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My First Experience at GDC: 2017

Article by Katie Tarrant

Edited by Alyx Jones

This year I had the shock but absolute pleasure of being at GDC 2017. In December 2016, I applied for the King and Diversi scholarship which aims to take 10 women on an all-expenses and all-access trip to GDC and after a nerve-wracking application process, I was honoured to be selected as one of those 10.

It was my first time being out of the country, bar a childhood trip to Austria, and it’s safe to say the prospect of flying for 11 hours to a country and conference I had never experienced before, to meet countless strangers and network with industry professionals was slightly daunting, but exciting nonetheless.

My group and I checked in on Sunday and it was amazing to see the rush of activity that was already going on in the area. I accompanied a couple of audio friends as they picked up their passes, the Moscone Center was already full to the brim with excited individuals and I instantly found myself latching on to the immense vibe that was in the room. It was finally sinking in that I was at GDC; somewhere I never imagined myself being, especially not so soon!

After grabbing passes, we took a walk. San Francisco seemed like an incredible city to explore and we certainly did our fair share of wandering around it. Wearing comfortable shoes is a must, as well as budgeting for Uber/Lyft journeys as some of the events are relatively spread apart from one another.

Our first meet up of the week was Dutch Courage 2.0; a pre-GDC meet up for developers to show-case their games and have an all-round celebratory start to the week. We arrived not long after the start time, but found the venue already full to the brim with a queue outside so we wandered down to the over-flow bar. After a few beers and some great conversation, many of us retired early. We had a long week ahead of us, after all.

MONDAY

Monday was the day I met the rest of the people I would spend much of my week with: the fantastic game audio crowd by whom I was instantly warmly welcomed. I was surprised by just how many of us there were, with more cropping up gradually throughout the week, and honestly could not have found better people to spend 5 days abroad with.

The talks officially started and my first was ‘The Sound and Music of Hyper Light Drifter’, which ironically wasn’t listed on the audio track as the audio track didn’t start until Tuesday. The talk was headed by Akash Thakkar and Rich Vreeland (aka Disasterpiece) discussing the ins and outs of how they created the audio for Hyper Light Drifter. They discussed the differences between their work flows and their post-production processes and how, despite the music and sound design working so well together, they had next to no communication between each other throughout the development process.

Another great talk was headed by Bonnie Bogovich and Michael Lee as they unravelled the process behind creating their interactive audio adventure for the Amazon Echo titled ‘Baker Street Experience’. The game operates on a speech-triggered mechanic, meaning you listen to the story and verbally direct its multi-branched narrative. It is a fantastic example of how strong of a role audio plays in the game industry and the potential that it has with the invention and development of such new technology and experiences.

In terms of social events, Monday night saw Dren McDonald’s ‘VGM Informal Wine Hang Out’ take place which was well attended by a myriad of audio professionals and professionals from other disciplines. I found myself crossing paths with people I’m a huge fan of as well as people I had planned to meet up with throughout the week. One of the nicest things about GDC is everyone that you have potential to meet and how enthusiastic everyone is to meet you. I was able to meet many of the people I have gotten to know online and also talk with some of my greatest inspirations.

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Akash Thakkar and Rich Vreeland at GDC 2017

TUESDAY

To the audio track’s delight, Tuesday saw a back-to-back series of audio boot camps running throughout the day. Thus, the bulk of us nested in Room 3002 soaking up the newfound audio knowledge.

Highlights of the boot camps included:

  • Audio Tech 101 and Interactive Music Approaches: Presented by Steven Green and Tomas Neumann, Audio Tech 101 was Tomas’ explanation of the mind-bending audio implementation that goes on behind the scenes of Overwatch. Steve’s talk also navigated the world of middleware as he showed the potential it offers from interactive music.
  • Lunchtime Surgeries: a chance to sit down with a range of audio professionals to have lunch and some in-depth chats, with a cycle system operating to ensure each speaker gets a chance to sit at each table.
  • Approaching and Designing Audio for Interactive VR Applications: Sally Kellaway’s incredible talk on the work and research she has done in the realms of spatial audio, binaural, ambisonics, VR and much more.
  • How to be The Audio Department: Another fantastic talk from Bonnie Bogovich about the struggles audio professionals can face when expected to handle the entirety of the audio on a project and recommended actions and strategies to help make the process enjoyable and manageable.

Tuesday night was the Game Audio Denizens annual pizza gathering at the local California Pizza Kitchen. The restaurant was heaving with GDC-goers when we arrived, some eating whilst others were simply there to chat. It was a lovely sense of community, and even more so when a silence was called to raise a glass for the late Jory Prum, a fantastic audio designer who was tragically taken after a motorbike accident. That moment was one that convinced me the game audio industry was one I would forever want to be a part of: supportive, respectful, connected, loving and so much more.

Full of pizza, we made our way further into town to attend a party organised by OSSIC. The company were demonstrating their Ossic X head set with a nifty VR demo. The demo consisted of your player situated in the centre of a room with four shapes around you: front, behind, left and right. Each shape when you picked it up triggered a musical layer, but OSSIC’s impressive audio algorithms and head-tracking allowed the 3D experience to enter a league of its own. Pulling the shapes close, I could hear the swell and vibration of the bass frequencies, and the respective loss of them as I pulled it away. I could trace every inch of the audio’s movement as I circled the shapes around my head, and was in awe at the reverb’s development as I tossed them away from me. The headphones go a step further with individual anatomy calibration and given this was only a general demo, I am excited to see the future this technology brings.

WEDNESDAY

Outside of the conference, Wednesday was the morning that I made it to the infamous Sightglass Coffee meet up that was running 7am-9am each day of the conference. The meet up was founded by Damian Kastbauer and Anton Woldhek and was thriving every day of the week. Whilst its targeted at game audio advocates, all are welcome, and it allows everyone the chance to get together and discuss what has happened in the week so far, people’s thoughts and opinions are on what they’ve experienced, as well as discuss the day’s events.

Wednesday was also a great day for talks, with an insightful demonstration of the new Unreal Audio Engine. The talk was presented by Aaron Mcleran who went in to detail about the audio engine’s new features such as physical audio propagation, DSP effects and real time synthesis. He even went on to show how to create a synthesiser from scratch and use it in a level, and showed some great examples of the engine being used in Epic Games’ upcoming VR game Robo Recall.

Additionally, Kiki Olofsson and Kristin Adolfsson from King delivered an incredible talk on the importance of diversity in video games, shedding light on the “scale of diversity” they use for character traits when designing for their games. Finally, a personal highlight of mine was ‘Life as a Composer: Striking a Balance’. This talk saw a panel of some of my favourite composers, Jason Graves, Penka Kouneva, Tom Salta, Chance Thomas and Jack Wall team up to give a valuable talk on maintaining a work life balance in the industry.

Wednesday night was the arrival of the infamous That Party, amongst many others. Whilst I opted for a night of Super Duper Burger with some new friends and a catch up with a dear friend from home, I have been told by many that That Party gets well-attended by the majority of the GDC crowd and, despite having a $22 entrance fee, it is well worth checking out.

THURSDAY

On Thursday, Inon Zur gave a phenomenal talk on his creative process both as a whole, and specifically for the Fallout score. He emphasised the value of recording organic material and implementing that in to his music, and the unique flair it can provide a piece to record your own sounds. He played several pieces and provided a breakdown of the instruments (or objects) that he used to create each piece and I was fascinated to see how much of it was recorded from the likes of metal chairs, vases, tables, unique instruments and much more.

‘Interactive Music 2.0: Merging the Game World with your Score’ was also another great talk from Olivier Deriviere as he walked us through the interactive music he created for Bandai Namico’s upcoming thriller game Get Even. Olivier showed various scenes from the game, exploring interactive uses of layering and mix development based on the player’s progress through the level. He even touched upon some quirky extras he implemented such as having music in the game play but if the player enacted a certain action, such as opening a particular cupboard, it would trigger new music meaning players would get different aural experiences depending on their chosen path through the level.

Lunch time brought my debut visit to Carousel Con. Carousel Con is the game audio lunch time meet up founded by Matthew Marteinsson in which people can present 5-minute micro talks on a chosen audio-related subject. The Con is a great way for people to share ideas and concepts that aren’t lengthy enough for GDC but still worthy of a listen.

Thursday night, my scholarship group and I found ourselves at the Nordic Party which, despite being invite only, was bursting at the seams with people from all backgrounds and disciplines. I had a great conversation with a couple of programmers and sadly soaked in the realisation of it being my last night in San Franscisco!

FRIDAY

Waking up for my last morning, I enjoyed a final breakfast with the rest of the scholarship team. Each morning, King and Diversi had organised for industry professionals to have breakfast with us for an informal morning chat. As it was our last morning, they skipped the networking and allowed us to enjoy our last breakfast in San Francisco.

There were several great talks on the last day, ones I attended included:

  • ‘Composer Confessions’: Mick Gordon, Jason Graves, Grant Kirkhope, Wibert Roget, Rich Vreeland and Austin Wintory teamed up to give individual short talks on one or some of their hardest or most valuable lessons learnt in the industry.
  • ‘The Sound of Horror: Resident Evil 7’: Kenji Kojima, Akiyuki Morimoto and Ken Usami flew in from Japan to gives us an intimate look at how the audio was crafted for Resident Evil 7, including behind-the-scenes foley recording footage and explanations of their creative decisions.
  • ‘The Sound of No Man’s Sky’: Paul Weir’s amazing look over how the audio was tackled for the procedurally generated environment of No Man’s Sky, including a look at their generative music system and how they built their vocal tract synthesis plugin VocAlien.

Friday was also the day I got to check out the Expo and I was blown away by the amount that there was to see. The floor was back-to-back with an endless array of booths from indie, AAA, events, products, software and companies. I also picked up t-shirts from Unreal Engine and Wwise which made me a happy bunny indeed.

In my last half hour, I decided to check out the highly recommended view from the top of the Marriott hotel which sits opposite the Moscone Center. I took the high-speed elevator all the way to the top floor and rested my eyes on this gorgeous view as my final farewell to San Francisco:

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CONCLUSION

The thing that I loved most about GDC was undoubtedly being surrounded by such a vast amount of passionate, talented and supportive people. There was not a single person I met at that conference who was not pleasant to talk to. Everyone was there simply because they love games and it resulted in a wonderful sense of connection and unity between those present. The game audio community out there was thriving and I can’t remember the last time I was as happy as I was being surrounded by so many awesome peers.

I learned a lot from the entire experience and came home incredibly inspired to do more and be more both as a professional and a person. I have stayed in touch with the majority of people I met and made some valuable connections that are already leading to some exciting opportunities. I went to GDC feeling anxious about being so new to the industry and feeling like I had so much to learn, but everyone was welcomed and appreciated on the exact same level and I think I learned so much more thanks to that atmosphere.

If this article hasn’t already given it away, I highly recommend going next year. It is an incredible experience that, although expensive, you simply will not regret. It is definitely a scenario where you get out what you put in. If you make the effort to talk to people, be friendly, attend talks and absorb what you can, it really will be a value for money experience. I have gone to and from GDC as a different person, much more confident in my own ability and my own future, much more connected to an industry I am so deeply fond of, and infinitely more excited for the path that lies ahead. If you ever have any worries or questions, feel free to get in touch and there are also a bunch of fantastic resources online about what to expect from and how to prepare for GDC, and I hope to see you there in 2018!

LINKS

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Katie Tarrant
Hello! I'm Katie, a 23 year-old composer and sound designer. I graduated from the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts in 2016 and am currently working at Rare as a junior audio designer.

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