Who Develops the Developers?: An Interview With Meggan Scavio, Part 1
Meggan Scavio doesn't really want to get onstage. But, as the new public face of the Game Developers Conference, she's going to have to do that. A lot. The woman behind the event's Bosslady Blog talks to us about how GDC is like a family reunion, what goes into pulling the massive five-day conference together, and what that E3 show needs to do to get its mojo back.
"I don't think people quite realize just how many times I have to get on the phone with a sponsor or an exhibitor and explain to them why they're not getting a keynote, why their exhibitions aren't accepted."
Crispy Gamer: It's your second year as event director, but your first in being the public face of the GDC. What's the difference?
Meggan Scavio: Doing interviews and going onstage to introduce keynotes are all new to me. Other than that, not much has changed. Last year and in previous years, I've been responsible for all the content of GDC. Possibly, programming the keynotes is the other new [responsibility] for me.
Crispy Gamer: What goes into considering the programming?
Scavio: There's an entire process that actually starts in [the preceding] June, when I get together with the advisory board. The advisory board is 18 people, all volunteers, who are pretty much all luminaries of this industry and are so dedicated to this event. They discuss and determine the topics that they think will be important for the following year's GDC. And that's what we include in our call for submissions, which opens in July.
It's a really detailed process. The call for papers closes in August and we get about 1,000 submissions. Then, the advisory board has about a couple of weeks to read and grade each of those submissions, and we lock them in a hotel conference room in early August so they can decide what gets accepted, what needs work and what gets rejected.
Crispy Gamer: So, leading up to GDC 2009, what were the topics that the board decided were going to be the lightning rods for this year's conference?
Scavio: I think they were really looking this year for postmortems. That was sort of the thing on everyone's list. There were so many great games released last year, and last year's GDC content focused a lot on writing in games and creating emotions in games, and all of these new ways to design. I think this year will be sort of focused on, "Well, how did all that work out for you? How'd we do?" You'll see a ton of postmortems at this year's GDC.
Crispy Gamer: Let's talk about the nuts and bolts of what GDC means. The mainstream consumer only really knows E3, in that it's the most heavily covered videogame event?
Scavio: Yeah. You know, when it comes down to it, GDC is for developers and it's really technical. Most consumers wouldn't understand a lot of what happens. I don't understand a lot of what happens! [Laughs] That's why we have an advisory board. The GDC doesn't speak directly to consumers.
Crispy Gamer: Do you feel consumers can get anything out of paying attention to GDC?
Scavio: GDC shows what's going to be popular or big in a few years, so they're getting an early peek at the technology and direction of videogames. They're going to see what's on their shelf, or what they're going to be digitally downloading, in the next three or four years.
Crispy Gamer: What was something that was predicted at GDC three or four years ago, that's a 100-percent reality now?
Scavio: Not to repeat the digital distribution idea again, but after years of argument about how feasible it was, I think we're really seeing it now. There are so many rumors about content that will only be distributed digitally, and there will be some announcements on that this year. That was predicted several years ago at GDC.
Crispy Gamer: Looking at the sessions, I noticed that both the keynotes [one by Nintendo exec Satoru Iwata and the other by Metal Gear Solid creator Hideo Kojima] are from Japanese developers?
Scavio: Yeah! It was completely random how that came about!
"There aren't a lot of marquee developers out there who can draw a 5,000-person audience. Miyamoto was one a couple of years ago. Kojima is one, too. ... Kojima's an icon; he's at a level where people want to hear from him."
Crispy Gamer: Obviously, any game conference would be honored to have them, but can you talk about why they're in those marquee programming slots?
Scavio: At the August meeting, the advisory board makes a list of who they'd like to see keynote at GDC. Those two are always on the list, and every year we have a huge argument about not having platform keynotes [from PC or console executives]. Board members want a developer onstage, speaking to other developers. There aren't a lot of marquee developers out there who can draw a 5,000-person audience. Miyamoto was one a couple of years ago. Kojima is one, too. I invite the Housers [from Rockstar Games] every year, but they completely ignore us. I think Will Wright is one, and he'll be on a panel this year.
So Kojima's an icon; he's at a level where people want to hear from him. In the case of Iwata, Nintendo contacted us and we talked about it. We don't automatically give anyone a slot, so we talked about the underlying theme of this year's GDC, which is "the year of opportunity." They really latched on that, and felt like they could speak to that. Also, we're having a DSi talk at GDC -- so they wanted to fuse the "opportunity" theme with the DSi and share that with the audience.
Nintendo's new portable will likely be the focus of Nintendo exec Satoru Iwata's keynote address.
Crispy Gamer: With regard to Nintendo and the DSi, how do you navigate the tension between GDC being its own entity, with its own, discrete set of demands and goals; and companies who use the conference as part of their marketing plan?
Scavio: [Laughs] It's a really tough one. Last year, when Cliffy B came out with the chainsaw at the Microsoft keynote, that just broke my heart.
Crispy Gamer: You wince when that kind of stuff happens, then?
Scavio: Absolutely! We had a conference call with Microsoft after that, and we explained to them that GDC's not the appropriate venue for something like that. You do that at a press conference, not a keynote. We do our best to control the environment and that's why no one gets automatic approval. The point of that Microsoft keynote was to talk about the XNA development platform. They just threw that other stuff in at the end.
Crispy Gamer: That's another differentiating point between you guys and E3. The goal's to be as spin-free as possible, right?
Scavio: Absolutely. It pains me when it happens. I don't think people quite realize just how many times I have to get on the phone with a sponsor or an exhibitor and explain to them why they're not getting a keynote, why their exhibitions aren't accepted. [Laughs] I have to explain it almost on a daily basis. Other events such as E3 provide that venue for them, and we don't.
Crispy Gamer: Do you feel like people's umbrage at being turned down comes from ego or standing in the industry?
Scavio: Sometimes, I do get the whole "Don't you know who I am? I should be on stage!" angle. I know who they are, and respect what they do, but that belongs in a certain part of GDC. We have sponsored sessions just for that reason, so that sponsors like Sony and Microsoft can put their messages out there.
Crispy Gamer: You know, the biggest frustration I hear from people about this industry is that game development is a mystery. Nobody knows how you get in, and there's still a lot of mystery about how games get made -- what the creative process is like. What do you feel like GDC can do to enlighten the masses?
Scavio: We already do a program at all of our events called Game Career Seminar, and that takes place on Friday. It's free to Expo attendees, so basically anyone with a GDC pass can attend. We also have a Student Day, and that's a $50 pass. Students can come in and attend the Career Seminar, walk the exhibition floor, and go to the Career Pavilion.
It's a fine line for us because we're an event for professional developers. We don't exist to show people how to enter the industry; we're there for people who've already made it in. But we see that there's a need there and we try to address it.
Crispy Gamer: Moving on to the actual sessions, one of the things that struck me was David Merrill and the Siftables. A few weeks ago, I happened on a presentation he did. His work is so out of the box, as far as how people think about the console/PC focus of the videogame industry. Why is somebody like him important to have in the line-up at GDC?
Scavio: Every year, we talk about getting more of these crazy, wacky academic talks into GDC, because they inspire people. Our audience is made up of really smart people. They're going to look at something like Siftables, they're going to get it, and they're going to have an idea. Who knows what comes of that?
Crispy Gamer: It seems like another theme of GDC is the care and feeding of game developers. We take for granted the fact that developers are essentially working in a coal mine and that they don't get to socialize and trade ideas. There's very little in the way of peer evaluation, right?
Scavio: Exactly. They've got their team, and they work on a game for god knows how many years. I refer to GDC as a family reunion sometimes, because people leave their office for five days and hang out with all these other developers who have ideas of their own. They share, they communicate, they learn from each other, and hopefully they go back to their office feeling kind of refreshed.
Check back on Monday for Part 2 of this interview.