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No Developer is an Island

Shy? Isolated? Anti-social? Don't be. Even the indiest of indie developers can be more successful by forming connections with others.

Robert Boyd, Blogger

May 2, 2011

6 Min Read

Ever since the first time I played the original Legend of Zelda on the 8-bit NES, I had wanted to make video games. However, my life ended up taking a different turn and I found myself winding up in the education field. Still, at the back of my mind, there was that nagging doubt that I had made a wrong choice and that I should really be making games as a profession and not just as an occasional hobby.

Then one day while I was searching for a job, I discovered that NIS America was looking for a new script editor. Fantastic! This was just the chance I needed to break into the gaming industry! Sure, I had no formal education in a field relevant to game design (Mandarin Chinese, though cool, isn't nearly as useful as Japanese in this industry), my programming skills were limited and self-taught, and my art skills were even worse, but I fancied myself a decent writer and an expert at RPGs and what more do you need for a script editing position at an RPG company?

I applied for the position and they must have liked my application because they invited me in for an interview. That interview must have been a success, because they invited me in for a second interview, this time with the boss. I met with the boss, did my best to be personable, and left.

I was filled with elation at how well everything was going – surely, it was only a matter of time before I had a position at an honest-to-goodness video game company! I could see myself rising through the ranks – first, as an editor, then as a game designer, and finally as the person in charge. Everything was going according to plan! Mwahahahaha! Ahem.

It was around this time that I received an email from them. They had decided to go with somebody else.

I was devastated. My plans were ruined! Then I pulled myself together and decided that I wasn't going to let this deter me. If I couldn't get myself hired by an established game company with my current skill set and experience, then I'd just have to make games without an established game company. Thus, Zeboyd Games began.

Though the details may vary, I imagine similar stories can be found behind the creation of many indie game studios. Failing a job hunt, having your creativity suppressed at a huge company, working on one too many sequels and then bam! The individual screams, "Forget this!" and sets out on their own to make their own games their way. A true lone wolf developer is born, their teeth bared against the world.

Given that many of us indie developers became indie developers because we wanted, well, independence, it is worth pointing out a simple truth that we may have forgotten or chosen to ignore.

You can be far more effective as a developer with help from others.

Sure, you occasionally hear wild success stories of the rare individual who creates a highly popular game all by themselves, but these are the exceptions not the rule. How many people can code well, draw great art and animation, compose wonderful soundtracks, write fantastic dialogue, turn new ideas into unique designs, and run a business? Answer – not many. And of those rare individuals who are supremely talented in a wide variety of disciplines that are necessary to create a video game, even those individuals could perform better and more quickly with some quality help.

After doing an assessment of my skills, I came to the conclusion that I could improve my design, writing, and programming skills through experience, but that short of several years of study and practice, I just wasn't going to become a decent artist. So what did I do? I found an artist who wanted to make games (Bill Stiernberg) and teamed up with him. Not only did this allow me to focus on the aspect that I could reasonably do well and not have to worry about those that were beyond my skill level, but having a partner also proved invaluable for motivation and for bouncing off ideas.

The importance and value of forming connections with other individuals goes far beyond just finding people to work at your company. The gaming media, other indie developers, employees at big gaming companies, your fans, literally anyone and everyone is a potential ally. You never know when a specific individual could prove to be a huge benefit to your game development or business...

Thanks to the help of others, I have...

...been on a number of gaming podcasts (and discovered that they're actually kind of fun to do).

...learned the solutions to various programming problems that I was clueless about.

...had the opportunity to speak at GDC.

...written a post-mortem for Game Developer Magazine.

...started work on an awesome secret project.

...gained ideas on how to make better games.

...received free review codes to many fantastic games.

...participated in cross-game promotions.

...sold far more games than I ever could have done by myself.

...learned a lot about the video game publishing process.

...had a successful Kickstarter fundraiser.

...and more.

Am I saying that you need to befriend everyone? No, that would be stressful, hypocritical, and probably counterproductive as well. Rather, I'm saying that you should be friendly to everyone and try to gain all the contacts you can. Some of these contacts will naturally turn into friends outside of business and others will not, but all of them have the potential to help you become a better and more successful developer.

So how do you gain connections with others?

First, create. If you want to be taken seriously as a game developer, what better way than to actually develop games?

Second, speak your mind. Every developer should have a development blog, a twitter account, a Facebook page, and accounts on various gaming sites. Talk about how your development is going. Share your thoughts about various aspects of the gaming industry. Write about that game that you just played that you loved or hated. Talk about the great Chinese food that you had last night. Write, write, write.

Third, send out emails. Want a game site to review your game? Email them. Want a game company to send you a game code so that you can review their game and further study the art of game design? Email them.  Want a publisher to tell you how the publisher/developer relationship works at their company? Email them. Want a developer to offer some advice on a specific aspect of game creation? Email them. Want someone to work together with you on a project? Email them. Sure, there's a good chance that many of your unsolicited emails will fall directly into the spam folder, but you're still bound to see more success than if you hadn't sent out any emails at all.

Fourth, help others.

The vast majority of people working in the game industry are kind, friendly people. If they knew you, they'd want you to succeed. Become known. If you're shy, now is the time to transcend that. Get yourself out there and success will come to you.

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