GDC 2018: On Class & Passes

This is part two of a series articulating criticism of GDC, in the week leading up to it. I know several people who attend GDC, and I don’t begrudge anyone for attending, speaking, or otherwise working with GDC; you do what you have to do, and make the value evaluations that you need to. But since I’m not attending this year, I thought I’d take the opportunity to speak frankly about the harmful practices UBM promotes and their negative impact on the industry.

GDC passes are bullshit.

GDC describes itself as the primary forum” where video game industry professionals gather to exchange ideas.” But if you wanted to design a system to prevent meaningful exchange of ideas from taking place, you could do much worse than designing GDC’s byzantine system of tiered conference and expo passes.

First there’s the arbitrary separation between conferences” and summits,” with correspondingly separate passes for each, as well as the profusion of special interest and scholarship passes with their own arbitrary limitations. The result is that the people who most need access to instruction and connections are kept out of conference sessions by the high cost of conference passes; and people on one side of the summit/conference divide aren’t allowed to cross-pollinate their knowledge and experiences with people on the other. This is not a system designed to lift people up in the industry or to help the sharing of knowledge in a muldisciplinarian and collaborative medium.

The Independent Games Summit, AI Summit, Game Narrative Summit: All of those separate the people working on those subjects, and their concerns and expertise, from the mainstream” subjects of business and design that belong” in conference tracks. The implied lesser/special-interest status of summits is particularly grating when it comes to narrative: Writers and narrative designers are a big part of the industry, we’re a key component of every AAA game and huge segments all across the industry, and narrative” gets shunted off to a summit. It’s kind of insulting, but of course it also enables people to attend those sessions who couldn’t otherwise — because summit passes are cheaper, reinforcing what GDC thinks is the value of those subjects.

At least they’re notionally worth more than the advocacy sessions, which anyone can go to.

This is a system designed to sell conference passes, make the basic passes as worthless as possible, upsell the more expensive passes as much as possible, and get as much money out of wealthy companies as possible. Expo passes have such a low perceived value that I’ve seen more than one person telling others to not even bother to get one and just hang out at Yerba Buena and go to GDC parties. Or, to put it another way, GDC is so uninterested in making expo pass holders get something out of the conference that the ancillary social systems built up around GDC have had to pick up seemingly 100% worth of slack. Most of GDC’s value to attendees comes from labor GDC never pays for or externalities GDC had no hand in creating.

Of course, a system of widespread sharing of passes has also grown up around this because GDC’s pricing is basically unrealistic. Entire indie studios attend GDC on one person’s conference pass, meaning that people from the same small studio often can’t go to sessions together. It’s a class system like any other, constantly reinforcing to everyone what place in the ladder they are at.

GDC offers a panoply of scholarships” and other programs to help people get passes, often by selling those passes at a discount to various organizations which them give them away to people lucky enough to be able to travel to GDC in the first place and who can also successfully convince the heads of those organizations that their marginalization is the most significant one that needs to be redressed this year. This practice belongs to a particularly vile tradition: Create artificial scarcity then make a few charity exceptions and milk them for social capital. Much like the advocacy track, this enables GDC to burnish its image while doing as little as possible to actually change the destructive class systems within the industry. GDC is a for-profit enterprise and they don’t do this for their health.

And to reiterate: GDC passes are simply expensive. Summit passes, the bare minimum to attend any tutorial or technical” talks, cost $929 for GDC 2018. Conference + summit passes cost $2049. This isn’t out of the ordinary in the world of tech conferences, but games aren’t part of the tech industry. Here’s a fun graph from StackOverflow’s developer survey. Game programmers make the worst money of all categories surveyed. And programmers are often the best-paid positions on development teams. Video game workers are not making tech industry money. Whether you pay your own way or your employer buys you a pass, GDC passes are priced at the very top edge of what the economic realities of the industry can support. And when it comes to devs from colonized territories or simply outside the US, costs of attending GDC quickly become ridiculous.

But GDC positions itself as the only game in town, which is another place where it differs from an actual tech conference. If you’re a JavaScript programmer, there are literally dozens of JavaScript conferences all over the world; there’s one basically every week and you probably don’t have to travel far, if at all. Tech conferences are a highly competitive market, while GDC has no direct competitors. There are smaller and more focused events like Indiecade; there are industry events like E3 that have a different purpose and aren’t conferences” as such. But only GDC is GDC, so nobody can really challenge the notional value of GDC passes in the marketplace at all. This state of affairs doesn’t seem to bother major industry players or organizations like the IGDA, probably because it disproportionately hurts indies and freelancers who don’t have financial backing from a large employer to pay their conference attendance.

GDC’s ostensive mission is to further the technical and artistic development of video games as a medium, but that’s a transparent lie; GDC’s mission is to make money for UBM. And tiered passes make it crystal clear how much the latter mission overrides the former. Two years ago, Emily Short pointed out that the games industry is constantly reinventing the wheel:

I see methods presented as cutting edge at GDC that have been solved problems in the IF community for 20 years, and UI solutions in the IF community that come from 1994. I see assessment techniques applied in academic research, and AI techniques at the AI summit, that people in IF seem totally unaware of. I also see toolsets being made in academia that are very hard to imagine using in actual game production situations, and seriously proposed and tested hypotheses about choice design that make me wonder whether the authors have ever read a single work of craft writing from the IF community. I see commercial toolsets being built that claim to be ground-breaking, but are if anything a step backward. Every single time I link to Sam Kabo Ashwell’s CYOA structures post I get someone reacting like I just sent them a map to the location of the Grail. It’s a great post! But it’s also not news! Or it wouldn’t be, if the circulation of knowledge (together with the financial and social means necessary to keep working) were as smooth as I wish it were.

A few days later, in an interview with Austin Walker at Giant Bomb, I said:

In the games industry we rely a lot on conferences like GDC to trade information… and it doesn’t work. It doesn’t accomplish enough.

I think after a couple years in this industry, what GDC suggests to me through its system of passes and pricing is slightly different. It’s not supposed to accomplish enough. GDC is a capitalist enterprise and so it treats knowledge like a commodity to be sold to the highest bidder. GDC is woefully insufficient because it’s designed to keep people operating in different economic conditions away from each other. It’s designed to keep people in different fields away from each other. I mention in that interview that people at the margins of the industry struggle to even be listened to, even if they can go to GDC in the first place. But it’s also true that, within GDC itself, the conference operates to keep these people away from access and sessions where they might have a chance to be heard in the first place.

GDC dangles the possibility of being heard, of making connections, in front of vulnerable people and then sells them expo passes that are only marginally better than hanging in a park for the right week of the year.

Previously: How the advocacy track fails devs. Tomorrow: why holding GDC in San Francisco is an awful practice.