GDC 2023 impressions

I was in San Francisco for GDC 2023. The last time I was at GDC was 2011, as a poor student, so I won’t pretend to be intimately familiar with the conference. I didn’t do much networking, though I did catch up with a few friends I haven’t seen in a while.

Good talks

I attended over a dozen GDC talks Wednesday to Friday, since I got the Core Pass. (Monday and Tuesday’s agenda was mostly for the Summit Pass.) I tried to sample different types of content, though my natural interests gravitated me towards 3 themes – game design, product management, and leadership soft skills.

The Science of Managing Transitions During Crisis” and “Tell Me What to Say: Active Feedback Techniques for Teams” were my 2 favorite talks out of those that I attended. I was quite surprised by this, as I’m usually a bit on the jaded and cynical side when it comes to “business self-help” types of content. But those speakers totally won me over with their timely content which was well tailored to the quirks of the games industry. And their sharp public speaking skills left an impression – at a particularly soul-searching moment in “Tell Me What to Say”, Drew Kugler (a veteran executive coach) stared down the audience and pronounced: “YOU are here (at this talk) for a reason”.

I also greatly enjoyed a number of the design talks. “Designing ‘Marvel Snap’” was predictably enjoyable, despite Ben Brode on the verge of losing his voice. “Cards, Dice, and RNGs: Using Randomness Intentionally” paired well with “‘Good Numbers’ in Game Design“, and both were educational and practical. I also quite liked “Layered Battles: Generating Multiple Qualitative Tactical Battles for ‘Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope’“, as it directly related to something we’re tackling at work.

I’d be amiss to not also mention “Prioritizing Roadmaps for Growth: Simplified Framework for Small and Growing Teams“, which was a short, sweet and uber-practical talk for product managers. In small teams I’ve been on, it’s common to eschew the more rigid dev processes (anyone love playing planning poker?), but far too often teams just end up suffering from a lack of process. The framework shared in this talk felt light enough to be adopted.

Expo floor

I squeezed in a couple of hours to walk the expo floor. It’s always a good reminder of how mature the modern video-games industry is: just look at the vast amount of suppliers providing various tools and middleware, and how specialized some of the solutions were – there was a vendor dedicated to motion capture of fingers. I’m guessing that maybe AI will take over the expo floor properly next year; for 2023, VR/AR and web3 booths are still around, and paying good sponsorship fees.

It may be a bit of a cliché, but I do believe you can get a sense of the players’ standings in an industry just by measuring the size and production value of their expo booths. In that regard Epic / Unreal Engine certainly seemed to have one of the biggest spaces, and they had a good crowd.

I also had a funny “duh!” moment on the floor: I was checking out one of the weird peripherals on display, and I commented to the exhibitor that it seemed like an interesting alternative to controllers. Then I realized I was in the alt.ctrl.GDC section, and alt.ctrl is literally “alternative controllers”.

Vibes / trends

Attendance at 28k was high, and more than doubled the 12k of last year. But this wasn’t an outlandish number per se – it only matched 2018’s record, despite a post-Covid rebound. I’m curious about the geographical distribution of attendees – it seemed like I was running into fellow Chinese speakers everywhere.

I didn’t go to any of the Unreal talks – my colleagues covered that – but it did feel that Epic made the biggest announcements. Much has been said already about UEFN, the new Verse language, and the new Fab marketplace. It’s clear that Epic is investing heavily across many fronts, and I’m almost tempted to make analogies to classic Microsoft which was immensely powerful / profitable due to owning both the platform (Windows) and the biggest app on the platform (Office). Epic is not at that level of dominance in our industry, but they certainly have a lot of the right stuff.

I don’t know if this is new – it might be – but there was a real effort by Tencent (and to a lesser degree, Netease) to spread awareness of their capabilities. Not only did Tencent sponsor a developer summit (which enabled them to deliver a host of talks on various aspects of their dev muscles), one of their in-house studios Lightspeed sponsored a summit as well. Unfortunately they may be swimming against the tide here, in light of the current US/China geopolitics.

Photo by Brett Sayles from Pexels

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