Departure Angle on Viewer

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I don’t know if I’ve used that title before, but I do know once again GDC has come to an end. The Game Developer’s Conference has treated me very well over the past … uhh … darn near 20 years or so, and every year I think I’m going to do a trip report. And every year I don’t. But this year, I do know I’m going to at least give a brief retrospective.

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For those that don’t know, the Game Developer’s Conference is one of the largest conventions for computer game developers in the world – it might be the largest, but on the one hand I don’t have Internet yet, and on the other hand just because it’s huge doesn’t mean it’s the biggest. (I used to think San Diego Comic-Con was the biggest media convention, but Comiket is 3 times its size).

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In general, I find the biggest bang for the buck at GDC is the first two official days – Monday and Tuesday, the tutorials and summits. The next biggest bang for the buck is ad-hoc meetings between people – just getting together with people in the industry and chewing the fat. But, and this is the question I once had, how do you do that if you don’t know anybody?

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That’s why on the next three days they have Roundtables – more informal discussions aimed at people in your specific area. For game AI programmers, there are the AI Roundtables hosted by Neil Kirby, but I’ve been to other roundtables as well, and they’re a great way to both learn about the field and to meet people of all different levels.

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Now, the people you meet at a Roundtable may not be your best friends the first time that they meet you, but if you come back again and again – show up, be nice, and try to contribute – you’ll build relationships that are enduring in time. For AI game programmers, there’s the Game AI Programmer’s Guild and some associated dinners; there will be one for your area too.

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But beyond the first two days, there’s two or three main draws to the conference for me. There are talks, of course, and some would say that those are the real meat of GDC – we wouldn’t have a reason to come here to network if there wasn’t something we’re here for in the first place, whether it’s a product announcement or a technical talk …

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… or an unexpected bit of wisdom, such as the story of the creator of Diablo, who turned down an offer from a friend of a friend to “just let me use that empty room in the back as my office. I’ll give you ten percent of my company.” Diablo was in crunch time, so he told him “get lost kid” … not knowing he was turning down $40 million dollars when Hotmail sold the following year for $400M.

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Beyond the talks, there’s the show floor, which is so full of interesting things that you can’t begin to compress it into an easy tale; the pickings are better in some years than others, but you’ll still see amazing stuff.

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And … some more inexplicable stuff. I bet you didn’t know cloud computing involved actual clouds, but they had one:

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Finally, there’s the GDC store, where you can get swag of all sorts, from GDC gear (which people often see me wearing) to game gear to books of all sorts.

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For someone who believes the future of books is bright, I have to admit the pickings seem leaner each year …

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… but I still found some awesome books directly related to my area, and as much as we want ebooks to be everywhere, I just moments ago was chatting with someone at work who turned down a free PDF in favor of ordering a physical book on Amazon, because, like me, he found it easier to read that way.

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Finally, if you’re not local, GDC is a great chance to experience a new city. San Francisco is great, Union Square is a short walk, and there are many restaurants and coffeehouses and sights and parks that you can experience.

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It’s better if you can experience it with friends too – so make time for your friends while they’re in town.

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-the Centaur

More Eras Ending

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Ever since one of my childhood art teachers let slip that she’d lost all her childhood art in a fire, I’ve been acutely aware that good things come to an end. This knowledge has led me into what I call good ruts: the cultivation of experiences that work, which I cherish as long as they last.

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For me, a lot of these experiences revolve around food, or coffee, or books, or some combination of all three – usually in service of writing. I cultivated going to Mountain View for dinner followed by a visit to Cafe Romanza on Friday nights, since Romanza was embedded in a bookstore and was open to 11, often getting me an hour of reading over dinner and two to three hours of writing before I headed over to Bookbuyers’s used bookstore next door, itself open to midnight. But this pattern has started to crack, as Bookbuyers is slowly contracting itself into a smaller space, and Cafe Romanza has started closing earlier.

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There’s an illusion many store owners have that the last hours on their calendar are expendable, because “that’s not when we make money”. The reality is, late hours attract many people to bookstores and coffeehouses and restaurants because people want to chill out and enjoy their purchase – so if you look at your thin last hour and cut it, guess what? All the people like me who were attracted to your store are just going to go somewhere else. Welcome to the death spiral: I’d say something snarky like “I hope you enjoy it” but the truth is I wish you’d see the error of your ways so I could continue to enjoy your establishment.

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That’s why places like Coupa Cafe do so well: they specifically cultivate an environment where people don’t get kicked out. But even if the management of a place remains constant, the good ruts sometimes must come to an end, because something always changes. Sometimes that change happens on my end; I used to walk to lunch in Palo Alto, spending half my lunch reading for work and half of it writing for me. But when I changed offices, all those great experiences came to an abrupt and unceremonious end.

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But sometimes that change happens not because of a change in the store or a change in me, but because a landlord increases prices, as when the writing group Write to the End had to flee a closing Barnes and Noble when their landlord raised the rent. That landlord was itself struggling to survive and facing a possible bankruptcy, so it doesn’t have to be caused by greed – but sometimes it just is, a raw desire to get a higher paying tenant. I’m all for making money, of course, but the value of a region isn’t the money you make from it, but the people that live there and the institutions that function there and the culture they support.

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Which brings us to the point of the essay: all the Chevy’s in San Francisco have closed, victims of rising rents. Rising rents in San Francisco are a disaster: estimates are that over 70 percent of artists were losing their home or business or both, and the remaining 30 percent were in risk of losing their positions. And since I’ve got at least one or two friends who say, “So what? If the prices are rising, move,” let me take a moment out to say FUCK YOU, DUMBASS, because detaching yourself from your local friends-and-family support network is one of the primary risk mechanisms how people end up homeless. I’m a full blooded capitalist, and yet I have zero sympathy for that ignorant, heartless point of view: it really does matter that prices are rising in the Bay Area without limit, and I have heard from everyone from the homeless to bottom-end workers to my peers to upper class to CEOs that the problem is really acute – so I really do have zero patience for the ignorance pseudo-worldly people show towards this very real problem.

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But, patience or no, the great oasis I had at the Game Developer’s Conference – heading up the street to Chevy’s for lunch, catching up on reading and planning out the rest of my day – is over. Chevy’s is gone, and I’ll have to find something else.

Ah, Chevy’s at Moscone Center: you will be missed.

-the Centaur

Oasis

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One of the roles conferences fulfill in my life is a chance to recharge. I’m driven to pursue writing, art, comics, software, entrepreneurship, publishing, movies – but I was raised to be responsible, so I have an equally demanding day job that pays the bills for all these activities until such time that they can pay for themselves.

Sometimes I describe this as having four jobs – my employment (search engines and robots), writing (primarily the Dakota Frost and Jeremiah Willstone series), comics (mostly related to 24 Hour Comic Day through Blitz Comics), and publishing (Thinking Ink Press, a new niche publisher trying to get awesome things into your hands).

Having four jobs means that you sometimes want to take a break.

That’s really difficult if you don’t have an excuse. There are literally hundreds of items on my to-do list that I could work on right now, all day and all night. If I finish one, a dozen more are clamoring for my attention – and that’s not counting the time I want to spend with my wife, friends, and cats, or the time I need to spend on exercise, bills and laundry.

But a few oases exist.

Layovers in airports are one of those: I deliberately arrange for long layovers, because between plane flights you have nothing else to do other than grab a bite and a drink in an airport restaurant, chill out, and read something. True, I often work on writing during layovers, but it’s big-picture stuff, researchy, looking at the picture on a scale larger than I normally do.

Conferences are even better. Whether it’s GDC, AAAI, Dragon Con, Comic Con or Clockwork Alchemy, conferences are filled with new information, interesting books, even more interesting people, which spark my imagination – right at the time that I’m in an enforced multi-day or even week-long break from my schedule.

For a long time, conferences have been a great time to pull out the laptop and/or notebook to write or sketch. The idea for the Jeremiah Willstone series started after I saw some great steampunk costumes at Dragon Con; I sold the Dakota Frost series after Nancy Knight saw me writing at Dragon Con and pointed me to my editor Debra Dixon at Bell Bridge Books.

More recently, I’ve been adding to this the power of ruts. This is something that I need to expand at greater length, but suffice it to say I used to think I simply had to do something different every day, every week, every month. I used to keep lists of restaurants and tried to make sure that I never went to the same one two days in a row, trying new ones periodically.

But then I noticed that I really enjoyed certain things, but didn’t always fully take advantage of them because of this strategy – great places to eat, cool coffee houses, and nice bookstores that I simply didn’t visit often enough. Often, on top of this strategy, my schedule would change, making it hard to visit them – or worse, they’d go out of business, and those opportunities were lost.

So I’ve started cultivating habits – ruts – to do the things that I like. Not too frequently – you don’t want to burn out on them – but if you do the same thing all the time, then you can be free to miss it any time. Even better, if you find a great thing that’s efficient – like a place to eat near work, with a late night coffee house conducive to writing – take advantage of it regularly.

Because one day it may be gone.

At conferences, I employ this strategy with a series of life hacks – go to breakfast before the conference to up your energy level and organize your thoughts, pick the best breakfast place for writing and reading, break for lunch at 11:30 to 11:45 to miss the lunch rush, and also find the best place where there are no lines and concentration can be had.

At GDC, I’ve found a good set of hotels near the conference, a few good breakfast joints on the walk to the Moscone Center and a few places to eat slightly off the beaten path that are pretty empty just before noon – and I hit these places again and again, pulling out my notebook and tackling problems which are really big picture for me, mostly related to future game projects.

At Dragon Con I do similar things – hitting the Flying Biscuit breakfast joint that appears in Dakota Frost, getting coffee at the Starbucks in the Georgia Tech Bookstore, hitting the Willy’s lunch counter that inspired the Jeremiah Willstone story “Steampunk Fairy Chick,” et cetera, et cetera; and at each one I pull out the notebook and work on big picture story ideas.

These places are real oases for me: a break within a break, a special place set aside for thinking within a special time already set aside for recharging. Because of how human memory works, sometimes I can even pull out a notebook (or an older notebook), find my place from last year, and pick up where I left off, plotting my future in an oasis of creative contentment.

This, of course, is my strategy, that works for me – but it works so well, I encourage you to find a strategy that works for you too.

-the Centaur

Meanwhile, Back at GDC

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View from my hotel in San Francisco. It may seem strange to get a hotel for a conference in San Francisco when I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, but the truth is that I “live in the Bay Area” only by a generous border-case interpretation of “Bay Area” (we’re literally on the last page of the 500-page Bay Area map book that I bought when i came out here). The trip from my house to the Moscone Center in the morning is two to two and a half hours – you could drive from Greenville, SC to Atlanta, Georgia in that time, so by that logic I should have commuted from home to Georgia Tech. So. Not. Going. To. Happen.  

So why am I heading to the Moscone Center this week? The Game Developer’s Conference, of course. At the request of my wife, I may not directly blog from wherever it is that I am, so I’ll be posting with a delay about this conference. So far, I’ve attended the AI Game Programmer’s Guild dinner Sunday night, which was a blast seeing old friends, meeting new ones, renewing friendships, and talking about the robot apocalypse and the future of artificial intelligence research. GDC is a blast even if you don’t directly program games, because game developers are constantly pushing the boundaries of the possible – so I try not to miss it. I’ve been coming for roughly 15 years now – and already have close to 15 pages of notes. Good stuff.

One thing does occur to me, though, about games and “Gamer Gate.” If you’re into games, you may or may not have heard of the Gamer Gate controversy; some people claim it’s about corruption in games journalism, while others openly state it’s motivated by the invasion of gaming by so-called “social justice warriors” who are trying to destroy traditional male-oriented games in favor of thinly disguised social commentary. Still others suspect that the entire controversy is a manufactured excuse for misogynists to abuse women in games – and there’s evidence that shows that at least some miscreants are doing just that.

But let’s go back to the first reason, ethics in games journalism. I can’t really speak to this from the inside, but in the circles in which I’ve been playing games for the past thirty-five years, no one cares about game reviews. Occasionally we use game magazines to find neat screenshots of new games, but, seriously – everything is word of mouth.

What about the second, the “invasion of social justice warriors?” I can speak about this: in the circles that I’ve traveled in the game industry in the past fifteen years, no one cares about this controversy. At GDC, women who speak about games are much more likely to be speaking about technical issues like constraint systems and procedural content generation than they are about social issues – and men are as likely as women to speak about women’s issues or the treatment of other minorities.

These issues are important issues – but they’re not big issues. Out of a hundred books in the conference bookstore, perhaps a dozen were on social issues, and only two of those dealt with women’s culture or alternative culture. But traditional games are going strong – and are getting bigger and better and brighter and more vibrant as time goes along.

People like the games they like, and developers build them. No-one is threatened by the appearance of a game that breaks traditional stereotypes. No-one imagines that popular games that appeal to men are going to go away. All we really care about is make it fun, make it believable, finish it in a reasonable time and something approximating a reasonable budget.

Look, I get it: change is scary. And not just emotionally; these issues run deep. At a crowd simulation talk today, a researcher showed that you can mathematically measure a person’s discomfort navigating in crowds – and showed a very realistic-looking behavior where a single character facing a phalanx of oncoming agents turned tail and ran away.

But this wasn’t an act of fear; it was an act of avoidance. The appearance of an onrushing wall of people made that straightforward algorithm, designed to prove to the agent that it wouldn’t run into trouble, choose a path that went the other way. An agent with more options to act might have chosen to lash out – to try to force a path.

But none of that was necessary. A slightly more sophisticated algorithm, based on study of actual human crowd behavior, showed that if an agent choose to boldly go forward into a space which slightly risked collisions, avoiding a bit harder if people got too close, worked just as well. It was easily able to wade through the phalanx – and the phalanx smoothly moved around it.

The point is that many humans don’t want to run into things that are different. If the oncoming change is big enough, the simplest path may involve turning tail and running away – and if you don’t want to run away, you might want to lash out. But it isn’t necessary. Step forward with confidence moving towards the things that you want, and people will make space for you.

Yes, change is coming.

But change won’t stop game developers from making games aimed at every demographic of fun. Chill out.

-the Centaur

P.S. Yes, it is a bit ridiculous to refer to a crowd avoidance algorithm that can mathematically prove that it avoids collision as “simple”, and it’s debatable whether that system, ORCA, which is based on linear programming over a simplification of velocity obstacles, is really “simpler” than the TTC force method based on combining goal acceleration with avoidance forces derived from a discomfort energy gradient defined within a velocity obstacle. For the sake of this anecdote, ORCA shows slightly “simpler” behavior than TTC, because ORCA’s play-it-safe strategy causes it to avoid areas of velocity space that TTC will try, leading to slightly more “sophisticated” crowd behaviors emerging naturally in TTC based systems. Look up http://motion.cs.umn.edu/PowerLaw if you want more information – this is an anecdote tortured into an extended metaphor, not a tutorial.

The Centaur’s Guide to the Game Developers Conference

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Once again it’s time for GDC, the Game Developers Conference. This annual kickstart to my computational creativity is held in the Moscone Center in San Francisco, CA and attracts roughly twenty thousand developers from all over the world.

I’m interested primarily in artificial intelligence for computer games– “Game AI” – and in the past few years they’ve had an AI Summit where game AI programmers can get together to hear neat talks about progress in the field.

Coming from an Academic AI background, what I like about Game AI is that it can’t not work. The AI for a game must work, come hell or high water. It doesn’t need to be principled. It doesn’t need to be real. It can be a random number generator. But it needs to appear to work—it has to affect gameplay, and users have to notice it.

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That having been said, there are an enormous number of things getting standard in game artificial intelligence – agents and their properties, actions and decision algorithms, pathfinding and visibility, multiple agent interactions, animation and intent communication, and so forth – and they’re getting better all the time.

I know this is what I’m interested in, so I go to the AI Summit on Monday and Tuesday, some subset of the AI Roundtables, other programming, animation, and tooling talks, and if I can make it, the AI Programmer’s Dinner on Friday night. But if game AI isn’t your bag, what should you do? What should you see?

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If you haven’t been before, GDC can be overwhelming. Obviously, try to go to talks that you like, but how do you navigate this enormous complex in downtown San Francisco? I’ve blogged about this before, but it’s worth a refresher. Here are a few tips that I’ve found improve my experience.

Get your stuff done before you arrive. There is a LOT to see at GDC, and every year it seems that a last minute videoconference bleeds over into some talk that I want to see, or some programming task bumps the timeslot I set aside for a blogpost, or a writing task that does the same. Try to get this stuff done before you arrive.

Build a schedule before the conference. You’ll change your mind the day of, but GDC has a great schedule builder that lets you quickly and easily find candidate talks. Use it, email yourself a copy, print one out, save a PDF, whatever. It will help you know where you need to go.

Get a nearby hotel. The 5th and Minna Garage near GDC is very convenient, but driving there, even just in the City, is a pain. GDC hotels are done several months in advance, but if you hunt on Expedia or your favorite aggregator you might find something. Read the reviews carefully and doublecheck with Yelp so you don’t get bedbugs or mugged.

Check in the day before. Stuff starts really early, so if you want to get to early talks, don’t even bother to fly in the same day. I know this seems obvious, but this isn’t a conference that starts at 5pm on the first day with a reception. The first content-filled talks start at 10am on Monday. Challenge mode: you can check in Sunday if you arrive early enough.

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Leave early, find breakfast. Some people don’t care about food, and there’s snacks onsite. Grab a crossaint and cola, or banana and coffee, or whatever. But if you power-up via a good hot breakfast, there are a number of great places to eat nearby – the splendiferous Mo’z Café and the greasy spoon Mel’s leap to mind, but hey, Yelp. A sea of GDC people will be there, and you’ll have the opportunity to network, peoplewatch, and go through your schedule again, even if you don’t find someone to strike up a conversation with.

Ask people who’ve been before what they recommend. This post got started when I left early, got breakfast at Mo’z, and then let some random dude sit down on the table opposite me because the place was too crowded. He didn’t want to disturb my reading, but we talked anyway, and he admitted: “I’ve never been before? What do I do?” Well, I gave him some advice … and then packaged it up into this blogpost. (And this one.)

Network, network, network. Bring business cards. (I am so bad at this!) Take business cards. Introduce yourself to people (but don’t be pushy). Ask what they’re up to. Even if you are looking for a job, you’re not looking for a job: you want people to get to know you first before you stick your hand out. Even if you’re not really looking for a job, you are really looking for a job, three, five or ten years later. I got hired into the Search Engine that Starts with a G from GDC … and I wasn’t even looking.

Learn, learn, learn. Find talks that look like they may answer questions related to problems that you have in your job. Find talks that look directly related to your job. Find talks that look vaguely related to your job. Comb the Expo floor looking for booths that have information even remotely related to your job. Scour the GDC Bookstore for books on anything interesting – but while you’re here: learn, learn, learn.

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Leave early if you want lunch or dinner. If you don’t care about a quiet lunch, or you’ve got a group of friends you want to hang with, or colleagues you need to meet with, or have found some people you want to talk to, go with the flow, and feel comfortable using your 30 minute wait to network. But if you’re a harried, slightly antisocial writer with not enough hours in the day needing to work on his or her writing projects aaa aaa they’re chasing me, then leave about 10 minutes before the lunch or dinner rush to find dinner. Nearby places just off the beaten path like the enormous Chevy’s or the slightly farther ’wichcraft are your friends.

Find groups or parties or events to go to. I usually have an already booked schedule, but there are many evening parties. Roundtables break up with people heading to lunch or dinner. There may be guilds or groups or clubs or societies relating to your particular area; find them, and find out where they meet or dine or party or booze. And then network.

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Hit Roundtables in person; hit the GDC Vault for conflicts. There are too many talks to go. Really. You’ll have to make sacrifices. Postmortems on classic games are great talks to go to, but pro tip: the GDC Roundtables, where seasoned pros jam with novices trying to answer their questions, are not generally recorded. All other talks usually end up on the GDC Vault, a collection of online recordings of all past sessions, which is expensive unless you…

Get an All Access Pass. Yes, it is expensive. Maybe your company will pay for it; maybe it won’t. But if you really are interested in game development, it’s totally worth it. Bonus: if you come back from year to year, you can get an Alumni discount if you order early. Double bonus: it comes with a GDC Vault subscription.

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Don’t Commit to Every Talk. There are too many talks to go to. Really. You’ll have to make sacrifices. Make sure you hit the Expo floor. Make sure you meet with friends. Make sure you make an effort to find some friends. Make time to see some of San Francisco. Don’t wear yourself out: go to as much as you can, then soak the rest of it in. Give yourself a breather. Give yourself an extra ten minutes between talks. Heck, leave a talk if you have to if it isn’t panning out, and find a more interesting one.

Get out of your comfort zone. If you’re a programmer, go to a design talk. If you’re a designer, go to a programming talk. Both of you could probably benefit from sitting in on an audio or animation talk, or to get more details about production. What did I say about learn, learn, learn?

Most importantly, have fun. Games are about fun. Producing them can be hard work, but GDC should not feel like work. It should feel like a grand adventure, where you explore parts of the game development experience you haven’t before, an experience of discovery where you recharge your batteries, reconnect with your field, and return home eager to start coding games once again.

-the Centaur

Pictured: The GDC North Hall staircase, with the mammoth holographic projected GDC logo hovering over it. Note: there is no mammoth holographic projected logo. After that, breakfast at Mo’z, the Expo floor, the Roundtables, and lunch at Chevy’s.

GDC 2012

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The Game Developer’s Conference 2012 … it begins:

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GDC is an amazing conference for game developers. Imagine a film conference where Steven Spielberg’s keynote is likely to be followed by an indie filmmaker roundtable discussing how you could shoot on the cheap without a license, where almost everyone at all levels is hobnobbing on the same floors. Translate to games … and you get the idea.

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I come for the AI Summit, which is generally of very high quality. I won’t post any pictures of teh slides, except the one above, which gives you a flavor of the kinds of talks they’ve had over the past few years (not just at the AI summit, of course, but usually in the programming tracks). Ok, wait, I will post one more to give you a little more flavor:

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A lot of the people in game AI say “they don’t do AI”—one of them said today Academic AI and Game AI share only two letters—but I’m afraid I can’t agree. I’m interested in Game AI because it’s AI that has to work, which is refreshing after years of arguments between symbolic/neural fuzzy/scruffy mathy/empirical logical/architectural oh would you all please shut up about how you’re better than each other and make something that WORKS and get back to me thank you very much. Not a problem at GDC!

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On the first two tutorial days (Monday and Tuesday) it isn’t so bad (oh and hey there Apple logo! Nobody’s fooled that you’re trying to horn in on our event for free publicity), and it never gets like Comic-Con … but by the end of the week it becomes a zoo. Here are a few tips to surviving it. First, if you want lunch at Chevy’s, sneak out during the Q&A of the pre-lunch session before it ends up looking like this:

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Second, park in the 5th and Mission garage, and if you do, it has many food options. Skip the uber-long lines at the Starbucks in the morning (sorry, guys!) and either hit Mel’s Diner (with the fastest bussers in the West) or grab a bite inside the Moscone Center itself. Also, note the excellent ‘wichcraft sandwich shop across the street as another food option.

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While the snacks in the Moscone Center are good, my kerfinicky stomach does not leave me able to recommend the (actually not bad) lunch they provide on site, so I usually forage for food, at Chevy’s, ‘wichcraft, Mel’s, the restaurants of the Metreon next door, and if you parked at 5th and Mission, note the Bloomingdale’s across the street? That’s actually part of a huge Westfield mall, with an excellent, giant food court hidden therein that somehow I’ve missed all these years.

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There are more tips … like hit the GDC Bookstore the first day to pick up t-shirts and schwag, but wait until the Exhibit Hall opens later in the week to score deals direct from the publishers and only go back to the GDC Bookstore if the publishers are missing something (they will be) … like make sure you give yourself four to six hours to hit the Exhibit Halls, that you check out the Independent Games demos, and be sure to hit the AI Roundtables if you’re into that sort of thing, which is a gateway into the AI Programmer’s dinner, which led to me being able to ask the developer of some of the software I use a question today because she knew me from previous years. So be sociable! That’s half of what this conference is for!

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But the biggest tip for someone like me, who lives an hour and ten minutes away in no traffic, or two hours in morning traffic?

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Get a hotel right up the street.

More news as it happens. The AI Summit has been very quoteworthy so far and I’ve taken a lot of notes.

-the Centaur