Using Conventions to Break Into the Gaming Industry – Part 3

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Welcome to “At The Con”, Part Three of “Using Conventions to Break Into the Gaming Industry,” a four-part series of articles where I offer advice and suggestions for maximizing your career-opportunity exploration at GenCon or other major gaming conventions. After touching on “The Basics” in Part One, Part Two’s article on “Preparation” discussed a few simple things you can do to before the convention to really maximize the effectiveness of your time there.

Today we’re going to cover how to make the most of your time at the convention, including where to go, what to do and what to say (and not say) while you’re there!

Part Three: At The Con

Where to Go and What to Do

Panels and Programming – When you arrive at the convention, take a few moments to look over the programming schedule.

Conventions attended by industry professionals often feature panels, roundtables, workshops and Question and Answer sessions hosted or moderated by those professionals. Obvious choices to attend would be panels like “How to work for X Company” or “Getting Started with Y Company”, especially if those are companies you’ve already noted as potential employers on your researched list (see Part 2 – Preparation).

But other panels related to new products, sales/marketing or other professional topics, or subjects directly related to a company’s proprietary line are often opportunities to speak with company employees in a small-group setting (which can often be parlayed into a brief one-on-one conversation before or after the panel). Many panel descriptions will list the moderators – be on the look out for company big-wigs or those who do hiring (editors/developers) and earmark those panels as potential meet-up opportunities, regardless of the topic.

When organizing your panel schedule, take a few minutes before the actual time-slot to jot down a brief-but-pertinent question or two for each panel. While you don’t want to dominate a discussion, coming prepared can be a godsend for those holding the panel if the rest of the audience doesn’t offer any topics of discussion. As well, asking questions can give you the opportunity to (very quickly) paint yourself as an aspiring professional, which breaks the ice for later conversations in non-panel settings. Examples might include:

In a panel about X game topic – “I’m an aspiring freelance artist, and I’ve been studying the new X line – The mood feels much darker/lighter/more gothic/more historic than Y books were. Was that an intentional choice?”

In a panel about publishing – “I’m an aspiring freelance writer, and I’ve been following forum discussions about X issue. The feeling I’ve gotten is that Y is becoming a trend – Do you think Z will be the end result?”

In a panel about getting started in the industry, freelance work or industry trends – “I’ve done some pro-bono work for local publishers, and I’m hoping to break into write-for-hire work. Do you have any advice for new authors/editors/writers who are hoping to do X in the industry in the next few years?”

Be sure the questions you’re asking are pertinent to the panel and the people running it. Asking questions about a company’s video game line at a panel on CCGs or grilling an art director about the company’s editing policy is unlikely to gain you much in the way of useful information, and you risk coming across as if you don’t really understand what’s going on.

Games – Many game companies may be running sessions or demos of their games at GenCon as well. While the chances that you’re playing with someone who might have hiring-type power is fairly small with bigger companies, with small ones it’s a very real possibility. Do go to game sessions and play the games. Have a great time! Be a great player. Don’t try to pitch yourself during the session; that’s not what it’s for, and if you come across as someone who ruins other people’s fun for your own self-interest, you’re unlikely to make a positive impression.

Do take the time, however, after the game, to speak with the person running the session. Let them know what you liked about the game, and, if the situation seems appropriate, tell them about your aspirations for entering the industry. Keep it short – they may be on their way to another demo. A simple “I’m interested in writing/art for X game. Do you know who, in the company, I should approach about that?” is usually sufficient. Make an good impression, and you never know, you might garner yourself an introduction or recommendation from the person whose game you played in. Or, you might find out that they’re the contact person themselves. If nothing else, you’ve learned more about the game and that’s always a good thing.

After Hours – A lot of industry schmoozing happens outside of exhibit hall time or game sessions. Be aware of your surroundings and keep an eye out for opportunities to strike up a (brief and respectful) conversation with the person you met at a company’s booth later in the weekend. Understand that you may be catching them on the way to something (a meeting, a game, their one meal of the day or the restroom) so don’t monopolize their time. A quick “Hi, X, I’m J… We met at your booth yesterday, and I had a quick question about freelancing for your company. Would you mind if I came back tomorrow/later to ask about it?” will remind them of who you are, without demanding their time at that moment. If they’re not doing anything important, they may stop and offer to discuss the question with you now (so be sure you have one ready!) But, if they’re on their way to something (or just don’t like to talk with folks outside of booth time) you’ve opened the opportunity to meet up with them at a later time.

Don’t expect that, if you’ve stopped in to speak with someone at a panel or at their booth, that they will necessarily remember you. They’ve interacted with hundreds, if not thousands, of folks and by the end of the first day, it’s all a big blur. Offer a quick reminder of who you are, when you meet them again – “Nice to see you again, John. I enjoyed our conversation about Orc armor after your panel yesterday.” It will not only serve as a reminder of your previous conversation, but it takes them off the hook of trying to remember who you were, which is a social nicety they may well be grateful for.

A brief note on overindulgence – Some industry professionals have a very “work hard/play hard” attitude. A lot of industry business is handled over drinks, networking at social events, etc. Liquor and other inhibition lowering substances often abound. Remember, however, that the combination of nervous pro-wanna-be and mind/mood altering substances is a recipe for disaster. If you’re meeting folks at a bar or party, either stick with non-alcoholic beverages or imbibe in /extreme/ moderation. You want to be quick-witted and alert to take advantage of any situation that comes up, not spending your schmooze time worshiping the porcelain god in a con restroom stall.

How To Talk Shop

Opening the Conversation – If you want to use GenCon (or other conventions) as an opportunity to get your foot in the proverbial gaming industry door, at some point you’re going to have to bring up your aspirations to enter the industry on a professional basis. However, finding the right words to paint yourself as an aspiring professional (rather than an enthusiastic fan) can be challenging. Here are some examples of ways to open that particular conversational thread:

“I am interested in learning more about (writing/doing art/editing/doing game development) for your company. Who would be the best person for me to ask for more information?”

“Do you use freelance (artists/writers/editors)? Is there an application process for those roles?”

“I’m very interested in X game line… Do you know if they are looking for entry-level talent on similar projects?”

The key, in my opinion, is to be straightforward and confident, without coming across as entitled or egotistical. Realize that while your local gaming group, art critics or college English professor may think you’re the neatest thing since sliced bread, you’ve got to prove yourself to any potential employer, and that means checking your ego at the door and showing them that you ‘ve got what it takes to contribute to their product in a positive way.

The Hard Sell – For the most part, however, the convention itself is not the place for a new person to enter into negotiations, discuss pay rates, or firm up deals. If you’re just starting out, it’s an opportunity to make a good impression, express some interest, and make a request for a follow up conversation after the con. Most industry folks are going to be swamped during the event itself, and they’re going to be approached by dozens, if not hundreds, of folks on the same mission you are.

Don’t ask for details or press for commitment. Instead, use your brief conversation as an opportunity to engage in further dialogue after the convention. Ask “I’d love to talk more with you about this. Can I contact you after the convention?” And then, do it. (More information on following up on con contacts will be covered in Part Four, “Follow Up and Follow Through”.

Accepting Critique – No one likes to hear that their work isn’t as awesome and amazing and they think it is. But part of working as a creative professional in any industry is that your work (both before and after publication) is open to critique. Whether at a convention or submitting work afterwards, be prepared for critique and criticism. Listen with an open mind and a calm spirit to what is being said and, even if you dno’t agree with it, attempt to absorb it in a positive and professional manner. Don’t take it as a personal insult. For the most part, industry professionals are not telling you the areas you’re weak in to make you feel bad or exert their authority over you (although it may feel like it at the time.) They want publishable work (be it art or words) that they can use. They want your work to be up to snuff, so they can use you. And while you may not agree with their assessment of the quality of your work, if you’re trying to sell them on you and your work, their opinion matters.

It should go without saying, but whatever you’re told – don’t argue with the professional. If you’re insulted, outraged, mortified or mad, be a professional – politely gather your work, thank them for taking the time to look at it and walk away. If your views and theirs are so diametrically opposed that you can’t find any value in their assessment of your creation, perhaps they are not the right person or company for you to work for or with. Arguing will not change that. Nor will it change their professional opinion of your work. All it will do is make you look like a whiny prima donna who can’t take criticism – and that’s not a selling point. Give yourself some distance, go do something else for a while, and then think over what was said. See if you can find any value or truth in their assessment. If so, learn from it and follow up with them at a later date. If not, go on to the next prospect on your list of researched potential employers – there are a lot of fish in the sea, and not every individual will be a good match for every company. But don’t burn your bridges by being less than 100% professional – you never know when your path will cross with theirs again.

What To Say (and What Not to Say)

Complaints – As we addressed in Part One of this series, insulting people or products is rarely an effective technique when interacting with gaming professionals. Industry pros are bombarded and besieged with insults and abuse about their game on a semi-constant basis, and the last thing that is going to endear you to them is layering another helping of negativity on, whether it’s their own work or another company’s that you’re targeting.

On the other hand, personal opinion, when couched in polite terms, can show an industry professional that you have not only played the game but also have an in-depth understanding of the setting and mechanics. A pet peeve, when expressed diplomatically, can open the opportunity for conversation, rather than shutting it down.

“I was wondering about X mechanic in Y game. I didn’t feel it was an improvement over Z mechanic because of A reason. Can you tell me why they went that direction?”

“The rule about X has never worked very well for my players. We’ve house-ruled Y, because it does Z. What are your thoughts on that?”

“My group wasn’t fond of the X setting, so I took it and put a Y twist on it. They’re now involved in Z conflict with a group that is kind of akin to X’s monster, but with a different feel. Have you tried doing something like that with it?”

Compliments – On the other hand, effluvious complements and hyperbole are more the domain of rabid fanboys/girls than aspiring professionals. Save “It’s the bestest game ever, and I love it more than life itself, can I have your babies?” for private situations, or when you’ve made more than casual acquaintance with your conversation partner. For first interactions, simple, succinct complements (when true) are much more meaningful than fluffy layers of fawning.

“I really enjoy X aspect of Y game.”

“I’ve played lots of X-themed games, but I found that Y was my favorite because of Z aspect.”

“X game introduced me to the Y genre, and I have never looked back.”

Character Stories – As a note? If you’re going to tell an industry professional about your character (and I’m neither recommending nor forbidding you from doing so) for the love of all that is holy, please keep it short. Unless they specifically ask for a blow-by-blow of your 14 year campaign setting and meta-plot, keep it to a few short sentences about what you like to play and why. A very brief anecdote (especially if it’s well-practiced, funny and less than a minute long) can also be appropriate, if it works well in the conversation.

However, always be aware of your audience. If the person you’re speaking with is looking past or around you, fidgeting with something in their hands, breaks your conversation to speak with someone else, or in some other way appears to be non-enthralled with your story – stop talking. A brief “Ooops, I’m sorry, I was rambling” followed by a question thrown their direction to change the topic can often rescue such a faux pas.

How (and When) to End

It’s tempting, once you’ve actually made a contact at a convention, to keep talking with them for as long as possible. The initial contact can be frightening, so it’s a natural instinct to want to continue the “good part” of chatting with them for as long as possible.

Fight this instinct, especially if you’re monopolizing their time. Group conversations can go on a bit longer, because you’re not keeping them from interacting with everyone else, but for one-on-one conversations, keep your discussion down to a few minutes, at least on first contact.

After that, a polite “It’s been great talking with you, but I don’t want to monopolize your time. Thanks for taking the time to chat with me.” is a wonderful way to break out of the conversation. It gives the other person the opportunity to end the conversation or not, depending on their interest and situation. If they say anything other than some variety of “No, please stay,” consider that your cue to move on to your next conversational partner.

If, on the other hand, you are invited to stay, please don’t take that as an invitation to put on a one-person show. Conversation, especially with folks you would like to work with or for, should be a back and forth dialogue. You’re there to learn and to make connections, not to perform for an audience.

The Wrap Up

As you’re leaving, don’t be shy about asking potential contacts if they have a business card. Most do, and it’s my opinion that asking for one gives the impression that you are attempting to interact with them as professional-to-professional, rather than fan-to-pro. It’s also a great opportunity to offer your own card in exchange (See Part Two of this series).

I always recommend taking a moment immediately after walking away from a contact conversation to jot a few things on the back of the card. These include the person’s name (if it’s a business card rather than a personal one), the time/date you talked to them (Friday morning for example, or “at Indie Publishing Panel”), and any particular topics you discussed (“talked about .pdf products” or “she collects Japanese parasols”). Chances are you may well return home with a fist full of these cards, and a little information will help you remember why you got them in the first place, as well as serving as a reminder on which individuals you want to do follow up emails with. (More information on this will be given in Part Four, “Follow Ups and Follow Through”.)

As you can see, many of the things that I’m recommending you do to take advantage of GenCon as a networking opportunity are the same things you’re likely going to be doing at a gaming convention any way: go to panels and games and chat with folks at booths. You’re just parlaying them into opportunities to make networking connections. “Working” GenCon can be as much fun as going purely for pleasure – if you go into it with a positive attitude and the right skill set.

Check out “Follow Ups and Follow Through,” Part Four of “Using Conventions to Break Into the Gaming Industry.” We’ll discuss how to make sure that all the effort you put into preparing for and “working” the convention doesn’t go to waste! And if you haven’t already, be sure to read Part One – The Basics, and Part Two – Preparation.

© Jess Hartley – http://www.jesshartley.com

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