This month’s Game Developers Conference is going to be a noticeably quieter affair than in previous years, when throngs of developers from around the world flock to San Francisco. Since the conference has been postponed because of the Covid-19 pandemic, it will instead stream talks from a small number of speakers on Twitch.

This is a huge blow to independent game developers that rely on networking and promotion at these conferences. For Chinese indie developers, GDC is usually a good opportunity to showcase their work to Western media and influencers.

“GDC is really, really important for our studio,” said Quentin Sterling, brand manager for Pathea Games, which created My Time at Portia. “It’s our first line of contact with fans, media and those in the industry.”

Sterling left China two months, avoiding potential quarantines and lockdowns, in the hope that he’d still be able to attend GDC. Now that plan has been foiled.

Many game developers from China go to GDC every year to learn about the newest technologies and network with fellow game makers. (Picture: GDC)

Everyone in the gaming industry knows the importance of the GDC. It’s the first major global gaming trade show of the year, giving developers a platform to tease new products, make new connections and get deals done.

For industry heavyweights, the cancellation of GDC and the Electronic Entertainment Expo (or E3, the big gaming conference that was scheduled for June) is an opportunity to attract an audience with their own online events. 

Independent studios don’t have the resources to attract so much attention online, though. As a result, Chinese indie developers are now potentially facing a very tough year with limited marketing exposure and gamer feedback.

This is the case for Pathea Games, according to Sterling. The studio is one of a new generation of Chinese game companies trying to attract as many consumers in the West as in China.

Sterling said he’s confident that the quality of the company’s upcoming titles can speak for itself. Pathea Games has a puzzle game called Ever Forward and a multiplayer sports game called Super Buckyball Tournament on the horizon. But he said contacts for Western media and influencers are “the biggest holes” that his company doesn’t have.

FYQD Studio founder Zeng Xiancheng noted a similar problem, saying conventions still help developers get a lot of exposure despite online marketing being more common these days.

“While we have managed to get a hold of about three or four media outlets online, if a demo party was held on site, it would have been open to anybody,” Zeng said.

FYQD is the studio behind the sci-fi shooter Bright Memory: Infinite, and Zeng was relying on GDC to promote the game. He was going to give a talk at the convention and host a number of parties in a nearby hotel, where members of the media could test out the game’s latest demo.

Instead of showing off his new demo at GDC, Bright Memory: Infinite is now releasing gameplay footage online with two rounds of marketing campaigns. (Picture: FYQD Studio)

Pathea Games had its own parties planned.

“LAN parties were part of our plan during GDC. We were gonna host LAN parties in a lot of places,” Sterling said. “But now there’s no promotional opportunity… I know a lot of brand managers are in no man’s land with their promotional campaign [because of the outbreak].”

In some ways, the bleak outlook for small game developers is in contrast to the gaming boom that’s been happening with people cooped up at home during the Covid-19 crisis. But without the resources of a company like Tencent, which owns China’s most popular mobile games, smaller developers are bracing for a difficult year, said Luke Stapley, marketing manager at the Chinese game engine developer Cocos Engine.

“Conventions like GDC and E3 are an important time for companies to share their technology and for investors and developers to meet,” Stapley said. “After GDC and E3, you really have to wait until Gamescom [in August]… This year is just a lost year.”

While in-person networking may be out of the question, Stapley said that there are still ways companies can share ideas. Stapley said Cocos Engine is following the lead of GDC’s Twitch streaming and payment company Xsolla, which is putting together an online gaming conference. The independent Chinese studio is hosting its own online gaming conference on Bilibili this week.