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The Game Developers Conference is one of the rites of spring in San Francisco. The event draws more than 24,000 game developers and other professionals from around the world. It will include more than 450 press, including at least five journalists from GamesBeat. Like everybody else in games, we have to go drink from the well of GDC to rejuvenate our enthusiasm for games and the process of making them. No other conference more directly targets the people who create games on a daily basis.
Simon Carless, the executive vice president of show organizer UBM Tech, helps organize the GDC every year, along with general manager of GDC Events Meggan Scavio. Their job is to create a “platform for the industry” to create its own sessions for identifying hot trends or lessons for everyone involved in making and promoting games. This year’s sessions include a primer on mobile virtual reality by game pioneer John Carmack and a refresh of Sony’s Morpheus virtual reality project. We’ll see how game developers crafted hits like HearthStone: Heroes of Warcraft, which has been downloaded 25 million times; and Alien: Isolation, which sends chills up your spine.
We’ll see game developers react to the culture of Internet haters. And we’ll learn about the future of e-sports or the vision for gaming at Microsoft. I caught up with Carless at the recent GDC preview party and in a subsequent interview. Here’s our edited transcript of our conversation.
GamesBeat: Are there any more things you plan to add to the agenda for GDC this year, or are you just about done with it at this point?
Simon Carless: There are a couple of things that sneaked in super late. The John Carmack talk on mobile virtual reality was the last big editorial session that we announced. Also, if you didn’t see, we announced our Flash Forward on Wednesday morning. That has Brenda Romero and Laura Fryer leading it off. The point of those sessions is to have a couple of our advisory board members talking about what’s been going on for the last year. That should be interesting.
GamesBeat: Do you have any data on the upcoming show?
Carless: We’ve been talking about e-sports quite a bit. We’re having our eSports summit for the first time, a stand-alone eSports summit. 79 percent of all respondents thought they perceived eSports to be a long-term sustainable business. Right now only 12 percent on developers are working on a game they imagine could be an eSport, though, a competitive skill-based multiplayer game.
That was interesting, especially because we have that entire day of content on Tuesday. We have some high-profile speakers. We’ll be talking to Ryan Scott from Riot Games and Frank Lantz (of the New York University Game Center) about how they designed League of Legends. We also have talks about StarCraft and some other stuff as well.
GamesBeat: Is that one of the biggest new additions at the show?
Carless: We always try to introduce new summits. This year our new summits are e-sports and community management. The thing that’s happened with e-sports, it’s become a lot more important, because everyone has to worry about how their game shows online.
Not everyone thinks they’re making an e-sport, but clearly one of the main ways people find out about your game nowadays is by seeing it streamed on Twitch or YouTube. E-sports are very stream-focused. A lot of ideas and concepts you can look at in e-sports and then apply to your game, even if your game isn’t itself an e-sports. That’s one reason we’re focusing on eSports.
We also have quite a strong advisory board for that summit. We have Frank Lantz from NYU. We have Patrick Miller, who works at Riot now, and Lil Chen, a sort of semi-pro Smash Bros. player, who works for TED. We have a good range of people on it to get at all aspects of e-sports.
GamesBeat: As far as people you think of as celebrities at the show, who would you be looking forward to?
Carless: One of the things we like about GDC is that we tend to—We’re not celebrity-averse, but the people who get on stage at GDC need to be people who have substantive talks with a lot of takeaway. That means we don’t perhaps have the star quotient on stage of something like DICE. We’re looking for less Q&A and more, “Here’s some takeaway you can apply to your game.”
I’d say John Carmack is a good example of that. We have him talking about mobile VR. He’s quite a celebrity, but he’s also a hardcore coder who talks about hardcore subjects. I’m sure he won’t disappoint in talking about some of the complex bits about how VR needs to work.
We have some sessions supplied by our sponsors. Phil Spencer is giving a talk on Wednesday about the future of gaming across the Microsoft ecosystem. That’s presented by Microsoft, but clearly it’ll have some strong interest.
GamesBeat: I noticed that some of the sponsor sessions look like pretty good sessions regardless.
Carless: Exactly. We’ve been working with our sponsors a long time. We give them written feedback from our attendees about what they like and don’t like. That’s really helped. These are smart people who want to talk to developers. Increasingly there’s some really good stuff there.
We also spend a lot of time on the non-sponsored stuff, of course. There’s a talk by Richard Lemarchand, ex-Naughty Dog, called Infinite Play that looks pretty good. We always like these more expansive game design talks. We have talks by people who made some of the bigger games of the last year. There’s a bunch of Destiny talks. There’s a talk on Dragon Age that slipped in at the last minute, a couple of talks on Never Alone. The art director of Never Alone is giving a talk. We have a talk from the co-director of the movie The Boxtrolls. He’s worked in the games industry before, working on Puzzle Agent with Telltale. He’s going to talk about what it takes to direct a movie that costs tens of millions.
GamesBeat: I see a lot of impact from the Gamergate controversy. Brianna Wu and Zoe Quinn are in there. One Reason To Be is still in there. It looks like an agenda that’s been impacted by industry trauma.
Carless: The way I explain it is, we’re a platform to reflect what our community wants to talk about. We’ll put on what the developer community wants to discuss. We definitely do have some talks about things like what happens if you face online harassment and a number of other topics. We want to be a good platform for the community and discuss things.