An Introvert’s Guide to Surviving GDC

Yet again, that enormous annual conference for all the game developers in the galaxy is soon upon us. You know the one. I will, of course, be there, volunteering and also demoing Dominique Pamplemousse.

Anyway, here’s a thing I’ve noticed in the several years I’ve been a GDC attendee. When it comes to what a lot of people on the internet think of as the best parts of GDC — namely, ZOMG NETWORKING! and PARTIES! — I often feel at odds. I’m an introvert, which means that while I don’t necessarily hate being outgoing and sociable per se,1 I generally find most kinds of social activities to be draining, to the point of needing to rest and recover afterwards. Apparently, I’m not alone. So, here’s my list of ways in which I, personally, try to get the most out of GDC. Your own mileage, as they say, may vary. But if you’re the kind of person whose reaction to spending a week in close proximity to tens of thousands of people is more “eep!” than “yay!” then maybe some of these tips will help.

First of all, get lots of rest! In the week or so before the conference, spend as much time as possible alone and relaxed doing your favourite introvert things. Do the same thing for the week afterwards. During the conference, make sure you’re getting enough sleep every night, and that you’re well fed and hydrated. Take care of yourself!

Relating to that, when at the conference, find all the quiet places and retreat to them when you need a chance to hear yourself think. The conference halls themselves can be nice and quiet while sessions are going on — last year, I liked to park myself at a table in a low-traffic area on the top floor of the convention centre — but get a bit loud and echoey during breaks, especially between Wednesday-Friday. Going for walks outside is pleasant, particularly since the weather in San Francisco tends to be quite agreeable in March.2 Sometimes, you might find a cafe nearby where you can sit down and sip a drink for a bit, but how loud it gets depends on how many other people have discovered it. For instance, there’s this tea shop on top of the convention centre that used to be perfect for this sort of thing, but in recent years, it’s become just as popular and crowded as the show floor. For shame.

The sessions themselves, if you have a pass that lets you see them, are usually pleasantly quiet when people are speaking, which can be a relief. Avoid the expo hall as much as possible. If you must go in there, mentally prepare yourself for sensory overload. Or try to go when there aren’t a lot of people, like right when it opens. Yes, there will be interesting games exhibited on display, but with the amount of time you’re going to spend on them, you’ll probably be better off looking at gameplay videos on the internet later. Same goes for the awards show, which I don’t really make a point of attending unless someone I know is up for an award.

People, most of whom aren’t introverts, tend to insinuate that the best things to go to at GDC are the parties and the afterparties and the afterafterparties… but I don’t see the appeal. Most GDC parties I’ve been to tend to have really loud (and often, not very good) music that you can’t even have a conversation over, and even if you do see someone you’d like to talk to, chances are they’re probably preoccupied with one of the many other party distractions going on. Last year, I went to a grand total of one party; I believe it was for Wadjet Eye, and it was a more audible and intimate setting compared to most parties, which helped. I didn’t feel in the least bit like I was missing anything.3

The actual best things to go to at GDC are dinners with small groups of people. Ideally, such groups will both contain people you already know and people you’d like to know better. Sometimes, these dinners have formal invites for which you have to RSVP; other times, you’ll just be informally chatting with a group and someone will suggest getting food and you’ll tag along with them. I’ve even put out impromptu “anyone want to go out to dinner?” calls on Twitter and had a nice assortment of neat folks show up. Either way, you’ll be among fewer people, but you’ll get to talk to those few people more substantially than you would at a larger event. Since we introverts tend to be of the mindset that quality is more important than quantity when it comes to human interaction, this is the most optimal way to make use of your social energy.4

If you don’t know a lot of people, sometimes it helps to befriend what I like to call a “designated extrovert” who knows a lot of people and can introduce you to them. Extroverts, being the mysterious creatures they are, are always looking for networking opportunities, so they’ll be particularly receptive when you introduce yourself and show them that cool thing you’re working on — that said, it helps if you pick an extrovert you already sort of know and whose work you actually like. The downside to hanging out with an extrovert is that they tend to be busy and have less time for the longer, quieter, more in-depth conversations that you probably prefer. That said, a particularly savvy extrovert will be smart enough to introduce you to other introverts, and you all can talk shop while your extrovert goes off and does extrovert things.

When you’ve had enough of being sociable, politely excuse yourself and leave. Don’t feel obliged to linger at an event when you’re no longer enjoying yourself. It’s much, much better to leave early and happy than to stay the whole time and be miserable. Believe me, I know this from experience. On a related note, make sure you have a safe way of getting to where you need to go that doesn’t depend on waiting for other people, particularly late at night. Sometimes, shelling out for a taxi is worth it for your own sanity.

Finally, while GDC is the most well known of all the game dev conferences, if you can, try and attend some smaller ones. Smaller conferences are way less overwhelming and often more focussed on specific topics of interest, so they’re more ideal environments for us introverts.

And that’s that for now! Have fun, learn things, and if you see me at GDC, say hi! Maybe we can have dinner together or something.

  1. I actually quite enjoy annually meeting up and talking at length about videogames with people I otherwise only interact with online, and probably wouldn’t even go to GDC if I didn’t.
  2. This may not apply if you live somewhere that’s usually warmer than San Francisco.
  3. Generally speaking, I have more fun at parties when I’m performing in them, but since no one at GDC is going to hire a brass band anytime soon, that probably isn’t going to happen. Actually, come to think of it, I’d quite enjoy a game developers’ open mic or jam session type thing in a coffee house somewhere. Someone should totally get on that.
  4. My best GDC moment ever involved sitting with two dear friends in a diner talking late into the night, on the Friday the conference ended.