San Francisco is a little bit more crowded than usual today, thanks to the 2018 Game Developers Conference. For a week each March, developers from all over the world come to learn, play new games, and hopefully get a job—while journalists congregate to report on the activity of said developers (and also to get jobs). GDC is possibly the most important event of the year for the army of engineers, artists, and businesspeople who make up the commercial videogame industry: a hub of networking, showcases, and creative reflection, a place for both announcements and edification.
Yet, like videogames itself, the conference seems to be at a crossroads. As the event has continued to grow, and its profile in the industry has increased, its purpose has begun to shift. The usual excitement still exists among those in the professional gaming (not to be confused with esports) community, who change their Twitter names to include variations “at GDC” and who populate the conference’s scheduling app with selfies and meeting requests, but it seems more than ever to be undercut with restlessness: Who is this conference even for, anyway? More than ever, huge platforms are taking a huge share of the show floor and speaking schedule. Facebook, Oculus, and even Magic Leap are all hosting multiple sessions this year.
It’s not just that the industry-wide muddling of the lines between indie and triple-A creator has hit GDC, though that’s part of it. The games ecosystem is home to a complex variety of types of developers, and the intense divide between indie and major is both fuzzier and more important than it’s felt like in the past. Mid-tier titles like PlayerUnknown’s BattleGrounds or the free-to-play Fortnite can become dizzyingly popular in a relatively short amount of time (just look to this past weekend’s record-breaking result when Drake joined forces with a popular Twitch streamer to play Fortnite‘s battle-royale mode) while the difference in costs and resources between small and big games continues to balloon. This year, at least for me, it’s not quite clear what sort of games GDC is meant to showcase, and even less clarity about what sort of developers are meant to attend—and what they’re supposed to take away from their time.
GDC is considered by many in the industry to be an essential event, the core platform for connecting with colleagues, scouting new recruits, and taking stock of the industry. But it’s become increasingly clear in recent years how limited this event really is. Taking place in one of the most expensive cities in America, it’s a stretch simply to afford accommodations for the week of the conference—and that’s not counting expo passes, travel, and any extracurricular activities. For poor or disabled American developers, and especially for international developers, GDC represents a sizable, and difficult, investment. (Meanwhile, foreign developers now have to contend with the increasing risks of entering the country in the first place, particularly if they’re from Muslim or non-white countries.)
So now, in 2018, discontent is running higher than normal, as many in the industry are wondering out loud if the Game Developer’s Conference, once lauded as the Mecca of the industry, is really the event we need.