Welcome to the Tentacle Zone. Wait, come back! These are kind, nourishing tentacles! They’re here to help early-stage games company founders from underrepresented backgrounds. You see? Not slimy at all.
Headed up by London-based independent developer Payload Studios, the Tentacle Zone Incubator is a programme offering mentorship, networking opportunities and an all-round games industry insight to independent developers with disabilities or neurodiversities, who come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, are of an underrepresented gender, or are POC or LGBTQ+.
The initiative, which runs from March to June 2021, will provide guidance in the key aspects of running a successful games company, from design and production to marketing and PR. Participants will also receive financial and business advice, as well as training in pitching and public speaking.
Mentors from a variety of disciplines will be taking part, from ind studio heads to publishers and artistic directors. Amongst the companies and organisations involved are global independent game publishers Chorus, cult import game specialists Marvelous Europe and creators of Fall Guys Tonic Games, to name but a few.
Participants can be from anywhere in the UK, so if you’re a Scotland-based dev working on your first game and you belong to an underrepresented group, you’re eligible to apply. And you absolutely should! Importantly, the programme is free and will be conducted online, with participants being awarded Continuing Professional Development certificate by the University of Greenwich upon completion.
A practical toolkit
As we’ve discussed before here at SGN, there’s a whole host of perhaps less thrilling but nonetheless essential aspects of running a successful games company that go beyond the design and production of quality software – marketing, networking, business strategy and all that fun stuff. The programme’s director Nisha Valand from Payload Studios kindly explained to us how Tentacle Zone Incubator is targeting these areas, aiming to give developers a strong foundation upon which to build while also recognising that there might be extra challenges facing people from less privileged backgrounds.
“So often people think, ‘Oh yeah, the industry’s really well connected. We’ll just get introduced to people’. And some people are privileged to have the opportunity when they’re starting out of being introduced to a seed investor, and it just goes on and from there. “
“But we want to give people a practical toolkit. After they’ve come out of this four month programme, [the participants] will have connections, and ongoing relationships with industry mentors who really understand their company, the challenges or barriers they might face as underrepresented founders and be aware of that.”
Meet you at the tentacles
As well as valuable access to figures across the industry, the incubator will introduce developers to the Tentacle Zone community at large, which is something of a like minded support group of fellow independent developers. Tentacle Zone has taken a number of forms over the years and began out of necessity when Payload needed a way to showcase their debut game TerraTech, Valand told us.
“[Payload Studios] wanted to showcase their game, TerraTech at different expos but they found that it was really costly to do so on their own when they were a tiny independent developer. So they got together with other independent developers and got an exhibition space at the shows together. Originally, it was just to help with the costs and a way to band together with other independent developers to get the best space.”
But what about the tentacles? It turns out they too were a product of practicality and circumstance.
“They actually went and found these big green inflatable tentacles, anything that would help try to get attention. And that’s where the brand came from. Genuinely, think that was the one of the only things they could find in the timeframe they needed. But in the end, it worked out, because people would say, ‘oh, let’s meet by the tentacles’ and it became a thing to try and get more traffic.”
From expos to online
Since then, Tentacle Zone has gone on to help promote 200 independently developed games at the likes of EGX, Insomnia, Rezzed, Roosterteeth Expo and MCM Comic Con, but it’s also become an ongoing presence in the London co-working space where Payload are based (alongside Spilt Milk and Robot Squid) as well as online.
“It just became a very helpful place to share knowledge, a place people used to group together and talk about sales or Steam figures. You know, stuff that you would really struggle to do on your own or that you would want to ring someone up and ask them about. And we were running live events for our residents on site. There’s an actual events area, and we ended up hosting things like Limit Break, the mentorship programme, Out Making Games, POC in Play’s anniversary event – it became a kind of hub.”
“And then as we moved into COVID time, we tried to figure out how we could [continue to] give value to those devs. So we just started running weekly virtual events for all of the residents. And then we started running free public events under the Tentacle Zone brand with independent developers.”
As well as Tentacle Zone, Payload have been carrying out a diversity initiative called Game On which they launched in 2019 to promote diversity within the industry. When the Black Lives Matter protests were forced once again to respond to systemic racial violence last year, the team decided to put two and two together.
“After the Black Lives Matters protests, we made a charitable donation but also wanted to take further action and decided to use our platform to make long-lasting positive change. By then we had the Tentacle Zone as a virtual programme, and all these resources and people and connections. So we just got some partners together and thought, maybe we can actually try and help give a platform to underrepresented developers, and hothouse them, and just help them get in a better position for business.”
Part of being able to support those underrepresented developers means understanding the challenges they face, so Payload consulted with the University of Greenwich, who had conducted research into issues of accessibility amongst their student base.
“They talked to us about the barriers that some of their students face from different backgrounds or different races. Quite often the students have a job as well as their course, so when they either want to set up a business or they’re trying to get a job, they have not had that much time to work on their portfolios, compared to others who are quite privileged and are able to just focus on their work. And that’s really where that conversation was kickstarted about your background, and whether you can afford to do what you’re really passionate about.”
Something else they learned from the research was the importance of developing soft skills.
“A lot of programmes will try to give you the connections, which we are doing. But having researched some of the challenges that underrepresented founders face, we found that quite often, it would be to do with confidence: [wondering if] you’re being seen and heard, or [if] you’re being treated as equally as others. So we’re going to try and focus on soft skill training with the course as well to try and get them to feel more confident when they are [doing] public speaking.”
We can’t stress enough what a brilliant headstart this is for new game devs out there, so make sure you apply if you’re a developer who fits this criteria. Applications are open now and will close on February 24th at 5pm, giving you just under a month to prepare your application. The programme itself will run from March – June 2021.