With classes back in session and 2012 officially under way, it’s a good time to start setting the tone for the next few months. You’ve probably already set some goals for yourself – playing more games and making more games not least among them. If you’re an aspiring game developer, I’d like to add one more resolution to your list…
Set up date for coffee.
Take a local game dev out for coffee!
Love life aside, if you’re just starting out in the games industry, coffee dates are a thing you should be doing Right Now. Rather than a distant goal to work towards, this is something you can do as a student or someone who’s still looking for their “break.” It’s available immediately, it doesn’t take much time, and it’s inexpensive.
Step 1: Find a local game developer whose work interests you. They might be working in a role that you’re hoping to pursue, or they could be in a different role but creating games in a genre that you find appealing. As long as you have a sincere interest in the experiences they have to share, they’re a good candidate.
Step 2: Reach out to them! Generally this means by email, though if you’re familiar with the politesse of social media those outlets can work too. Be genuine and friendly, and express your interest in chatting with them about [Thing You're Interested In] over a cup of coffee or tea. Don’t be pushy.
Step 3: Prepare your questions. If your local dev accepts, start prepping. Obviously you don’t want to interrogate them, but you do want to come with specific questions in mind. Generally, you should ask about their personal experiences, ie: How would you describe your career path? What’s your day-to-day like? What are the perks (and downsides) of working on x type of games? A few broader questions can be fine, but mostly steer clear of loosey-goosey pseudo-philosophical brain teasers. Of course, if you’re chatting with someone who you know eats that stuff up, then you’re free to go all in on “games as art.” Your mileage may vary, but err on the side of not wasting someone’s time!
Step 4: Meet! This should be the easy (and most fun) part. The guidelines here are pretty intuitive: don’t be late, wear clean clothes, smile and make eye contact. Refer to your questions as desired, and feel free to take notes.
Step 5: Follow up.Thank the person for their time at the end of the meeting, and make sure to send them a follow up email thanking them again. If you had any other quick questions you can add them here. If you thought the meeting was successful, you should contact your dev from time to time to keep in touch.
Do’s and Don’ts
DON’T push for details in the first email. You’re gauging interest at this point, nothing more.
DO find someone approachable. Targeting junior or mid-level people is a good place to start. Their experiences are likely more relatable, and they’re almost more likely to be available.
DO give people an out. Make it okay for them to say no without feeling bad: “If you’re too busy to meet, I completely understand.”
DON’T be defensive, angry, or disheartened if your game dev can’t meet with you. Move on to the next!
DO be flexible about time and location. You should always do your best to work with their schedule and travel to a location convenient for them.
DON’T rely on Starbucks having empty seats. Scope out the area around where you’re planning to meet, so that you can easily head somewhere else if it’s too crowded.
DO offer to pay for the person’s drink. It’s a small gesture to show that you appreciate their time. It helps that coffee is a lot cheaper than a nice dinner!
AT YOUR OWN RISK you can suggest grabbing beer instead of coffee. The benefit of suggesting coffee is that it’s very neutral. Most coffee shops offer a variety drinks which cover a range of dietary options. Suggesting beers or drinks at a bar implies a more personal connection and can put someone in an awkward position. I’d advise against taking that chance unless you already know the person.
What if I can’t meet someone in person?
If you’re able to see someone in person, you should definitely keep a face-to-face meeting as your goal. Digital communication is a poor substitute for chatting in meatspace. That said, meeting in person isn’t always possible. If you live in suburbia and don’t have reliable access to a major city like NYC, for example, it can be particularly difficult. There’s also the not-unlikely chance that someone you really want to talk to lives hundreds of miles away.
Don’t despair! You can (and should) still make an effort to reach out to these devs. However, I’d suggest a slightly different approach. Generally, a cold email has a better chance of garnering a reply if you’re suggesting meeting up to continue the conversation. This shows that you’re invested in the person’s response and that you value the experiences they have to share. Since you don’t have that going for you when the game developer you want to connect with is on the opposite coast, it’s best to establish your sincerity in another way.
This is one of the biggest reasons I’m such a fan of Twitter. You can follow the updates of people who share your interests, even those who have your “dream job.” If you’re amiable, engaged, and don’t come across as a raving sycophant, Twitter fosters a great sense of community among like-minded people. In the past, if I wanted to get in touch with someone I followed on Twitter, I’ve used a quick and easy two-part method.
Step 1: Message the person, asking if they’d be okay with you sending them some questions via email. If you’re polite and they’re not incredibly busy, they’ll likely get back to you with their email address.
Step 2: Send them an email. Give a (brief) summary of your background, then get to your (brief) set of questions. Thank them twice: at the beginning of your introduction, and again for their time at the end of the message. You really want to keep things as short and sweet as possible, especially if you don’t regularly communicate with this person.
Twitter’s a particularly good platform for digital introductions because you can find lots of game developers working on all types of games and the sense of close community makes everyone more inclined to take a minute to talk. Thanks to this spirit, I’ve been able to talk games writing with the Lore Lead of Rift, volunteering at GDC with a Community Manager of Guild Wars 2, and modding with a game designer for Skyrim. I didn’t follow these folks on Twitter so I could mine them for info, but thanks to the community, when I had some questions they were there to help. Recently I’ve fielded questions from people interested in moving to NYC to pursue indie game development, so in turn I try to do my part to keep the good will circulating.
If you are really adverse to using Twitter – and some people certainly are – cold emails can work. The best way to go in this case is to quickly establish how you know the person (or found out about them), and why you’re contacting them. You can get into the short summary of yourself and your questions after that, but you shouldn’t go more than 3 lines with your reader wondering who you are or why you’re emailing them.
To wrap it all up…
You may have been thinking to yourself, “You know, this seems pretty applicable to everyone, not just game devs.” If you have, you’re right – you got me! Coffee dates are an excellent tool for almost anyone interested in breaking into a field, or making a career transition.
That said, I do think they’re particularly useful for young game developers. The games industry can be very difficult to navigate, especially if you’re approaching it as someone completely new. There aren’t many examples of traditional career trajectories when it comes to working in games, so the best way to find out more is from the anecdotes of the people who’ve cut their own path through the jungle.
If you’re someone who hasn’t set up a coffee date before, now’s the time. Take a moment to think of someone you could feasibly meet with, and find a way to get in touch with them. Do it right now, and make 20-minutes-into-the-future-you proud.