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The Pros of Cons

Over the course of the last couple of years, I have been fortunate enough to attend a wide variety of different professional gatherings either as a speaker or simply as an attendee. This list includes SIGGRAPH's Sandbox Conference, the MIT-hosted Media in Transition Conference, FuturePlay in Toronto, South by Southwest (SXSW), the Bethesda Small Press Expo (SPX), the Game Developers Conference (GDC), WonderCon and, most recently, the New York Comic-Con. Most of these events are accompanied by several common denominators: some semi-hectic travel arrangements, some dubious hotels, a number of thoroughly excited and geeky conversations between equally excited and geeky people, and a not insignificant amount of griping about the nature of the event in question.

At almost every event, people complain that this year's isn't as good "as they used to be", that the event wasn't "what they expected it would be", or something along those lines. Of all of them, though, nowhere was that griping louder than at this year's GDC in San Francisco. Speakers and attendees alike groused about how the event was changing after the collapse of the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3); while GDC had always been solidly technical, academic and theoretical in nature, E3 had long been the agreed-upon blow-out demofest for marketing types and the public. If GDC was a library, E3 was an amusement park. Following E3's implosion due to ever-escalating costs and increasing ROI concerns, the marketing departments had turned their attention on GDC. The result of this was a huge amount of tension because of an increased confusion about what GDC was supposed to be.

If you look at the list of events I outlined in the first paragraph, almost all of them fall neatly into one of two categories: conference or convention. A conference is typically an event attended by people who largely share a similar profession, gathering in one place to talk shop. A convention is typically an event attended by people who largely share a similar hobby, gathering in one place to buy stuff they can't get elsewhere and geek out. At both types of events people go to hang out with 'their tribe', others who are passionate about the same things, and to listen to (and hopefully meet) people they admire or who do things that the attendees find incredibly cool. Both events are (or at least should be) fun, but they're often fun in different ways. To reuse a metaphor, conferences are libraries and conventions are amusement parks.

I attended GDC for the first time this year, and although this might not be a popular opinion among the old guard, I was grateful that there was some degree of convention involved in the conference. I like my conferences with a dash of convention -- I like it when I can come out of a great discussion about a particular topic and immediately buy some of the books, games, comics or what-have-you under discussion so I can dive right into them once I've returned to my hotel. This gleeful quasi-intellectual consumerism is improved even further when those things can be obtained at a 'trade show discount' of 20% or more. Throw in a cheap branded cloth attendee bag full of freebies and coupons and I'm a happy boy.

That said, even I had to agree that this year's GDC felt incredibly schizophrenic. The high point of this for me was the Microsoft keynote. I went in excited and hopeful that we'd hear some new announcements concerning indie development on the Xbox Live Arcade -- and, to be fair, my wish was granted. However, it was very much a case of "be careful what you ask for" -- while I was hoping for an in-depth demo of how independent developers could build, distribute, market and profit from games on Microsoft's XBLA, what I got was little more than a long, extended sales pitch. There was little to no hard data, no real how-to discussion, and absolutely zero discussion of the business model attached to this SHINY NEW PIECE OF AWESOME that Microsoft was trotting out and expecting the audience to fawn over. Instead of a technical document we got a press release -- or, worse, a total fluff piece. This was crystallized when the so-called 'keynote' ended with a flash of pyrotechnics and Cliffy B exploding onto the stage, chainsaw gun in hand, to announce Gears of War 2.

Now, again, I'm not saying there's no place for this kind of thing. Quite the contrary, in fact -- but that place is a convention, not a conference. With E3 gone, GDC is in danger of ceasing to be a conference and openly becoming a convention, which I think might be a horrible mistake. While at the New York Comic-Con, I found myself thinking that this was the kind of place where those types of announcements might have been more warmly received. Konami had a huge prescence on the trade show floor there, where they were demoing (among other things) their upcoming Hellboy game. The New York Comic-Con and the San Diego Comic-Con have both become increasingly less dependent upon comics and become more all-media geekfests with panels on comics, video games, feature films, television and so on. Even the less high-profile Wondercon, which was happening the exact same weekend as GDC and in the other half of the exact same convention center, had a notable showing of video game-related content. I found myself thinking then, much as I did later in New York, that the overlap in the two events' Venn diagram was huge -- but very few attendees of either conference was aware that the other was going on until they actually got there and noticed the swarm of OTHER nerds doing interesting things across the street.

This is, obviously, a huge missed opportunity. Instead of having developers grouse about Microsoft's convention-like "keynote", why not deliberately organize both events at the same time with a shared ticket option for those who want something from both worlds? Conventions usually offer panel discussions and lectures in classrooms in addition to their trade shows, as well as scheduled big announcements from the most high-profile corporations in attendance. When those are sales pitches, attendees accept that as what they are -- but they aren't being sold as keynote lectures. Similarly, attendees of GDC who had been expecting that kind of big pyrotechnic display would have been deeply disappointed in the excellent-but-dry-by-comparison keynote lecture on far-flung futurism by Dr. Raymond Kurzweil.

GDC is currently trying to court two very different audiences, which can certainly be done successfully through a clearer terminology and a clearer marketing strategy. By delineating which parts are conference and which parts are convention, GDC (and the Comic-Cons, for that matter) can expand their audiences and capitalize on the increased amount of cross-interest between these different-but-similar entertainment industries. The key is simply remembering what parts are libraries and what parts are amusement parks.

Bottom line: no one is happy when someone tries to give a lecture on a roller coaster.



I was actually pretty happy with GDC this year. That's likely due to the fact that, as a long-time attendee, I could read the hidden codes that marked one lecture as "advertising" and another as "instructional". The management of audience flow seemed better: In years past, I recall fire-hazard packed small rooms for speakers who were popular with developers but not known to gamers, and sparse attendance for lectures that were mostly sales pitches. This year, CMP seemed to have had a much better idea of who was going to attend.

Might GDC be focusing their efforts on larger number of game enthusiasts who dream of breaking in and are willing to spend $2k on a single conference every year, instead of the exhausted professionals who balk at the unceasing accumulation of massive conference costs? Alternatively, since the press still gets in for free, is CMP positioning GDC to be the perfect place for press releases?

The huge focus on indie games was also a big change this year. Is it just the right idea at the right time, a result of recent commercial success, or another version of targeting the hardcore fan who dreams
of rubbing shoulders with big publishers? I was happy to see the indies get their due this year, but the accolades at the IGF seemed better suited for E3 than GDC, with stunts, noise, and rock-star bluster.

It's worth noting that GDC is came much earlier this year, putting it in schedule competition with DICE. Meanwhile, fan-run conventions like PAX are growing exponentially and almost every big publisher or developer has its own convention (Blizzcon, QuakeCon, X08, etc.) But GDC still has its regulars who wouldn't have the time for a convention, and some of those regulars (like Will Wright and Sid Meier) are simultaneously the biggest draw for gamers.

I'm also curious if the other GDCs in Lyon, Korea, Shanghai, and so on may fall differently on the conference/convention scale.

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