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

January 15, 2014 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 4 Next

(Yet another) second job

It's a lot of extra work for devs just from a practical standpoint, and approaches vary. For example, BlueLine's Colombo makes sure to Tweet a picture anytime he does something industry-related ("any time I give a talk, am on a panel, or even do something as simple as playing a new board game for the first time, or running into a huge version of Fia Med Knuff (it's like 'Sorry!') on a strange ancient fishing island in Sweden").

Brianna Wu (@Spacekatgal), co-founder of all-women indie developer Giant Spacekat, is constantly working to put herself out there, sharing her thoughts through writing and speaking up about important issues. "I try to be genuine and professional," she suggests. "More than anything, I try to talk to people more powerful than me -- not like a fangirl, but just as another person. Respect their work, be very polite, but be neither fawning nor presumptive," she recommends. "Editors don't want a suck-up, they don't care about your product. They are bombarded all day long by amateurs with bad pitches... my approach is, just be myself, present myself professionally, see if a genuine connection happens."

The extra tasks mean longer hours for Wu, and less downtime: "I know a lot of indie developers that spend their nights and weekends at the bar. Not me, I spend days, nights and weekend working my butt off on my game," she says. "You are playing at a massive handicap, and don't underestimate just much harder you're going to have to work compared to the people next to you."

Broken Rules' Martin Pichlmair (@martinpi) has an additional challenge: His team doesn't have the advantage of English as a first language. "Apart from language difficulties, I have a different set of ethical values to most people from our biggest market, which is the USA," he says. "I don't get half of the pop culture references, and my perceived lack of political correctness has caused more than one stir in the past. On the other hand, I have an outgoing personality and I am making games because I want to change the world."

Pixelles and Kitfox Games co-founder Tanya Short (@tanyaxshort) has a harder time self-promoting for more complicated and personal reasons: "My co-founders prefer it when I step outside my comfort zone and write, talk, blog and Tweet about all sorts of things and get us more attention, but I really, really don't like taking any credit for other people's work, even implicitly through being 'the face' of an organization." 

She implies that some of her challenges come from the arenas that women are most commonly invited to talk about or most often expected to be 'experts' in, even though those aren't where she feels her strengths lie: "It's kind of my responsibility to promote myself and therefore them, but I often feel I have to rely on topics of feminism, marketing, storytelling, art design, tools design...which I'm not comfortable with." 

She enjoyed representing Funcom at MIGS 2011 to discuss design problems and solutions for cooperative gameplay, but when asked to talk about "women in games" she felt uncomfortable. "I still feel like a bit of a fake, and my 'expert blog posts' on Gamasutra follow a similar pattern of discomfort, regardless of their success," she says. 

Similarly, it's easier to promote her own "silly non-commercial side projects" than the work she does with her team -- "I don't want people to call the latter 'Tanya's game,' when I'm only one in a team of four, even though I know I'm using Twitter specifically for network advancement/promotion." 

As a result, she still sees a schism between her "real" self and herself as a game-maker: "Tanya the person is in a short fiction writing club, loves cooking and snowboarding, sometimes draws/paints for fun, prefers cello to electric guitar, might have a kid in a few years, lived in four countries over the last 10 years," she says. "Tanya The Game Designer eats, drinks, breathes games and only games. She only cares that she's married because her husband is also a game designer." 

Complications, challenges and emotions 

Though Arnott admits "blogs take time and energy that I'd usually rather put towards development," he says the real extra work of self-promotion is emotional. Being completely honest and transparent about a project, its shortcomings and its challenges "hurts in a way that 'work' isn't supposed to," he says. 

He recently gave another journalist "permission to pry into my insecurities: ways I let my friends down, ways I spent my backers' money recklessly. But that honesty was worth it because it helped people see themselves in my story and connect with my work. It's also pushed me be more honest in my relationship with the work itself, which is extremely important."

But the consequences can be as steep as the workload. Alexander Bruce says he was an "emotional trainwreck" by the time of Antichamber's long-awaited release. "I felt personally accountable for every success and every failure of the game along the way," he says. "It was extremely difficult to detach myself from what I'd created, so when people spoke about the game, I felt like everyone was talking about me personally, even when that clearly wasn't the case." 

"This road is sometimes ruthless, especially if you're Phil Fish or a woman," Arnott agrees. "If I had to put up with the kind of shit [Depression Quest developer] Zoe Quinn does, I'm not sure it'd help me be more honest in my work... I think it'd make me want to curl up in a shell and quit. I am very grateful both for the women who bravely channel that toxicity so we may have a safer creative space in the future, and for the privilege of not having to bear that hatred myself." 

Katharine Neil is a founder of Australia's Freeplay event, and a former triple-A developer who learned a distrust of marketers early on in her career, watching them buy scores ("I was at Atari during 'Driver-gate'") and diminish her and other female colleagues. "They would sail into the studio, look us all up and down, and single out the prettiest [woman] and have her talk about what it's like to be 'the only girl on the team,' while the other women had to stand by and watch," she recalls. 

"And now [I'm] expected to stop worrying and learn to love the marketing side of the games industry, and be one of these people myself. I know the context is different, and I know why it's important and necessary, etc. On an emotional level, at least, it's hard for me to embrace without it making me feel a bit low." 

Neil read and enjoyed Koster's self-promotion advice, but for her, it highlighted some of the ways the rules for women are different than those for men in game development, particularly when it came to his advice about dressing (you can be "rumpled," like himself, or "professorial" like Warren Spector, so long as you're consistent). 

"Was he thinking of ordinary-looking 30-plus year old female developers when he wrote that? I suspect he wasn't," says Neil. "Call me cynical, but there's only one way a woman can dress in this industry and get herself noticed, and it sure isn't 'rumpled.'" 

"I find it immensely challenging. I have zero desire to be a public figure," says Giant Spacekat's Wu. "I"m happiest on days where my inbox isn't chirping at me every 30 seconds. And yet, the political and marketing side is an extremely important part of the process. You cowgirl up, and make it happen." 

"The fantasy of indie gamedev is making some wonderful creation from your unique, special vision," she adds. "The reality is doing anything and everything that has to be done - no matter if you like it or not." 

For Paul Taylor (@mode7games) of Mode 7 Games (Frozen Synapse, Frozen Endzone), there's some skepticism about the conversation space itself: "Twitter and Reddit [are] fueled by controversy and personality," he says. "These days, a game might get more traffic from those two sources than it does from a major site, so that's going to put the focus on how you communicate." 

"I'd question that there's an expectation placed on developers to be well-rounded: I think people are actually looking for more inflammatory personalities," he adds. "They want 'celebrity developers,' and  not everyone feels comfortable in that role." 

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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 ( 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

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:

Pedro Guida
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Btw, my campaign is live at

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.