GDC 2018: UBM Just Doesn't Care

This is part five 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.

Here’s how much UBM cares about you, me, and everyone else in the games industry.

On the front page of UBM’s website, on the week before GDC 2018, GDC shows up only on a carousel (a web design trend that should be a capital offense) alongside ten other upcoming events including the Istanbul Jewelry Show and the Licensing Expo taking place in Las Vegas.

If GDC weren’t upcoming and you wanted to find it, you might have to dig a little. You’ll find that although video games are a multi-billion dollar part of the entertainment industry, UBM hides game development” as a sub-sector of technology.” GDC is the only games-related event that UBM promotes, not counting VRDC (which they categorize separately under virtual reality” even though it happens as a sort of appendage to GDC).

Point is, UBM is not in the video game business and doesn’t care about the video game business, let alone video games as an artform. It describes itself as promoting market-leading B2B” events. B2B (“business to business”) is an interesting descriptor to apply to the man-made disaster that is GDC.

B2B typically describes events such as trade shows, which are meant to connect retailers or manufacturers to suppliers. This somewhat describes GDC expo, which is indeed a trade show for companies that make middleware, game engines, and other game development tools. The value proposition of a trade show is that you buy floor space and then people further down the chain from you walk past that floor space and hopefully this leads to sales. If you’re down the supply chain, maybe you have to buy a pass; that pass gets you access to potentially valuable suppliers. UBM themselves don’t own the floor space; they rent it, for however many days the event lasts, from the owners of a convention center. Profit, organizing costs, and overhead all come from the markup between what UBM pays, and what exhibitors and attendees pay for floor space and access. There are other components of GDC that have a clear value proposition — publishers have meetings with devs, and showing your game at GDC generates press (though not as much as a more public-facing event like Pax). A lot of this is just an externality of having everyone (who can afford to be there) in the same city for a week, and not really something that UBM is making even though in a way they are selling it.

Because those centers are usually owned by a local government (The city of San Francisco, for example, owns the Moscone Center), this is a form of public-private partnership. Or, in honest terms, this is a form of using a public good for private gain. There’s no public data on how much GDC pays to book Moscone, but it is obviously much less than what they take in by selling passes.

Compared to a trade fair, the value proposition of GDC the conference is… fuzzy. If you’re a big studio, you send people to GDC in the hopes that they’ll improve their skills and this will translate, way down the line, into improving your product. If you’re an attendee paying your own way, you hope that the networking you do at GDC will improve your odds of getting jobs in the future. If you’re a speaker, you’re hoping that speaking at GDC will improve your, or your game’s, profile and lead to either jobs or sales down the line. All of those effects are hard to measure, especially on the margin; they’re hard to quantify. And they’re uncertain. Some people go to GDC and come out of it with nothing to show for it, and some people go to GDC and it bootstraps their career.

UBM paid a pathetic £43m in UK taxes in 2017, for an effective tax rate of 16% over profit; lower than the marginal US income tax rate on households making $50K a year, and less than the effective federal tax rate on a household making $80K a year. Also in 2017, UBM paid £5.3m pounds in executive compensation alone, a good chunk of which (probably around £2-3m) would likely go to the group’s CEO, Tim Cobbold.

There’s no moral universe where this isn’t theft: UBM’s workers, and capital they mostly rent on the cheap from governments, generate £1b a year; £200m of those get skimmed off by shareholders, who do nothing of value, before those workers are even paid. UBM benefits from exploitative public-private partnerships” (particularly in emerging markets) to generate revenue, which shareholders pocket. UBM paid its directors last year enough money to pay for roughly five hundred years of college tuition in the UK.

Every corporation engages, by definition, in this form of state-sanctioned theft. UBM engages in a particularly vile form of it at GDC: So many of UBM’s workers are underpaid or unpaid volunteers” or speakers” who contribute to this grotesque profit but get compensated in conference passes… a commodity with an inflated price set by UBM itself.

It’s a system not very far off from getting paid in company scrip. That comparison might seem hyperbolic; game developers are not, no matter how similar certain arrangements, 1900s coal miners.

But: How many people speaking at GDC are jumping from freelance gig to freelance gig and have no safety net? How many people speaking at GDC are doing so at the behest of a large employer who will dump them as soon as their current project ships? How many people are scraping together just enough money to buy a conference pass? How many people are travelling to attend GDC as conference associates,” taking a financial loss on a supposedly paid position in order to try and get access to the industry?

Gilded age precarity isn’t far behind the veneer of knowledge-worker affluence, and the sooner you recognize you’re being exploited, the sooner you can do something about it. Because UBM is exploiting game industry workers. It’s exploiting them through a grotesque system of tiered passes that cuts off the most useful access from the people who most need it. It’s exploiting them by pursuing the cultural cachet of neoliberal diversity” while doing as little as possible to improve the makeup of the industry. It’s exploiting them indirectly by using public goods to make a buck. It’s exploiting them directly by using their unpaid and underpaid labor to generate virtually all of the value of GDC.

GDC is an awful squatter sitting on this industry skimming money off while dangling promises of dubious value in front of people’s heads. And the kicker is that it matters so little to UBM that it’s not even mentioned in the publicly available investor results they released in 2017. It’s folded into technology,” which accounts for about 14% of exposition revenue.

As far as I can tell, UBM is not at all transparent about how much they make from each conference. But looking at the information they do publish about attendance and size for those events, it’s a reasonable guesstimate that UBM makes somewhere in the low eight figures from GDC; back-of-the-envelope math suggests about £20 or £30m in revenue. This is not including the money they make from the paywall on the GDC Vault or ads on Gamasutra (a site that relies on publishing unpaid blog posts” from game developers and promoting them).

Again, to reiterate, those are very rough estimates arrived at by looking at publicly available information and making some informed guesses, so don’t take this too seriously. But assuming GDC generates £25m in revenue, and 20% of that is profit (which is UBM’s overall margin): UBM’s shareholders take in enough money from GDC itself to pay each GDC speaker a $11,000 speaking fee, or more than double CA pay.

Our entire industry warps itself around a week-long yearly event that exists largely to funnel unearned money into the pockets of shareholders who don’t know we exist or care.

In the same results report, UBM touts its profitability gains from killing off underperforming or lesser events (read: laying people off). From UBM’s perspective, GDC could easily get killed off after a couple of bad years for revenue. GDC Europe indeed was killed off a couple years ago without much fanfare.

Frankly, maybe that would be for the best.