Local still matters

Today, I want to editorialize a bit.

As all our news and social interactions have moved online, and the barriers to entry for content creators have fallen, modern game development and promotion have become global affairs. I mean, these days you can whip up a game in Unity, host it on itch.io, hook up presskit() and promote it on Twitter, and reach billions of people worldwide... so why on Earth wouldn't you?

But we all know the reality is much harder. Discoverability is the universal challenge of our time. And it's weird, right? We have more access to bigger audiences than ever before, and yet we can't seem to reach anybody!

This is just the beginning of a notion, but I think the problem with us indies taking a global approach is that we're diluting our social capital way too much, way too early. We need to start with local success first.

Your local community – no matter how small it may be! – is an invaluable incubator for your work. These are people you can talk to face-to-face, on a regular basis, at minimal or no cost. These are people you can become friends with, go out for drinks with, play sports with, maybe even fall in love with! These kinds of interactions are the best ways to get people to care about you, as a person, and not just your game, as a consumer product.

Forging these kinds of relationships exclusively online is next-to-impossible. There's so much communication that happens non-verbally, and I'm not just talking about facial expressions and body language (which you can solve with video chat). The key thing the Internet can't replicate is that singular sensation of the physical presence of another human being. There is so much important stuff that comes from that. (Empathy, for one, which in today's online world is in very short supply.)

I've focused most of my promotional efforts on Legacy of the Elder Star locally. I show the game at our bi-monthly Utah indie meetups and make a serious effort to get involved with local conventions and events. I meet people face-to-face, I shake their hands, and we talk about our projects, our aspirations, our industry horror stories. I'll freely admit that I suck at it, but even so: this is the only process I've ever used in my 10+ years of game development which has actually garnered lasting support from real people.

But the best thing about a local-first strategy is that it goes both ways. It's not just about what I'm getting from the community; it's also about the opportunities where I can contribute back to it. That's what motivated me to co-found the Utah Games Guild; I came back from three-and-a-half years working on Starhawk in Austin, TX and found a Utah indie scene primed to benefit from my experience there. At this time last year our indie community felt small and scattered, but today we list 23 teams and 30 games in the Utah Games Guild database, and I know there are more out there just waiting to be discovered, or to discover us. And last year we organized a collective exhibit at Salt Lake Comic Con to showcase Utah-developed indie games, and we're planning an even bigger and better show at Salt Lake Gaming Con in August this year.

Stuff like this creates a virtuous cycle. You work hard to contribute whatever you can to your community, and your community gets stronger. A stronger community offers you more and better support, making you more stable and successful. With that stability, you can contribute even more to your community... and round and round we go.

But I don't see this stuff happen as much online. Sure, there's the odd crowdfunding miracle here and there, but those are flash-in-the-pan events. And besides, it's so easy to completely dismiss people online over trivial disagreements, or to be outright horrible to them without consequence. In person, people tend to be a lot less shitty. Empathy actually starts to show up. The local-first focus is a slow burn, but it's long-term and it's so much more holistic.

Now, I'm not claiming this is the answer to all our discoverability problems, or that a local-first strategy is the best way to get rich, or whatever. What I am saying, is that since I made the conscious decision to focus on my local community instead of chasing all seven billion humans on planet Earth at once, I've felt happier, more appreciated, and more supported than at any prior point in my career.

Again, this community started from... not a whole lot. You don't need to be in a huge, nationally-known game dev hub to do this stuff. In fact, you might have fewer opportunities in such a place: I know I feel so much more able to contribute in Salt Lake City than I did in Austin, because in Austin they've already figured out most of this stuff (hat-tip to Juegos Rancheros), while in Salt Lake City we actually needed people to do it still.

So I'd encourage you, especially if you feel like you're struggling to get noticed, to step back from the world stage (I know, it's so shiny and enticing and there are six billion iPhones on it) and focus on your local community for a year or two. Make a serious effort to personally get to know the game devs in your area. If events need to be organized, organize them! Invite people to stuff! Get to know them, and get to know their games. Stop envying other people in bigger cities, and start helping out your own game dev neighbors and establishing your own community's identity. I promise you, it's way more rewarding. :)