Summary of the Panel on Chicago Game Development

The Panel on Chicago Game Development was a wonderfully informative event organized by IGDA Chicago, moderated by David Wolinsky, and featuring panelists with a wonderful spectrum of viewpoints and industry experience. Panelists included Jared Steffes, Christian Arca, Mike Bilder, and Ryan Wiemeyer.

Discussion Points

What would you say is unique about developing games in Chicago?

From multiple panelists, the response was that Chicago has a ‘neighborhood feel.’ There was discussion about the unique sense of community in Chicago, camaraderie among Chicago developers, and that people are genuine.

Is there any critical advice you’d give developers who have an interest in starting up their own studios here in Chicago?

One point brought up was that it doesn’t take much anymore. Due to the fact that developers can now self-publish, game development is a sort of ‘indie’s paradise’ these days.

In Chicago in particular, rise of colleges with game development programs means it’s now easier for studios to recruit local talent.

Additionally, it was stated that “the barrier to entry is lower.” For instance, developers can gain funding using Kickstarter or 8-bit Funding.

An important bit of advice given was “don’t do it all yourself.” There are many talented people out there who would love to make games with you. Pool your strengths!

How might studios get more involved with schools, in the interest of improving the local pool of talent?

The first point addressed was that schools often reach out to developers. After all, instructors are always interested in showcasing their most talented students.

Game development is also an interesting and dynamic field. Technology changes so fast that the curriculum often has a hard time keeping up.

Internships are very competitive. Students need to stand out, interact with developers, and convey a passion and love for game development.

Overall advice to students included ‘show your game!’ The general consensus was that a completed game project is more highly regarded than a resume. If your game is good, it will find its way to the right person in the company. Additionally, the panelists suggested becoming friends on Facebook so they can see what you’re up to. “Your reputation precedes you.” Don’t hesitate to make friends with people in the industry, get to know developers, and be friendly. All of these factors boost your chances of getting a job.

Panelists also talked about TestFlight, an app that allows beta testing on the fly. Essentially, anything you can leverage to easily share your game with others is very useful to your efforts.

Other tips included making use of any of the plentiful resources now available to aspiring developers: actively consult forums and seek feedback.

What types of things do AAA and indie companies look for in the resumes or experience of potential employment candidates? Do you have any tips for candidates hoping to get their foot in the door?

A very big point reiterated was that the cover letter is huge. This is your first impression and a chance to differentiate yourself from other candidates. Tailor all of your materials to the occasion. Cover letters, in particular, should be tailored to the studio and show that you’re a good fit there.

Another piece of advice given was not to apply for every position. Find what you’re good at and suit yourself to a particular role. It was also warned not to apply to every studio in the area. Studios want you to be a good fit. Hiring you on means you become family.

You can get to know the studio environment via twitter, by following the studio itself or employees. It was encouraged to check if you’d be a good fit at the studio. Twitter is also a fast and easy way to communicate with developers.

Don’t cc other employers in your emails to a studio.

What advice would you give developers in regard to getting noticed here in Chicago and how to best position themselves for success.

(For individuals)

Be unique.

Studios have personas and candidates need to fit.

(For studios)

Advertise your studio. There was a lot of mention of swag, sharing swag, and wearing swag. Branding is highly important. Cross promote each other and be proactive.

There was also some etiquette mentioned: don’t solicit personal contact information for new contacts from your contacts. A specific case was detailed, in which a newly met contact asked for a specific high profile email address.


Audience Q&A

Arcade Cabinet?

The first question was actually a bit of discussion about the Indie City Games arcade cabinet that members of the group have been building this year. The intention is for the cabinet to house local indie games and travel to various locations.

IP laws, fighting for tax breaks, benefits for entertainment and game studios?

There was mention of efforts being made to bring benefits to local developers, such as tax breaks.

Yetizen was brought up.

It was touched on that, at the moment, games are getting venture capital and funding opportunities.

Engineer of several platforms: how to get in?

It was recommended that engineers make a game of some sort without art.

Pick up cocos or JavaScript, as iOS is hot right now.

The barrier to entry is low. Platforms aren’t as costly now. Open source is available to you.

Solid development experience is valued.

You can be an expert of middleware. Many companies use middleware now.

Engineering is like a trade skill, compared to art and sound (who will need to prove their skill through showing their work in a game.)

When starting a company, wearing many hats is good. When joining a company, choose a focus or role.


“Game is king.” Point out products you’ve been involved in the creation of.

For demo reels, one comment was “don’t put death metal rock on your demo reel.” You want to make it inviting. In fact, don’t put an emphasis on sound. One panelist flat out said, “I don’t care about sound” in reference to a character modeling demo reel. You should focus and point out what you want to do. It should be clear what the employer is evaluating when they watch your reel.

For web sites, make them clear and make it easy for employers to find exactly what they’re looking for.

One panelist also had an idea about fan art. Show them what their game would look like if you did it.

Tailor your results. If you’re applying for a company that works on consoles, work within the limitations of the console. On that same note, show relevant work. Work shown to a company should somehow relate to what they do, fit with the company. Artists should demonstrate that they understand technical constraints.

Strive to do what you’re passionate about.

How do you build the right community for your game?

Go where your players are. Are you finding them? Are there avenues that they can use to find you?

It doesn’t cost a lot to get PR going. Put yourself out there.

How do I start making games?

The immediate answer was Game Salad. Overall, the basic tools are out there. Aside from free versions, there are trial licenses and middleware.

Play games. Find out what you like.

Make analog games. They are very cheap to produce.

Get involved with modding communities or reverse engineer open source games you like.

Where do you get funding?

Local funding is hard.

Money will come from your fan base. You may be able to get presales on a game.

You can try friends/family/allies who like your game, go for traditional venture capital, investors, etc. For these, you’ll need to show that you have traction. Offer something unique.

“Chicago is going to be awesome!” However, not all money is going to come from Chicago. If you’re willing to search, funding is out there. Sell yourself, your product, your idea. Have something good.

Engineers: master versus generalist

You can stand out by being better than everyone else. Companies always need leads.

Studios hire programmers – not specific platforms, generally.

Self-publishing creates opportunity everywhere. There are tons of opportunities out there. Digital distribution will change pricing and business models. You can now have multiple revenue streams (like Steam, Apple App Store, direct2drive, etc.) This allows you to be agile and adapt to your customer base.

Games are a mature medium.

Games are art. Games have revolutionized. “It’s a fantastic time!”

How to avoid getting stuck doing something you excel at rather than your passion?

If you’re passionate, you’ll get in. If you go to a place where the culture is open, with democratic decisions, you will move into the position. A good studio gives everyone a chance to execute their passion.

It’s powerful to be around other developers. Learn to learn from each other.

How can I find local artists?

Get involved with web sites out there, tap your professional networks, use resources like Gamasutra or craigslist, go to art shows, talk to teachers.

For artists, sometimes studios will start you out with a contract. This may lead to hiring.

(The full dialog of the panel will be released in an upcoming video of the event.)