Community organizers unite @ GDC 2019

Seattle Indies
Mar 29, 2019 · 7 min read

This year at GDC 2019 organizers from Seattle Indies and Bit Bridge Pittsburgh came together to host the first ever Local Game Community Organizers Roundtable. The genesis of this idea happened at GDC 2018 when the two groups met for the first time with Bit Bridge seeking advice on how best to get their burgeoning independent game developer community off the ground heading in the right direction.

Co-presenters Marlena Abraham and Tim Cullings prepping for the roundtable

Co-presenters Marlena Abraham of Bit Bridge Pittsburgh and Tim Cullings, President of Seattle Indies led a lively discussion in a room full of game dev community organizers from all over the world about common problems they all share and possible solutions to those issues. It was truly a global gathering with organizers from New Zealand, Argentina, Israel, Montreal, Germany, Brazil and all corners of the US coming together to meet and share stories.

They presented a list of five main topics to steer the conversation and then let the attendees vote on which ones they were most interested in diving into.

  • Getting Started
  • Events and Communication
  • Legal and Org Structure
  • Fund Raising
  • Volunteer and Organizer well being

Events and communication seemed to get the most votes so we started things off talking about events that have and haven’t worked for us and how to run highly successful, well attended events with a small team of volunteers and often little to no budget.

A few different groups mentioned holding regular talks on various game dev related topics and issues which keep their community members engaged and coming back every month but all ran into the issue of running out of content and speakers rather quickly so it seemed unsustainable. Some mentioned using online speakers via video calls or watching videos from the GDC vault as a way to solve this. Coordinating times with remote speakers and possible technical issues were discussed as barriers to this solution.

Robin from Munich, Germany mentioned a program they run called “The Torch” where each month a different game company in town gets “the torch” and must host an event in their space and come up with the content for that event. This puts a bit of pressure on them to not be the one who drops the torch while also decentralizing the planning and organizing so the burden isn’t always on the same small group to put on the events.

Alex from Seattle Indies mentioned the Indie Support Group meetup we run every Saturday that is a co-working session where game developers get together to work on their projects, socialize and even find and form new teams to make their dream projects together. It serves as a great introductory point for our new members to meet the community and learn about game development from some of our more experienced members. It does require quite a bit of commitment from the organizers to be there on a weekly basis but the regularity and consistency of the event really helps to build community.

Round table discussion @ GDC

Another event we mentioned was social gatherings at bars, libraries, coffee shops and cafes. These are great from an organizers standpoint because they require relatively low effort to setup and are low commitment from a participant’s standpoint since all they have to do is show up and are a good way to get people socializing in an informal setting. Some issues with this type of event are that not everyone drinks alcohol so they might be turned off by a bar setting, some restaurants want you to hit a food & beverage minimum for large groups or require a deposit to hold tables, a lot of game developers have social anxiety so getting them to come to a large social gathering can be a challenge.

All of these events require time, effort and possibly money from the organizers and can lead to burnout that could cripple a thriving community so the next topic we discussed was volunteer and organizer well being. In this part of the discussion we noticed a common narrative beginning to arise. Communities that had done well and had very popular events and were in high demand to do more were not struggling with the possibility of failure but struggling with their own success.

As communities grow and the events we host become more popular and well attended the demand grows for more and bigger events but often times budgets don’t increase and the volunteer ranks stay the same. We end up pushing ourselves harder and stretching ourselves thinner for the good of the community but often to the detriment of the organizers and volunteers leading to burnout that can have a crippling effect on an otherwise thriving community. We all agreed that setting boundaries for yourself as an organizer is important, knowing your limits and not over committing yourself can be difficult when you are driven and passionate about what your do but it is vital to take care of your own wellbeing so you don’t grown resentful of the very thing you worked so hard to create and the demands it puts on your life. Reaching out for help and making use of motivated volunteers to help carry the burden is also important and often as your community grows in popularity you will find more people excited about and willing to lend a hand.

Seattle Indies has formed into a non-profit with the idea of longevity of the group being at the forefront since now it is a legal entity with bylaws and structure that anyone can take over and run. That also came with its own challenges though and required extra effort and learning on the part of the founding Board members and dedication to do a lot of the unglamorous work of running the organization. It also opened up new funding avenues and opportunities with other local non-profits and really accelerated the growth of the community. One of the organizers from Bit Bash in Chicago mentioned fiscal sponsorship as an option where an existing non-profit can fiscally sponsor your group and give you the benefits of being a non-profit without having to form one yourself.

A few groups mentioned social outings for the volunteers and organizers to reward them and keep them bonded and connected in their own little community within the community. We also talked about Town Hall meetings as a way to keep the community appraised of what the organizers and volunteers are doing while giving them a chance to ask questions and learn about ways to get involved themselves either as volunteers or offering venues for events or financial assistance if possible.

This led to a discussion about fundraising for our organizations. It is not always about getting money from companies to help fund events, donations can come in the form of venues, food, swag for prizes at game jams, event discounts, etc. We all agreed that bigger companies like to see a plan when you ask them for money or at least an idea of what they are getting in return for their contributions so some of us put together slide decks and usually offer three options with the middle option being the one we want but the higher one being the nice to have and the lower one being better than nothing. A lot of it comes down to the size of the audience you can provide and the companies that are interested in reaching the people in your community. You need to beware of possible predatory practices of some sponsors but doing a bit of vetting and due diligence can go a long way to protecting your community members from those things. Some sponsors will be interested in getting people to add to their mailing lists so you need to be explicit with both the sponsor and your community as to what information will be provided, if any and a way for community members to opt out of that if possible.

Following a spirited discussion at the round table we migrated to Black Hammer Brewing for a couple of hours of socializing with our new friends and deeper dives into the topics that arose and bonding with our fellow organizers. The conversation here was even more involved as people from all over the world realized they were facing similar issues with their communities and were happy to find that they are not alone in what can often be an isolating position and formed new friendships that will last far beyond GDC.

We already have an active Discord server up and running to keep in contact with each other, contact tim@seattleindies.org for an invite, and plans are in the works for next year’s round table at GDC. We’re also hoping the organizer community expands beyond GDC and gets together at other games related events, either hosted by our new friends or happening in their cities.

First organizers mixer at Black Hammer Brewing

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Seattle Indies

Highlighting the amazing creations and creators in Seattle’s independent video game scene.