Five Rules for Game Development Conferences
By Anna Rettberg
Casey Muratori
As December 5th creeps closer like the majestic Krampus, I thought it might be a good idea to explain some of the backstory to HandmadeCon for folks who might rightfully be asking, “Do we really need another game development conference?”
Because let’s be honest here: there ain't exactly a shortage of them. So in order for it to be worth it to create a whole new convention, in my opinion, there’d better be a good reason. Granted, that seems to be an opinion nobody else shares, otherwise there wouldn’t be so many of these conventions. But I digress.
The truth is, HandmadeCon is not just a convention related to Handmade Hero. It’s an experiment to see if we can do game development conferences better. To explain what I mean by this, first let me give a little backstory…
HandmadeCon exists primarily because GDC is highly exploitative and PAXDev didn’t work out.
Several years ago, I was approached by Penny Arcade to help them plan a new game development conference to run alongside PAX Prime. Since Penny Arcade consists of game players, not game developers, they needed a developer to figure out what the content of the conference should be. I have long been highly critical of GDC’s extraordinarily exploitative business model, so I was happy to volunteer to help folks who were trying to offer an alternative that might have some clout.
As part of the process, I started analyzing existing development conferences to figure out what I thought was wrong with them, and how we could do better. A few months into my work on the conference, I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to try.
Unfortunately, things fell apart when I wasn’t able to get Penny Arcade to agree to a fair split of the conference revenue with the speakers. Since my primary complaint with GDC was that they are a for-profit entity which makes a large amount of money by charging exorbitant prices to attendees to see lectures they get for free from volunteer speakers, I didn’t feel comfortable starting a new conference that didn’t have baked into its structure a mandate that at least 30% of the revenue go back to the developers. Penny Arcade wouldn’t go any higher than 10%, so I backed out. It was a bummer, because I really like Penny Arcade (and PAX Prime), but that’s just the way it goes sometimes.
But I never forgot the ideas that I’d developed when doing the planning, and I’ve always wanted to try them out, since the eventual PAX Dev conference they developed didn’t really use any of them. So when Handmade Hero became surprisingly successful as an educational game development series, I jumped at the chance to do a conference to test them.
What are the ideas? Well, there are a lot of them, but in order to lay the groundwork for HandmadeCon, and make explicit the things that I think a both ethical and effective game development conference should always do, I baked the essentials down into a set of five rules. I think all game development conferences should follow these rules, and we will absolutely follow all of them at HandmadeCon.
Rule #1: Give the majority of the money back to the developers  —  just like all other modern platforms do.
This is a no-brainer. Game developers produce the content for a game developer conference. So the majority of the revenue should either go back to them, or to the game development community at large.
This may sound altruistic, but that’s only because existing conferences are extraordinarily exploitative. Yes, GDC takes close to 100% of the revenue, so it seems drastic by contrast to suggest that the majority (eg., 51% or better) go to developers. But it is in fact a modest requirement if you look at any other game marketplace. For example, both the Apple AppStore and Steam take only 30% of the revenue, while giving developers 70%. The platform holder keeping only 30% is actually quite common now among even decidedly non-altruistic marketplaces. Conferences should be no different!
For HandmadeCon, we’re actually starting with what I’d call an “inverse GDC split”, which is to say we’re keeping 0% of the revenue and giving 100% back. The ticket proceeds will go entirely to renting the venue, buying any A/V equipment we need to ensure it can be recorded, paying any speaker travel and lodging costs, and then paying travel costs for Handmade Hero volunteers. Molly Rocket nets nothing.
In future years, if we book a larger venue so there is more revenue, there will be considerable funds after reimbursements, so we will simply divide the total excess by the number of speakers and offer them the money, or give them the option of donating it back to the community in some ethically useful way (giving away travel reimbursements for people who can’t afford to attend, paying to have the conference translated into other languages, etc.)
Rule #2: Let game developers share information in the way that comes most naturally to them: verbal and diagrammatical explanation.
The current format for game development conferences comes from academia: submit a proposal, get accepted, make slides, give a lecture. But generally speaking, game developers aren’t academics. They don’t spend their time writing papers or dealing with journals. They spend their time making games.
Forcing game developers to go through this archaic process makes no sense. Some of the best game developers in the world might be awful at giving lectures, writing papers, and making slides. They simply won’t participate in conferences because it’s unpleasant, or they can’t participate effectively because they can’t communicate well in this way. The end result is a lot of information that could be shared isn’t.
So Rule #2 is to just stop doing this. There are plenty of other ways information can be presented  —  let’s try them!
I’ve literally never met a game developer who couldn’t explain how their code, their algorithm, or their architecture worked when asked to explain it informally. Every developer I’ve ever known or worked with can draw a diagram on a whiteboard and explain things clearly enough that other developers can get it. So at HandmadeCon, we’ll be trying this method out to see how it works. If it works well, we’ll keep expanding on it. If it doesn’t, we’ll try another experiment next year… and honestly, we’ll probably try another experiment next year even if it doesn’t, because there’s a lot of room for experimentation here, and I suspect there are a lot of great methods waiting to be discovered (or rediscovered).
Rule #3: Always respect the developers’ time.
Rule #3 is closely related to rule #2. The best developers often have the most hectic schedules, so if your conference format demands that they spend lots of their time preparing, you’re probably not going to get them to present as much or as often (or perhaps at all). What’s more, every hour a developer spends preparing a presentation is an hour they’re not spending developing new techniques or algorithms that might advance game technology in important ways. That’s no good either.
HandmadeCon is designed to minimize the amount of time that the developers have to spend preparing. Instead of forcing them to design a whole presentation, I’ll just be corresponding with them lightly in the next few weeks to ensure that I know what sorts of things they would most like to share at the conference. It’s a little bit more e-mail than they would otherwise have to answer, but otherwise they are almost completely unburdened with conference work and keep their attention focused on what’s more important: making games.
Rule #4: Access should be affordable to everyone.
Games have become a very important medium for expression. They mean more to a lot of players and developers than they would if they were just an item of commerce. So it should not be the case that only the wealthiest developers can afford to attend a conference. Conferences should be priced such that everyone who can afford a computer on which to develop a game can also afford admission.
This is dramatically far from the case for things like the GDC, which charges $1000 for attendance. This is an insane price point, and ensures that the only way poorer developers can attend is by applying for “scholarships” or somehow winning access to the conference in another way.
By contrast, HandmadeCon’s tickets are priced at $35 early registration, $45 late. I’d like to get those prices down in the future, hopefully to around $25  —  about the same price as a game. The math for this works out quite easily, and if I’d know we were going to sell as many tickets this year as we did, I would have set this year’s price at $25.
Rule #5: Preserve everything in a way that is free and easy to access for all future developers.
This one’s a no-brainer. Instead of locking all the content away in a “vault” and trying to “monetize” it, or plastering it with paid advertisements from sponsors, the goal of a conference should be to preserve the information in a format from which everyone can benefit and access in the way most convenient for their studies.
For HandmadeCon, we’re still working on how we’re going to do this, but our minimum goal is to make sure it is recorded and provided free of charge via BitTorrent Sync or some other filesharing service, as well as ad-free YouTube. If possible, we will also try to stream the conference live, but our experience with this is limited, so it may not be possible for us to get this right the first time.
By developing conferences that adhere to these rules, we can make conferences both more ethical and more valuable as educational resources.
I feel very strongly about developing ethical game development conferences. Conferences are critical to the advancement of game development as a whole. They can  —  and should  —  be designed to maximize the educational value to the community rather than the profits of private corporations. Because game developers provide the content for these conferences for free, I believe the conferences themselves should mirror that generosity and spirit of sharing rather than treating it as a resource to be exploited.
Despite the rhetoric I often hear from commercial conference planners, in developing HandmadeCon I have encountered literally zero obstacles to planning a conference based on an ethical business model. On the contrary, when you don’t have to worry about maximizing attendance and keeping a big profit margin, it seems to be surprisingly easy to make things work financially and logistically.
HandmadeCon is an attempt to prove what is possible, but my hope is that it is only the beginning. If it proves popular and successful, there is no reason others can’t follow suit and help plan high-quality conferences that value developers’ time and treat their efforts, and the community at large, with the respect they both deserve.
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Thanks for reading, and I hope to see you December 5th!