Lessons from the Game Developer’s Conference

Expo Floor 1

Regardless of where you are in your career, your skill level, or experience, there is something for everyone to take from the Game Developer’s Conference. I met a range of people from game developers and artists, to CEOs of major companies who are interested in how the game industry will impact their businesses, to recruiters and HR representatives, to news media, to students and fans of games, and probably bumped into a few executives of social media like Facebook along the way.

This was my second time attending GDC, and the first time as a professional, so I was amazed at how much more I got out of it than I had two years before when I came as a student. Not only was there much more going on Su-Th, but the International Game Developer’s Association (IGDA) busted out with its amazing services, including but not limited to, a new Advocacy Track available to everyone, plus a survey designed for improving the careers of game developers. Being surrounded by so many passionate and creative people for the full week left my Willpower bar fully charged.

Now that I’ve recharged my Health and Stamina bars back to their normal levels, and am back into my normal workflow, I’ve scribbled the top take-home lessons I’ve taken from this year’s GDC. Many of these tips can be applied to attending any professional convention, particularly to people just learning how to network or just getting into an industry.

Conference at a Glance 1

  1. Decide what your main goals are and organize your time around them. Here are my suggestions for how to go about achieving them at GDC:

Networking. If you are coming to GDC to meet people, then spend time volunteering through either GDC directly or through IGDA, spend time in the career center and expo floors chatting with everyone you meet, and connect with everyone else by using the #GDC hashtag on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and the GDC event app. Also keep in mind that the indie game developers are very approachable. Your goal is to give away all of your business cards and to get as many, or more, in return. But first, take a moment to look at their card and remember their face, you’ll need to connect them later (more on how to use business cards below). Bonus if you’re invited to private parties.

GDC Career Center

Career Development. Go to the Career Center early and get in line for portfolio reviews. Some of them allow you to sign up for an appointment, but for most of them you have to wait in line. When your review is over, ask if you can follow-up with changes that you’ve made to your work. They might give you a business card. If they do, then remember to send them a thank you email for their generous time and attention. If you do take their advice, revise your portfolio, and follow-up, they could become a mentor.

After each review, jot down what you learned and take out any pieces your reviewer said you should nix (easier to do with an ipad than a printed folio). Then give yourself a week to mull on what you learned. Lauren Panepinto wrote a great article on Muddy Colors on how to do this in her article The In-Person Portfolio Review. Your goal is get career direction, decide what skills to work on, and where to take your portfolio. It’s fantastic if you get a job right away, but that’s pretty rare.

Tip: Some studios treat portfolio reviews like job interviews, and will give you feedback based on what their studio is looking for in artists to hire; others will give you general advice that will help your overall development as an artist. That’s why, if you’re looking at how to improve your portfolio in general, it’s better to wait until you can see the whole spread of feedback from a variety of studios and find the patterns. Alternatively, if there is a particular studio you want to work for, then you’ll know exactly how to tailor your portfolio for them.

Oculus VR

Skill Development & Evaluating the Competition. If you’re already employed, focus on the talks and panels that are relevant to your career. Major studios often outline what they want their employees to attend, but there’s usually room for a little extra outside of your specialty. Check out the Expo floor for new innovations in game technology too.

GDC Art Store

Loot. Speaking of technology, there is a lot to see on the Expo floor and a lot of swag to take home. I got an early preview of Unreal Engine 4 but missed out on the Oculus VR before Facebook bought it. I’m told it was an amazing experience. Also, some indie game developers will let you download their games for free or at discount that week, so be sure to meet up with them. Lastly, check out the GDC store.

Career Talk

Getting Your Feet Wet as a Student. If you’re strapped for cash and it’s too late to sign up to volunteer, or can’t take the time off from school, go on Friday to Student Day and get a taste of the GDC experience. There are talks like “Killer Portfolio and Portfolio Killer” designed just for you. Between those talks, make it a point to get your portfolio reviewed, not just by the panel at Portfolio Killer but on the Career Center floor too. You’ll get a better sense of what will be expected of you when you enter the industry.

alex-bond print materials 2

  1. Prepare, prepare, prepare. At least two weeks before GDC, choose your favorite piece(s) for your business card, design your card, and order at least 200 high-quality prints so they will arrive about a week before the convention.

Tip 1: Don’t spend so much, or order so few, that you’ll shy from giving them away. There will be raffles on top of hundreds of people to meet, so don’t be stingy. When you’re starting out, it’s important to meet as many people as you can and collect their cards so you can build your network and get referrals, if not job offers. The point is to get beyond the jobs@company.com email barriers to a real live person. And sometimes you’ll bump into people unexpectedly who can help you out in other ways. I met a CEO of a major travel company who offered to help me out the next time I’m flying somewhere…probably to another convention.

Tip 2: Your cards should be just like your handshake, strong and confident. Several of my professional artist friends recommended Moo because they print photo-quality cards and allow you to order up to 15 different images on the backs at no extra charge. I had 3 different kinds printed – a character, an interior environment, and a creature – and found that people loved having a choice. Infact, I bumped into a teacher from Japan who wanted all three so he could use them as examples in his class.

Oh, but make sure not to get those half-sized stick business cards. They look cool, but are easily lost. Instead, make ones that are easy to write on.

Street Crossing 1

Tip 3: If you’re an artist, don’t be caught without a portfolio. Pick your strongest 8-15 pieces and cull the rest. Either print or download it to an iPad (preferably an portfolio app like Portfolio for iPad) with images sized at 300 dpi – which will allow your reviewers to zoom in on the details. Don’t count on there being wifi on the Expo or Career floors, even if they did provide it to attendees it would be slowed to a crawl with all of the traffic going through it.

Tip 4: Don’t clutter your portfolio with process work, but do tell a story. If you’re also a concept artist like me, either create a separate section with your works-in-progress, comps, and thumbnails or else include them on the bottom or sides of finished paintings. Read more tips here by Gavin Goulden, Lead Character Artist of Insomniac Games.

Tip 5: Prepare about 25 copies of your resume on high-quality paper for HR and recruiting departments.

Tip 6: Update your LinkedIn profile and your website (more on LinkedIn below). Also prepare to tweet a lot, and it doesn’t hurt to snap photos and share them on your social networks.

Tip 7: Wear sensible shoes, pack a water bottle in a plastic zip-lock bag, a light hoodie, your charger, and a roll-up shopping bag. Needless to say, you’ll be walking a lot, want to keep your water and food safe from your resumes, and be aware that San Francisco won’t give you shopping bags for free.

Tip 8: RSVP early for parties. If you’re under 21, check ahead to see if you’ll be allowed in before you’re turned away at the door.


  1. Volunteer and sign up to volunteer early. I had an amazing experience volunteering for IGDA and now consider them my chosen family in the game industry. Volunteering is an excellent way to meet new people in the industry, both to form lasting friendships with other volunteers and organizers, and to meet people you wouldn’t have thought to talk to otherwise. When you step up to give back to the community, you are demonstrating that you are a problem-solver to both attendees and the organizers. That in turn helps your resume and application for scholarships (if you’re still in school). Plus your volunteer group can give you a head’s-up on social events, deals, and networking tips. Speaking of deals…

  2. Sign up for deals with Uber and Lyft  to get you around safely at night, especially if you plan to drink at after-parties or are traveling alone. Embark iBart  is also a great app to have if you’ll use Bay Area Transit.

  1. If you’re shy or just anxious, keep in mind that everyone around you loves games and is there to meet people. Take a deep breath and turn your anxiety into enthusiasm by chatting up the people around you. Your heros will never be as available to talk with you as they are at GDC. And when in doubt, find the quiet person in the room and rescue them with easy questions. More on how to do this in Use This Simple Trick to Approach Anyone.

Tip: Wear geek signifiers to help break the ice. I did well with a Zelda t-shirt.

  1. If you’re burning out then sit down and eat something, rest at your hotel, or go to the Expo floor. Take care of yourself and avoid making a bad impression or taking a portfolio review the wrong way. The important thing is to have fun meeting your goals, and you can’t do that if you’re depleted.

    Business Cards shared

  2. When the convention is over and you have your spread of business cards, it’s time to follow-up and expand your network. Start by downloading a business card reading app to help you update your address book. While you’re doing this, set aside all of the cards belonging to people you need to follow-up directly with. These are your portfolio reviewers, your mentors, recruiters, HR executives, indie developers who might be looking for a new member of their team, and people who you had interesting conversations with. Then plug all of your new contacts into your social networks. Most importantly, import them into LinkedIn and invite them all to connect with you.

While we’re talking about LinkedIn, if you’re looking for work, then it’s time to upgrade to the Job Seeker’s account. LinkedIn is great for finding jobs, reaching out to recruiters, getting advice from industry professionals in your network, and endorsements. Many recruiters and HR experts use LinkedIn in place of resumes to find new talent. The Premium level comes with a lot of benefits. For one, it allows you to reach the 3rd-degree contacts of everyone you met at the convention. Two, you can send InMail to everyone you can’t reach that way or isn’t on the OpenLink network. Three, you can see everyone who’s checked your profile and invite them to connect. The Job Seeker’s account marks you as looking for work in searches and allows you to see both salaries offered for certain jobs and how you measure against the competition.

When you’ve done that, go back to your stack of cards and follow-up on each of your new contacts with tailored emails. Use the notes you scribbled on their cards to remind you about what you want to talk about.

Then, if you’re an artist, after your 1-week rest is over, review your notes and decide what changes to make to your portfolio. Once you’ve made your changes (this will probably take about a month) follow-up with the generous people who reviewed your portfolio, and ask for another review.

GDC Overhead

In conclusion, I want to give a heartfelt thank you to everyone who made GDC happen, who took me on as a volunteer, connected with, and advised me. You all made my experience at GDC amazing.

If you went to GDC this year, what were your goals and what did you learn? What other suggestions would you give to newcomers? Or if you didn’t attend, are you thinking of going next year?