GDC 2017 - Student Experience Blog

This year the School of Interactive Games and Media funded 14 undergraduate and graduate Game Design & Development students to attend the Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco, California. Of the 14 students, 5 graduate students attended Train Jam, a cross country game jam on a train from Chicago to San Francisco in anticipation of GDC. 

While at GDC the students had the opportunity to meet and learn from game industry professionals through conference sessions, networking events, and time on the Expo Floor. In addition, IGM Professor Ian Schreiber coordinated a Playtest session where students could showcase their own creations and playtest new games from others.

Below are five interpretations of the GDC student experience, with advice for those who choose to attend in the future.


Jeannette Forbes – Prioritizing Your Time at GDC

There’s always something interesting happening, and you’re always missing it.  At the Game Developer’s Conference, no matter where you are or what you’re doing (unless it’s cloning yourself), there’s always another event you could be at, a new VR headset to try on, or a ground-breaking talk to attend.  Prioritizing your time during the conference is vital.  With that in mind, consider managing your time using these five tips.

  1. Know why you’re here.

While securing employment might be your long-term goal, this conference is not a job search, and you can turn off potential employers by coming on too strong, or by focusing on a job instead of (way more interesting) topics that you’re actually passionate about.  If they’re hiring and you make a good impression, they’ll let you know.

  1. People like to talk.

If you’re interested in motion capture, find your way to a mo-cap booth and engage!  If you have questions or want advice on Unreal or Unity, it’s worth your time to seek out their booths and find one of their software engineers.  Regardless of if you’re a student or an industry veteran, people like to talk about their interests and it’s a great way to demonstrate your knowledge and skills to those who might be hiring.

  1. People really like to talk.

On the flip side, it’s important to remember that companies are marketing themselves as well.  While the booths at GDC are a great chance to try out an Oculus, talk to a SkookumScript developer, or check out the latest indie games, don’t get trapped by marketing speeches or product demos.  If the conversation is one-sided or obviously scripted, feel free to walk away.

  1. Don’t stop networking.

It’s important to remember that the booths aren’t the only spot to meet new faces.  Talks are great way of narrowing down conference attendees into a roomful of people interested in the same topics you are.  The city surrounding the conference is also crawling with attendees; sometimes meeting new people is as easy as discussing Dark Souls within earshot of other conference-goers.

  1. Have all the fun.

With everything said and done, GDC is just one week.  While your health is priority number one, it’s also important to capitalize on prime networking events, from late night Epic parties to early morning Microsoft parties to midday booth crawls and round panels.  In just one day you can connect with companies you’ve never heard of, learn industry-only tips, and talk one-on-one with lead designers, developers and animators at your dream companies.  Don’t shy away from grabbing opportunities as they’re presented, and make every moment count!


Michael Cooper – Reflections from GDC 2017

GDC is a large event. That I knew coming in. But, it did not sink in until the day the show floor opened. With over 25,000 attendees and hundreds of companies, GDC takes over a whole block of San Francisco. The show floor is large yet dense with activity. Bright lights, screens, poster board, and tech surround you everywhere you go. I would not say I was overwhelmed, but I was amazed.

Unlike events like E3 or Comic Con, GDC is industry facing. The exhibitors were there to meet and sell to other game industry professionals. Many unique kinds of products and services were being promoted to the attendees. And, they all seemed interested in talking to me. The first few hours, I simply went column by column talking to everyone I could. I wanted as wide a picture of the industry as possible, and I would focus in on a few companies later. As I went to what feels like a hundred exhibits, I learned a lot about the industry and collected many business cards.

The companies Epic Games and Unity were there to sell the ease, convenience, and power of their game engines. Both of their areas were competing to look like the most important. Their exhibits were two stories tall, with stations and TVs on the bottom floor and some private showings on the top floor. Representatives were at each station ready to explain some new feature or to showcase what can be done with their tech. Indie developers were demoing their Unreal-engine games while an architectural firm used Unreal to visualize their new project. Amazon was also there to showcase their own, competing game engine: Lumberyard. A relative newcomer to the field, Amazon had many stations showcasing and teaching many aspects of their engines to whoever was willing to listen. They were emphasizing the implementation of Amazon Web Services directly into the engine itself. When companies compete like this, it is developers like me who benefit.

Other firms were selling other game related services. One was selling easy to do motion-capture. Another were demonstrating their new algorithms. NVidia was showcasing new graphics tech in the hopes of it being supported in new games. There were outsourcers there with portfolios of their work. In one corner was a company promoting their source control solution. Middleware companies were everywhere. Anywhere I looked was something new to consider.

Hardware companies were showing off their work as well. Facebook was there with Oculus to promote virtual reality. There were other, less-known companies with VR tech of their own. One of the coolest ones I stumbled on was WhirlWind VR. They sell a device that blows air into you while you play. As I played their demo, hot air was blown into my face as enemies wielding flamethrowers moved uncomfortably closer.

Many exhibitors were representing countries. There were showings from Britain, Canada, Scotland, South Korea, and Sweden. When I visited the DEC Korea’s exhibit, they let me try a VR gauntlet of sorts. Imagine playing tennis in VR. When the ball hits the racket, the gauntlet pulls on your hand as if you had hit the ball in real-life. It was something I would have never imagined trying outside of GDC.

To my surprise, ZOOX, a self-driving car company was there looking for game developers to assist with their hardware. Also on the floor, 5-Hour Energy, giving out, well, energy for free. They did not seem to be selling tech or hiring any developers. They were simply promoting 5-Hour Energy for developers. I’m sure many tired attendees appreciated their presence.

And, of course, there were game studios themselves. There is not as big a showing for actual games at GDC than you might expect. Games were mainly used to demonstrate hardware and other technology. In GDC, the audience is the professionals who work on games. As such, there is not as much reason to show off consumer facing products. However, some companies were trying to attract talent and investment. I gladly offered my business card for them.

Looking back at GDC, the thing that stands out is the scale of the event. It felt like a demonstration of humanity, with all its size, ambitions and absurdities. Seeing all these people discussing trends and promoting themselves reminded me why I wanted to be in this industry in the first place: the passion and the will to push limits. Anyone interested in working in games should go to GDC if only to be inspired by its grandeur.


Rose Flynn – Networking When You Don’t Know How

I will preface this by saying that whether someone remembers you can be a coinflip. I added and was added by several people on LinkedIn. Many of them I can’t remember the exact circumstances of our meeting, only a few I remember vividly. Yet it isn’t important, I believe, that we were supposed to become best friends, only that they meet me at all and have a possible memory of our encounter.       

Train Jam was the first real test of my ability to network, and even then, it was stretched to the limit. It had barely started when I was thrust into a room of over 100 people, many of whom were professionals, and all of them were key people to meet. I first met Anna then, she was pitching an idea for a game to the room when I noticed her. There were plenty of ideas going around, but hers stuck with me, it was also the only name I could hear over the loud room and remember.

It was then that I took the very first and most important step of networking. I went up and talked to her. I mentioned I remembered her game idea and I liked it, she smiled and nodded. Everything was going swimmingly. Then I took our relationship to the next step in terms of networking. Since we were working together, it seemed prudent to exchange contact information. This is step number two, business cards. Her business card was the first one I collected.

During the close quarters Train Jam I collected several other cards, all of which were acquired in the same way. Approach, question, get into talking about their game, cards, depart. It was a simple process.

To my average reader, I will address scenarios likely to occur to you now, at GDC itself. The following are a few examples of what I think were key moments of both success, and failure, at networking.


I had a lot of success meeting with indie developers over professional types. Therefore, if you’re like me, you’ll have a great opportunity to meet people at the Indie Showcase section in the west hall. This is where people new to the industry will be showing themselves off. Ripe pickings for the networking student. The key approach here is like the one I used in Train Jam. Approach the person, usually checking to make sure they aren’t already talking to someone. You can then talk about their game. With enough practice, you can base the whole conversation around just that topic. If not, or after, the other person might ask you a question. This is normal and expected, just answer as you would to a friend. When the conversation seems to die down is when you go in for the kill and either reach for your business card or ask for theirs. Several times I successfully got a business card from someone by asking if I could ask them questions about their specific field.


Instead of regaling the entire stories, as that would take far too much of your time, I will give you just the most cromulent pieces. The vendors aren’t always people you want to network with. Sure, they can seem easy to talk to, but that could be because you’re being sold to. Don’t wait for people to come talk to you, it can feel like that’s what you want to do, and feels safer, but it doesn’t work. Some parties are indeed student traps. You can usually tell by the loud music and night club aesthetic.


L.A. Stapleford – Experience or Opportunity – The Differences Between PAX and GDC

The first time I went to PAX I felt an immediate sense of belonging. I was surrounded by video games and people who love them just as much as I do. Walking around you could hear people talking about their favorite games, see people taking pictures of cosplayers, and see people waiting to get in lines to try out games. My first time at GDC was similar, but also very different. At GDC I wasn’t just surrounded by people who love games, I was surrounded by people who were making games. The attendees are an important distinction that really separates GDC and PAX. The attendees at GDC are your most valuable resource, the true value to the price you pay. PAX, by contrast, holds its value in its exhibitors.

I’ve gone to PAX for four years and one of the most consistently fun things to do is go around and collect “free swag”. Usually this requires you to stand in line for at least an hour for each item and try a demo or two, but sometimes all you have to do is walk up to a booth and ask. Swag can consist of things like bags, lanyards, hats, posters, and T-shirts. This requires careful planning if you want to maximize the amount of swag you get, as the Expo hall is only open until 6pm, especially if you want to hit up the bigger booths that have lines with up to two-hour waits.

GDC also has swag, sometimes swag more valuable than stuff found at PAX, but not as many booths give stuff out. When I went to GDC I saw things from T-shirts to Amazon Echo Dots being given away for free. But as opposed to PAX where you’d usually just walk up to a booth, grab stuff, then leave, GDC’s swag is often a means to start conversations. It’s bad form to just grab stuff and go. It’s expected that you stick around and chat up the exhibitors before and while you grab stuff.

Panels are something else both events share, but again the focus of the panels are very different. PAX panels are often for companies to connect with their fanbases or showcase demos for games. Sometimes these panels have free swag, like the Mass Effect: Andromeda showcase this year gave out Mass Effect-themed Cards Against Humanity card packs. Some of the panels, especially in recent years, are for famous Youtubers to hang out with their fans. GDC panels are more educational than PAX’s, with lineups containing more post-mortems and round-table development events. Where most of the panelists at PAX are hosted by indie devs, most of the panelists at GDC are senior AAA game developers. Again, the price you pay for GDC is for access to the people there, not necessarily the content.

And price is an important factor when deciding which conference to go to, especially if you’re a student who can’t afford to go to both. PAX is much more affordable. It’s usually about $150 for all three passes necessary to attend the whole conference, compared to the minimum $200 for an Expo Pass at GDC and a maximum of nearly $2,000 for an All-Access Pass, the latter pass being necessary to see many panels hosted at GDC. PAX East, the PAX I’ve gone to, takes place in Boston, MA. Compared to San Francisco, Boston is a much more affordable place to stay, and it’s much closer to travel to from RIT.


John Miller – Presenting Gibraltar

I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to present my strategy game, Gibraltar, at GDC ‘17 in San Francisco this year with MAGIC Spell Studios. It was a great honor and an awesome chance to get to meet industry professionals, students and alumni. GDC felt like a gigantic, week long carnival. There was a lot to see and take in, from the monolithic, two story exhibits, to the sea of indie booths and after hours company events. I also got to compete in this year’s Intel University Games Showcase which is a competition Intel holds at GDC to judge games from some of the best schools around the country. Gibraltar was RIT’s entry into the competition. Unfortunately, Gibraltar didn’t win anything but it was very cool to see how big other schools’ programs are and all the interesting concepts they’re working on.

Gibraltar got a lot of positive feedback and people had a lot of fun playing through an abbreviated version of the single player campaign. Only a few bugs popped up the whole week and fortunately, none of them were game breaking. It was a lot of fun hanging out at the booth with the rest of the MAGIC team and getting to interact with all the people who stopped by to check out the games.