Game Developers Conference 2023: What I Learned, part 2

Less swag, more business than part 1.

I’m pulling details from a variety of talks I went to, both at GDC and at a Microsoft Reactor Community Clubhouse event, and combining various topics as needed, so I’d like to thank Kellen Voyer (Voyer Law), Michelle Lega (Armor Games Studios), Ida-Emilia Kaukonen (Varjo), Petri Lehtinen (Small Giant Games/Zynga), Christina Camilleri (Netflix Games), Kim Wilke (N3twork Studios), Emily Hummel (Witch Beam Games), Son M. (Perfect Garbage Studios), Chris Pruett (Meta), Arthur Milano (Black in Gaming) for all of this useful information.

1. Get everything in writing before you start a business relationship.

This is obvious, but can never be stated too many times. When a publisher or platform is interested in signing you up, you’re thrilled and ecstatic and mentally searching for the perfect yacht to sail to your private island hangout, but the fact that they made some promises on the call is not going to hold water when you actually hash out the marketing plan or the downloadable content and add-ons. This is a business relationship, and you can’t rely on verbal promises.

2. Your intellectual property needs to stay with you.

Intellectual property (IP) includes game code, audio, art assets, and more. Who owns the game and those related assets? Hint: it should not be the publisher. You built the game and you created the world. You should always own that IP – otherwise you could lose control of the game forever, not to mention all the other good things like films, comics, and merchandise. (And apparently, giving away 50% is no good, because the publisher could still create other games or assets without having to compensate you for it.) The tacit understanding in this talk was: get a good lawyer who understands these complex issues, and don’t sign things just because the people with the money are being nice to you.

3. You can market your game without spending a lot of time and money

Much as we’d all love to see our game logos plastered on the side of a bus, a tiny independent studio can’t afford a huge marketing budget. And the priority is finishing the game. Some tips to effectively market your game:

– Cultivate your community. Engage with your fans, and support other developers. Don’t treat people as potential consumers – treat them like people. Think about how you feel when someone treats you like a tool for their marketing. Now think about how you feel when you genuinely like a studio or a developer. You really want them to succeed, and you love feeling like you’re part of that success. The concept of a community goes beyond your target audience – there’s emotional investment and commitment and loyalty there. People have a zillion games to choose, so if they choose to make yours part of their daily routine, it clearly means something to them. You’re part of their life.

– Make sure people can find all the information they need. Set up a website and a press kit (Google “indie games press kit” for details about that). You want one central hub for people to get everything they need: your game, your trailer, how to contact you, what platforms it’s coming out on, your social media accounts. You never want to be in a situation where someone wants to promote or play your game, but can’t get the right information.

– Spend an hour a day on marketing. You can do a lot in a short focused period, especially if you concentrate on certain elements each day, rather than trying to do everything all at once. Create and schedule your social media posts, follow up on emails/DMs, engage with other content creators, apply for festivals and accelerators, write and edit your videos and marketing copy. Build a schedule that isn’t overwhelming.

– Recycle as much as possible. If you create a video or a gif or an image, can you use it in different places? Can you take excerpts from a longer piece and create something else from it? This helps you maximise your creations.

[Non-GDC idea: Think about a Thanksgiving turkey. Cooking a turkey takes a lot of time and effort, but you can get so much out of it. Day one: turkey and cranberry sauce. Day two: turkey sandwiches. Day three: turkey fritters. Day four: turkey soup. That’s four different meals from one turkey. You can also post photos of your turkey meals, a video of turkey-cooking advice, an interview with a turkey farmer, etc. (And yes, the word ‘turkey’ now looks very weird right now.)]

Creating your game is the most important thing, but a few small steady steps can make the marketing push much more effective when that time comes.

4. Schedule things

This helps you plan out the next few months, which keeps you on track and hopefully prevents you from feeling overloaded. (“Yes, I need to edit those videos, but I have that scheduled for Tuesday afternoon, and if I can’t get to them then I can reschedule.”) When you’re posting to social media, a posting schedule means that you might be in better favour with the algorithms we all curse. This also helps your fans, who will get into a routine of knowing you’ll post a new video every Tuesday.

When you build a calendar in advance, it means you aren’t simply flying by the seat of your pants or reacting to events. If you don’t have one, a lot of time can pass without anything happening, and your engagement will drop as a result. When something blows up and you need to push dates back, it’s pretty easy to keep an eye on everything when you have that high-level schedule.

Keep your community informed about anything they should know about – updates, patches, talks you’re giving. Anything you know will happen, schedule it.

5. You and your studio are separate entities

Creating an indie game involves a ridiculous amount of unpaid labour that may never come to anything. You’ll constantly be questioning whether you’re a good game developer. Funding helps you feel like you’re amazing (as we learned when we got the Creative Scotland grant!). A studio is a conglomeration of people putting forward effort, and game development is notoriously known for short career lifespans. You will be fighting burnout, especially when (as most indie studios require) you’re doing most of the tasks yourself and taking on multiple roles. Prioritize your mental health.

6. The game is most important.

It’s the game, not the technology, that most people want. The hardcore VR enthusiasts will buy a headset because they’re in for everything, but most people buy the experience, not the headset. That’s what sells the hardware. If you don’t have content, you don’t have the product. The customer doesn’t buy because the tech is cool – they’re excited because the game is fun, high-quality, interactive.

Again, I’d like to thank Creative Scotland and their Go See Share grant for this amazing opportunity!

Game Developers Conference 2023: What I Learned, part 1

Creative Scotland gave our indie studio (Bearhammer Games) a Go See Share grant to send two people to the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco in March 2023. We’re incredibly grateful! I’m Tracey S. Rosenberg, and I came on board at BearHammer to work on administration and grant applications. The other BearHammer attendee was Rachel Cassandro, a junior developer who focuses on level design, and you can read what she learned about the vistas in God of War Ragnarök.

GDC is a major industry conference – they bill themselves as “the game industry’s premier professional event, championing game developers and the advancement of their craft”. Unlike E3, which cancelled all of its 2023 events (even the online ones), GDC roared back from the pandemic with 28,000 attendees in 2023. Here are a few things I learned.

1. Get your badge as early as possible.

The conference was Monday to Friday, and they opened badge collection on Sunday afternoon. This involved two different queues (one for proof of Covid vaccination, which netted you an orange wristband, and the other for the actual badge). While it was annoying to stand in multiple queues, GDC handled the logistics pretty well, with many t-shirted assistants to point clueless attendees in the right direction. It took me around 45 minutes to collect my badge, but it wasn’t like I was doing anything else on Sunday evening, and this meant I could hit the ground running on Monday morning, rather than stand in even longer queues. (I ended up cutting off the orange wristband because it was scratchy and annoying, and re-taped it around my wrist every morning.)

I’m not good at selfies.

2. Make sure your devices understand how time zones work.

Rachel and I, along with our senior producer Tine who also attended GDC, planned to join a conference walk on Monday morning to view some of the gorgeous San Francisco scenery, meet other attendees, and have a meeting with Remangu. Unfortunately, in spite of multiple checks of the starting time, our LinkedIn didn’t adjust properly and we were an hour off reality, which meant we had to rush around in Ubers to catch up to the Remangu folks. Thankfully we all gathered at a very nice coffee shop, which served an enticing orange-juice-and-rose-syrup concoction.

3. Network, even if that isn’t your thing.

It was good to have a pre-established meeting that early in the week, as it got me into the “chat about your studio and ask good questions” mindset. I’m not a person who likes to work a room, but part of the reason to attend this event was to meet people who we could work with, so when I went to the Women in Games event at Twitch HQ, and people started up conversations, I engaged with them. It was even fun! And not just because Twitch put on an amazing spread and had a room full of pinball machines, though that definitely put me in a happy mood. (Also, I would like to thank Gustaf, who let me into the event even though the waitlist had already closed. You are a rock star.)

Thanks to all the networking, and from having my badge scanned many many times at the expo, I now receive many many emails starting ‘Hi Tracey S.’, which shows that everyone’s mail merges with the official conference registration list are working effectively. (Protip: use some variant on your first name when you sign up for a conference, so you can easily sift the auto-emails.)

4. Be judicious about attending unofficial events, especially if you need to pay for them.

Many events sound great, but you’re forking over money based on an Eventbrite description. You may think you’re going to show your demo to people who make decisions, but in fact the attendees are mostly students. (We’re incredibly grateful to the students who tried our game demo! There’s a short video on YouTube if you want to see their enthusiasm and feedback in action.)

Search Twitter and relevant forums to find candid accounts of last year’s events – hopefully this will become easier now that events are returning post-pandemic. Don’t hesitate to contact event organisers before you buy the ticket, and ask them any questions you need to. If they’re charging for entry, you have a right to know what you’re getting.

Above: Tine on the left, Rachel on the right, and a willing volunteer in the middle.

5. Hit the expo early for the good swag, and be nice to the folks who give it to you.

I’m now all set for t-shirts until at least 2026, and my nephew was the grateful recipient of a stuffed penguin keyring and something squeezy and green that looks sort of like a duck, and my mom loves the two pairs of socks that I sent with her Mother’s Day card. The good swag can go quickly, so try to get out there on day one when everyone’s eager and fresh. But also do a sweep around the expo floor on the final day, when people want to offload things rather than drag them back home.

Shoutouts to Epic Games for their efficient queuing system and well-designed t-shirts, and to Anyscale for the two best items of swag in the whole show – a Stojo sustainable collapsible water bottle, and a travel kit with useful things like bug spray, after sun spray, and insect repellant (it’s the item in the photo that looks like a set of whiteboard markers). You can pick up a lot of bite-sized chocolates, pens, and stickers if you just scoot by booths, but make an effort to engage with the people behind the counter. Even if you actually have no idea what their product does (sorry, Redis!), you might have a great conversation.

Part 2 focuses on the business things I learned.

Why not check out Venture’s Gauntlet VR on Tiktok or YouTube?