If you've been to the colossal Game Developers Conference, you've seen them around, lurking in doorways, roving the hallways, a look of busy confidence transfixing tenacious features. Despite their fluorescent T-shirts, the average attendee's eyes slide right over them, unless the attendee is in need. The catastrophe falls swiftly; Sid Meier is speaking in 15 minutes, and you're lost amid the labyrinth of hallways and strangely dystopian fabric dividers. But nigh, a fresh-faced youth in brilliant garb cometh, galloping at speed to your rescue! Graciously they rush you to the session just in time, only to vanish into the sunset, leaving you fleetingly to wonder: Who was that gallant stranger?
They are the few, the proud - the shadows of the colossus.
Not So Colossal Origins
The GDC began in 1987 as the Game Design Symposium, a gathering of 26 developers in Chris Crawford's living room. That initial meeting proved so kinetic, plans for a second conference started before the first had ended. By the following year, it was officially the Computer Game Developers Conference, and by 1992 it boasted 600 participants, outgrowing one home after another.
In 1995, the CGDC was purchased by the Miller Freeman Game Group (MFI), which in 2000 purchased and adopted the CMP Game Media Group name and brand that currently marks the since-1999 name-shortened Game Developers Conference. Last year, it drew over 12,000 attendees, and now, with the fall of E3, it officially reigns as the largest industry-only videogame event.
An event this big needs a crack support crew. When the CGDC was purchased by MFI, the volunteer conference staff, previously thrown together by the CGDC steering committee, was formalized by Tim Brengle - an original attendee of the first conference, and one of only a handful of individuals who have attended every conference in the organization's history - into the Conference Associates program. Originally publicized via word of mouth and staffed by altruistic volunteers, the CA program grew out of early management of the conference into a virtual army of enthusiastic, capable volunteers hand-selected from hundreds of applicants by Brengle and Ian MacKenzie.
The sense of community established in the early years of the CGDC lives on in the CA program. Joel Gonzalez, programmer with 1st Playable Productions and CA since 2002, says, "When I'm a CA, I feel that I have an extended family of 150 for a week. There's a lot of camaraderie between CAs and that keeps me coming back. It's unlike any volunteer program I've been in."
But the program is also staffed by an array of industry veterans, Ph.D.s, IGF winners, and even GDC speakers. Bruce Harlick, a senior designer at LucasArts, says of the program, "I love going to the GDC, because I love working with the CAs. It's such a great group of people; it's a true pleasure to get a chance to spend a very intense week with them every year."
From the Earth to the Moon
The GDC is also perceived by many hopefuls as one of the quickest and surest routes into the industry, for good reason. Access to the conference attendees is undoubtedly a big part of this, but due to its growth out of the very origins of the GDC, the CA program provides one of the best networking opportunities for young developers - not, as one would suspect, for its access to the conference job fair, but for access to hardworking developers within the CA program itself.
And the work is hard; CAs prove their worth to their fellows by performing approximately 20 hours of work across the week-long conference. By the numbers, this may not seem like much, but even without considering the program's culture - which rewards and selects for those who will go above and beyond the call of duty - those 20 hours of corralling, guiding and instructing a horde of well over 10,000 game developers are an exhausting test of personal fortitude.
But for many program veterans, they're worth it, even when you need to pay your own way. Harlick says, "I have actually taken vacation weeks to go work with the CAs at the GDC, when I've been in jobs that didn't want to give me the time off. That's pretty crazy when you think about it; taking a week's vacation to go work harder than you do the rest of the year."