What do audiences expect?
Sean Colombo (@seancolombo) of BlueLine Game Studios, which adapts board games for digital platforms, has noticed a shift in expectations from his audience. "They might not care about my home-improvement tinkering or how my cats are doing... but I definitely think they want me to stand out," he says.
In his view, it's not only that "reputation as curation" helps players sift through an increasing number of choices on multiple platforms. "I think the indie game community is composed of an extremely large percentage of gamers who have some level of desire to be in the game industry at some point," he hypothesizes. "One strong correlation I could point to is that when Microsoft announced that they were discontinuing support for XNA, the sales on Xbox Live Indie Games immediately tanked."
"Taking this desire into account, I believe that part of the product that game developers create is the infotainment that we spit off in the form of behind-the-scenes blog posts, public sales data, and any other sort of peek into the realities of game development," Colombo continues. "When we create a blog post about something extremely specific, like 'Representing a Hex Board in a 2D Array,' that's probably not just interesting to other game developers, but also to a huge percentage of our current players who are curious about what's going on underneath the hood."
Johannes Kristmann (@8bitbeard) is working on a game called Curious Expedition along with a colleague. "Tim Schafer once said that 'you have to be an interesting person to make interesting games,'" he says. "He meant this in the context of creating the game itself, but nowadays, this also applies to marketing your game. There are so many games out there, and being able to add your personality to it helps so much to make people care about what you're doing."
Kristmann also likes a certain Werner Herzog quote, where the unique documentary filmmaker explains that he's not just sharing his dreams, but articulating the things he and his viewers dream in common. This should resonate for game developers, Kristmann suggests: "I want to see and know what kind of person it is that shares their fantasies and dreams with me," he says. "While playing, I accept the beliefs and values of the creator in the context of the game as my own, something that takes a lot of trust on my side."
He says the fact players increasingly desire a personal relationship with developers is also a reflection of fatigue with the triple-A industry -- in which Kristmann and his colleague are currently employed. He says developers working in triple-A often wish they could talk about and share their work with others (staged or fake "developer diaries" as put forth by marketing departments partcularly upset him), and even doing side-projects to scratch that itch is risky.
Being too visible as "indies" could harm their actual job. Many developers working in the traditional space may be uniquely challenged if they take on side projects or attempt to transition out of environments that have historically discouraged outspoken or individualistic behavior.
Credentials vs. celebrity
Luke Dicken (@LukeD) is a grad student with a specialty in game AI, and he says he's done more reputable speaking and community work at this point in his career than he has traditional 'credentials.' "In just a couple of years, I've gone from random grad student nobody knows to being a well-known figure in the game AI community, speaking at GDC and on the board of the IGDA among much else," he says. "To date, I haven't released anything but a handful of tech demos."
"The big thing to me is that in the last five-ish years, we've gained the ability to see each other so much more transparently, and received platforms for our individual voices," Dicken says. "That's a bit different from before where most engagement was directly about the games, either by answering fan mail or posting on forums centered on the game or games more generally."
"I think it's empowered us to be 'celebrities' even though we're on the far fringes of what you might read in about in the tabloids - it's that same kind of culture that's always existed for movies and TV, but the ability to make it a push rather than a pull means we can all participate, and our fans, while they many not be numerous enough to sell magazines in the way Brad Pitt does, have that same interest in going behind the music," Dicken says. "New media generally is letting us scratch an itch that has always been there."
Self-promotion is inarguably important, and even people who are historically shy about networking can benefit from the increased focus on online interaction, says Dicken, who's comfortable approaching people digitally first in order to break the ice for in-person meetings. "I think 'being the product' here has really helped," he adds. "I just need to write now, or give a talk and people approach me -- which is a very different situation for me, and one I'm pretty comfortable with."
As Koster suggests in his advice post, developers should blog and write (Dicken says having his focused, AI-oriented posts syndicated from AltDevBlog to Gamasutra helped him build an audience very quickly). They should also put themselves forward to speak at events.
"There's a saying that it's not what you know but who you know that matters, and I think that to an extent both are wrong. The way I put it to people is that what is important is who knows what you know - you can be the most well-read, knowledgeable person on a subject, but if all you do is sit and write it in notebooks at home, you won't ever get traction," Dicken says.