Last week, my brother and I drove up to San Francisco for the Game Developer’s Conference. It’s the first time I’ve attended the GDC in San Francisco, though I did attend the GDC in Austin two years ago. My brother Will has attended several at this point—on the drive up to San Francisco I am deferring to him, asking him about his approach. This year he isn’t even buying a GDC pass—instead, he spends the whole week flitting back and forth between the W hotel bar and the Intercontinental, making friends with strangers. I’ve bought the Expo pass, the only one I could afford.
GDC is not a user-facing conference. It’s a conference oriented towards people who make games, not just people who play them—not like E3 used to be. Everyone who comes here comes here to meet people. But it isn’t until after I’ve been here for a few days that I start to realize the strange dichotomy that splits the conference down the middle: some are here to meet new people so they can exchange ideas, and some are here to meet new people so they can do business.
Will calls them “T-Shirts and Sport Coats”.
Both Will and I are at the conference this year wearing our sport coats. In deference to style, we’re wearing our sport coats over t-shirts—mine has the Wowhead logo, his says “I Am Trustworthy And Have Excellent References.” Will is there as a talent scout, looking to find IPs to pass on to the producer he’s working for, in the hopes of optioning them for a movie. I’m here to start building my own network in the game industry—to try and meet some people outside of the tiny corner of the MMO Industry that represents the entirety of my experience at Wowhead. By the end of the conference I have collected 52 business cards, and am struggling to remember who is who. Every night I am looking through the stack, entering the information into the contacts list on my computer, trying to read the notes I’ve scribbled on the back of the card. I know I’m not the only one.
But there are a number of people I see at the conference who aren’t there to form business relationships. Over the course of the conference I meet the people wearing T-shirts—people who are there to learn about new development technology, people who are there to talk shop with other artists or designers, people who are there to listen to the talks from prominent game industry figures. My expo pass doesn’t get me in to see any of the talks, so I content myself with devouring the constant stream of GDC-related tweets coming down the pipe (the battery on my phone just barely lasting to the end of each day).
I attend parties (some invited, some otherwise), shake hands, and exchange business cards. I ask everyone what they’re working on (which I later find out is a GDC noob mistake, since so many developers are under NDA). I wear my sport coat proudly, and I think I wear it well.
One night, something strange happens. My brother and I are attending a dinner at a nearby wine bar, with some (old and new) friends in the game industry. We sit and talk with Adam, an old bandmate who now does iPhone/iPad development. I finally meet Daniel Cook of Lost Garden, and Darius Kazemi of Tiny Subversions, as well as five or six other designers, developers and game industry professionals sitting around the table, and the conversation is…different. We’re not networking—we’re just talking. We’re talking about our ideas, our love of the art form, our belief in the potential of the future of gaming, the insight that games offer into the human condition. We’re just sitting and talking about games—and it feels good. After days and days of making contacts, suddenly I am making friends. It feels relaxed. It feels natural. It feels, in fact, just like changing out of my sport coat and back into a t-shirt.
That night I decide not to attend any parties. As I ride back into Burlingame on the BART, where Eric—the old friend I’m staying with—lives, I realize that this whole week I’ve been wearing my sport coat with a t-shirt underneath. I’m here to network, and I guess I have to be, for now. But underneath, the reason why I’m really here—not just at the conference, but in the industry at all—I’m here because I love games, and I love being with people who love games.
After this point, the networking changes. I’m getting to know people, now, not just job descriptions. I’m attending parties to have fun. I’m asking people about what they’re playing, rather than what they’re working on, and suddenly the whole conference makes sense.
That night, when I arrive at Eric’s house, I set aside the stack of business cards waiting to be entered. Instead, Will and Eric and I stay up until four AM playing Borderlands. It feels right.