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GDC attendees heading into the conference expo hall Photo: GDC

Smaller studios are feeling the impact of the postponement

As major game companies began dropping out of the Game Developers Conference, originally scheduled for mid-March in San Francisco, attendees began to worry about the reality of the event — whether it would actually happen as the novel coronavirus spreads around the globe. On Friday, organizers confirmed the annual convention’s fate: GDC has been postponed until summer over concerns regarding the virus.

Large companies that have pulled out — like Microsoft, Sony, Epic Games, Amazon, and Activision Blizzard — will certainly be affected by the event’s postponement, but it’s independent developers that will face much of the burden. Developers without corporate backing are facing uncertainty over refunds for travel, as well as the lost opportunity in missing the event. In the wake of its postponement, however, multiple initiatives have sprung up to help developers recoup lost opportunity and funds. The GDC Relief Fund, set up by WINGS Interactive, gamedev.world, and publishers, has already raised $76,500 in donations to disperse among those in need.

“GDC is an aspirational event for a lot of independent developers,” gamedev.world executive director and game developer Rami Ismail told Polygon. “That makes it the kind of thing people will bet all their money on. They’re just out of that money [after the postponement], so they’re obviously the most affected. Not just because of the money, but also because of the loss of opportunity. The money is gone, but that means the opportunities that money could have generated are also gone.”

Goutham Dindukurthi is one such developer. With his studio, Holy Cow Productions, Dindukurthi expected to attend GDC as part of the Indie Megabooth with Mystic Pillars, a puzzle game inspired by a South Indian board game called Ali Guli Mane. Four developers from the studio, which is based in Bangalore, India, decided to attend the San Francisco-based event for the opportunity to show the game on an international stage, despite the high cost of attending. Dindukurthi said the studio expected to spend at least $6,000 for flights and other expenses, excluding tickets (those were covered by the Indie Megabooth folks). But beyond the financial cost incurred from the postponement — refunds for travel expenses are not guaranteed, but Dindukurthi is “hopeful” — Holy Cow had centered its release schedule around GDC.

“A cancellation is a huge blow for us,” Dindukurthi told Polygon. “The entire reason we were launching our game around this time was to also help get the word out. Now that we no longer will get that, we are thinking of next steps — but one thing for sure is that it will impact the success of our game.”

Dindukurthi continued: “Being a small indie from India and publishing the game ourselves is already a challenge. This was going to be our big launch and the one opportunity to get a lot of eyes on our game.”

Mystic Pillars is still expected to be released on March 4 for Windows PC, Dindukurthi said. (The game is already out for iOS devices.) Should GDC be rescheduled for the summer, many smaller studios, including Holy Cow, are unlikely to attend; the costs incurred are already too much.

“San Francisco is expensive enough to go once a year,” Ismail said. “Twice a year is not an option for most people. The idea [of postponement] is nice, but effectively it’s cancellation until 2021.”

Some developers are considering traveling to San Francisco regardless, in an effort to network and show their games to others in the city, which is a game development hub. Anna Guxens, a developer with Barcelona-based studio 3bytes, told Polygon her studio is unlikely to travel to San Francisco in March, but needs to assess its options. Without travel refunds — excluding the GDC pass, which organizers said they’d refund — the team expects to lose $2,000.

Three characters from The Pizza Situation Image: 3bytes

“[It] may sound ridiculously small to many, but to us, it’s a huge investment that would have otherwise gone into important development work,” Guxens said. “Most of the game development so far is coming from our savings, so any large expense is a hard hit for us.”

Gamedev.world event producer Myriame Lachapelle added that San Francisco is one of the most expensive cities in the United States — and the United States is one of the most restrictive countries to get into for international developers.

Guxens said the studio considered GDC its “best chance at having some international reach” for its game, The Pizza Situation, a “social networks simulator” that parodies online culture “to discuss many of the current problems that online life has brought.” 3bytes is an all-female team, Guxens said. “We really want to give the game a fresh perspective regarding narrative, design, and diversity,” she added.

Despite the official event’s postponement, developers are expected to convene online and in-person to make use of the time scheduled for GDC. A free, three-day event has been planned from March 16-18 in San Francisco. It’s called altGDC, and it’ll “provide a single speaking track for GDC speakers (and others!) to give their talks as planned, as well as space to network, learn, and commiserate on the games industry.” All talks will be livestreamed and recorded, which will be helpful for spreading information beyond those in San Francisco.

Another is notGDC, which is scheduled from March 18-24 and takes place primarily online.

“The community is really trying to connect at any cost, mostly because all of us save that week to focus on GDC,” Daniel Rojas, of Chile-based Birds Were Singing (developing Captain’s Ring), told Polygon. “[Connecting] with other developers is one of the most important things to do there.”

Rojas and another team member have decided not to travel to San Francisco, and will not be fully refunded travel and accommodations — they’re out almost $2,000.

There are plenty of opportunities for smaller studios attending GDC, which is why developers take the risk and, often, financial losses, to attend. Independent Game Developers Association executive director Renee Gittens told Polygon that studios attend in hopes of finding publishers or making press announcements. “A delay or cancellation of the event means those opportunities may now come in too late for them to stay afloat,” Gittens said. “Studios that would have been successful may close due to this reschedule.”

A character from Captain’s Ring from Birds Were Singing
Screenshot from Captain’s Ring
Image: Birds Were Singing

Relief efforts and online events may help mitigate those losses. Organizers for the GDC Relief Fund said there’s a lot in flux regarding details, but that the team is working quickly to put together the fundraising efforts and distribute relief money. Sponsors, like Raw Fury, gamedev.world, Triband, and Landfall Games, have already helped in reaching the $76,500 mark for fundraising.

WINGS Interactive CEO Cassia Curran told Polygon that “without the GDC Relief Fund, many indie developers could be facing a really difficult position.”

“Some of the stories coming through are heartbreaking — people scrimped on meals, gas, and yes, travel insurance in order to make the investment to come to GDC, gambling on finding funding for their game, and now are faced with all of their meetings cancelled and non-refundable plane tickets and hotels, not to mention visas and other financial hardships for international travelers.”

People at “established companies” remember what it was like to be independently pursuing a game, Curran said. “Warhorse Studios gave the fund a very generous donation, saying, ‘Remembering our tough beginnings and the importance of doing business development at GDC, we are well aware of the fact that without GDC we would not be where we are now,’” she added.

Ismail said that, in addition to donations, gamedev.world will help run a game jam where bundled game proceeds will go toward the fund. A commercial game bundle, where proceeds will help affected developers, is also expected.

Most of the developers we spoke with are not blaming GDC organizers for the decision — it was a difficult one to make for all involved.

“We’re genuinely upset and disappointed not to be able to host you at this time,” a GDC representative said in a statement. Organizers have said that conference and expo attendees will be receiving refunds “in full.” Likewise, people that made hotel reservations through GDC’s room block “will not have to pay penalties or fees associated with their reservations.”

Polygon has reached out to GDC for more information about refunds.

Developers are just worried and confused about the impact of the postponement — unsure about how it will impact their futures.

“The lack of communication for the few days where many companies were dropping out was really anxiety inducing for myself and others,” rhythm-adventure game Unbeatable producer Jeffrey Chiao told Polygon. “What about us? What about the students who spent thousands hoping this GDC will be the jumpstart to their career? What about the smaller developers who were hoping to secure important deals at the event?”

There are a lot of questions — some of which bring up concerns over the reliance on an event that’s inaccessible or a struggle for many — and less answers. For now, the GDC Relief Fund and events like notGDC and altGDC are hoping to provide some interim support.

“Gamedev.world was created for those around the globe who can’t afford to travel to other countries to listen or share their stories,” event organizer Lachapelle said. “For those who can or want to go, but get their visas rejected. For those who want to understand what others are saying, but can’t speak or understand each other’s languages. Gamedev.world breaks a lot of barriers that a lot of people face, and we wish to keep on going in this direction. This time, it will be by organizing a fundraiser.”

Update: This story has been updated to include an interview with WINGS Interactive CEO Cassia Curran.


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