Game Design, Programming and running a one-man games business…

Giving a talk at a game conference. Yeah…lets stop doing this.

I’ve been thinking about this post for a long time.  Before I go any further let me state I’m not criticizing the actions of any person, or any organisation., Businesses make money, thats what they do, and people weigh up their own pluses and minuses, thats fine. I’d just like to give my current, 2018 take on the the topic of indie game developers giving talks at conferences and shows, like GDC, EGX, whatever.

For the record, I’ve done lots of these talks (although a lot less than some more ‘popular’ devs. I gave my first talk at the ‘lil bit of alright’ show at channel4 in London (if I recall), and I gave a talk a few days ago. My two ‘big name’ talks were probably my GDC indie rant called ‘fuck unity and the horse it rode in on‘ and also my appearance on a panel at steam dev days talking about marketing. (Dev days is a special case, keep reading*).  I also got into an argument with epics mark rein once at a talk, and was also fairly recently at a talk in Paris which was rather cool.

Heres the thing most people who are not developers probably dont realize:

You generally don’t get paid.**

Not only that, but if the talk is a long way away, you almost certainly dont get any travel costs reimbursed. If you have to fly from the UK to San Francisco for your talk…well tough. Your airfare, your airport parking, your transit to the hotel, your hotel bill…its all on you. If you are wondering what you DO get…well you get a VIP pass, that lets you go to the show. Cool huh?

On the plus-side, you DO get some ‘exposure’ to the media, and mostly to…other devs. A lot of people will know who I am because of my dev days talk, or my GDC rant, or the other talks. If you are an introvert, its great to do a talk, because then people come up to YOU to introduce themselves and you dont need to do it yourself. There can also sometimes be some cool media buzz around you if your talk goes well. My GDC rant and the mark rein thing both really lifted my profile, and a lot of devs have watched my dev days marketing appearance. It can make you well-known and popular at parties…


I haven’t seen concrete evidence that this really translates into more sales. if there is a link between giving talks at shows, and higher game sales then…its really pretty weak. How can I say this? Here is a list of people I never see give a talk at a developer show:

Garry Newman (Rust/Garry’s mod) The RimWorld dev, The PUBg dev, The Factorio Devs (Wube), Notch. When you think about it, these guys should be headline-talk stars at any show with a bunch of developers, but yet they are not there, and instead we get the SAME faces from the SAME developers regularly ‘doing the show circuit’ giving inspirational talks and helpful advice about their games that sell maybe 50,000 units. If there really was a correlation between sales and talks, a lot of the indie darlings on the speaker circuit wouldn’t be seen again. The correlation between commercial success and developer profile is VERY LOW.

Thats not to say that the indie darlings talks aren’t great, or the people fab, or the talks helpful and entertaining. They are often all of these things, and I love those people but… and here I am going to blunt.

Why the fuck are they bothering?

If you wanted to ‘share your story with other developers’, then write a blog post. Google can auto-translate it, and everyone on earth can read it, not just those with the spare cash (and time) to fly to San Francisco. There is zero argument to hide your wisdom behind a commercial paywall if your TRUE desire is just to ‘share with other developers’. The idea that some people in the developer community just love the experience of giving talks strikes me as bullshit. FFS we are introvert programmers (most of us), you think we do this for FUN? I know NOBODY who really enjoys the ‘giving a talk experience’. We do it because we think it will make us successful.

There is a popular piece of ‘general knowledge’ among artists that when developers ask you to work for them on their game, and you ask about payment, and the answer comes back ‘we dont have any money for you, but think of the ‘exposure!’ that this is LIES and BULLSHIT and a complete con, and you should tell those people to get lost. You undervalue yourself by doing indie artwork for free, its demeaning and insulting and drags down the income of the entire industry.

I refer you to my early statement about how much developers get paid to give a talk.

Things would be different if the flavour of most shows was ‘hey…its not a money thing, this is a great community-driven place to meet and share knowledge, its all non-profit’. But this is NOT the case. Running these shows is very profitable, they will make money from everything. They charge developers to have a booth to exhibit, they charge developers to come to the show, they charge developers to ‘sponsor’ the show, and not just the show, the show guide, the lanyards you wear around your neck, the name badges. Even the ‘free’ (haha) coffee between talks is ‘sponsored’ at a markup of about 10,000%. Some shows even have ‘tiers’ of attendees. The ‘special’ talks are given to the attendees with the special passes, who have more money, the people with ‘only a few hundred dollars’ tickets get to see the ‘cheap’ talks. AFAIK, the people giving the actual talks, providing the actual content are STILL not paid. Oh BTW most of the shows have stewards who are volunteers. Yes…volunteers.

THIS IS GENIUS on the part of the show organizers. They are even cleverer than facebook, which gets all its content provided by us, for free. In the game shows case, we (devs) provide all the content, and they then CHARGE the rest of us to go access it. Its amazing. Sure they have to to hire the venue, pay for staff, catering, security etc, I get that. Nobody expects a show to be free, but if I give a talk at a show, listed in all of the guides, the brochures the social media, the website…how come the person who cleans the toilets at the venue is earning more than me, a game developer with 20 years commercial experience?

What the actual fuck?

Of course its not phrased that way. if I ran the Positech Games Conference, and told you all to submit your talks to me (please put lots of effort in, with no guarantee of acceptance), and I would pick the lucky few who would be allowed to stand on my stage and read out their talks to the rest, who would all pay me for the chance to listen to the lucky chosen speakers, and I pointed out that I was happily making money from the event, paying the staff, all of them, except you…well you’d laugh in my face.

I don’t blame show organizers, they are behaving very rationally. its supply and demand, and they know indies are SO DESPERATE for exposure they will happily talk for free, even fly/travel at their own expense to go give a talk. But personally…I’m done with it. I will happily give a talk at a show for $2,800 (roughly what makes sense for a day of my time), but certainly not for less. I absolutely know this means nobody will ever see me give a ‘proper’ talk again, but if you want to read what I think on any topic, just bookmark this blog. I get to control what and when I write here, you read it for free (a few discrete ads on your right…) If you want to help yourself to a tea or coffee as you read, feel free to sponsor it yourself. You will still see me at shows, but I’ll be in the audience, not on a stage.

**Steam dev days is the best show I’ve ever been to, and has treated speakers the best by far in my experience. None of this article applies to them.

7 thoughts on Giving a talk at a game conference. Yeah…lets stop doing this.

  1. I’d say that the “exposure” angle is not what fools most people into giving talks. I think we’re doing it for the same reason we wear uncomfortable clothes, give money to charity, do volunteer work, and for the same reason you’re writing this blog. You even said it yourself: it makes you popular at parties. People come up to you. People know who you are. It’s all about prestige, which gives us advantages that help us survive and reproduce.

    It’s mostly unconscious (we might actually think that we give to charity because we want to help) but earning prestige is one of the most important reasons for why we do anything.

    If you want to explore this thought further, I can recommend the book “The Elephant in the Brain”.

  2. Interesting! I really do like giving talks. It gives me a chance to challenge my own thinking and structure it in a useful way.

    I have four motivations to give talks, none of them directly money:

    1) I like going to events. Giving a talk when you’re working for a reasonably sized studio generally gets you the opportunity to do so.

    2) I like giving talks. For the above reasons, and also obviously it lifts my own profile as a professional in my field, which of course helps my career.

    3) I like to share. I don’t have kids and I feel some of my attitude to my job comes down to wanting to teach others, help some poor soul get over some of the obstacles I’ve had to encounter in my career.

    4) I like helping the studio. Ambitious professionals see that we have smart people talking about smart things, and that helps with recruiting.

  3. Just one point on the payment thing: I *believe* one complication here is that as soon as you’re getting paid for a talk you suddenly need a work permit and/or risking being turned away at the border (along with a ban preventing you from entering again).

      1. It should be pretty universal, but as a citizen of an EU state, and never having don’t talks outside of EU and North America, I have only encountered the question in US and Canadian border checks.

        Making money in the country you’re traveling to usually means being required to be allowed to work in that country.

        But maybe we should find someone famous, who’s actually been paid, to see how it is handled:)

  4. I’m an introvert as well, but for some reason I’ve always felt comfortable doing public speeches. Way more comfortable than engaging in small talk with someone for example. I also like to take part in online communities and answer questions people might have. Obviously I’m not gonna go out of my way to get myself booked on events half the world away while covering all the traveling costs, but I’m always up for sharing my knowledge when it’s reasonable to do so, even if I don’t get paid for it.

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