3 Days at GDC 2016

This month’s GDC in San Francisco marked the 30th edition of the event, but the first for our programmer Steven Taarland, who was making his debut at the show. We caught up with him for some reflections on what was a busy and productive three days.


You naturally get to meet loads of other developers throughout a show like GDC and right from the start I was surprised at how many were also from Dundee! It did feel quite comical that I’d travelled 5000 miles and been introduced to games professionals based just streets away from the Tag office, but it’s no real surprise when I work in a city with such a vibrant development scene.  

VR’s position as the showpiece of GDC has been well documented and the floor reflected this with huge displays by Sony, Oculus and HTC. Queues to try out the technology were long and there were some spectacular experiences on show, so there’s no doubt that VR will play a big part in the gaming news throughout 2016. How that buzz transfers into sales and software attachment rates is another question though, so it will be fascinating to see if the platform holders can get around potential stumbling blocks like price point and consumer issues with discomfort.

In terms of mobile, something that struck me early on was the prominence of User Acquisition companies at the event. UA has become an essential part of marketing mobile titles which shows both how big and how competitive free-to-play mobile has become, forming both an opportunity and a challenge for mobile developers. The stakes are getting higher and higher but to be a success you have to be making that dent in the upper reaches of the charts.  

Something else worth noting was the regional differences in which mobile free-to-play is being approached by developers across the world. Whilst in Europe and the USA a broad mix of puzzle, casual and strategy dominates the charts, at GDC it was quite apparent that the free-to-play RPG is currently way out ahead in Asia. It’s something for Western developers to keep their eye on as there are big opportunities there.


It was time to get more technical on Day 2 as I spent some time looking at engine technology. Unity, Unreal and Amazon’s Lumberyard were all at the show and the size of Lumberyard’s presence really caught my eye. With a huge stand and a steady stream of demos on show it showed that Amazon is serious about their venture into the gaming technology world. Given their past successes when diversifying their business, there’s every chance Amazon can prove to be a major influence on the games industry in future.

Meanwhile, over at the Unreal and Unity stands a difference in approach and focus of both engines was quite apparent. Even though Unreal has been used for a huge mix of titles in the past, Epic were really pushing the AAA side of Unreal Engine 4 at GDC, whist Unity were a lot more open in their support for the indie scene.

Later on, I popped over to the Scottish Developers mixer event for a spot of networking. As well as people from studios in Scotland, the mixer also played host to professionals who’ve gone to work in games all over the world. The Scottish games community is a far-reaching one and I had an interesting chat with people from Fox Interactive and Unity amongst others.


The final morning was taken up with meetings, before I went on to explore some of the further reaches of the show. I checked out some of the entries at the Indie Festival, before heading onto the ALT-CTRL-DELETE Expo. This was a part of the show dedicated to games that utilised unique control methods and I got to see some incredible ideas in action.

My favourite was probably Line Wobbler, a one-dimensional dungeon crawler controlled by wobbling a door-stopper spring. The game is displayed entirely on an LED strip display and what impressed me was how the developers managed to transfer the gameplay mechanics from a dungeon crawler into such a setup, which despite its apparent simplicity still delivered precise control and some impressive visual effects.

On the final day I also managed to squeeze in a little bit of sightseeing, which was a nice change of pace after a hectic few days on the showfloor. I couldn’t possibly head home without photos of the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz, so thankfully I managed to get them on a whistle-stop tour round some of the city’s landmarks.

After all that, it was time to pack up and make the long journey home, where a return to my desk and some serious jetlag awaited. Jetlag aside, from both from a business and creative point of view my first visit to GDC was a fantastic experience, so I’m looking forward to making the trip again!