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How To Pitch Your Game

It was one year ago that GarageGames introduced the Affiliated Developer program. In that year as a producer I’ve reviewed countless video game pitches from good to awful. I am marking the one year occasion by guest authoring Jeff’s blog to offer broad tips that will help independent game developers successfully pitch themselves or their game to any publisher without boring the publisher or losing their interest. Batter up!

Insider tip: “Zzzz” is not the sound of approval

First, a quick reminder on what our own AD program is:

“We are working with a few great developers to make games that are exclusive to GarageGames and that we help bring to market. We call this our Affiliated Developer partnership program.”

- Jeff Tunnell in Sept 2006, coining the Affiliated Developer program

Even before the coining of Affiliated Developer we always got pitches and sought good developers. It did not change with the AD program and has not changed since. Good publishers are always on the lookout for new projects and people to work with and we are no exception. This has always been the case and is no different now.

My goal here is to help you make better pitches by sharing what I’ve seen. It is broad advice and totally non-specific to GG (making it highly DIGGable *wink*). The subtitle for this post could be “pitching tips from a game industry catcher.”

The range of pitches I’ve reviewed is huge, from literally two word emails (“you like?” followed by an attached movie) to 30 page design docs complete with appendix detailing every mouse click. Everything from casual puzzle games to WOW clones; from someone who’s never shipped a game requesting a third of a million dollars to start their business to experienced developers delivering sober proposals. From that stack, here’s my advice:

Research the Publisher

My first tip is true for any publishing field, be it books or films. And that’s to do your homework. If the publisher is Popcap, don’t pitch them the next Half-Life. If the only casual game a company has made is Puzzle Poker, chances are they aren’t big on funding match three clones. Target publishers who are in your genre and you will have a greater response rate. Look at that publisher’s portfolio to get a feel for what they are interested in seeing. If you do not, you are wasting their time as well as your own. That is time you could be spending targeting more likely publishers.

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

If your pitch contains only text, it will be scanned over, and crucial details may be missed. While it takes time to process words, visual scenes are processed quickly by the brain. And game industry people, especially creatives, are visual communicators. A quickly mocked up in-game screen will tell more about the game than a page worth of text. The more clearly you can communicate your idea, the better it can be weighed, and the more likely it is to be accepted, at a minimum, as something of interest. A picture eggs the viewer on — it says, “imagine this scene with real art, and brought to life.” It captures the viewer’s imagination in ways that words cannot. Photoshop mock-up, programmer art, MS-PAINT, it doesn’t matter. Any sketch is better than none. If you have a real concept artist and include pre-production art in the pitch, it is that much stronger, and shows you put that much more thought into all aspects of the pitch.

“No” can Happen in one Sentence

Present your high level concept first, with one sentence. If the high concept is accepted, the publisher will continue to read for greater detail. If the high concept is rejected, the publisher stops right there, and any work you did on further details for the pitch are irrelevant. For example, your high level concept may be a genre the publisher does not work with, may be something considered too risky (an MMO), or the publisher may already have a title in the works that is too similar to consider a second. Don’t assume or expect the publisher to read the whole pitch, it can end at the first sentence. Which brings us straight to the next point.

Have Many Things to Pitch

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. If the publisher rejects one pitch, that doesn’t mean the end of the relationship — if you have more pitches up your sleeve. Be prepared to pitch multiple different projects, and a diverse range of projects (though not all across the board and too diverse). I heard one developer whose game a publisher loved pitched an idea for his next game, which the publisher wasn’t impressed with and thought “maybe this developer doesn’t know as much about design as we thought he did.” Luckily he had a backup which was an instant hit, making the publisher forget all about the weak first pitch. One game was RPG-like, the other arcade-like. The second pitch was not a trivial variation of the first, but not as widely divergent as MMO/match-3 either. By that token, don’t have so many games to pitch that you’re just firing in the dark and seeing what sticks. Anyone can do that and it shows no commitment on your part.

Be Professional

Your pitch should be professional in presentation, not informal. You are afterall formally requesting publishing services and/or funding. A conversational style is indirect and meandering. If you want to be seriously considered, be serious.

Be Passionate about What you Pitch

This is harder with a paper pitch than an in-person one, but despite being professional in a pitch, passion comes through nonetheless. It’s simple: if a developer is passionate about a project, they are more likely to make sure they create a fantastic product and follow through on deadlines. If they seem ambivalent, then guess what, so will the publisher, which all but guarantees a “no.”

Know What you are Making

Know what your core game concept is. Know what elements support that. Know your design inside and out. Publishers will not pay you to experiment or prototype. Granted your design may change through the course of development, but you are not pitching a direction, you are pitching a specific game. Make sure you know what that is and can communicate it simply and clearly. Be able to answer why you are making the game that you are beyond just “I think I will like it.”

Know Budgets

I’ve talked to developers who, upon being asked what the budget is for the game they pitched, said they had no idea and offered nothing further. I’ve seen budgets whose only line item is “the game” with the total amount listed and no further details. Make sure you know what you are asking payment for. How much will be needed for art? For code? For administrative overhead? Are you familiar with contractor costs for these things? Do you have ballparks of man hours required for various features? How much of your budget could be saved by cutting feature X? By adding feature X? As much of this should be known upfront, not discovered later on.

You can be Greedy or Stupid but not Both

I heard this line a year ago and it’s true. If you have a great proposal, but are asking for too much money and too many “deal points” (no exclusivity, no right to sequel, no alternate format publishing) you can still be negotiated with. If you have a great proposal and at the right price, but are missing a big piece of the picture (neglecting customer service costs for an MMO, or neglecting the true difficulty of implmenting a certain feature for example), you are still potentially in business. But if you are both greedy and stupid there is no reason for a publisher to work with you no matter how great your game is. There are simply far too many intelligent, humble, capable developers out there to work with in your place. This industry has a surplus of people wanting to be in it, not a shortage. Avoid these pitfalls.

Be Almost-Greedy

I am showing my colors as a developer and not a publisher here, but it’s good advice and bears passing along. It’s true not just for video games but for any business deal. We have a tendency to shortchange ourselves or to expect the execution to be perfect with no bumps and fail to account for the unforeseeable. Rule of thumb, ask for slightly more than you’re comfortable with. At the same time, be prepared for slightly less than you’re comfortable with. Somewhere in that zone your game will get made.

License and Registration, Please

In a publisher’s eyes the team you have is as important as the game or concept itself. Ask yourself these questions and be prepared to answer them: What have you shipped? What is your industry experience? What contract work have you successfully completed? Be honest with yourself. Now ask, do the answers to these match up with what you’re proposing and asking for? Make sure they do. Publishers do not see just project but faces behind them. In sales it is cheaper to get repeat customers than find new ones. Publishing is no different — it is more effective to work with existing partners than identify and orient new ones. More often than not publishers are looking for long term partners to trust. If all you see is the one game, or all you’re showing is one game, and no the value of the team behind it, your vision is not broad enough.

When’s it Shipping?

Have a timeline and associated costs for dates. Milestones can be feature based (prototype/campaign/multiplayer/final art/bugs) or stage based (alpha/beta/RC/gold) or both. There is no absolute standard except that without this information, the publisher is going to be left wondering how long your project will take. Moreover, the publisher needs to know how much you need at each of these stages so they can project their internal budget accordingly. You’re not going to get paid entirely upfront, or entirely upon completion, so set your needs and expectations here, and be ready to negotiate.

Competitors

Capably discuss your game’s position in the marketplace. More is better than not enough. How have other games in the genre performed? What was the last succeeding similar product? How is your game similar to and unique from competing products? Who are your competitors and why is your game better? These are all important questions to answer. A pitch that is weak that deeply understands its competitors is as likely to succeed as a pitch that is strong that dismisses or misses the mark on its competitors. Showing that you know who else has your same idea and who has executed well on it (and who has failed) tells the publisher that you are that much more likely to succeed yourself. It shows that you deeply understand your genre and have done your homework.

Now with 8-way Joystick and Second Button!

Platform matters! If it’s an arcade cabinet game, how will you leverage that. If it’s a cellphone game, or a web game, or a LAN party game, how will you leverage those. Miss this and nobody will notice. But include it, and get it right, it’s that much more firepower to ignite the flame of a go.

“It’s for Hardcore Gamers… AND my little sister!”

Know who your target consumer is. “Everyone” or “people who like racing games” does nothing but tell the publisher that you didn’t do your homework or don’t really understand the game industry. There is no one right answer to this or right way to do it, but it should be some blend of age/gender/hobby/lifestyle/game preferences and the range should not be too broad. If “9 to 90″ is your “target” that’s not really a target is it? You can’t help but hit it. Find something and aim for it. Then find ways to strengthen the pitch for that particular market.

What you Do, Do That

Stay within your limits. A publisher is not going to pay for you to attempt never-before-attempted feats to see if you can. Where there is money, there is by necessity certainty. Staying within limits reduces the risk of failure for both parties. If you’ve never done networked games, don’t pitch a networked racing game. If you’ve never worked with physics, don’t pitch a game that relies on physics as a key component.

To the Point

Stay to the point. You do need to share the plan for how you will produce the game. You don’t need to detail what source control methods and what team management techniques you will use. You do need to state clearly what the game content will be. You don’t need to share the plan of how you will run the details of your business and which HMO you will be choosing for your employees. Stay relevant to the publisher. If you need an affirmative pat on the back for the details of your other plans, get that from a fellow developer or a friend, not from the publisher. They have neither the time nor the interest.

Business is Business

Don’t get personal or take things personally. The games industry is a business. The people reviewing your game are not there to make you feel good about yourself, they are there to further mutual and legitimate business interests. They are in that business because it satisfies personal interests they have (creative, social, whatever), but that does not make things personal. You will make friends, and ideally business relationships blur into social relationships, but at the end of the day, and especially with a new potential partner, business is business.

Don’t Ramble (like me)

Less is more. Publishers get dozens of pitches a day. The more text you have, the less likely they will read it all. If your “killer feature” is buried on page 28 in section 3 subsection B, they will never get to it. Make bulleted lists and summarize things until more detail is requested. Your first pitch should be three pages: an introduction letter, a one page overview, and some mock-ups or concept art (ideally with a link to a demo) with an invitation to see more if there is interest. You have all day to write up the most detailed proposal on earth. Publishers do not have all day to read dozens of them. And they get only dozens a day if they’re lucky. I’ve heard of publishers that field hundreds every day.

Tie-in

The more relevant you can be to the publisher’s history the better. Do your homework. For example if they made a hit FPS game, acknowledge it or try to tie your game to it (“like your game x, my game has an emphasis on team co-op”). But don’t go to absurd lengths (“like your game x, my game also has graphics!”). Yes, this is partly ego-stroking. And yes, it does work (but will only get you so far).

Originality

Your pitch should be original. As soon as it’s “it’s Metroid but with X” most publishers will no longer look at what you’re doing, and will instead focus on who you are. Anyone can come up with “Metroid but with X,” but only a very talented team that knows what it’s doing could pull it off. If the best you have is a rip-off of an old game with some different features, or a mash-up of some popular games, don’t bother unless you’ve successfully done it before.

Orson Welles Syndrome

Be flexible with your features. This isn’t about the publisher trying to creatively control your project. They don’t have the time or desire to do that. If a publisher is interested in your game, but wants to scale up or down, react accordingly. If they don’t like a certain feature and you’re not married to it, let it go. Don’t be too defensive or worried about “the publisher designing your game for you” until you actually feel like it’s happening. Asking to drop a certain feature or set is not a slippery slope and is common practice. This does not mean the publisher is designing your game.

I am Error

Don’t try to impress the publisher with your knowledge of games or gaming history. It’s irrelevant to the pitch. If you have a good pitch or idea your knowledge of games will be self-evident.

Who What Where When How Why

Make sure to go back and ask yourself if you’ve covered all the basics: who, what, where, when, how, and why. Who are you making the game for, who will be working on it. What is the game itself. Where will the game live (on what platform is it ideal for — certain platforms cater better to certain markets than others, PC/strategy for example). When can you start, how long will it take, what are your milestones. How will you develop the game, with what tools and tech, with what kind of team (in-house or contractors). And why do you believe the game will be a success and is worth looking at (without that being a three page impassioned essay about how you’ve been playing games since you were five and know everything about them).

LET ME PLAY!!!

A playable prototype or demo is golden. No graphics, no sound, no building out of the game, just core game proof of concept. A pitch with pictures will get ten times further than a pitch without. A pitch with a prototype will get a HUNDRED times further than a pitch without. Don’t apologize for the demo, they’ve heard “this isn’t the final game art or gameplay” as many times as I’ve heard “please excuse the mess” walking into a perfectly nice home. Even if a pitch is rejected, if you re-submitted it with a playable demo, it could be re-considered. Many publishers will not accept unsolicited pitches without a playable demo.

Mess Up

You’ll make mistakes and it’s OK. If you think there’s people in the industry that know everything and never make mistakes you’re wrong. You don’t need to be that person because that person doesn’t exist. If the publisher raises an issue that you hadn’t yet considered, don’t front — the publisher is smarter than that. Fess up to it and tell them you’ll discuss it with your team and follow up. Then actually do that. Especially the follow up part. Be humble.

This is by no means a step by step guide on how to pitch, this is general advice for studios or individuals of all sizes, professional or not, on how to pitch publishers, solicited or not. As with any blog these are my own thoughts and opinions and by no means GG policy. We’ve worked with some great studios in our seven years in business and hope to keep working with plenty more.

Happy indie game-making,

- Joshua Dallman, GarageGames

For more info on our Affiliated Developer program please visit http://www.garagegames.com/solutions/publishing/ad/.

  • http://brokentoysoftware.net Simon Love

    Great write-up!

    The subject it contains has never been adressed so concisely, thanx Josh!
    Hopefully this will get the mind-gears rolling for many indies!

  • HanClinto

    Very nice writeup Josh. I feel like you were writing this one to me. :) Just thinking about a game demo that I submitted to you a couple of weeks ago has me mentally ticking off so many things I could have done differently in my pitch. Thanks so much for the advice! Very good stuff.

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  • http://www.greatgamesexperiment.com/user/Tom20Eastman20-EastBeast314- Tom Eastman (Eastbeas314)

    Sweet stuff, Josh!
    Time to get back to work on my prototype ;)

  • http://www.visionsgame.com Laurene

    Thank you so much! This is like the ever so closely guarded secret that no one will ever tell us and yet we’re expected to “somehow” instinctively know what is required! I really appreciate the time you spent writing this to instruct us on what is, and what is not, desired in a proposal. It’s scarry to be venturing into this strange new world in the dark of night with nothing more than the proverbial club (cleverly disgused as a keyboard) to defend onself with. Some people might say it’s like trying to shoot in the dark, but I might suggest that we can’t shoot without a weapon! This article provides us with some ammunition, so that we might have a chance of hitting the target!

    I guess that’s a kind of violent analogy. But it fits the cliche, to some degree. I look forward to practicing this new found knowledge and perhaps someday soon forming that new business relationship in the game industry. Thank you!

    Blessings to you,
    -Sparkling

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  • culprit

    I am sorry but I do not understand the point of publishers anymore…is just another unnecessary middle man now that the internet is so widespread. Get a broadband connection and put your games up for download. Learn from steam and tons of other developers who are doing the same thing. Publishers is very 80s.

  • http://www.genimo.com David

    Thanks! Great post, good to see the pitch process from the publishers viewpoint. I could have used this few weeks ago ;-)

  • http://www.garagegames.com Jeff Tunnell

    @Culprit:

    The entire point of GarageGames for the past seven years has been just that. Indies can do whatever they want, i.e. choose what games they want to make, personally fund it, and even choose how to sell it. Putting up a link on your own site is one way to do it, and that works for a very, very small number of game developers. Getting an audience is difficult, so going with a publisher is another way to make money. If you do choose to go that route, then Josh’s post has a lot of good advice for how to go about it.

    -Jeff Tunnell, MBG

  • culprit

    Jeff: Thanks for the clarification.

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  • http://www.caerplatypus.com David Burchanowski

    I quite accidentally stumbled upon your site via a google search for something else, and I must say I’m finding it to be very interesting reading. Being a rather young sort myself (barely 24), it’s interesting to read the thoughts and opinions from people who really shaped the industry that generated the games I remember so fondly as a kid. Kudos and thanks for taking the time to put all of this down!

    This particular article reminds me of a story I read on Worse Than Failure some time ago. Sometimes, making a pitch the right way really is exactly what you need to get a game going.

    http://worsethanfailure.com/Articles/The-Cool-Cam.aspx

  • Samo353

    Is it stupid or even possible to pitch a good game idea to a company if you are a serious gamer but have little to no background in programming.