For this year’s Game Developers Conference, over 28,000 people showed up to San Francisco, California, in March to talk, listen, play, and network. Developers gathered to hear presentations on how to hone their craft, meet with peers, and conduct business. The experiences facilitated by GDC keep fledgling games alive, get them vital exposure, and provide opportunities for developers to meet the people that can help them break into the industry or simply provide advice for their games. Yet, for how important GDC is as a professional event, it remains wildly out of reach to a lot of people for whom it provides the most benefit: the developers themselves.
San Francisco, which has hosted the event every year since 2007, is one of the world’s most expensive cities. The hotels around the Moscone Center where GDC is held typically run upwards of $400 per night for the five-day conference. To access the conference itself, this year, the cost of an all-access badge was $2,300, with the cheapest option priced around $360. Developers who want to attend, then, must ask themselves this: in the age of the internet, where information is more easily shared and connections are more easily made, are the business benefits of GDC worth the conference’s budget-busting price?
I spoke to developers across a range of experiences, from first-timers to veterans and those with game demos to others with finished products supported by the biggest publishers. I wanted to know if, after 35 years, the event was still living up to its mandate to “champion game developers and the advancement of their craft” and if that mandate was worth the price.
The 2023 edition of the conference was Dani Lalonders’ first GDC. She’s the creator of ValiDate: Struggling Singles in Your Area, a visual novel with a diverse cast of queer and of color characters. Lalonders was initially hesitant about attending big developer events because of covid and the hostility she’s experienced being a Black woman in the video game industry. But she inevitably decided to come to GDC because she wanted to take her career to the next level.
“I knew I would come here and meet people who have promised to help me in the past,” she said. “I had a feeling that ValiDate needed to elevate, but I didn’t know how. And [meetings I had] really opened my eyes to how I can move ValiDate forward.”
Beyond the business meetings that will help her improve ValiDate, Lalonders also said that, despite her previous experience with racism, her time at GDC with fellow developers gave her a bit of hope for the future of the industry.
Veritable Joy Studios
“One thing I’ve learned while being here is that people in this industry are so tired of the way it is and they want to move forward,” she said. “A lot of people here care, and they want to do better than what was done in the past.”
Xalavier Nelson Jr., director of the forthcoming El Paso, Elsewhere and head of indie publisher Strange Scaffold, feels that GDC’s worth lies in its ability to get all kinds of people across the many disciplines of game development in the same place. “I think GDC’s primary purpose is a signaling beacon to developers around the world,” he said. “It is the place where, quote unquote, ‘everyone goes.’”
Nelson Jr. and Strange Scaffold are GDC success stories. He shared that he’s been going to GDC in person every year since 2018 because he feels it’s money well spent in terms of marketing and budget.
But beyond the business angle, to Nelson Jr., GDC is personally rejuvenating. GDC represents the chance to receive validation and momentum for his work. “There is an untold value to just being in the room, and GDC is one of the biggest rooms out there.”
However, he realizes that even though GDC works for him, it’s just unfeasible for a lot of other developers. “But it’s also an event that, especially for first-time devs or marginalized devs, can be devastating because financially, logistically, etc., it’s a hard event to do.”
Financial accessibility has been a major complaint regarding GDC for years, and those with the privilege to attend have called that out. During this year’s Game Developers Choice Awards, held during GDC, Josh Sawyer, when accepting the award for Best Narrative for Pentiment, said, “There’s a big accessibility problem with this conference, and this has to do with compensation and helping people with travel arrangements.” Even GDC’s own leadership has acknowledged how expensive it is to travel to and attend the conference.
There is an untold value to just being in the room, and GDC is one of the biggest rooms out there
“I understand it’s expensive — I live in San Francisco, it’s a very expensive city!” said Stephanie Hawkins, director of event production, in an interview with gamesindustry.biz. “GDC is a global community and the content we have should be accessible to the international audience. So it’s not a pressure, it’s more of a responsibility for us to figure out how to better reach people.”
Even developers who have “made it” by securing big publisher support have a hard time justifying the sheer expense of GDC while also recognizing the event’s immense value.
Sam Elkana and his friend, who goes by the name Abhi, are co-developers of Venba, a beautiful and stylistic visual novel-like game that tells the story of a family of Indian immigrants through charming cooking puzzles designed to celebrate Tamil cuisine. Venba already has the support of big-name platform holders, including Nintendo and Xbox, and Abhi initially wasn’t thrilled about attending GDC at all.
“I get how people are excited about GDC, but at the same time, I wish it was a bit more affordable for people.”
“I didn’t want to come to GDC as a networking event,” he said. “I don’t like how expensive everything is. But being here, I can definitely see how many people we met just organically and how important it is for developers to come to GDC. I almost hate that this trip became very useful for me. I’m like, ‘I get it.’ I get how people are excited about GDC, but at the same time, I wish it was a bit more affordable for people.”
A way to address accessibility is to take the conference online. During the pandemic, GDC, like most video game events at the time, pivoted to a digital showcase, offering talks and presentations online. GDC organizers run a smaller, separate event called the GDC Showcase, “a three-day online event that includes GDC session highlights with live speaker Q&As, panels, keynotes and interviews, and insights from some of the top companies in the industry.” At $89 for a pass, you can get a fraction of GDC at an even tinier fraction of the price.
But GDC’s organizers have stated that live-streaming presentations and panels is “cost-prohibitive” (and access to the vault where recordings are kept can either be purchased for $600 or is gated behind the most expensive badge price). And holding a separate, cheaper virtual GDC doesn’t address what developers have said is the conference’s biggest benefit: the ability to meet in person.
Photo by Kimberly White / Getty Images for Microsoft
“So often in game development and in the business around game development, your survival can come down to whether someone thinks of you at a moment’s notice,” Nelson Jr. said. “And if you saw someone at GDC, there is a connection there which increases the chance that, when you need it, you will have a social safety net to allow you to continue to work.”
It seems, then, that GDC is still a worthwhile expense for developers, but to a point.
I asked Nelson Jr. if, in consideration of his personal success with GDC, he would recommend going to other indie developers. His answer made a subtle but important distinction.
“I would recommend people come to San Francisco during the week of GDC,” he said. “The value of the event is the people who are in the city. Your ability to do business in the city is not defined by having a ticket to GDC.”
“Your ability to do business in the city is not defined by having a ticket to GDC.”
There’s an illustrative case for Nelson Jr.’s argument. Beloved and Deliight Ulinwa are a team of brothers working on their first game, 5 Force Fighters. I met the older of the pair, Beloved, as he was demoing their game at The Mix, one of the many GDC-adjacent events where developers can meet up and show off their work. In a later interview, the brothers talked about how finding a publisher for 5 Force Fighters is one of their biggest challenges right now as a pair of fully self-taught developers.
“We’re just trying to reach that person or that company that can help us take [5 Force Fighters] to the next step and get the marketing going,” Beloved said. They have all kinds of dreams for their game that funding from a publisher would help achieve, like creating story mode and an expanded roster of characters. GDC is designed for exactly their kind of problems. But there’s a catch: neither of them had a badge. But though they weren’t allowed to roam the show floor or hear the presentations, not having a badge didn’t hinder them at all.
“When we were at The Mix event, a couple of publishers came up and talked to us about the game, which was awesome,” Beloved said.
Brandon Sheffield, director of Necrosoft Games and organizer of GDC’s career summit, agrees that badges aren’t strictly necessary to have a good GDC experience.
“I think you can gain a lot of value by coming to GDC without a pass,” he said. “You can hang out in Yerba Buena Park [a greenspace near the Moscone Center] and see a lot of indie devs and stuff.”
All of the developers I spoke to agreed that attending GDC is worthwhile. But not so much the event itself — the talks, presentations, and show floor — but the people all gathered in one place for a week.
“Don’t not see [GDC] as the event that changes your life,” Nelson Jr. said. “But as the group of people who will be alongside you to change your life over time.”