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


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