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How today's game developers come to grips with self-promotion

January 15, 2014 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next
 

Not all that long ago, your average game developer was likely to be defined by one key trait: Obsessiveness. Job postings sought those willing to "eat, breathe and sleep" games -- shorthand, basically, for the willingness to work long and unreasonable hours and to have an internal lexicon so broad that one's almighty 'cred' would be beyond reproach. 

The industry ecosystem has permanently changed, though. Game developers can no longer expect they'll definitely become anonymous nodes on massive assembly lines. In fact, working in development these days is just as likely to mean an intimidating level of independence, with small teams having to do many tasks that were once handled by a bigger infrastructure.

Indies and newly-formed studios have quickly had to acclimate to a world where they have to market their own games, do their own press outreach and create their own materials. Social media provides the infrastructure even as it creates the challenge: suddenly everyone needs to be a marketer in order for their brand or service to be visible. Amid the din of "I" statements, the mandate has begun to go even further than simply marketing your product, as any business does. Operating from the fascinating junction of tech, art and entertainment, many game developers are having to start thinking about marketing and promoting themselves.

Self-promotion often plays a key role in success in any field where the desire to participate is high, but the opportunity for success (whether defined either by financial stability or visible critical celebration) is much rarer. "Who you know" in your field and what they think of you -- good networking skills, in other words -- is still relevant. Now, though, many developers currently face and engage with their players at least as often if not moreso than they do with their peers, and often those interactions hold far more weight.

The "Kickstarter bubble" is mainly in the industry's rearview mirror, but crowdfunding and patronage are still viable avenues for pioneers trying to fund work that traditional channels don't support. And developing online and in public in the hopes that fan feedback leads to a tailor-made game and a built-in audience at launch is a popular strategy for attracting resources. Both cases require building a direct relationship with fans, supporters and potential donors, and creating that relationship is just as important as the work itself.

At the beginning of this new year, Raph Koster (@RaphKoster) offered some self-promotion tips for people working in games. His suggestions highlight the difference between marketing one's game or company and marketing oneself. For some people, this is yet another new skill set to learn in exchange for independence. For others, it's an uneasy obligation -- remember when all people had to do was underline your "passion" and mail a resume somewhere? Now, you have to "put yourself out there" in brand-new ways.

Why self-promote?

"People expect a much higher bandwidth relationship with art, and having a relationship with the artist is an extension of that deeper and more niche personal relationship with the work," says Robin Arnott (@ragamesound), creator of the IGF 2014-nominated SoundSelf. "I don't think people want to buy our stuff, I think they want to share an appreciation and love for whatever micro-part of the human experience our games reflect on."

Arnott has talked about SoundSelf, both the experience of playing and his journey in creating, as deeply personal. He says the game is hard to describe ("in the netherspace between video game and religious experience"), and that letting audiences get to know his personal mission helps communicate the game: "You may not at first understand what SoundSelf is, but if you understand me, then maybe you'll also understand that my art is for you."

Antichamber creator Alexander Bruce (@Demruth) long put himself forward alongside his game over its long, emotional development process. When Antichamber only existed in an earlier version called Hazard: The Journey of Life, which Bruce doggedly brought to every festival he could attend, he was known as the friendly young man in the pink suit. Clad in a strawberry-milk two-piece, he always stood out.

"I think branding vwas always important, regardless of whether you are an individual or a company," says Bruce. "When I first started out independently, there were many developers I knew by name, moreso than the companies that they ran. People like Jonathan Blow, Petri Purho, Ian Dallas or Ron Carmel and Kyle Gabler all came to mind. When I had the choice of trying to promote a random company name or myself as an individual, I figured that I would be around a lot longer than any company I started would. Being an independent success was never guaranteed, so I always wanted to make sure people knew who I was in case I ended up having to apply for jobs around the place as well." 

Bruce says being able to tell one's own stories as a creator is much more sustaining for public presence than simply talking about the game. Any personal tale related to Antichamber's development could be made media-ready, as opposed to the meticulous and often slow process of developing something on one's own over years.


Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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Comments


Keith Nemitz
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Shyness, fear of falseness, worry over having something interesting to say that hasn't been said better by more visible peers. Time and again, I put myself out there, and time and again I say or do something I regret and agonize over for days. More than making business decisions about my lifework's direction amid highly competitive markets and rapidly changing technology, I hate self-promotion. See you all at Steam Dev Days.

Ian Richard
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I know the feeling.

I'm good at making games. I have a solid set of technical skills and a good understanding of design. I've worked on video games for as long as I can remember and now got my board game published.

And yet... none of it matters because I suck at self promotion. I've always believed that my work should speak for itself and that selling myself is egotistical. The idea of taking the spotlight goes against the very core of my being.

But... what the heck. The world adapts and therefor, so I have to do the same. I've been making an effort recently to promote myself recently. I've started a VLOG, begun emailing important people for advice, and interacting with gamer's one-on-one.

We may not have been born for this side of development, but we can adapt... even if we hate every minute of it.

Phil Maxey
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I've decided to just put pretty much everything out there when developing Clan Kingdom (www.clankingdom.com). I see no harm in continually talking about your project. So much is about making connections with people, that's what you want your game to do, and the earlier you do that (i'e before the game even exists) the better.

Benjamin Quintero
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man.. if public diaries, outbursts, pity parties, and pink suits is what it takes to get noticed, I'm out! the mantra of building it and they will come has been long dead; not sure it was ever alive, but the search for the next colorful Lady Gaga of the game's industry is poisonous... life was better when i as young and naive and thought that people might someday build a relationship with my work without feeling compelled to know what brand of toilet paper I use..

SD Marlow
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I was going to leave a comment along these same lines. The idea of discoverability and just getting your foot in the door will get even more focus this year than last, but I'm not thrilled at the idea of it being more about "personal fame." I hope people remember there is a difference between community interest and market interest. Developers, gamers, and those in-between are often the social center from which a spark of success may come from, but in the larger context (as a product on the shelf), revenue is still coming from the much larger, "outsiders" marketplace.

Thomas Happ
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The Shyness factor is huge. I'd say at least half of us are varying degrees of shy, socially awkward, functionally autistic, or crippled sociophobes. I'm thinking there's a lot of profit in it for anyone who can help get these individuals (or at least their work) into the spotlight.

Phil Maxey
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That's more or less what I'm trying to do with www.promoteindiegames.com

Rudy Gjurkovic
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Hi Phil,

Thanks for posting the info on your site. I went there to see how it would work for our game Blaster X HD. However, when I went to register (using Google Chrome) it just sits on a blank page with a logo and 2 links, and never shows the registration form. I just wanted to give you a heads up as it would be something that we would be interested in. Thank You.

Talha Kaya
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Great article as always from L. Alexander. But I think so many different emotions from all these developers kinda create this illusion that all this publicity is absolutely mandatory. There are people making games and not being active on Twitter all that much. There are people who we only talk about their work. They are not Phil Fish, but they don't need to be.

This article is about making a better public presence. But this shouldn't mean that we should be getting everything about ourselves out there. We can be professionals, and we kinda need to in some cases, like when we need to maintain our psychological health better.

Being on public social networks is like being infinitely social. You might just get comments from any person on the internet. Being publicly available, being infinitely social hurts. I can understand some people wanting to do it. I am the guy who reads every interview of his favourite developers, just to get to know them a little bit better. But it hurts. People are not supposed to "get" anything you say on the internet. They will misunderstand, and they will think stuff you didn't mean, and it will stay that way in their minds.

For some type of people, being publicly social is not healthy at all. So I hope those people don't get the wrong idea out of this article and prostitute their feelings on the internet for no apparent reason, like marketing.

Anyways, really enjoyed reading the article. Made me think pretty hard. Thanks for writing it.

David Lindsay
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This strategy may be good for small teams where branding and PR image is necessary for exposure. I tried it for City of Steam but ended up getting burnt a lot by reactions to certain features. A lot of the time with online games, many people have vested interests in their player accounts and any change will upset a small percentage of those. In the end, some of those people will be angry enough to make personal attacks, even if the visible community outgoing dev isn't the person making the changes. Once you introduce other publishers in other regions, you basically can't micro-manage what is happening on such a large scale.

When this happened, since I was the visible personality for our company, I was beholden to the community to answer for the actions of many others (publishers, marketing, devs, artists, etc). So you can see how being open and honest can snowball into a bad situation in the case of companies over 50 people.

Dare Man
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Most developers I've met are introvert and not that social. Picking between implementing a new game feature or writing a blog post, guess where the time goes.
And then there are indies, by definition this group must learn to interact and self promote. I guess developers have to figure out where they fit in and not go down the wrong path or they'll probably dislike it completely.

Simon Tomlinson
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Very interesting. I don't suffer from shyness in terms of networking. Indeed some years ago I was told that I was a 'shameless self-promoter' as if it was a huge personal and professional weakness. In fact I was actually given a formal warning for it: I was not being a team player by focussing my every thought and waking hour on the project I was working on. I was amazed and dumbfounded at the time, especially as I was in fact a contractor, so keeping an eye open for the next potential opportunity was very important for me.

I just thought I'd share this, as while I agree networking and self promotion is important, as a developer within a studio it may be viewed as undesirable, like you are already planning your exit! And I'm wondering if others might have experienced something similar or whether my experience is actually unique?

David Lindsay
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Board of Directors in larger companies will certainly think this way. That's why I maintain that self-promotion is better in a small team/group where that is the strategy from the beginning (and nobody higher-up plans on changing it). As soon as the main player acquisition strategy turns from PR to CPA, no only do your original PR early adopters feel crushed, but also the company views this as lost development hours (even when its after hours).

Saul Gonzalez
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It's not the topic of the article, but I was intrigued by the comment that "the Kickstarter bubble is mainly in the industry's rearview mirror". Is this a consensus view? For all the talk of saturation and fatigue, it seems to me that most developers still consider Kickstarter a viable option for development.

Pedro Guida
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My comments:

http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/PedroGuida/20140120/208865/PreCrow
dfunding_Chronicles_Of_An_Indie_Developer.php

Pedro Guida
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Btw, my campaign is live at http://igg.me/at/theape

James Cockram
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Yep, this is a tougher topic than I thought... currently grappling with the question 'how do you engage with an audience that doesn't know you exist'? I was naive enough to think 'if you build it, they will come', but not any more. They have to be aware of your existence first. Theres a lot of noise out there these days, and rising above that noise isn't easy.


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