Every other week Scott Jon Siegel contributes Off the Grid, a column on gaming away from the television screen or monitor.

Since I couldn't find anyone to play Robo Rally with me this week, I thought I'd take this opportunity to instead discuss my experience as one of the IGDA's Student Scholars at this year's Game Developers Conference.

For the past seven years, the International Game Developers Association has been sending students interested in a future career in video games to GDC. A panel of professional game developers judges all the submitted applications, and each year 25 students are selected to receive free passes to the event. Each student is also paired with an industry mentor, and all the scholars are given an orientation session for the conference, and a tour of a local studio. I was honored to have been chosen as one of this year's student scholars, and found my first GDC experience to be all the more worthwhile as a result.

The three-day conference started on Wednesday, so Tuesday morning we met as a group for a special orientation session. A few of the scholars had already met up the previous night, as part of an unofficial pre-GDC get-together. Some of the student scholars were undergrads, but others were graduate students, and the group ranged widely in age. The disciplines and interests of the students varied widely as well, with artists, designers, coders, and audiophiles all equally represented. Part of our orientation had to do with simply meeting each other, exchanging business cards and conversing with peers who might very well be industry bigwigs in a few years; some of them just give off that vibe.

Darius Kazemi, game developer and self-described "eager beaver of the industry," met up with us before lunch to go over some networking basics. Darius blogs about effective networking, and was more than happy to share some of his advice with us. He encouraged us to not be shy about introducing ourselves to people, as everyone at GDC is there to do just that. He also recommended that we bring a lot of business cards, and focus on what he calls "weak ties" -- that is, the people you have 2-minute conversations with, rather than the people you've known for years.

Some of the industry mentors were present for this orientation, and those mentors had an opportunity to meet and chat with their students over lunch. We were assigned our industry mentors prior to GDC, and many of the scholars had already been in contact with or met their mentors. The IGDA tried hard to pair students with people in the industry who shared their interests. The mentor's job was to enlighten the student on his or her experiences in the industry, as well as give advice on good sessions to attend, and answer any questions that may arise. Many mentors also took it upon themselves to introduce the students to peers and colleagues. My mentor did just this, and I met many people who I would have otherwise not run into because of this.

After lunch we took a short walk over to local MMO studio Perpetual Entertainment. Perpetual's hard at work on two massively-multiplayer games at the moment: The mythology-based Gods & Heroes: Rome Rising, and the equally-exciting Star Trek Online. We got a chance to see a lot of the work put into the games, and key individuals from both development teams sat down with us to discuss the design work, team management, art-direction, and programming that goes into such large-scale titles.

This was all before the conference proper even began. Tuesday night was the IGDA members-only party, and GDC kicked off Wednesday morning. Armed with some of the networking skills from my orientation, and meeting occasionally with my industry mentor, I was able to make the most out of the three-day conference, and walk away with more than a few contacts that may be valuable after graduation.

If you're a university-level student interested in the game industry, then GDC is a logical destination. Oftentimes, however, the cost of a pass on top of travel and accommodation expenses can be prohibitive. The IGDA's student scholar program exists for just this reason, allowing students who might otherwise not attend the Game Developers Conference to take part in the event, and make the most of the three days of sessions, panels, and networking opportunities. GDC 2008 is a while away, but it's never to soon to start thinking about it. For those interested in applying for the student scholarship, here's some advice to help your application stand out:

Be passionate - If there was one thing that all the student scholars had in common, it was passion. None of us were "thinking about" breaking into the industry; we were all "going to" break into the industry, come hell or high-water. If you're applying for the scholarship, you're telling the judges that this is your dream job, and you should make it clear that scholarship or no scholarship, you're going to pursue that dream. If you're passionate, you should also be able to show other ways in which you're preparing to enter the industry. Make them know you want it.

Have something to show - It's helpful to have a website to reference in your application, which can direct the judges to examples of your work. If you're a sound person, you should have audio files. If you're a designer or programmer, you should have games. If you're an artist, you should have artwork. Your portfolio doesn't have to be perfect (see below); the important thing is to show that you're working. If you don't have anything to show them, GDC 2008 is a little less than a year away. Get started.

Discuss what you can learn - Nobody's infallible, and as important as it is to come off as confident in your application, it's also important to let the judges know what you can learn at GDC that would be unavailable to you elsewhere. Once the sessions are announced for the conference, find ones that match your interests, and mention several in your application. Show that you've done the research, and that GDC will assist you in developing and broadening your skills.

Be honest - It's important enough that I'll mention it twice. If you have shortcomings in your field, don't hide them. Talk about them, and discuss how certain sessions will help you overcome those weaknesses. The student scholarship is meant for people who still have a lot to learn, and the judges will want to know that GDC will be a growing experience for you.


I hope this feature was helpful to anyone thinking about applying for the scholarship. For the non-digital gamers, I'll get back on topic next time.


Scott Jon Siegel is a fledgling game designer, and fancies himself a bit of a writer on the topic as well. His words and games can be found at numberless, which is almost always a work in progress.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.