.

Following the Google roundtable, I had a private meeting where I learned a lot about different monetization techniques. I had actually been afraid it was being called prematurely since Clam Chowder Hub Run's character concepts were being worked on while I was away, and the game itself still in paper prototyping. It wound up being a good thing because one of my chief takeaways from the Design & Monetization roundtable was that you really need to incorporate your monetization efforts into the actual design with more effort than simply stating, "I'm going to use ads." There's this whole sea of knowledge and statistics on the matter, especially when it comes to player engagement. But the Google rep had the same reaction to my tale of the guy getting Zabar's New England clam chowder all over his neckbeard on the bus that everyone else I told did: busted out laughing and said it was bound to get a big following.

Something about it felt really Kismet when I sat down for a breather and a cup of tea and this guy sitting next to me was eating a cup of clam chowder...and getting it stuck in his beard, joking about how he was going to save it for later. I wound up whipping out my sketchbook and had more developers from various sides of the industry tell me they can't wait to play Clam Chowder Hub Run.

I also hit the IGDA roundtables for business and law, followed by the general one for indies where we discussed contemporary indie developer business dealings and lifestyle issues. In terms of being an indie developer myself looking for other indie developers specifically in need of help for biz dev matters, this roundtable was the best and most relevant one for me, probably the one I got the most out of in the entire convention. The business and legal roundtable focused primarily on VR/AR viability as well as patent issues concerning larger studios, but if you're an indie developer in need of counsel this is a good place to look.

Remember, don't judge a party, session, or roundtable based on how many business cards or Twitter followers you picked up: I picked up about 20 business cards at the kickoff dinner but can only remember a few conversations. I got roughly half that amount at the indie roundtable and most of the people who gave them to me had in-depth conversations about their projects-- game and non-game-- where they definitely expressed interest in working with me and seeing what I could offer for them that other biz dev coaches couldn't.

Then my mind got blown when I suddenly heard, "Hey, I recognized you from your picture. I read you on Gamasutra all the time." Followed by, "Your book saved me thousands of dollars!"

It blew my mind further that I heard this several times throughout the rest of the trip.

A Quip from Student Game Analyses

Various schools with game design programs, the likes of which weren't even a blip on the radar when I was first looking at colleges around 9/11, had their students do posterboard analyses of recent games and some of them made it into the West hall.

Many of them had insightful observations, but the one that stuck out to me was an analysis of Undertale. That just because something is expected in a genre's mechanics doesn't mean that you *have to* put it in there.

This definitely made me think. I have so many adventure games in my mind still waiting to be made, and sometimes you have to let go of your original vision to just get something done. But while there's things in adventure games people expect that I'd still want to have in there, such as inventory and puzzles based on items, I've definitely been prompted to think about ways to change the traditional adventure game interface and overall design.


The Talk That Hit Home

I wanted to hit so many talks but my pass did not cover most of them. (Pro tip: download the GDC app, don't bother with the paper program. You can filter what your pass does and doesn't cover, set a schedule and get reminders, and stuff like cancellations and room changes pop up in real time.) Since I'd scored a lot of meetings on the sly, this wound up not being a bad thing: leaving time open to grab coffee or lunch with a new client or colleague wound up being something I needed to really get the most out of the trip.

Still, I wanted to see some other stuff that wasn't just discussions on the mobile gaming world. So I attended Don Daglow's talk on how to have a long career in the game industry. It wound up hitting home the most out of every talk I attended and even every private conversation I had about the indie life.

Don's father gave up on his dream to become an accountant in pursuit of stability. He encouraged his son to not do this; because doing what you love with the one life you have to live is one of the most important things there is.

It was only two years ago I was working a nightmare job doing taxes for the gentry seven days a week. I put up with it because the pay was good despite my lack of benefits and that I'd fallen in with the paradigm of "I'm an indie developer who can't quit their day job yet." I couldn't escape that hellhole to even rest for a day let alone go to GDC 2014, thus missing out on vital connections and good times with other game devs. Then April came and I was out of a job, and to further rub my face in it New York State told me I couldn't get unemployment for my suffering because the ownership of my studio apparently makes me Peter Thiel or something. Then I busted my ass looking for another tax job: I was suddenly competing with people my parents' age to get $15-20/hour if even that, for the same exact kind of job I had been clearing excellent pay for, all while people around me were telling me "But you have ACCOUNTING DEGREES! Why are you going to squander that on video games, surely you can get another real job soon enough?"

The very same instability I thought I was skipping out on by letting my dream of making games for a living shrivel up and die? Wound up happening to me despite having "secure" degrees. Right before I left for GDC this year, I woke up and it hit me I'm almost 31 years old and there's still so much I was hoping to have done by now that I didn't. But there's one thing I'm glad for, and it's that I didn't wait any longer to scrap the "have a job while you work on your game" paradigm. Don's talk cemented that decision for me; that life is just too short to not do what you love. If someone really loves being an accountant-- trust, I met a lot who did-- I won't begrudge them that. But my book was a gift to the indie developer world to attempt moving on with my life; because while I love helping indie developers with business matters-- including taxes-- I did not love being in that field. I didn't even want to be there.

Living the Dream

We all have dreams. For some of us it's simply to make games, others have dreams that go beyond that: to have totally free reign over what they make, to have freedom-- financial and otherwise, maybe travel the world or in the immortal words of Peter Gibbons, to just do nothing.

I realized on this trip that while I was stressing myself out trying to make it to every talk, meeting, and roundtable while fielding tons of email, that I AM living the dream even if doesn't seem like it sometimes.

I made it to GDC 2015, my very first one, under pretty rough circumstances and it wound up being a turning point of my life. As mentioned earlier, I was there to meet an investor and it didn't work out, and while I met a lot of devs I had a lot of fun with I found myself feeling really numb when it was over. I have no hard feelings for the investor; our goals simply didn't line up. Hell, I was actually really flattered this guy felt a studio under my leadership was a worthy investment. But with that door now closed I didn't know what the hell my future held. Letting my dream die a second time simply wasn't an option, and my stomach revolted at the thought of trawling Craigslist's financial section if I didn't get swarmed by spambots on LinkedIn upon putting my resume out.

This time, things were different. An aberration with a second business instead of a job. Where people I never met before said they read my writing and it helped and/or spoke to them. I came to GDC this year not to persuade an investor to give me their money, but to find ways for both my studio and myself to make more money and even have fun and fulfillment while doing it. Despite being asked what I was doing there, I damn well knew I belonged there and came with a whole new purpose. I have a much clearer vision for Clam Chowder Hub Run and the rest of the team is as excited to work on it as I am.


The week flashed right by and it was time to head back to the Bronx, back to reality. I crawled into my apartment almost 18 hours after arriving at SFO on account of delays and having to deplane, wanting nothing more than to pass out in my own bed before picking up the infamous Indie Toad from the kennel.

I opened my mailbox and the first thing I pulled out was a Zabar's catalog showcasing their samovars of New England clam chowder. If that's not a sign of living the dream in an unexpected manner, I don't know what is.

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