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A series of daily scene reports from GDC 2010 in and around the Moscone Center, San Francisco. Part II: Press pass and Jenova Chen.

Matthew Burns, Blogger

March 10, 2010

7 Min Read

It’s the first real day of GDC. The surging crowds are at first seemingly counterintuitive to the oft-repeated phrase that the industry is a small place. Just how tiny it is, though, becomes fully apparent as I stand in a hallway seeing person after person I recognize, by name or by face.

The moment I enter Moscone South I spot a former co-worker, and have a catch-up conversation with her before I can even get my badge. The newly-built studio she’s joined is “interesting,” she says, and briefly describes some of the disconcerting politics already going on there.

I’m on a press pass this year, which is turning out to be an “interesting” for me, too. I had always thought certain people became suspiciously friendly towards me when I started working for Bungie three years ago, but that’s nothing compared to being in the system as a game journalist.

Even without any prior credentials to this particular vocation I’m bombarded with e-mails and calls asking for my time– often starting with off-putting affectations of casual camaraderie. On some level I understood that this is how things work, and that I should not be surprised, but I can’t help but feel drained by all the noise.

In the face of a thousand false friends, what is one to do? Getting fifty e-mails and ten voice mail messages about startups that are going to “revolutionize the social gaming space” makes me second-guess myself, and wonder if maybe there isn’t something to this stuff after all, and that maybe I’d better write something about it lest I miss out on the next big thing (whatever that actually turns out to be).

This press mentality distorts my perception, too, such that the weight of all the clamoring results in an impulse in the opposite direction, the desire to fly in the face of the “public relations” people and pick something obscure and contrary to write about, just to prove that I am in control of myself.

The crowd at the Independent Games Summit yields about a dozen people I have known before only online in the space of twenty minutes. We all understand there is no time for any sort of deep conversation, so we are content to say hello face-to-face for the first time and move on for now, promising each other we will see each other later in the week. Everyone pours coffee into their bodies, still in the mode to gear up for what promises to be a long, interesting and mindbending day.

I soon meet Ben Abraham, game writer and academic. He is brand new to GDC and this country in general, but the first words out of my mouth are about our shared game of Neptune’s Pride, a web-based light strategy title created by an ex-Irrational developer, that has been eating away at our time for the past week. Laptops side by side, we compare tactical notes before we think better of ourselves and go on to discuss more serious matters: the conference here, the writing-about-games scene (such as there is one), life in Australia as opposed to here.

Then, out of the corner of my eye, I catch the nametag of Chris McCarthy, one of the people who I have been working with on my independent game project as he randomly walks past us. I shout his name, and he immediately joins a rapidly growing lunch outing agglomeration– from four to six to ten people– in search of a good place to eat.

The train gets moving only to break up after it becomes clear there is no actual destination in mind; the two splinter groups end up in the same food court of the same mall anyway, and a large table is shared by all. Chris ends up talking to Ben about Australia’s Classification Board, and I’m drawn into a conversation with two soon-to-graduate game programmers, Kyle Murphy and John Holland, and another artist, Chris Matuszek, about Torque, Unity, and the video game program at Champlain College.

As we walk back to the conference the streets are packed with people shouting passionately about ambient occlusion, how to compete with Zynga, or the game company t-shirts they possess. I head to the W Hotel, where I’m to meet with some old friends in the game audio business (Tom Hays and Julia Bianco, of Technicolor Interactive Services).

The lobby bar is packed even at this time of day and we’re lucky to find a seat; during our conversation one of our group excuses himself to take a call and comes back fifteen minutes later to announce he’s just made a sale. We reminisce about old times, compare studio buildout notes, and exchange current information.

A few hours later, I’m on my way to meet with Jenova Chen, and Ben, who I run into again, joins us. We discuss game business (the Infinity Ward news, the development scene in Shanghai), before moving on to other, more important topics. Jenova must be off to make an appearance elsewhere, and on the way back from our meeting place I explain to Ben why I think Flower is so important.

It’s starting to become party time, and while there are many tantalizing gatherings that have been heard of and spoken of in hushed tones, there are markedly fewer with actual concrete locations and invitations. We are on our way to one when students we met the previous day spot us, and like a Katamari ball we absorb them, the whole thing rolling along Mission Street towards the closest open bar.

I manage to find yet another former co-worker, who hands me a business card so thick it could be a coaster, and who keeps talking about how he needs to get back to his room so he can actually write the slides for his presentation later this week. It is the deepest part of the crunch cycle at his workplace right now, and he has had no time, he says.

He also describes how he was explicitly instructed by his management not to talk about certain recent industry events about which everybody is talking; I make up for this by ranting at him on the subject while he nods and quietly drinks his Scotch and beer.

The night finally ends two or three establishments and last calls later. Ben Abraham, who had earlier said he was going to bed, is found chatting with Clint Hocking past midnight, and I spend a good fifteen minutes reeling at the size of Ubisoft Montreal, which one of the guys has pegged at almost 2,500 people. Much is said– some of it to be forgotten– and we head back to our respective hotels to collapse for a few brief hours. “That,” says newly-elected IGDA board member Darius Kazemi, “Was the first day.” 

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