From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Cons For Pros, Part Two: Preparation

Welcome to “Preparation”, Part Two of “Conventions for the Aspiring Gaming Professional”, a four-part series of articles offering advice and suggestions for maximizing your career-opportunity exploration at GenCon or other major gaming conventions.

In yesterday’s article on “The Basics,” we discussed some ground-rules for interacting in a convention setting without offending, including topics like Hygiene, Conwear and First Impressions.

Today we’re going to cover a few simple things you can do to before the convention to really maximize the effectiveness of your time there. As with many limited-time opportunities, investing a little effort and energy before the convention can really pay off in the long run.

Take Care of You

Taking care of yourself is key to being able to make the most of any convention.

You’re going to need to drink (preferably water) enough to keep you from getting dehydrated. And, you’re going to need to eat enough to keep your metabolism at a solid level. Since food and refreshments can be expensive, I advocate granola bars, jerky/pepperoni/cheese sticks, fruit, and a refillable water bottle. But be sure to bring a toothbrush or at least mints/gum – you don’t want to exhale jerky-breath on a potential contact!

Even if you’re doing the con on a shoestring, if it’s possible on your budget, stick aside an “emergency” $20. You may find yourself in a situation where someone you’ve been discussing professional stuff with invites you to tag along while they hit Steak and Shake or the sports bar, and it would suck to not have enough to cover your meal (and be able to continue being a part of the networking.)

Do not, however, invite yourself along to meals with industry folks you’re trying to schmooze. A casual hint/opening (“I’ve been wondering where to eat around here. Where are y’all heading?”) is one thing. However, unless you are specifically invited to come along, don’t. Meals are often a rare and precious commodity when industry folk are working a convention, and inserting yourself into their circle during this time unwelcomed is not likely to endear you to them. (This, like any of the rest of the rules, is not hard and fast. There are certainly folks who have parlayed a self-invite into business connections. However, the ratio of success to failure with this endeavor is very high, and do you really want to risk that you’re the one person in 100 who manages to pull it off?)

Sleep is just as important as nourishment. While there’s a strong temptation to do without sleep entirely at conventions (especially if you’re working the booth circuit to make job contacts during the day and getting all your recreational activities in throughout the night!) two things will happen if you skimp on sleep. Either you’ll sleep in unintentionally, and thus lose out on valuable schmoozing time while the exhibition hall is open, or you’ll be dragging yourself around from booth to booth, and it’s difficult to make your best impression if you can’t keep your eyes open or follow a conversational thread.

Aim for at least six hours of rest per day for “working” cons. If you can’t swing that, look for a time in the mid-day when things are at their slowest to grab a quick cat nap and refresh your senses before heading out again.

As well, if you have any important medications – remember to bring and take them. In the middle of an impromptu interview with a game company exec is not the time to remember you forgot to take your anxiety meds!

Leave an Impression (and a Card)

I am a HUGE advocate of business cards, even if you don’t have an official business. They’re a quick, concise, neat and professional-looking way to leave your contact information with someone, and they give the impression that you have your act together. Depending on your field, a simple white card with your name, email, phone number and a single context line (Game Designer, Freelance Writer, Editor for Hire, the name of your podcast, etc.) can work wonderfully. Artists might want to invest a little more and use an example of their art on their card. Many internet sites, such as Overnight Prints (where I get mine) can get you cards in a hurry, and for a very small investment.

If you don’t have time or resources to get business cards professionally made yourself, consider making a batch up using print-and-tear blanks. These are available at most office supply stores for a reasonable amount, and most word processing programs have some sort of template for putting together a basic business card. Just print them on your home computer, and voila! Nearly instant, inexpensive business cards! While the perforated edges may not look quite as slick as professionally printed ones, they’re vastly better than just scrawling your name on a piece of paper, or worse yet – not leaving any contact information at all with potential employers.

Potential employers are inundated with aspiring writers. One of the idiosyncrasies of the industry is that almost everyone who plays games believes they have the skills to work in the industry professionally. And, while many do, if you want to make the cut you need to be able to show that you’re truly talented. Unless they have specified a time for interviews or portfolio reviews, most industry professionals are not going to have the time (or the interest, to be honest) in looking through your full portfolio or reading your writing samples while at the convention. This is a time for them to promote their own businesses and interact with fans. However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be prepared for any eventuality. Bring your portfolio, but leave it in your car or hotel room. That way you’re not tempted to throw it down on the table at inappropriate moments, but you’ve got access to it with just a few minutes walking if you find out that a company you’re interested in does open up some portfolio viewing sessions unexpectedly.

If you are an artist, have a few CDs with examples of your work, or ashcans (mini-portfolio for giving away) with you. Print quality is very important on this type of product, as a poor print job can make a great artist look incompetent! Take a little time to be sure that what you’re giving to potential employers really makes you look as good as you are.

Writers can do the same thing, with a CD or chapbook that showcases some of their pertinent work. As with artwork, be sure you’ve edited what you are giving to potential employers – typos and grammatical errors in your sample work don’t leave producers with the best impression possible of your ability.

If you’d prefer not to print give-aways, create a virtual portfolio on a website and include a URL link to it on your business card.

Do Your Homework

GenCon attracts more than 25 thousand attendees each year. That’s a decent sized town descending upon the Indiana Convention Center and its nearby hotel facilities. For four days, the area becomes a veritable sea of geekery. In the Exhibition Hall, crowds are often two or three people deep in every aisle, and navigating the walkways and booths can be a challenge of its own. Other conventions can be equally as daunting.

This is not the time to just walk around and hope to make business contacts. With vendors ranging from corset companies to movie moguls, there’s just too much diversity (and too much territory) to just wander and hope for the best. Additionally, many companies use booth-workers to man their sales and demo tables during the convention (so they can be more flexible in schedule and location.) This means that even if you do find a promising company’s booth, the person standing at the table might be the warehouse person for the company, or the owner’s niece who knows nothing about the industry.

(And to make things even more complicated, many of the smaller companies share booth space with other vendors, making it even more difficult to know who to talk to in any given area.)

Do some research before the convention begins. A little prep work will help you feel more confident (and sound more experienced) than going into the situation cold.

Make a list of companies you’d like to make contact with. Start with companies that make games you play and enjoy, or who produce games in the same genres that you like playing. From there, add in some that you have heard good things about – checking out industry awards like the Origin Awards, ENnies or Independent RPG awards for the last few years may give you a starting place. Recommendations from friends or from your Friendly Local Game Store staff can help round out your list.

Once you’ve got a list, do a bit of research on each company. Make a note of some of the major games they produce, and, if possible, give them a try. If you can’t actually play them, then at least spend a little time on review sites or forums learning about them, so you have something intelligent to say if the topic comes up.

Along with the major games, see if you can come up with a name or two associated with the company. For small companies, this can be simple. Sometimes the owner, editor, writer, artist, layout team, janitor and chief bottle-washer are all the same person. For larger companies, look for titles like “editor”, “designer”, “producer” or “developer”. If you’re an artist, look for Art Developer or similar titles. As well, making a note of any reoccurring writers or artists in the company’s credits – You may run into them at GenCon as well, and while they probably can’t offer you work, they may be able to offer valuable insight and advice.

Now that you’ve got your list all compiled out and cross referenced, use it. If there is a particular company you’re interested in, search the internet for an email address and drop them a polite inquiry, asking if you could stop by and ask them a few questions at the convention.

And finally, take the list with you to the convention. (I am notorious for leaving behind vital pieces of paperwork, so I email myself a copy as well, so I can print it out at the hotel if I forget!) When you get on site, check the programming schedule and exhibit hall map, and make note of where and when you may be able to arrange to meet up with people from your list. If you’ve managed to score a pre-arranged meet up, prioritize that. If not, don’t be shy about stopping in and introducing yourself, or asking if it’s possible to meet whoever you’ve researched as your desired contact point for the company. (More about this in Part 3 – “At the Convention”.)

Sounds like a lot of prep work for a “fun” event, doesn’t it? But really, when you’re attempting to break into a career field, you’ve got to look at preparation as a necessary step. Go into the situation well prepared, and you drastically increase your chance of being able to make those vital connections and take advantage of any opportunities that arise!

Join us tomorrow for “At the Con”, Part Three of “Cons for Pros”, where we discuss how to make the most of the time you’re actually at the convention. We’ll talk about where to go, what to do and what to say (or not say) to get the most of your convention time.

Jess Hartley is a freelance novelist, writer, editor and game developer with almost a decade of experience in the gaming industry, where she has created and has been published in a wide variety of mediums, including novel-length fiction, role-playing game products, magazine articles and fiction anthologies. She currently authors an online advice and etiquette column entitled One Geek to Another. Jess lives in Arizona, with her family and a menagerie of other interesting creatures, where she participates in a plethora of strange and curious pastimes which often make her neighbors and acquaintances scratch their heads in confusion. More information about Jess can be found at her website: