Creating an event around a conference that attracts tens of thousands of developers and businesspeople, all of whom are managing busy schedules, is no mean feat. It’s even more challenging when it’s built from the grassroots, from the ground up, and aiming to make an impact while staying in the black. But that’s what the Annual Sunday GDC Kickoff Dinner has aimed to do for years. Now in the seventh year, the organizer, Andrew Alcott, and Shirley Lin, the co-host, are hoping to continue to grow the dinner, which has become a tradition for many early arrivals to the Game Developers Conference.
We had the chance to conduct a Q&A by email with Andrew Alcott.
Events for Gamers: Hi Andrew! To start with, what inspired your interest in the business of games? Secondarily, what motivated you toward organizing events, especially around the fields of games and tech?
Andrew Alcott: I’ve always loved the game industry and had dreams of contributing to it since the age of 4 when I got my first computer, loading and playing DOS games. From that point on I knew I wanted to be in the industry making the things I loved. As time went on, my interest went from game design to talent attraction due to my extroverted nature and ability to connect the dots.
When I went to school for game design, I knew right off the bat that early networking would be the key success in a highly competitive, yet small industry. From my freshman year, I took out a loan to go to GDC and started to seek out various events. The conference is great for learning, but the events and parties are where relationships are formed. In an industry where it’s more important about who you know versus what you know when you’re trying to get a foot in the door, getting into events was paramount!
The coalescence of my love of networking and actually my shyness moved me to start organizing events. I used to take a while to warm up to people and figured the easiest way to start networking would be to create a meetup of like-minded individuals. I reached out to one of the forums I was on my very first year of GDC and organized a small dinner of around 10 industry professionals and students. I loved being able to make friends over food so much that it has stuck with me ever since!
As my hunger for events grew, I started doing more and more, leading up to the first GDC Sunday Kickoff Dinner, organized for the Facebook group “The Fellowship of GDC Parties” seven years ago for a few of us active members. It has since blown up!
I knew that while I became a master at networking, tons of others just didn’t know how or were more introverted. I decided to really make my events focused on helping those that need a helping hand with networking in this small (but growing) industry where connections are key. If I had this problem, I’m sure many more do as well!
E4G: How might organizing events for your day job and also for yourself compliment and conflict?
Andrew: I think there’s not a lot of conflict in organizing events for my day job versus personally. All of my events are primarily focused on building the community and providing value to those that attend, with the side effect being additional name recognition and staying top of mind. Whether that’s helping people remember the company I’m with is alive and kicking to just knowing that my name is Andrew and I run cool events, I don’t feel it has any issues in ruining the other aside from time management. I do, however, think that it can complement each other nicely. Especially in San Francisco, attendance is key and SF has a ton of competition for where to spend one’s time. Having name recognition and building a personal brand of events that are worthwhile can help both for the day job as personal use to get quality guests time and time again.
E4G: What do you feel makes the Annual Sunday GDC Kickoff Dinner, which you are co-hosting with Shirley Lin this year, a special tradition for many early arrivals to GDC?
Andrew: I think it’s the fact that it’s non-pretentious and easily accessible to all. The event has kind of morphed into a ‘GDC’s first time’ must attend event due to the fact that there’s no exclusivity in the invite list. Everyone there is there to have a good meal, a good time, and to network. Most other events provide free food/booze, and so the attendees could have ulterior motives for being there, whereas ours don’t have large sponsorships so we have buy-in from all of the guests to meet and mingle. With Shirley helping, we also provide a great landing zone for international guests as well. I can’t help but notice that this year there are several Sunday events, where in the past we’ve mostly stood unchallenged. I’m sure it’s not all because of the Sunday GDC Kickoff Dinner, but I like to think that I’ve had a part to play in unofficially making Sunday the day to start GDC off instead of Monday.
E4G: What’s the biggest challenge (or challenges) in organizing an event to be held during GDC?
Andrew: The sheer budget you’ll have to worry about for one of the most expensive events in one of the most expensive cities. Most venues can cost thousands of dollars for the space alone, not including food and drinks. If you are running an event like mine, you’ll have to be on the line to hit food and drink minimums or risk going deep into the red if you don’t have the proper number of guests.
That brings me to my second biggest challenge: guests! GDC is packed with events, so finding your niche and really capitalizing on it is vital to the continued success. As the games industry evolves, so too must our events and even I am already thinking about next year and how to better position ourselves to serve the community.
E4G: What standard/s determines for you whether the Annual Sunday GDC Kickoff Dinner this year is a success?
Andrew: I really care about the feeling of the room when I look around. Is everyone smiling, eating and having a good time? Then I’ve done a job well done. It doesn’t matter if my attendance shrinks or grows, as long as I’ve made a positive impact for those wanting to get into networking with a bit of help instead of being tossed to the wolves.
E4G: Some may feel that making some events paid versus sponsored/free limits the ability to attract attendees. In general, by providing what value can that perception be overcome?
Andrew: I guess if your goal was just being able to brag that you had X number of attendees, then I would agree. However, I feel events, like people, are unique and really vary on what type of ROI you’re looking for. Paid events, I think, encourage those attending to have more skin in the game. Not only will more of them actually show up, but they’ll also be utilizing the event to fullest since they paid money. At a free event, you can roll in, grab your free tickets and chug a few cocktails and then peel out to go to the other seven events on your calendar. Does that provide value to any of the events? Perhaps. Maybe it’s a celebration, maybe the guest will mingle a bit longer with a few more drinks inside them. The budget and guest issues are my biggest challenges with events, and paid events help solve both of those: Less need to acquire money and more accurate forecasting on event attendance.
E4G: What do you think the overarching trends are for the game industry, and how it might affect the events people create and host in the business?
Andrew: Well, the hot topic right now is crypto, with VR/AR still holding some ground. With interesting technology like WaveVR gaining traction I expect in the future we’ll have more live-virtual events as well some very swanky, and heavily funded crypto style events. Inclusion is more of a priority for companies as well, so I would expect a lot of events bringing more minorities into the light and showcasing their skills will show up in the next few years as well.
E4G: What one key bit of advice would you give someone organizing events at the grassroots level for, or around, games industry conferences?
Andrew: It’s never too early to secure a venue.
E4G: What would you like to be doing in the next few years ahead in the game industry — and events space?
Andrew: Ideally, I’d like to have the Annual Sunday GDC Kickoff Dinner have subsidized tickets for existing developers, with a limited batch of student tickets to change the ratio a bit to give those new the industry plenty to talk to and learn from. I also have been dabbling starting this year in holding additional events that are more eccentric and exclusive in addition to the dinner. I want to have unique events that people talk about long after they’ve ended. Like an Asian Videogame Gatsby.