Why GDC's Parties May Be More Important Than the TalksS

Last week San Francisco transformed, turning into something like the Hollywood Canteen, but for gamers.

A famed servicemen's club of the 40s, the Hollywood Canteen was operated and staffed completely by volunteers, mostly from the movie and music industries. So the likes of Bette Davis, Abbot and Costello and Ronald Reagan could be seen hanging out and helping.

While last week's Game Developers Conference drew the biggest names in video games to the city to teach and learn about their art, the effect was very much the same.

Walking into a hotel last week for my first appointment of the show, I ran into Jamil Moledina, former executive director of the conference and current Electronic Arts executive and science fiction writer. My short talk with him was interrupted when Denis Dyack, head of Silicon Knights and maker of Too Human, stopped by to say hello. As we walked to the elevator we ran into former LucasArts game maker Ron Gilbert.

The short walks between the conference center and nearby hotels often turn into hour long journeys as developers, writers and fans run into each other on the way and stop to talk. Each night the crowds at San Francisco's trendy W Hotel spill out onto the street corner, a mix of the famous, soon to be famous, formerly famous and not a few journalists.

And the show's five days are always packed with too many parties to possibly attend. The parties also serve two purposes. There are plenty of parties designed to promote a specific game or publisher. But each year's show also has plenty of secret parties.

For instance, Level 99 is a party open only to the show's speakers and elite, taking over a local art gallery each year. A secret suite party at a local hotel featured two levels of bouncer security guards, lets call them end bosses, and entry was only granted to those with a special robot pin affixed to their clothes.

There was even a secret society, the Game Illuminati, which held what I believe may be it's first ever party at GDC. (Being so secretive, there's as good a chance this wasn't the first ever party as well) This group, made up of the biggest names in game development, grows its membership by invitation only and serves as a place where any member can talk about anything game related without concerns of journalists, attorneys or publishers overhearing.

While the topics of a specific year's Game Developers Conference can often forecast where gaming is headed (This year it seemed very focused on motion gaming), almost as important is the chance for so many big names, so many influential game designers to rub elbows in an informal setting.

This cross-pollination of ideas between people who could never normally speak to one another, because they work for competing companies or live in different countries, is really the biggest thing to come out of the show each year.

It's also a reminder that despite being a billion dollar industry, the business of video games is in many ways still in its infancy, just now beginning to enter something akin to Hollywood's studio system.

But developers, not actors, are this industry's breadwinners. The Will Wrights, Kim Swifts, Cliff Blezinskis of this world of game making may not be recognized as the people behind The Sims, Portal and Gears of World when they're in their hometowns, but once at year at the Game Developers Conference they are stars.

Well Played is a weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Feel free to join in the discussion.