Shadows of the Colossus

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.”

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The personal challenges are intense. CAs must possess the ability to think fast and act smoothly, often juggling the disparity between bulging session attendance and the fire department’s maximum occupancy ratings, all without dropping their poise. If you meet a veteran CA, ask them about staffing Will Wright’s annual lecture – you’ll get a good-natured, but thoroughly exhausted, earful.

Still, Link Hughes, graduate of Full Sail‘s game development program and also a programmer at 1st Playable Productions, calls the program the “best networking tool for young up-and-comings in the industry.” He adds, “If you’re a positive, upbeat person, it’s really a way to rocket start your career.”

Gonzalez agrees. “It was a decision that changed my life. I don’t mean that I became a Power Ranger or found the cure to cancer. It put me in the right frame of mind to start making opportunities for myself. So I guess I owe the CA program my current career in the game industry. It put me on the right track to get in the industry and gave me insight into how it ran. When I was ready for a job, I found my first in the GDC Job Fair and my second through another CA.”

His experience is neither uncommon nor a coincidence. Harlick says, “The CAs in our program are talented and fun people, and I always view them as a valuable resource when my company is looking to hire more people.” Program veterans such as Harlick know that when they’re hiring a CA, they’re not just getting the skill-set on the resume, but the vote of Brengle and MacKenzie, as well as a proven track record of reliability, non-stop enthusiasm, social grace and problem-solving – four things employers are almost always searching for, but won’t fit on a demo reel.

What You Want, Baby I Got
“People who treat the CAs as run-of-the-mill volunteers are making a big mistake. That person in the [conference] shirt is your next stellar employee, co-worker or even boss,” Harlick says. As a freshman CA in 2004, I was astonished at the number of industry veterans enthusiastically putting in their time with the bright shirts. This will come as a great shock to many gaming starlets, but the industry is not always that stable; the company I’d worked for had folded, and, though technically a full-time developer, I joined the program out of financial need. But for many vets, this isn’t the case.

“Some of the CAs continue to volunteer even after their employers would be happy to send them to the show to just attend. Working the GDC as a CA is too much fun, and it’s just plain hard to stop.” Harlick, who has been with the program since its formal inception and with the GDC since its not-for-profit days, says that the culture of the group itself, guided by Brengle and MacKenzie, makes it a one-of-a-kind experience. And though the application and program information are just a Google search away, few seem to know what they’re getting access to when they sign up. Harlick adds, “I’ve been enjoying that the CAs have become more social between shows; they really are a community now.” He’s referring, in large part, to the CA alumni mailing list, a boisterous and upbeat online community made available to CAs after their first term.

“It’s kind of a game industry fraternity organization, in a way,” Link Hughes says. The sense of “family” is something many CAs will return to again and again, and value even above the rush of the conference itself.

The fraternity atmosphere is sometimes necessary. Despite the now intensely competitive application process, most conference attendees don’t recognize or appreciate the skills and challenges represented and addressed by the CAs on a daily basis. Let’s face it: Game developers can be kind of surly, and when it comes to the GDC and the after-parties, the atmosphere can get a little wild.

“A lot of people don’t really ‘get’ CAs,” Hughes says. “People who have been CAs know that CAs are somehow a higher caliber of people. People who never had to go through the program … people who have become important and never had that start sometimes will look down on CAs, consider them ‘the help.'” It’s an easy mistake to make; most conferences have guides or security, and most assume they’re being paid to take abuse. While the CA program does offer participants a full pass to the GDC – a value definitely not insignificant these days; we are a long way from the $75 entrance price of CGDC II – any CA could tell you that in terms of monetary reward, it would be far less work to pay one’s own way.

Free Range Game Development
The alchemy of youthful energy, can-do attitude and passion for game development also makes the CA program a breeding ground for game innovation. “I’ve gotten in the best discussions about games, game design, making games, etc. It’s a group charged with creativity, who all are there because they want to be in the industry (or are already there),” Harlick says.

Maurine Starkey, a veteran industry artist and longtime friend of the CA program, adds, “From as far back as the Westwood days, I’ve always liked being around energetic and creative minds. Being a CA puts me into a type of incubator.” And that incubator, whether it created or simply drew excellence to it, has seen a series of IGF finalists and, in 2004, winners: Savage, winner of the Technical Excellence, Audience and Seamus McNally Grand Prize awards, had two CAs on its staff, and finalist group Flashbang Studios was also composed of CAs that year. The following year, another CA team made the finalist list.

The persistent performance of CAs as independent developers is, again, no coincidence. The program’s open atmosphere, spirit of kinship and intense pursuit of excellence all lend themselves to a homegrown attitude toward gaming and game development that arguably preserves a piece of the soul of the industry.

Scaling the Colossus
Every year the GDC continues to grow, and now, as in its early days, it has once more outgrown its home. There are mixed responses from long-time conference attendees to the move from the San Jose Convention Center to the Moscone in San Francisco, but the simple fact was the conference had grown too big for the SJCC to handle. And now, with the Expo floor more than doubling in size, some are calling it “G3.”

The CA program also continues to grow, though not in proportion with its popularity. Over 900 hopefuls applied for just under 300 CA positions this year, a number up from 600 applicants in 2005. Despite its growing size and the increased challenge of a larger, busier conference, the CAs remain undaunted. “We know that whatever challenge comes, we’ll rise to meet it,” Hughes says.

This sense of positive energy, which for many embraces the core of gaming and game development culture, makes the CA program far more than a bunch of volunteers in neon T-shirts; they are a team, and, through careful cultivation over the years that the program has been in operation, a perfect ecosystem blending youth energy and veteran wisdom.

In the history of the GDC, not much has remained consistent: Boards have come and gone, the entire conference has been sold and then had its parent company sold again. Though its coordination has changed, its support in the trenches hasn’t; as an organization, the CA program is perhaps the only aspect of the conference with a memory that goes back to the very beginning. Far from being the chaotic group of whoever-we-could-get volunteers that staff other conferences, the GDC’s working lifeline is unique in possessing a history of its own, and an identity singular even within the industry itself. It is a resource and a community, a stepping stone and a friendly helping hand – and the heartbeat of the game industry’s largest event.

Erin Hoffman is a professional game designer, freelance writer, and hobbyist troublemaker. She moderates and fights crime on the streets by night.

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