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GDC’s quickly sneaking up on us and we’re thinking about our reasons for going. Usually “networking” is on that list in addition to attending talks and checking out games in progress. You might be thinking, “Networking sucks.” If you think this, it’s because you’ve been doing it wrong and no one taught you how to really get it done.
I’ve got some indoctrination to shatter in pieces for you. Ready for it? Talk to people like they’re people, not like you want something from them.
Okay, now breathe deep. Let’s go.
Not that long ago, I was giving a talk at Renssalaer Polytechnic about the overall business of games. After my talk, I got into an interesting discussion with one of the students there who said that he wasn’t ready to attend his first GDC yet because “I don’t really know how to network.”
It doesn’t matter if you’re a student just getting started. Or you’ve been at the same job forever and didn’t find it through someone you know.
You only need to know two tenets: A) just talk to people, and B) don’t come off as thirsty.
When I was this fellow’s age back in the Cretaceous Era when LinkedIn and Twitter were these shiny new toys, I bought into the version of networking most of us were sold. You know, the version where networking happens at these somewhat formal events where everyone’s in a suit and exchanging business cards, and the interactions are mostly stiff and stilted because everyone is either trying like hell to sell something or get a job (maybe a gig.)
This version sucks. Admit it. Even if you attained success in some way by attending something more traditional like a career fair or meet-and-greet kind of networking event, doesn’t it feel unnatural? Like you can’t just be yourself and you’re already acting like you’re at a job interview?
Sounds like it sucks to me!
So, let’s undo all of that. Forget everything your career services counselor in school told you, maybe you have a great one who’s proactive and introduces you to people but I went to the cheapest public university in the nation. They were overwhelmed with tons of kids who were the first to college in their families and gave us all the same useless job-seeking advice my father tried to give me when the last time he had to look for a job was when Nixon was still in office. Read: they meant well but their tips didn't work. Or maybe you didn’t go to college and subsequently didn’t go through that, but you’re looking to start a new career in games.
Regardless: unlearn what career services and your school told you. Unlearn the depiction of networking mass media gives you.
But before I get into those basic tenets, there’s actually something else you need to be aware of.
Why did I put a picture of a busted microwave here? Because it’s analogous to what happens when you come off as too thirsty and transactional, and also expecting too much too soon.
Don’t get me wrong, you got nothing to lose by going to a job fair or one of those one-time networking things you can randomly find by browsing Eventbrite, Meetup, or even Facebook and Twitter. People sometimes successfully hear of opportunities that way or else those events wouldn’t happen, right? They’re also really good practice for meeting people.
But if you’re looking for that dream job at a studio, building up a business, or freelance work that involves getting your name out there, this is the microwave approach. It’s not sustainable.
The best networking is slow-cooked.
How do you get that slow-cooking action? You need to find events that have some element of regularity to them.
Playcrafting started as this tiny Meetup.com group back in 2013 known as The Games Forum. It started drawing more people in who wanted to see what indie developers in the NYC area were working on, and also give indie developers a chance to talk shop over pizza and games. When I first discovered it, I was DYING to meeting other game devs as I had no others in my life. No one who really got what I was going through or understood why I was doing this.
What started as a Meetup.com curiosity grew into a full-fledged company doing game dev education and showcasing in multiple cities and ended up taking my career from “I’m working on this studio while I have a tax office job I hate” to becoming a one-woman media conglomerate in the course of five years.
Granted, not all Meetup groups have an outcome like this: but it could. You don’t know until you start something! But none of that would’ve happened without the regularity aspect I just stressed.
When you see a lot of the same people around for a while and become a familiar face, you form a stronger bond and degree of trust. They know you for something and for your personality. They know what games or other projects you’re working on and ask you how you’re coming along.
Doesn’t that sound way better than going to some event where you stand around awkwardly with several copies of your resume and try not to come off as desperately thirsty because you really need a job or your clients aren’t biting like usual?
As for how long it takes, that’s a wildcard. Maybe you’ll find someone who needs your skill set immediately because an animator had to walk out on a game. Or they’ll check out your amazing narrative design credits but not contact you until several months later. In my personal experience, I’ve had people express interest in coaching or consulting but not follow through until weeks or months later (sometimes not even at all. It happens.)
But no matter how soon something happens, the best networking is slow-cooked. Not microwaved.
So this seems like a good time to mention the follow-up process. In the digital age, the follow-up process is still subject to a lot of the same song and dance that it was when I spent god knows how many years of my life pounding the pavement trying to get financial jobs. If you want to turn that slow-cooker from whatever temp it was at to “keep warm”, you don’t want to wait TOO long to talk to that hiring manager or prospective client and just nudge them about that opportunity. Not giving it enough time comes off as thirsty, but too much time and you’ll miss the boat.
Wait for a few days then make contact. See if they reply.
Try again in another week.
Two more weeks.
If you hear nothing after two weeks, move on. You might get a bite back later. Or you won’t. But once two weeks are up, time to focus your energy elsewhere.
Don’t you hate it when someone’s clearly only talking to you because they want something from you?
Yeah, that’s a big part of why networking sucks.
Granted, that kind of thirst is to be expected at a career fair. Possibly also at some of those one-time networking events. But when you’re at a big conference like GDC or even a smaller one, it’s often intensely off-putting.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been there when I really needed a job badly and was freaking the hell out over what to do next. That kind of distress is visible, it sucks, and unfortunately it mostly puts you in a bad position even if you do magically get a job offer at one of these events (people love to exploit those who come off as desperate.)
Fake it til you make it, sugar. That can become easy with the next aspect I’m about to get into.
Then if you’re a free agent/hustler like myself, don’t come off as a hardsell. Give out those business cards and make sure that they look spiffy. Check out my feature on Freedom with Writing on positioning yourself for maximum rate-charging and brand spiffiness. (By the way, that piece is barely a year old at the time I published this and my writing rates already tripled or went even higher with some clients.) Just have a friendly conversation and trade business cards and/or promotional goodies and you never know if you might need one another soon, down the road, or just say hi at future events.
Either way, you’re not going to know until you put yourself out there and just talk to people. So on that note...
Here comes my favorite part of breaking the indoctrination concerning professional networking. Especially when it comes to a highly creative field like game development.
You have to just talk to people. Don’t think of it as professional networking.
You’re not in a suit trying to make this stuffy impression for a multiple six figure consulting job with some trillion-dollar firm. You’re at GDC, PAX, East Coast Game Dev Con, wherever. Or maybe you’re at a local Meetup.com group or something like Playcrafting, dressed in the clothes that make you feel like you. What are you going to do?
You’re going to talk about your game! I certainly hope that you’re passionate about it and other projects that you’re working on. Because even if you’re legit in a bad place financially right now, talking about the things you’re straight up fucking passionate about is hot. You don’t apologize it. Your enthusiasm becomes infectious. Isn’t that going to impress a hiring manager or studio head a lot more than “For the love of god they’re going to evict me in 4 days I NEED A JOB!”
Then you talk about other things that you love and inspire you. It can be other types of media, stories from your life, you name it. I love toads and can go on all day about them. Talking about toads makes me so happy and I’ve given away many a business card or promotional item with my toad branding all over it. I haven’t even talked about Sonic Toad: I just explained the biodiversity of local amphibian populations and the differences between frogs and toads! (Because 7 out of 10 times I will meet someone at any kind of event, games-related or not, who says “I never met anyone who has/had a pet toad before!”)
You’re at ease now, right? You’re just having a good conversation about the things that you all love, maybe sharing funny stories (humor always helps put people at ease and cut tensions), proudly showing off what you’re working on-- once again, doesn’t this beat the hell out of just rattling off what’s on your resume to what could potentially be a disinterested audience? You’re not at a job interview and you’re not giving a sales pitch. THIS IS HOW IT SHOULD BE.
Maybe you’re even making new friends or finding a potential significant other in the process because you’re looking at and talking to people, not potential transactions. Who likes to feel like a transaction? Not going to kinkshame you if findom is your thing, but I think it’s safe to say most people don’t like feeling like a mark or that this person is only being nice to you in the vain hope you’ll give them a job.
So that’s the next part of “just talk to people” that’s the best: this isn’t restricted to things like game dev meetups, GDC, and so on.
Who’s in your local community? Who do you see all the time at the coffee shop, the gym, and other places you might frequent?
Do you hit up music scenes frequently or have other hobbies where you also see a lot of the same people over time?
What about things you do in your community like civic organizations, the PTA, neighborhood parent co-ops, houses of worship, and other communities you belong to?
NETWORKING IS FOUND THERE. You just might not think of it that way because of how much you’ve been indoctrinated about networking and what people often construe it as. But these are people who you likely see often and don’t think of in a business capacity, and so if you’re the only game developer among them then you definitely won’t hear about which studios are hiring and who’s going through a freeze. But if you’re like a majority of indie devs who need other sources of income while working on the game, then knowing people in other walks of life only helps. You never know who suddenly wants to get a game developer’s perspective on something and will pay for it, and your communities will look to you for that. Or if you’re doing web development to have a flexible income source while you work on the game, someone in your civic organization suddenly tells you they want to start a business and need a website but don’t know where to begin. As you can see, the applications are numerous.
There’s a lot to unlearn when it comes to networking. But by getting out there and talking to people, you get past that stiff and informal attitude that honestly just holds people back. Talk about your game. Talk about the stuff that you’re passionate about, and ask the other person about what they’re working on and what their goals and passions are.
That’s going to result in far more than just a sterile exchange of business cards.