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I’m very much looking forward to going in person to the Game Developers Conference 2022 event next week at the Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco. And just a year ago, during the height of the pandemic, I thought I might never be going to a GDC again.

I look forward to seeing many people in the game industry, watching their award sessions, and hearing interesting talks. But it’s going to be different in some respects, said Katie Stern, head of GDC, in an interview with me.

The venue will feature fewer press events in contrast to past years. Companies like Microsoft, Epic Games, Google, and others aren’t doing their usual events this time. They don’t necessarily want to create large events where lots of people will gather within GDC, Stern said. (Google held an online developer event this week instead of going to GDC; other companies like Unity are moving forward with a number of GDC events).

“I would say it’s a really great mix of different types of games and talent,” Stern said. “And it’s pretty diverse in terms of the makers as well. So I think in that regard, it’s one of our better years. We’ll be streaming it on Twitch again. So even if you’re not at the show, you’ll be able to see it online.”

Katie Stern is general manager of GDC Events.
Katie Stern runs the GDC.

I think that return to tradition is a good thing, as it will give smaller developers a chance to shine, it will give me more time to see conference sessions, and it won’t be so crowded with announcements aimed at stealing the show. In other words, we’re going back to the old GDC. Of course, those anchor speakers from the big companies were kind of like the anchor stores at big malls — they were the reason the crowds showed up.

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“It creates some breathing room for the smaller developers that show up,” Stern said.

One of the highlighted sessions is “The Developer’s Renaissance,” featuring David Anfossi (head of studio, Eidos-Montréal), Davina Mackey (director & president, PlayStation Studios QA & Black@PlayStation), and Mike Wilson (Founding Partner, Devolver Digital). It’s an introspection about how the pandemic allowed the industry to reexamine how things are done. Micaela Mantegna of the Berkman Kline Center at Harvard will talk about the ethics of XR and the metaverse along with a group of other luminaries.

And perhaps one of the more interesting talks will be by Josh Wardle, the creator of Wordle, the word game that took the world by storm and has been acquired by the New York Times. He will speak at 3 p.m. on Thursday.

Stern noted that at the Game Developers Choice Awards on Wednesday, the GDC will introduce its Social Impact Award.

“It’s specifically for games that advanced equality, justice, intersectionality, or sustainability,” Stern said. “You’ll see this as a common thread, as climate change is a big conversation and the impact the games community has on that. So that was one place you see it, but you also see it in a lot of the conference content that we’re offering this year.”

The GDC is making sure that the event has less carbon impact, and it is doing small things like eliminating aisle carpet in the expo hall, Stern said. Attendees can make donations to reduce the carbon impact, the group is using digital signs instead of printed signs, it’s donating money for carbon offsets, and it is supporting community nonprofits.

Stern didn’t say how many people are expected to attend, but she said it won’t be a record and it will still be the largest event that San Francisco has had since the pandemic began.

“We’re feeling pretty good about it,” she said. “There are travel restrictions impacting travelers from the Asian market, but only about 10% of the registrations are opting to do the virtual-only program. The bulk plan to be there on site.”

In light of the industry controversies around sexual harassment at places such as Riot Games and Activision Blizzard, we will see a “ton of conversation around diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI),” Stern said.

No #1ReasonToBe

Camila Fisher speaks on the #1ReasonToBe panel.
Camila Fisher speaks on the #1ReasonToBe virtual panel in 2021.

Sadly, one of the only sessions that I have always been able to attend — the diversity-oriented #1ReasonToBe — will not be taking place this year. That’s a bit of a travesty, in my view. Rami Ismail, the game developer who organized a number of those sessions, said it’s ridiculous that the GDC is holding that session again. But Stern said that the advisory board decided that many of the topics discussed at the #1ReasonToBe sessions will be discussed across the board at a number of other sessions — and so the board decided not to do the session again.

“We discussed this at length with the advisory board meeting this year, and the intention of those panels was very much, at its inception, to put a spotlight on topics that really needed an extra conversation and extra attention. The advisory board has decided we’ve moved on from that and it is now just part of the normal program.”

I don’t really agree with that, considering how many times I wrote about the session as the most moving part of my GDC experience. Ismail said, “There’s nothing like #1ReasonToBe.” But change is happening.

On the advocacy side, we can expect a lot of discussion around environmental impact and sustainability in games, and how that is all tied together with topics such as culture, remote working, shorter work weeks, inclusivity, crunch, and other issues related to creating inclusive workplaces, Stern said.

Anita Sarkeesian started the Game and Online Harassment Hotline.
Anita Sarkeesian started the Game and Online Harassment Hotline.

The event will have postmortems, like John Romero talking about the making of Wolfenstein 3D and Anita Sarkeesian talking about the 10th anniversary of her reports on sexism in the game industry: Tropes vs. Women in Video Games.

Stern noted we’re seeing a renaissance for augmented reality and virtual reality again as we await the metaverse. The war in Ukraine is on everybody’s mind, but the conference program was pretty baked before the events of the last month happened. Stern believes speakers will address it in sincere moments like during the awards show.

Stern said that nonfungible tokens are likely to come up a lot as a flashpoint for discussion, as some game developers passionately believe in NFTs and some absolutely hate them.

“Our goal with GDC has always been to inform and educate the industry and give them the tools and resources to make a decision on their own and determine how best to utilize them,” Stern said. “All the conversations we have around it are a two-sides conversation.”

Stern said the GDC had to make a calculated risk that, based on the numbers it saw at the beginning of the year, to go forward with the event, as Omicron infections were expected to fall rapidly. That’s exactly what is happening, she said. The show is small and the show floor is smaller, but it should still be a fruitful GDC with a lot of passion.

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