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Day 82 - GDC 2017 Postmortem

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Table of Contents
GDC 2017.
GDC 2017.

In which we spend a week among friends.

The Drive to Attend

Let’s see: Day 80 was December 3rd, Day 81 was February 1st, this post is being published in early May. To say I haven’t had much time for game development lately would be a bit of an understatement. The day job has become less enjoyable, less stable, and more demanding of my time.

I hadn’t been to GDC since 2012, and felt very much in need of the energy that I had alays received from it. So as the end of “early bird” pricing for GDC approached, I took a peak at the company finances and saw there was just enough money to cover it. So I renewed my membership in the IGDA (to qualify for the discount), purchased an all-access pass, and booked my hotel and flight.

Minimally, it would at least be a week away from the day job, in the company of interesting folks. Optimally, I would also make some contacts and gather some information for my continued pursuit of a job in the industry.

Unfortunately, it meant cancelling my plans to attend PAX East this year.

A Bit More than Two Hours of Pushin’ Broom

Cheap and convenient flights are not exactly an easy thing to find, but I did have decent luck; I only had to run through an airport once (O’Hare, to make my tight connection after my first flight was delayed).

The same goes for hotels, at least in San Francisco during GDC week. I wound up at the Serrano near Union Square. For the price, the room was certainly…cozy. I’ve definitely been spoiled by hotel prices in the Midwest, and was expecting more. I’d bet that these rooms originally did not have individual bathrooms, and that much of their space was cannibalized in adding them.

I shared the room with an old gamedev friend who had moved out to LA, which made it even more uncomfortable, but we made the best of it. Some breakfast vouchers for the attached restaurant were included, for the occasions where we were both awake for breakfast at the same time. :)

There and Back Again

My flight had me landing in San Francisco around noontime. It’s my tradition to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge whenever I’m in town, so I dropped my luggage off at the hotel and headed over there. The weather was nice, and I was certainly up for stretching my legs after the long plane flight.

The most direct route by foot is about five miles from Union Square and that end of the bridge, and I certainly didn’t take the most direct route. My shoes are old and my legs are older, and I was definitely feeling every step by the time I trudged up the hill to the welcome center. Another two miles to Vista Point on the Marin County side, and I knew I wasn’t walking back to the hotel.

Luckily there are tour busses everywhere, and I only had to pay a few bucks to hitch a ride with one as far as the Chinatown gate. Then a few blocks over to Moscone to pick up my badge, say “Hi” to a couple of UK friends, and back to the hotel with enough blisters to make the week interesting.

Sessions I Attended

‘Line Wobbler’ & ‘Beasts of Balance’: Two Routes to Custom Hardware Goodness

Digital distribution removes a lot of the hurdles for software-only indies; but once you have special hardware, there’s a whole new set of issues. I didn’t spend much time in the expo hall, but a lot of that was in the alt.ctrl.GDC area; some games you just won’t ever have a chance to play at home.

Lean Live Ops: Free Your Devs!

Yes, build the tooling necessary to do special events on your live games with minimal dev involvement. With my background this seems obvious, but I can certainly understand it being a very useful lesson to new studios.

How to Survive and Thrive on No Budget (presented by Amazon)

Free lunch! But also an interesting discussion. Lots of disagreement between the panelists, mostly due to the very different worlds in which they work. (Not only is the games industry not one monolithic environment, but neither is “Indie”.) Was very amused that they managed not to mention Amazon at all. :)

A Thousand Tiny Tales: Emergent Storytelling in ‘Slime Rancher’

Evil, evil presentation! It made me go home and spend a significant number of hours ranching slimes.

Seriously, a nice overview of how a simple set of behaviours, when allowed to interact, can lead to some very interesting situations. And especially how players can anthropomorphize the characters, seeing more complex behaviour than actually exists.

Force and Fire: Making Your Game More Metal

Fun. And bonus points for managing to avoid ever mentioning “BrĂ¼tal Legend” (which I love, and would have been an easy go-to for this talk).

Practical Procedural Generation for Everyone

Suffered greatly from the short time slot; feels very much like an hour or more of content stuffed into just thirty minutes. Kate Compton did an admirable job trying to cover it all, but really should have been given more time.

Telling Reactive Stories in an Agent-Driven World in ‘Little Invasion Tales’

Another one to make me want to play the game being discussed. Different from the Slime Rancher talk, involved making the characters believably human using planning and context-aware dialog. I definitely need to keep on this one.

Still Grooving: Game Dev Life Set to Live Music

Relatively low-key and enjoyable, a nice glimpse into life after shipping.


Still a great film, even if it suffers from all of the endings being shown in sequence instead of, as it was originally shown, in three separate theatres. A great one to watch with a bunch of game developers. I definitely hope GDC Movie Night continues to be a thing.

‘Pokemon GO’ & Designing Interactive Games for the Real World

Interesting, but not a lot of useful info. Arguably more about Ingress that Pokemon GO, as well, which wasn’t a bad thing. Mentioned the traffic spike to roughly 50x what they expected, but not how they handled it (or failed to).

Build Resilient Online Games with Amazon GameLift

I don’t go to a lot of sponsored sessions, but since I’m doing a lot in the Amazon ecosystem, this was pretty interesting. As is natural, Amazon appears to be bundling their existing services with a specialized front end to make it useful to game developers.

Making a Sustainable Change Towards Diversity & Inclusion

A nice look into what large global studios (or at least one of them) are doing to ensure that their workforce better reflects their audience.

Friendship, Curiosity & Challenge: Focusing Your Career as an Indie Dev

I really liked this one. Someone who took a specific approach to their indie career, and how it worked out. Great presentation.

The Casual (but Regal) Swipe: Creating Game Mechanics in ‘Reigns’

I was not familiar with ‘Reigns’, but really enjoyed this look into how much depth and feeling of agency can come from a relatively simple mechanic.

Indie Soapbox

Always worthwhile, familiar and new faces, just enough time to make a point. Especially liked the “Indie Rock” bit encouraging indie devs and indie musicians to get together.

GDC Vault link

The Game

The other movie night, a film I hadn’t actually seen before now. Not as dated as I would’ve expected, and certainly another great one to watch with game devs.

Continuous World Generation in ‘No Man’s Sky’

Very much exceeded my expectations. Lots and lots of implementation detail (some of which I didn’t fully understand), plus good high-level takeaways. From my notes:

  • Small teams require pragmatism.
  • ProcGen to amplify, not replace artists.
  • The engine should be agnostic to content origin, a texture is a texture.
  • Model the end state of erosion, not erosion.
  • Compute creature behavior when far away, just don’t render it.

BioWare Embedded QA: Your Support Class

The handling of QA in the games industry has always been of particular interest to me. I’m happy every time I see some movement away from the strictly disposable manual Tester philosophy. In this case, it’s the splitting of the QA group into Analysts and Testers; specialization to a particular component (Audio, Narrative, etc); working closely with devs. My favourite quote: “If HR is selling QA as a foot in the door, tell them to stop!”

Creating Complex AI Behavior in ‘Stellaris’ Through Data Driven Design

Great look into how AI can be handled in a very content-heavy, expanding, moddable strategy game; FSMs and behavior trees would be huge, so they go more data-driven: triggers, scripted weights modified by those triggers, some randomness. Very interesting stuff, but I was curious about how they handle testing these things, and this talk at least didn’t go into that much. I have a note to go watch the “Behaviour is Brittle” talk in the Vault sometime.

Our Games Are Not Linear, So Why Are Our Careers?

I didn’t get much out of this one; hopefully it was useful for some of those earlier in their careers. In 2017 I’m not sure many are expecting a purely linear career progression, but it’s nice to let people know what’s available.

‘Guild Wars’ Microservices and 24/7 Uptime

Fascinating stuff: pre-Docker microservices. Many different types, stateful yet restartable, no VMs.

Modern Networking for Diverse Game Communities

Interesting talks, especially for someone who doesn’t find the standard networking events very compelling. My notes say “Be authentic and make real friends”; always good advice.


Over the years, I’ve learned one rule of managing my time at GCD: Prefer Roundtables over Presentations. The presentations will be in the GDC Vault afterwards, the roundtables will not.

I concentrated on Tools, Automated Testing, Multiplayer, and QA; and learned a lot about what’s in use and who’s hiring. Those notes will drive my learning in the near future.

Useful Stuff

  • GDC Vault has more and more free stuff all of the time.

More to come
More to come