Money and Opportunity: the Hidden Costs of Cancelling GDC

By Alistair Jones on at

It started as a trickle, but was soon a flood. Sony was one of the first big names to pull out of Game Developers Conference 2020, citing health and safety concerns over the coronavirus outbreak. Within a few days EA, Kojima Productions, and Facebook had followed suit, to be joined by Microsoft, Epic, and Unity soon after. Perhaps inevitably, event organisers eventually confirmed that GDC 2020 had been postponed, and would not take place this month..

While big companies made the headlines, cancelling a show like GDC has an effect that’s felt far further afield. 29,000 developers attended the conference in 2019, but with no conference to go to in 2020 — and less than four weeks’ notice of its cancellation — many of those planning to attend this year will find themselves taking a significant financial hit. Organisers confirmed that hotel rooms booked through GDC would not be subject to cancellation fees, and that pass holders may be able to refund or transfer their tickets, but according to Jonas Antonsson, CEO of indie publisher Raw Fury, that’s not going to help many of those affected.

“For smaller developers, many of them are paying out of pocket — money that’s their own savings. And when you’re doing that, you’re usually paying for the cheapest options when it comes to [flights and] hotel bookings, and those are going to be the non-refundable options that you pay up-front [...] because you try and invest as little as you can possibly get away with.” Those costs compound on top of the work that goes into attending the conference in the first place: “all the planning and the meetings and everything that comes with it.”

Financial concerns were raised by a number of the developers and publishers I spoke with, whether or not they were attending this year’s conference. Rami Ismail, one half of indie studio Vlambeer, points out that “many developers throughout the world incur significant charges just trying to get to San Francisco for GDC.” Tomas Rawlings, CEO of Bristol-based Auroch Digital, said that his studio had budgeted to spend around £5,000 on the conference, and “around half of that we’re not going to be able to get back.” Kris Antoni, director of Toge Productions, said that attending would have cost “almost $3000 per person,” “a fortune” for an Indonesia-based studio like his, while Totally Accurate Battle Simulator devs Landfall Games “probably took around a $10,000 loss,” according to COO Petter Henriksson.

The studios and publishers I spoke to mostly seemed confident about their ability to absorb or recoup those costs, but individual developers haven’t been so lucky. Małgorzata Jesionowska, an indie developer from Poland, had been due to attend the conference as part of a scholarship program, purchasing tickets “worth my monthly salary,” that she is now unable to refund. Małgorzata says her tickets cost more than her rent, even in the expensive ‘Silicon Valley’ of Warsaw. “It was a big expense [...] it’s hard to lose such an amount of money, especially while preparing to buy a flat with a mortgage.”

A Sense of Community

With so many developers significantly out of pocket, the wider community has stepped in to help. Wings Interactive, which provides funding to games made by diverse teams, set up the GDC Relief Fund in the wake of the conference’s cancellation. Within a few days, more than a dozen partners had pledged upwards of $75,000 to alleviate the financial burden that cancelling the show has had on indie developers. Cassia Curran, CEO of Wings Interactive, said that the fund was set up because “the idea of supporting indie game developers is baked into [our] values, so tapping our resources and existing relationships within the industry to help folks in this time of need was a no-brainer.” Curran, who has family in China who have been affected by the outbreak, says that “on a personal note [...] it’s nice to be able to do something in this time of global concern.”

Henriksson said that despite its losses, Landfall had contributed to the fund “because it feels right,” and that while the studio is doing well, “for some indies, this cancellation has been financially devastating.” Fernando Rizo, CEO of publisher Modern Wolf, recognises that impact: “I was an indie dev once, making things work on shoestring budgets. A non-refundable plane ticket to the other side of the world represents actual time-to-live for a small business. That’s a very big deal.” Pawel Michowski, partnership manager at This War of Mine developer 11bit studios, offers a similar outlook, referencing the studio’s early days and saying that it wants other developers “to feel the support in our very well-integrated and supportive industry.”

The Relief Fund will help alleviate some of the financial woes, but many I spoke to were also concerned about the ‘opportunity cost’ of the show. Thomas Bidaux, CEO of consulting firm ICO Partners, told me that “the most invisible cost of all is the fact that for many professionals, GDC is the opportunity to meet with their peers, exchange ideas, and be inspired.” That is to say, it's a big chance for smaller developers to show off their wares, make useful connections, and maybe even get signed. Ismail puts particular stock in the impromptu meetings that surround the conference: “Every pitch that occurs after a random run-in on the showfloor isn't happening. Every scouted game that was being shown in the park as someone walked by isn't getting signed. Every inspired decision that would come from an in-hall chat, an impromptu breakfast meeting, a question during a Q&A, or a yelled conversation at a loud pub at 2AM on day three of GDC won't happen.”

Those missed connections could have a knock-on effect that runs for years. Twitter threads attempting to highlight work that might have appeared at GDC are full of prospective attendees who were hoping to use the show to break into the industry. Antonsson sees these small teams as “the lifeblood of the industry,” helping create the new ideas of today that are found in the major releases of tomorrow. Publishers like Raw Fury will still hold meetings with developers, and spin-off events such as #notGDC and Ismail’s Gamedev.world can still take place as long as there are people to show up, but as Bidaux points out, “GDC is unique in the way it groups a lot of actors in the industry that you would struggle to find at the same place at any other time of year.” It’s difficult to shake the idea that this level of disruption — to developers already using their savings to fund their passion — could mean that some games that might have been at the conference may now never see the light of day.

Despite the number of people out of pocket and a handful of organisational missteps, no blame is directed towards the organisers: in the context of coronavirus, an ongoing threat that is impacting society and businesses on a global scale, there was no good option. Ismail says “GDC tried their best. Situations like COVID-19 are impossible to predict, and GDC isn’t known as a flaky or reckless institute.” Antonsson adds that, rather than GDC itself, “the only thing that I feel is missing is seeing some of the larger companies and larger publishers take active steps” in contributing to support efforts.

GDC didn’t directly reference either coronavirus or the high-profile absences in its decision to postpone the show, but the departure of names like Epic, Unity, and Microsoft doesn’t bode well for a conference devoted to game development. Many of these companies are keen to highlight their importance to the wider industry, so it seems strange that none are involved in the support efforts to help those hardest hit by the cancellation. I reached out to GDC to ask if it had plans to reimburse attendees outside its official channels, but received no response by the time of publication.

Summertime Sadness

A handful of esports events haven't gone ahead, but GDC is the games industry’s first major cancellation due to coronavirus. It's possible, and some would say likely, that it won't be last. Steve Escalante, CEO and founder of Versus Evil, says that the conference is one of only four annual events for developers “with this level of networking, attendance and effectiveness.” One of those events, Reboot Blue, remains confident that it can still go ahead, and has reached out to developers affected by the GDC news to offer free conference passes and indie booths; its CEO, Damir Durovic, says that “disturbances like this can be fatal for many small time studios.”

Antonsson does wonder whether these circumstances will lead to some positive changes in how the industry operates. “I think, going forward, there needs to be some decentralisation of the importance of a single event in the year, and for developers to feel that they can approach publishers more openly, more frequently, through other channels.” Given the cost of hosting an event in San Francisco, Ismail says he’s “frustrated by the idea that this is officially a ‘postponement’” (GDC hopes to run a replacement event in the summer, but almost everyone I spoke to refers to this as a cancellation). In part that’s down to the cost and logistics involved, but also because “it’s impossible to say whether the United States will have an adequate response to COVID-19” in the next few months.

The effects could be felt even further afield: ICO Partners’ David Ortiz points out that “if this cancellation trend is to continue there’s potential that publishers might have to think about providing online experiences if they want to have any chance of getting their games seen this year.” That puts a lot of pressure on events like Gamescom and E3 but, with the latter only three months away and already suffering from a number of high-profile departures over this and recent years, the development of this outbreak remains a worrying unknown, and one that may force difficult decisions sooner rather than later. E3’s organisers are confident the show is still going ahead, but Antonsson says developers planning to attend may be wise to consider their investment. “Our plans will unfold like they’re supposed to but, for small developers, they need to think twice. They don’t have the luxury of being able to say ‘we can just wait and see.’ They can’t take another hit.”


All images: OfficialGDC Flickr