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Networking at GDC- A Beginner's Guide, Part 1

If you are attending Game Developers Conference and your goal is to network and maybe even find work, then this article will be helpful. It will talk about some practical networking tips, along with some interesting psychological considerations.

Game Developers Conference (GDC) is, yet again, fast approaching. So you’re new and nervous about GDC? Or perhaps you’ve been before, but didn’t have as much success as you were hoping for? Well, I can empathize, and I may have some ideas that could be valuable for you. I’ve recently been a newcomer to GDC.

Since I’m actually coming into game development from a different industry, I’ve been fortunate enough to pick up some universal tidbits on how to professionally network and interact with people from all walks of life. And what happens at GDC? People from all walks of life are going to meet in San Francisco for the express purpose of networking and interacting with one another!

So let’s approach this topic through two lenses. Part 1 will contain practical tips on getting information about your services to the right audience, while Part 2 will cover some basic psychological considerations of networking.

At my first GDC the content was simply overwhelming. So many people, panels, displays and ideas were flying around that it was easy to feel lost in a crowd. Instead of getting bogged down trying to digest the content, I switched my focus to the people, which yielded some fascinating results. I was able to watch aspiring people in a variety of fields interact with established, successful people. I learned as much (or more) from the stumbles and fumbles as I did from the successes.

The first thing that I realized on Day 1 was to expect being surprised at who might be ordering coffee next to you. Within the first few hours, I inadvertently met people who had developed games that were a big influence on me, or were highly successful and famous, or both…and I had no idea who they were until they handed me their card as we were parting ways. After getting over how sheepish I felt at not knowing who they were, I realized that it was refreshing that they were normal people who didn’t mind talking to a first-timer.

This brings us to a very important point when networking: Find out who your “audience” is. The word “audience” in this instance should translate to: “anyone you are talking to.” Why is this important? Because first impressions are extremely powerful, and they are hard to change once they are made. More than once I saw someone visibly change their tone and style of speaking, mid-sentence, once they realized that they were talking to a representative of a large AAA company. At a minimum, it’s a poor first impression. More often, it can be perceived as being insincere, or worse. If you get into the habit of always treating your audience with the same level of respect and interest (regardless of who they are) then you will have a leg up on the people who aren’t proficient at this skill.

So who should you be talking to at GDC? Everyone that you can! Remember to be genuinely interested in people (not just people you perceive to be useful to your career), because you never know who you are getting coffee with, and who could be influential over whether or not you get your dream gig down the road.

Who should you be pitching your services to? Ah, that’s a much better question! The answer isn’t as simple as the first question, but you should pitch your services to people who are doing something that realistically matches your experience, strengths and abilities, in a project that you want to be a part of. What’s the point of pitching your services out of desperation if it doesn’t even match what you are good at? Even if you get the gig, you will most likely be miserable the whole time, and your work and reputation will suffer accordingly.

And that brings us to another very valuable networking tip: NEVER pitch your services out of desperation. It’s unprofessional, and it doesn’t give people a good first impression of what you can do. Be passionate about what you do, but don’t accept whatever comes along just because it’s there. You may actually be desperate, but you should channel that energy into being professional, passionate, and genuinely interested in the people you are talking to. Focus on striking the right balance between seeking available work and getting a gig that matches your skillset and will allow you to shine.

If you are new to the gaming industry that means your best chances will be with smaller companies and smaller projects. When you meet people in that category, ask questions! Find out what they are working on, and who they currently have on their team. Even if they already have someone in your field, still establish a good rapport and find out as much as you can about what they are doing. Do NOT just stop the conversation and move on just because they don’t need you for their project. Maybe they don’t need you for this project, but they will remember you for next time if they like what they are getting. Or maybe their current person isn’t working out, and you are being interviewed casually on the spot!

Game development is almost always a team effort, so you need to be able to demonstrate that you can work on a team. If you only show interest in someone so long as you think they can give you a job, and then you change your demeanor and walk away when you think they can’t, that doesn’t show a good sense of team competency. You will set yourself apart by showing your ability to function well on a team. At GDC, this can be shown by listening, participating in genuine two-way conversation and providing timely, relevant feedback on the topic at hand.

As a relatively new composer (or any game industry position you find yourself in), I would most likely NOT cold-pitch to Ms. AAA Executive. I know that I’m a great composer and sound designer, but I also know that she sees several great composers’ demos (or other portfolios) on her desk daily. Furthermore, at GDC I know that she’s probably gotten handed several demos/portfolios that she didn’t even ask for…so why would I try to be yet another that she has to carry around? Finally, she’s already got a list of award winning, experienced people that she has worked with previously, so why would she take a chance on an unknown variable in a high stakes project?

What I WILL do is introduce myself and ask intelligent questions. I will show genuine interest, and I will respect her time. I will remember her name and her role with Company X. I won’t talk her ear off about me. Even if she asks about me, I will be confident but very brief in talking about what I do. I will NOT lie or otherwise embellish the extent of my experience. You only hurt yourself and your credibility by doing so. On the flip side of that coin, if she mentions something that is in the ballpark of what I do, I will gladly speak up about it. Even if I don't do it, I might know another professional that does. If I helped to make a connection, even for someone else, that speaks volumes about my ability to work well with people.

When I interact with industry leaders at GDC, I view it as an investment into future possibilities that may eventually lead to a gig, or it may just lead to a great professional contact. I’m fine with either option. I know that I will see them again next year, and the year after that, and at the other Industry events that I will be attending. (Because you are attending more than just GDC right!?) As they see me event after event and they have pleasant interactions with me, they might become more interested in my work. Why? Because a relationship is being built and I will slowly become a known variable. But what if they never hire me down the road? That’s fine too. I still established a relationship with someone that has valuable experience and insight for my chosen profession, and I will still keep in contact with them even if I never get hired.

Now, for those of you who are still holding out hope for the miracle: Yes…there’s the extremely rare chance that you serendipitously meet Mr. AAA executive, and he mentions the important, but unnamed new game that’s in development, and you hand him your portfolio and he is blown away and you live happily ever after in game development nirvana (and if that opportunity ever presents itself, you should be ready to jump on it); but please don’t expect that it will happen to you on your first, second or even fifth GDC…or ever! These stories are truly rare from a statistical standpoint. Practice as if it won’t happen, and just be pleasantly surprised if it ever does. Put the work and effort into real relationships, and you will achieve success eventually.

Proceed to Part 2

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