If the Game Developers Conference took place in San Francisco like usual, attendees would have gone home three weeks ago with a few new contacts and some business cards in hand. But the conference moved online due to COVID-19 concerns. Speakers gave their presentations on Twitch, and the networking never quite stopped after all the conversation moved to the GDC Networking Discord server.

The Discord isn’t official — GDC itself has little to do with it’s maintenance — but they allowed Andrew Ajemian and fellow contributors to post links to the server in the chat section of the Twitch talks going on at the time.

“I literally built the server because I was having a conversation with someone in the Twitch chat about how it would have been nice to be able to network and decided to just build the server and send a link,” said Ajemian.

Fifty people joined in the first hour, and it now hosts just under 300 members spanning across several internal channels. Smaller developers cast links to their demos in the #show-off-your-work channel, while across the screen in the #general channel, programmers, 3d artists and writers discuss the paramount issues of movement and motion sickness in virtual reality. There’s a whole list of for-hire channels where members can shoot their shot if another developer in the server needs a hand.

The #show-your-work channel of the GDC Networking Discord server
The #show-your-work channel of the GDC Networking Discord server

“It isn't the same as the normal GDC experience, but having built the server I've probably interacted with at least as many people. We had some really high quality conversations around the talks that GDC was streaming for this year and ultimately it has proven more successful than I anticipated,” said Ajemian.

Even the chat section of a Twitch talk managed to cultivate a small community within the window to the right of the stream.

I watched as Josh Menke, one of the speakers at GDC’s webcam popped in and out of his slide deck. He was talking about ways to improve matchmaking engagement, using Halo 5 as an example to explain the reasons people may leave the match if the teams are too unbalanced. It was all pre-recorded, but Menke, or ZaedynFel in the chat window, was answering questions in between some edgy, and essentially unavoidable Twitch chat memes as they popped up live in the chat.

Screenshot of Josh Menke's GDC Twitch presentation about matchmaking engagement.
Screenshot of Josh Menke's GDC Twitch presentation about matchmaking engagement.

“I don't think I changed my actual preparation much, save for setting a room up to record in,” said Menke.

He thought the chat experience was fun, with the only hindrance being his lack of experience speaking without an audience in front of him. Austin Roorda, a game production management student at Champlain College, ventured to the server after one of the Twitch presentations to continue the discussion and do some networking.

“I think any conversation about a talk went very well, as people were able to read through others' responses, make connections to that and have a deep discussion about the topic,” he said. “If this was an in-person event, many of those other conversations would have been lost since you can't have a group of 50 people all talking at once.”

Pulling off this sort of community works especially well in Discord. Twitter doesn’t allow for such instantaneous, segmented short form communication, putting emphasis on democratic public communication. Facebook has their groups, which are useful for curating like minded posts, but still lacks a reliable chatroom. Slack is just about the same as Discord. It has channels, direct messages and easy ways to share images and videos, but tends to be more workspace-oriented.

Narrative designer and writer Kyle Holmquist said, “I suppose the easy onboarding into various servers is what drives people to so easily move between different subjects is wonderfully accessible.”

He mentioned his distaste for the internet’s host of alternative sites, demurring the necessity of having several logins and passwords to access them all.

“Connecting with people and showing them your stuff is literally just a click, and a drag n' drop away on Discord,” he said. “It just kinda makes it a one-stop-shop for people who are active in multiple kinds of communities - whether they extend beyond a purely online zone, like the GDC Discord, or whether they're purely digital manifestations.”

But people still want to talk to human beings. Roorda was excited to attend GDC after winning a scholarship from his college, and though the Discord server provided a solid alternative, lacking were some of the human qualities a large convention has to offer.

“Social interaction has always come pretty easily to me, and knowing how to read and interpret body language is something that's totally lost in an online discussion,” he said.

Ajemian shared similar sentiments, wishing for an environment more conducive for natural interaction.

“At GDC I can see someone’s badge and know a possible avenue for conversation. I once had a conversation with someone while just crossing the street, and someone on a park bench; very high quality interesting conversation,” he said.

Ajemian is creating a game called Audiozoe, a self described “music reactive first person shooter players can put their own music to.” But he didn’t come to promote his game, saying “Fellow devs tend not to be a gamedev's audience in terms of our projects.”

He just wears a shirt with the game’s branding on it, taking the convention time to learn and share strategies from fellow developers.

And while Ajemian enjoys the San Francisco talks, for indie game developers like Peter Conlin, GDC being online makes it more accessible to those with smaller budgets.

“Looking at the costs of getting a booth at GDC has always felt extremely inaccessible. So this could be a shift that would benefit people like me who don't have that option but still need the exposure,” he said.

For now, the server will stay online, according to Rhys Sullivan, who made all the roles and helped with the organizational process.

“We've cultivated a nice community of game developers so expanding on that would be great,” Sullivan said. “It'd be nice to turn it into a place for people to share their projects, get feedback on them, and any help that they may need.”

They’ll be posting weekly discussion posts to keep the conversation going, and hope to keep the server around for future GDCs.