It’s that time of year again: October’s sneaking up on us, pumpkin spice everything is all over the place, and GDC tickets are going to go on sale soon. If you’re trying to save some cash (not to mention stress) now would definitely be a good time to get that pass and start making your travel arrangements. Those coveted Indie Summit passes sell out FAST, and once I get my pass I then book my room and flight right after. Just like those “Save early, save often!” adages from 90s Sierra games, I always recommend doing the same.
“But wait!” you cry out. “I can’t just do that right now. I’m a broke-ass indie developer. I don’t work for a studio with an expense account who will pay my way, or have a parent/spouse financially supporting me so I can't just put the cash up for a flight and pass right this second. How can I possibly make it to GDC?”
You’re the exact reason I wrote this!
If you’ve ever taken any of my business classes or attended any of my talks at conferences, you’ll know that I’m fond of taking the scrappy way to self-funding when traditional methods have failed you. Attending GDC is definitely a major investment in your career as a game dev-- whether you want to go indie or are seeking a job at a studio-- but isn’t quite on the same page as getting development funds. But just like with development funds, there’s some interesting ways you can get what you need. First, let’s break down your main categories of GDC expenses:
Travel (airfare + ground transit, plus getting around while you’re in town)
Marketing materials (business cards, at the very least-- don’t tell me you were going to leave without some?)
The next four items are covered more in depth in Part 2, because they’re a whole other animal. There’s also variables for whether you’re going alone, with a dev team, or looking for someone to split these expenses with. As an experienced solo traveler who’s in San Francisco 3-4 times a year these days, I’ve got lots of tips that can even help you save some cash if you’re doing this alone.
But right now, we’re going to focus on the most important aspect: getting you into the conference to begin with. So, there’s the methods of just drumming up some spare cash like setting up a GoFundMe or cash.me tip jar you can tweet out, hocking unwanted stuff on eBay, Poshmark, and the like, and running a fire sale of any existing games you have/getting last-minute freelance work to push you over the threshold. But we’re going beyond that here.
Some of the methods below can actually cover some or all of your related needs like getting there, a place to crash, and food (and possibly booze.)
Ways You Can Get a Pass You Don’t Have to Pay For, or Drop a Significant Amount of Money
If this is your first time at GDC, you’re not going to benefit from the alumni discount that prior attendees can qualify for. It can also be confusing figuring out what pass you should aim for given your budget and what you want to get out of the conference.
Here’s a couple ways you can get a pass if you're low on cash:
GDC Scholarships. Some game studios, non-profits, art and game dev collectives, and universities offer GDC scholarships to help young and broke game developers make it to GDC for this important investment in your career. Many are intended for game devs in marginalized groups who’ve been pushed out of traditional means like larger studios and traditional college. If you have a game in the works and/or can make a good case to these organizations as to why they should fund your attendance, you should definitely look into it. You can find many right here on Gamasutra offering scholarships and indie grants, as well as searching for “GDC Scholarship”. You might even get a random benefactor on Twitter if you're active there.
Getting your school to pay for it if you’re a student. Are you a game development student, or perhaps a student in another discipline who can make a strong case for why attending GDC would be important to your career? When I was a graduate student, we had a reimbursement allowance for one conference per year for up to $500 per student. The amount and timing varies by school for programs like this: a potential drawback could be if it was like my program, the amount won't cover the entire conference and I also didn’t get that check til the end of the semester. But your school may provide the funds upfront or right after registration. Even if they do pay late like mine did, don’t leave this stone unturned. You pay enough for tuition.
Get your job, or a client, to pay for it if you can convince them there’s a mutual benefit. For a majority of indie devs who are holding down a job, or a freelance career/second business, there might be a way you can get them to pay for at least your pass if not the other expenses associated with it. If you’re with a studio that’s at the point where they’re sustainable enough to give you a salary, they should at least be covering your pass. If you’re in a different field in media or the arts, your chances are also good at getting your employer to pay your way in. As for other fields, there’s definitely ways you can convince them why GDC would be a good investment: there’s developments being made in mental and physical health and VR, nonprofits are embracing games for social good, games are being used as a means of marketing….the list goes on. The stock justification letter on the GDC website probably won’t work outside the games industry, but there’s ways you can make an argument and support it. (*shameless plug alert* I can custom-write a justification letter if you’re outside the industry!) Now if you’re like me and you don’t like jobs, what’s the status on your freelancing clients? Are any of them in a position to pay for your pass, and why would they do so? Coverage of the event (if you’re in games-adjacent media), help promoting your client’s brand, setting them up with valuable meetings at the conference? Get creative and figure out a mutual benefit if you need some help there.
Go bare-bones and get the expo pass only-- or no pass at all. The expo pass is your absolute cheapest option that just gets you into the expo hall instead of the talks and other events. But it might be all you need if you tend to get overwhelmed easily, and we all know that the parties are where the real networking happens. If this is your first time coming to GDC, don’t forget: downtown San Francisco basically turns into this massive summer camp for game developers. It’s impossible to see and do everything. It’s totally legit to just get the absolute cheapest pass you can get your paws on just to get in, or not even bother getting a pass at all: for a whole week, it becomes socially acceptable to just hang around the Moscone Center and Metreon and go up to random strangers asking what they’re working on and if they want to check out the game you’re working on. There’s spacious tables, some decent food options, clean bathrooms, and FREE WIFI at the Metreon too if you can’t get past the gates across the street!
(But for real, while you don’t want to miss the conference itself, this is one way to do it to take advantage of the periphery events like parties and discipline-specific meetups.)
More Deep-Dive Methods
These methods require more legwork beforehand and/or after you arrive at GDC. But these ways to get a comped GDC pass are also well worth pursuing, especially if you’re looking to meet more people in the industry and get some experience.
Help out a studio or business in the industry who’s on the fence about exhibiting in exchange for a pass. Have you done boothing before? One of the biggest thorns in small studios’ and businesses’ sides is getting someone to help them with a booth, and a GDC booth is a great investment-- and also incredibly exhausting so a solo dev who wants to exhibit but was nervous about not having help would likely love to have you on board By including you on the roster for helping with the booth, you can get an exhibitor pass this way and a behind-the-scenes look at things-- not to mention an efficient way to meet thousands of people every day.
Volunteer with a school, museum, or other non-profit in a similar manner to the above. If you’re a student or graduate who can’t get your school to fund your attending GDC, maybe you can take it a step further and offer to help them promote their programs at their booth as well as any parties and peripheral events. By coming with the organization opposed to just getting them to fund your pass, you should at the very least get an exhibitor pass but in some cases also an incidentals allowance from the organization you’re volunteering with. Low-budget orgs may just give you meals, schools with more muscle might also get you a place to sleep. Both are two less expenses to worry about.
Come as a conference associate (CA.) This method may not be open to you if you don’t have enough industry experience yet. But you should definitely try even though the list gets long. A CA helps GDC run smoothly by helping attendees find their way around the convention center, explain what they do and don’t get with their passes, scanning badges at talks, and you also get to sit in on different talks as a result. You can get *a lot* out of the conference this way from hanging out with the other CAs where you can share networks and your experience, not to mention a glimpse at what goes into planning and running a massive conference. While CAs don’t get their travel comped, you do get an all-access pass, meal vouchers, and under San Francisco law wages for your training hours and time spent serving as a CA. So yes, you can get payment plus a free pass and some grub for your hard work! You should also ask around and see if you can get someone who was previously a CA to recommend you: it’s an option when you go to apply. Get on the list fast if you want to pursue this option.
There’s probably some other creative ways that you can scrap your way in: these are all methods that various GDC die-hards I’ve talked to utilized when they were low on funds but determined to get over to San Francisco and make it happen.
After tickets go on sale, check out Part 2 where I discuss the various ways to save some cash in what can be an incredibly expensive city (but doesn’t have to be if you know how to work it.)
How have you made it to GDC against all odds? Share in the comments!