Experiencing GDC 2010

by Hugh McAtamney 
Hugh McAtamney from the Dublin Institute of Technology visited the recent GDC in San Francisco and brings us this report.

pic 1: Racked, Packed and Stacked at GDC2010

GDC is the world's largest conference for game developers, game designers, game publishers, journalists and students. It takes place in March and this year over 15,000 delegates from around the globe descended upon the Moscone conference centre in San Francisco for 5 days of intensive tutorials, technology demos, meetings, presentations and networking.

With over 400 lectures spread across Audio, Business, Game Design, Production, Programming and the visual arts there is plenty to choose from. Indeed the biggest challenge is deciding what to go to. GDC also hosts a technology EXPO, an employment EXPO and 'game connection', which facilitiates business meetings between companies.

GDC 09 was my first time at this mammoth event and I found it a bit overwhelming. This isn't an entertainment expo, it is an opportunity for anyone involved with game development or publishing to network with processionals, to catch up on the competition and to see where the industry might be heading in the future.

Due to a mistake by the organizers this year the conference was held from the Tuesday to the Saturday, instead of the Monday to the Friday. In addition, the very large Moscone West' conference block was booked by another conference. As a result the whole conference was literally crammed into the Moscone North and South conference blocks and as the week went the crowds made it a little unpleasant.

Add to this the very limited social space, laptop recharge points and dodgy WIFI connection I felt that all of this diminished the overall experience somewhat. It became impractical for me to bring my laptop or video camera, so instead I decided to take notes by twittering to our twitter account @seriousgamesirl.

GDC2010 operated a barcode system on your lanyard, so rather than hand out business cards you could (with the right application on your smart phone) scan in a delegate's barcode and get all their details electronically.

The 400 extremely enthusiastic staff were mainly made up of student volunteers from around the US. The head of volunteers told me that they hold a competition every year to hire volunteers. Students are asked to submit an application explaining why they should be allowed to become a volunteer at GDC and which sessions they would be most interested in. This year they received over 1500 applicants. International students can apply.

The GDC vaults are worth paying for whether you go to the conference or not as you get the full benefit of viewing, on demand, the video of all of main conference sessions along with the speakers presentation slides. It includes sessions from all the previous years and from GDC conferences in Austin and GDC Europe etc.

The Summits

The first two days of GDC are the summit lectures and tutorial days while the main conference and EXPO start on day 3. The online registration system requires you to pre-register for your tutorial of preference. The tutorial sessions are not recorded so, if you miss something, you miss something.

The summits this year included AI, Mobile/handheld, Game Localization, IGDA education, independent games, social and online games and serious games. Last year I went to the IGDA summit which featured a blender tutorial. This year I registered for the mobile/handheld summit. Why? Well because anyone registering for this summit received a free Nexus 1 phone from Google. Yes, I said free and yes it works just fine thank you.

pic 2: The nexus 1 as seen from my iphone

The one and two day tutorials included a wide range of topics including 'building an independent dev studio in 2010 , scripting, audio design, level design, game writing, physics for games and social platforms. Some of these run over two days which pretty much means you can't attend any of the summit lectures. A full list can be found here:

I decided not to go to the 2 day game design workshop this year. These are often great fun and indeed it's how you get to meet lots of people. I met game design consultant Ernest Adams a few years ago at GDC Europe where he was running his famous game design workshop. Ernest is one of the founders of the conference and is instantly recognizable by a large top hat that he wears. This hat is an old conference tradition dating back to the early days where, as a conference organizer, he needed to be easily identifiable in a crowd.

pics 3: International Game Design Consultant: Ernest Adams

This year I started out the conference attending the LUA programming tutorial. Kore's Steve Collins was chairing the session and I have used lua in the past with the cryEngine. For the uninitiated, Lua is a very popular game scripting language used across many game genres, such as World of Warcraft, Baldurs Gate, Company of heroes and one of my favorite games Grim Fandango.

Following an introduction to the history of the language by its creator, Brazilian academic Roberto Ierusalimschy, the first of a number of post mortems on the use of the language started. Games covered were Grim Fandango, Fable II and Brutal Legend.

The problem with these type of sessions is that they become a 'this is what we did' type of session. There was no practical work covered, so I finished up at the break and wandered over to the social and casual games summit.

The social and online gaming summit was packed full of really interesting lectures. Highlight of the summit for me was the Zenga Games presentation on the lessons learned and techniques used developing FARMVILLE, a flash game that was developed in 5 weeks which then went on to become the #1 application on Facebook with over 7million users playing daily within a month and a half. This presentation was packed with envious developers presumably looking for inspiration on how to get rich quick with only 10 staff and 5 weeks of development time.

Lead Developer Amitt Mahajan explained that some key design decisions made early on in development later paid dividends when the game was scaled up. Some of these were to adopt a data driven game design approach and define everything in XML which reduced the amount of developer code as the file can be as simple as a text file.

The Farmville team consisted of 6 PHP/Flash developers, 2 artists and 3 producer/designers. He pointed out that by having staff that were multi talented, i.e. were both flash AND PHP developers, increased developer efficiency and had the added benefit of giving the team greater ownership of their work. He pointed out also that all developers co-owned game features with designers.

The biggest technical challenge was being able to update the game database with millions of actions. It was also crucial for them to scale the server architecture to the cloud using Amazon but at the end of the day everything to do with this was done using off the shelf components.

Other highlights were the group discussions on 'why game veterans are flocking to social gaming' and 'how to market and indie game'. The discussion panel identified that they were starting to see loads of variety in online games. Social gaming was forcing designers to be creative and also to think about game design for people who don't play games normally.

The lecture by Wolfire Games, LLC on how to market the Indy game was a common sense explanation on to how to gain profile about your upcoming game or mod. These tips can be summarized below;

  • Game Connection can be worth your while (more on this below).
  • Meet the media. Find a photographer and a journalist won't be far behind
  • Build a community and reach out people.
  • Best PR tool is a blog, use pictures videos to encourage feedback
  • Get your website out into the cloud.
  • ModDB is a must for modders

Game Connection

Game Connection is an international marketplace for game developers, service providers and publishers looking to find the right business partners. Game Connection provides several different services: matchmaking between developers, network building and enhancement, and examination of projects and companies. The Game Connection's main objective is to provide a private, quiet booth, where discussions and negotiations can easily take place.

All participants have access to an online meeting system on the Game Connection web site where participants learn about each other's company projects and interests; search through the database, ask questions, send meeting requests and much more. Meetings are only scheduled when both parties are interested, increasing the efficiency of the event and the probability that the right business partners will be found.

During the event, each exhibitor (game seller or service provider) has a closed booth in which he can make its presentations to buyers during half-hour meetings. Depending on everyone's schedules, companies can conduct up to 20 meetings a day. Essentially this is speed dating for developers/designers.

Main Conference

The main conference got underway on Thursday and the already cramped venue started to feel really claustrophobic.

I chose to go to a few game post mortems. Uncharted 2, my game of the year for 2009 and the first game to really show off the PS3 in my opinion was the starting point. Developers 'Naughty Dog Games' were major contributors to GDC 2010 with around 8 lectures spread over three days covering animation, story and character development, cinematics and the game design process. I chose the latter lecture and wasn't disappointed.

"Among Friends - An Uncharted 2: Among Thieves Post-Mortem" was presented by co lead designer Richard Lemarchand. Richard got straight down to talking about the production philosophy within Naughty Dog. Preproduction in naughty dog is a free form period which lasts quite a long time (6 months). There are no deadlines set during this period and prototyping of gameplay is done with any tools at hand. He reinforced that the industry norm for developing prototypes is to build the middle level first. This middle level includes all the main components of gameplay and technology in a game.

The level they chose to demonstrate was the famous 'train level' which if you haven't played, is worth buying a PS3 just to play. This 'train' level also was last to be finished, primarily because of the 'teleporting' trick required to keep the train moving through continuous scenery until the player reached certain trigger points.

Another major lesson learned was that by creating the multiplayer levels first it allowed the designers to tighten up single player mechanics. Richard also then showed how excel was used during playtesting to identify how players were using the game mechanics to react to certain situations. An excellent insight to the inner workings of a real game design team. I'll certainly be showing this in class.

I also attended the obligatory Blizzard game design port mortem which this year focused on their core values and design philosophy. In short these were;

  • Gameplay comes first, concentrate on the fun!
  • Not being afraid to re-write the Warcraft lore to support the gameplay and fun
  • Build the multiplayer first and the singleplayer second.
  • Design depth first then accessibility second. Essentially with WOW they built the complexity
    first then worked backwards to build to the beginner experience.

As usual the Blizzard talk was professionally put together and delivered with an air of confidence that can only be got from making a game that generates $150 million bucks a month.


The highlight of the conference for me was a tie between the opening session on the friday morning and a game that was being played weeklong throughout the conference by anyone with a smartphone and a twitter account.

The opening session entitled "GDC Microtalks 2010: Ten Speakers, 200 Slides, Limitless Ideas", was one of those talks that are great fun and very inspiring to attend. It is also one of the free to view talks on the GDC vault.

The other highlight was the game hundreds of delegates were playing called 'backchatter'. It was a massively multiplayer social game played through twitter based around the GDC timetable. Once you registered to play you had to choose the 3 words you thought would be the most 'tweeted' over the course of a series of 2 hour sessions spread throughout the conference. The idea was that you had to predict which words would be most popular based around whatever lectures were ongoing during that period of time.

People were wandering around, bumping into walls, while checking the leaderboard on their iphones. It was great fun and I won one of the rounds, got a free t-shirt and a book voucher which entitled me to get a copy of 'casual game design' by Gregory Trefay. You can have a look at it in more details here.

I got quite obsessed trying to keep my name inside the top 5 the whole time, and funnily enough I noticed that I had a major increase in the number of people following me, @seriousgamesirl, on twitter during the course or the game.

The Expo

The expo opened on the Thursday and is split into 3 sections the technology expo, the career pavilion and the business centre.

The technology expo is exactly what it says on the tin. It's a huge space full of booths with game developers, software companies, localization companies, publishers, hardware companies and basically anyone with a product to promote. All the big guns were there Sony, Intel, Crytek, Microsoft along with Unity3D and Autodesk. Noticeable in their absence was Unreal.

On display were latest versions of game engines and games e.g Cryengine 3.0 and Crysis 2. You got to test out the upcoming range of 3D TV's and Wii like motion controllers.

You could also play around with some interesting implementations of augmented reality products that reminded me of the pitiful virtual reality hardware that came out in the 90's. Ive included some links below so check them out for yourselves. I wasn't impressed.

pic 4: 1980's or 2010 - Does this look familiar?

pic 5: Is this the future of Augmented Reality? Remote controlled AR drone?

pic 6:

The Career Pavilion was pretty much the same as last year, companies such as Blizzard were inundated with queues of people carrying resumes and universities offering game design undergrad and post graduate courses. Canada, Scotland, France, Germany, The Netherlands and the U.S. were all well represented with government development agencies promoting their regions as bases for game companies. As I've said before this really is something the Irish government should try to exploit.

pic 7: Guess they didn't want to carry a truck full of resumes back to head office then!

Of course GDC plays host to the independent game and student game awards which basically set the standard for those wishing to make a name for themselves. The quality gets better every year but if you look at the overall student winner, from Sweden, simplicity, well implemented will always give you a good chance. Check this out if you haven't already.

The business pavilion is where many of the software companies conduct their meetings. Ireland was represented by Kore and Havok although neither were doing any presentations this year. I know the guys from Demonware were also there but I didn't see them here in the business area (they may have been in with Activision). Business doesn't stop at 5pm either as many companies have developer parties to continue the work into the small hours.


Apart from the cramped space the main lowlight for me was the keynote speech. However, I will preface my review below, with the following declaration; "I am not a fan of Sid Meier's games".

The keynote address is presented on huge stage in an Oscar style format, lots of razzmatazz, a massive room with 3 huge screens, lots of noise and a great air of expectation about the place. The Hideo Kojima keynote last year was brilliant so I had high hopes for a repeatexperience. That didn't happen.

Keynote Disappointment

Sid keynote is available on many sites on the internet so feel free to disagree with me. He didn't fit the context of the setting and I don't think he handled his topic very well. "Psychology of game design, everything you know is wrong" is a great title and it started off well enough when he declared that gameplay is all 'in your head' and that with his games it's all about egomania, paranoia, delusion and the players self destructive behavior. In fairness to him, he wasn't trying to relate this to other types of games. So I guess, not being a fan, I mustn't be either paranoid, delusional, self destructive or an egomaniac, which is nice to know.


Overall I got more out of GDC this year, knowing the lay of the land. There were lots of inspiring lectures which I will pass along to our students. The schedule has already been disclosed for 2011 and its back to business as usual with a Monday to Friday slot in late February (brrrr). It would be nice to have students entered in to the games competition next year and in the overall context of the conference I think I'll do that 2 day game design workshop.

Ernest Adams admitted to me that he actually wants to do this workshop himself, just to get a look at the competition and I guess if for nothing else that's exactly why many people go to GDC in the first place.

Author Bio: Hugh McAtamney is Course Chair and lecturer on the MSC in Digital Games, in the School of Computing at Dublin Institute of Technology. His handle is Hatch. Email :

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