How to Get Your Story-Oriented Hustle on at GDC (a.k.a. Networking for Game Writers)

It might look like there are few opportunities for writers at GDC. Writing jobs you might hear about are filled through referrals. If you visit the Career Pavilion, you’ll find that companies are rarely looking to hire writers. This means you’re going to have to find your opportunities—or make some. Writers looking for work at GDC will get the most out of the conference if they’re willing to do a little self-promotion and hustle a lot. This means your nights are going to be pretty busy.

Work First; Party Later

You will be walking . . . and walking . . . and walking . . . and walking. You will be walking all over Moscone during the day to get from session to session. You will be walking to get breakfast, lunch, and dinner. While you might pay a taxi service, Lyft, or Uber to get around at night, it will be much cheaper to walk. If you’re planning to hit more than 1 party a night, you could be walking 6 to 8 blocks just going from one event to the next. That sharp pain you’ll be feeling in your feet will be your arches giving out and muttering curses under their breath.

Don’t wear yourself out partying. Pace yourself throughout the night . . . and the week. You don’t want to be wiped out or incoherent by 8 PM. If you’re looking to seriously network for a job and get on people’s radars, you don’t want to drink too much while you’re hustling. Stay hydrated. Make sure you find time to eat at least once a day. Get some snacks for extra fuel at parties.

Get to parties early. They’ll be less crowded, and you’ll actually be able to hear the person right in front of you. Events without music or DJs tend to get unbearably loud as venues fill up.

When you’re done hustling for the night, come find the writing community. We’ll always find a spot to hang out until closing time!

The “You Must Drink” Myth: Most events will be in bars. Some attendees have wondered if they’ll be welcome if they don’t drink. There’s even a myth floating around at least one game school where students believe they won’t be taken seriously if they don’t drink. Only two things should matter: 1) the skills and expertise you can bring to a project/team, and 2) your ability to express #1 to prospective clients and employers. I do not drink, and this has never mattered a whit to anyone. If someone judges you by whether you drink or not, what you drink, what you wear, or what kind of smartphone you own (yes, I’ve been told I own the wrong smartphone), you probably don’t want to work for that person.

And something that really shouldn’t have to be said:

You don’t need to buy CEOs drinks to get their respect—especially if you’re a student!

What Events Should You Attend?

What events can you get into? If you’re not already a member of The Fellowship of GDC Parties, join and search the pinned list of events. You’ll get all the details and Eventbrite links to sign up. Go to as many parties as will fit your schedule, even if they seem to be completely outside of your areas of interest.

I’ve found that those the most in need of writers are probably the ones you’d least expect. You can’t always tell what kind of game (or project that can use the expertise of a game writer or narrative designer) people are developing or funding by the info. on their badges. They may not know they need writers—until you convince them.

Even if you meet people who aren’t looking for writers, you can learn something that helps your own work or pick up some information you can use in later conversations.

With several parties to attend in a night, you might not know when to leave. Sometimes you just have to trust your intuition. After making your rounds, seeing who’s there, and talking to a few people, you might sense it’s not going to be productive. Some parties are party parties, not networking parties, and the atmosphere won’t be conducive to talking. On the other hand, don’t pressure yourself to wrap up conversations to make it in time to the next event. If you sense a conversation is going to bear fruit, it’s better to forgo other parties and spend your energy with that prospective client or employer.

A Rare Writer in the Wild!

Don’t be surprised if, during the “What do you do?” ritual, the people you’re talking to are surprised and/or delighted when you say, “I’m a game writer.” For whatever reason, people don’t seem to run into game writers much. This is not a problem. Now, they might ask if you write dialogue and cutscenes. Still, this is not a problem. This is a chance to elaborate on all of the wondrous things game writers do. (And sometimes they will look on with wonder and appreciation as you speak.) Game writers have different roles at different developers. Some people have only known writers (or those taking on the writing role) as She Who Writes the Dialogue or He Who Pens the Barks.

Something else may happen after this declaration: “I am a narrative designer.” People have heard the word “narrative.” They have heard the word “designer.” But “narrative” and “designer” together?! For some, that’s a revelation! Again, this is an excellent opportunity to explain what a narrative designer is and showcase your skills and expertise.

Whenever you talk about the importance of game writing and narrative design and what you do, remember the goal is to get people thinking about how you might fit into whatever they’re doing.

But Listening Is Important, Too

During that “What do you do?” ritual, try going second in a one-on-one situation, or last or close to it in a group. This allows you to show your interest in whomever you’re talking to, find out what their projects are, assess their needs, and think about how you might be able to help. You want to do more than just sell your abilities and list everything on your verbal résumé. While people might find your experience and skills interesting, they’re not really going to care about any of that if they can’t apply it to their needs.

Ask the Right Questions

Remember that great questions invite great conversations. They’re meant to engage. Ask thoughtful questions about what other people do, not just about how they might see a game writer or narrative designer being involved in a project. The right questions will demonstrate you’re a great communicator and can get everyone else thinking in a collaborative environment.

When you’re looking for work, questions mixed in with a little bit of your expertise will show your potential value, as well as get whomever you’re speaking with to take into consideration what you’re saying. For example, you meet the CEO of a startup who’s making an RPG . . . in space! You ask, “How are you developing your worldbuilding?” You’ll quickly find out how much she knows about worldbuilding and how important this is to an RPG . . . in space! Based on her answers, you can have a conversation about the role of worldbuilding in that type of game.

Don’t Oversell

I don’t know game writers who haven’t geeked out at one point and talked about how much they loved games. You should love games if you want to be involved in creating them! But you don’t have to prove how much you love games or that you’re passionate in a business setting. When everyone’s trying to feel out what you’re about, you don’t want to end up in a “non-conversation.” If you try to prove your passion, you also may risk coming off as desperate. Plus, you’re going to meet people who aren’t gamers or who don’t know much about games. They may have a say in how the money’s spent. Give them practical reasons to hire you.

Don’t Give Away Your Expertise for Free

This can be difficult, especially when you’re a freelancer and in project-specific discussions. You never want to consult without getting paid! What’s worse, someone can take that great advice you give, find and hire someone who’ll work for less than you, and share your advice with that freelancer.

How far is too far? That’s a grey area, and it will be different for every freelancer. If you feel like you’ll need to be compensated if you’re going to share certain information, that’s too far.

When you’re discussing a project with someone, explain general concepts. When you’re talking about worldbuilding to the CEO with her space RPG, you can talk about lore and how it can enhance players’ experiences. You might use other, similar games as examples. What you don’t want to do is tell her how you would incorporate lore into her game. Give her just enough that she’s thinking about how your illustrations might apply to her project. If people want to get specific and talk about how this might work for what they’re doing, take the conversation to another level. Offer to meet with them in a private meeting later during the week, or set up a post-GDC meeting. Make sure you both write down the day and time (or write this down for them). Entice them enough to further the conversation after GDC and close the deal.

As soon as you have the opportunity, e-mail them, remind them of your conversation, and tell them you’re looking forward to talking with them on the day and time you agreed to. If you use Google Calendar, send them an invite to your meeting.

Sharpies Are Your Friends

Sharpies can write on all business cards, whether they have matte or gloss finishes. (Okay, it might be hard to write on metal cards. You will get some.) Make a note of the important conversations you had with individuals on the back of their business cards. You can even add this note on the back of your own card before you hand it to them. With the hundreds of people you’ll meet, you might remember the conversations and some of the faces, but you’re not going to be able to put every conversation with every name. When you’re sending your post-GDC communications, you can mention what you talked about.

Sharpies are also valuable because people will run out of business cards. You can write down their information on your own cards.

Be Safe and Observant at All Times

You may have heard about the Tenderloin. If people walk up to you and offer you whiskey, don’t take a swig from that bottle. (Yes, this also happened to me. Though I turned down the offer, I thank her for her kindness.) Don’t stare when you see a thirtysomething selling a teenager drugs. (Yes . . . you know.) Whether you’re going to a party in the Tenderloin or going back to your hotel, make sure you don’t go alone.

Which is pretty much a good idea no matter where you’re going or what you’re doing at night. It’s not hard to find a group to join and walk with. Even areas around Moscone can get sketchy.

Last year I was leaving the Marriott with some friends around 2 AM. We had two immediate choices for food, Mel’s Drive-In across the street, or Denny’s, which was straight ahead a few feet. Nobody had a preference. To get to Mel’s, we would have had to stand on the corner and wait to cross the street. There was just one problem with this. There were about 6 teenage boys standing on that corner tossing a knife to each other. Now, there may not have been anything nefarious about these kids. But . . . Tossing. Airborne. Knife. I said, “We’re going to Denny’s.”

You never know what situations you might need to avoid. Be observant; be aware. Know who’s on the street with you.

For more on a productive GDC, please see Sheri Rubin’s tips.

Toiya Kristen Finley
Game Writing SIG Executive Board

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