Dr. Melissa Chaplin is the head of client strategy at Game If You Are, a UK-based marketing firm helping indie video games get the attention they deserve. When not writing press releases, editing trailers, and landing podcast spots for upcoming developers, Melissa is busily building community. She’s the founder of Games Industry Lunch Club, a monthly online networking event; a participant in Limit Break, a mentorship program for games industry professionals; and the former organizer of PhD Write Up, where she addressed the isolation that is often inherent with writing an academic dissertation.
In this podcast interview, Melissa and I chat about when a game developer should start thinking about marketing; what a reasonable marketing budget is, and how to afford it; how much marketing and community building a developer should expect to do on their own; the benefits of a mentorship program, and how to get the most out of it; the intersection of gaming and fashion; why academia can be so competitive; how her education has lent itself to games marketing; and her upcoming new role at Robot Teddy.
Stream the audio edition of this interview below or from iTunes, Stitcher, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music, Spotify, Overcast, Pandora, Pocket Casts, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, RadioPublic, or the Internet Archive. Click past the jump for a transcript and links to resources mentioned in this episode.
- Dr. Melissa Chaplin on Twitter
- Game If You Are
- Games Industry Lunch Club
- Limit Break Mentorship
- PhD Write Up on Instagram
- Robot Teddy
- IndieSider podcast
- Polygamer #86: Eve Leblanc of Clever Endeavour Games
Voiceover: Welcome to the Polygamer podcast, where gaming is for everyone. Join us we expand the boundaries of the gaming community.
Ken: Hello, and welcome to the Polygamer podcast, episode number 114, for June 2021. I’m your host, Ken Gagne. I used to host a podcast called IndieSider where I interviewed indie game developers. And one of the reasons I did that, isn’t just because indie games are on the forefront, in my opinion, of some of the creative storytelling that this medium is capable of, but also because indie games don’t have the kind of marketing that big budgets do. They don’t end up on the front page of YouTube that often, they don’t end up on the cover of Game Informer magazine. They don’t have that kind of marketing budget. And that makes it all the more important to market these games, because they’re so easily overlooked.
It’s not just that kind of communication and connection that’s needed nowadays, especially with the pandemic. So many of us are online so much more, that we’re all feeling a little bit severed from each other. So marketing indie games, talking to each other, building community, these are all really important things nowadays. And I’m so delighted today to talk to one person, who’s trying to address all of these issues, impressively. Please join me in welcoming Dr. Melissa Chaplin, head of client strategy for Game if You Are. Hello, Melissa.
Dr. Melissa Chaplin: Hello. Thank you for having me.
Ken: Thank you so much For making time for me. We had to navigate some time zones to get here, because you’re all the way over in the UK. Is that correct?
Melissa: Yes, I am, in London. So the stereotypical place everyone assumes you’re living in, when you live in the UK. Yeah, actually in Westminster. So bang in the middle. I’ve only had
Ken: I’ve only had one opportunity to go to London, but it actually was as foggy as they say it was. Is that your experience as well?
Melissa: Well, actually I’m originally from the Northeast of England. So for me, London is uncomfortably warm and I know that probably sounds absolutely bonkers to most people, but it gets beyond 20 degrees Celsius and I start feeling uncomfortable. I’m definitely, definitely, a pasty gamer stereotype.
Ken: Yeah. I would, on most occasions, probably rather be inside than out. I love to go outside for a good hike and a bike, but at the end of the day, yeah, just keep me inside and put me in front of a television.
Ken: But we are here today to talk about video games. You are head of client strategy, as I mentioned, at Game if You Are. So in a nutshell, what is Game if You Are?
Melissa: Game if You Are is a full service marketing and PR agency, specifically for indie games. So full service means that Game if You Are does a bit of everything. And in theory a client could come to us and say, “We want you to handle every aspect of marketing, from start to finish, for this project.” And we could do that. Now, normally because we’re working with indies, it winds up being a bit more of a collaborative project, in that most developers come to us and say, “I want help with these aspects, but I’m going to handle this stuff myself,” for budget reasons potentially, or particularly with the community stuff. Often developers want to be at the forefront of that. So it does usually wind up being something in between, not just us doing everything, but also not the developers taking charge of everything either. We do outreach to press, influencers. We do strategic planning, which is my ballpark, social media, the real full shebang.
Ken: Wow. So you are writing press releases. You’re trying to get the developers onto podcasts. Are you editing the game trailers?
Melissa: So we have done some game trailers. We don’t usually do them in-house. Usually we work with freelancers for that sort of thing, but I did actually do one myself in-house last year, for a game called Star Seeker in: The Secret of the Sorcerous Standoff, which was a bit of a labor of love for me. So that was a nice opportunity.
Ken: That’s fantastic. And when does all this planning start? I mean, I’ve read online that marketing should begin before the first line of code is put into place. Are most indie developers thinking about marketing that early?
Melissa: Ooh, no. I get emails from people ranging from people who are thinking about it very early, which is great, to people who are releasing a game in a week’s time, or even more painfully, people who say, “Oh, I launched my game last month, then it didn’t go well. Can you help me with marketing?” Which is always very sad to see, because you can’t really unring that bell, and there’s not much you can do after the fact. There’s some things, but not a great deal. Broadly, I would say most people come to us when they’re about three to six months out of a press beat, that doesn’t necessarily mean their full launch. Some people come when they’re like, “Hm, we’re going to announce in a couple of months.” Some people come before a beta or an early access, but usually people start to think about it when they’re coming up into something, that feels they ought to do marketing about it.
And they start to think like, “Hm, probably should get on this.” So I’d say that’s the average. I would say, ideally I would want to be talking to people at least 12 months out from launch, not everyone has that foresight necessarily, but it does pay dividends. In terms of thinking about it before the first line of code goes down, I think that a lot of that is conceptual. If you all looking at releasing a game and making a game, before you invest a lot of time in it, you want to do some market and competitor research, at least, and think about, “What else is out there. What’s your USP going to be?”
Because there’s nothing worse than getting to the end of a such a long and difficult process as making a game, and then discovering someone else’s made something very, very, very similar and released at six months before you.
Ken: I’m sorry. Did you say USP?
Melissa: Yeah. Sorry. I shouldn’t do the marketing jargon. Unique Selling Point. So the thing that’s going to make your game stand out from the others, and that’s something that can be quite challenging for people to identify.
Ken: I have heard that you want to have some comparables on the market, some games that are similar to yours, because if you’re doing something that has entirely never been done, there’s probably a reason for that. Is that true?
Melissa: Ooh, I think it depends really. I think in terms of genre and mood, and things like that, it’s good to have points of reference. One of the things though, that a lot of indies seem to struggle with, is distinguishing between your competition and your inspiration. So your inspiration might be Zelda. That could be a big influence on your design and your characters and things like that. But Nintendo’s budget is so, so out of the stratosphere, compared to any indie. They’re not your competition because they’re just playing a completely different game. So I think that, yeah, it can be good to identify a couple of points of reference. They don’t have to be directly, exactly the same, just things that would appeal to the same people, so that you can hook into that audience.
Ken: When you say that after a game has come out, you can’t unring that bell. What are some of the things that you can do for game before it comes out that, you can’t do after it comes out?
Melissa: So in terms of price and to a slightly lesser extent, influencers. It’s very important that when you approach them about a newsbeat, that it is news. So a game coming out, you should really be talking to the press weeks beforehand, especially if you want to secure anything review coverage, you need to make sure that people have access to the bills and have time to play it, and write something about it, prior to that launch day. Ultimately, if you reach out after that’s happened, then it’s not really news, because it’s already out there. So it’s going to be a lot less appealing to journalists, because it’s not an exclusive, it’s not shiny and exciting anymore.
So that’s a real uphill battle. You need to maximize the opportunities you get. To go back to the Zelda comparison, if you’re working on the next Breath of the Wild, pretty much anything you do is news, right? But if you’re an indie, you don’t get that luxury. So you have to make sure that you absolutely capitalize on every moment you get. So your announcement and your launch, are the big ones that should apply to pretty much every game. But some games will have smaller, other beats as well, such as an early access or a closed beta or something like that.
Ken: I noticed that your site’s blog has a lot of useful tips for those indie developers, like, “What is a press release and how do you write one?” Or “Five hard truths about your indie game.” And you also mentioned earlier that for budgetary reasons, some developers may choose to do some of the marketing on their own and then work with Game if You Are for other parts. So with blog posts like that, you’re certainly empowering indie studios to do some of their own marketing. How much do you recommend that they do on their own?
Melissa: I think if you can’t budget for getting in either someone in-house, a freelancer or an agency, then you should try and do as much as you can yourself. Now that doesn’t mean try and do everything. Developers have so many things going on, just trying to get the game sorted, that it’s not really reasonable to expect them to be a full marketing team as well. And particularly for solo developers, that can be so hard. What I would recommend, at a minimum, is that you should have a bit of an online presence, a social media presence. Don’t try and do every platform. I would recommend Twitter personally, at a bare minimum, because it’s very much where the games industry houses itself. So I would definitely recommend having a Twitter account. You will need some form of trailer and that is something that you can make in-house, if you need to.
And I would say contacting press and influencers. You won’t necessarily have access to be able to do mass distribution of press releases, but you absolutely can email target members of the press, that you think might be interested in your game, and say, “We’d love to offer you a code. We’d love you to cover this. Let us know if you’re interested.” And at least on that level, you should be doing something. If you have more budget and you can afford to get someone in, getting an in-house marketer, I think is really useful, and a freelancer will be able to help a lot. One thing that I think that developers should be aware of is, the difference between a generalist marketer and a community manager, because I see a lot of people hiring community managers and then expecting them to do all of their marketing and those are two different roles. There are many fantastic marketers who are community managers and vice versa, but I think sometimes there’s a bit of confusion, on the part of Devs of where one begins and the other ends.
Ken: Yeah. We’ve had community managers on this podcast before. Genevieve LeBlanc comes to mind, and we talked about the role of the community manager. We didn’t talk so much about the marketing aspect, because I imagine that if I were to try to distinguish the two roles, the community manager is interacting with the players, with the gamers, whereas the marketer is working more with the press?
Melissa: Yeah. I think community management is something I would see as part of any good marketing strategy for a game. It would be very rare that we would do a strategy for a client and tell them, “No, I don’t do any community work whatsoever.” That would be unusual, and it is thought that even outside of games, community is going to be the pillar of marketing, going forward. And certainly it’s something that millennials and Gen Z respond to quite positively. So I think that it’s important to have that. The thing that I sometimes see though, is people expecting a community manager to also take charge of all aspects of marketing. And if that’s what you want, then you should be advertising for a more generalist position, because it’s not really, really, a part of traditional community management, although it often gets folded in.
But I do think that a good community manager is worth their weight in gold and if you can get one, you should absolutely go for it. I would recommend that to anyone who is making an indie game. If you can’t do that, if you don’t have the budget or the space for that, then I do recommend the developer should be reasonably present in that community, interacting on Twitter and Discord, and places that. Maybe doing some development streams, because people love to see a bit behind the curtain of the process and get to know the individual behind the game. One platform that has absolutely been phenomenal and blown up, is Tik Tok, and what people have responded to so well on there, has been developers just being very open about the process of development, and themselves as individuals. So it doesn’t have to be a polished standoffish professionalism. People love indies partially because of the heart and personality they have.
Ken: Yeah. And as you mentioned, indie developers are really tasked with getting their game out. They’re not always available to do these things. On my own indie podcast, I had times where developers would email me and say, “Hey, will you cover my game?” And I would write back and say, “I would love to. Are you available for a podcast interview?” And they would say, “Oh no, we don’t have time for that. We’re busy working on the game.” Or some of them would say, “I’d love to, but I don’t have the English language skills,” because indie games are being made all across the globe. So that’s a place where Game if You Are, comes in very useful, but as you mentioned, not only are they strapped for time, they’re also sometimes strapped for money. I mean, indie games are being made on a shoestring budget, so how do you recommend they budget for marketing? Because if they don’t, they’re not going to achieve the success that they’re striving for. It’s an integral part of their game development strategy, but how do we make sure that they have the budget for that? Is it just Kickstarter?
Melissa: I mean, Kickstarter is one way that you can get some funds, but to pull off a successful Kickstarter, is a marketing feat in itself. Most successful Kickstarters’ been planning about 12 months before launch and doing community and marketing activities. Whenever someone comes to me and they’re like, “Oh, we want to go on Kickstarter next month.” I’ll be like, “Okay. So what have you done so far to grow your community?” And they’ll say, “Oh, we’ve got 20 people.” I’m like, “Please don’t go on Kickstarter next month.” Most Kickstarters fail. So I think in terms of putting the budget aside and things that, what I would recommend, is that people start doing their research early on in the process. And it depends on how they’re funding the development process generally, whether that’s out of their personal savings, which is the case for some solo developers or investors, or if they’re applying to indie games funds and things that, do a bit of research before that and get some quotes from people about what you could expect things to cost? What it would cost for different elements of marketing?
What I would say is, if you do that, be up-front with a person. If someone said to me, “Hey, I just need some quotes,” ballpark figures, so that I can go to an investor or a publisher and explain what I need, then I’m absolutely happy to do that. Don’t try and pretend that it’s like, because you’re about to buy a product because you’ll get your answer much quicker and it’ll be a lot easier for everyone, if you just say like, “Hey, can you just tell me roughly what this costs.” I don’t believe in playing chicken around prices, particularly with potential clients. I’m always happy to just say, “Right. Okay. If this is your budget, here’s what you could potentially do.” So I think that’s a big part of it.
I think the other thing is, the more of a time run-up you can put into it, the easier it will be. So if you say to me, “I need to build a community of 2000 people on my Discord,” and I’ve got two weeks to do it. To achieve that, it’s probably going to cost you quite a bit of money. If you have two years to do it, then that’s a different story. So I would say, give yourself enough leeway to try and achieve what you need.
Ken: Well, that’s really useful to ask for quotes and to just be upfront about where you are in the process and what sort of information looking for. I don’t know if I would need to provide some parameters, but hypothetically, can you give me a range of how much a person should budget? Let’s say, it’s their second game, their first game didn’t do great, but they’re working on an original IP for their second game. It’s coming out in six months. They have a small twitch in Tik TOK following from their first game, but they haven’t gotten a lot of press before, and they’re looking to up that for their next outing?
Melissa: That sort of situation, what I would be suggesting is that, I mean, I only have so many points of reference, because I don’t know about what other agencies charge and things that. And I probably wouldn’t be my boss’s favorite person if I just say all our prices on a podcast, because obviously they might change with inflation, like that. Broadly speaking, what I would say if someone came to me with that description, is that a bare minimum, they should have some strategic input, and an announcement campaign, and a launch campaign, a PR campaign, each of those. That would be the bare bones of what I would suggest they go for and I would say that you, for that, I should probably budget, I work in pounds, not dollars so I’ll try and convert.
About £7,000. So maybe about $10,000. That’s broad strokes though, because also if that wasn’t feasible, you could, for example, rather than doing a full strategic segment, you could do some consultancy, which we have done for clients in the past. And just give them as much of a crash course as possible, in marketing strategy, within a few hours of consultancy. So there’s always ways and there’s always things you can do, but ideal world, that’s what I’d be saying at a minimum.
Ken: And I just want to emphasize to our listeners, that was not a formal quote. And if you want more information, then please reach out to either Game if You Are, another marketing firm, with exact details about your situation and what your budget is, because if you have $2,000 to spend and somebody comes back to you and says, “Well, what you’re describing is $10,000,” it’s useful for the marketer to know what they have to work with. So they can come back with a reasonable strategy, that works both for your game and for your budget.
Melissa: Absolutely. I mean generally speaking, and I could say this for myself and everyone else I know in marketing, when people ask you what your budget is, it’s not because they’re trying to upsell you or charge you extra. It’s literally because they’re trying to work out what the most they can give you is, within your budget and what’s going to make the most sense. So if you have a budget of $2,000, yeah, you might not be to get a full works campaign, but you could probably get some really helpful consultancy time and maybe a small campaign.
You’ll be able to get a bit of something, and it will definitely help you and give you more direction. I’ve done projects with clients who’ve had that sort of budget where we’ve done a couple of hours consultancy, every couple of weeks, for a couple months. So we’d meet and have a two and a half hour session and then they’d go away with homework to do, that I send them essentially, but marketing homework, and they’d come back in a couple of weeks and say, “Hey what you told us to do with Twitter is really working. Look at our progress.” And we’d analyze it and just nudge them in the right direction repeatedly.
Ken: And since you said you work in pounds. Does your clientele span the globe or are you focused mostly on developers in the UK?
Melissa: It does span the globe. We do our business accountancy in pounds, because we’re based in the UK, but we have clients all over. Worked with plenty of clients in the US and some in other parts of Europe as well. We’ve got clients in France and Russia. We had a client in Mexico last year. We’ve definitely worked with people all over.
Ken: So in the time that you have spent with Game if You Are, are there any particular successes or victories you want to share? Like you reached out to this really popular streamer and you landed some great coverage for a game or something like that, that you were really proud of?
Melissa: Ooh, a few. One of my big nerd moments last year, was the trailer that I mentioned earlier. Justin McElroy did the voiceover for us for that, and I am a massive fan of The Adventure Zone. So that was a great day for me. It was very, very, very kind of him. Aside from that, anytime we’ve done a Kickstarter, that’s always been tremendously emotional and wonderful when they get funded. Lonesome Village, last year, did a Kickstarter that was, I mean, amazingly successful. I think they raised something 400% of what they intended. And that was just a really, really wonderful thing to be a part of, just because they were so overjoyed.
Weaving Tides is another one that was very close to my heart, that we did a Kickstarter with. And they just launched their game, so little plug for them. It’s a super cute game about dragons in a woven world. It’s really, really wonderful. So that just came out on Steam and Switch. It’s been really lovely, because I do mostly strategic planning stuff. It’s been really nice to see a lot of these games starting to launch and go out into the world and really saw, because I often see them when they’re at a much earlier point in the development and marketing process.
Ken: It’s great that you’re able to work with them, ideally from beginning to end, and see the game come along, the marketing strategy come along, and finally the success of both of them and that the game gets the coverage it deserves. So you’ve had some wonderful times at Game if You Are, and we could talk all day about marketing. But you have a lot of other roles in the gaming industry. I also am curious to spend some time talking with you about, such as Limit Break, which is a mentorship program within the video game industry, that you are currently enrolled in as a mentee. Somebody who has the counsel of a more veteran member of the organization, is that correct?
Melissa: Yes. Yeah. That’s exactly it. This is my second year as a Limit Break mentee.
Ken: And what prompted you to apply to this organization, because not everybody understands or feels the attraction to having a mentor. So what made you think that is something that I would benefit from?
Melissa: Honestly, I think it’s something that everyone can benefit from being a part of. For me, I didn’t get into games until I’d already tried and not enjoyed a couple of other careers. So I got into games and I was like, “I really want to hit the ground running. I want to be part of this community.” And having a connection to a mentor, was really key for me, especially under the circumstances of COVID, especially being in a remote team anyway. I was remote even before the pandemic. I was like, “I really want to reach out to people outside of who I speak to on an average daily basis.” So I was very keen on it. My acquaintances within the industry, had already been talking about it and how great it was. I’ve got a lot of respect for Anisa, who set it up. It’s just a very cool initiative, and really anyone who is in games would qualify for Limit Break. I would absolutely recommend that you apply.
Ken: And what does the structure of that mentorship take? Do you have weekly one-hour Zoom calls?
Melissa: So at a minimum, you’re meant to do a monthly chat, and the mentee is meant to come to those conversations with goals outlined and the mentor will work with them on those. I think a lot of people speak more frequently with a mentor than that. It’s not unheard of for people to chat every two weeks, or even every week. It really just depends on both people and their schedules. My mentor last year was fantastic. Her name’s Haley, and she is director of brand communications for Mediatonic, and she is just a powerhouse of marketing knowledge, really, really lovely person. And my mentor this year is Callum Underwood who is more on the Biz Dev side of things, which has just given me a whole new range of insight. I’ve had quite informal styles of mentorship with both of them, which is what worked for us, but I know that some people prefer more structure. So I think it really depends on the individual, but you can suss that out when you have an initial conversation with a potential mentor, and see who feels a fit for you.
Ken: So that implies that there is some sort of a matchmaking process, where you are not necessarily committed to somebody yet?
Melissa: Yes. Yeah. So they’ve done it differently this year, from last year, but yes, there’s a system in place where you can… Last year, the matchmaking happens behind the scenes. This year, it was a bit more visible to everyone, so you could go on someone’s profile in the Limit Break system and request as a mentor and things that. And everyone’s got a profile where they’ve written about themselves, and what they could help with and stuff like that.
Ken: You mentioned having a different mentor this year, compared to last. Are these usually one year relationships?
Melissa: So yeah, the program is six months. So you meant to have them as your official mentor for six months, but I would say that most of these relationships continue long after that, just in a less structured way. Haley and I still chat loads, but the formal mentorship part has ended. But it’s a really great way to get to know people in games, that you otherwise wouldn’t necessarily get the chance to talk to as well.
Ken: I haven’t had a career coach myself. I’ve had other kinds of coaches and therapists in my life, but with a career coach, I think one of my challenges would be that, I don’t know what I don’t know. And if I were to go into that meeting, I’m not sure what help I would be looking for or what questions to ask. So you said that it’s the mentees responsibility to come to the meetings with an agenda. How do you know what to talk about?
Melissa: So I mean, for me, were the things that I could look at quite clearly, in the sphere of what Haley was doing with Fall Guys, which is just so far beyond what I was working on, in terms of scope and budget. There were obvious gaps for me to ask about, how you go about campaigns like that? Likewise, with the stuff that Callum works on, he helps the team of InnSloth, who do Among Us, so there were clear areas that I was keen to ask about. I also think though, that it’s worth being strategic as a mentee, in terms of your own career and thinking about what is going to be helpful for me? What knowledge is going to be useful for me? What do I enjoy? Part of the reason why I requested Callum as a mentor this year is, because he does Biz Dev. And one of the things I found when I moved into the head of client strategy role, rather than being a strategy manager, was that I really loved Biz Dev. So I was particularly interested in that side of things and wanted to understand it better.
Ken: At the company where I work. We have a business development team as well. The responsibility of Biz Dev is to attract new clients and get them to sign contracts with our company. Is that the aspect of business that you’re finding appealing?
Melissa: So I have done a lot of that, at Game if You Are. That’s been a big part of my role, has been new business and onboarding clients and things that. I do like that, but there’s also a whole side of Biz Dev in terms of what are the strategic business decisions for a game, that I’m really interested in. So what deals do you negotiate? How do you broker a game pass contract? Should you release simultaneously or not? These are questions that you need to take on a case-by-case basis, depending on the game, but that side of things is fascinating. Some of the details that have come out about ethics, free games and the deals they broke it for those, are just fascinating, and also the benefits that they can have for the games involved. So I think that there’s a whole other side to Biz Dev in games, that is not necessarily related to bringing on new clients, but more related to maximizing what you can get out of your game.
Ken: You said that if you’re eligible for Limit Break, that is something that you highly recommend people sign up for. Who is eligible for Limit Break?
Melissa: Limit Break is for marginalized genders in games. So that could be women, trans women, trans men, non-binary people, but basically any gender other than cisgendered men, or if you are LGBT in any capacity. Because it was previously just for marginalized genders, but this year Limit Break partnered with Out Making Games, and opened up to LGBTQ people as well.
Ken: Oh, that’s fantastic. I’ll include a link to that, to limitbreak.co.uk, in the show notes, if anybody is interested applying to be a mentor or a mentee. And you can be either one or even both, right?
Melissa: You can, indeed. Yeah. Yeah, absolutely.
Ken: That’s fantastic. So other than applying, I would not be eligible because I’m a straight white CIS man. What can I do to help Limit Break?
Melissa: So I think it’s always worth promoting on social media and things that, when you see the opportunity. I mean, even with the amount of attention Limit Break got this year, which was phenomenal. I mean, I think they had hundreds of people in the first day, signing up, which is incredible and a real testament to the team’s hard work. I also still spoke to people who were like, “Oh, I’m kicking myself because I missed the window to sign up.” So it’s always good to promote it, to talk about it and to make anyone in your life that you think it would be good for, aware.
If you know someone you’re like, “Hmm. I think this would be really helpful for you.” Mention, “Oh, have you considered applying to Limit Break?” I think those are really good things to do, if you are a games company that has real interest in supporting this sort of initiative, and extra cash. I know that they are interested in things like sponsorship and things like that, but that’s a conversation you’d have to have with Anisa and the team, but yeah, a little plug on sponsor Limit Break, and Anisa, you can buy me a drink later, thank you. But, those would be the major things.
Ken: Great. Thank you. I will certainly be sharing this on social media.
Melissa: Thank you.
Ken: Now there is another organization that you have also been a part of, that brings people together and that is the Game Industry Lunch Club. Now, if I understand correctly, this is something that you founded earlier this year, at 2021, is that right?
Melissa: Yes. Yeah, it is.
Ken: And what is the Game Industry Lunch Club? Is it a bunch of people getting on Zoom and watching each other have lunch?
Melissa: I mean, we try to keep the watching of chewing to a minimum, but it is a monthly meeting of people in the games industry, not necessarily developers, but people who work in or around games, to have quite an informal conversation about something that we’re interested in. So we’ve had talks on diversity and inclusion in games. We’ve had a talk on fashion in games. This is a sneak preview for anyone who’s interested, the next one is going to be about game development and roller skating, and the community of roller skating Game Dev. So I’m really excited to hear about that. So there’s loads of interesting topics, but we try to keep it informal. And also, it’s not recorded, so that people can talk about things, even if it’s something a bit sensitive and things that, or if people want to vent about something at work that week.
And the other thing I was very keen on was, that it should be as non-intrusive as possible, which is why it’s a lunch club, so that people can do it on their lunch break without having to give up extra time in their day. For some people it’s been a breakfast club. We had the fashion one, a jewelry designer called Kelly, who has a games inspired jewelry line, and she’s based out of New York. The brand is called Soulbound NYC. She joined us at 7:00 AM her time, bless her, and sat in for the games and fashion chat, which was just awesome to have her there.
Ken: Fantastic. And as since this happens in real time and it’s not recorded, that means you need to be there when it’s happening, if you want to partake or participate?
Ken: So that means that you limit capacity, you sell tickets, is that correct?
Melissa: They’re free. But yes, it is limited capacity.
Ken: And how many people is that?
Melissa: So I have been persuaded to push up the capacity a bit, so it started off about 10 to 12 people, and I have been pushed to a cheeky 16 to 18. There’s always a lot of demand for these spaces and they do sell out very, very quickly. But I don’t want to sacrifice the intimacy of the occasion and have it be less informal and less friendly. I want people to walk away feeling they got to know the other people, who were there, in the same way that you would, if you’d all sat around a table and had lunch together in the real world, which was my original dream that COVID has put a bit of a spanner in the works of.
I hope one day to do in-person Games Industry Lunch Clubs. The idea for it was born from something that they do in some very traditional members clubs, here in the UK, which is where, often in the dining room be a long table where you can sit as a signal, you’re there and you want to meet new people and chat to new people and that you’re open to conversation. And anyone can come and sit with you. My hope for Games Industry Lunch Club is that it sends the message of like, “Come and sit with us.” If we have hundreds of people though, we’ll lose that. So it’s a tight rope. I’m trying to keep everyone as happy as possible with it.
Ken: Yeah. When you sit at a long table, you often end up talking to the person sitting right next to you and not to the person at the other end. It can be hard to meet everybody when the table gets too long.
Melissa: Yes. Yeah, exactly.
Ken: Does the lunch club then have not only a featured presenter, like the jewelry and fashion that you mentioned, but also a cocktail hour leading up to that, where everybody is just socializing?
Melissa: So we actually usually start with the features presentation, we’re talking 10, maximum 15 minutes of the hour long slot. And then after that, we have open discussion and that tends to go round the houses as well. Some of it’s directly about the topic at hand, but we’ve also gone off on tangents about things boats and what we would do if we all had a boat. There was a deep discussion about which supermarket paella is the best? All the kinds of funny and natural things that happen when people get chatting and are at ease. So it’s a lovely atmosphere and I really, really enjoy them and look forward to them.
Ken: You mentioned that Limit Break is targeted at marginalized individuals. Is the Games Industry Lunch Club, does that have a similar mission?
Melissa: No, it’s for anyone working in games. It was keen for it to be for people within the games industry, the majority of the people who have come, have been women, it has skewed women, but that’s not by design and men have also come along and are very welcome. It’s not for a specific marginalized group.
Ken: You’re not only the organizer of the lunch club, of course, you’re also an attendee and you get to be in the audience of these great talks. What are some things that you have learned, either as an organizer or as an attendee of Lunch Club?
Melissa: Tons, to be honest. So I really enjoyed our very first guest, Cinzia, who is a specialist in diversity and inclusion. She works for Splash Damage, and it was a fantastic session that taught me a lot about the perspective of larger businesses like that, on diversity and inclusion, and how you can make a business case for it and how you can frame things in that way. So that was fantastic. Leon, who founded Balance Patch, our second guest, talked a lot about LGBTQ representation in games and the different routes into games, and he took a room to games that were similar to mine, but also different because we both have a past in academia.
But it was great to be able to chat about those pitfalls and different experiences. And Caitlyn, who works as head of UI and UX at Dressed, which is a fashion game, has real world fashion in it, like from Gucci and Prada, all the big fashion houses, was talking a bit about those partnerships and how they work, which is just fascinating because I worked in fashion before games, but not in that sort of capacity and hearing about, “Yes, this is how we broker these deals. We call someone up at Chanel,” or whatever. That was just absolutely fascinating to hear about.
Ken: That’s really interesting. The only time I have thought about fashion in games is, from a perspective of feminism, is like, “Why is this woman not wearing more clothes? That is not appropriate for a soldier going into combat, to be showing that much skin.” But in other scenarios, I can’t say I’ve thought about fashion in games and I didn’t realize that there was so much thought being put into it. That’s fascinating.
Melissa: Yeah. Absolutely. I mean, Caitlin and I have just put together a description for a longer lecture that would be recorded, that we’ve submitted to a conference. So fingers crossed, watch this space. There will be more to come on that topic, but we well see. we’ll find out if it gets accepted, probably after this podcast, so I will let you know.
Ken: People who are interested in this, can find out more online at gameslunch.club. So that is a community that you have helped to build. You are part of the community of Limit Break, and building community has been something you’ve been doing for longer than you’ve been in the games, or even the fashion industry. When you were working on your PhD, you found that to be a very isolating experience, and you created a community around that, PhD Write Up. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Melissa: Yeah. So the reason it was called PhD Write Up, was because I was at the writeup phase, which is the final, well, what I thought was the final year of my PhD. It wound up taking me longer, as they always do. And writing up a PhD can be… Well, I certainly found it really isolating because you have this gargantuan task that you’re working on, on your own, you’re often working in your bedroom or at best in a university library, and you don’t really have anyone else who’s working on that with you. And yeah, I found it to be very isolating. The subject matter of mine was quite challenging as well, because it’s in intercultural communication, with an intersexional feminism slant on it. But specifically, I was looking at communication and language shifting, in creative writing by refugees and the participants I worked with, were all survivors of torture.
So the subject matter was quite challenging, to be honest. So between that, the fact that you were working on your own, the fact that a lot of PhD students are set up to compete with each other, rather than support each other, it’s that academic hot-housing environment. I found that it was a very lonely experience, and I think coupled with that, I’d stayed at the same university where I did my undergraduate degree, but a lot of my peers, obviously, had moved away and gone and got jobs in the real world and stuff that.
So it gives you this sort of arrested development feeling as well. And a lot of envy when you see people on social media, living what seemed to be more exciting and glamorous lives. So yeah, I was very keen to establish something, as a bit of a supportive space with some honesty about the challenges of it, but it wound up gaining a bit of momentum. My Twitter handle was PhD Write Up until I started work in games and I still have contact with a lot of other academics and recovering academics, shall I say, through that. So, yeah. Yeah, it was really helpful.
Ken: So was this an community where you were meeting with other PhD students, or were you sharing on Instagram in a one-way medium? How did this community take shape?
Melissa: Instagram and Twitter mostly. There’s a lot of communication back and forth. And there were people that I met through that time, who remained good friends of mine today. There’s a woman who runs Stylish Academic, and we got chatting then, and we’re still close friends, and she was a guest at our wedding, which was years later, well after I’d handed in my thesis. So it was one-way sharing, but with a lot of communication with each other, and I found a lot of other PhDs were also looking for similar interactions. So that was quite nice.
Ken: I’m not sure I realized how isolated it could be, because the school I went to was a science and engineering school. And very often you have teams of people working in labs, on projects. And that’s certainly the image that is presented in the news today, where you see like NASA landing a rover on Mars. It’s not one person in one room, cheering it on, it’s a whole team of people. But it sounds like it’s a very different experience at the PhD level. You said it can be competitive, which surprised me.
Melissa: Yeah. I mean, I think my PhD was in the social sciences, not the hard sciences, it wasn’t in anything like that. People who are in physics, biology, chemistry, those sorts of topics, engineering, often do work as part of a larger team and it was challenging in its own way. I think that the work-life balance can often skew worse, for those students because they do a full day in the lab, of maybe nine to six or sometimes later, and then they come home and they’re meant to do the actual writing towards their thesis. So I think that can be really hard in other ways, but at least there is a bit more comradery and community around you, whereas if you’re doing something that is not part of a team like that, then it can feel very lonely.
Ken: And when you said it was even competitive, I mean, I imagine that there weren’t other students writing on the same topic as you? So in what sense were you competing with them?
Melissa: Oh, you would get a lot of pressures about whether you were making progress at the same level as other students and something that. Sometimes more senior academics would deliberately try and set up PhD students to compete against each other. That is something that I have seen happen, unfortunately. Whilst most people were lovely and supportive, there’s definitely sometimes exploitation of PhD students as well, and pressure put on to take on additional responsibilities and work, even when you don’t have the capacity to do that. And there’s an element of, “Oh, but this person’s doing it, so it’s going to look better on their CV.” To get an academic job is really, really challenging, and credit to anyone who does go down that route. It’s not enough to have a PhD. You have to also have publications and extracurriculars and awards, and stuff like that, to even get your foot in the door of a entry-level academic role. So naturally things become quite pushy-pushy, shovey-shovey, as a friend of mine once described it, at times, which is not an environment I particularly like.
Ken: No, I can see that with your work in the Games Lunch Club and the Limit Break. You’re more of a collaborative individual. You want to see people lift each other up, not go head-to-head.
Melissa: I believe that when the tide rises, it brings all boats up with it. I think that’s true of almost every scenario. And I think that one of the things I really love about the games industry is, and I am sure there are many, many examples of competition and things that, but there’s also a lot of support. And I often have to reassure developers, like, “Hey, if you go into Twitter, engage with other developers, because they will be your biggest cheerleaders.” I’ve seen developers sharing each other’s content, directing their audience to each other. Indie game and Twitter, can be absolutely lovely. So if you’re a developer who nervous about stepping a foot into that world, or even just an individual who wants to work in the space, or does work in the space, please don’t be nervous because it’s lovely and there’s lots of wonderful people. I made some very good friends through Twitter.
Ken: That’s been my experience as an observer as well. I just read a statistic that over 10,000 games came out for Steam last year, and a developer might be inclined to think that, “That’s my competition,” but I’ve also seen before the pandemic, collaborative co-working spaces where indie game developers are all sharing the same office space, all working on their own games. And then I even had the opportunity to do an escape room with a dozen other game developers, and they weren’t collaborators on any one game, but that night they were, in trying to escape that room and they had a great time.
Melissa: I love that. That’s so cool. I mean when we’re all vaccinated, I’ve not yet had my vaccine, I’m too young to get my vaccine here in the UK, but when we’re all vaccinated and, touch wood, that the world is a bit more back to normal, I would really love to arrange some co-working days with other games people here in London. And it’s something I’d recommend for everyone, because it just gives you that perspective as well. You can turn to someone who isn’t nose against your project all the time, and just say, “Hey, what do you think of this? Give me your first reactions,” or, “What do you think of this piece of art or this sentence.” And it just gives you that little bit of outside influence, that I think can be really valuable.
Ken: So you obviously have enthusiasm and talent for building community, for marketing games. Your background, as you mentioned, as a PhD where you were working with refugees and with non-English speakers, so how have your experiences and strengths, as a PhD student and now as a doctor, lent themselves to your current work? What thread would you say runs among them all?
Melissa: So I think the most important thing that you can apply as a principle in marketing a game, in navigating sensitive situations, as I was in my PhD, in building community, is empathy. You have to think about things from other people’s perspective. So learning to undo a lot of my presumptions and my cultural biases, and things that. And I don’t mean biases as in prejudice, but I just mean the sort of assumptions that you make, you don’t rethink about, has been really helpful for me. It’s meant that I could spot things that are like, “Hey, this sounds great to me, but that’s not going to read well with an audience who are Gen Z,” for example, or “Have you thought about how this is going to play in these sorts of countries?” and things that.
Being able to have that sort of step out of your own perspective approach, is something that’s been really, really helpful for me. And I think the PhD really taught me that, because you had to absolutely break down your starting point, really, and try and undo all those presumptions that you might make about people. It’s challenging, because you often do these things subconsciously, but I think it’s helpful as well. If you’re a game developer and you want to apply this principle, really the number one thing is, you need to have empathy with the players. It’s not enough for you to think about why you deserve for people to buy your game, rather, you need to think about, “Well, why would I, if I were a player, buy this? What would make me buy this over something else? What’s going to speak to me? What features am I going to enjoy?”
Ken: A prerequisite for empathy is creativity. Being able to imagine yourself in somebody other shoes. And certainly game developers have a certain kind of creativity, but I think you’re right, that you can become so dedicated and so focused on a task, and that’s a good thing, that it can be hard nonetheless, to step out of that context and look at it from a different perspective. And it’s great that your PhD taught you that, both in a formal sense, I’m sure some of it was inherent into your character as well. But when you were working on your PhD, I imagine that you probably didn’t necessarily see yourself going into the video games industry, did you?
Melissa: So if you had asked anyone who knew me and my brother, growing up, you’d said to any person at all, “Oh, one of them is going to grow up to be a lawyer and the other is going to grow up to work in video games.” Every single person would have put it the other way around. Because he still does love games. He was a dedicated gamer as a child and teen. I have vivid memories, he’s younger brother, of my brother Elliot, holding the old brick Game Boys, the gray ones. He was playing one of those in the pram, before he was walking. He’s sitting there in a stroller with a Game Boy. Whereas I was an argumentative little kid. So I think everyone would have had it the other way around, but I ended up going into games.
During my PhD, I found it really challenging and I’ve talked about this elsewhere, but I was diagnosed with a severe anxiety and depression. It came as a bit of a shock to me, I’d realize something was wrong and had eventually, as with all of these things, probably later than I should have, spoken to my GP about it. But when I got the official diagnosis back and it was like, “Yeah, this is severe. And you have depression.” Because I knew I was anxious, “and you have depression and anxiety,” I was like, “Oh, my word, I had no idea that I was as ill as I was.” And I had a real, I don’t want to call it a crisis, because that implies that it was a more of a singular moment.
It was actually more of a longer period of just feeling this dread of not really knowing what I wanted to do, knowing I didn’t want to be an academic because I was so miserable doing my PhD, and feeling a bit lost. And at one point my mum came down to London, made the 300 mile trip, and it was like, “Well, what do you want to do? What you want to do?” And I actually pulled up a Eurogame, a video, because I’d been watching a lot of Let’s Play as I was working, it was a soothing presence, while I’m sitting on my own. And I was like, “This. I would love to do this sort of work.” It was Johnny Cardini and Eva Wilson playing Life is Strange, which will date it.
If I was like, “This, I really want to do this.” And my mum was a bit perplexed, I think, at the time. And I went away and I did a couple of other things. Like I said, I worked in fashion for a bit. I had a couple of short term freelance contracts, but I decided to really renew my efforts. And I went to EGX, which is a games conference here in London, with a stack of CVS and cards. And I networked my butt off for a couple of days. I got my CV reviewed five times by different people. And I took notes and I also stayed in touch with the people I met. And it was Hannah Flynn, who works at Failbetter Games who actually put me in touch with the people who would give me my first job in games, after I met her and she reviewed my CV there, and we’re still friends.
Everyone, no matter what job you do, you have days when you feel like, “Oh, I don’t want to get out of bed today.” But I have felt since I started working in games, like, “Oh, this is it for me. This is what I want to do. I’m in the right place.” And I’d never felt that before, not when I was a teacher, not when I was doing my PhD, not when I was working in fashion, but something about games just clicked. So yeah, really, really happy I made the change, even if I didn’t come to it until I was about 27.
Ken: That’s wonderful. I’m so glad that you found that. And even if you didn’t find until you were 27, there are some people who don’t find it until they’re 37 or 47.
Melissa: Absolutely. Alan Rickman didn’t act until he was in his 40s.
Ken: See? There you go. And I understand that you’ve been in the games industry for about a year or two, working with Game if You Are, and you already have your next adventure planned. This podcast is coming out in June, so I don’t know how much you can talk about it, but what can you tell us about what’s next for you?
Melissa: I think it will probably be announced by then, but I will retrospectively contact you and let you know, if it hasn’t. I am moving to Robot Teddy, to be a consultant, so I’m going to be working still with indies, but in more of a generalist consultant capacity, helping with Biz Deb and brokering deals and supporting more widely, as well as still advising on the big picture marketing stuff. So I’m very, very excited to be moving there. I think it’s going to be really cool. The conversations that I started having with Callum a while ago, before he became a mentor, made me realize that something I was really interested in, and then it just happened to work out, that there was an opening and it was a good fit for me. So I’m really hyped to be doing something new. I’m starting towards the end of June, so hopefully it’ll be public knowledge by now, but I’m sure I’ll do a tweet at some point, to do an official announcement.
Ken: Well, congratulations. That’s very exciting. I’m happy for you.
Melissa: I’m very happy for me too. It’s always a bit bittersweet when you move from one thing to another. And I think I’ve benefited tremendously from the past year and a half at Game if You Are. I’ve been able to work on some fantastic projects and with some wonderful people, but it’s also a really exciting time for me to be moving on to something new, and hopefully learning a lot of new skills as well.
Ken: Yeah. When you move to a new environment and take on new challenges, it can be bittersweet, but it doesn’t erase the accomplishments you’ve done so far, that work still stands and it shouldn’t erase the relationships you’ve built either. The people that you have worked with, will still be out there rooting for you, you hope?
Melissa: Absolutely. I mean, Tanya, who I work with most directly in the strategy department, we talk all day, everyday, on Slack at the minute. And we’ve said that the only change for us is going to be that we move to messaging on Twitter instead of Slack. So that’s going to be the biggest shift, but I think it’s an exciting time. It seems a lot of people are moving roles at the minute. I think every time I go on Twitter, I’m seeing someone announcing something and a lot of my friends, who are outside games, have also recently got new roles. So maybe it’s just the season for it.
Ken: Well, I think the pandemic has had two effects. One is a lot more jobs are now available to people who didn’t geographically have access to them before. And the pandemic has also encouraged a lot of us to think about what it is we want to be doing with our lives?
Melissa: Absolutely. Yeah. And I think that sort of reflection is good. I think it’s so easy to sleep walk through five years and then turn around and be like, “What the hell am I doing?” So I think it is good for people to keep being strategic about where they want to be, and where they want to be as where they are, then fantastic. But if they want to move, then also, they should go for it.
Ken: And regardless of where you go, people will still be able to find you online. Where do they recommend they follow you to find out about your new adventures?
Melissa: Twitter. I mentioned that I used to work in fashion and fashion is very Instagram-based and I do have an Instagram, but I post in it much less frequently. If you want to see photos of my cooking, Instagram. But if you want to hear about games industry antics and adventures, then definitely Twitter. It’s just @melissaraechaplin, because my middle initial is R. My DMs are open, if people want to ask me random questions about marketing or indie game or anything similar.
Ken: Excellent. I will include a link in the show firstname.lastname@example.org to your Twitter handle, melissaraechaplin, as well as all the other resources we mentioned today. Melissa, or Dr. Chaplin, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure to chat.
Melissa: You can call me Melissa. It’s okay!
Voiceover: This has been Polygamer, a Gamebits production. Find more episodes, read our blog, or send feedback at Polygamer.net.
Ken: One more question I wanted to ask: you’ve worked in a variety of media and a variety of industries. But do you still write poetry?
Melissa: I have not written poetry in a while, but I did run a creative writing workshop a couple of weeks ago, it was a virtual one, but I did run one that involved some poetry. I think for me, the next creative venture would be trying to, hopefully, make a game of my own because I think it will give me a lot more perspective on what the developers go through. But I know I would not be the first person to fall into that, that pit and struggle, but I think it would be a really valuable experience. So that’s probably the next venture for me.