How to Become a Networking Ninja at GDC Next

Industry experts give guidance on how to best take advantage of networking opportunities at GDC Next.

Whether you’re looking for a job, a development partner, financial backing, art critique, or media coverage of your latest work, GDC Next could be your key to making the right connection. Kicking off in Los Angeles November 3rd and 4th, the conference will feature speakers from Blizzard, Insomniac Games, Google, Ubisoft, and Sony and will provide ample opportunities to rub shoulders with bigwigs who can take your project to the next level…if you can seal the deal that is. Making long-lasting connections at conferences boils down to having the right approach, pitch, and follow-up. Here’s how to blow minds at GDC Next.

Know Your Audience

Before stepping foot into GDC Next, you’ll need to figure out what you want and who there can provide it says Keith Katz, co-founder of Execution Labs, a company that provides funding, workspace, and mentorship for independent game developers. If you’re looking for a publisher, for example, research which ones will be attending the conference, what games they’ve published in the past, why your game might be a good fit for them, and hone an elevator pitch about your work accordingly.

“Let’s say it’s a Chinese publisher who’s looking for Western content. You could say, ‘Hey listen, I know you guys are looking for Western developers and we have a game that I think could be a good fit because you haven’t published anything like it before…,” Katz says. “If it’s someone who has a YouTube channel and you’re working on this real-time strategy game, the approach is, ‘Hey I saw you play X, Y, Z real-time strategy game and you really liked it. I think based on other games you’ve liked, you’re really going to like mine.”

The same is true if you’re looking to connect with funders, work partners, mentors, reporters, or future employers at GDC Next. Some simple Googling to determine whether a particular studio has jobs available or if a specific publication reviews indie games (hint: we don’t) can save you, and them, precious time on the conference floor.

Once you’ve identified who you’d like to chat with, Katz recommends contacting them as early as possible to try to get on their schedule.

Come Prepared

You’ll need to come prepared with a sharp 60-second elevator pitch that outlines who you are and what you’re looking for as well as materials that can showcase your work says Brandon Sheffield, director of Necrosoft Games and senior contributing editor to Gamasutra.

“Have a reel on your iPad in case people are interested or have a build of your game with you,” he says. “That’s even better because you can be like, ‘Hey, do you have five minutes to look at this thing that I did?’”

Sheffield knows first-hand the value of carrying a game build around GDC Next. At last year’s conference, Sheffield attended a party where he met Seth Killian, one of the main designers behind the Street Fighter series. Sheffield briefly chatted with Killian and asked if Killian could take a peek at an upcoming game Sheffield had on his laptop. Killian played the game, then called over a few designer pals to weigh in.

“All of a sudden, I had four professionals with different important opinions that I valued playing my game because I was carrying it with me,” Sheffield says.

In addition to having a game build, art samples, or a demo reel with you during the conference, you’ll also need to have a polished portfolio of your work available online Sheffield adds.

Respect the Clock

“Do not ask questions just to ask questions,” says Chris Avellone, creative director for Obsidian Entertainment who’s lead design efforts on games like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords and Alpha Protocol. “This is an unusual networking technique that some schools advocate to get applicant students comfortable talking to others. All it’s ever done for me is make me hugely uncomfortable to be talking to someone who is asking me random questions and doesn’t seem to be listening to the answers.”

Time is extremely limited for everyone at GDC Next, so it pays to politely ask if someone has a moment to chat before approaching them, keep questions concise and relevant, and save lengthy discussions for follow-up correspondences says Avellone.

Starr Long, an executive producer with Portalarium, also advises against loading speakers up with gifts or physical samples of your work.

“Never hand someone a piece of paper,” he says. “They don’t want your resume. Follow up afterwards with a link to LinkedIn. That’s a much better thing.”

One way to get a little more face time with your game idols is to track them down at one of the many official and unofficial parties that happen after hours says Keith Katz.

“A lot of the best meetings that I’ve had happen sort of serendipitously outside of the conference,” he says. “Just showing up and going to the parties is something that I think everyone really ought to do…People tend to be relaxed in those setting and that’s a great time to approach people.”

Be Cool

How you approach potential employers and funders goes a long way too. Instead of directly asking a GDC attendee for a job or for financial backing, try to lay the foundation for an ongoing relationship first says Chris Avellone.

“When you approach someone, treat them as a person who likes games as much as you do,” he says. “It’s fine to talk about games you like, what you specifically like about then, and even the games you’re working on or hope to work on. That’s great. We all love games. You’ll likely have more success chatting about games that you will asking about a job, and the conversation will last longer as a result.”

Estelle Tigani, an assistant games producer at a start-up that will launch soon,  says that one way to get a bit of insider info from GDC Next speakers without coming across as desperate is to ask questions about what the speaker is looking for in an ideal job candidate.

“[Ask] what advice could you give me on bettering my portfolio or what mistakes have you seen in the past?…,” Tigani says. “Questions tailored for how you as an individual, as a graduate looking for an opening, can shine out from the rest.” 

Keep the Conversation Going

The real relationships are frequently solidified through ongoing communications after the conference is over, but, like in-person communication, there’s a right and a wrong way to go about following up. When reaching out to someone you met at GDC Next, show that you’ve done your research and avoid pointless banter says Brandon Sheffield.

“Sometimes people will follow up with me after conferences and be asking me very basic Google-able questions or trying to be too chatty,” he says. “You have to be respectful of the person’s time…You want the interaction to be intellectually stimulating to some degree on both sides.”

E-mail is a good way to keep in-depth conversations going (remember to nab those business cards), but new developers can also connect through social media says Chris Avellone.

“Often, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and more are socially casual e-meeting places where you can make connections with developers and develop a rapport there,” he says. “Go to the company’s forums and begin discussions there as well. Coming from a narrative design background, I’m fine with checking out your writing and attitude in various writing forums.”

The most important thing, Avellone adds, is simply to approach networking relationships as long, rather than short-term, affairs.

“Make friends, not work connections,” he says. “…Once you have friends, don’t wait until you need something from them before getting in touch.”

GDC Next kicks off November 3 and 4 at the Los Angeles Convention Center. Keith Katz from Execution Labs leads a workshop on marketing and monetizing indie mobile games on November 4th.

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