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Self-promotion for game developers

An assortment of tips on self-promotion the right way, and being a good community citizen.
I’m writing this for Mattie Brice, who was just listed as one of Polygon’s 50 game newsmakers of the year. We had a brief Twitter exchange after I offered congratulations, in which she mentioned that she didn’t know she could put this on a CV, and that she “know[s] nothing of self-promotion.” I have certainly never been accused of that, so this is a rehash of stuff I have written elsewhere and elsewhen.

To be clear, this post is not about marketing your games. It is about marketing yourself, and not even that, but about finding your professional place within the industry.

Why self-promote?

The fact is that the world is a) crowded and full of distractions b) competitive and full of other people who do what you do. Getting noticed is hard. Staying noticed is also hard. You can be utterly amazing and people can simply not know. You can be utterly amazing and people can simply forget. The result, simply put, is that without self-promotion you won’t get to do all the things you want to do. Yes, sometimes the universe does drop your dreams and heartfelt desires in your lap. But usually you have to at least say please, and most of the time you have to fight for them.

Some myths

Self-promotion does not mean pushing others down. In fact, when done most effectively, it is actually done by pulling others up. It does not mean falsity; in fact, it is usually best done by being genuine. It does not mean being crass; when done well, it usually simply means being firm and matter-of-fact. If these things are your impression of what self-promotion is, please discard them. They are good warning signs to see in someone else, though — they may be trying too hard, or might need advice on how to best present themselves.

The first steps

Do good work. Without this, all else is pointless. This means, yes, paying dues, studying up, all that drudgery. Hopefully you love it, because otherwise you should do something else. If you do not take your field seriously enough to study it, and try to know everything about it, and try to add new knowledge and understanding to the field, then you probably shouldn’t be self-promoting.

Sadly, valid reasons like “I don’t have enough money to afford the games/books” won’t matter… I wish they did, but it’s not how the world works right now. So find ways to study and learn by hook or crook. Or you’ll find yourself in situations where others trust you to make something happen and you won’t be able to because you’ll be hollow words. Don’t hurt others that way, and don’t hurt yourself that way. The corollary is, be aware of what you are not good at.

When you talk with someone, think about how you can be helpful to them. Self-promotion fundamentally is done by getting others to give you a leg up. You do this by being helpful to them, so that they reciprocate. Often that will mean pointing people towards someone who isn’t you, because they can help more than you can. The result will be that people (both the ones you pointed away from yourself, and the ones you pointed them to) will remember you as helpful and honest and generous.

After doing work, you use what you learned to help others

Share lessons learned. You don’t need to have a hugely advanced career or be a massive expert. In fact, a lot of lessons learned by people who have lots of skill aren’t that useful to novices, who might be lost in the nuances it provides. How to share? Write. Forums like blogs, Twitter, communities of practice and so on where you can interact with others in the industry are very important for getting your name out there.

It doesn’t need to be a big or famous forum. I got started on MUD-Dev, and before that, on Usenet. In the case of MUD-Dev, it was an obscure forum to start with, so I promoted the forum whenever I got the chance. A lot of the MMORPG industry might well have never heard of it otherwise, so I encouraged them to join it. It helped that it was a high-quality forum to start with.

Don’t think industry only, either. I have found enormous value in contacts from the science fiction world, from the legal world, from academia, and so on. Everything is relevant to your work. Everything.

Getting to know diverse groups of people and finding out what they think of what you do is immensely valuable.

Share failures. Sharing triumphs is always nice. But gosh, there’s almost no advice as good as a signpost that says “watch out, a flood washed out this road.” You will earn respect for being honest enough to admit mistakes. It will not harm your standing at all. Anyone who matters will have made plenty of mistakes of their own. You will learn more about those mistakes from writing about them, and that will make your own work better. Finally, others will be able to seize on your mistakes and do something with them that blows you away.

Provide tools. Don’t just criticize, pontificate, rant, pump your fist, or philosophize. Ask yourself whether what you are saying is something that others will find useful.

It can be challenging and useful. It can be philosophical and useful. It can be angry and useful. If it isn’t useful, it’s probably just useful to you. And that’s fine, but it’s not generous. And self-promotion is fundamentally about generosity.

Be nice. You can be critical and be nice. You can call out bad behavior and be nice. It’s a small industry. I have a list, as many veterans do, of “people I will never work with again.” It is small. But everyone has a list, and some people’s lists are very long. From a purely practical point of view, burning bridges is a bad idea. Worse, and I think everyone needs to confront this, at least some of the nasty stuff you want to say is wrong, and you just don’t know the real situation. It happens to all of us.

This doesn’t mean not taking a stand. It means being professional as you do so, and being sure that what you say is grounded in reality that is as objective as you can make it.

Then you take credit

This is the part that people fall down on.

Get proper and public credit for your work. When I was originally credited on Ultima Online, it was as “creative lead,” not as “lead designer.” UO shipped without a lead designer (long story). But creative lead is not a useful title on a resume. I made a point of asking for and getting the title of lead designer on UO Live (running the service) when they asked me to do UO: Second Age. That way I was able to legitimately refer to myself as lead designer on UO later on.

Needless to say, don’t falsify what you did in any way whatsoever. It is dishonest and it will come out and blow up.

Being a doormat is a good way to lose out. (I am a doormat by nature, btw. This is very hard for me). There was once a piece of technology that I was absolutely critical to inventing. It would not have happened without me, and I solved many of the core challenges with it. I certainly was not the only one who worked on it. As it happens, others who worked on it were the ones who filled out the patent paperwork, and my name wasn’t on it. I didn’t insist. Regardless of how you feel about software patents, that was a mistake. Stand up for yourself and your contributions.

This is especially important because odds are very good that well over half your career will be “dark matter” — stuff that will not be seen by the public. So those parts that are seen matter more than you think. I have a long list of major, significant projects that occupied years of my time… that never saw the light of day and are still confidential. They don’t live on the resume. They don’t live anywhere except in some people’s memories. You can use these in conversation sometimes (depending on legalities) but that’s about it. So getting credit for work that actually shipped is very important.

Say “we” not “I.” Because it’s almost always the truth.

In general, be humble. Fact is, if you had a big success, it’s because you were goddamn lucky.

Because you had the right help. Because the time was right. Because your parents. It is never all attributable to your genius. I say this as someone who actually is a polymathic genius, so I know what I am talking about. ;)

Don’t bother denying that you’re self promoting. If you’ve been honorable about it, it won’t be resented. It only gets obnoxious when you overdo it.  Admit it with a grin, and point out “I gotta eat.”

Some very specific things you should be doing

Have your own website, and have a portfolio of some sort on it. Ideally, the website’s domain is your name. Yes, it’s wonderful and all to write on Medium or Google+. Medium is going to get shut down someday. Slideshare and its widgets will be the detritus of history in fifteen years. Post/host copies of everything you can on your own site. Make it your clipping book. Don’t sign speaking contracts that say you can’t post up a copy or a reworked version somewhere.

Don’t write intermittently. You have to do it regularly. It is a chore like watering a plant. Reputations dry up and wither away.

Make it easy to find out about you. Post up a CV and a more digestible summary on your site. Too many people think the About Me section is filler. It’s not! Develop a bio you can give people, and update it periodically. The back of my business card actually has a short resume on it. After all, if I am meeting someone who doesn’t know me, what better way is there to let them know quickly, in a way they can take away with them? (I debated on this one, because it’s definitely somewhat obnoxious, but ended up deciding to stand on my record).

Learn to give good pull quotes. This is a skill, and it’s one you can and should build. Let me give you a tour of some quotes associated with me:

  • Single-player is a historical aberration.
  • The client is in the hands of the enemy.
  • Fun is just another word for learning.
  • With games, learning is the drug.
  • Games are made out of games.
  • Narrative is not a mechanic. It’s a form of feedback.
  • It may be that games are all about math. And I think that sucks.
  • Why is there no game about the taste of a freshly picked peach?
Now, you may agree with these or not. Some of them, I wasn’t the first one to say! What they have in common, though, is that they are direct statements that take a stand, are brief, and practically demand follow-on exposition. Sometimes I have gone too far with these — no question! — but I can tell you that the value I have gotten from being able to supply pithy quotes is immense. Pithy quotes are what make it into the write-up of your talks. Pithy quotes are what gets you on TV or radio. Pithy quotes are what get cited in academic papers. Pithy quotes are what gets someone to debate you — and the more you are debated, the more awareness others have of you and your work. Nobody bothers to debate a nobody. Being a bit controversial is a good thing. Being highly quotable is an asset.

By the way, jargon is the enemy here.

In fact, have a stock phrase library. When I first started meeting relatively famous people socially, I was shocked to discover that after a few interactions with them, I noticed that they had a set of stock phrases and witticisms, a go-to set of anecdotes, and so on. Sometimes they slipped up and used the same phrase twice on the same person in different meetings. Oops. The thing is, if you hit on a way of saying something that works, don’t stop using it. Use it again, Polish it. Retell your stories. This may seem theatrical, but there is a very real sense in which self-promotion is putting on a performance of the person you want to be.

Think about your appearance. It doesn’t have to be good. Oh sure, some folks make a point of always having a suit in a public appearance, Steve Jobs liked his black turtlenecks. In my case, my look is “rumpled.” Yes, I have had multiple other people describe me to myself that way. It’s a consistent rumpled, is my point. Warren Spector’s is “professorial,” I mean, have you seen his sweaters? Have photos that show who you are, too.

This may seem like the shallowest thing ever. But there’s two big reasons to do it: one, it’s a signal to yourself that you are taking this seriously. Culturally, we as humans dress up for ritual and ceremonial moments. Your work is a ritual, your work gathering is a ceremony. Grant it that importance. Honestly, if you do it right, it’ll be the clothes you like to wear. Two, it makes you memorable. No one who has met George “The Fat Man” Sanger, in rhinestone jacket and cowboy hat, forgets it.

In a weird sense, you want to be a bit of a cartoon. Why? Because cartoons, icons, are what we reduce things to in our heads. (You remember those parts of Theory of Fun, right?) A memorable cartoon is more valuable than a complex forgotten person, in this case. This doesn’t mean being cartoon-y. It means having some signature stuff that you get associated with. Having poetry in my talks or my blog is one of those signatures, in my case.

If you can, get media training and/or public speaking training. It’s a shortcut to learning a whole lot of stuff you will otherwise learn the painful hard way when you get misquoted, say something you shouldn’t have in public, and so on. The quick and easy way? Find a local Toastmasters club or something. You will need this for when you do an interview. You will need this when you demo. I could write a whole very long post just on public speaking techniques, but this is already long.

A corollary applicable especially to those on large teams: Learn marketing. One thing that CliffyB and Warren Spector and Will Wright and many others have in common is that they give good press. Besides, this is just a valuable thing to have on your team anyway. Every team needs a good song and dance person. Get comfortable with public speaking. Develop a sense of humor if you haven’t got one. Be very good at demoing. Be articulate in interviews. Get comfy on camera. Your marketing dept will start asking for you because devs with these skills are rare and valuable. As part of this, get to know folks in the press. They are also valuable contacts. Being the lowest-ranked booth monkey at E3 is remarkably good training for this.

Do conference talks. I owe Rich Vogel and Gordon Walton an enormous debt for starting me on this path. It leads to a lot of recognition. It gets your name out there. It’s worth pointing out that I am pretty sure that EA did not value me significantly if at all after UO came out. They didn’t fight to keep me, and at one point I was on a firing list (I hear). But the rest of the industry saw me as valuable. Leaving EA helped my career quite a lot in that sense, because there was press about my departure, and there was a press release when I joined SOE, and there was a press release when I was made CCO. The foundation of the reputation I have is not the work, it’s awareness of the work. Conference talks directly target your peers.

Is it hard to get started doing this? Yes. You’ll get rejected a lot. I still get rejected now. Don’t worry about it, don’t take it personally. Just get up and submit again.

Finding yourself

Get to know the right people. Much of self-promotion is merely moving in the right circles. A large part of this is actually credibly belonging in those circles. If you don’t, you’ll quickly find out. But try to get to those circles if you think you belong there. Sometimes they are not obvious — few folks outside the industry would pick, say, Eric Zimmerman, as a key figure. But he has a very very good Rolodex (or modern equivalent). He is connected to a lot of movers and shakers. He is a thought leader himself.

Don’t break into circles because you want the contacts. Break in because you think you belong there, because you want to be there, because you like the people there. It is about finding your “tribe.” (Odds are good, by the way, that your tribe isn’t actually the biggest names out there today. But you know what? They are actually very approachable, by and large. So don’t rule it out!)

If no such circle exists, create it. GDC started because Chris Crawford wanted his tribe around him to talk games. For years, us online folks ran a parallel conference next to GDC because we wanted our tribe. The so-called formalists — all half dozen of us! — get together for dinner now whenever we are in the same city.

Don’t view your life through the lens of self-promotion, that way lies fakery. There are a lot of “secret game developer mailing lists” and the like. When I was first invited into one, my first thought was “oh, this sounds COOL.” The “valuable contacts” thoughts came about fifth or sixth on the list. I say this because it might be that all this probably sounds too cynical. But I can honestly say that I tend to think of the self-promotion angle after the fact. Going in there with that intent will just make you seem fake, I think. Be honest in your life, I guess is all I am saying.

Bottom line: Give back. Don’t be a dick. Seriously. Share what you can, be generous with your time, build relationships honestly. Don’t claim credit for things you didn’t do. Anything else is unethical and a longterm disaster anyway. Share with the industry, contribute to the field. And make sure that people know you did. It earns respect, and that’s the core of self-promotion.

A crass monetary note

I see a lot of folks who think that unless money is rolling in, they are failing. This especially seems to be a feeling among people who write about games.

I know exactly one person in the entire industry who makes a living freelance just writing about games. They are not rich.

It is a mistake to associate the kind of reputation I am talking about in this article with financial reward. It does not necessarily correlate. What this stuff does is open doors, not cause money to rain down on you. The people with the most money in the industry are often not widely respected, not leaving a legacy behind… All this self-promotion is for the purpose of giving you opportunities, and making it easier for you to take those opportunities. Many of those opportunities will be about exciting work and meaningful personal relationships. Some will be about money too — proper self-promotion helps the career. It goes like this: the self-promotion helps the career, but the career is supposed to help the happiness.

So pay attention to the happiness.

For reference: here’s what I put on my CV. If I make it onto a list like Mattie just did, hell yeah, I put it on there.

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