Scrapping Your Way to GDC as a Broke-Ass Indie Developer, Part 2: You've Arrived in San Francisco
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
GDC 2018 tickets are on sale now! Did you grab one of those coveted Indie Games Summit passes before they were all gone? (Hey, I told you they sell out quickly.) Don’t fret though, I already detailed in Part 1 how to scrap your way to a pass-- or just getting there.
This is Part 2 now. This is the more in-depth part where we’re going to worry about getting you there and finding you a place to stay. Not starving is also nice. San Francisco is one of the most expensive cities in the country to live in as well as travel to: I bet your eyes rolled back into your head when you looked up the official hotel GDC block and thought “THAT’S the discounted rate?! Dammit, I'm going to have to sell my liver to go.” You won’t have to meet any black market organ dealers, I promise. There’s other ways.
Planes, Trains, Automobiles, and More
If you’re flying in like me and thousands of other attendees, start collecting those frequent flier miles now. Even if you’re cramming into the absolute cheapest seat you could get from the travel site of your choice that boards absolutely last on the worst airline possible. DO IT. You’ll be glad you did. Most travel sites like Orbitz (my preferred provider, heads up I’m not compensated to mention them by name) let you store multiple frequent flyer/travel reward numbers. Pay attention to their partner airlines and other companies they partner with: you can get Jetblue points shopping on Amazon or certain Lyft rides to/from airports, for instance. Delta points for SuperShuttle. You’re in games-- treat it like one! You’ll be surprised at how quickly those miles add up.
Obviously, flying in what’s practically steerage is the most surefire way to save serious bucks getting from A to B. Tools like Trivago can help you comparison-shop multiple travel sites to see who offers the best rates for an economy seat. But once you find that travel site, make sure you get rewarded while doing it. Places like Hotwire where you name the price *may* save you some cash, but can put you in an awkward spot of being unable to get a ride to the airport at the weird time they choose and are often nonrefundable. It’s best to go with the sure thing if you want to leave and come back at a decent time, but be sure to look at flexible dates and do the math on whether the difference in flight price each way is worth an extra night in your accommodations or not. In the SFO-JFK route for instance, a weekend flight can actually mean a difference of saving enough money to make that extra night worth it.
Now onto bag fees. If you’re on a domestic flight and definitely not getting free checked bags, you may be tempted to shove everything you need into a carry-on to avoid the fees. If you’re not staying the whole week, this could be doable. But if you are and you’re a newcomer to San Francisco, well, the weather can be gorgeous but it also be utterly unpredictable. I eventually gave up worrying about bag fees, caved in, and started using my big suitcase: I wore everything from my winter coat to short shorts and a t-shirt at GDC 2017. The weather is unpredictable, so be prepared. You’re also going to do a ton of walking EVERYWHERE, so having an extra pair of shoes to change into is also prudent. Meeting an investor or got an interview you want to look sharp for? Have room for it. Bag fees suck, but factor them in.
Compared to various airports in this country, SFO isn’t super far from civilization. It’s about $15-25 for a shuttle to/from downtown and the airport, $30-40 for a Lyft, $40-50 for a cab. The BART train is a pain in the ass to find in that airport, but it’s the absolute cheapest option to reach the city at $9 between SFO and the Market Street fare zone. It’s doable if your crashpad isn’t super far from any of those stations and you’re not lugging a bunch of really heavy suitcases and exhibit supplies.
San Francisco itself has a pretty good public transit infrastructure. In addition to BART, the bus system is good compared to numerous other buses that have carted me around the planet. The Muni streetcar system is also pretty sweet (it’s not the same as the cable cars on Powell, heads up.)
Pro Tip: if you’re not staying near the convention center but opted for one of the cheaper hotels or hostels north of Market Street or perhaps further out, but anywhere between Van Ness and the Embarcadero? The nearest station to Moscone is the Powell BART/Muni station. BART is cheaper than Muni each way and that difference adds up fast over a week. If you plan on visiting San Francisco frequently, it’s also worth the $3 to buy a Clipper card because you can use it on multiple transit systems and can keep using it year after year! (If only the MTA did this, the author seethes…)
If you drive, I’m sorry, I can’t help you here. I’m a non-driver so I don’t have a frame of reference for car rental, parking, and whatnot except “it’s probably really expensive” so feel free to offer tips in the comments if you’ve rented a car while in town or drive in. Depending on where you’re staying, you should compare the cost to what it’d cost for public transit or rideshare. GDC is one of those events where you really want to be close to the center of the action. We turn the entire SoMA area into a huge frigging summer camp for game devs for an entire week. You don’t want to miss it unless saving those extra few bucks is really a matter of getting here or not.
But with that said, San Francisco is highly walkable and with good public transit that’s not super expensive. So you probably won’t want to opt for a car rental unless you’re exhibiting with a lot of equipment/props.
Where to Crash
If you pulled up any travel sites, you’ll notice that even the crappiest accommodations are very expensive relative to other cities. San Francisco is a place very much starved for space even if you don’t actually live here, and especially so during a gathering of about 15,000-20,000 people. Keep in mind, this is a city where software engineers making well into six figures still need frigging roommates! So yes...you’ve been warned about paying dearly for tiny amounts of space.
With that said, if money is ultimately your concern, you still got options and you should book as early as possible since even beds at the hostels downtown go fast in the months leading up to the GDC. I found that Airbnb rentals could be just as expensive as hotels so if I’m crashing at someone else’s place, I’d sooner start making some friends in the area so you have a couch to crash on where you can talk it out in trade rather than paying to use someone else’s. There’s digital nomad apps and couch-surfing resources for indie bands that do this in order to tour so those are some opportunities to explore. But given that space is at a premium in this city, even THAT can be difficult so many broke-ass indies opt for the cheapest hostel possible after combing the search results on Orbitz, TripAdvisor, and the like if Airbnb doesn’t turn up anything favorable.
If you go a step up and want a private room, many of the smaller hotels north of Market in the Tenderloin area will be way cheaper than name-brand and boutique hotels much closer to the convention center. They’ll be littered with 1-star reviews on travel sites because of accidental tourists expecting a Holiday Inn or something. But speaking from experience, they’re generally clean in addition to being family-owned and run and more pleasant to stay at than you’d think. To save on costs, you’ll often have shared bathrooms and have to lug your suitcase up and down stairs since those buildings pre-date elevators. You can still be a decent walking distance from the center of the action if you don’t want to take the BART every day.
As far as standard and more upscale accommodations go, the official GDC hotel block probably is the best you’ll do if you want luxuries like a bathroom that isn’t being used by 20 different people. Even the absolute cheapest places along 7th Street can still get pricey though, so see if you can find someone to share the room with. Reach out on Gamasutra, Twitter, game dev forums, game dev collectives, your local IGDA chapter-- you’ll be very likely to find people who’d be happy to split a room with you to save some cash. Finding a conference buddy is how I save a couple hundred bucks on lodging every year!
The efficacy of saving money on food while at GDC ultimately depends on where you’re staying and if you got some people with you to help split the costs. For instance, hostels often have free breakfast if not other free food plus a communal place to store it. But even if you’re traveling solo, there’s usually ways to save some cash you might not have thought of.
Hanging around the various restaurants near Moscone is definitely a good way to meet other game devs and get feedback on your game. But if saving dough is a big concern? Well, Trader Joe’s and Target nearby offer convenient and economical options for food depending on what kind of storage arrangements are available to you like a fridge and microwave. If you want prepared food, the Metreon across the street and the Westfield Mall food court on Market have far better-tasting and cheaper options than the price-gouging at the convention center in addition to free wifi so you can get some work done there. When the day is through, and if you’re up for an adventure? Take the F Muni all the way to 17th and Castro and get some out-of-this-world Mexican food at La Tortilla that’s as delicious as it is cheap, and well worth the schlep. Dude, they have TOFU RANCHERO. Don’t feel like making that trip? Tropisueno right by the Metreon has a really cheap happy hour that’s worth the wait even if you don’t drink. It gets crowded even when there’s no conventions happening, so aim to get there right before 5!
If you’re search of bottled water, there’s a lot of stores on Market Street and right by Moscone where you can get small and large cases. You can easily split one with a friend or two and be good for the whole week. Just need a few bottles? Head to Trader Joe’s on 4th near Market. It’s just up the block and it’s only 27 cents after tax for a single bottle and you can get other cheap food here while you’re at it. Get free refills from the various water coolers all over the convention hall if you keep forgetting to bring an actual water bottle like yours truly.
Don’t forget about the sponsored sessions that are open to everyone regardless of pass type, and often have free feeds if they’re scheduled around lunch time. I’ve gotten free pizza and sandwiches listening to mobile funding talks. So don’t overlook those!
On that note, you should also download the GDC app a few weeks before heading out if you haven’t done so already. It’s a lot easier to decipher what your pass does and doesn’t cover, you’ll get real-time updates if official events get canceled or changed, and you can also use it to talk to other attendees. If you’re looking for someone to share the costs of food or a ride with, or don’t know where the parties are at? Perfect place to find it in real time and make some new friends while you’re at it. It’s a great way to find cost-effective or free feeds!
Many parties also have free feeds which you won’t want to miss out on-- after all, the parties are where the real networking happens and a free feed is just a bonus. Food can be anything from cocktail crudites to make-your-own taco bars but given the price you’re paying? Welp, make the most of it!
Some events are also paid and may be worth it since you’ll get food in addition to meeting new people in a less chaotic space. If you’re coming in on the early side, the Sunday before the official kickoff there’s an awesome welcome dinner at Canton on Folsom that’s about $30. You can usually find the registration on Eventbrite in the weeks leading up to GDC. Put some of the money you’ve saved towards it because this event not only introduces you to awesome people every year
(Oh yeah, this is also the point of the article that feels like the perfect time to shamelessly plug my own company and mention that 2018 I will throw the first official Sonic Toad Media GDC Party! Details to come.)
Don’t Forget Marketing Materials!
At the very least, don’t leave home without some nice business cards. Pens, stickers, or more creative means if you’ve got the connections or can spring for these beforehand.
You’ll be meeting a lot of people and trading cards, so you need something that at the very least has a reliable email address on it. While I’m not a fan of those free cards you can get from various printing services that have the company’s name all over the back such as Vistaprint, since they often give the wrong impression and aren’t the best quality? They’re totally fine if you’re a student with temporary contact info or you’re super broke. Upgrading to custom cards later is paramount, but if you’re in a rush and short on cash it’s an option.
If you are going to have custom cards made, definitely get them done at 2-3 weeks ahead of your departure date at bare minimum and make sure the design and information were done correctly. You’ll be paying a lot more to get rush printing done in person at some of the local print shops near the convention center.
So, while this guide isn’t 100% exhaustive these are methods that I and other game devs I’ve spoken to have used to scrap their way to GDC and save money in what’s often an expensive city. (And if you're US-ian, don't forget that you may be able to get tax benefits!)
How do you save cash at GDC, and what advice do you have for first-timers? Share below!