Hi there all this month I am writing about the people you need to talk to as you grow in this industry.
I started with an article about talking to Streamers and moved on to a bit about talking to your customers.
Today I am going to talk about talking to us – your fellow game designers and developers! Now if you have been in the industry for a while and shipped a few games it is pretty common to have gone to a few conferences, attended a local meetup, or worked a demo booth at a show. Those are all super valuable but if you are just starting out you might not have the budget, or live in a remote area without an established “scene”, or might not have something to show yet.
Don’t worry though, there are ways to get valuable information while still being rather local: reach out and contact them. But be specific and don’t waste their time.
First, why should you do this?
So let’s say you are making a game because you read an article that game X made a ton of money and you saw that they did strategy Y. It looks great from the outside and based on what the press reported, but the reality is much more complicated. Sometimes it was something that was not reported that did the trick, for instance, a partnership with a 3rd party or a big deal with a platform.
That is why it is good to find out for sure. It helps to try to talk to actual developers who have been there and done what you are trying to do. Here are some tips before you reach out to fellow developers:
Before you contact them
- First! Be considerate of their time.
- Do not just grab any big game dev that made a game and try to contact them. You are wasting their time if you do that. Have a reason for contacting them. This leads me to my next point.
- Do your homework first! If you are in preproduction of your game or are designing your marketing strategy, look for studios that are at the same size as you or have done something you are considering. See my note here on how to find games that are similar to the one you are designing and to get estimated sales numbers.
- Don’t just contact some big studio because they are in the news or had a big hit. Instead, contact developers who are your peers or are just above your level. Also, reach out to developers who released a game that is in your genre but maybe didn’t do as well as you would hope. There could be reasons why it failed.
- Buy and play their game.
- Google their studio name and their games and the word “post mortem.” Search for their studio or game on Medium, Gamasutra, Gamesindustry.biz, gdc vault, and youtube. You want to see if they have already written about their game and what worked and what didn’t.
- Don’t contact random studios with the question “Do you know how to get into video games?” there are 1.6 million articles about that. Read those, don’t bother people with that question.
- Once you have identified a studio you want to research, reach out via linkedIn, Twitter or email. Or if you know someone who knows them ask that intermediate contact to introduce you two.
- Use all the research you did above for your opening pitch to them and explain who you are.
- Be short and specific in your email. Here is an example
- Hi <target studio> I am in the middle of production of a new <genre>- style game. I played <target game> and it is very similar to the game we hope to make. I read in <article you found> that you used paid acquisition to get your first 1000 downloads <or whatever tactic you are planning>. We are considering doing the same thing. I am worried about <x>. Would you have 15 minutes for a short call to discuss how that did for you? Here is a link to my blog and a trailer for the game we are working on.”
- Give before you ask. If you already have some behind-the-scenes data based on your experience, offer that to them as well. So you might say “Hey our Steam page is currently getting <x> hits per day and <y> Click through rate. We are trying to improve that number and see that you are doing very well with the number of reviews for <their game>.” Developers are always looking for behind the scene numbers so they can calibrate how their own games compare. They will be more likely to respond to you if you give something up of value to them.
- Be totally open with them. Do not say “a secret unannounced title” or request they sign an NDA. That is dumb. You are asking them for advice you owe them more than they owe you.
- If you are local, offer a neutral location such as a coffee shop. Not beers. Offer to buy them a drink.
- if you don’t hear a response within 3 days, contact them again. Be friendly still and say, “hi again just wondering if you would have time to discuss <x>. I also noticed you wrote about <topic x> and <something flattering about what they said about x>.
- If they say no, DO NOT HARASS THEM.
- if they still don’t respond move on and DO NOT HARASS THEM.
Conversing with your fellow developer
- First be on time.
- Thank them right away.
- Set a timer for how long you told them the call will take. 5 minutes before the timer goes off I always give them a warning. If you have a lot of questions left, ask them if they would be willing to stay a few minutes more. But read the room. If they sound a bit cagey about staying longer, ask your most important question next and then end it on time.
- Restate your question clearly. You don’t want to waste their time with banter.
- Be very clear about your goals. What information are you trying to get and why?
- Listen and take notes. Don’t waste their time and appear to be checking twitter while they are explaining what their experiences are.
- Don’t ask how much money they made. Instead, I prefer to phrase it in a way where they can confirm or deny. For example, I say “Hey I saw on Steam you have <x> reviews. By my estimates that puts your game earnings at around <a> to <b>. Does that sound pretty accurate?” If they don’t want to answer that, don’t get defensive.
- I also try to find out their budget because even if they earned $1 million dollars that isn’t much if they spent $999.999 to produce it. But I don’t just ask them how much they spent. Instead, I ask how many people worked on the game and for how long. For the US I back of the napkin estimate 100K per person per year because of health insurance and cost of living. It is different for different countries. I also ask if they used paid advertising, because that can be a significant cost.
- I ask them specifically about marketing tactics they ran and if they consider them successful. If not, why not and what was actually successful.
- Don’t tell them what you would do in their situation or comment on their decisions (aka mansplain). Go into this call only asking questions unless they specifically ask for information from you.
- Send them a thank you note 24 hours later. Tell them how the information helped you and what you are going to do now that you know it. I hate it when someone asks for my advice and they don’t even seem to consider it.
- If it is a virtual call, send them a Starbucks gift card (it is super easy from the mobile app, you just need their email address.)
- Contact them again 3 months later again telling them an update of what you did and how their advice helped you and any good news that came from it.
I saw this tweet today from the studio captain of Kitfox games. Think about this during every step of this process:
Good luck out there. Sharing information among developers is super useful and it can save you from making bad decisions.