Three Lessons From GDC 2015

[This was originally sent to 100 or so subscribers to my TinyLetter email newsletter, but thought it might be interesting to the Internet at large, so am reposting here.]

16534653780_99b1edfe1a_zHaving finished up the behemoth that was GDC 2015 since the last newsletter (GDC Vault recordings coming this week, with LOTS of free talks, folks!), I thought it might be nice to pass out some things I personally learned from the show.

This edited post was originally posted on our company’s internal Wiki/Hub space, and while it needed to be pared down (it was originally Five Lessons, but a couple need to be internal only cuz reasons!)

It’s largely for an internal audience, and I hope it doesn’t come off too self-congratulatory. But we _did_ hit >26,000 people – another record for attendance – and it was a week that I know a lot of people regarded (and still regard!) fondly. So, some thoughts on it:

1. Experienced, well-run teams make for smooth-running shows.

Some of the people involved in Game Developers Conference have been attending or helping to lead the show for 10+ years (or MUCH more, in some case ) And when I originally wrote this point, I think I was trying to suggest that it’s experienced teams that are making this show run so well. This year was the smoothest GDC we’ve had so far, despite having to deal with so many people, with impeccable attendee experience – our Advisory Board remarked upon it in our end of week wrap-up meeting. So yes, this isn’t our first rodeo, and it feels great that we run the show so smoothly and effectively.

But then I thought about it more, and realized that a number of people involved in the show _are_ working in their precise positions for the first time. So it may also be about the succession planning, structure, and careful thought that goes into _not_ reinventing the wheel when people move positions. When we have robust systems in place and strong guides who’ve been through this before, plus truly effective staff and a lot of peer-based learning.

I’d like to mention the amazing work from sales ops and ops here as being the ‘glue’ that holds things together, but it’s true of everyone – you end up creating a memorable experience by behaving as a co-ordinated organism which lives to serve the people who come visit the event. Our attendees and exhibitors aren’t inconvenienced, and business and networking is so much easier – and feel welcomed and poised to have a great show. It’s the art of flow, I guess?

2. Focused content/experience elements shine the brightest!

One interesting piece of feedback we got from our Main Conference industry Advisory Board this year is that they are increasingly valuing the ‘deep-dive’ content at the show – much of it on the Monday and Tuesday of the show. (They’re in charge of the content from Wed-Fri, largely, and we tend to get more specialized people to program the Summits and Bootcamps at the start of the week.)

For example, in our Bootcamps section we have the Level Design In A Day tutorial, full of super hardcore talks like ‘Wayfinding & Storytelling Techniques For Videogame Level Design‘ – valuable to less people, but _massively_ valuable to them.

This plays in to the rise of the niche event, which is a real issue for medium sized events. In many cases, you’d rather go to a small event that scratches your niche (sorry!) than a medium-sized regional one that touches very lightly on the subjects you care about and has a bunch of generic vendors. And large events – they pull in people by the thousand because everyone is networking and FOMO (fear of missing out) is kicking in.

But big events have some serious issues with becoming amorphous blobs, past a certain size. So the trick seems to be ‘pockets of intimacy’, to borrow a slightly horrific phrase I’m crediting Kathy Astromoff [ex Sega and GDC head!] with. Niche, well-focused content grouped together becomes effectively a mini-event within an event. Multiply those and have 20-30 at once, and you have a large show with a load of awesome tiny shows in it. Which works.

And the same ‘focused is better’ is true for ‘show features’ that organizers may actually pay to have onsite. On-showfloor lounges are fine, and good (you need some!), but you really want things like alt.ctrl.GDC – covered in Wired here – which is a super niche idea (alternative game controllers!) that also becomes very fun/interactive on the show floor _and_ is a big press draw as well.

So super focused content + attendee fun + online virality = a win for everyone. Even with shows that are more sq ft. or commerce-based, I’m sure similar ideas can be extrapolated – more focused ‘zones’ and less ‘sprawling show floor’ is what people want nowadays, I think. People need to be having fun at (or around!) your show – it can’t just be a trudge from the conference room to the expo floor.

3. Keep reinventing social media/press focal points for your show – or have the industry/vendors invent them for you!

A running joke within the GDC staff is that, whenever our PR partner 47 asks us ‘What’s new this year?’, we screw up our whiny faces and say ‘Nothing, it’s all the same cos we cover everything!’ And we do say that. (Which is super annoying for them!) But we do understand that the industry, media, and everyone thrives on ‘what’s new?’, and doing the same ‘ol thing every year is going to lead to fatigue over time. So we do understand we have to switch things out and highlight new things every year – our audience expects us to be in the vanguard of what’s new.

This year, quite a lot of our focus was on the fact we had an eSports Summit for the first time, described in the post-show announce – alongside another new Summit – as follows:

“GDC 2015 once again reflected the changing shape of the videogame industry, with a dedicated summit track for the rapidly expanding field of eSports with talks from Riot Games, Blizzard Entertainment, MIT Game Lab and many others. Tied to the theme of videogame spectatorship, GDC has also expanded its focus on Community Management, with a dedicated summit that included talks on building, supporting and maintaining an engaged and respectful online community for gamers.”

eSports was a PR and buzz win for us because there’s a lot of people who don’t work in this area who are intrigued by it. According to a survey we did specifically to tie in with this Summit, 12 percent of developers surveyed said they’re working on a game they consider to be an eSport — competitive, skill-based multiplayer games. 79 percent of all respondents said they perceive eSports to be a long-term, sustainable business. The Summit was well-received, and more to the point, it made the show feel ‘different’.

However, you have to watch getting too far onto the hype train (choo choo!) when it comes to new content and trends. A good example is 3D stereoscopic displays/games – people were convinced that was going to take off around 3-5 years ago, and we did end up having one Summit at a smaller GDC dedicated to it, but we didn’t redirect any of the main show to it. Which is good, because it’s absolutely not gotten anywhere!

In general, we try to take a ‘wait and see’ attitude to officially featuring new tech as a ‘Summit’ – which bears us some dividends because then people feel like their specific niche has ‘arrived’ when we do.

But we still get the advantage of the ‘breaking trends’ when we have a lot of the market going in a certain direction, as happened with VR (virtual reality) this year. More from post-show report:

“GDC 2015 saw a huge surge of interest and developer engagement with Virtual Reality (VR) devices and platforms, with huge tech and game industry players including Sony, Oculus, Valve and HTC showcasing new technology months, even years before the products hit retail shelves. Following its debut at GDC 2014, Sony again showcased its Project Morpheus VR headset, while Valve and HTC partnered to show off their new co-developed Vive Virtual reality system, which uses new tracking hardware to offer 3D positioning, allowing users to be fully immersed in a 3D virtual world.”

We felt it was a little early for a standalone VR Summit – not least because there’s basically no shipping hardware right now – but our vendors gave us a big boost anyhow by announcing and showcasing the tech at the event. So, uh, hurray for vendors! And maybe time for a VR Summit next year, eh?

[Incidentally, dear reader, I owe you an editorial on VR which I have written in my head, and which’ll probably come along in the next newsletter and get reprinted here – now that I’ve tried everything from Google Cardboard to HTC/Valve Vive. It’s INTERESTING times.]

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