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Notes From The Advisory Board: The Start Of The GDC 2010 Journey

[In a regular column, Gamasutra publisher Simon Carless -- recently added as a member of the Game Developers Conference Advisory Board -- goes behind the scenes to explain some of the most frequently asked questions about how GDC 2010 is taking shape, from lecture submissions to rating and beyond.]
So it's only September, and the main 2010 Game Developers Conference is being held from March 9th-13th, 2010. How much work can actually go into the conference this early, you might be asking?
Well, those who noticed the Call For Papers that the GDC organizers already held, we get started pretty early with lecture submissions and grading. And that's a cue for me to boot up this column and explain what happens behind the velvet (iron? velcro?) curtain. I'll be updating regularly with the GDC Advisory Board's perspective over the next few weeks and months.
One initial point that is worth making strongly. I know that in some conferences (both outside the game industry and in), the Advisory Board can take a much smaller role in actually directly picking the content.
But one of the reasons that Game Developers Conference is so well respected, I believe, is that all of the talks are either empirically chosen from submissions, or carefully and specifically invited by the official GDC Advisory Board. The GDC organizers don't pick your talk -- key members of your own peer group pick your talk.

So rather than being hands-off 'advisors', multiple Advisory Board members grade every single submitted talk. They also discuss submitted and invited talk specifics via email, phone, and during the course of multiple in-person meetings. Finally, they coach and mold conditionally accepted GDC talks into a better end product.
It's a testament to how much they care about GDC that these people -- busy, senior staff from companies like Bungie, Blizzard, Pandemic, Media Molecule, Epic, and Ubisoft -- take time out from their busy schedule to rate talks, meet and discuss them, and coach speakers to be better.
The Submission Games
The first step of actually getting to speak at Game Developers Conference is submitting talks, via an open submissions call that ends in mid-August. (Sorry, guys, it's done already - we advertised it extensively via email, this website, and sister outlets.) In fact, the GDC 2010 Call For Submissions page has a really useful synopsis of how the entire submission process works.
The submission process has actually changed in the last couple of years. It now allows would-be speakers to submit less -- but more targeted -- information as a first pass. There are more than 700 lecture, panel, and roundtable pitches submitted to GDC this year, and the Advisory Board has to individually rate and rank each of them, picking just a fraction to be showcased at the conference. (The GDC Summits have a separate, although basically similar process.)
Once upon a time, we encouraged people to submit as much information as possible in the first round. But it both increased work for the Advisory Board, and made submitters more chagrined at the time they spent on submissions if they didn't get picked. Therefore, we've found it works better to start off submitters by providing a 400-word or less session description, biography, and audience takeaway specifics.
You'll also find a FAQ page which explains what submitters can do right -- and by extension, what some often do wrong. The selection criteria are particularly instructive. As a first-time GDC submission evaluator this year, looking at the Business, Production and Design tracks, I learned a lot about what makes a good submission, and we'll discuss that in a later blog post.
Running The Data Gauntlet
And what happens after you submit? Well, your biographical info and submission specifics get flowed into the main GDC database, which has information on thousands of lectures given over multiple years of both main GDC and sister conferences such as GDC Austin and GDC Europe. And we actually track audience lecture ratings and individual written feedback comments going back at least 5 years, since we manually enter the written comments handed in at the end of each GDC lecture into our database.
What does this mean? Well, if you haven't spoken before, then it's less of a help. The Advisory Board will still consider your submission and rate it accordingly. With less context on how you've spoken before, they may ask for the entire presentation up front to evaluate, instead of just an extended synopsis. But if you have spoken before, then the board can see how your ratings have ebbed and flowed over the years, and get a general idea of what you do well or less well from the comments.
All talks are rated out of 5, so if a submitter has scored a 4.5 and then a 4.7 in the previous two years -- well above the median -- then the Advisory Board has a sense of confidence that you can deliver. If, on the other hand, your scores and comments are dipping over time, they're going to be a little more careful in evaluating your talk. (We do look carefully to see if it was a panel appearance or a lecture, and whether this affected your score in ways partly beyond your control.) There's no hard and fast rule, but context is incredibly important. With robust data collection and careful collation, we need not evaluate in a vacuum.
After submissions close, the Advisory Board is given a couple of weeks to run through and rate all of the talks in their subject area. (There are also sub-Boards for focused areas such as Art and Audio, which have additional qualified members to make sure those sectors get robustly reviewed by leading creators for that sub-profession.) Depending on what they choose to grade, most Advisory Board members will evaluate between 200 and 400 submissions, providing a score and internally specific comments for each.
We've been lucky once again this year to get submissions from some of the top developers in the industry - from Naughty Dog through Bungie and beyond. And by the time you read this, all of the initial submissions have been rated. The next step is to get together in person at the main yearly GDC Advisory Board meeting -- this year held in Napa in late August -- and discuss the lectures in person.
It's not enough to be a top-rated submission -- everyone has to agree that your lecture will add value to Game Developers Conference, and provide a truly high degree of learning and inspiration. And we'll talk about what went on at this year's GDC Advisory Board meeting -- at least in broad terms -- in the next 'Notes From The Advisory Board' blog entry.


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