I've just realised GDC Next (Nov) is sooner than GDC (March next year).
How do you think it would compare in terms of my aims - i.e wandering around with a stack of CD's trying to meet the right people? Would the same companies be likely to be present at both?
That's a hard question. GDCNext, being new, is a bit of an unknown. It won't be nearly as big as GDC in March
Here's a comparison of what they each cover.
GDCNext has no "Audio Track" (that's one of the reasons I put GameSoundCon right next to it).
So the downside is that there are no audio sessions to go to or audio people to meet. Of course, the plus side would be that there aren't 300 other composers "wandering around with a stack of CD's" to compete with.
GDCNext is also co-located with another new conference called AppDev which is for more general app developers than just games.
As far as content/learning is concerned, you would get more out of GameSoundCon/GDCNext than GDC. GDC sessions generally assume a few years experience in the game industry, whereas GameSoundCon has a series of sessions specifically for composers/sound designers from Film/TV, etc to educate them about games and also has some hands-on training in game audio tools. In fact, composers who went first to GameSoundCon and then on to GDC have often told me they would have felt lost in a lot of the sessions if they hadn't gotten the background at GameSoundCon.
You'd also get to know the speakers better and have a chance to talk with them by going to GameSoundCon specifically because it's so much smaller.
FYI, here's the first talk of the conference from GameSoundCon (2010): http://vimeo.com/16516382
But as far as overall networking is concerned and getting the "vibe" of the game industry, GDC in March is a hands-down winner. (Here my disclaimer is that I sit on the GDC Advisory Board).
As much as I'd love to say "Go to GameSoundCon and GDCNext", if you could only do one, you would probably get more out of GDC in March. Of course You could always do both ;)
Finally, we do have a deal with GDCNext; if you attend GameSoundCon, you get a free "EXPO" pass to GDCNext/AppDev. That gets you onto the show floor and to the GDCPlay events, but doesn't let you attend any of the technical sessions.
wandering around with a stack of CD's
As someone on the receiving end of this, most of the audio directors I know these days don't take CD's at shows anymore. Aside from the fact that they're a pain to have to carry around, when they are, they are often just left in the hotel room or discarded. Not because we don't have the best of intentions, but just because its hard to find the time to listen to them.
Definitely have contact information, biz cards with direct web links to your demos,etc. But a CD is also kind of old fashioned these days ..