Conferences I Have Known

Is it some character flaw that I am endlessly fascinated by conferences, conventions and symposiums – or is it, in fact, a sign of some greater depth to the world that I hope to find in these assemblies of game designers?

Maybe it’s both. But whenever a group of people agree to gather, to dedicate their time, to travel many miles, to sacrifice resources, interesting things are bound to happen. I can say that because I have attended such a large percentage of videogame industry conferences – not all, and not always – but enough to have a firm knowledge and a good taste for such things.

Most conferences are based on the idea of informational sessions, gaining knowledge, the continuance of professional craft. Some will mention the power of networking, while others offer exposure to products or services.

People want to see old friends, to have good dinners and to keep relationships strong. Some are even there for news. And you can always find a suit, chanting his professional motto and reason for being: “to get some business done.”

At the most recent Game Developers Conference, one senior editor was complaining to me that Shigeru Miyamoto’s keynote was interesting enough, but didn’t contain anything new. Yet the developer audience loved it. Why was that, and what did it say about conference attendees? Just this: Game development is an incredibly difficult vocation. The artistic and business disappointments build up. Game developers become worn down, burned out and used up. Unless they can find a salve to heal their wounds, they cannot continue. That is why they attend conferences: to find the inspiration to carry on another year.


Conferences give an extra life and sometimes a level up.

That’s part of what fascinates me. Another part is being inside the world of the conference directors themselves. It can be as catty and high-stakes, as ingrown and desperate as anything else. They jockey calendars and file lawsuits, do mergers and acquisitions. And for whatever reason, I’ve always had an inside track on industry events across the world.

Then And Now
The game industry is now without institutions. We used to have a set calendar of events, as solid as the stars above, that dictated the development schedules and social seasons. We had consecrated meeting places where industry insiders would gather and drink and talk.

Much has been written about the Electronic Entertainment Expo, too much. But I don’t think the full story will ever be told, about how exactly it collapsed one summer day, first behind closed doors, and then publicly as Next-Gen covered the story.

The essence of that event was that, quite simply, E3 was the sound and fury of the videogame universe. What was once said of Times Square in general was true about E3 in specific: If you stood on that show floor long enough, everyone you’d ever known would walk by.

Everyone got something different from the show. Some loved it, some hated it and for the remainder it was just part of business as usual. It was also the one place where you could feel part of the game industry just by standing there and looking around – because you were surrounded by colleagues from the world over. EA’s Kudo Tsunoda once told me E3 was exhausting because you would go through a high-energy, 30-second recap of what you’d been up to for the last year with every friend you encountered, usually just 10 steps apart.

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After E3’s fall, one green developer was telling me much he missed the show. I asked if he’d ever been invited to Sony’s party, the legendary events with big bands, sometimes held in sports stadiums. The young developer admitted he’d never been admitted to the Sony party, but that E3 was still totally awesome even if there were parties he couldn’t get into. E3 presented a chance to tangibly participate, regardless of who or what you were in the industry.

If E3 during the day was about videogames, E3 at night was about wafer-thin bottled blondes with clipboards who were all that stood between eager geeks and free alcohol. PR people held great power at what was ostensibly a press event.


Everyone had a good E3 story to trade. And many of those stories involved sneaking into parties, with methods that became evermore high-tech, bordering on forgery and counterfeiting. Probably the best tale was about sneaking Will Wright into a party through the venue’s kitchen.

Here And There
The other rite of passage was a pilgrimage to the Game Developers Conference in its spiritual home, San Jose, California. Each night during the conference, developers would gather in the lobby of the Fairmont hotel, buy each other drinks and further the game industry simply by talking.

It was fashionable to claim that downtown San Jose was a deserted, strange ghost town, like the Disneyland version of a small Californian city, complete with trolley tracks but simply nothing to do. In truth, San Jose was like a bowl that filled up with game developers for one glorious week each year.

My favorite memory from that final GDC in San Jose was being thrown out of conference director Jamil Moledina’s suite party.

It started out innocently enough. You see, I was looking for the Gamespot 10th anniversary party. It was to be in the presidential suite, on the top floor of the Fairmont, but the room was dark and silent. Rounding the corner toward the elevator, I heard what was obviously an event in an adjacent suite.

“Perhaps it’s in here,” I thought to myself. I knocked on the door. It opened a crack. An eye peered at me. It stared at my conference badge. A voice asked me a question: the name of the editor-in-chief of the publication printed on my nametag.

I answered instantly, amending my answer to include that editor’s middle name. The door opened, I was ushered inside and I exchanged business cards. The gatekeeper turned out to be one of the industry’s top public relations people. How could I know, then, how it would all end?

I grabbed a drink and wandered over to chat with EA’s Doug Church. In one corner, the then-phenomenal Guitar Hero was on. I crossed the room to introduce myself to Moledina, and because I cared about such things, began to ask a series of questions, tantamount to “So what’s it like being a conference director?”

Moledina paused, looked at the ceiling, and began, “I don’t know how to put this,” and instantly I thought that this would be the most profound comment on the nature of conferences, as they related to life and the universe, “but I’m going to have to ask you to leave,” he said.

It ended pretty much visually from there on out. It seems that one time, years ago, a reporter from the Los Angeles Times was admitted to the suite party and later wrote about the amount of drug use in the game industry. And now, each successive GDC director must uphold the tradition of disallowing media, because they might be jackals.

As Moledina guided my elbow through the doorway and into the hall, he offered an olive branch, in the form of an invitation to a later event, the Level 99 speaker’s party. I agreed and went to get some sleep: I had a keynote to attend in the morning.

The next night, I did make it to the Gamespot event and spoke with the site’s founder just weeks before he would leave for Yahoo. He told me a number of stories from the old days, as well as a droll anecdote about a dinner in France with John Romero, Will Wright and Sid Meier.

Any good story should make you feel like you missed out on a certain time and place. I realized that, when I walked through San Jose’s empty streets late that night. The game industry used to have E3, and there’s nothing left of it. And the game industry used to have the lobby of the Fairmont in San Jose, but GDC organizers refuse to return as long as the show is growing larger and larger. And so the game industry is now without institutions. Things change too quickly to keep up, but by stepping back, I can still recall the conferences I have known.

All Over the World
Dean Takahashi once commented that I seemed to be doing a good job of showing up at all the right places. And once, at an executive golf tournament (I don’t golf), Insomniac’s Ted Price said, “It’s like you’re embedded.”

Which was true enough, because I never thought of game journalism in terms of reviews, and God help me, I never wanted to take part in the Lester Bangs debate. My model was Ernie Pyle, a war correspondent from some 65 years before.

Landing in Tunisia, he wrote a daily column about the war, the front and the soldiers themselves. Pyle’s material was equally interesting to those on the home front and the combatants, which is why intelligent writing about games can appeal to both the game developers (in a free exchange of ideas) and the players (who get to see behind the curtain).

Conferences are a great place to look behind the curtain, though internationally speaking they have a tendency to take on regional tones. The Montreal International Game Summit gives a good window into the life of developers in that city. It also serves excellent croissant each morning.


And you get to see convention centers – normally modern, designed by craven architects and a mess of glass and chrome. But the most interesting venue I set foot in was Janskerk during the Nederlandse Gamedagen. The Dutch Game Days held their developer’s conference inside of John’s Church, built in 1040. Discussing the future of games in a 1,000-year-old sanctuary is quite striking.

When I covered the inaugural GDC in Lyon, France, I found that the concurrent Game Connection was the place where international buyers come to sign games. It is an event no one knows about, but is important to the development cycle because it lets independents meet with major publishers. And in several years, that Game Connection week in Lyon will be like the Cannes Festival for films. Or better.

After Hours
In San Francisco, there is a bar called the Fluid Ultra Lounge. Because it happens to be near the convention center, someone always books the after-party there, despite the fact that it’s a venue trying too hard to be hip (the floor, for example, changes colors throughout the night).

Once, an annoying, young lawyer crashed the party. Upon learning that I was a journalist, he wanted me to write a story about “the hooking up that goes on at conferences.” I told him that it would be impossible to do that article, because such things never happen in the videogame industry. He was dogged, but it was difficult to hear him over the pulsing music.

All videogame industry parties have blasting music. The strange part is this: no one likes the loud music. No one makes use of the dance floor. In a European discothèque, I remember trying to have a conversation with one of the smartest magazine editors in the business. She was describing her theory of avatars. It was hard to hear over the sound system. Then a PR woman flitted by and asked why I wasn’t dancing and disappeared into the crowd.

The editor and I decided to finish our conversation outside. “I didn’t come 400 miles to dance,” she said. “I came here to talk.” I agreed, and I’d traveled 5,000 miles. It was one of the great sins, she observed, because, “people came here to talk.”

Conversely, I once traveled to London just for music – in this case, to cover a concert featuring a full orchestra performing themes from Halo, Metal Gear Solid and dozens of others. That was an evening to remember. Sony’s Phil Harrison told me he enjoyed it, just days after PS3’s launch.


It was at a Sony party during GDC that I noticed EA’s Will Wright standing alone, with a plate of food, staring through the safety Plexiglas at the Robot Wars that were the evening’s entertainment. Just a boy and his robots. And everyone else was crowded around the open bar.

Behind Closed Doors
There are indeed secret, elite and premium conferences, too. Some are merely exclusive, some specialized, while others are actually kept secret from the rank and file.

The DICE Summit is held at a resort far away from the Las Vegas strip, where top publishers and developers gather to relax and talk business. While the summit isn’t a secret at all, attending is a rare privilege.

In March of 2007 there was a copy of the event called GDC Prime. Unlike DICE, the press was restricted from covering any sessions of the executive conference. But in the lobby, some attendees reported they only signed up because Prime gave them a premium pass for the concurrent GDC and a room at the conveniently located W Hotel, as part of their registration package.

The press is quite used to covering panel discussions, but the PR for Games conference, hosted by game industry firm Kohnke Communications, is quite a switch. Journalists are put in the hot seat, and get to answer questions from a room full of public relations professionals. It proves more interesting than uncomfortable.

San Francisco is also the location of a group of industry insiders who formed a club to gather regularly for supper. Every couple of months, they’ll arrive one by one at a premiere steak house. The membership rolls include the movers and shakers who make things happen: publishers, developers, hardware and media companies.

Project Horseshoe is one event that keeps attendance below 50 people, and they gather “to answer game design’s toughest questions.” Sequestered in the Texas hills, media attendance is completely prohibited, although The Escapist was allowed to report from the scene this year.

But the most clandestine event of all might well be the Electronic Gaming Summit. Held at the Silverado Resort in Napa Valley, it’s sponsored by Ziff Davis Media. Attendance is invite only, and only 100 invitations are sent out each year.

An executive from Ziff Davis once explained to me that no press ever attended the event, in order to make sure that panelists would speak their minds. Less than two months later, the New York Times reported from the event, noting, “The Video Game Industry Has an Image Problem and Mostly Itself to Blame.”

Why We Travel
After 30 hours of presentations, you can understand just about anything. Once, I attended a three-day conference on artificial intelligence. Through the years, I learned an appalling amount about the business of games, development and even exactly how to produce and market a conference.

Between sessions, unsolicited advice abounds. For me, it was mostly in the form of ideas for articles, stories and interviews. “Don’t ever cover CES in Las Vegas,” I was told by one veteran reporter, because that show is a madhouse that makes E3 look like a calm lake. And one rapacious CEO told me his secret for success with booth babes. “Disarm them with humor.”

Once, at South by Southwest, the editors from Make demonstrated exactly how a Roomba robot vacuum cleaner could be converted into a real-life Frogger and sent back and forth across a busy downtown street at 2:00 a.m.


Continuing education aside, the consumer events give an entirely different look at the industry. Where else but Arcadia in Montreal can you interview a French-speaking Lara Craft cosplayer? Where else but VGxPO can you watch the sun rise over Valley Forge? Where else but QuakeCon in Dallas can you see Scandinavian youth carrying CRT monitors that weigh three times what they do?

But covering every game-related event across the world can be taxing, and I saw the toll it takes on colleagues and friends. There must be more to life than looking for power outlets, Wi-Fi hotspots and cell phone reception.

If you look at the cost of conferences, individual participation can be exorbitant. It costs thousands of dollars to register for the larger events, hundreds for airfare and hundreds more for hotels. Meals and taxis add up. And when you’re at a convention, you’re not getting any regular work done. So why are these events so vital, and why do we insist on going to them, no matter the cost?

The answer has to do with the nature of the people in the videogame industry. They are, by and large, the best and the brightest. And though they are strange people, they are not anti-social as outsiders might suspect.

The game developer wants to connect on a deep level with his peers. Ernie Pyle once wrote that the first, pioneering days of anything are always the best days. “Everything is new and animating, and acquaintanceships are easy and everyone is knit closely together.” That, then, is the simple answer. The game industry is small, and everyone is connected. Colleagues are appreciated. There may yet come a time when the industry becomes so large and reflects a market gone so mainstream that developers will neither be able to recognize each other, nor care. But for now, this is a golden age to make friends, to trade secrets, have drinks and meet again in some other strange city.

The Last Keynote
There is always that first moment when you walk into a convention center in some far city, and you find it decorated and populated with those who share your values. You feel differently, and it dawns on you: Conferences are magnets for the young, fresh and eager.

It’s possible to become jaded, to reach a point where you have nothing left to learn, where you hate the crowds, the noise and the bad food. The costs take their toll with time. But at every convention there are fresh faces. They might remind you of yourself. People who are discovering for the first time that they have found, from across the world, people just like them who love and develop games. There always will be. And with experience comes insight. Conferences have a pacing all their own, which you can see with time. When you arrive early, it’s an empty downtown, but there is an occasional friend here and there. Those greetings are the warmest.

Registration lines prove you’re in the right place, and the conference begins. Things pick up on the second day; there are parties and whatever work you are there for continues.

The last afternoon is always the most exhausting. People are tired and begin to melt away. There’s a moment when you’re walking to lunch and notice that passersby are from some medical convention, and you realize that the town is no longer yours.

One by one, everyone leaves without saying goodbye. They have planes to catch, hotels to check out of and suitcases to pack. The convention center begins to empty, and if there’s a show floor, it closes early so booths can be torn down and shipped off in crates.

One last glance shows two volunteers still on the sidewalk, smoking. And so you find yourself standing alone in a strange city, which is fading from work into weekend. Your friends have gone home, until the next event.

Walking quickly to your own destination, you can whistle. Because in all the world, you want nothing more than to go home.

N. Evan Van Zelfden has traveled tens of thousands of miles in the industry of games, is perfectly at home in airports, and subways, and the most disparate of hotel rooms – some air conditioned, some not.

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