How to Get the Most Out of Your First GDC

Mar 1, 2013

This post is available in audio form.

Addendum, not in the audio or transcript below: another recent forum post posed a partially different set of questions about preparing for GDC, which I’ve responded to here.

Music excerpts at the start and end are by Kevin MacLeod, via Creative Commons, from

Transcript of the Audio:

Hi! Chris DeLeon here for HobbyGameDev. It has been a while since I’ve done an audio entry. Audio entries tend to work better for more informal stuff, and since this was another forum reply I thought, why not just record it?

What is the GDC?

The question at hand today is: how do you get the most out of your first Game Developers Conference? Later this month there’s a GDC – that’s an important conference that happens every year, almost always in San Francisco. It used to be in San Jose sometimes, now it’s pretty exclusively in the middle of SF in the Mascone Center. It’s one of the biggest [videogame] industry conferences in the world. People come from all over to attend. It’s a developer-focused event. Oftentimes students will go out there while they’re still in school, shortly after graduation, maybe even a year or two out. It’s part of how they’re trying to build their network around the country and around the world.

I’ve been to all but 2 of the GDCs since 2005, so I’ve seen more than a handful of these. On most of those visits I’ve got other people coming for their first time who were in one of my game development clubs, back when I was at Carnegie or now that I’m at Georgia Tech. So I’ve got some practice at trying to help those people get the most that they can out of that time. I’m going to pass on to you some of the advice that I think has helped reap some rewards for those folks, including myself (these are things I still do every time I go).

Bring Business Cards

At the top of that list is to make sure you make some up-to-date business cards. Make sure it’s got your name, e-mail, cell, a website for your portfolio or games, and a few words describing what you do. If applicable, a few highlights from your background. I like to think of mine as a mini-resume, it’ll help people remember me and what I do. I don’t care actually if you already have a professional looking card leftover from the last company you worked for, or the school you’re attending, people probably aren’t asking you about the past company you worked for or your school, they’re asking you about you. You shoud list that company or list that school on your personalized card, but you should also make sure you mention whatever differentiates you and your work and your strengths and your interests. It’s a chance to highlight what’ll separate you from the other 500 people that they talk to that day. And also, if they’re trying to find you in the shuffle after-the-fact to contact you for something, they need to have some sort of hooks on your card to whatever it was you were talking about to get you back in touch with the right person. Because one of the nice things about doing this is that people can build new connections this way. I encourage keeping the backside blank – it’s cheaper, and also makes it easier to jot down notes on the back (you should carry a couple of pens!). Sometimes the person you’re talking to, they’re out of business cards, they want to give you their info, but they’re out of cards. That happens at GDC because they’re giving so many away. If you bring pens and you’ve got blank backs on your cards – this happens to me all the time – they can jot their info on the back of one of your cards, and you’ve still got their info.

Use Your Pass Lanyard

Keep a small stack of those cards stashed in the backside of the lanyard that holds your conference pass. There’s actually kind of a pocket hidden for them right there. That way they’re on quickdraw so you’re not rooting around in your pockets or digging around your bag trying to get bent cards out.

While we’re at it, the lanyard usually hangs too long, and people really don’t want to look at your crotch to figure out your name. Tie a little knot behind your neck to shorten it so it hangs at a more reasonable height in front of you, and more people will use your name when talking to you.

Making Custom Business Cards Cheaply

Now there are a million ways to order business cards cheap, or even for free on the internet. But what I like to do instead is to make a simple design in Adobe Illustrator (make sure they’ll be standard card size when printed, whatever that is, I think it’s roughly 2×3 inches but double check that), lay out 4×2 (or 5×2, whatever fits on a page) edge-to-edge for a full page layout. You’ll get 8 or 10 per page, go to a Kinko’s, print them out on white card stock – the right kind of card stock for business cards – then use the paper cutter there to separate them all yourself. I do my own. It’s a lot cheaper, you can make a ton of them this way, and it only takes about half an hour of simple repetitive labor of chopping some pages. If you bring your own design there, print it out on their printer, on the nice card stock paper, you’ll get a higher quality than if you tried to do it at home, without all their insane costs that they would charge for designing the card or cutting the card etc.

Bring a Lot of Business Cards

And by bring some business cards, I mean make and bring hundreds of business cards. 200-300, upper bound 500 wouldn’t kill you. Give them to almost everyone that you talk to. Typically they’ll give you one back. Don’t be stingy with business cards. They aren’t just there for recruiters, they’re for the people you run into, because maybe they’ll run into someone that they’d like to put you in touch with, and to do that they’ll need your information. It’s an easy and appropriate way to segue a friendly but not very professional conversation toward the direction of, “oh what are you working on,” “what do you do” conversations just by giving someone your card. It’s also a really easy ice breaker at conferences to swap cards, because there in each other’s hands you’ve got something to talk about already, even if otherwise you’re not very natural at spinning up a conversation with a stranger.

Everyone’s there to network, and they get that. When you give them a card you’re speaking their language.

And Updated Resumes

Likewise, print and bring enough resumes that you won’t find yourself being stingy with them. Dozens, which is probably ample, but err in favor of not needing as many as you print, it’s good to have more than you need. Contexts for handing over resumes are much less frequent than business cards, but if you find yourself ever not handing someone a resume because you want to make sure you have enough later in case you run into a better connection, you’re losing opportunities, giving up opportunities, and for the stupid reason of having not carried enough sheets of paper. Don’t let that happen to you.

Present Yourself Professionally

Speaking of which, I assume this should go without saying, but since it is advice for the first-time GDC goer: update your resume, pay attention not just to the information on it but also to how it looks aesthetically when you print it out. Print it out, put it in front of a friend, get their feedback. Often another set of eyes can spot issues you thought were fine, it doesn’t take any special training. Then you can fix those things and put it in front of another friend, and keep doing that until they stop giving you corrections to make to it. Print it out on decent resume-quality paper, not on ordinary lightweight printer paper.

I know that can sound silly, to not just focus on the information printed on the page, because it should be the skills that count, or your education, or something else. But HR people and business people, the ones that are in positions to make hiring decisions, typically have a business background, and people with a business background look for little signs that the person they’re talking to is socially aware and adult enough to operate in a workplace with professionals of different disciplines, backgrounds, and varying levels of seniority. It’s a signal to them, so don’t signal to them that you’re careless, unaware, or unprepared by having resumes that are clearly in first draft state or that are printed on standard paper.

Likewise, and this is probably a given for most folks but there’s always a few people I wish someone had said something to: while a tie would be out of place – unless you’re shooting for a business position – do your best to clean up a bit. Get a haircut before going, and wear some reasonably nice-ish clothes rather than something silly that will stand out in an unprofessional way. You’ll see these people there. It’s unfortunate. If you or anyone you know was going to be those people, please reconsider, it’s really not doing anyone any favors in terms of landing jobs or making real connections with other professionals, to dress all goofy. It’s not Comic*Con, it’s a professional conference for developers who are networking for professional reasons.

Find or Set Up Lunch and Evening Networking

Make it your goal during the day to find something to do after sessions close for the night. Identify a group to tag along with or meet up with at the end of the day, or at least find a party that you can get into, or make a friend that you’ll know well enough to recognize if you run into them the next day. Be there first and foremost for the people, not for the booths or talks (except to the extent that specific people are at the booths and talks). That’s where the good things happen, that’s where jobs happen, or where life-altering introductions take place, or great idea sharing will happen – it’s the people, not the booths or the talks. The best networking during GDC really happens outside of GDC in the evenings, but you’ve got to set that up during the day for it to work.

Try not to eat alone if you can avoid it. That includes lunch. Round up some people nearby or find a group nearby and ask if you can join them. It’s a professional conference, they get what you’re doing, and if they say no, who cares, you may never see those people anyway. Go ask someone else. Ask them about what they do, what they’re hoping to get out of attending the conference this year, and introduce yourself too of course. Worst-case scenario, even if they say no they’ll remember you as that kid who unknowingly had the guts to ask a bunch of famous developers you didn’t even recognize if you could join them for lunch.

And sometimes that can totally go the other way. True story: at my first GDC I got to eat lunch with David Perry – the guy who invented Earthworm Jim and MDK – because it didn’t even occur to me that maybe as a sophomore in college I shouldn’t have asked him if I could hang out with him over lunch. But I did. He said fine. I got to chat with him about Earthworm Jim. That was pretty sweet.

Listen to People, and Help Connect Them

One of the questions that came up was, “How should someone looking to get a job in the industry make a positive impression?”

I think the first thing you can do is introduce people to each other. Be that guy or girl that people will thank later for the connection you helped them make. Run into a sound guy who wants to get experience? Play some beginning indie game that clearly could use some sound help? Get those two people in touch (hopefully you’ll have their business cards to make that easier to do). Tagging along with an animator that you just met? She showed you some of her work on her laptop? When you two introduce yourselves to other small groups, tell the other people around you about the animator’s work you just saw. Help propel their connections and their careers. Oftentimes people return the favor. This is a surprisingly easy to do, with the number of people that you’ll be running into, many of whom are really doing cool stuff. This is of course especially easy if you came prepared to card swap with pretty much every group you run into.

Don’t Go In There “Cold”

Really prepare to talk about things that people there will care about. I don’t mean industry gossip or about upcoming releases. If it’s treated as a gamers convention it’s really not worth the cost of attendance and many developers will find that immature or annoying anyhow. Practice talking about the highlights of your work – not all the details, just the short pitch. If you haven’t read anything about videogame development, design, or the industry in awhile? Read something, anything, whether it’s some trending blog posts, a book about game design, maybe HobbyGameDev, an academic paper if that’s more your crowd, whatever. But be ready to have some ideas to bring to conversations that aren’t your own [citing/crediting the origin of those ideas, of course!]. Besides coming across as someone that’s knowledgeable and passionate about what you do, you’ll have some fresh ideas in your head ready to be combined with conversations and other inspirations floating around at the conference, and sometimes that’ll lead to something good.

Plus one of the cool things about GDC is that you may run into the person who wrote the thing you read. The book, the article, the paper, the blog entry. You can have a conversation about it, they’ll be happy you read whatever it is that they made.

Passes: Small (Expo), Medium (Tutorials), or Large (Main)?

The other question that came up was: “Is it worth paying extra to attend the talks and access the paid section of GDC Vault?”

I tend to compromise, I tend to go with a tutorials pass. It’s much cheaper than a main pass but it puts you there for 5 days instead of 3. Being there for 5 days means a lot more networking than being there for 3 at the expo. Plus at those first two days of the tutorials you get immersed in groups with other people in whatever tracks or fields you choose, and that’s a great way to build a foundation into roaming the expo floor and talking with people for the next few days. If you can only make it to the 3 day expo due to travel costs, ticket costs, or time, you can definitely still make that count so don’t be disheartened, but if you can swing a tutorial pass I’ve always found the extra two days of field-specific networking totally worth it.

But to be honest I really question the value of the main talks passes. They’re super expensive. Typically it’s some talking head in the front of the room, while you don’t really need to meet the person who was famous years ago that earned being a speaker now, who you need to be meeting are the other people in that room who will be maybe accomplished enough later to be the speakers years from now. You want to come up in the industry with those people, and that works better networking laterally than trying to hound the celebrity developers that everyone else is trying to fawn over. (Note that the tutorials events are often better for getting to know the other people in the room – at main conference talks that are more expensive people tend to scatter shortly after the talks and they rush off someplace else so we miss the chance to meet them.)


If you haven’t thought about going to the Game Developer’s Conference, it’s not too late to swing it. Tickets are still at a slight discount until later in in this month. You could still book a plane ticket in this time, stick book a hotel in this time. You could still make it work. It’s not necessarily an essential thing, but if you’re going to go to any conference in the game industry this is probably the one to go to.

If you go there, basics:

  • Make sure you’ve got some business cards that are up-to-date, that have your information on them, a personal card (not a school card, not an ex-company card).
  • Be ready to introduce yourself to lots of people.
  • Try to put people in touch with each other.
  • Print out and bring plenty of resumes, at least a few dozen, even if you don’t use that many you don’t ever want to hold back.
  • Don’t be stingy with cards or the resumes.

Hopefully I’ll run into you there and we’ll have a good conversation.

This is Chris DeLeon for HobbyGameDev, thanks for listening, and like I said: I hope to see you there.

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