For one week every year San Francisco’s Moscone Center transforms itself into the sprawling hub of the Game Developers Conference. With around 27000 attendees, it’s a massive event, the largest of its kind throughout the world, and thus has somewhat of a reputation for being a make-or-break event for prospective developers.
It’s not the healthiest of reputations, but it sticks. The power of a conference generally lies in its potential reach, and reach relies on attendance. More people equals more coverage, both from other developers and members of the press in attendance. The centralization of the event both in popular attendance and in physical location means that, for many developers, the tradeoff of taking a game to GDC outweighs the cost to taking it to many other conferences.
But GDC continuing to have the reach that it does, and, more specifically, remaining the most prestigious event of its kind, poses problems for developers that can’t make the conference. A heightened fear under the current administration is that of not being able to travel to the United States from certain countries—a fear that was crystallized by this year’s #1ReasonToBe panel, led by Vlambeer developer Rami Ismail, where six speakers were invited, only for three to be denied visas. Two of the backups were subsequently also denied visas.
The reality is that a global games community whose lifeblood runs on one conference (headed by UBM, a company with a long and storied history of questionable labor practices) by necessity gatekeeps a significant portion of the games industry from those who cannot attend.
GDC in 2018 isn’t the same conference that it was years ago. The explosion of alternative venues to distribute a game or connect with other developers means that its centralism in the industry has diminished somewhat—the proliferation of independent publishing options even more so. The fact is that GDC isn’t as important as it once was, but even so it remains the largest annual gathering of game developers on the planet.
With the ever-broadening landscape of what games can be and how they can be made, the focus on GDC as a necessary step in the development process feels more and more outdated. For the industry to expand, it will require expanding beyond GDC. Not necessarily abandoning it (I think that keeping a large US-based conference is useful for, well, US-based developers and games-adjacent persons) but expanding the horizons of what and where an “important” conference can be. Games aren’t just in the US, nor are they exclusively in the San Francisco area—maybe it’s time for our largest conference to reflect that.
Dante Douglas is a writer, poet and game developer. You can find him on Twitter at @videodante.