There and Back Again (GDC Version)

A modern giant hobbit’s tale for traveling to this year’s San Francisco GDC…

…and luckily returning to his own Shire margin.

This giant hobbit’s name is Daniel Vijoi, Lead Senior Artist at AMC Ro Studio.
This year we were invited, alongside some other Romanian indie and AAA studios, to attend this fantastic developers’ gathering called GDC.

They said more than 28k people attended this year and judging from the length of the waiting line I would say it was probably way more. The queue, formed all around the building, started somewhere in the first hours and dissolved somewhere after lunch time. Crazy. More info here.

GDC was held at the Moscone Center, 20-24 of March, and as big as this complex is, it felt too small to fill the hordes of game developers around Middle Earth… and other artist caverns.

According to GDC organizers, we had to choose from over 1,000 speakers and 700 sessions, workshops, roundtable discussions and networking opportunities.

Only in a place like this can you understand how big and dynamic this industry is. I have attended other events like GDC, Gamescom, etc. in the past, but we seem to forget from time to time that we are just a small, tiny wheel from this giant industry.

It started rough, this trip, as I should have been accompanied by a younger colleague, Environment Artist Mircea Constantinescu, to this event. But for some reason the Iron Man’s sentinels from US customs denied him entrance to the country for not matching COVID paperwork…although plenty of attendees traveled without issues, and without proper papers via different routes.

Luckily, he returned from Munich, not from the US, so it was just a short flight back home for him. Sadly, this affected my mood during the entire stay, but not as much as it affected him, as he was super excited for his first ever trip to the US. This trip was mostly for him to meet the industry on a larger scale and see how panels are made, as in some years he might be landing his own panel for some interested audiences.

I continued my trip with my long-time brother in arms Marcel Neamtu, CEO at Quantic Games and Andreea Sava from RGDA (Romanian Game Developers Association), who made our trip way easier by helping us out with lots of paperwork and info. 

Andreea, if you’re reading this, thank you again for everything.

Long trip, very long trip. Felt like passing Mordor by a long shot. Everyone coming from Europe to the US must feel this pain. Such a big pain that I’ve seen two Lord of the Rings movies in a single flight and still had time for two or three extra movies, as I can’t sleep on planes.

Finally, we set foot on San Francisco International Airport and a customs official asked us questions about what it takes to create a video game. This brought a bit of a smile to our faces as I started to sort of play around. He was like:

Q: what do you need for a video game to work?

A: hmmm, an engine?!

Didn’t know exactly what specific answer he was looking for, so I started adding 8-9 more things to the story. Until he reckoned it’d take too long if he did that to every other person in the waiting line.

Last time I was in San Francisco was in early February and the weather was way warmer compared to this late March. Extended winter, and our Uber driver Walter told us stories (visibly upset) about how this city had begun to deteriorate over the last 20 years or so and how COVID affected businesses as everywhere else. About this, SF seems to have had the slowest recovery after the pandemic in the US. Considering we stayed in the Fisherman’s Wharf area, we felt that extended winter straight in our lungs as we got colds twice in a week, one by one.

Walter’s stories started to seem true as the city seemed empty-ish to me at first, tall buildings half empty or half full, lights off and all.

Day One

The first day at GDC started with me missing out on a lot of booked panels as no one expected such long waiting lines for getting that badge, like I mentioned above. We preferred to scout the area instead and familiarize ourselves with the surroundings until armies of warriors dispersed into the four or five buildings this complex had. Coming back to the queue we found it was the same length, but the speed had increased a bit.

I’ve booked mostly creative-oriented talks, usually on art direction, art production, workflows, but also leadership-oriented talks as these are always fun to confirm or learn new stuff about leading our own teams or learning to communicate or co-op with each other in style. These talks are usually summed up in similar ways following endless battles between departments, “advanced” communication tools or methods save the day. I’ve seen it so many times that it is almost a pattern, only the studio name differs.

Day Two

After a rough first day, on the second one we met with some of the other Romanian participants at GDC, officials from the Ministry, RGDA, and took a photo all together, the Romanian gang.

We had folks from local studios like AMC Ro Studio, Quantic Games, Amber Studio, KillHouse Games, Liberty Field, and others.

Rainy second day, but I managed to catch a few great summits. Like the one that I loved a lot, from Striking Distance Studio with their awesome The Callisto Protocol insides about using masks in Substance Painter for great performance and time savings, while still looking amazing.

Since we’ve also been working with Unreal Engine 5 for some time now, we’ve already used 2 or 3 similar methods, including this one, in our workflows with our clients. Old school texturing seems to be somewhere behind us, so far away. Blending tiles seems to be the new standard for everybody nowadays, as it brings so many benefits.

But also taking its toll on the senior artists which simply loved to get lost in intricate layers in Photoshop or Painter to replicate stuff as realistically as possible with classic workflows…. 

*sighing realizing how old I am in this industry and how many workflows we’ve changed along the way, or simply old*

One of the areas where you could test some of the indie games:

Another cool summit that I liked a lot on Tuesday was “Artist vs Manager” by Kacper Niepokolczycki, Lead Environment Artist at CD Projekt Red.

It was about managing relationships with your team as an ex-artist, now lead, and keeping a healthy balance considering sometimes you need to take tough decisions in your team, etc. A lot of the folks with some years in the industry relate to these struggles, but also with the findings at the end. 

It is confirmation that at some point we’re all going through the same stages in game development and we need to make it work, and somehow, we seem to find the same solutions. It’s just a comforting testimony that we are not crazy and that our struggles are normal on the gameboard, just as it is for everybody else. 

Some of his tips to take away: follow your instincts, listen to the team, see the big picture and prioritize and execute among others. And also, his summarized recipe: change perspective/detach, improve all the time, don’t stop creating, listen to the team, delegate (which I struggled a lot with in the past), prioritize and execute, and the last one: Have Fun. Simple, right?! It should be, it is, but only takes years and years of practice and tons of projects. Most of the team leads learn these things the hard way, on their own.

Day Three

Super busy day as the Expo opened and even more crowds of armies took the underground area from the Moscone buildings which extended over 2 buildings or so. Lots of games were ready to be tested, professionals from Unreal, Unity, Godot and others ready to answer your questions regarding their engine’s new updates, or simply get 1:1’s with their tech to solve old mysteries, or show you tips and tricks.

Main attraction of the day was Unreal’s presentation at the lovely Blue Shield of California Theater with awesome stuff from their update 5.2. A lot of the new features were out on the same day on various platforms like this.

Really amazing what you can do nowadays in a matter of minutes with these tools. Among other new things, the update will bring a new Substrate material system and a bunch of amazing procedural tools.

And even more details for the tech aficionados here.

Another panel I really liked that day was from Deep Silver Volition’s Art Director Frank Marquart on Saint Row’s art direction. Super funny dude, who changed his costume three times to support his talk and to entertain his audience. Awesome content showcase on their path for the game’s reboot.

You can watch the trailer for their reboot here.

Going home after an exhausting day, we got the chance to take a ride in the historic cable car..and find hidden gems in the bay.

Later in the evening, I found even more hidden gems at Musée Mécanique on Pier 45. Sooo many mechanical games are still functional, more than 300 items, you could simply toss a coin and you could play them. This is a family-owned museum, started by Edward Zelinsky (1922-2004), and they actually let you play the games. Many of them are pieces of history and many of them influenced a lot of folks to get into the game industry.

This is just a snapshot of what you could see and play there.

Piers at sunset look amazing, rich color palette and other gems hidden everywhere you look, like these WW2 submarines or battleships. Lower image with entrance to Musée Mécanique.

Day Four

Made a new friend in the morning. Shaking hands with the “Shaking Man”. 

Then I started shaking myself, cause of the weather outside, and went in to catch up with the panels, the newly opened Expo area to see what new games were popping.

A lot of activities to choose from, like this area setup for peeps that wanted to take a break and maybe talk new deals over some board games. Staff were available to introduce new folks to the games.

Another area was set up with games to play on old consoles and machines to remember how and why we started this journey in the games industry, but also for younger players who never experienced good old gigs. Like for example this Atari 2600 from 1977 and sold until 1992. Playing below is an adaptation of Halo 2600 from 2010. 128 bytes of memory and 1.19MHz CPU. Nuts. You can still buy these games from AtariAge on their website.

This is one of the areas where you could play some of the indie games supported by some of the game engine creators present. These ones are from the Unreal area.

This was one of the panels from Unreal that kept going all day long, with various tech artists ready to discuss different aspects if you wanted an even more in-depth showcase.

Like I said earlier, you could get into 1:1’s with their tech guys at some remote setups to debug some of your issues with their engine, learn more, find better workflows on all corners of a game build, even audio.

Last Day of GDC

On the road to Moscone Center we took the 1051 tram and we found it was featured in the 2008 movie Milk with Sean Penn and is now dedicated to Harvey Milk.

Really amazing cars that, despite being so old (built in 1948), look like they were out of factory doors some weeks ago. More about this particular tram here. I got to appreciate the folks that are keeping these pristine and functional.

Also met with old friends that attended GDC with other studios. This is Horia Serban who worked with AMC until 6-7 years ago and he has been working ever since at GIANTS Software, who are the creators of the Farming Simulator series. Remembering other good times and fun stories we had on different projects in the past.

One of the last panels I attended was a bit different and was focused on hate and toxicity in online games, which we are all witnessing in games we play or watching streamers we follow.

Host of the presentation was Mike Pappas, CEO at Modulate, along with guests: Eve Crevoshay from Take This, Elspeth Eastman who is a Twitch streamer and Daniel Kelley from the Anti-Defamation League. They talked about bullying and hate in games but also what measures are taken to fight this and minimize effects. This is affecting, more than we realized, some developers’ player base, degrades player experience and so on.

Later on, we met another old friend, who also worked with us at AMC, Vlad Gheorghiu. He now lives in the US, in Sacramento nearby. Didn’t change much as I knew him, just some gray hairs like most of us. Same fun and energetic person, we reminisced on some forgotten stories and new ones about his life in the US.

That was the sunniest day since we arrived there and we chose to stay outside more, since I didn’t have any panels booked that last day.

Wandering the awesome piers to better see the skyline of the city, Oakland-Bay bridge and other cool places nearby.

Watching anglers fishing for leopard sharks with some very old fishing rods was unexpected and surprising.

Walking on foot back home to the hotel, to see more of the city findings…

…led us back to the famous Pier 39 where you don’t really know where to look or what to experience first.

Sadly, didn’t have time for Alcatraz and bay trips with boats as I wished, but found other hidden places with their stories to tell, like Bubba Gump Shrimp Co, for those remembering the Forrest Gump character Bubba, who knew everything about shrimps due to his family business. And if you want to remember more about this character from the movie, here are some shots from it.

Getting closer to the end of the day, I went to the edge of Pier 39 to make some more new friends. These loud dudes reminded me of some of the meetings we had in the past. 😊

Packed my bags in the evening and prepared myself for the ultra-long flight back home to my Shire. Lots of the people going back home to Europe had many flights canceled because of the strike in Germany airports. Luckily for us we had connection flights back with Swissair, still delayed because of the heavy storms from that day, but I at least got home. 

Had a bit of time on Saturday morning, before our flight, and got to see Aquarium of the Bay with some amazing species, including the same Leopard Shark I’ve seen caught by anglers on the piers, sturgeons, lots of jellyfish and others. The kicker was the jaws of a prehistoric Megalodon shark which could make you feel so tiny next to it.

Newer people in the industry would definitely have tons of things to learn from these events, to inspire them and show them that everybody struggles. But that as long as they have good teamwork and communication, some introspection from time to time, passion, and as long as they remember why we joined this industry and also remember to have some fun, everything will be fine and we’ll have similar stories to tell. 

Oh, and the last gem, from a Star Wars geek to another. Sadly, wasn’t ours. It would have surely made our 9400km back home nicer. R2D2 💔 

Bye for now!

Daniel Vijoi, Lead Senior Artist at AMC Ro Studio