A Game Industry Primer – Part 2

OK, onto part 2. In this post we’ll look at the pitching why’s and wherefore’s, and we’ll talk about the way this works and what you can expect to get out of it.

So the first thing to re-iterate is the funding process for video games. Unless you are internally funding a game you’ll have to pitch your idea to those with the money. Almost always it’s a publisher and they are very jaded in terms of pitches.

Now it’s worth pointing out that sometimes a publisher will come to you with a proposal – “we have such and such a license, what could you do with it?” where they invite you to pitch for a specific game type – I’ll get to that in a bit – suffice to say that most of this post is about you, the developer, having an idea and then attempting to get funding and a publisher interested.

So the first thing to realize is that a publisher is looking for their interests, not yours. Most publishers while saying they want a long term partnership are not in fact looking for that – they want a vassal like relationship where you bring the design and implementation skills to the table but they shape what is made and own it all once it’s done.

In today’s market a developer without a history of success behind them effectively will loose the rights to a proposed game to the Publisher who will own it all; it’s the barrier to entry these days since budgets for AAA games are so large and such a risk to the publisher – they want to own the IP for exploitation across platforms and possible trans media application.

At best you might get 50% ownership, or negotiate ownership with encumbrances but that’s unlikely for a new start up out the gate. From a publisher point of view they are risking the money so they should gather most of the money at the other end.

Longer term – when you have a history of hits – it’s possible to retain ownership rights of an IP but publishers will always attempt to acquire them since they, like everyone else, know that IP ownerships is where the money is.
People like Id (Doom, Quake), Bungie (Halo) and other independent developers will have little trouble in holding on to their IP rights since they are a more guaranteed money making risk. Smaller developers will find it harder (although not impossible – it all depends on how good your business guy is at negotiation).

Now in terms of the pitch itself, what’s required is an idea, a hook, lots of research into demographics, the competition and the like, a visual style (lots of concept art), an idea of how the game will be developed (what the production process will be to prove that you know how to make games), who the team is (with past credits), a basic budget (top level numbers only – publishers don’t need to know what your office rent will be) / development time line and preferably a demo or two.

So lets look at what each of these pieces are. The most important is the hook. What makes this game stand out from a crowd? Why is little Jonny going to want to buy this game over Call of Duty 17? If it’s in a crowded genre (like the FPS genre) how is it going to stand out from the crowd? What, in a word, is going to make it fun??

This is the most critical part of the pitch since even if you have everything else down pat, if the marketing people at the publisher can’t see how they would sell it or who would buy it because they aren’t excited about it then you are done.

Like movie pitches, it really helps to have a 2 or 3 line elevator pitch that can make the person being pitched see it in their mind. “This is Grand Theft Auto set in the Star Wars Universe”, for example.

Your demographic research needs to make the point that similar games have sold in the past to the demographic you are targeting. You have to prove that a market exists for what you are trying to make – note this is harder with a new genre kind of game because there’s little to compare against to prove this point. Getting Publisher Marketing on board is a critical thing for a developer since they can often keep a project alive when it’s floundering in development if they believe in it and can see a market for it.

Visual Style need to indicate what you are going for visually. Like movies / TV some story boards and concept art are great here, and if possible a small pre-rendered movie of what you expect the game to look like helps a lot here.

You will need to prove that you as a developer are capable of making the game, so you’ll at the very least need to have the big 4 disciplines covered with leads who have experience – at least 3 shipped games – in those areas. Those area’s are Production, Engineering, Art and Design.

As a small aside it’s worth pointing out that one individual cannot bring an idea to a publisher (or a developer) and expect them to just make it for them. There are no just “idea’s men” in game development. Idea’s that are pitched are expected to be pitched with a development team behind it, not as an idea in situ. Publishers are NOT like studios in this way where they are looking for externals ideas to develop – they do not buy idea’s the way studios buy scripts or idea’s.

All publishers have their own internal development teams and as such have their own sources of ideas and don’t need to see external ones – in fact most of the time if you send an idea in it’ll just get returned to you unread for fear of lawsuits later.

Idea’s in the game industry are viewed with excitement but pragmatism. Implementation is far more important than ideas in reality. How polished and fun the product is is far more important to the consumer than how clever the idea might be in the first place. It’s easy to take a good idea and make a bad game out of it, just like it is to make a bad movie out of a good script.

Ideas about story are far below that of ideas about game mechanic in terms of importance. A good story doesn’t make a game fun, it just makes the journey interesting. A good mechanic can often make a game a success in the complete absence of a story – look at Mario Bros, or the older games like Pacman or Defender. Even today games with a fun mechanic can exist without any kind of over arching fiction associated with them.

The game industry is awash with ideas – there are way more floating around than can be made – and so coming in with another new idea it is unlikely you will be welcomed with open arms unless it comes with a new and interesting way to actually play a game.

To put it another way, a publisher faced with a pitch about how someone wants to make a game with this amazing story about one mans search for inner peace that is going to be a 3rd person action game is unlikely to make a decision to fund based on the story; they will want to see how the game plays more than anything.

Getting back to the point, coming in with a team that has experience and CAN make this game is critical. You need to prove that you CAN make this game, not that you just have a good idea. To that end you’ll need to provide basic milestone delivery schedules, as well as a basic budget. Note – the budget needs to very high level. You can have your own very detailed budget (and you should have to ensure you can actually make this game for what you ask) but you only show them what they need to pay you for each milestone delivery. Note also you need to build in at least 15% slop for the budget since it’s inevitable you’ll go over it.

Lastly, what you really need to nail the pitch is a demo. A quick example of what you want to make. It doesn’t need to be polished (although it helps if it is) with final art and effects and so on, but it does at least have to be fun since at the end of the day that’s what will sell this game.

You can get away without a demo and ask for funding to produce one, but it places even more emphasis on the rest of the pitch being up to scratch to get that granted. A good demo is at least 60% of a successful pitch.

So given all that, why do people even want to make games? They often don’t end up owning what they make or even getting a significant slice of it. So why do it?

Because game developers do it for the love of making games basically, just like indie movie developers do it. Don’t ever come into the games industry chasing money because you won’t find it. You have to come for the passion of making games and if you find the right channel, the money will come.

In terms of pitching to external entities like VC’s you’ll need basically the same materials, however you’ll also end up explaining why some of those materials exist and what they are used for since most VC’s have no idea how games are made. You’ll also need a slide detailing your exit strategy (how you’ll sell or whatever) since that’s what VC’s are looking for – the big pay off.

When a publisher comes to you with an idea you’ll effectively go through the same process of pitching to them, however you’ll at least know budgets and time lines up front (like you would for movie tie ins – you know your delivery date since it’s the same as the movie!).

Some other misc thoughts about pitching.

Don’t come looking for a credit or making that any condition. You’ll be granted any kind of credit you want because they are of little value in the games industry, but you’ll almost certainly have to give something up in the granting of this.

Contract and term negotiations take time – anything from 3 to 6 months before you put pen to paper, so you need to be able to survive for that long.

No publisher will ever say no to you on pitching. They will all keep you bubbling with out any forward momentum so be aware of that when talking to publishers. Don’t stop with just one because they sound enthusiastic and haven’t said no. Being able to play publishers off against one another while an unusual situation is also a very satisfying one.

In terms of ‘being attached’ there is no one person who is considered “the money” in video game terms. You will need a complete team of leads with experience to get considered so there is no literal translation of this way of working.

Your pitch itself needs to be a powerpoint presentation, and have a 5 page sheet with some of the Power Point details / concept art on it for them to keep (think of it as a treatment). You’ll also need a 1 sheet with the very basic facts / art on it to get a publisher interested in taking your meeting in the first place.

Have an NDA ready to go. Publishers will expect to sign one so have one.

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