Microsoft, Epic, and Unity Latest to Bounce on Ever-Shrinking GDC 2020

Microsoft, Epic Games (and its Unreal Engine division), and fellow engine maker Unity Technologies all separately announced today that they are pulling out of this year’s Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, California, amid growing concerns over the spread of COVID-19. This brings the total number of high-profile absences up to seven, following similar announcements from Sony Interactive Entertainment, Facebook/Oculus, EA, and Kojima Productions.

“After a close review of guidance by global health authorities and out of an abundance of caution, we’ve made the difficult decision to withdraw from participating at Game Developers Conference 2020 in San Francisco,” Microsoft said through its developer website. “The health and safety of players, developers, employees, and our partners around the world is our top priority. Especially as the world is experiencing growing public health risks associated with coronavirus (COVID-19).” Microsoft is moving its planned GDC 2020 sessions content to a digital event streaming March 16 through 18.

Epic, relaying a message through a tweet from the official Unreal Engine account, said that “regrettably, uncertainty around health concerns has made it unviable to send our employees, and so we have made the difficult decision to withdraw attendance. Stay tuned for Epic news and more through other channels.”

Over on the official Unity blog, former EA CEO and current Unity CEO John Riccitiello broke the tough news to everyone hoping to learn more about gray cubes at this year’s conference: “Unfortunately, this year, after much thought and deliberation, we have made the difficult decision to pull out of GDC 2020. While we did not make this decision lightly, the current conditions with COVID-19 (also known as Novel Coronavirus) present too much risk. We take our employees’ wellbeing very seriously. We do not want any Unity employee, partner, community member or developer to compromise their health and safety unnecessarily.”

The San Francisco Armory, which is not the site of GDC, but is a landmark deeply familiar with the importance of sanitation.

Unlike E3 or Gamescom, which are primarily hype programs designed to get consumers excited about the next six to 12 months of video games, GDC is a developer-focused event that centers around panels, workshops, lectures, and presentations from industry veterans about their specific fields. The conference tends to be deeply technical and assumes that the average audience member (who must pay thousands of dollars to even walk in the door) knows what ambient occlusion is, or the importance of committing often.

But with so many companies pulling out of the show, many of the panels that developers have paid $2,000 or more to see will no longer be taking place. Likewise, those eager to do some on the ground, face-to-face networking will no longer have access to employees from seven of the biggest companies working in video games today.

Aside from learning more about your craft, the networking is one of the main reasons people attend GDC in the first place. Developers looking to make inroads on a new job need the show just as much as the high-level executives trying to broker deals in nearby hotel bars. Informa, the multi-billion dollar company that puts on GDC, has said the show will continue as planned, and has made no public statement regarding refunds.

New developments in recent days have made the threat of contracting COVID-19 in North America more of a possibility, especially in the San Francisco area. Yesterday a Solano County woman was diagnosed as the first American to contract the disease “despite having no known link to others with the illness” or recent international travel, according to the Washington Post. Solano County is about an hour and change drive to the northeast of San Francisco.

Meanwhile, a high-ranking Health and Human Services (HHS) official is seeking whistleblower protections from the federal government, after filing a report claiming that the HHS sent two dozen untrained employees from a different department, the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), to oversee and personally handle infected American evacuees from China, without proper safety equipment.

According to the whistleblower, who says they were punitively reassigned to a post for which they have no qualifications or experience after raising concerns to superiors, none of the ACF personnel who came into direct contact with the hundreds of evacuees were tested for COVID-19 after their return, nor were they quarantined before being allowed to return to their everyday lives. The coronavirus has an incubation period of two weeks, so without testing for it or maintaining quarantine procedures, it would have been impossible to know if any of the ACF employees had contracted the virus.

Correction: This post originally referred to COVID-19 as the “Wuhan coronavirus,” which was a bad call on my part. World Health Organization guidelines specifically forbid the use of location names when classifying a disease, in order to prevent the spread of dangerous misinformation or inferences about specific locations and the people that live there. I regret having contributed to the growing stigma that Chinese- and other Asian-Americans are already facing, and have ensured that future coverage of the virus on Fanbyte will not contain this phrase. I’m also making these changes proactively and voluntarily, because we can always do better.