In the past few years as a producer for GarageGames I’ve reviewed hundreds of video game pitches from developers and studios. Having seen the good and the bad, I offer practical tips to help developers successfully pitch themselves or their game to any publisher without boring the publisher or losing their interest.
The range of pitches I’ve reviewed is huge, from literally two word emails (”you like?” with 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 and intriguing proposals. Here’s my industry experience advice.
First things first – do your homework. This is true for any type of publishing, be it books or film. If the publisher is Popcap, don’t pitch them the next Half-Life. If the only casual game a company has made was 5 years ago, chances are they won't fund your match three clone. Target publishers in your genre for a greater response rate. Look at each publisher’s portfolio to see what they are interested in. If you do not do this work, you are wasting their time and yours. That is time you could spend 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 of interest. A picture draws a viewer into its scene — it says, “imagine this interactive, animated, and brought to life.” It captures the viewer’s imagination in ways that the best placed 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 know one developer whose game a publisher loved. He pitched them an idea for his next game. The publisher wasn’t impressed and was having second thoughts about the developer. Luckily he had a backup pitch for another game which was an instant hit, making the publisher forget all about the weak first pitch. He got signed. 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.
Your pitch should be professional in presentation, not informal. You are, after all, 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, and they'll find a passionate studio elsewhere.
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.”
I’ve been pitched by developers who, upon asked what their proposed budget is, said they had no idea. 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. What's the commercially reasonable quality level that the publisher contractually expects, and how much will that cost to produce?
You can be Greedy or Stupid but not Both
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 implementing 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 for the publisher to work within your place. This industry has a surplus of people wanting to be in it, not a shortage. Avoid these pitfalls.
I am showing my indie developer colors here, but it’s good advice and bears passing along. It’s true not just in the video game industry 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 the project but the faces behind them. They need a reliable team behind the game to minimize the risk that they will not get a return on their investment. 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 developers to trust. If all you see is the one game, or all you’re showing is one game, and not the value of the team behind it, your vision is too narrow.
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.
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 but that deeply understands its competitors is as likely to succeed as a pitch that is strong and 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 green light.
“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 shoot for 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, including creative and social ones, but that does not make things personal. You will make friends, and 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. Your pitch is not an essay or book. The more text you have, the less likely they will read it. 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.
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).
Your pitch should be original. As soon as it’s “X but with Y” most publishers will no longer look at what you’re doing, and will instead focus on who you are. Anyone can come up with “X but with Y” 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.
“Zzzz...” is not the Sound of Approval
This is not an insider industry tip. If you bore the publisher, your proposal will not be looked at, and you will be passed over. Keep this in mind as a general rule of thumb when preparing any part of your pitch.
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). Why do you believe the game will be a success and is worth looking at (without 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.
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. I've worked with some great developers and studios over the years and hope to keep working with plenty more.
About the Author(s)
Joshua Dallman started as a producer for GarageGames and was a producer for Red Thumb Games at the time of this writing. He has since gone on to produce/design at other studios including Playdom, TinyCo and Digital Chocolate. He is currently a design lead at Zynga