Ever since I attended my first Game Developers Conference (GDC) back in 2007, it had been a career goal of mine to give a talk there one day. For me, it's the ultimate validation that you've mastered some area of game development. In addition, I love the idea of giving back to the community and allowing others to learn from your mistakes/successes. One day, when I'm too old to keep up with the demands of game development, I'll semi-retire at a university and make it more of a thing. For now, I'll keep on suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and do my best to get these blog posts out.
Since it's talk submission season, I thought it'd be a good time to discuss the experience presenting my GDC talk, "Making Moves: Designing Spartan Abilities for Halo 5: Guardians" from concept to the podium. If you wanna check out the talk first, watch it in the vault.
NOTE: This is all based on my personal experience and first hand feedback from others who have submitted and failed, or those who have made it up to the podium, as well. Also, don't view my talk as an example of "getting it right". Much of this post is what I learned in the process and will apply in the future.
Choosing The Right Time
Though I may have felt mostly ready in previous years before submitting my talk for the GDC in 2016, I waited until I felt all the stars were aligned. Here are some things I considered before committing to the process:
- Release a game in the past year or so. I wanted to focus on a recently completed project to ensure my talk was relevant. I almost submitted a talk after the Halo 5: Guardians beta was released, but I decided waiting another year for the full release was best.
- Ensure the game gets critical acclaim and/or good press coverage. I figured name recognition wasn't going to hurt. Halo checked that box.
- Ensure I have the time it takes to commit to this. I'll break this down per phase, but I knew this was gonna be a big effort.
- Ensure I've had enough practice presenting in front of large groups. I tried making up for this between submitting and presenting, but this is one area I probably could have been better prepared for.
- Ensure I know/trust people that can commit to proofreading and giving feedback. There was no way I could do this alone. It's a good thing I have awesome old colleagues that have the patience to help me out when I need it.
With all of this in place and Halo 5: Guardians out the door, I felt ready to pursue a talk. The next step was submitting an abstract.
Submitting the abstract (~3 Days)
For the most part, this is about choosing the right topic. Here are some general guidelines I made for myself when writing the abstract:
- Play a significant role in a topic I'd like to talk about. I needed to know the material inside and out, but maybe even more difficult was feeling comfortable taking significant credit for it. I was really self conscious about that going into my first submission.
- Choose a topic that has mass appeal. I wanted to ensure that pretty much any game developer, no matter what their discipline, would benefit from and enjoy my talk. For better or worse, I think game design topics get away with that, inherently.
- Focus on the details. There are GDC talks that I haven't enjoyed. Usually, it's because the talk just scratched the surface on a topic I wanted to dive deeper into. Jamie Griesemer's "Design In Detail" talks solidified that for me. They are my favorite. Watch this one, and then all the rest of them.
- Present actionable takeaways. This was really important for me. My favorite talks ALWAYS have clear, actionable advice. Like, I could go back to my desk and immediately start implementing new practices to improve my work.
All of this lead to choosing Spartan Abilities as the topic for my talk. More specifically, I was going to take a deep dive into the concept, controls and tuning behind the Spartan Charge & Ground Pound abilities.
Creating a "Mostly Complete" Presentation (~8 days)
Unless you've spoken at a previous GDC or you're an extremely well known developer, just submitting the abstract probably isn't going to land you the talk. There's a second stage for many folks that involves writing a "mostly complete" presentation. One great thing I wasn't expecting was being assigned a mentor during this phase. It was extremely helpful having someone with inside knowledge about what makes a good talk give me feedback. Here are some things I learned:
- Less is more. After getting a first pass of the full presentation completed, I never added additional material. I only removed material in favor of ensuring I had time to get into enough detail on the areas that were most important to me.
- Using Google Slides for this stage was really nice. Eventually you'll need to create a proper PowerPoint presentation using the template provided, but at this stage using Google Slides is great cause you can work on the talk from anywhere. I hated having to keep track of my latest file between all the computers I use after switching to PowerPoint.
- Ask for feedback early. It can be really nerve racking opening yourself up to criticism on something like this, but just bite the bullet and do it sooner rather than later. You don't want to go down the wrong path for too long and then be told it's not working out.
Polishing The Presentation (~15 days)
Completing the last 20% is 80% of the work, right? 15 days for this phase sounds like a lot, but I actually think it might have been more. To say I obsessed over this stage is an understatement. I was recording and tweaking the presentation up until the night before I gave the talk. Here's what I learned during this phase.
- Remove as much text from the slides as you can. I got this feedback a few times. I stripped out every word I could by the end. It's less overwhelming for the audience. A wall of text can be intimidating/confusing.
- Present one bullet point at a time. Don't display the full list all at once. Spoon feeding one at a time is a little more manageable on the receiving end.
- Keep the slides engaging (i.e. don't let them be static for too long). Maybe it's A.D.D., maybe it's the internet or maybe it's just people, but we get distracted. One way I tried to combat this was to have a constant, slow drip feed of animations in the presentation to keep people focused on what was going to pop up next.
- Use animated gifs, but don't keep them up for too long. If a picture paints a thousand words, animated gifs can paint a million. But, don't leave them up for too long, otherwise that's all people will be able to look at and they'll stop listening to you.
- Record yourself giving the talk...then do it again...and again. This. As many times as you can. Pure and simple.
- Present in front of real people when you get the chance. It's weird, but you become hyper aware of what you're saying when there are actual people in front of you. Just recording yourself is not enough at this phase.
Delivering the Presentation (1 Nerve Wracking Hour)
The week surrounding my GDC talk was a bit of a whirlwind. It was hard to balance catching up with family and friends, attending the conference and finalizing my talk, but I got through it O_o Just a few last pieces of advice for the day of.
- Don't drink (alcohol) the night before and get lots of sleep. Both of these should go without saying, but catching up w/ old friends at the conference can be tempting. Just accept you're not going to do that the night before your talk.
- Wake up 2-3 hours before the talk. Eat breakfast, drink coffee and get to the talk with ample time to chill. Leave time to get comfortable in the room before people show up. You don't want to feel rushed.
- Try to enjoy it. I was way too wound up and it comes through in the talk. Hopefully, if there is a next time, I have a little more fun with it.
Getting Ranked & Evaluated
Here are some data points I received from my talk. Nothing to brag about, for sure, but I like to be transparent about this stuff. I'd give myself a C+.
- Total Headcount: 143
- Session Ranking within Design Track: your session is ranked 29 of 34
- Session Ranking within Game Developers Conference 2016: your session ranked 266 of 384
- Evaluation Response -- Total Count of Each Response
- Excellent --- Count: 20 , Percentage: 43%
- Good --- Count: 25 , Percentage: 53%
- Poor --- Count: 2 , Percentage: 4%
- Terrible --- Count: 0 , Percentage: 0%
Finally, here's some raw feedback that made it back to me in the surveys. First, the good (for the most part):
- "Great deck, solid info including many notes on the iterative process, and also revealed a solid and easy to follow step by step design process. Best talk I've seen this year so far."
- "Jam-packed with mechanical goodness. Insightful and engaging!"
- "I went to this talk mostly as a halo fanboy, but when I started to get engaged in this talk I started to learn more about the many iterations they did on the spartan abilities. This made me feel more comfortable on where they landed with them and I will be able to take this methodology on button mapping iterations back to my studio."
- "Very informative and paced well over the hour. Had the right amount of content and very relatable as a designer/researcher working in MP FPSs for console."
Now, some mixed reviews:
- "Sounded like he read the presentation word by word, which makes it feel a bit unnatural. Interesting data and GREAT footage. Video makes everything so much more interesting and did an EXCELLENT job of explaining/demonstrating things."
- "I liked seeing the examples on-screen. It was very helpful. It did however, sound like he was just reading off a paper, which made it a little bit harder to pay attention and not as genuine, but the content was all spot-on and very informative."
- "I've never played the game that was the subject matter, but the talk presented interesting techniques, I did feel that the presenter read a script, as opposed to knowing their talk though."
- "Great talk! The speaker had a lovely voice but he could benefit from doing more inflections, the voice was becoming monotone. Injecting high and lows, and pacing. Rich, deep content nicely packaged!"
These folks were not pleased:
- "Speaker was much more engaging AFTER the talk during Q&A off-script, would have loved to see more of that during the talk itself. Tendency to speak in monotone as if reading a script during lecture. Wanted more depth - too much entry level stuff (recall things like an entire slide about iterating at your desk before playtesting). That's Design 101, not why I attend GDC talks. Ingredients are there for good talks in future, but something went wrong here - scope either too narrow, or focus in the wrong areas. Lots of questions about things like camera iteration (first->third person transition), aiming/reticle design for Ground Pound ability, etc. that would have been appreciated during talk instead of design basics."
- "The speaker could be better at engaging his audience. A lot of the information was very basic. Most game desisgners should know that process."
Anyway, hope some of this behind the scenes insight is interesting to y'all. Good luck with all the submissions this year!