GDC 2018: How GDC Exploits Industry Veteran and Novices Alike With Shady Compensation Schemes

This is part four 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 engages in and their negative impact on the industry.

This isn’t a complicated point: GDC is built on unpaid and underpaid attendee labor.

The more visible component of this is speakers. GDC categorically refuses to pay speaking fees or even help speakers with travel expenses or accommodation. Speakers get a GDC pass, and that, barring a few ad-hoc exceptions (that GDC is not transparent about), is it.

On the face of it, this might seem like pretty okay compensation; after all, a GDC all-access pass goes for an eye-watering $2,349. But speakers will commonly spend 20-40 hours preparing their talk, and they have to pay their own way to attend GDC in the first place; if you’re travelling internationally to attend it, going GDC might still leave you deeply in the red even as a speaker, even if we take the monetary value of GDC passes as a given.

And we shouldn’t, actually, take it as a given. Because paying someone in a commodity that you control and set the price of is a particularly awful and exploitative practice.

Here’s the deal: GDC Expo passes cost $249; all-access passes cost $2100 more. That $2100 is the difference between being able to attend sessions and talks, and not being able to attend them; that is, the value of those $2100 comes entirely from talks and sessions — value created almost entirely by the unpaid labor of other speakers. GDC, in typical parasitic fashion, is getting a bunch of people to work for them for free and paying them with access to one another’s labor; and then turning a gross profit on charging others money for the same privilege.

Speakers theoretically get intangible benefits out of it, but those benefits definitely vary widely. If you’re a salaried AAA developer, giving a talk about your game isn’t really helping promote that game for the audiences you’re trying to reach; maybe it helps you get a job after your studio fires you once the game ships. If you’re giving an advocacy talk, it’s entirely possible that nobody with hiring power anywhere sits down to listen to you. Giving a talk at GDC isn’t very good value, for networking, compared to simply attending GDC. There are airy motivations for doing it (wanting selflessly to advance the medium, say). But GDC is taking advantage of people in that it’s still packaging and selling the product of that.

And of course, if you want to advance the medium, giving your talk at GDC only will keep whatever information you have to share right out of the hands of anyone who isn’t already deeply enmeshed in the industry, particularly if your talk takes place at one of the conference tracks. GDC’s profit motive makes it so that people who go to GDC to impact the industry are less impactful than they would otherwise be. If they’re giving a conference or summit talk, that’s given to the small audience who can afford to be there (in terms of passes, travel, and being able to attend any given talk in an overcrowded and exhausting conference). And then video of it is put behind GDC’s incredibly overpriced paywalled content website. If it’s an advocacy talk, it’s made more accessible — but also cordoned off from the real” discussions about making video games. GDC’s sheer size makes a GDC talk impactful, but GDC doesn’t operate to maximize that; it dampens the effect of its own scale.

It is true, of course, that GDC provides services that make the conference possible. A venue, for one thing. GDC is also not transparent about how much they pay the city of San Francisco to use the Moscone Center, but it seems probable that this is not something GDC is paying full retail price for, as is traditional in public-private partnerships.” GDC also provides the organization and operation of the conference itself… well, sort of.

Onsite, GDC is largely run and organized by its small army of Conference Associates” (CAs). GDC’s website describes the CA program with a particularly slimy paragraph of text:

So your crowdfunding missed its target, you’re a student with limited funds, your company can’t send you, or you just want to lend a hand. Whatever the reason, you may still be able to attend this premiere event by becoming a Conference Associate. Are you willing to earn your attendance (and a little extra money) by doing about 25 hours of on-site work? Apply to be a Conference Associate (CA)!

Struggling to make it in the games industry? Come do underpaid service work for us! GDC describes this exploitative arrangement as doing people a favor. Instead of hiring temporary labor at a normal market rate, GDC exploits the apparent desirability of games industry employment to get cheaper labor. GDC isn’t transparent about how much they pay CAs, but I somehow doubt it’s very much more than a stipend to eat lunch at Moscone every day of the conference. CAs of course get an all access pass,” the utility of which is cut by two thirds because they’re expected to put in 25 hours of work during GDC week.

Frankly, the whole thing makes my skin crawl. People have all kinds of reasons to want to go into the games industry; some of them are based on misapprehensions (like thinking we’re all over here making a ton of money), some are based on genuine and valuable desires (like wanting to make art in a medium they love). A lot of people are desperate to get into the games industry, one way or another. GDC exploits those desires to make money.

Curiously, UBM doesn’t seem to have similar programs for its other major conferences; probably because there isn’t a mass of young people who are really eager to get into, say, content marketing or enterprise communications. Those conferences have similar pricing to GDC and somehow they do just fine paying people to run the conference. Again: The CA program is a predatory way to make a buck, not a necessity to keep the conference economically viable.

And the people being exploited this way are often young and vulnerable people at the margins of the industry. How many CAs travel to GDC and find themselves in the red after an exhausting week? How many CAs go to GDC once and then don’t come back because they didn’t get enough out of it to start any sort of career? As far as I can tell, GDC doesn’t collect, mention, or publish information about outcomes for alumni of its CA program, which definitely suggests that it’s a grist mill. GDC in this operates a lot like a for-profit college, predatorily making a buck off people’s hopes of improving their lives.

Now — lots of academic conferences and fan conventions rely on unpaid or volunteer labor. But the problem is that those are events that are often small, nonprofit, or generally don’t have the resources and reach GDC has; letting that normalize GDC’s use of unpaid labor and predatory payment-in-kind is just wrong.

GDC is a for-profit enterprise, and the company that organizes it (UBM) raked in over $270 million in profit in 2017. I have a more detailed post on their finances tomorrow, but GDC absolutely could pay speakers, and anyone who says that paying speakers would require a smaller or less broad conference is lying to you. GDC isn’t using unpaid speakers and underpaid CAs to put on a bigger and more useful conference; it’s doing that so UBM’s shareholders can pocket the savings.

Yesterday: On the many problems with running GDC in San Francisco. Tomorrow: the root of all GDC evil.