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One Year in Indie Game Development

Here's a few things I've discovered about the Indie Game Industry a year after I started working in it (while being completely oblivious as to what it was all about)

I’m the bozo with the big hair and linen jacket, second from the left (photo: Jonathan Ferreira @byjono)

(I’m the bozo with the big hair and linen jacket, second from the left (photo: Jonathan Ferreira @byjono)

Today, one year ago, I left my 10 year career in the radio industry (that was, in all honesty, languishing in the doldrums) for an opportunity to work as a community and brand manager for an Indie Game Studio in Cape Town.

There were a few reasons why this was a crazy thing to do:

  1. I had never played an “indie game” before
  2. I didn’t know that there was an “indie game industry”

So the studio and I were both taking some pretty big risks putting me in this position. (By the way, my latest book How to Get Hired While Knowing as Much As Jon Snow will be hitting your local bookstore soon!)

Needless to say, it has been a year of rapid learning on the job. I thought it might be a good idea to jot down some of the big things I’ve learned about the industry, and specifically my job as a community manager, so far.

Remember, all of the below will be from my own narrow perspective of working in one indie game studio for just one year. I might change all of my opinions after another year of experiences.In fact, I’m pretty sure I will. The point of this is to show the experiences and perceptions of a complete newbie to the industry. Take this with a truck load of salt is what I’m trying to say, basically.

Here goes:

— People are pretty chilled —

Maybe I’ve been tainted too much by my experiences in the constantly-tense world of commercial radio, but the first thing I noticed is that there are fewer opportunities to freak out. Yes, people work hard—but when teams are able to set their own deadlines and everyone is trusted to do get the work done, people aren’t chomping at the bit in the same way I’ve seen elsewhere.

By the way, this means you have to understand the concept of a “Game Jam”. The idea of taking a few hours, or a day, or even a week, to work on a new concept that probably will never be fruitful or profitable BLOWS MY MIND. I mean, time is money, right?

Wrong.

Ideas are money. So taking time to work through a bunch of good ones until you find a great one is an important part of the system.

— There are way too many points of communication —

Oh my goodness. Why does there have to be so many ways to connect with your community? Why can’t there just be one Indie Game Hub? At last count, we are using 9 different platforms and methods of communicating with our games’ communities—and that usually gets multiplied by the amount of games your studio has.

Sure, you could focus on managing a few communities REALLY well, but if you are like me, then you very quickly start to wonder what you are missing out on with the other platforms.

And they all require different forms of engagement to be authentic, dammit! Speaking of which…

— Authenticity is highly valued —

Look, I come from a world that lives and dies by advertising. One week you’re working on a campaign that’s telling your community that this car is the greatest car of all time, and the next week you are harping on about its’ competitor.

At the mere sniff of an extra dollar, authenticity is tied up, put on a pile of wood, and ritualistically sacrificed.

In the industry that is my new home, that would never fly. If you aren’t coming to your community with an open heart…they will take it out of your chest. So you have got to know who you are and what you are about—which can be hard when you’re representing a whole studio.

— You need help —

Like I said at the beginning, I came into this industry with as much experience as a newborn baby, and even though I obviously did my fair share of research before I started, I definitely needed the entire team to be willing to put up with my constant barrage of questions. I also needed them to answer questions I didn’t know to ask…because I didn’t even know what I didn’t know.

While it is obviously beneficial to have access to people who have worked in the industry for ages, it was also helpful to have colleagues who made a similar move to mine a few years previously. They were the people who could “translate” indie game dev speak the best for me.

In short, you need a group around you who understand that you are coming in to the industry fresh. But that isn’t something to be ashamed of, because you can…

— Use that Freshness —

The idiom “the only constant is change” seems to hold true here. As much as the technology that drives the industry is adapting endlessly, so is the way we communicate with each other and with our communities. That is a great thing for a newbie like myself—it means that new perspectives and ideas are needed to keep us moving forward, so…I guess I’ve just worked out why they hired me.

— Imposter Syndrome is Real —

Do you feel like you don’t know what you’re doing and that everyone is going to find out, like, right now?

Congratulations! You are officially like 90% of people I’ve met in this industry.

Just try to get a game dev to write about how to do something, or to make a video about their perspective on a certain subject, and more than likely they will tell you ask someone else “Who actually knows what he is talking about” to do it.

As a community manager…this will be your biggest hurdle: Getting your team to accept that they have something valuable to say, and that you aren’t going to let them look arrogant while they do it (see Authenticity is Highly Valued above).

— Representation is a Problem —

I’ve seen and have been part of many conversations about the diversity (or lack thereof) in the industry. While the amount of people of colour, women, and other marginalised people on the stage at the recent GDC Awards that I was lucky to attend was massively disheartening, what is hopeful is that there are many people who actually do give a damn about the issue. The fact that I’m able to write this is testament to that fact.

Will they actually do something about it? Probably. I’ll tell you when I reach my 2nd anniversary in the industry.

So…that’s my two cents (and one year) worth of thoughts on the industry. I would love to find out what your first year of experiences were, even if it was a while ago. Hit me up on twitter: www.twitter.com/terencementor or send an email my way: [email protected]

While you do that, I’m going to celebrate my anniversary by eating cake and answering more questions why there isn’t a sequel to our most popular game yet…

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