GDC 2017 Day One Recap (With Session Notes!)

Conferences ,Events ,Virtual Reality
February 27, 2017

Tis the season for GDC, VRDC, and a whole host of other 3D, gaming, and immersive technology-related events. This week, combining the spring Virtual Reality Developer Conference and Game Developer Conference, Moscone Center in downtown San Francisco is teeming with developers, designers, audio engineers, marketing, and business folks across the games, entertainment, and VR/AR industries. Today was Day 1.

While I had a chance to check out the expo floor at last year’s GDC, this was the first time that I had the opportunity to attend more of the conference events and sessions. What I wasn’t expecting was the popularity of the talks – many of them had lines all the way across and wrapping around the conference center floors. That said, I got into a couple today that I wanted to share highlights from, since I definitely learned a lot.

Jesse Schell, Lessons Learned from a Thousand Virtual Worlds

Always an enjoyable speaker to listen to, Jesse Schell, CEO of Schell Games (I Expect you to Die) presented on the highlighted lessons that his studio uses to build immersive experiences based on the 15 years that he’s spent teaching at Carnegie Mellon in a project-intensive environment building class. Some of the key takeaways were well-known to the VR industry (don’t make people sick, hands are good) but seeing those principles executed in examples dating back over the past two decades was a fascinating way to kick off the start of the week.

Some of the advice he gave:

  • Create unexpected twists in your experience. While familiarity breeds immersion, (another central point that was made during the talk) Schell explained that predictable experiences in VR don’t tend to stay engaging for extended periods of time. My takeaway here was that developers and designers should explore ways to remove the limits of expectation from their players, instead focusing on creating an experience that is easy to predict.
  • Eating can be a delightful mechanic that isn’t overused in VR. While the lack of easily available taste simulators may deter designers from adding it into an experience, it turns out that playing with our sense of consuming goods (or, in one example, enemies!) in virtual worlds can be a silly and fun way to engage users.
  • Not all objects should behave in the same exact way. Schell discussed the importance of custom object interactions, and the examples he gave all showed off how well-designed interactions, even ones that disobey the laws of a purely physics-based environment, can create better experiences.

Sean Bouchard, How Twitch made me a Better Teacher

I’ve been playing with the idea of live streaming more of my virtual reality creation lately, so this talk came at a great time. Bouchard, an instructor at USC and Twitch streamer, talked about different ways that live streaming made him a better teacher at the USC Interactive Media and Games lab. Not only did I get some great background information on Twitch as a platform, I also learned about the culture of the ecosystem, strategies for teaching about games and immersive applications, and best practices for live streaming.


  • Talking to an audience and narrating game play is a useful way to articulate what works or doesn’t work in an application, deconstruct the design, and identify experience goals. These were all common discussions that happened both while streaming and in the classroom.
  • It’s important for people working in games (and, in my opinion, this holds true for VR as well) to get time to play and experience new applications regularly. This helps stay on top of trends, experience a wide range of techniques for building things, and continue to build knowledge – and it’s a great idea to build this into your schedule if you have trouble making time.
  • While Twitch does have discovery capabilities for new channels, early channels will have more success bringing in audiences from other social networks. Bouchard recommended that new streamers (casters? I should really figure out my terminology here!) focus on reaching audiences that they already had.
  • The best practices for Twitch streaming depends a lot on the type of content you want to broadcast. There’s a definite market for more educational-oriented streams, but best practices across the board include:
    • Letting people know what you’re playing (it’s polite and improves discovery)
    • Exporting videos to YouTube, since Twitch doesn’t keep them forever
    • Creating edit breaks to cut up longer streams into more consumable chunks
    • Scheduling your streams to maintain a sense of community
    • Using social media and finding trusted people to moderate your channel as it grows to stay aligned with your desired culture

Jenny Jiao Hsia, The Aesthetic of Cute

I loved this talk, which was about how the idea of “cuteness” in video games is often underappreciated and dismissed in the design process. Jenny talked about how cuteness can allow for games to address serious topics, add depth to characters, and keep players more engaged. Her examples and portfolio were incredibly personal, which was inspiring, motivating, and educational all at the same time.


  • Cute aesthetics can allow you to create highly personal games that break away from stereotypical game mechanics and elements
  • We’re drawn to cute things and feel disarmed by them, allowing us to grow and change things within our games or experiences
  • Cuteness can add humor to dive deeper into darker and more intense subject matter that audiences relate to

Jill Murray, Chris De Leon, Toni Pizza, Catt Small, Sarah Schoemann, Kaho Abe, and Ramsey Nasser; Teaching Games with Games

This was an awesome session fully of lightning talks by some really passionate and inspiring people. The topic of this session was “Informal Education”, where each of the speakers shed light on the ways that they host and teach within their classes, communities, and workshops on various technical and design topics related to game creation.

Their topics:

  • Jill Murray: Improvisation and audience participation are key in teaching playwrights about narrative game design
  • Chris De Leon: Keep game design fun, team-oriented, autonomous, and accountable while learning to prevent a high burn rate and burning out
  • Toni Pizza: Puzzles are important for learning about games, and inspires innovation around game design topics
  • Catt Small: Hands on experience and exploration makes learning game design accessible, empathetic, and creative
  • Sarah Schoemann: Look for communities that embrace games to celebrate new voices and encourage dialogue
  • Kaho Abe and Ramsey Nasser: Give students an experience that makes computer science topics relatable and embodied

One day down, four to go! I’m excited to see what the next couple of days bring, especially the chance to connect with folks from around the world and spend some time checking out new VR titles. If you’re around, perhaps I’ll see you there!

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