Several gaming events have been called off over the last few weeks, chief among them GDC. The annual Game Developers Conference announced last week that it would be postponing this year's event due to growing concern over the COVID-19 novel coronavirus.
For many, though, GDC is not just an annual get-together. It was often the place for many developers, especially independent ones, to meet other industry members, take meetings, put on panels, and in some cases, make announcements. It's one of the first major shows of the calendar year in games, and the sudden postponement of the show to an ambiguous summer date has left many developers out a noticeable sum of cash.
The Cost of Travel
USgamer has spoken with a number of developers, who have all expressed concern over no longer having a show to attend. Some tell us that they have been able to cancel hotel stays, though flights are often a greater concern.
"We booked hotels that were refundable early, so that was lucky," Jon Ingold, narrative director at Inkle Studios, tells USG. "Flights are sunk."
In other cases, developers like Saam Pahlavan, who's working on an indie game called Bill Hates Games, managed to get credit. He lives in Texas, though. For overseas developers, those issues are more of a concern.
Ingold, who works out of the U.K., says the team's GDC was going to be a big one. Inkle, the studio behind 80 Days and Heaven's Vault, was going to unveil its new game to press, as well as run its first meet-up for Ink users (an open-source narrative engine developed by Inkle).
"As U.K. devs, we don't get much face to face time with U.S. / worldwide press, which is particularly important for us as our games are always a bit different than the mainstream," Ingold says.
Thankfully, efforts are already underway to assist those in need. The largest and most notable is the GDC Relief Fund, organized by Wings and partnered with a number of publishers and studios, including Raw Fury, Dear Villagers, Makers Fund, and GameDev.World.
Along with helping independent developers mitigate the loss of travel costs, the GDC Relief Fund is also organizing remote meetings and pitch sessions through a number of organizers. Part of GDC is giving developers a chance to pitch their games, with the hopes of acquiring some publisher support or financial backing, and this option can help make up for the lost opportunities now that the event has been pushed back.
"The postponement of GDC at such short notice is completely unprecedented, and we’ve been blown away by how quickly the games industry has come together to help independent game developers suffering hardship as a result," says Wings co-founder Cassia Curran in a statement.
Rami Ismail, one of the organizers of the virtual games conference GameDev.World, says conversations about the fundraiser were happening a day or two even before GDC announced it was postponing the conference. Even without confirmation, it "seemed likely" that there would be people facing financial burden due to restricted travel and other limitations.
The immediate worry, Ismail says, is about the cost of flying into San Francisco and staying for the week, in "one of the most expensive cities in the world." He says under normal circumstances it's an expensive but worthwhile investment, but with the news of GDC's delay, the longer term impact will be the missed opportunities.
"Quick introductions, folks sitting next to each other at lunch, somebody randomly stumbling across someone demoing the game to their friends, or a sitdown in the park," Ismail tells USG. "All of those can have tremendous effect on someone's opportunities and lives. All that is gone for this year."
GDC's cancellation has had ripple effects beyond the event itself. Events like Train Jam 2020, which is a multi-day game jam that takes place on a train and ends at GDC, have been called off.
Train Jam organizer Adriel Wallick tells USG that while the event isn't part of GDC, it is in a weird spot due to its proximity and relationship with GDC. Games made during the Jam are shown on the showfloor, and it ends up being an opportunity for many developers to network and produce games leading up to the event.
Though there are a "decent amount" of people who attend the event and don't go to GDC, Wallick ended up making the call to cancel when it came down to worries over quarantine.
"On top of everything, there were some people who reached out for possible refunds because their work would quarantine if they came back from traveling to something like that," Wallick says. "Or they were worried about the financial implications of going back to their home country and being quarantined, and not being able to actually go home, without work and everything."
Though Wallick believes that Train Jam itself could have been fine, the possibility of outstanding ramifications was too high.
"I now currently own 500 Train Jam-branded hand sanitizer bottles," Wallick tells me, laughing a bit. "So that'll be some fun swag to hand out over the next couple years."
In Train Jam's case, the organization was able to reach an agreement with Amtrak and provide refunds. In other cases, some developers are left to find other means of showcasing games while in San Francisco, or remote options for those who don't wish to still make the trip out.
Mike Cook, one of the organizers of notGDC, says he's seen "a lot more chatter than usual" after GDC's postponement. NotGDC is an online "non-conference" where people who make games can share ideas and skills with the community, and has been running for a few years prior to 2020. It started as a "running joke on Twitter" about pretending to be at a fake conference, but in 2017, people started collecting all the writing and creations made under the joke hashtag, and a sort-of collective was born.
Cook says GDC's postponement hasn't affected notGDC much, though the additional chatter and interest did influence the organizers to upgrade the site a bit. But as developers are now out of a week where they would otherwise be networking or sharing, avenues like notGDC are becoming more appealing.
Besides notGDC, other events are still planned to take place in San Francisco for those who couldn't get out of their travel. The altGDC conference will run in San Francisco for three days, with a speaking track and livestreaming elements. The Plan B Project is also organizing its own speakers and sessions for those who find themselves stuck traveling to San Francisco for the week.
It's hard to replicate what developers get out of a conference like GDC. As Ingold tells me, having one news story about your game is never enough, but for independent developers, there are "beats" that you can get that will boost visibility of your game. Launch and trailers do that, but presenting at GDC is a beat that Ingold says is "irreplaceable."
"I'm sure there are indies out there about to launch Kickstarters who now have no idea how they're going to do it," Ingold says.
It's a tough situation, but for independent developers, the vacuum of GDC 2020 has also become something of a unifying force. It's encouraging more methods of meeting up and sharing information, especially in remote forums. Maybe the silver lining of this situation is that it's inspired a sense of camaraderie, as developers band together to make the best of a spring without GDC.