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The Woes of Networking

Written following my attendance of GDC 2011, this post discusses, well, the woes of networking. Though I delve into boring personal experiences, I discuss lessons learned moving forward and what to expect from a game conference.

Originally posted March 28th, 2011:

It’s been almost a month since I returned from GDC ‘11 (or GDC 25 if you want to confuse matters).  As I recall from my attendance of GDC ’09, it seems to still be the place to go for inspiration when you’re looking to create games.  It feels great to talk games with people who know games, hear talks from industry professionals, and act like a true member of the community.  Moreover, it’s great for an upstart developer like myself to sit in a packed lecture hall and hear someone like Nintendo President Satoru Iwata call you a “colleague”.  It’s a somewhat empty statement, but it does make you think, “Do I really work in the same business as that man?”

Nonetheless, when all is said and done, GDC has never quite been able to come through for me.  I attended this year’s GDC with the hope, possibly the last-ditch hope, that I would hit it off with someone who has the power to recommend me for a job.  Failing that, I was at least hoping to learn something that could really help me in my efforts to develop independently.  Unfortunately, I fall into a category of game developer that GDC isn’t really designed for - an independent designer looking for a team to work with.  Then again, it could just be me.

I’ve never been great with the game conferences.  This is only the fourth conference I’ve attended (along with MIGS ’08, GDC ’09, and MIGS ’09), and though I’m getting better at the whole process, I’ve found that networking isn’t a process that comes easily.  Montreal International Game Summit 2008 was the first game conference of any kind that I attended.  I was still a student at the time, and it served as a means to simply discover what this sort of event was like.  I wasn’t expecting anything to come of it, which is good news.  I was still occupied with school, and even if I was offered a job, I had no plans to take it if it were to interfere with my graduation.  As a result, I didn’t attend MIGS to meet people.  I didn’t even know what I was supposed to be doing at MIGS ’08, never mind actually getting something done.  Rather, MIGS gave me a chance to dip my feet into the whole experience before attending GDC ’09.

Though I knew more what to expect, GDC ’09 was still something I wasn’t entirely prepared for.  I had prepared some business cards by this time, but still being a student, my portfolio was still in the works and I suffered many of the ills of MIGS.  My flagship portfolio piece, Project I, was still in mid-development as a senior project.  Not only that, during the time my friends and I were at GDC, Project I was being run through the blender and completely reworked, so we had that looming over our heads.  The added size of GDC over MIGS threw me another curveball.  That blow was lessened by the fact that I had only been able to afford an Expo Pass, but said pass severely limited my access to the conference.  I still wasn’t sure what the whole networking thing was about, but I did my best perusing the show floor and Career Pavilion for three days.

I knew my graduation would be coming soon, so I was more interested in obtaining a job by this time.  Still, as I had little to show, it quickly became apparent that nothing much was going to become of my time there.  I returned from GDC ’09 with the sense that it was actually a poor networking experience.  The Career Pavilion was staffed with HR personnel who weren’t interested in discussing their products, students much younger than myself filed through assembly-line job application booths, and it seemed like the only people you could actually talk to were amateur fans only interested in throwing out as many résumés as they could.  I greatly enjoyed being able to attend, but it all felt a little bit worthless.

I didn’t begin actively applying to industry jobs until just before MIGS ’09.  This was the first conference I would attend as a graduate looking for a job.  There’s not too much to say about MIGS ’09, other than the fact that I learned a useful lesson: game conferences aren’t just about meeting big-time speakers.  I had spent much of my time at MIGS ’09 waiting around after talks in an attempt to strike up a conversation with the speakers.  These people, according to my logic, were the only people who mattered.  They had the expertise and positions to qualify as speakers at a major industry event.  What good were the attendees?  They were in the same boat as me, showing up to learn something new.

That was the big lesson I took away from MIGS ’09.  A game industry event is attended by industry professionals.  It doesn’t matter if attendees or speakers are major executives or college freshmen…they’re there because they have an interest in games.  More importantly, everybody knows somebody.  Making a connection to a professional through a friend of a friend of a friend isn’t that far gone from making a direct connection to that same professional.  It didn’t occur to me until long after the conference that networking wasn’t necessarily about meeting important people, but just about meeting people.  The more people you know, the more access you have to the right person.

With that in mind, I set out for this year’s GDC.  This time, I knew what to expect.  This time, I would go in prepared.  I drew up a plan of which lectures to attend long in advance, and I started drafting out some questions that I thought might pertain to the topics of the talks.  Even if I didn’t get to ask them, they would at least make me a more active thinker.  Unlike MIGS ’09, I promised myself that I wouldn’t ignore colleagues just to push my own agenda.

All told, it hasn’t paid off yet.  However, I felt much more productive at GDC ’11 than I did at any previous industry event.  I came home with my supply of business cards nearly exhausted and a fresh stack of new cards from various attendees, mostly people in my same situation.  I quickly took the initiative to contact everyone who gave me a card, and received back a number of replies.  Seeing presentations of independent games in a massive awards show is a massively inspiring force, and I returned from the event hyped to get back in tune with the world of games and get something completed, published, and shipped to the public.

And yet, while this all felt very good and very effective, the old ways have returned.  Everyone I met has dropped off the radar.  Any applications I filled out at or since GDC have completely vanished into the ether without so much as a “your application is no longer being considered.”  It’s nothing I can really blame the event for…it’s more the fact that I just don’t take an interest in what people do.

In short, none of the problems I have with GDC are anything I can really peg on GDC itself.  It mostly comes down to my own social ineptitude and lack of expertise.  However, I will say this much: networking events like GDC do not smile upon the introverted.  I always find it fascinating that an industry so full of introverts requires some serious extroversion in order to break into it.  To some degree, it makes sense.  Game development is a very team-oriented exercise, and communication is key in getting anything done.  I know this all too well.  Still, I find it annoying that you need to act like everyone’s annoying, probing friend in order to make any inroads.

Regardless of how effective it may or may not be in aiding a job search, GDC is an event I would never hesitate to attend if the opportunity should arise again.  It really is a fantastic event.  I would just prefer to be raising the money to attend GDC by actually making games.

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