The Value of Conferences

Over the past few years, I’ve made a special effort to speak at game industry conferences whenever the opportunity avails itself.  Last year alone, I spoke at LOGIN, Austin GDC (where my talk was rated best of show) and delivered the closing keynote at the MIT Business in Games conference.  This year, I plan to do all three of those, plus the Futures of Unconventional Narrative conference at UW Bothell.

I get three different three-letter reactions when I tell people this:

1) Wow.

2) Why?

3)  How?

I’d like to address each of those responses here.

Wow.

Yeah, not really.  A lot of people are intimidated by the idea of speaking at conferences.  Public speaking in general can be intimidating.  And speaking in front of a group of your peers, especially when you’re relatively new to the industry is intimidating.  There is a tendency to overestimate your peers’ experiences and underestimate your own.  “Obviously he knows what he’s doing – he’s doing it!”  The exact same logic is being applied by others to you!  I don’t think there’s a single person in the industry who has been around a couple of years and shipped a title that doesn’t have some skill or perspective worth sharing.

To those who say “wow”, I say that you could be doing it yourself, and there’s a lot of good reasons to do so.  Which brings me to the next question.

Why?

Speaking at a conference is generally an unpaid gig, it takes a lot of time and energy to prepare a good talk, and it can be a little scary.  So why do it?

First of all, conference passes are expensive.  Fewer and fewer companies are sending people to conferences on the company dime, and those that do are probably going to put you to work, either in a floor booth, recruiting booth, or something similar.  While conferences can be a lot of fun, working at conferences is, in my opinion, a very unfortunate kind of hell.  If your company is willing to put up the money for you to simply go and attend the show, then go to your boss right now and give him a high-five.

On the other hand, if you speak at a conference, the pass is covered.  An all-access GDC pass, for example, costs over $1,400 if you preregister early (and companies never do).  It’s over $2,000 at the door.  In every case I’ve heard of, if you get a speaker’s pass at the conference, your company will cover your flight and hotel.

Once you’re there, you’ve got an opportunity to learn, network, and help improve your standing in the industry.  Just getting up in front of a room full of peers will get you noticed.  Remember, you’re now “that other guy who must know what he’s doing.” I guarantee, give a halfway decent talk, and people will introduce themselves afterward, you’ll get an opportunity to have some fascinating conversations, and I don’t think I’ve ever done a talk that didn’t directly lead to one or more job offers.  I could go on about the benefits for quite some time.  You’re missing out by not getting up there in a lot of ways.

How?

Let’s assume I’ve convinced you.  First, before you do anything else, what about your job, product, or industry really gets you excited?  What do you want to talk about?  Passion come across better than brains when you’re on stage.  Do some research into the sorts of topics that various conferences are interested in hosting.  It helps to be fully buzzword compliant, (This year, the buzzwords are: tablets, in-app purchases, metrics, augmented reality.  You’re welcome.) but that’s hardly a requirement.  Write out an outline.  Figure out if you’ve got about 45 minutes worth of content, and what your central thesis is.

As an aside, most lecture slots are 1 hour and you’ll want to allow 10-15 minutes for questions.  Note that when you’ve got your adrenaline up, you WILL go faster than you rehearsed.  I’ve given lots of talks, and I still go a little faster than I intend.  So it’s better to aim for about 55 minutes, and your nerves will scoop you down to 45-50.

The outline you end up with will often look a lot like the submission summary that conferences are looking for.  Most conferences will want a couple hundred words of short summary, and maybe a longer summary of about 1000 words.  This is a pitch, so make it punchy.  Better to be on the bold side than not.  For example, “Comparative Methods of Burble Production Management” is a much weaker title than “You’ve Been Managing Your Burbles WRONG!

Then, get your application in, and wait.  And, get ready for rejection.  Most major shows get a lot more applications than they have slots.  But even if you’re rejected, use the little bit of communication you get with the conference organizers to try to drill a little deeper and figure out why.  Conference organizers will tend to go with people who have given talks at their show before – it’s that first talk that’s hard to land, and then it gets a lot easier.

Also, don’t assume it’s GDC or nothing.  While GDC is a great conference, I personally get more value out of GDC Online. (AKA Austin GDC)  Most major game industry hubs have multiple smaller conferences as well.  Any experience counts with getting your talk accepted.

Lastly, it’s a very small industry.  Word gets around.  Give a good talk, and you’ll find that there’s someone in the audience who’s on the advisory board for another conference, who knows a guy who knows a guy who’s looking to hire someone just like you.

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