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How To Build A Grassroots Indie Community

In this article, Nicholas Laborde of Raconteur Games discusses how to build an indie game dev community from scratch in your city.

Community.

This is the word that defines the game industry from my perspective. My name is Nicholas Laborde, and I started a little indie company called Raconteur Games a few years ago in Lafayette, Louisiana.

More importantly, I played a small part in helping build our game development community.

We're all developers pursuing our dreams, some for other companies, some for their own startups, and what unites us all in this journey is the affirmation that other developers have done this before and that we can learn from them.

But what if you're in a place without game developers (to your knowledge)?

What if you don't know anyone even remotely connected to the industry?

What if games "can't work" in your area?

I either believed - or was told - all of these things when I moved to Lafayette, Louisiana four years ago when I started college.

Nearly 5 years later, we've established an IGDA chapter, had two game jams (as well as hosting Global Game Jam once before), and regularly get close to forty people at our monthly meetups -- among other exciting things!

Are we glamorous or giant? Absolutely not.

Did we start from nothing, like every game dev community? Yes, yes, and yes.

My city seemed to be devoid of game developers, whether professional or just hopeful amateurs... and I was happily proved wrong, after a little bit of hard work.

You may be in a much bigger or smaller city than Lafayette, and you may have greater access to the industry in your situation, but if you're like me and you thought there wasn't a chance that games could be made in your city, this article is for you.

Here's the story of the Lafayette, LA game development community.

From The Beginning

I moved to Lafayette in August 2012 to pursue my degree in business. From the onset, it seemed like making games would be near-impossible:

  • There were no established professional game developers in town.
  • There were no student groups besides my own pursuing any remotely serious project outside of class (that I knew of).
  • There were no game dev meetups within a 1-hour radius (IGDA Baton Rouge was the only IGDA chapter in Louisiana at the time, and it's across the most treacherous expanse of interstate in the entire state).
  • There were no local events where game development talent could be shown off.

Oh, and did I mention that my degree is in business and that I can't write a single line of code? Talk about the odds being against me!

I started college and decided to do what I think everyone should do if they're serious about something: get uncomfortable. 

With a horrible fear of public speaking developed over years of embarassments, I forced myself to give speeches in a seminar course at my university that was required every semester.

In my university's honors program, a one hour seminar course had to be taken each semester, and it was essentially an open forum for discussion where anyone could suggest ideas and give a lecture. The ideas would go on the board and the top voted topics would get to present.

My humble topic of how characters felt "real" in stories was the tenth most voted out of the ten selected topics, so I truly started from the bottom.

After my first speech, I realized that speaking wasn't too bad.

I got so nervous that my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth at one point and made a microphone-shattering loud noise when it became unstuck, but hey, I did it!

I made an offhand comment in the presentation that I was working on a game. Afterward, someone approached me (a computer science student) who asked if we would be able to work together because he wanted to make games too.

This was the first time a game started to come together in my city outside of the classroom. In Lafayette, we started to make something!

Moving Along

Fast forward to 2013. Lafayette hosts a Global Game Jam site, and 30 people who never made a game before tried to work together on one project. It went about as you imagined -- but in Lafayette, we made something!

A game startup recruited a lot of people from that event. It failed a few months later and never produced anything -- but in Lafayette, we made something!

That failure made many people think that games weren't destined to be made in our city, especially since the startup in question was led by someone with no previous game experience, but rather, business experience. 

Remember that I'm a business student and "business guy." I wasn't liked very much after that -- but that didn't bother me. I wanted to make something happen in my city to pave the way for others who had a dream too.

Now, there's a gap between summer 2013 and summer 2015. Across that time, I was developing Raconteur's first game Close Order with my team. 

Through various community outlets and organizations, Raconteur was given the spotlight multiple times: our university, our startup accelerator, our biggest newspaper and our biggest news channel all gave the area a glimpse into a tiny company making a tiny game.

In this period, not much happened in terms of building our community, but I like to think of it as building momentum for the next stage.

During this time I'm meeting other students who wanted to make games, attending entrepreneurship meetups and mixers, and pitching the company to investors. I also continued to give lectures each semester and mentioning that we're going to be making games in Lafayette.

Rapid Growth

August 2015 rolls around, and this is where things ignited.

I met Will, a software developer in Lafayette, who would go on to become a close friend and someone I respect very dearly. We both wanted to start an IGDA chapter in town, and it was destiny that we would meet.

That, or the fact that we both emailed the head of the IGDA on the same day about starting the chapter, hours apart!

We got connected, and figured out how we could make this work. At this point, I had made connections with a growing game design school that has a campus in Lafayette -- the Academy of Interactive Entertainment (AIE).

On a hot summer day, we gathered for food and formed what would become IGDA Lafayette. Thanks to our local startup accelerator (shout out to Opportunity Machine!), we were given a regular meeting space.

Plus, by being in a physical location with many budding businesspeople, software developers, and contractors, on top of being in the same building as AIE, we were in a damn good spot to catch more attention.

In September 2015, we held our first meeting. Megan, our other IGDA board member in addition to Will, printed posters and helped me put them up all over campus. We covered the art, business, and computer science buildings to try and target students.

Most of the posters were removed two days later in the campus's rare poster removal sweep (argh!), but that's alright, because we had nearly fifty people attend our first meeting. The room was overflowing into the hallway!

We then realized our audience: students and game dev hopefuls who could come together as a group, learn from each other, and pursue their goals as they transitioned from "amateurs" into professionals.

Doing The Right Things

I have a mentor, and his name is Zach. He's this slick sales-y guy who could sell you not only a vial of snake oil, but a lifetime supply.

That's not to say that Zach is not to be trusted -- entirely the opposite! But sometimes, he said things that I just didn't get.

One of those things was "Do the right things." He wasn't giving me a lecture on morals or ethics; rather, he was telling me to do the things that are in line with our end goal.

His argument was that if you do the things that make sense to achieve your goal, even if you have no support or it seems like no one will show up, you will one day achieve it.

He was absolutely right.

One of those things was the first Acadiana Regional Game Jam in November 2015, a tiny game jam hosted by the big building where IGDA Lafayette meets (the LITE center) in conjunction with the AIE Lafayette campus. 

AIE generously let us use their campus's office for the jam, and allowed anyone to come and go.

All in all, we had eighteen people show up, all local, that made about five games.

It may not seem like much, five game jam games... but that was more output than at any other point in our city's game dev history!

We walked away knowing that we had to do it again.

Fast forward to January 2016, and Raconteur releases its first game out of Early Access (which was quite an experience).

I told the story to anyone who would listen, and this kept peoples' interest and boosted attendance over the long-run.

Over the year, I did a lot of speaking and hand shaking and baby kissing.

Here are a few things that I did:

  • Became an advisory board member at AIE Lafayette, which got me in touch with even more creative folks in the community.
  • Spoke at AIE, local Rotary clubs, an event in Baton Rouge called Red Stick Fest, and more.
  • Spoke at IGDA Baton Rouge and became friends with Jason, the chapter chair and head of prominent Baton Rouge developer Pixel Dash.
  • Hosted several reddit ama's where I talked about being a "video game business guy." I always got a few messages from people in Louisiana saying they had no idea anything like that was happening in our state, let alone our city!

Those are just a few things that happened; I couldn't even begin to tell you everything because this year has been a whirlwind for us!

We accomplished two big things this year, in my opinion:

  1. Extended our reach and relationships to Baton Rouge and their IGDA chapter, such that we now have even more people that go to both groups' meetings (Baton Rouge's chapter also includes some New Orleans folks).
  2. Hosted our second annual Acadiana Regional Game Jam, which had nearly fifty people!

I'm proud of both of those, but I was almost crying at the end of this year's game jam.

Before we unveiled the winner, I told them how when I started college, I thought there was no one in town making games, and that they might have thought this too -- but that weekend, we made fourteen games.

That's incredible!

Key Points

From there, we arrive at the present.

IGDA Lafayette is the go-to place if you want to make games in our city, Raconteur is on the verge of releasing its new game Evangeline in January, and our board member Megan and her team are gearing up to release their project in 2017 as well!

It's been quite a journey starting from nothing. This wouldn't have been possible without the support of Megan and Will, AIE, OM, as well as our little indie community.

I couldn't have released a game alone, either. This community helped me do it. That's the most important takeaway!

The story has been long and winding, so now I'll distill my message into a few key bullet points.

I can't stand the word "actionable" because to me, that means "Everything else didn't matter, so please tell me the few useful things!" -- so begrudgingly, here are my "actionable" recommendations on how to start a grassroots indie community in your town.

  • Tell everyone around you that you're making a game. Not only does it build accountability, but you never know how one conversation might spark something greater -- it all started with just a conversation here in Lafayette.
  • Here's another Zach-ism: "If you need people, go to where they are!" Need a programmer? Go to a software or programming meetup, even if it has nothing to do with games. Need a businessperson? Find a pitch event or networking day at your local startup incubator. Most big cities have at least one. The moral of the story is that there are people in your city who either are making, or want to make, games; you've simply got to find them.
  • If you are the first to complete a game in your city, be prepared to be considered the go-to person for game dev questions. I was not expecting this by any means, but I guess putting things out there changes perception -- and if that means I can inspire other people to pursue their dreams (and make something way cooler than my game) in the process? I will absolutely help whoever asks!
  • Try starting an informal game development meetup once you've found a few people who want to make games. It could be something as simple as talking about what engines are out there to develop with; keep it simple, and know your audience.
  • Offer the idea of learning from each other as the main selling point of being a part of the community. For us in Lafayette, we're a tight-knit group of mostly students and amateurs. That is rapidly changing (I challenged our chapter to add four new companies to our gamedevmap location by the end of 2017), but you've got to start somewhere.
  • Host game jams and spread the word around local universities, tech centers (like startup incubators), and anywhere programmers and artists "live." In 2016, we had people come to our game jam in Lafayette all the way from Baton Rouge (over an hour's drive!) because they heard me speak at their chapter and wanted to see what our community was like.
  • For further reading, check out Rami Ismail's list of game dev community stages, figure out where you are, and go from there.
  • Most importantly, have fun. Be inclusive, offer to learn together, and just make stuff!

This has been the story of Lafayette, Louisiana's game development community.

We're a bunch of down-home Cajun folks that want to take care of each other and learn as much as we can, and I hope this has given you some ideas about how to impact your own community.

As always, feel free to Tweet me or email me at nick-at-raconteurgames-dot-com for any thoughts or questions!

So what are you waiting for? Go start a community.

They're out there, and they need you.

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