On March 23, thousands of video game developers will stream into San Francisco's Moscone Center for the 2009 Game Developers Conference.
This annual gathering brings together the people who make the games that have been so entertaining to millions of people--the Rock Bands, Grand Theft Autos, World of Warcrafts and so on. But as the leading developers conference in the world, it doesn't just focus on $60 games for the Xbox, PlayStation 3, or Wii. It also has summits that delve deep into the issues involved in making games for mobile devices, in creating virtual worlds, casual games, independent games, and more.
For the last few years, GDC was run by Jamil Moledina, who has now moved on to EA Partners, an arm of Electronic Arts. This year, for the first time, the conference will be run by its new director, Meggan Scavio.
For Scavio, her first time running GDC comes just as the general economy is nose-diving, presenting her and the conference itself with the challenge of staying relevant even as budgets are tightening and people are losing their jobs.
Yet, the video games industry has so far managed to stay strong, with companies like Microsoft and Nintendo, as well as some publishers, showing impressive holiday sales results, even as the rest of the retail economy suffered.
Now, with GDC just six weeks away, Scavio sat down with CNET News to talk about how she'll run the conference, about the state of the video games industry, and how GDC can keep its lofty position as perhaps the world's most important games confab.
Disclaimer: I am on the advisory board of the Worlds in Motion summit, one of the one-day events taking place at GDC this year.
Q: How do you expect that GDC 09 will be different than in previous years?
Meggan Scavio: I'm calling it a back to basics year. I want to return the focus to the developers. I want people to continue to find value in it, so we've made a couple of changes this year. We had a new process for submissions, where the GDC advisory board used a two-phase process. That made it a lot more difficult to get sessions approved, which hopefully improved the quality. We're also reducing the number of sessions a bit to create a shared experience for the community, so more people are attending the same sessions. Hopefully they'll be talking about the sessions, and feel that they've all experienced somewhat of the same thing at GDC. We're also adding meeting rooms where after each session is over, if they want to continue the conversation, they can move to this other room and they can keep talking. That just keeps building a community and making it feel smaller than it actually is, because GDC has gotten so much bigger over the years.
What has the attendance been?
Scavio: It was 18,000 last year, and we're hoping for 18,000 again this year. And all signs point to that. It's a little early to tell, and I'm not going to get too excited, and I'm going to knock on wood, but so far so good.
You're the first new official director after Jamil Moledina, who was in that role for several years. How do you imagine that you'll run GDC differently?
Scavio: I don't think I will, really. This is my 10th year working on GDC and there's a core GDC value that follows all of us. I believe in that, and I've seen it work, and I'll continue that. It really is about the attendees and the audience, and the advisory board, and I don't plan on changing that.
For the last couple years, GDC has been the biggest video game event in the U.S, because E3 reduced its size so dramatically. Now E3 is going back to a much larger format, so what does that mean for GDC?
Scavio: I don't think it's going to change. When E3 changed to its smaller format, some people gravitated towards GDC to continue that business here, but that business took place outside of the GDC campus. It was like they were satellite events that took place in hotels. But it didn't really change the format of GDC, or how GDC operated in any way, and the return of E3 as a large show shouldn't change that, either.
So you think there's still room for these two shows to stay independent?
Scavio: Absolutely. We operated independently before, and we'll continue to do so. There's definitely room. We have different audiences, and different agendas.
Can you define what those different audiences and agendas are?
Scavio: Ours is a developer audience, and E3 is more of a press and retail event. And they're showing games. E3 is what's happening now, and GDC is what's happening in two to three years.
But when E3 shrank, didn't GDC pick up some of the content?
Scavio: Not intentionally. We didn't seek anything out. We didn't change our format at all. I think the best example of how it affected GDC, more than attendance, was our business track, which got a lot more submissions, which meant a lot more business types were attending GDC.
So has that dropped off now that E3 is coming back?
Scavio: It has not.
Given the state of the economy today, can you imagine GDC growing?
Scavio: I would find it hard to believe that there would be growth this year. It's not to say that there won't be, since we've said that every single year since I've been here, and there's been growth every single year. But I remain optimistic, and by optimistic, I expect it to be very similar to last year. I don't anticipate a lot of growth, not with what's happening.
Have there been budget cuts or layoffs within your own organization?
Scavio: There haven't been any layoffs, and we've maintained the same budget as last year. The problem that I have with cutting budgets for GDC is that I still need to provide the same value to the attendees that we always have and I will fight for that as long as possible. So, so far, we've had no cuts.
Will you be addressing the recession at all at GDC?
Scavio: There's a new session on how to raise money in a recession and there's a start-up checklist, all the things that you have to pay attention to when you're starting up a new company. And there's a couple other funding talks. We definitely address it in the content.
People talk about the video game industry maybe being recession-proof, and while it does seem to be doing better than most other industries, there have been layoffs and studio closings. What do you see ahead for the industry, your constituency?
Scavio: I see the game industry reacting positively to all of these issues. They turn around and find innovations to get around the economy. So they start developing iPhone games, or they start developing Flash games. They find a way to get out of the hole and to succeed. I think they'll pick themselves up and succeed.
EA said recently that it was going to lay off 1,100 people. But is this going to be a situation where the strongest survive, and the small players don't make it?
Scavio: I'm not sure that's what we're seeing. I think EA's the strongest, and they're suffering. I think everyone's suffering equally right now, and I think the people who are able to manage their budgets and their teams and just ride through it and continue to find new ways to prosper, I think they'll succeed.
How far ahead do you start planning the next GDC? Are you already planning 2010?
Scavio: We have the venue through 2015. But we'll start really nailing down GDC 2010 in the summer, with our first board meeting, where we get together with the advisory board, and they talk about what the trends are for the following year, and where the industry is heading, and the things that they want to see addressed. And then we will call for papers in July. It all happens very quickly, starting about May.
Is it too early to know what might be different in structure, or in content, or theme, for future GDCs?
Scavio: It's definitely too early to say. I do know in 2010, we're changing our format, for one year, to Tuesday through Saturday, instead of Monday through Friday, because the venue is booked. There may be changes in the summits, but as far as our six main tracks, nothing should change.
What's the benchmark for you for success in your job?
Scavio: It depends, really, on whether you want the corporate answer or my personal answer. The corporate answer would be attendance. The personal answer would be attendee evaluations. So the attendees, they fill out the evaluation forms at every session, and we pay very close attention to everything they say, and everything that they grade. And we've had an average session rating of 4.1, out of 5, for a few years. Last year it was 4.2. So I always like to see that increase. That's my goal, to see the quality of the GDC content increase.
That's pretty good, though, 4.1.
Scavio: It can be better, and there's room for improvement. There's several points left that I can get it up.
That higher rating, would seem to be a function of really good screening of submissions?
Scavio: Yeah. The advisory board, these guys are insane. There were 800 submissions this year. They read every single one. They commented on every single one. And graded every single one. And this year, there was a second phase, where people had to submit actual PowerPoint submissions, and they had to read and grade and comment on every single one. It's a lot of work, and they're very passionate about it, and they argue about it. They debate, and they're very invested in GDC and I think they want that quality increasing even more than I do. Because they feel it all rests on their shoulders. I love the advisory board. They're a great group, and they're inspiring.