Pitching to publishers : Do’s and Dont’s (part 1)
If you are an online games developer and you feel that going with a publisher is the best solution for you, maybe our experience from the other side of the fence might be useful. This is mainly considering online games pitches, but I guess some of the tips may work for offline projects too.
What has most struck us working for a big publisher evaluating projects, is that being good at pitching can be very different from being a good developer. Good publisher-side Biz dev people should be the ones able to recognize the awesome product that is very badly pitched. However, if you are the pitcher, it’s probably safer to assume that you are developing a good product and that you want to pitch it well.
Disclaimer : this might be quite subjective: if you are a publisher and reading this, we are very interested to get your opinion about it!
Also, this is very much focused to paper-stage, fund-requiring pitching: of course you’re in a very different situation if you are pitching a game that is almost ready to be launched, or looking for a licensing deal.
Finally, this is advice for pitching stage only : We are planning to write pieces about key terms negotiations and contracts at a later time.
1. Be prepared
It might seem obvious to say, but don’t start pitching until you have a very good grasp of the game you want to build (early gameplay, middle term, endgame), a principle agreement from your team leaders who will be on the project, a good idea of the time it will take to build, the size of the team, the budget, the tech you will use, your business model, financial projections for operating the game. It doesn’t mean you can’t be flexible and adapt to the publisher’s change requests : it just show you thought it through and believe in it.
In the same way, don’t pitch a game that you have no idea how to build just because you like the concept. Don’t pitch a AAA MMO costing 50M$ if you are a team of 3 junior developers in a garage. What the publisher is paying for is your team building a game, not an idea. If you can’t think about how to make it happen, put it in a drawer until you’ve figured it out, unless it’s just one particular point that doesn’t threaten the whole project ( in which case you can get to pick the publisher’s brains and their internal resources on how to do it. For free.)
2. Show passion
Again, it seems obvious, but if you’re not passionate about your game, who will be? This is particularly true if you come pitching several different projects : too many pitches might kill the pitch and you might not seem hot enough about any of them (“we can do a FPS, or a RTS, or a gardening simulation or a bicycle game using the Wii Balance Board…” etc) . Unless you are offering work for hire, porting a game, outsourcing services or something similar (in which case it’s better to ask nicely before starting the discussion and check if the publisher is actively interested in that – if they expect an original concept, they might be disappointed otherwise), focus on a limited number of pitches (ideally one) to present.
For the same reason, we never found it a good sign to hear : “ Are you looking for a particular genre/style/etc at the moment ?” and then receive a pitch quickly put together to fulfill the current corporate strategy . It doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t care about what the other party wants, just that you have to show passion for what you do, and a minimum of “backbone” which is your vision for the project. Be flexible but don’t completely overturn your pitch at the publisher’s whim.
3. Show prototypes
Fun is difficult to assess : the publisher in front of you, if they’re good, can get quite easily a fair idea of your competence for building the game you are pitching, the skill of your team, your vision, your project management skills… Again, if they’re good, they also know their market well and should have a good insight of the commercial potential of the game you’re pitching (and btw so should you if you want to be able to assess the deal they offer you).
What they can’t guess, and hence where most of the risk lies, is if the gameplay idea you are pitching is fun. Fun is very hard to see on paper, and every little bit of showing that your mechanics are fun help tremendously. One or several “grey box” prototypes put together quickly, if it gives an idea of your gameplay, puts you at the top of the investment opportunity pile. Showing that you are actually playing it every day and improving it makes you levitate above the pile. It doesn’t need to be pretty, just show why it’s fun (provided you have artworks to show the art direction that you intend to take). The time you are going to gain in the discussion process is very much worth the effort.
The prototype isn’t useful just for pitching actually, it’s also essential for you to iterate on and build your game, and the publisher will appreciate that. In fact, one of the best project that was ever pitched to us was a strategy game which the team had started prototyping as a board game and was playing every lunchtime with enthusiasm, even before prototyping it with code.
4. Be honest
If you have risk areas, don’t try to hide them too much, be realistic and if there’s something you are not very confident about, be open about it (except if it means that there’s just no way you can build the game). Every project has its risk zones and for a publisher, realistic developers is an appreciated specy, they will be reassured that you have a good grasp on your strengths and your weaknesses. Don’t underestimate your budget on purpose to get the deal either : publishers will ask for breakdowns and will have a good idea of middleware and staffing costs, and if you’re caught it will make you look bad. And if they talk to other publishers, it won’t help your reputation in the industry.
5. Talk to everybody at the same time
It can lead to very busy schedules but if your pitch is good you’ll need to shop around and compare the deals you’ll be offered, which is hard to do if you go for only one discussion at a time. Also, publishers are slow to answer but once they do, they expect you to accept or refuse in a very short timeframe. Talking to several potential partners at the same time reduces that risk.
The down side is that you probably will want to tweak your pitch depending on who you’re talking to, and asking everyone at the same time gives you limited margin of manoeuvre to do that, as you will have to respond to feedback very quickly. You might want to start with the ones you are less keen to work with (but you still would consider to work with, otherwise don’t pitch them) and that you would be the less sorry to keep waiting a bit while you shop around. Generally though it’s best to allow a compact time period to have a good comparison between offers.
To be continued…