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Five lessons from a year of online GDC events

It’s been a little over one year since the COVID-19 pandemic forced the delay of GDC 2020. At the time we held out hope that we might be able to reconvene over the summer. But it soon became clear if we wanted to bring people together for Game Developers Conference, we’d need to go online.

So began a year of experimenting and iterating that sometimes felt like it mirrored the game development process. We had to evaluate our core competencies, find new technology partners like Swapcard to get us into an online space, and keep in close contact with our stakeholders and sponsors as we re-imagined the fundamentals of GDC.

It’s been an incredibly challenging and rewarding process. Thanks to the talented team here at Informa, we were able to learn several valuable lessons about switching to online events, some of which will stick with us even when it’s safe to gather in-person again.

Every year, we invite game developers to share their game development lessons with the world at GDC. So today, we’re sharing our lessons running online GDC events with you.

Bringing speakers and attendees closer than ever

In 2020, we invited speakers to pre-record their planned talks and submit them to be broadcast on the Official GDC Twitch channel. It was a first-time moment for us, debuting talks on the internet without any kind of in-person event.

Because of that, we couldn’t anticipate one of the most organic behaviors of that week: Speakers regularly tuning in to the broadcast and answering questions in chat on the fly while their talk was broadcasting.

There was just something magical about it. So magical that at GDC Summer, we arranged for speakers giving pre-recorded talks to be present in chat for a simultaneous Q&A, and at GDC Showcase, we invited back veteran GDC speakers to give updates on their old talks.

The connection at each of these talks has been palpable. It’s an approachable way to discuss big ideas and evolve what a GDC talk can be---not just in the prepared speech, or the slides, but in the subtle details that come from the sensation of an all-text conversation.

Inviting an international audience

At GDC, we’ve been proud to host speakers, attendees, and sponsors from all over the world. When we began planning for GDC Summer, our first consideration was that attendees would be tuning in from multiple time zones, not just Pacific Time.

We set up social events at both ends of a 12-hour day and made sure content could be viewed as quickly as possible on Swapcard to accommodate as much of the globe as possible. The result was that GDC Summer’s attendees included a much higher percentage of international attendees than we’d ever seen at a physical GDC event.

Online events spanning multiple time zones have allowed us to cater to developers all over the world, and we hope to include that audience when the pandemic ends.

Adaptive Experimentation

Going online for GDC meant many of our usual standbys for engagement and relaxation at GDC just weren’t physically possible. (It turns out bean bag chairs take up more space in people’s homes than they do in Moscone Center).

We asked the GDC team to think of big, bold new ideas to help improve the GDC experience and they delivered. We invited hosts like Spawn On Me’s Kahlief Adams and esports personality Jess Brohard to guide developers through our events. We partnered with the Monteray Bay Aquariam. We put on virtual concerts featuring Mega Ran, 88bit, and insaneintherain!

None of these were obvious hits. If anything you saw blew you away, it was because someone on the GDC team championed that idea and put a ton of hard work into making it possible.

Continuous Cohorts

At GDC Showcase, we saw another emergent behavior emerge that we hadn’t anticipated: thanks to a streamlined broadcast schedule, we got to watch as a group of game developers moving from chat room to chat room became more connected and familiar with each other, because they weren’t pulled away by talks or events happening in other locations.

It’s not often we get to see that kind of social connection form, and while a planned 400+ sessions at GDC in July means we can’t replicate that experience at every event, we now know this is a reliable process for helping an unconnected group of attendees get to know each other better.

Video on demand

Over the years we’ve been really proud of the process where speakers give talks at GDC, those talks are uploaded to GDC Vault, and over time added to the GDC YouTube channel. We know that the game development audience wants to catch sessions they miss, research older talks to learn how other developers solved similar problems, or just reminisce about their favorite video games.

What wasn’t really possible before was allowing GDC attendees to re-watch talks at GDC itself. You either caught a talk when it was delivered, or you waited to see it on GDC Vault.

At GDC Summer and GDC Showcase, we quickly learned how much attendees valued being able to build their own schedules, and create dedicated time for learning more about game development. If you weren’t able to catch a talk live because of other obligations, that was fine! You could start watching a talk, step away, and come back picking right up where you left off.

If you were one of those attendees who chose to watch GDC Showcase or Summer on your own schedule,  you can expect this on-demand technology to be helping power GDC 2021.

Wrapping Up

As we’ve been gearing up for GDC 2021 GDC Marketing Specialist Sarah McCauley joked that thanks to all our technological improvements, the schedule was starting to feel a bit like “build your own GDC,” and that you could warp time and space to build whatever GDC schedule you wanted.

After laughing a bit at “temporally dislocated GDC” I started to realize what she was describing actually had deeper relevance: in running GDC online events, we’ve been learning more and more about respecting attendees’ time.

We haven’t just been learning about converting GDC to an online format, we’ve been learning to do so while navigating a global pandemic that’s upended all our lives. GDC attendees tuned in to the show with their kids in the background, with pets that needed to be taken out, with Swapcard in one window and their Jira task list in another.

Last year all our worlds were upended, and we’ve all been trying to adapt to the new normal. For GDC it meant figuring out how to shape an event around our attendees’ lives, rather than strictly relying on on the fixed schedule that shapes our in-person conferences.

That’s one of the lessons I’ll bring with me beyond 2021, especially with my own daughter now in the mix.

Stay safe, thank you for all your support, and I can’t wait to see all of you in-person again at GDC.


Connecting the Global Game Development Community