Monday, June 18, 2007

The joy of conferences

With Casuality, Austin Game Developer's Conference, and Gamefest looming on the horizon, I wanted to reflect on what excites me about conferences in general. I love to absorb information that can make me a better developer whether it be in the form of books, conversations, lectures, or podcasts. Conferences are great for the networking, reconnecting opportunities, inspiration, and challenging thoughts to ponder. For all of these reasons, I feel compelled to pack my schedule at each one. Thus far I haven't managed to construct a talk of my own, but that is certainly on my short list of upcoming career goals.

I've been attending GDC since 1999. Since then, I have missed 2 of the conferences on account of school or work taking precedence. I make it a priority to attend whenever possible, and I'm always empathetic when speakers mention team members that couldn't attend because they were crunching away on a game. I think this is one of the unfortunate side effects of short term management thinking in the games industry today. I firmly believe that developers need to constantly learn. Learning is important not only for their personal career growth, but also for bringing effective new processes to their studio. I can understand why managers don't perceive sufficient value in these conferences - they cost a lot, they disrupt teams while members are away, the sessions are of inconsistent quality, and it's often hard to improve work processes with the inertia inherent on most projects.

So why do I enjoy attending so much? The reasons are many. One of the great things about our industry is its relatively small size. This means we can still get a large amount of the best quality developers together in one place. These industry leaders offer deep insight into the voodoo of crafting the awe inspiring games we play each year. We also get to hear the success stories of indies who manage to bring their unique ideas to market in spite of the ever increasing barrier to entry. Hearing both ends of the spectrum talk is highly motivational and challenges me to work harder at mastering my trade. I come back to work far more excited about whatever it is I am doing. This excitement tapers off eventually, but my productivity is noticeably higher for a short time after a conference.

Another reason I love conferences is for all the meeting opportunities. More specifically, I frequently run into long lost colleagues and classmates. DigiPen has proven to be not only a solid educational foundation, but also a wellspring of contacts within companies all over the country. While attending college I had the good fortune of interacting with several different levels of the school while I tutored. Former schoolmates I run into at conferences surprise me because of the brief shared moments they remember. They also have plenty of interesting stories to share about their work experiences. In addition to the fascinating peers I reconnect with, I also manage to meet with several new friends during the sessions and parties. I value this human connection very much because it allows me to better appreciate life outside the company I'm working at. Perspective is a wonderful thing.

Finally, there is definite value in the sessions I have attended. I make it a habit to attend diverse talks across different sectors of the industry including academia, serious games, casual, mobile games, pay for play models, and each of the different disciplines within game development. Attending talks on different business models allows me to better understand market trends and shapes my thinking about the evolving needs of players. Talks from different disciplines increase my overall knowledge of the development process. Attending lectures on production, for example, helps me to be more effective at presenting information to producers who can then do a better job of scheduling the project. In a slightly different example, going to a lecture on sound challenges me to think more deeply about improving game design through dynamic effects and music.

For all of these reasons and more I continue to eagerly anticipate each upcoming event. I hope that others can also appreciate the value provided by these gatherings and are able to find the time to attend. I also hope that we can one day share our stories at a conference together in the near future.