Categories: archive

GDC 2013

tldr; GDC was amazing. You should go.

Last month I attended GDC for the first time. Words can’t even begin to describe the overall week, but I’m going to make an attempt. Before I talk about GDC, let me first give a shoutout to the IGDA and their scholars program.


Let me start by saying I was honored to be selected by the IGDA for a scholarship to GDC. If you’re unfamiliar with the IGDA, check them out here.

If you’re a student and you’re not a member of the IGDA but you’ve been considering joining the IGDA, then stop and join now. It’s a great way to get involved in your local game development community. If you’re a student and you’re already a member of the IGDA, great! Next, make sure you take the time to apply for the student scholarships.

Heather Decker-Davis, Luke Dicken, and Molly Maloney did a fantastic job at organizing events for the scholars as well as putting each scholar in contact with a mentor who is aligned with what the scholar is interested in. For example, I was paired with David Fox, founder of Double Coconut because I would also like to start my own indie game studio. I would be amiss if I didn’t also thank Sheri Rubin, who also helped organize the scholars and provided us with this fantastic list of ‘recommendations’ for GDC.

For anyone who has never been to GDC (especially as a student), make sure you read over everyone of those recommendations, because there’s a lot to think about.

Onto the events of the week…


First thing Monday morning I left my friend’s house on the bus to Moscone Center. It wasn’t my first time in downtown San Francisco, but it was my first time at a weeklong event there. Because I didn’t get in until late on Sunday, I didn’t have the opportunity to hang out with the other scholars on Sunday night, or to get my registration stuff early. Getting my pass took a matter of minutes and I was able to peruse the three Moscone buildings so I would know when I was supposed to be where for each session.

That morning, all of the scholars got together and walked to Three Rings Studio. We were given a history lesson of the company and a tour by the CEO. It was awesome to hear all about how they started off as a small indie studio and how they grew the company and eventually sold the company to Sega. Their studio was extremely cool (they had their own Tardis and steampunk’d out the facility).

Next, we went to the scholars/mentors lunch where we were able to sit down and really meet and talk with different mentors. My mentor David Fox was unable to attend the lunch, but I did get to talk to other mentors present, including Robin Hunicke (producer for Journey) which was really cool.

We were then left to our own so I decided to hit up sessions.

The first formal session that I went to was the OCD-Retro/Grade Postmortem. It was beyond amazing, and disheartening. If you haven’t heard Matt Gilgenbach’s story about Retro/Grade, then I’ll give you the short version. Basically, he spent years making a gorgeous game that had fantastic feedback but then failed to make any real money. I can see myself in that exact same place. I’m pretty OCD and I get heavily involved in my projects so it was good to see (and learn) from others’ mistakes. Anyway, Matt’s presentation was well worth it and I wish him all the best in his next project. And if you haven’t already bought Retro/Grade, you should. :)

That evening, and pretty much every evening, was spent going to various parties. This is where GDC education stops and GDC networking begins. I’m going to summarize the parties, but I’ll basically say this… make sure you’re awake and able to stay out for them. The parties were where I was able to meet (and actually have the time to talk to) 90% of the people that I met at GDC.


Tuesday morning began much like Monday, but instead of going to Three Rings Studio, we went to Double Fine Adventure. Let me say that again, we went to Double Fine! We had a brief discussion with a developer and designer which was really cool. Tim Schafer also did a Q&A with us which was exciting. Ever since Day of the Tentacle, I’ve been a Tim Schafer fan. Finally, we ended our time at Double Fine with a brief tour.

After I went to as many indie-related sessions as possible… here’s the short version notes.

Designing without a Pitch - FTL Postmortem

  • 18 months development
  • Initially thought of as 3-month side project
  • Build… every month: what was fun, what was not fun, where can we go from here?
  • Always iterate and follow the fun

SpaceChem Postmortem

  • Design-based puzzle game
  • It’s a hard thing to do (indie puzzle games with a community)

Indie Soapbox

  • Spyparty - “No one has heard about your game” & “You cannot overhype a game, you can only underdeliver”
  • Fez QA horror
  • Fez and procedural music
  • Tim Rogers - “I am an independent game developer”
  • Emily Short - “Text is not cheap”
  • Noel Llopsis - Why are you making games? Know your intentions
  • Collin - how to travel full time as an indie game developer


Wednesday morning I was invited to Sheri’s fantastic annual breakfast. While it was a bit crazy to go to bed so late and wake up so early, it did give me the chance to meet with a lot more industry experts… seriously though, network network network.

After breakfast, I briefly perused the expo floor. Since I’m not there representing a company and I wasn’t applying for any positions, I was able to briskly walk through the entire floor. There was a lot of cool tech out (Oculus Rift, for example), but I wasn’t going to wait in line for an hour to try it. I did take the time to play each of the Independent Game Festival nominee games. That was the best part of the expo for me… probably because I really like indie stuff so much.

In addition to going to the expo floor, I went to GDC Play, where a lot of indies were presenting their games there too. Most, I believe, were looking to publishers to help them bring their game to the mass market. While I don’t know the industry well enough, I hope that some of them are able to publish their game without an actual publisher (some of the games I played there were a blast).

For sessions on Wednesday I went to as many roundtables as possible. Per Sheri’s suggestions, I wanted to go to as many non-recorded sessions as possible, and none of the roundtables are recorded. I could later watch the recorded sessions on the GDC Vault. I preferred to go to roundtables that weren’t exactly my expertise (development), but areas that I’m definitely interested in (art, vfx, etc).

Visual Effects Artist Roundtable

  • Where is the divide between designer and visual effects artist?
  • Lots of talk about communication with others
  • Tricks of the trade
  • Background: understand both the tech and the art, performance profiling, ask a lot of questions

Animation Roundtable

  • Animators = What/who are we? Designer, problem solver, creatives
  • Lots of interesting discussions on dichotomy between animators and designers
  • Disney pairs animators and engineers together
  • Know the 12 principles of animation

Art Director and Lead Artist Roundtable

  • How do you build leaders?
  • What makes a good art lead? And what makes a bad art lead? … very interesting how similar they are to a good engineering leader/manager.
  • Always know “why”… if design wants a button added, find out what the general purpose is so you can make it be exactly what it needs to be.

After those roundtables, I hit up one sessions that dealt entirely with VFX (I really love shaders)…

Light-based Rendering for Tomb Raider

  • Several different shaders (“lights”): wet lights, dark lights, fire lights, low-res lights, screen space ambient occlusion, light buffer, fog, translucents, and post-processing…
  • I think they said they made 12+ renderings before finally rendering the output per scene
  • 250+ lights

That evening was the Independent Game Festival (IGF) Awards and Game Developers Choice (GDC) Award shows. These are basically the Oscars of awards for the game development community, where the winners are selected from their peers. It’s pretty cool. Both award shows were great. And if you’re wondering who won big? Journey took just about every category…

My last semi-organized event of the evening was going to the Ludum Dare dinner. I’ve now done 5 Ludum Dares (4 at the time of GDC) and I was eager to meet Mike and Phil since they run the show. It was just a good ol’ time of networking and talking to other indie game (Ludum Dare) developers.


A nice long day of sessions…

10 Questions: Am I ready to go Indie?

  • What game mean most to you as a kid? And now?
  • When thinking about being an indie, what does your b-card say? What will you spend your days doing?
  • Do you have a paying job or are/can you do your game on the side? How much do you need/month? How long can I sustain living that way?
  • Same as #3, but with a team?
  • How many people depend on your income?
  • How does your partner think about risk?
  • If you start up a company and have success, how long a commitment do you think you’ll make?
  • What’s the project from your career that your peers/players gave you most praise?
  • Biggest project start to finish? Shipped successfully? What was your role?
  • How would you feel if everyone said your game sucked? If it didn’t make money?

Fortnite’s Shader-based Procedural Animations

  • Yay vertex shaders!
  • Several fun shaders: bounce, culling, self-building walls
  • Bounce: discover worldspace and impact location, damage radius and power… use spline effect to bounce back and forth
  • Culling: scale operation from viewpoint of model
  • Self-building structures: built-in-game, structure health, efficient; needed vertex shaders to have one mesh act as many. Used scripting, transformations, animations, and masking

Sand Rendering in Journey

  • Used a ton of “hacks” before shipping: sharp mips, anisotropic mask, glittering on/off, specular on, diffuse on, detail heightmaps on
  • Sharp mips: sand is grainy.. real sand looks mushed, not so sharp
  • Reflective sand (terrible in motion)
  • Unrealistic “sun” off of sand… like water- fluid

Game Designers and Developers Roundtable

  • Do I want to be a leader?
  • Roles and Titles… very different in every company
  • Designers often but heads with producers… (and discussion why)
  • Many issues of trust (over and over again)… communication, constructive, and understandable

Working the Crowd: Engaging Players through the UI

  • Be intuitive on an emotional level… even for UI.
  • 2 conflicting goals: 1) present information in way that is easy to use/understand and 2) evoke personality of game
  • Good UI is invisible
  • UI communicates the personality of the game
  • Allow your unique style to come through every aspect of the game
  • Find a guiding influence to unite various parts of interface
  • Help others feel like what they’re using is made by humans
  • Constraints force-creative solutions
  • Start w/a crazy idea
  • Positive emotion trumped all usability concerns
  • Inspiring reaction is better than feeling nothing


And another day of sessions…

Technical Art Roundtable

  • Annoying problems for technical artists: different IDEs and switching back and forth between languages, Maya and things that still don’t work with Python, no APIs for production tools (Unreal, Crytek), Remote debugging in Eclipse
  • Tip: sell stuff by “time saved”
  • Be sure to Scotty your producer… always multiply out your time estimates to be more accurate (1.4x, 2x, whatever it is that would be real). This allows you to test and make your code robust and overdeliver instead of underdelivering.

Experimental Gameplay Workshop

  • Over 130 submissions.
  • Some of the games: Castle Doctrine, Mushroom11, Plus Gun, 6180 the Moon, Perspective, Meigakure, Starseed Pilgrim, Kachina, SpaceTeam, Soundodger, Memory of a Broken Dimension, Architecture Games, Mexican Kitchen Workers, Searchlight.

Closing Thoughts

I had a blast at GDC and I’m hoping for many more. I’m extremely thankful to the IGDA for helping make it a reality. I’m already starting to plan for next year: I’d really like to go to the 2-day workshops on Monday-Tuesday.

Until next year!