Tech artists are an important part of GDC: sharing knowledge, inspring people to work smarter, and teaching better ways to get things done are what we do all the time — doing a talk is just taking your day job on the road. This article originally appeared in for Game Developer back in 2008. I’ve added notes inline to indicated things that have changed since the article first appeared. In particular, don’t forget to read the new submission guidelines and don’t forget 25 minute talks if you’re getting your feet wet!
Why it matters
GDC is important because it is one of the few institutions devoted to spreading that knowledge around, instead of hoarding it. Older business has have professional schools and academic wings that help to keep them vibrant, and though we are gradually evolving these sorts of things as well we are still, on the whole we still have to do the spade work ourselves.
Being a GDC speaker offers a nice boost to a resume. It gives you some visibility among your peers and also gives you a chance to demonstrate your chops in front of an audience that’s likely to contain possible employers who are looking for skills like yours. If all that weren’t enough, speaking at the GDC earns you a free conference pass, a free tote bag, and the chance to bump into Will Wright in the speakers lounge. Not surprisingly, a lot of folks would like to win that coveted speakers badge.
It’s a good thing that the rewards are so steep (did we mention the tote bag?), because putting together a good talk is a serious undertaking. It requires serious planning, because talk proposals are submitted six months or more before the show. It takes a lot of preparation: creating a slide deck, putting together example art, and doing enough practice to be a confident presenter. And it’s also highly competive – only a fraction of the talks that are submitted to the conference website are approved for the show.
How it works
It helps to understand how the evaluation process works. Proposals are submitted to the GDC via the conference website at GDConf.com, usually over the summer of the preceding year. The proposals are vetted by an advisory board of developers . The conference management recruits advisors from a number of studios for the various “tracks” or disciplines. The advisory board looks all of the proposals and ranks them on the appeal of the topic, the quality of the proposed treatment, and the track record of the speaker.
The board is also responsible for filtering out the large number of talk proposals that are basically sales pitches or user-group style sessions.
While there’s nothing inherently wrong with a talk on your fabulous new motion capture camera or your amazing new paint package, the conference tries to steer clear of potential conflicts interest by routing these through a separate process . You’ll see these sorts of talks in the show catalog as “Sponsored” sessions, as in “Sponsored by Autodesk”. If you’re thinking about a topic that involves a lot of very particular attention to one product, service or vendor you might want to get in touch with the conference staff before submitting your proposal in order to get a little more guidance on the rules for distinguishing between the regular conference sessions and the sponsored variety.
The Keys to a good talk
When you start to develop your topic, you don’t need to be too academic. That’s how the programmers amuse themselves. GDC talk aren’t classroom exercises, they are a chance to share practical knowledge. The unique value of the show is that it’s oriented around a professional community. You can pick up the finer points of Zbrush at your local branch of Gnomon, and you can get a lot more help for your keyframing skills from a few months of Animation Mentor than you’ll ever get from a 50 minute lecture. What you can’t get anywhere else is the combination of technical information and rubber-meets-road experience that comes from other devs, so a good talk combines technical or artistic command of a given subject with an understanding of production realities.
The first thing the advisory boards look for in a proposal is the “takeaway” – the key nugget of wisdom that the audience will (hopefully) get from the presentation. From a selfish standpoint, the conference likes snappy takeaways because those are what you show your boss when trying to wangle yourself a junket to the show: Good takeaways make for more conference goers. More importantly, though, the takeaway is a the acid test of what you’re trying to say in your talk – if you can’t figure out the two or three sentence distillation of what you want to get across, the audience and the reviewers won’t either.
A good takeaway is concise and straightforward. “Attendees will learn the pros and cons of the major normal mapping techniques, with particular attention to choosing the right technique for your game genre” is a good example while “Attendees will learn the coolest normal mapping tricks EVAR!” is not.
As we’ve said before, the unique value of a show like the GDC is the combination of technical and artistic knowledge with real world experience. You can learn as much, or more, from your presenter’s accounts of hassles and failures as from the theory they are trying to explicate. Thus this year’s talk on _The Illustrative World of Team Fortress 2_could teach a lot about dealing with multiplayer-only title or working with the Source Engine material editor, as well as offering some general wisdom about stylized character art. The best talks teach general principles using real world production as vivid examples, striking a balance between simple post-mortems on the one hand and pure theory on the other.
Trying to go very deep is very tough in the typical hour-long lecture format. If you focus too closely on the precise specifics of a particular technique or technology you’ll probably lose many of your listeners in the thickets of details. And if you can’t provide a larger takeaway, you won’t be able to reach audience members who work in other genres or on other platforms. A talk about how to use non-linear animation tools to crank out lots of animations for multiplayer games, using your online shooter as a case –in-point is going to work a lot better than a talk about the six months you spent getting everybody to learn the Trax editor in Maya.
On the other hand, overly broad talks are also weak. It’s a notorious truth, for example, that every year produces a large number of talks about art direction. Most of these are good proposals from serious professionals – but the more broadly these talks are pitched, the more they will tend to overlap, so inevitably the large number of proposals gets whittled down to only one or two talks – there’s only so much room on the program for Grand Unified Theories of Art, no matter how worthwhile.
On the other hand, a talk about creating art direction for international products, with special reference to a porting a popular Korean game to the US, a primer on doing historical costume research as shown in a Renaissance themed adventure game, and a third talk about the special challenges of creating a visual direction for DS games can all coexist happily.
Working in an esoteric business like ours can be lonely. Every veteran game artist has a closet full of favorite tactics and war stories to share, and an audience full of the only people in the world who have any idea what you’re talking about is a standing temptation to cram every tip and trick of your career into your Powerpoint. Unfortunately, that grab-bag approach may make good fodder for a bull session on the suite party circuit (or maybe not, as many GDC afterparty vets can attest… but we digress) but it’s murder for a GDC talk.
Verbal presentation is a much less efficient medium than print or the web; to really reach an audience effectively you need to make sure that your points are clearly marshaled an mutually reinforcing, and that means your talk outline needs to be clearly structured , well thought out presentation of your points and not just a laundry list. Talk proposals with good topics and interesting speakers often fail to make the grade if they come with fuzzy or incomplete outlines – just as in high school English, coming up with a strong outline is the key to success both in the submissions process and in crafting a popular talk. Fortunately, a good takeaway and the strong hook will both nudge the proposal towards a clear, well focused structure.
If you haven’t given a GDC talk before, landing a speaking gig is more challenging. First-time speakers confront the same catch-22 that maddens first-time job seekers: without any experience, it’s hard to convince people to let you earn experience. Unsurprisingly, audiences and reviewers are attracted by well known names and high profile titles. If you have had the good luck to work on a high profile franchise (or better yet, a big hit from the last year) your proposal will have a big leg up over an equally good submission from an eager but obscure competitor. This probably means some good talks don’t get accepted, but it does reflect the preferences of the audience.
Naturally, if you’ve given a successful talk at the GDC before it’s also much easier to get another chance. The GDC carefully tracks audience responses – fill out those cards, people! – so that earlier talk might not be such an advantage if the ratings were unimpressive. The ratings are done on a 5 point scale – if a previous session averaged 3 or under, it’ll be pretty tough to win a second chance.
If your resume isn’t studded with million sellers, you should make sure to burnish up any other credentials you may have. Presentations at other industry shows certainly help, as does experience as a teacher or writer. If your fear you’re at a disadvantage in the credentials department because you should think about developing your presentation skills and name recognition. A semester or two teaching at your local art school or community college game design program can be helpful, as can a guest spot in Game Developer or other industry publications. In any event if you’re worried about breaking in the hallowed ranks of GDC presenters, you have all the more incentive to really hone your proposal into an irresistible pitch.
If this sounds like a lot of work, it is. Landing a speakers badge for the GDC is an accomplishment in itself. You’ll need a well crafted topic, some hard won personal expertise, and the willingness to get up in front of an audience of smart, skeptical peers who won’t hesitate to call BS. Is it really worth it?
Well, the practical benefits for your career are obvious – if you make a name for yourself as a presenter you’re going to have a big leg up in future job searches. As a side benefit, you’ll become a Jedi master of whatever subject you set out to speak on – no matter how well you knew it when you clicked the “send” button on your proposal, a few months of slide-crafting and run-throughs will force you to know the subject far, far better than you thought possible.
Even with all purely personal benefits, pinning on the lav mic and facing the crowd is also a real service to the community. Older professions have a pretty good sense of what it means to be a member of the club – if you’re a lawyer or an accountant, you have a pretty clear idea of how you can expect your work life career to go. In our young (not to say “infantile”) business those expectations are much more fluid and are still evolving . Stepping into the spotlight for a few minutes is helping to define those expectations for yourself and for your peers. What does it mean to be a “game artist?” You’re helping us all to figure it out. If that comes with a tote bag, so much the better.
Two big things have changed since 2008. The first, and maybe the most important for first time speakers, is the addition of 25 minute talks. These smaller format talks are an excellent way to get your feet wet: the work load for a new presenter is lower and the review board is generally a little more willing to take a risk on a new speaker in the shorter time slot. If your topic won’t fit into 25 minutes, the full hour is still an option, of course. The second big change is that the admissions process is much more formal. Nowadays you’ll be assigned a mentor from the advisory board who will work with you to get your presentation in shape. This is a somewhat more labor intensive process than it used to be: the entire presentation needs to be ‘substantially complete’ in the late fall to be greenlit for the show (which usually takes place in late February or early March). This frontloads a lot of work — but it has also resulted in a much higher level of polish and better talks.