A Guide for First-Time Students at GDC

Next week, I will be attending the annual Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. (If you’re going and want to meet up, tweet me  – @praliedutzel) Unfortunately, this year, I only have an expo pass, so I might not be posting any “What I Learned at GDC” articles. Instead, I plan on doing a ton of networking in preparation for my upcoming graduation this April, as well as marketing the game I’ve been working on, Delirium. Over the past two weeks, I’ve been talking with the team about what to expect at GDC and how to be prepared. Because the majority of the team has never been to GDC, a lot of really good questions came up, so I decided that it might be helpful to write about what I talked with the team about. Read on for a guide to GDC for first-time-attending students!


What is GDC exactly?

GDC stands for Game Developers Conference, and it’s a pretty big deal in the game industry. It’s a conference for professional game developers, whether you’ve worked on AAA games, indie games, or are studying game development. The conference is made up, primarily, of two parts: sessions and the expo hall. Sessions are learning opportunities, where a speaker gets to talk, usually for an hour or so, about something they’re passionate about. The expo hall is full of booths for game, software, and hardware developers, and gives you a chance to talk with representatives from different companies. GDC takes place several times a year, with the big one being in San Francisco in early March. There is also another GDC in the U.S. in Austin, Texas that takes place in October, although it is smaller and focused on online, social, and mobile games. You can learn more about GDC at the official web site: gdconf.com


When should I go?

If you can, go every year. GDC is a fantastic experience where you will gain knowledge, contacts, and critiques of your work. Even if you’re just starting out at school, if you can go, go. And after that, go every year. The contacts you make there are invaluable, and there really isn’t a substitute for it. That being said, it is fairly expensive to attend. Passes alone range anywhere from $75 to $2100, depending on the type of pass you get and when you buy it. Since you’re a student, you probably aren’t going to be able to swing for the all access pass, but even the expo pass will at least give you a chance to network. You can also try volunteering for the Conference Associate program. In exchange for working the conference, you’ll be able to attend the conference for free. I was a CA last year, and I have to say that was an amazing experience, but just keep in mind that they only accept so many volunteers a year and there are a ton of applicants, so don’t get discouraged if you don’t get accepted – just try again next year. On top of pass expenses, you will also need to book a flight and a hotel room, as well as pay for meals. GDC is about a week long, and San Francisco isn’t cheap, so be sure to budget accordingly. Furthermore, you will be going out to lunch and dinner with people you meet at the conference, so factor in restaurant prices, as well. If you check your finances and you can afford to go, then go for it! If not, try to set aside some money for next year, or, at the very least, your senior year of school, although you really want to go before that.


How do I prepare for the event?

GDC is a professional environment, so you need to be on top of your game before you even get there. You should have a portfolio, resume, and business cards ready to go, especially if you’re actually looking for a job there. If you’ve only just started school, you don’t really need to have a portfolio or resume, although if you can get a digital portfolio up, it will help you to get some good feedback on your work and show people what you can do, even if it’s not that great yet. No matter what year you are, though, you definitely should have business cards, since you will be networking with people you meet at the conference. And whatever you do, do not wait until the week before the conference to order your business cards, as they will probably not get there in time. I have written guides to business cards, portfolios, and resumes, so read those if you are looking for advice.

Another thing to do in order to prepare is to do some research. If this is your first time visiting San Francisco, do some research into the area, such as good places to stay and eat. Also look into public transportation, unless you plan on renting a car, since some things might be too far too walk, and you are going to need a way to get to and from the airport. If you look into the area before you get there, it will be much easier to navigate.


What do I wear there?

This is a common question, and there really isn’t a definitive answer for it. You want to dress nice, without overdressing, so don’t look like a hobo, but don’t show up in a suit and tie (suits and ties are reserved for actual business people). Most attendees will either be wearing a t-shirt and jeans or will be dressed in business casual, so the decision is really up to you. If you do wear any t-shirts, make sure that they aren’t offensive to anyone (no profanity, vulgarity, etc.) because that is only going to make you look bad. If you want to wear something nicer than a t-shirt without getting too fancy, just wear a nice button-up or polo shirt. Jeans are always fine, so no need to wear dress pants, as you’ll probably just look out of place. As for shoes, wear whatever’s comfortable and looks nice. You will be walking around a lot, so don’t wear anything that is going to hurt your feet. For women, I don’t recommend wearing heels unless a) you are super comfortable wearing them all day, or b) you have flats in your purse in case your feet start to hurt. Also, keep in mind that the weather in San Francisco in March tends to be cold, rainy, and windy, so be sure to pack accordingly. If you want to read more on what to wear, check out this great article by Brenda Brathwaite on the very subject.


What should I bring?

There really isn’t a whole lot that you need to bring, but there are some important things you don’t want to forget. You should also keep in mind that you are going to get a lot of swag from the expo hall, so make sure you bring a suitcase that can hold anything extra you get while at the conference. Here’s a quick check list of important things to bring:

  • Business cards!
  • Clothes for the week
  • Comfortable, Closed-toed shoes
  • Nice jacket or coat, depending on the weather
  • Laptop or tablet, if you have one
  • Notebook and pen, for taking notes
  • Some kind of bag to keep electronics and swag in (backpack, laptop/messenger bag, etc.)
  • Resume, if you have one
  • Printed portfolio (optional, for artists)
  • Any toiletries you’ll need
  • Any chargers you’ll need
  • Camera (optional)
  • Anything else you might need

I’m here! Now what?

Enjoy the conference! Check to see what you can go to with your pass, and have fun. If you get to go to any sessions, remember that there are a lot of them, so choose carefully which ones you go to, and take notes. There is a lot to do at the conference, and there are plenty of people to hang out with, so don’t hide in a corner by yourself the whole week – get out there and make the most of it! Check out the expo hall and the career pavilion, and network with as many people as you can. 


How do I talk to people?

Let’s face it: it can be really awkward just walking up and talking to people at the conference. As geeks and gamers, most of us can be pretty shy, but keep in mind that all of the other attendees have the same interests as you. Strike up a conversation about your favorite games, the latest technology, or something you think might spark interest. If you’re making a game or working on something cool, talk about it. At GDC Online this past October, I had just started Delirium, and you’d be surprised how many people were excited to hear about it. And don’t be rude: ask the person you’re talking to what they do, what they’re working on. You never want to make the person feel like they don’t get a chance to talk, so ask them questions and further the conversation, rather than stealing the spotlight. Here are a few extra tips on talking with people at the conference:

  • Never interrupt someone just to introduce yourself. Be patient, and you’ll get a chance to talk with them; otherwise, they will just think you’re rude.
  • Don’t do anything inappropriate. This includes anything that would embarrass you or keep you from being invited back, such as talking bad about other people or companies or saying something offensive. Just be careful what you say, since you could be working with or for some of these people one day.
  • Don’t turn into the “super fanboy/girl.” Developers do appreciate praise, but they are at GDC as professionals, not to hear you spew your undying love for them for making the best game ever. You can compliment their work, but do so in a professional manner and don’t go overboard.
After you’ve talked to someone for a bit, you can offer them your business card. Usually, they will exchange business cards with you, but don’t be offended if they do not offer you theirs. If you are looking for more advice on networking for game developers, read over Darius Kazemi’s series on Effective Networking in the Game Industry

What do I do with these business cards?

Exchanging business cards means you’ve created a new contact with that person. Once you receive a business card, you might want to make a note about who the person was and what you talked about, so you don’t forget. After all, if you can’t remember who someone is, how can you expect them to remember you? At the end of the week, or when you get home, whichever you prefer, you can follow up with the contacts you’ve made by adding them on LinkedIn. Keep in mind that not everyone is going to add you back on LinkedIn, especially if they’re a well-known developer, so don’t take it personally. If someone asked you to email them right away, be sure to do that when they ask you to, but other than that, you don’t want to email people right away. Follow up emails should be sent out the week after GDC, which will give people enough time to get back into the swing of things at work, making it more likely that they will see and respond to your email. When writing follow up emails, remind the person who you were, what you talked about, and thank them for their time. For help with follow up emails, check out this article, also by Brenda Brathwaite.

Is there a certain way to talk to people in the expo hall?

While there isn’t a specific way you should talk to recruiters and representatives at the booths in the expo hall, there are definitely some do’s and don’t’s. You should be respectful of the people working here, and remember that they are there to talk to you. Don’t just walk up to a booth, take whatever swag they are giving out, and run away. Stop and talk to the person working the booth; ask them about their company, what they do, what the culture is like. If it’s a company you might apply to in the future, ask them what kinds of skills they look for in whatever position you plan on applying for, and what they would like to see in a portfolio. If you have a portfolio, don’t be afraid to ask for critiques, if they aren’t too busy. If they are busy, come back later; the expo hall is open for three days, so there’s plenty of time. Some companies do portfolio reviews, so ask around about them if that’s something you want to do. If you can, network with the recruiters. Some recruiters will try to push you away if you say you’re a student, but stay confident and politely ask what them about the company. If someone is acting a bit rude, it’s nothing against you; they’ve probably been talking to people all day and are just tired. Try coming back another day if you’re not having the best of luck. The key thing is to stay positive and interested. If you talk to someone and seem bored, they aren’t going to want to keep talking. Even if the company doesn’t offer anything for you, be polite and hear them out. The number one thing is to never act rude or disrespectful, whether it’s in the expo hall, elsewhere in the conference, or out at parties. 

What about parties?

There are a lot of parties during the week of GDC, some that are invite-only and some that are not. Parties are a lot of fun, but aren’t the greatest for networking, especially if that lead designer you were drinking with can’t remember who you are the next day. If you do go to a party and are old enough to drink, be careful how much you drink, since you really don’t want to get super drunk in front of potential employers. Plus, you don’t want to have a hangover the next morning. That doesn’t mean you can’t have fun, but be careful not to get a bad reputation.


What happens after GDC?

Follow up emails! As I mentioned previously, you’ll want to wait until the week after GDC to send out follow up emails. Remember that people are busy, so don’t think they’re ignoring you if they don’t email you back. For those that do send responses, be sure to respond to that email, especially if they asked you a question. If you’re a student and it’s your first time at the conference, don’t freak out if you didn’t do a whole lot of networking. The first time you go, it’s mostly just getting used to the culture and how to talk to people, since you probably haven’t been to anything like this before. This is why I recommend going as early as possible in your college career, so that you can see how things are and get better at networking each time you attend. The Game Developers Conference is a wonderful learning experience for both students and developers, so take everything in and enjoy it!


Thanks for reading! I am also working on a guide for applying to jobs at GDC, since I’ve been doing a lot of research myself on the subject, so keep an eye out for that post. As always, if you have any comments, questions, or critiques, leave a comment below!

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