Problems of speaking at games industry conferences

I go to GDC every year, and also to 2-3 other conferences, but apart from GDC I vary which exact ones from year to year. These days, I’m a speaker at nearly every conference I go to, and I’ve never yet been paid for speaking, so it’s fair to say I have a pretty big time investment in each of them. I don’t make the choice to go to a conference lightly (especially given how long I’m out of the office for a typical conference, and how exhausted I am by the learning, the networking, the partying, and the international travel).

But I’m getting increasingly dissatisfied with the conferences themselves, especially as a speaker. And it seems to be getting worse, not better – and that’s particularly worrying. The conferences are still great, but the problems are significant.

First up, the costs of speaking, and the ever shrinking advertised benefits…

What does it take to be a speaker?

Look at the submission notes for GDC, for example (and here we hit the first snag. Can I link you to those notes, even though they were on a public website? No. Shame on you, CMP (yes, that IS a 404 – blame CMP’s webmaster?) – a URL is for life, not just for Christmas)).

They say, essentially, you must:

  • write an abstract (around 1,000 words, probably takes most people a couple of hours)
  • make presentation “materials” (slides, but also perhaps video clips, etc)
  • give the presentation personally (about an hour and a half of speaking, answering questions, packing up)

I didn’t put an estimate on that middle item, but IIRC the GDC organizers recommend you spend “at least 10 hours” writing the presentation itself. In my experience, most technical talks require between 5 and 15 hours of thinking, writing, re-writing, re-writing again, tweaking, and practicing with your colleagues (to find more things to tweak).

That’s assuming you want to give a good talk. I only ever give good talks :) (apart from one, a long time ago). I’ve been to talks that the presenters have, frankly, been blatantly lazy and spent no more than half an hour thinking about what they were going to say, and it sucks. I once spent only an hour or two preparing for a 20 minute talk, and I was badly jetlagged when I gave it, and it sucked ass. I learnt my lesson – every talk I’ve given since I’ve made sure I know so fluently that even jetlagged and hungover I can still present it convincingly and clearly.

What are the benefits of being a speaker?

Well, there’s the obvious one – you get a free pass to the conference. There’s fringe benefits, such as automatic invites to a party or two. And then there’s the non-obvious benefits – the value of having your ideas questioned, critiqued, and spread, and getting to speak to your peers, other experts in your industry, and getting their considered feedback on your ideas.

Free pass to GDC? That must rock!

Yeah. But…the last time I spoke at a NON games industry conference, I got:

  • free VIP pass to the conference
  • free black-tie dinner with some of the most famous people in computer programming (Bjarne Stroustrup etc)
  • all travel and accommodation free (in a fantastic luxury hotel)

I felt appreciated and rewarded, and most important of all I felt I was getting something back that I couldn’t have equalled simply through attending and/or spending the hours of preparation doing something else with my life.

The standard for games industry conferences today seems to be:

  • a standard pass to every session at the conference
  • an invite to an “exclusive” networking event, usually at the same time as some far cooler parties which are open to everyone
  • little or no travel expenses, no free accommodation

“Keynote” speakers and “top names” do tend to get special treatment here, but the service they get is the same as is extended to ALL speakers at a normal conference.

It’s now not unusual for conferences to have (but not give to speakers):

  • extra special passes with fringe benefits
  • secret unadvertised sessions for special people
  • advertised but invite-only networking events

And I’m really not pointing a finger at CMP here, which many people love to do because they run the biggest, best-known conference (GDC) and have upset enough people in the past to get themselves a bad reputation – I’m talking about the more general issue, from the biggest right down to the smallest conferences.

I wouldn’t mind so much, but I used to organize conferences myself, and I know how much money organizers make from running the conference (and hey – we’re smart people, those of us speaking (that’s why you asked us to speak!), and I’d say nearly all of us can do the maths and work out your rough profitability. I just happen to have more insight into the figures and probably more accurate estimates than most) – and the speakers are typically NOT paid, so you’re getting experts to spend around one half of a working week in preparation and speaking, and you give them almost nothing in return.

Party. That’s P,A,R,T,Y – Y? Because you love it!

I was going to the great parties at conferences long before I had enough of value to say (and knew how to say it) to become a regular speaker. This is because the BEST parties are the egalitarian ones, and this is something I’ve always loved and valued about GDC – and part of why I never went to E3 (and proud of it!). You go to a party at GDC and you get to meet some of the best and most brilliant people in the games industry. But you ALSO get to meet some of the most irrelevant and unheard of people in the industry.

It’s a two-way thing: the newbies get to meet people they’d never manage to meet otherwise, and get to drink with them, make new friends, and learn a heck of a lot more than they will in any question and answer session after a talk.

The veterans get to meet lots of other veterans, but the chances are they already know each other – this is a very incestuous industry. So, most people are fed up meeting “the same old faces” – they can do that just by getting together for lunch. It’s much more valuable to them to be meeting new people, the people mad enough to be trying new stuff and with new ideas to try and new games to make. Especially with the context of the conference, that gives a lot of background knowledge blasted at you, so even people who are relatively new to games, or to a new area of games, have some base knowledge to be able to talk meaningfully to people with much more experience. Conference parties give you that.

But speaker-exclusive parties don’t tend to, and anyway (as mentioned above) the speaker parties don’t tend to be that great. I hate to say this, but they aren’t even a good way for new speakers to meet the veteran speakers, because a lot of the vets don’t go to the speaker party (c.f. the same old faces point above). There’s plenty of exceptions, but it means that as a speaker you’re not getting much that you can’t get merely as a conference attendee.

Peer review?

At it’s best, done properly, speaking is good fun. But the greatest value to a speaker should be the sharing of their ideas and experiences with peers, and getting all that feedback, and new ideas, and improvements from the audience. And this is where the conferences are really failing us. No conference I’ve spoken has Googlable presentations. Everything I’ve ever said is as if it never happened. But anything I blog is immediately accessible to the world.

It’s getting to the point that I’m beginning to wonder if there’s any point to speaking at conferences at all, even ignoring the cost in time and effort that you need to offset. Even just from an altruistic perspective, I do more good for more people by publishing a talk as a series of blog posts

2 thoughts on “Problems of speaking at games industry conferences

  1. Pingback: T=Machine » Games industry conferences versus blogging

  2. Darius K.

    Very interesting observations. I’ve seriously considered not actually buying passes to certain conferences and instead flying out, getting a hotel, and just hanging around the hallways and the parties. I should probably write a coherent follow-up on my blog.

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