GDC is right around the corner. Are you ready?
Welcome to the club.
Nobody ever feels ready for GDC. Especially this year, when the whole event is taking place online. One of the major draws of the event is that it’s an opportunity to reconnect with former colleagues and meet new people. How the heck do we do that online?
As with so many things in life, a little strategy goes a long way.
For this post, I’m going to quote (at length!) from one of the smartest thinkers out there - Dorie Clark. Here's her LinkedIn headline: “Duke & Columbia Business Prof; Ranked #1 Communication Coach; HBR Author; Top 50 Business Thinker in World - Thinkers50.”
Yes, she comes from the world of business, not games - but real talk: GDC is all about doing business.
Let’s get started.
Rethinking the idea of networking
A big part of GDC is, yes, networking. Most people cringe at the thought of actively working to meet new people. So the first thing we need to do, in order to make our lives easier, is give ourselves a nicer definition of networking.
It's no sin to network because you'd like to meet potential clients or grow your business; in fact, that's often the only way to do it. But the 'instrumental' view that some hold - seeing people as a means to an end - is damaging. This distorted image stops the best people from networking because they don't want to treat others that way, and it encourages the worst to act in an obnoxious manner because they think that's what they're supposed to be doing.
This book advances a very different view of networking - that the real goal, whether you're meeting at a conference or online, is to turn a brief encounter into a real, long-lasting, and mutually beneficial relationship. You can't swap business cards at a cattle-call function and book a multimillion-dollar contract a few days later. For any meaningful transaction, trust - built up over time - is the essential ingredient. It's premature and distasteful to focus on the end goal of wresting dollars from someone. Instead, with networking, the journey is the destination.
Rightly understood, networking is a way of living your life with integrity, helping others, and benefiting in proportion to the amount you do and the way you navigate the world. People want to help others who are kind and helpful. That's not a gimmick; it's a calling to be our best selves.
You can start being kind and helpful right away. Here’s how.
Before the event
Choose three people you’d like to connect with. Yes that’s right, three. “But wait!” you’re saying, “17,000 people attend GDC!” That’s true, but the goal here is quality, not quantity. You’re better off making a genuine connection with a few people, rather than throwing your virtual business card at hundreds of people. (Nobody wants to be that guy.)
So who are the right three people? Clark suggests “people in the industry you admire (and who you think would be receptive to you).” So don’t target industry superstars. They’re busy and hard to reach. Focus on peers or people who are closer to where you are in your professional journey. For example, if you’re a junior writer, add a senior writer to your list.
Find the uncommon things you have in common. This means doing a little research. Follow them on Twitter and read their posts. See what they’re saying on LinkedIn, or on their own blog. Anything they are sharing publicly is information they want people to know. You want to find things that not EVERYBODY loves - but that you love, and they love, too. Uncommon commonalities.
For example, at last year's GDC a writer started a conversation with me about pens. That's right, pens! We're both writers, so of course we both have strong opinions about pens.
We have since become friends - and I went on to recommend him, several months later, for a game-writing job. It doesn’t take much to get a connection started. (Full disclosure, I’m a cheap pen date; I am ride-or-die for Pilot G-2 07, blue ink.)
Brainstorm ways you could help these people. Yes, I know this sounds crazy. A, you don’t know them, and B, you’re doing all this work because YOU need something! But when you’re meeting people, it’s not about you - it’s about them. As Clark writes,
Networking should never be all about the value you can extract from others. You should ask how you can contribute to their lives. That might sound like a tall order: how can you possibly know how to help someone you’re just meeting? And of course, you don’t. But that’s why you get to know them. It’s in the course of learning about them, their business, and their family that you’ll come to understand what you can offer.
Here are some examples of ways you can help: you can recommend a book or a game you think they’d love. You can introduce them to someone you think they’d want to meet. You can tell them something specific you really love about their work. Basically -
Get creative. There is always something you can do to be helpful and kind towards everyone you meet. One of the advantages of this mental shift is that it takes you out of a scarcity mentality (“I need [x]”) into an abundance mentality ("how can I help?"). That’s a good thing - for your career and for your mental health.
Connect before the event. Send an email through GDC’s Swapcard event, or connect on Twitter or LinkedIn. Be friendly, keep it simple, and for the love of God don’t ask for anything. You’re just meeting a future friend for the first time. “Hi! Thank you for [making that great game] - [here’s something specific you wrote/designed in that game I really love]. I'll be at [event/talk/networking event] Hope you'll be there, too!” Wouldn’t that make the other person feel good? I bet it would.
At the event
OK, you’ve laid the groundwork, by reaching out to three people. (You may connect with them at GDC, you may not; that’s OK. You’ve made first contact, and that’s the important thing. See "after the event" for more.)
Continue to think strategically. Dorie Clark has some suggestions on what to do.
Choose to participate. GDC has planned lots of virtual mixers. Yes I know it sounds daunting. So what? Go to them! Be open to meeting anybody! Enjoy the fact that you get to do this in your pajamas - next year you’ll be doing this in hard pants. Don’t worry about telling people about you - focus on learning about them. The place to talk about yourself is….
Put out a beacon. Change your GDC description, your Twitter bio, your LinkedIn headline to highlight where you’re coming from, what you’re working on, what you’re passionate about, what questions you are grappling with. Help people know at a glance where you are coming from. This makes conversations much easier.
Create a goal. At the conference, you could bump into ANYBODY. You can't control who shows up and who doesn't. So instead of having specific people in mind, have a number in mind. “I’m going to meet 5 new people today.” Once you’ve hit your quota, you can log off and take a nap. :)
After the event
As with any relationship, your professional relationships need time to grow. Here’s how to keep things going.
Prioritize. Clark writes,
Networking, done well, is about making tough choices. We can’t prioritize everyone; focusing on everyone means focusing on no one. Ideally, we focus on people we genuinely like and would enjoy spending time with, people we can learn from, and (sometimes) people who are in a similar enough professional orbit that we can help them and they can help us. As long as you truly like and value your prioritized contacts, that’s not disingenuous; that’s what friendship is.
Set a schedule. Make a plan so that every few weeks or months you check in with them. Send them an article you think they’d like. Invite them for a coffee date on Zoom to catch up. Why not? You guys like each other; they'd love to see you.
If you found this post useful, please pick up Dorie Clark’s book to learn more. It's full of great advice.
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Susan’s first job as a game writer was for “a slumber party game - for girls!” She’s gone on to work on over 25 projects, including award-winning titles in the BioShock, Far Cry and Tomb Raider franchises. Titles in her portfolio have sold over 30 million copies and generated over $500 million in sales. She is an adjunct professor at UT Austin, where she teaches a course on writing for games. A long time ago, she founded the Game Narrative Summit at GDC. Now, she partners with studios, publishers, and writers to help teams ship great games with great stories. She is dedicated to supporting creatives in the games industry so that they can do their best work.