I like San Francisco. I like the western US, and SF is my second most favorite place over there, right after Seattle. I have gone there once a year for the Game Developers Conference for five years now. It’s enough to start to know my way around downtown.
This year I was staying at the Marriott. It’s an old hotel right next to the Moscone Center where the conference is held, in the middle of the other big downtown hotels. As a base for doing business at GDC, it’s great. The lobby is busy and the top floor bar, The View, is a popular and well-known site after hours, with its commanding, Death Star -esque view of the skyline. I was reminded of Blade Runner’s opening shot when first visiting it at night, five years ago. That scene has lodged itself in my brain as “the America experience”.
Looking at my schedule, I had two meetings at Game Connection, two meetings in another hotel – the Inter-Continental, on the other side of Moscone – and everything else inside the Marriott. It sounded like a sad, weak way to spend a week in San Francisco, but I was there to work, anyway. Later I heard that some Finnish folks had been even worse, never branching out from between hotels and Moscone.
Game Connection is a sister event to GDC, held in the Francis Drake hotel on Union Square. I hadn’t been there before. There’s a lot of tables for meeting people in the somewhat cramped, labyrinthine space. It was really warm, hot even, inside, and I got the impression it was mostly outsourcing companies looking for clients. The atmosphere was busy and positive. I ran into a bunch of friends and colleagues and potential business partners. I was happy to get out of there after my meetings.
The Marriott is run-down, with a loud, cold lobby, but the rooms are nice and quiet. I slept better than at any other conference I’ve been to. Most of my time was spent in a meeting space on the second floor, with three rooms our agents were cycling developers and publishers through. The meeting rooms were big and old, impersonal and uneasy.
The best feature of the meetings were the automatically shutting lights. Two thirds into my piece, they usually cut off, with our agents getting up and jumping around to re-light them. Maybe that says something about me needing to be more animated when presenting.
I really like talking about and presenting our games. I believe in the games and I want to make them. It’s so important to me that I spend a number of weeks before a big show to really buy into whatever we’re doing – meditating, projecting, self-motivating, daydreaming. I need to believe in it on an animal level – the actual memorizing of facts comes at the last minute and isn’t even important to how I do.
I prefer to present on my own, because then I don’t have to think about what my colleagues are thinking, and can just concentrate on the moment: the client and the game. Having the agent along to take notes frees bandwidth as you don’t have to think about stuff you need to remember after the fact. All told, this year’s set-up was ideal for me.
What I always do is make a presentation PowerPoint that is way too long and just doesn’t fit with the way I actually talk about the game, when sitting down with someone. This year was my best effort in that regard, but I still ended up skipping much of the material on the PPTs. I was really very proud of our videos – by far the best we’ve produced for these things, and something I’d love to share with everyone. As usual, getting any sort of audio playback was a pain – it’s weird how something like this doesn’t “just work” these days. One of these years I’m going to remember to buy a convenient portable speaker that’s powerful enough for a conference room.
A shitty presentation destroys your confidence. I’ve learned to get over those, as long as I can figure out what went wrong. Usually a botched presentation feels like you never connected with the client – sometimes the client can seem unwilling to tune into your frequency. I had none of those this year. I did have one stellar presentation instead. That gives you an insane high, it feels like you can do anything. The secret was an audience that paid absolute attention and got into the thing openly and not in that super reserved fashion you commonly see.
We didn’t have any no-shows, which is something of a miracle, actually. A couple of meetings ran so late we had to do with ten minutes instead of the planned thirty. To my credit I cleared those effortlessly.
On Thursday I spent a while in a lobby and a corridor with Ninja Theory’s Tameem Antoniades, who was there waiting for a meeting, like me. I really wanted to go over and be a fanboy, but didn’t. He should know people still appreciate Kung Fu Chaos.
Later that day I had a couple of hours off, so I went for a walk down to the Ferry Building at the end of Market Street and took the BART back. After the conference I found out that there was this awesome impromptu event – Lost Levels, a kind of shadow GDC – being held in the Yerba Buena Gardens, right under my hotel window. I feel so bummed for missing out on that! I read about it on Twitter but didn’t realize it was outside the show proper – which I didn’t have a pass for.
The Marriott doesn’t have breakfast. There’s an expensive, loud, busy Starbucks in the lobby, but I preferred to use my mornings for taking a walk and finding something to eat further out. One morning I found a fresh, hot bagel, on another I had a craving for Denny’s – a huge mistake, the overpowering sugar rush left me wrecked until late in the afrernoon. Friday morning was the best. I had seen long queues outside all the downtown Super Duper Burger joints, but at eight in the morning I was the only customer on Market Street. It was really juicy, really messy, and really good.
On Thursday night I hooked up with an ex-colleague. We took a walk to a random party in a speakeasy style bar, unmarked black door and a further hidden door in a bookcase and all. The neighborhood was a little dodgy and put me somewhat on edge. It’s weird how fast it changes in a city like San Francisco, basically in a block you can go from a high street to something populated only by the homeless.
I had a day off on Friday and wanted to really see the town. I knew I wanted to visit the Pacific Pinball Museum again, like we did last summer with my wife (who turned out to be a pinball maniac – I had no idea), but aside from that I had no plans beyond taking in the city. I checked out of my room and left my flightbag at the hotel luggage storage.
Taking off walking, I headed for Telegraph Hill. It was a great walk in the rising morning temperature. I got to see quite a bit of SF sights I hadn’t seen before and got a much better idea of the city on the way. I realize it’s basically just a couple of streets’ worth, but that’s still much more than just the downtown. And while we did drive around last year a bit, walking is just different. You get a pulse you just don’t unless you’re putting soles on the pavement.
By the time I found my way to the top of the hill, I was sweaty and positively felt like summer. Taking the elevator to the top of the Coit Tower was worth it for the postcard photos and just looking around. A small group of people were exercising on the lawn at the foot of the Coit Tower. Their old dogs relaxed in the sunshine. One was so weak his elderly owner carried him back down the hill after their slow, familiar walk up the hill. Time seemed to slow down.
I found a steep, mostly hidden staircase down from the other side of the hill, towards Embarcadero and the waterfront. It had an amazing area with a mostly vertical park combined with small houses. It felt like a quiet, idyllic suburb somewhere in a European garden city. Cobwebs covered the only streetsign in the park.
Finally reaching street level again, I found out I had stumbled onto the courtyard of the Levi’s headquarters campus. The 14-year old myself wouldn’t believe I’m here, when Levi’s basically symbolized the whole American way of life, something we all thought we aspired to.
The goal for the day was the magical Pacific Pinball, located across the bay. I took the BART over there. Emerging on the other side, I was puzzled at the sudden sight of chicken on a backyard, followed by apparently drug addicts sleeping on cheap, plastic, stained garden furniture. The contrast to the downtown sights just some five minutes away on rail was striking.
I wanted to use a local bus to save money and to just feel better for getting around sensibly. After some half an hour of searching, I gave up trying to figure out the layout of the area and settled for a cab, found in front of a convenient hotel.
Pacific Pinball was great, as it always is. It was my third time there. I enjoy the 90s machines the most as that’s what I encountered in my own life – favourites being Elvira, Medieval Madness and Attack From Mars. As pinball halls go, Pacific Pinball is great, but the one you must visit if you’re a fan is the Pinball Hall of Fame in Las Vegas. It is spartan (and unbearably hot in July), but their collection has to be seen (played) to be believed.
There was a Japanese restaurant across the road so I had some ramen for lunch. An old guy sitting at a table across from me had obviously been coming there for a long time. The restaurant didn’t look that old, though. We were alone in the big hall.
I tried to hook up with a former colleague when I was ready to leave. Waiting for his plans to clear, I had a coffee in a nearby coffeeshop and marveled at the warmth, thinking back to the freezing winter still waiting for me back home. We finally agreed to meet back at the hotel downtown, so I catched a bus back.
I didn’t have any change on me and when I dug out a five dollar bill to pay, understanding that I wouldn’t get any change in return – it was still much cheaper than a cab would be – a young man sitting in front stood up to interject, offering to pay. He hated to see money go to waste, so he wanted to pay on my behalf on principle. That would never happen in Finland.
Back downtown I hooked up with my friend and we drove on his rental across the Golden Gate bridge to take in the sights. An unbelievably dense fog had risen up, covering all of the bridge save for the very tops of its supports, even when you were looking at it right from its end. The city looked like Cloud City from Star Wars. We drove up the mountain and didn’t really see much anything due to the extreme fog. The sunset was surreal, the sun a molten ball of icecream on a sea of painted clouds so dense they looked like you could jump on them.
With this somewhat off-topic post I am signalling a change in the blog’s direction. I have so many things on my plate right now that I am no longer going to be committed to a weekly update pace. The content is going to stay the same, covering my travels – whether literal or less so – in games, it’s just going to be less regular.
What are those other things, then? I want to get more writing done and the blog has forced me to prioritize games writing. I want to practice more guitar and write songs and that means less time spent playing games, thus having less to write about. Finally and perhaps most pressingly, I’m changing jobs after over five years and want to focus on the new challenges. Thank you Bugbear for these five years and the introduction to the industry, hello Remedy.