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How to Survive a Game-Dev Event (for Indies that Pay Rent)
by Tanya X Short on 04/02/14 12:25:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Tanya X. Short leads 4-person Kitfox Games, who just released Shattered Planet on iOS.

GDC’s over, but PAX looms on the horizon. Any other collection of 3 letters could be close behind. The string of events and meetups and conferences never end. You may feel a crushing pressure to perform at each of these, especially if you’re an indie with rent that needs paying and food that doesn’t buy itself, like me. You're spending money and time and energy that could go towards making your game.

You need to justify the cost.

But that pressure can make you do dumb things. You'll be tempted to act selfishly, cowardly, be indecisive, or run away. So here's a few things to refer back to, when you feel your heart start to beat just a little too fast.

You probably already agree with the things written here in principle (they were inside you all along), and the big’n’famous names have been using em for ages now. Even so, I consider them best practices, worthy of a reminder now and then.

At the risk of being a self-parody of my own 50 Easy Steps to Indie Success, I have to note that your mileage may vary.

The Scene

 

I was enjoying GDC 2014, having meetings and playing cool games and sharing drinks with great people.

Then, on the second evening, there were two different parties that I needed to attend: a chiptune concert where literally all my game-dev friends would be (some of whom I hadn’t seen in years), and a publisher party, where I was hoping to make a connection and find some work-for-hire for my company so we can survive until our next major release.

A tiny indie sat on one of my shoulders, chiming: “You’re not a corporate lackey, are you? Your friends deserve your time and respect! You have to show you care about them or they'll forget about you! Plus, your personal hero is going to be there!”

On the other shoulder, a tiny CEO chirped: “How selfish can you be? Kitfox Games depends on you to look out for their best interests, and you just want to burn money dancing in a club and getting drunk with your friends? Unprofessional.”

No matter what, I would be losing out. I could feel my blood pressure rise and I began to hyperventilate.

 

Survival Tip 1: Chill the F*%& Out

 

Events are full of opportunities. Every meal, every session, every lobby, every hallway, is crowded with potential new friends, business partners, and collaborators. The human mind cannot possibly comprehend the fractal of alternate universes that are spawned every second of every conference.

Furthermore, nobody can help you with your priorities. You'll be torn in five different directions. You're in a unique position and have to make the best call you can, given the information you have. You can't possibly know exactly what the best combination of decisions is, but nobody else can make a better guess than you can, either.

Don’t try to min/max it too much. Trust yourself.

The only way out of analysis paralysis is to take a deep breath and then act. Let the logical part of your brain do the best it can and in the long-run, it will work itself out. You’ll miss a few opportunities along the way, but that’s how it is. Breathe, think it through, weigh the pros and cons, and let it go.

You can do anything, but you can’t do everything. Accept that.

Survival Tip 2: Be Giving
 

Some people you know are already your friends. They’re people who are cheering for you, hoping your games do well, and maybe even putting in some effort to help make it happen.

These people deserve more than just gratitude; they deserve your respect and mutual support. They’ve been earning it for weeks and months and years, supporting you emotionally.

When I met Harry Lee (Sokobond) this year, he said, "This year, I'm not promoting my own work. I want you to try my friend's game, Push Me Pull You. I have it here in my backpack. Do you want to play?" The selflessness of that gesture -- of taking the value of a self-promotion opportunity and giving it to someone you want to succeed -- touched me, and I think we should all take it to heart.

Of course, just by making friends you'll be promoting yourself. We can't all be selfless Harry all the time. But now is not the time to ask for favors -- now is the time for building better relationships. You’ll want a few petty things (introductions, recommendations, invitations), but it’s far, far better to invest in your future now. Wherever you can, be the giver. Be the supporter. Offer to help others where you can.

If nobody asks for favors, that’s fine; go out of your way to show your appreciation for the kindness others have shown you. It sounds trite, but really do pay it forward. Especially while you're under this crushing performance anxiety.

Psychologically, this is likely to make you happier anyway. It seems Rami Ismail of Vlambeer spends most of his time helping others, and I would bet that the goodwill he's generated is a big part of Vlambeer's success. Real, demonstrable karma. If you want to be completely mercenary, then try to see conferences and events as great times to make brand deposits and not-great times to make brand withdrawals.

This past GDC I didn’t practice this tip as well as I could have, and I asked for a few petty favors that didn't really matter (but felt uber-important in the moment) instead of being my best self. So I wrote this note to myself, so I can improve.

Survival Tip 3: Make New Friends. (Corollary: Be Visible)


It’s not “just networking” -- making friends is legitimately about becoming closer to someone, such that they grow from stranger to acquaintance, and acquaintance to ally (see previous tip).

Be friendly, but be yourself. The more friends you make, and the more effort you put into being visible (so others can approach you), the more you can contribute to the greater community. As the latest corporate shenanigans prove, being a dev means being sincere and true to what you believe.

So get to know these people. Learn about their work. Listen to the words they say. This means that generally, you have to put in effort. Actually learn their name and pay attention to what they’re working on, and be sincere. Be patient. Friendship isn't Kool-Aid mix.

It’s easy to slip into friend-bot mode and just stick your hand out at everyone and try to collect as many business cards as possible, but this isn’t actually to your benefit, as a passing face in the hall will never be a friend.

Survival Tip 4: Not Everyone Will be Your Bestie
 

In the process of becoming more visible and making more acquaintances and budding friendships, you'll realise you don't enjoy the company of some people. Even some people that maybe could be "useful". You won’t like everyone. That’s okay.


 

People have different priorities and tastes. Accept that. The last thing you want is, as Lana Polansky put it later in that Twitter conversation, is for your friends to feel that "your value is rooted in what you symbolize/how useful you are to us."

I'm not saying shun people you don't immediately click with. You're at a professional event, not a middle school dance. But recognise when you are interacting as Part of a Community (which can be "useful") and when you are interacting as a friend.

The developers-and-such surrounding you in the middle of crowded festival halls and lectures may not all be “useful”, at least not now, and maybe not ever. But if you really try, there’s always something to learn from another person, if you get to know them.

On the other hand, there are times when you have to give in and... feed the beast

Survival Tip 5: Feed the Beast
 

“Feeding the Beast” is a phrase I first heard uttered on the Friday of GDC by Alex Martin, better known as Droqen (Starseed Pilgrim). It refers to when you have to do "real work". You have to do something for the good of your brand/company/product/insert-business-word.

Going to events you don’t care about, or even feel morally conflicted about. Talking with investors. Giving talks. Tweeting when you’re not in the mood. Everyone has their own approach to feeding the beast, but the truth is there: you have to make some sacrifices to power the engine. It can’t run on rainbows all the time. I personally feel I’m feeding the beast when I have run out of the energy to have a sincere conversation, yet continue to “network”.

Don't decline something because it sounds tedious. Don't run away to your hotel room. At least, not every time. Don't cancel meetings because you're nauseous from nerves. Buck up.

Returning to the party-hyperventilation example, I ended up going to both parties. I went to the fun one first, danced around, had fun, and then (slightly bummed) went to the publisher party. I had to “feed the beast”, and ended up meeting a few “useful” people. They won’t be my friends anytime soon, but it’s better than nothing.

This is mostly included as a counter-point to Tip 1. Even without min/maxing every moment of every day, you still have to work. So no matter how you manage to chill and trust yourself, be prepared to be exhausted.

Survival Tip 6: Don't Compete

It was two hours after I had given my GDC talk. After four days of navigating the tight-rope of friend-making and networking, just as my nervous energy started giving out, I crashed. Hard. It was like a sudden, full-body experience of the indie shame spiral.

I wasn’t indie enough, wasn’t connected enough, wasn’t savvy enough, wasn’t tech enough, wasn’t professional enough, wasn’t stylish enough, wasn’t extreme enough, young enough, old enough, anything enough. I felt I didn't belong, because I failed every possible comparison.

Now, of course my thought patterns were unhealthy and self-destructive, regardless of setting, but it's especially easy to fall into that trap in a conference setting. Especially if you let yourself get competitive. Amazing, talented, wonderful people are all around you, and while that's inspiring when you're happy, it can feel damning when you're vulnerable.

To put it another way, feeling insecure and walking into a competitive atmosphere is a recipe for Impostor Syndrome on steroids.
 
Luckily for me, I went to Lost Levels that afternoon in the park. In addition to dancing to Professor Oak’s music and being inspired/amused/educated by the many brilliant folks giving micro-talks, I was also reassured. My sense of competitiveness faded*. I felt a small sense of belonging, bouyed by the warm sunshine and the fresh springy scent of the grass.
 
 
A few days later, when I confessed my anxieties to Damian Sommer (The Yawhg), he said that he felt the opposite. We all should -- seeing these amazing, talented, wonderful people should help ground them as humans, rather than disembodied voices of perfection that only tweet pearls of wisdom. We're all just people. Everyone poops.
 
I challenge you to recognise when someone subtly ramps up the competitive atmosphere, comparing themselves (or their games) to others, and to ramp it back down. Find ways to be supportive. Raise others up, don't tear them down. Be an example of how to always, always learn.

Your uniqueness is what makes your post-mortems possibly less than useful to others… and yet it means both your triumphs and your setbacks are something to be proud of. Only you can achieve them.

The only failure is to stop, to conform, to give up, to believe there is nothing left to learn.

So stop comparing yourself and keep making games. You're already winning.

* The collaborative, supportive environment of Lost Levels is really what every dev-targeted event organiser should be trying to achieve. Planned chaos doesn't make your event less important. On the contrary, it emphasises the humanity and immediacy of your attendees.

Nightmare Mode: Trying to Pay Rent

As in every creative industry, anyone with ambitions to actually express something about the human condition and get paid for it suffers from enormous pressure. Like so:

Yes, we are surfing frogs.

The frog wears sunglasses to mask her insecurities.

Indies trying to pay rent are both artist and businessperson and neither.

“Pure” artists are either martyrs or dilettantes -- they give their games away for free and subsist on scraps thrown by passersby and/or rich relatives. But not you. You need money to live.

“Pure” business-minded developers couldn’t see a bigger waste of time than “indie games” -- they make investment-ready products and companies for the express purpose of becoming wealthy. But not you. You need art to live.

You live a life amphibious. You attend business meetings and nod sagely, drawing dollar-signs onto your eyelids to fit in. You delight in playing and making weird games that nobody would ever pay money for, but when you do this, the pressure of rent/family/hunger/medical bills/whatever makes you wonder if you are being irresponsible.

You’re under constant stress from this dual identity because it gives you goals that can sometimes converge (“just make a good game!”), but often don’t. Conferences are a particularly dangerous setting because avatars of these angry gods start to collide, often in a drunken, disorderly way. You're pulled, sometimes literally, in different directions.

This whole "survival guide" was originally directed only at indies trying to pay rent, but I realised most of it applies even to devs who can focus honing their craft. I miss those days.

Summary

Making games is hard. Worrying about money makes it harder.

When you're in a conference setting, the pressure is higher, making any gaps in your psychological defenses dangerous. The six areas I recommend patching up before entering the arena:

  1. You can only optimise your opportunities so much. Trust yourself.
  2. Build others up.
  3. Reach out of your comfort zone to make new friends.
  4. Some people won't be your friends.
  5. Suffer for your business as necessary.
  6. Don't compare yourself. Make games.

Do you have other tips to share?


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