Indie developer Peter Cardwell-Gardner details his experiences of his maiden pilgrimage to game dev Mecca, otherwise known as the Game Developer's Conference (GDC) which takes place over five days in San Francisco. A tale of woe trying to pimp a failing Kickstarter for the music game, Cadence - and finding loving friendships in unexpected places.
As an indie developer, there is a single event each year which gradually assimilates my Twitter feed, stoking fears of missing out and doing nothing for my imposter syndrome. There is huge pressure to attend GDC, as it seems that anyone and everyone who matters is there, but the financial implications of doing so can be hard to stomach. Travelling halfway across the globe on a weak third world currency and an indie budget is insanely expensive. I resisted for a long time, but promised myself that I'd make the voyage once I had a game I thought warranted the trouble of emptying my bank account.
Enter Cadence, a musical playground of beautiful puzzles! It's been a long, and sometimes rough journey, but it feels worth it when I see how the game is shaping up. The visuals are beautiful, the gameplay is almost there, and we're close to pulling of something not many games do - putting music at the front and centre of the experience. Six months ago attending GDC simply wasn't an option as I'd completely run out of money, and I was forced to take a hiatus from the game to engage with some good old fashioned contract work.
Even though it felt grim at the time, it turns out taking a break was a huge blessing. A few months away from Cadence really allowed me to remember what was special about it, and rejuvenate my excitement for the project, not to mention fund upcoming travels. Eying the calendar, GDC seemed to be the perfect stepping stone to launch our Kickstarter campaign and come out all guns blazing. And then out of the clear blue we got a SXSW Gamer's Voice nomination, and selected for the Rezzed Leftfield collection. All fantastic promotion to aid our cause. It seemed the stars were aligning.
By the time we launched I was absolutely broken. My brain wasn't capable of thinking a single thought that didn't begin with Cadence. But it seemed like our hard work was paying off! The launch started with just the bang we were hoping for. Our friends and family rallied behind us in incredible fashion. I got so many notifications that my phone at one point stopped working. Less than 48 hours later I dragged my exhausted body to the airport to make the lengthy trip to SF and finally enjoy some sleep. GDC abound!
The first thing that will blow your mind about GDC is the sheer scale of it. The Moscone Centre is a massive venue spread across three buildings. In every direction there are literally thousands of devs walking around, denoted by their lanyard name badges. If you're somehow used to game dev being regarded as a backwater non-profession, GDC certainly proves it's anything but. Of course, as any attendees will tell you: it's not so much the talks, expo or any of the other trappings that you're actually there for, it's the people!
If you're an indie developer, there's no better place to meet other indies than by staying at the indie hostel (The SF downtown hostel). Literally every single room gets booked out by indie devs from all over the world. Simply by hanging out in the common room you'll meet and connect with loads of developers, from people just starting out to those names you've read about in the press for years. But that's just one of many crazy things that could only happen during GDC. "Food katamaris" are a unique phenomenon where one or two devs start a mission and by the time they get to a restaurant they entire place is literally overflowing with indies.
Something I radically underestimated was the toll that GDC would take on your body. The dreaded conference flu is something that regulars seem hyper aware of avoiding (lots of hand sanitizer abound) but even so there is plenty enough to exhaust your body. You will be walking miles each day, having literally hundreds of conversations and then that's before you even attend any of the wall-to-wall parties that are taking place, having even more conversations where you need to fight to be heard. Not surprisingly, my voice died several times during the week, including a throat infection I picked up towards the end.
Of course, with so many devs in the mix, there's bound to be some big name personalities around. Some of them may even be personal heroes that you respect and admire, who have unknowingly shaped the games you choose to make. But fame is an odd thing that does weird things to (other) people. Often I felt like a reality distortion field would exist around the "famous" indies, with others hanging on to every word that they say, desperate for any scraps of validation their fame might bestow upon them.
Often I'd have to catch myself, and remember famous people are quite ordinary, but for the fact they made or did a thing a lot of people happen to care about. Even so, I had to admit I could still feel the pull of their fame, and cared a lot more about their opinion simply because I knew who they were. Furthermore, I was here to promote a video game! People with a following can be valuable allies, so time and again I'd throw myself into the breach and make myself known to strangers who had no idea who I was. I remember thinking to myself this felt like speaking to the prettiest girl in the room. Mostly you're just happy when you don't embarrass yourself, but when you don't get the outcome you were hoping for it can really sting.
Often I'd have to remind myself that I have no rights to others people's attention. I can't know what their emotional state is, and to realise that if everyone was constantly vying for my attention I'd probably be very selective about whom I choose to give it to. The theory goes that repeated exposure makes you tougher, but after a few days of repeatedly making myself vulnerable I just felt emotionally drained. In fact I had a silly fantasy about just locking myself away in a room to play with kittens.
There was elephant in the room I haven't mentioned yet - it's normal for Kickstarters to experience a slowdown, but ours had come to a screeching halt. In fact, there was one day we didn't get a single backer. This was definitely a low point. Even though I'd made some amazing connections and impressed a lot of people, without riding the campaign for everything it was worth there was just no traction. It was hard not to feel like running a crowdfunding campaign during GDC was a really dumb idea.
But I hung in there, and I'm really glad I did. Lost Levels is one of those cultural phenomena that exist beyond the official roster, but seems to be an integral part of the GDC experience. It's billed as an "unconference", where anyone can speak about any topic for a period of 5 minutes, and everything about it is unconventional. Even getting there was an adventure! Following a marching tuba player, hundreds of indies marched in procession to the designated venue. On arrival we were introduced to one of the most comprehensive safe spaces policies I've ever encountered.
Chaos and frenzy reigned supreme, but such is the calling card of unbridled creative expression. It was wonderful to scan the audience and see humans of every single shape and form. Beyond the diversity, I was struck by how these were what I lovingly came to refer to as the Indie Proletariat. They're probably working on games you've never heard of and they probably don't make nearly enough money from those games, but that doesn't dampen the boundless enthusiasm and passion they have for making games. They're not going to let anybody tell them what they can't do and absolutely everyone is welcome. If ever you've wondered about the spirit of what it means to be indie, it can be found here.
This is in stark contrast to the main conference, where your lot in life is dictated by how much money you can afford (for reference, an all-access pass started at $1495). But remember, it's about the people! Some of best things happened once I stopped speaking with preconceived outcomes in mind. It's hard to describe the sense of liberty I felt knowing that you can start a conversation with practically anyone and safely assume that you will find common ground. However, a caveat, I'm glad for the identity capital of working on Cadence, as one of the most common questions is "what are you working on?" I sensed this question causing a lot of imposter syndrome in others.
What was my biggest takeaway from GDC? It's a fundamental truth of human nature that I consider critical understanding if you hope to be a successful game developer. It affects so much: making friends, getting press, recruiting powerful allies to your cause, getting people to back your Kickstarter and getting people to buy your damn game. It's the simple fact that people form an emotional attachment to what they know. And the only way people get to know you is by being around and having your face seen and your voice heard. It's the reason 26,000+ developers travel from every corner of the globe despite living in the most connected era of human history.
By the end of the week there was change so subtle I almost didn't catch it. Not only was I feeling far more comfortable in my own skin, but friendships were starting to germinate - people were taking an interest in who I was and my story (as I had in turn become interested in theirs). This meant that instead of hounding people to play my game, they were asking me if they could play Cadence. Some of them were even those personal heroes I had tried so hard to impress before. And impressed they were! I got a level of laser-focused feedback that I'd struggle to find elsewhere.
If ever you're asking yourself if attending GDC is worth it, I think the cost is just something you need to build into the expense of making a video game. Even though it didn't do much for our Kickstarter, I've made scores of friends that will certainly come to my aid in ways that I can't even imagine yet, and probably at a time that I least expect it. The only thing I can say for certain is that if I wasn't here, none of that would have happened!
Speaking of the Kickstarter, we're not done yet. We still have SXSW and a few other tricks up our sleeve. But I know now that failure is simply feedback (even if I'm not sure how to interpret it yet). As time comes to pass, I'm certain I'll be glad for the experience.