Thousands of video game developers, students, and journalists made the pilgrimage to San Francisco's Moscone Center last week for the Game Developers Conference. Solid crowds constantly travel from one building to the next during the week-long event. You’d be hard-pressed to avoid seeing a GDC attendee within a five-mile radius of the convention center.
But just try to get inside. Unless you can spend more than a grand for passes or get a press pass, you won't find any easy way to attend the show, which is meant to educate, inspire, and celebrate the industry we all love. If you plan a few months ahead, you can volunteer as a conference associate and get in by working a few hours throughout the week.
GameSpot's charming 8-bit-inspired artwork, made entirely out of Post-its
Just for fun, a few friends and I decided to see what we could do as outsiders to the main GDC crowd. Of course, chances are good you'll run into journalists and developers at nearby restaurants or bars [editor's note: especially the bars], but we wanted to see if we could get into the seminars or the expo itself.
The result? You can’t really do much without a badge.
I’m sure other people found ways over the years to sneak into certain parts of the conference, but we were turned away at every opportunity. Even the NOS Energy Drink models set up right across from Moscone West refused to give us free lanyards. Their marching orders said to only give them to badge holders. We eventually grabbed a few lanyards and drinks by blending into a huge crowd. Otherwise, GDC keeps you on the outside looking in.
"But Giancarlo, why try to get in when most of the seminars and award shows are covered online?" you might ask.
Now my true motivations come to light. I wanted to see various seminars and lectures, yes, but I knew from the start I'd never get inside GDC without a badge. But here's the biggest reason to attend for press and exhibitors alike: You meet people.
GDC, by far, represents the biggest social networking event of the year for the industry. And while some of this happens during the show, the real bonding happens in bars and lounges across the city at night. If you follow any developer or video game journalist on Twitter, you read a lot of tweets last week recounting drunken stories from the night before, often priding themselves on the pitifully low number of hours they’d slept during the week.
Many companies sponsor parties. This year alone, you saw events thrown by Markus "notch" Persson (creator of Minecraft) and the International Game Developer's Association, to name two. And just like the conference, you couldn't get in without an invitation. A few events hold no such restrictions, like the PixelJunk 4am preview party held by the Super 7 Store…halfway across the city from Moscone Center.
The last batch of magazines for (the now out-of-print) Kill Screen #1
I felt determined to attend at least one of these parties, if only to see firsthand the cool, insidery networking that seemed to go on all day and night during GDC. Then some friends told me about a party put on by indie-game-centric Kill Screen Magazine. I quickly tweeted an offer to volunteer at the event. In exchange for free entry, I would help give away pledge prizes from their Kickstarter page. More importantly, they'd give me the door list with all the attendees' names.
This was my chance to meet people…and play their games.
I recognized a few names, but I never got a chance to check them in. They either arrived after my shift or never showed at all. With my hopes of talking and drinking with a few gaming journalism luminaries now dashed, I turned my attention to the second-biggest reason everyone attends GDC: exclusive, behind-closed-doors looks at upcoming games.
Osmos by Hemisphere Games
Osmos caught my eye first. Running on two iPads hooked up to two projection screens, Osmos immediately impressed me with its colorful visuals and unique take on competitive multiplayer (which made its debut at this party — the campaign released some time ago). The goals vary depending on which mode you pick, but the matches I played simply involved outlasting your opponent as you try to absorb smaller “motes” (denoted in blue) to increase your size.
Patience is key. If you move too fast, your momentum will likely carry you to your death as bigger red motes absorb you. Call it a fun, frustrating learning curve.
Against the Wall,by Michael Consoli
Puzzle game Against the Wall has the player vertically scale a seemingly endless world in order to head back to their home village. Players use a wand to manipulate blocks of varying sizes, but without careful consideration, it’s easy to fall to your doom with just one misstep.
Ever had that sinking, stomach-tightening feeling when playing a game that simulates heights so well? Against the Wall does that. The constant paranoia of falling provides an adrenaline rush as you try to scale the surface as quickly and safely as you can. Try the playable alpha build for yourself.
Hokra by Ramiro Corbetta
Simply described as a "digital sports game for four people," Hokra comes off as surprisingly tense and thrilling despite the short matches. Two teams fight to keep a ball in their own colored square. Players without a ball in hand can stun opponents with the sprint button, prompting a lot of thrilling turnovers. Games frequently end in five minutes with a thin margin of victory.
Every game I saw or played ended either with people screaming from a last-minute victory or groaning at a horrible defeat. Hokra reduces the entire sports genre down to the final seconds before a countdown buzzer, wrapped up in a cool, minimalist package. My favorite game of the night.
Lexcavator by Adam Parrish
Lexcavator takes your mother's Tetris and adds a Scrabble-like twist. You clear letter tiles by quickly spelling out words as you find them, which allows you to delve further down its vertical-scrolling world. I played it on Arcade mode and managed to find a few words before my indecision doomed me at the last minute. It’s exciting and hectic…Words With Friends as an action game.
Bit Pilot by Zach Gage
Combining quick, rewarding gameplay and an awesome 8-bit soundtrack, Bit Pilot has one simple goal: survive. Between meteors, asteroids, and laser beams, the game throws everything at you but the kitchen sink. I failed horribly the first few times I tried it, but like Canabalt and Jetpack Joyride, it’s a game you keep playing in hopes of beating your last score. You can find it available for download right now at your nearest app store.
I left the party shortly after midnight, smugly satisfied with the overall experience. I didn't get into GDC, but I did experience a small sliver of it. I often see journalists describe this show as a breath of fresh air. It's not the madhouse of an Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3). Instead, it gives them a chance to connect with old friends and new people alike, where everyone shares a common passion.
And this year, if only in a small way, I got to share in it, too.