A GDC Experience by Ravi Sanampudi

Posted by | April 03, 2014 | General | 2 Comments

Fat Loot engineer Ravi Teja Sanampudi describes his experience at GDC 2014, below. 

GDC!

I almost did not go for it.

Thought it was too much effort and cost to go to SF from LA, pay for the Pass, stay at a hotel and eat outside for a week. Especially considering I’m a student spending each dollar and each hour thoughtfully. Plus, I can’t possibly leave my precious assignments and personal projects for a week, right?

Lucky I am in a circle of game developers. Many from my college were going. I reconsidered. Our super helpful TA, Powen, gave a good perspective on pros and cons (none really) of going to GDC. So I thought, ok, let me take the cheapest Pass avaialable. But when I looked at the schedule, I saw awesome talks from developers of The Last of Us, Bioshock Infinite, Infamous Second Son, Assassin’s Creed, etc. Really exciting. But I’d have to pay $900! Are you kidding me??!! I could get 2 PS4s for that! Pay 2 months of living expenses! Or just buy 900 chocolate bars. No way I’d spend so much. Maybe.
After a LOT of thinking and a final discussion with my Dad, I finally bought it! The Main Conference Pass!
Then we booked the hotel and travel and just forgot about GDC.

Monday, March 17

First day! Sachit and I picked up our badges around 10am, saw the Video Game History Museum, picked up free (yay!) game dev magazines and walked around the North and South Halls. Then we went to Microsoft Lounge where they had Development Challenges setup. I started with the Unity Challenge. It was a tutorial on making a simple 3D treasure hunt game. Took about 30 minutes for that. Then I did the Project Spark tutorial. That was new and interesting. It seemed friendly to artists because there’s no code per se, but being a programmer, I’d still prefer to write code for gameplay logic. For building terrain, assigning textures, placing assets, etc the interface seemed pretty good. The designer sitting beside me built an awesome level within 1 hour (he was told to leave eventually because there were others waiting to use the computer!)

Sachit had the Expo and I Main Conf Pass, so there weren’t any Talks for us to attend. We left around 3pm and toured SF (was our first time here). Fisherman’s Wharf was good. We walked till the end of the ports and noticed a road going way up.. almost 35 degree slope!. We walked, walked and when we reached the top, wow what a view! long, uninterrupted views of vehicles, buildings, lights… and the sky! We just ran around like little kids. Every where we turned there was something awesome to see! North, South, East, West .. brilliant. We fell in love with the city then and there :) We walked around till almost 9pm then finally returned to the hotel.
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Tuesday

I went to Unity Developer Day session. It was packed beyond capacity and I was in waiting line for almost 30 minutes. Met a designer (Joe) in the line, had a good chat. Finally got in when they were announcing new features in Unity 5. The way they convert the C++ and C# code to WebGL and asm.js for deploying on the web was cool. It’s great that now Unity games can run on browser without any plugins.
Went to the Student Narrative Analysis posters section and saw a guy (Mostafa Haque) showing his analysis of Soul Reaver 2. Wow. One of my first and favorite games.

In the evening was Sony’s (not so secret) VR announcement. Went in 30 minutes prior to the event and saw a line of … just 300 people. haha. Noticed Dean Takahashi (Venturebeat reporter) just at the beginning of the line. I think he was there like 2 hours before the event. In the midst of the long line, suddenly I saw someone that looked like Andrew House. I looked at his badge and omg, it was him! Whaaat! And Shu Yoshida right beside him! They were walking hurriedly in some direction. Later when the presentation started, Shu spoke about his interest in VR technology and how they were prototying it from a few years now. Was pretty exciting to just see a legend talking right in front of me :D ..plus, he was lively: giving thumbs up gestures and grins to the audience.

After that I attended the USC Games Dinner. Surprised at how many people there were! At first I just sat down with Chen, Lu & Sachit, but later went around and talked to quite a few people. Good fun.

Wednesday

The 1st big day for Main Conference attendees! The awesome lectures start today!
I woke up early, planned my preferred and backup talks, packed the nutrition / energy bars and water in my bag (like Richard Lemarchand suggested) and ran to West Hall. Wanted to reach by 9am for the XBOX One talk, but was late .. so went for the Flash Forward event where  speakers gave a 45 second preview of their talks for the rest of the week. Pretty interesting. Discovered some cool talks that I otherwise would not have known from the schedule.

So my first talk: Rendering Technology of RYSE! Some of it made sense. :-/ When they went to low level rendering details I couldn’t grasp the awesomeness. Then Crystal Dynamics hosted Student Networking lunch! I saw people get Tomb Raider T Shirts and I was so excited! When my turn came I asked “wheres the T shirt, wheres the T shirt? Hope you didn’t run out of them!” Then Lindsey (the HR) said the shirts were for the developer team only :-/ :( .. sigh … But I did get sweatshirt, artbook, comic book, bag, keychain.. OMG so much swag!! Drool~~~
I talked to the 3 programmers present there, along with the other bunch of eager students all gathering around the rockstar TR programmers. They were pretty nice and explained the technologies, tools used and general culture (designer – programmer teamwork) at Crystal Dynamics. Maybe some day I can join and help with a Tomb Raider game (dreamy eyes)
There was a raffle. Unfortunately I didn’t win anything, BUT my roomate Lu won a bag full of goodies. Later at night we saw that it had a TR Collectors edition set, and a TR T shirt! I was so desperate to get it! I told him I NEED THAT! Luckily it was M Size and wouldn’t fit him, so YAY I got it! (Definitely one of the highlights of GDC for me :P )
Anyway, the event ended too soon (just 1 hour :( ) and then it was back to the lectures!

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I was looking forward to this one. The Visual Effects of Infamous Second Son! Heelll yeaaahh! (Fan of Infamous 2). It was pretty interesting; Matt Vainio talked about the stages of the Smoke and Neon powers’ implementation from concept, references, art and expression editor for iterating on effects.
Next session! Rendering in Battlefield 4!
This was a bit technical, and the presenter didn’t help to make it interesting so I couldn’t follow much and left midway. I ran in and out of couple of other sessions for the next 30 minutes.

Then at 5pm, my first Naughty Dog talk!
The Last of Us – Human Enemy AI
This was actually the talk I could connect with best because Travis McIntosh talked about AI features in TLOU, some of which I too used for the guards in Fat Loot. I heard him talk about solving the vision and navigation problems that I faced with Fat Loot guards. Of course, Naughty Dog had more sophisticated and clever solutions compared to what I implemented, but the general ideas were similar. Some points he made addressed unfixed issues with Fat Loot AI. So maybe I can use that to make our AI awesome too :)
At the end of the talk I actually asked him some questions (wow, I’m talking to a big guy now!) and it was quite informative.

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After that were the IGF and Game Developers Choice Awards.
Came to know of the innovative new Indie games out there.. Papers Please was like a monster, just hogged all the awards.
Then we saw Ken Kutaragi receiving the Lifetime Achievement award! OOO~~.
Sachit and I stuck around after the award ceremony and just went close to the stage. To our unbelievable astonishment, we saw the BIG guys walk out one by one: Brandon Beck and Marc Merill (Founders of Riot games), about 10 members of TLOU (OMG, the winners of Game of the Year award, right there in person!!), Lucas Pope (Papers Please), Shu Yoshida!! (Whaaaatt!) and Mark Cerny. We even got pictures with some of them. Wow.. that is definitely the highlight of GDC for me! Crazy stuff.
Sachit and I walked back home pretty high from the experience.

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Thursday

10am was tough.
A talk by Jason Gregory (Lead Programmer of TLOU!!, and whose texbook I am reading)
Versus
A talk about TLOU Melee System (which my prof at USC, Artem is working on, I think)
What to do, what to do, what to do … AAAAAHHHH
I went to the second one. Was decently interesting. But at the end (10:50am) I ran out to the room of Jason Gregory’s talk.
Was just in time for the Q&A session. I was glad to be able to see the man in person! But as a bonus, I got to stand beside him for a few minutes and even utter a few lines about how I’m a student of Artem at USC. I think he heard me. There were like 5 others trying to get his attention, so yeah ..pretty hard to chat one on one.

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From there I ran to another building for the Assassin’s Creed Black Flag – Road to Next Gen Graphics talk. That was pretty good .. learnt about some PS4 hardware specifics and programming techniques for parallelizing and getting performance from the GPU.
One thing I noted was that most of these top games were using Deferred Rendering. Glad I did a project on that last semester, else I might not have understood many of the talks.
During lunch time I met up with some people from Sony at the Expo Booth and then just walked around the Expo Floor. I felt like I was back at E3 .. all the flashy stuff and big booths and cool swag :) Was good.

Next, I went to Solving Visibility and Streaming in The Witcher 3. After that just cuz I wanted to hear a japanese talk, went to Rain postmortem.
4pm: Engine postmortem of Infamous Second Son. Was informative.
5:30pm – Lighting in TLOU by Vivian Ding. Was a pure art talk (no programming), but it was interesting to learn how scenes are built from concept stage to final rendering.

That was a long day full of great lectures!
Just went home, ate and slept!

Friday

The final day! I was pretty much overwhelmed by all the awesome talks so far, and constantly seeing people from the greatest game companies just sitting and walking around me .. it really felt like I was at the heart of the game industry. But just one more day, let’s make good use of it!

Went to Bill Rockenbeck’s Infamous Second Son Particle System Architecture talk. He explained some cool algorithms in a simple way. Good talk.

I was about to go check out Career Fair (which should probably have been my first priority considering I was looking for internships), but then I noticed one of the schedule boards with the name Ken Levine on it. Whaaaattt! The guy from Bioshock Infinite, here?!! I had to check it out. I had automatically filtered it out from my schedule because it was neither a programming track nor art/ graphics track (which I was focusing on). This was a talk on Narrative. I wasn’t so sure I’d connect to that. But Ken talked very well. It was actually fun listening to the system of replayable and player driven story pieces. One of the best talks for me at GDC. And just check out the line of people for Q&A at the end! Wow! This man is popular and you know it!

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After that I had a choice: Have lunch or check out the career fair which would close at 3pm. Well, it was an easy choice. I just ran all over the Career Fair, picking up business cards, information brochures, and cool swag when possible :P
Swept over the Expo floor as well.. Saw CryEngine running on Linux, Project Anarchy’s free native engine source code for mobile development, some of the IGF nominated games, British and Canadian game industry representatives, and so much more! Could have just spent a whole day there .. but yeah, it had to end.

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All in all, a fantastic, informative and fun experience. Now I know how much I need to learn before I can be part of the games I enjoy.
So, back to USC and on with the project work hurray!

About Catherine Cai

Cat's the Spring Semester Lead Producer of Fat Loot.

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