The GDC Survival Guide

By James Portnow [02.05.08]

 Are you going to GDC? You should be.

No, really, if you are reading this, you should be -- every last one of you.

If you're in the industry, it's a great opportunity; but if you're not yet and ever plan to make working in the video game industry something more than a pipe dream, you've got to be at GDC.

Why? Because if you're there you can get those 30 seconds of face time you need to hand someone a resume and make sure they don't forget you. Because at GDC you can actually talk to people who make hiring decisions. Because it's a damn sight more likely that someone will remember your name if you shake her hand than if you shoot off an email to [email protected]

Convinced? Good, now go check your ticket because the rest of this article is about how to prepare for GDC.

Essentials Before You Go
Resume. Have one. Scratch that. Have a ton. Bring at least 20 resumes with you each day. You probably won't hand out that many, but you really don't want to be reaching into an empty bag when the vice president of HR for the company you are dying to get into asks you for your qualifications.

Take some time on your resume. Look at resumes on the internet. Ask your friend in business school how yours should look. Ask somebody. My first resume was a disaster until I had friends and relatives help mill it into shape.

Don't just focus on the words in your resume; look at how it's laid out. For designers, this is especially important, but it's pretty essential for everyone. Keep it to one page (if you haven't had a job in the industry yet, you really don't need more than one page, trust me). Keep it neat and uncluttered. Remember that most of the people you hand your resume to will have hundreds by the time they leave GDC, they're not going to spend a lot of time untangling yours.

Business cards. Make them. You want to see my first one?

Yes, honest to god, that was my first business card, and you know what? It served me well.

When people hand you their cards, and they will, it makes the exchange a lot less awkward if you have something -- anything -- on hand to give in return. And you should be exchanging business cards a lot!

Packing. Bring clothes that make you look good. That's all.

Plenty of people look like idiots in a suit. Dress well, but not in something that's clearly reaching. This isn't a high school dance. This is a gathering of game developers. Just be comfortable in what you're wearing.

Don't wear your Gamestop t-shirt or fanboy regalia.

Sleep. Rest before you get there, because you'll probably get very little sleep during GDC week.

Do your research. Research companies you're interested in. On the GDC web site, there is a list of companies who will be at the show.

As an industry hopeful, you have an advantage when going to GDC. You can come armed with a ton of information about the people you will meet while they aren't going to know anything at all about you. The same is true for anyone whose name is currently on Mobygames and who wants to interview at the conference.

The more you know, the easier it will be to start conversations, and the easier it will be to avoid the pitfalls that come with them.

I once saw a student trying to convince a Sony rep why he should hire him. He was telling the man about how bad the most recent EverQuest expansion was (a poor plan in the first place) and how he, the student, could have made it much better.

The Sony rep happened to be the lead designer for that expansion.

 What to do When You're There
No lectures. I'm going to get flamed to high heaven for saying this, but my number one piece of advice for people who are not yet employed in the industry is this: Don't go to the talks.

The talks are fantastic. They're of the highest caliber. They're well thought out, clear, thorough -- but they involve you meeting no one.

When you're in the industry, the talks are an incredible resource that I encourage you to drink up, but right now they won't do you any good.

The good news is that the low-cost passes don't give you access to the session anyway.

Career Pavilion. During the day spend most of your time at the Career Pavilion. It should take you at least a day and a half to exhaust all the exhibitors there.

Most of the people you'll meet at the Career Pavilion are being paid to stand in a booth and collect resumes. Over the course of GDC, they collect thousands of resumes. After GDC, they have to read those resumes and see if they have even one that they want to follow up on. How do you make your resume that one?

First, make sure you know what sets you apart. If you don't know why a company should hire you, then the company certainly won't know either. When trying to figure out what sets you apart, be honest with yourself (this is the hardest part) and ask yourself, "Are you really that good of a coder?" "Are you honestly better than the thousands of other designers that they'll get resumes from that day?"

Almost universally, yours won't be the best resume in every aspect of your discipline. This is okay. No one else's will be either, but figure out what you can offer that others can't.

How to Act
Be polite! Most people have worked incredibly hard to get into the industry. They appreciate your struggle and are interested in helping you, so, in turn, please give them the respect they deserve.

Remember, anyone giving you the time of day is making a sacrifice. They could be talking with ex-colleagues or chatting with friends they haven't seen in years. For that matter, they could be meeting people who would help them advance their own career. But instead, they're talking to you. Why? Because we all honestly want to help, and we all want to see new talent enter the industry. Please, make it easy for people to help you.

Let people go. If it looks like the person you're talking to is trying to exit the conversation, don't make one more point. Politely let them go. Make it as easy as possible for people to bow out of conversations. Get their contact info early in the conversation or let the exchanging of cards be an easy exit for them. Everyone is busy at GDC.

Talk less than they do. Speak less than the people you are talking to. It's almost always a good plan. To be honest, they have more to say and you should want to hear it. You should already know the few sentences you need to work into a basic conversation:

"Hi! My name is James."
"I'm a student studying this subject at this university."
"I'm awesome because..."

Anything past that is gravy.

They don't want your advice. I mentioned it above, but it's rarely a good plan to tell people how to do things. Most people know what's wrong with their games and are already frustrated that powers outside their control don't let them fix them.

On the other hand, if someone asks you point blank what you think of a game, go nuts. It's probably an informal interview, so use some amount of insight and exercise a bit of control. Otherwise, keep your mouth shut.

After hours, go to the parties. In my opinion this is where the real work of GDC is done.

Finding parties. Yeah, I know this is why you're really reading this article...

All I'm going to say is join the IGDA! It gets you into the Members-Only Party (Tuesday, Feb. 19 at the Westin on Market, also known as the Argent Hotel). If you're a student, IGDA membership is amazingly cheap: $30 per year. And you should be an IGDA member anyway. You get a neat t-shirt.

There's also an open party called Suite Night at the W Hotel on Thursday of the show. For more, see "8 for GDC '08."

From there you're on your own. Many parties are invite-only, but you can always latch on as someone's guest if you make strategic friends.

Getting drunk. Don't. Period. Enough said.

Students. Don't talk to other students as much as you talk to industry insiders. It's not worth your time. Most of the time you'll be able to tell from people's badges which camp they fall into, but a quick, "What do you do?" at the beginning of any conversation should make things crystal clear. There's never enough time at GDC, and as sad as it is, if your goal is to get a job, you don't want to waste what little time you have talking to students.

One of the funniest things I've ever seen was two students trying to schmooze with each other. They were so deep into social networking mode, they spent an entire party complementing each other and trying to sound intelligent. Neither of them could disengage from the conversation because there was no natural way for the conversation to end. Neither of them was going to bow out or claim they had somewhere else to go. When I left the party, they were telling each other their thoughts on "practical development theory."

Don't try to flatter people. Just be yourself. Nobody likes a sycophant. People will see through it right away. Be humble, listen, and speak when you have something worth saying. Don't try to sell people on you. Know why you're worth noticing and other people will know it, too.

Business cards at parties. Make sure you have a stack of business cards with you when you go to the parties. It's there that you'll hand out most of them. Having resumes on hand never hurts, but if you hand a resume to someone at a party, assume they're going to lose it. Usually it's better just to collect business cards and ask if you can send your resumes later.

Dinner. Get dinner before heading to the parties. This may seem silly, but GDC nights have a way of stretching into GDC days, and when you're at the after-after-party, you will be thankful for the lucidity that comes from a few calories and a full stomach.

Following up
What you do after GDC is just as important as what you do at it. Here are a few tips for what to do when you get home.

Email. You should send emails to all the people who gave you their cards. Don't mass email. Tailor each message to the person you are emailing.

Personally, I keep the "people I met" information in my head, but I have a friend who writes on the back of each business card exactly who the person is and what they talked about. I highly recommend this approach. If you're enquiring about a job from the person you're emailing, make sure you ask if you can send them your resume -- don't just attach one unsolicited.

Following up timeline. Most people are swamped right after GDC and won't respond to your emails. Don't worry. It's okay. After you write the first email, give people two weeks, then write a follow-up email. This may sound like the rules of following up after a first date, but it's important.

Let me stress the two weeks: If you follow up too soon, people will feel like you're hounding them. I know you'll be excited and nervous and will come up with all the ways they could have missed your email, but trust me: two weeks!

I wish you all the best of luck at GDC. I'll be attending the IGDA party (time permitting) and look forward to talking to many of you there.

You can email James Portnow with questions, comments, or for further advice via jportnow(at)

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