How today's game developers come to grips with self-promotionBy Leigh Alexander
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.
"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.
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.
(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."
What if I'm shy?
It's common to experience shyness -- lots of developers were interested in sharing their stories for this feature, but few contacted me directly. Many put themselves forward in a sort of round-about way via Twitter, seeming anxious that they might not be important or interesting enough to be heard.
"I'm a little on the shy side, so most of the time I tend to err on the side of thinking nothing that I do is terribly notable," Colombo says. He notices someone like Mojang's Notch ends up getting at least 150 favorites for any given Tweet, even ones about ordinary daily activities. "While all of Notch's actions are inherently more interesting because of who he is, if him saying he got off a plane is interesting to that many people, maybe the public is more interested in our lives as game developers than one might assume."
BADLAND and Nuclear Throne musician Joonas Turner (@KissaKolme) has the opposite problem: He's anxious about people assuming he's constantly in self-promo mode, and therefore disingenuous. "It feels whenever I talk to people, I have this weird paranoia that they're judging whether or not am I advertising myself to them and it might affect the way I might approach something or someone, even though it shouldn't," he says.
"For years I didn't apply for things purely because I decided that I wasn't good enough -- I let the marketing hype talk me out of applying," says Dicken. "It nearly happened with blogging. I can remember thinking 'nobody cares what I have to say,' and it took a run of really poor articles being published to get me over that."
Mode 7's Taylor enjoys public speaking in the right context, but is troubled by the pressure to weigh in on every debate, or the popular tendency to give the most attention to the person who's being the most controversial. "There's a lot of jerking, both of the 'circle' and 'knee' varieties, on Twitter, and my instinct is always to step back so I can consider the facts," he says. "I'm also unlikely to have a meltdown on a forum or start calling people rude names, because I save that behavior for when I'm losing at StarCraft; I sometimes wonder if that's a hindrance these days."
Christos Reid (@failnaut) makes individual games of a personal nature, and is occasionally uncomfortable with feeling exposed, and with trying to monetize self-expression. "It's been a little weird, because a chunk of my released stuff has been autobiographical in nature... making money from personal games [feels] almost like I've taken my own personal misfortunes, and turned them into a saleable product," he reflects. "It makes me self-conscious about the mindset required to put a price tag on your own personal Shawshank."
But he sees the press increasingly taking interest in personal games -- US Gamer covered his Dear Mother, a game about watching his mother fall into zealous religious beliefs, as an example of self-expression in games. "I felt like I'd had a breakthrough," he says. "I didn't pitch anything to US Gamer, I didn't even tweet at them, but it's interesting to watch the way in which personal games seem to latch onto people."
Some more tips
"I think firstly it's important to emotionally prepare for the costs of opening yourself up to your audience," Arnott suggests. "Are you prepared to really accept the love of your niche? That's a lot of work, and will push you to be more and more vulnerable -- are you ready to face your demons so out in the open? But more importantly, do you have a support system for if/when you get harassed? If you are ready for that, then my best advice is to be as honest and vulnerable as you can be -- lean into your edge, and your community will appreciate it."
"Don't be put off," Dicken adds. "People are interested in what you have to say wherever you have to say it, and if they like you in one medium, they might like the opportunity to find out more, see more articles, thoughts, or games." He says some people will take offense at self-promotion and try to punish you -- Dicken himself was called out by an audience member in a talk for, he says, spending 30 seconds of the 20 minutes to promote his own work.
"Ignore the haters," he says. "You can't help but encounter people who've chosen a different path, and are taking out their frustration at feeling that the grass is greener on your side."
"So much has been written about the 'fresh eye' that indies supposedly bring to the table," says Wu. "I'm here to tell you, it's an exaggeration how important that is. Most of what you don't know is a massive liability. Find people smarter than you - people with more experience. Listen more than you talk."
"Be scientific about it," says Alexander Bruce. "Critically assess what worked for people in the past, and talk to other developers directly to find out what didn't work for them. Experiment a lot, and challenge all of your assumptions. Don't feel entitled to press or sales."
"I try to spread anything that's on-topic professionally or personally," says BlueLine's Colombo. "Professionally, this means that if I learned something that others might find useful, I'll write a blog post about it. If I create a tool for myself that I think would be beneficial to other game developers too, I try to build it in a way that will let me easily release it to others."
"My tip for other creators is to be honest," adds Broken Rules' Pichlmair. "If you have an outspoken personality, be outspoken. If you are opinionated, share your opinions. Be yourself!"
"It really still helps to meet journalists in person wherever possible: that's never going to change no matter how big Twitter gets, so going to events is still going to matter," says Taylor. "I think the issue of personal involvement vs. professionalism in general is something that gets quite a bit of airtime: we're all trying to work out where to draw that line."
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