Aside from being a major public health concern, the current coronavirus outbreak (COVID-19) has been bad news for a few annual trade shows that take place early in the year. Throughout January and into February, a number of major exhibitors decided to drop out of Mobile World Congress 2020, which was scheduled to take place in Barcelona this week. MWC is the biggest trade show of the year for the mobile industry, so for companies that decided to pull out, it probably wasn’t an easy call.
Fast forward a couple of weeks and we’re seeing the same thing happen to the Game Developers Conference, which is currently scheduled to run March 16-20 in San Francisco, California. GDC is less of an exhibition than something like MWC is; instead of using GDC to make major announcements, many game developers head there to meet with other professionals and attend panels or lectures.
Despite that somewhat narrow focus, GDC is still a big deal every year, but it’s losing exhibitors at a fast pace. Over the past couple of weeks, a wide range of major players in the video game industry have announced that they’re skipping GDC this year. The still-growing list of companies that are no longer attending includes the following:
• Facebook (and by extension Oculus)
• Kojima Productions
• Unity Technologies
• Electronic Arts
• Epic Games (and Unreal Engine)
That list is not exhaustive – there are many other smaller game developers that have announced they won’t be attending either. All of these companies cite the same reason for their decision to skip GDC: Coronavirus, or rather, uncertainty surrounding the outbreak.
Inevitably, each company has released a similar-sounding statement that talks about how tough the decision was and how they don’t want to put the safety of their employees at risk. They’re smart to do so too, because people from all over the world fly into the US to attend shows like GDC each year. One infected person could be very bad news for attendees at one of these trade shows, given that they usually pack people into a convention center for three or four days in a row.
Those who regularly attend conventions and expos like MWC, GDC, or any other big trade show are usually not surprised to wake up sick shortly after returning home. It’s simply a reality of being around that many people in an enclosed space. There’s plenty of opportunities for illness to spread in these environments, whether it happens through handshakes, face-to-face meetings, or even just someone sneezing into a sea of people as they make their way between exhibits.
When there are Urban Dictionary entries defining “con flu” and no lack of articles about how to avoid it, it’s safe to say that the spread of illnesses at conventions is something to consider when you plan on attending. In times like this when a new virus is spreading in multiple regions throughout the world, it turns into something to be outright concerned about.
Even though the weeks leading up to GDC closely mirror the weeks leading to MWC, there’s one key difference between the two shows: at the time of this writing, GDC 2020 is still scheduled to proceed as planned, despite the number of companies that have said they won’t be attending. Why?
The argument that makes sense to most people is probably “because of the money.” Even if major exhibitors drop out, there are plenty of attendees who have already purchased tickets and exhibitors who have reserved floor space. Cancelling the show probably means losing out on that money, unless GDC can file an insurance claim to cover some or all of its loses (which it almost certainly can).
At this point, I would argue that not cancelling GDC is irresponsible at best, especially in light of everything that’s happened so far. The city of San Francisco – where GDC 2020 is taking place – has already declared a state of emergency concerning the coronavirus outbreak.
That call wasn’t made in response to the presence of coronavirus in San Francisco, but rather in anticipation of the virus gaining a foothold in the city. Still, the fact remains that local officials in San Francisco are concerned about coronavirus and are trying to be proactive in preventing it from gaining that foothold, and I think that continuing to host a major conference like GDC undermines that advance planning.
Just this morning, the World Health Organization said that the risk of spread and risk of impact of COVID-19 on a global scale is now “very high.” That should be enough to give everyone pause, and while I’m not saying that people should panic and start stockpiling canned food, I think that the WHO raising its risk forecast should have people erring more on the side of safety concerning coronavirus.
And yet, as these exhibitors have dropped out and health organizations like the WHO and the CDC have urged people to be proactive in preventing the spread of coronavirus, the organizers behind GDC have stuck to their guns. Periodically, GDC will say that the show will go on as planned, pointing attendees to a page on its website that outlines the measures it’s taking to ensure that those in attendance don’t get sick.
Don’t get me wrong, the measures GDC has taken are fairly thorough – GDC says that no Chinese exhibitors and attendees will be admitted to the show because of US travel restrictions that are currently in place, while the Moscone Center will be expanding its physical measures to prevent the spread of the illness beyond what it would normally do during flu season. GDC also says that it will be following the guidance of organizations like the WHO and the CDC.
The most recent update to that page on GDC’s website was published today, and reads as follows:
We are closely monitoring the COVID19 (coronavirus) situation and want to assure everyone that your health and safety are a top priority. If our assessment of the situation changes, based on new and evolving developments or updated information, we will promptly update this statement regarding the status of GDC 2020 accordingly.
In this case, I think I would argue that it’s best for GDC to listen to its biggest exhibitors. Whether its Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, or Sony, their primary motivation is making a profit, and if they think the risk outweighs whatever benefit they may get from attending a conference that’s followed by a ton of prospective customers and employees, there’s probably a good reason for that. Sony and Microsoft are launching new consoles this year; they both need to be in marketing overdrive right now, and both have determined that GDC isn’t worth attending given the current crisis.
That should really set off some red flags for GDC. There is no doubt that these decisions weighed heavily on Sony and Microsoft, because for them, a year as big as 2020 only happens once or twice a decade. GDC can make all the preparations it wants to prevent the spread of coronavirus, but it only takes one infected person to slip through the cracks for the best-laid plans to go belly-up, and these major exhibitors who are dropping out seem to know that.
Even if GDC could guarantee that there’s zero risk to attendees (which is something I don’t think it can realistically do) the show that’s scheduled to take place this year is already a shell of what it was in years prior. Amazon, Sony, Microsoft, Oculus, Electronic Arts – the loss of each of these companies is a major blow to the appeal of GDC overall.
I love small developers – I think the indie scene is responsible for many of the best games of the past decade – but when GDC 2020 would be comprised of mostly small developers as many of the major players sit out, the appeal of the show will be greatly limited. That’s especially true when at least some of those small developers feel compelled to be there because they couldn’t get a refund for their badge and rented space, as Iron Galaxy CEO Adam Boyes explains in the tweet you see above (seriously, GDC: Refund the developers who choose to be cautious and not attend the show).
In truth, I think that GDC will ultimately wind up canceled, just like MWC 2020 was. The GDC Twitter account has been mysteriously silent over the past couple of days, as has the news section on GDC’s website. At this point – two weeks and some change before the event – I would expect the GDC Twitter account to be very active, and the fact that it isn’t leads me to believe that the show’s organizers are having some complex discussions and preparing to make some tough calls behind the scenes.
Should GDC make the call I’m expecting it to make in the coming days, I’ll have only one question for the show’s organizers: “What took you so long?”