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Pitching to publishers : Do’s and Don’ts (part 2)

12th January 2009 by Diane

This is the second part of a 2 part article – you can find part 1 here.

Don’ts :

  1. Don’t be overly secretive

I’m not saying “don’t sign a NDA”. NDAs are extremely useful, usually the sign that you’re dealing with a serious company, and as the provider of the content you’re the one who’s going to be protected the most. Just that, once you have the NDA in place, it’s OK to tell the publisher about your project. If you don’t, how will you convince them about the greatness of it? As a publisher, we tended to assume sometimes that “this is top secret information” equaled “we have no idea how to do that and we hope you won’t notice”.

Usually, sharing ideas tend to make them better through gathering multiple feedbacks from different points of view, and once again, what the publisher wants is your team building the game. Ideas are easy, executing them is what makes a good or bad development team and this is where the value lies. Also, keep in mind that a lot of ideas, very often, happen at the same time to different people (great minds think alike). This is particularly true in the games industry where lots of people with similar backgrounds are exposed to similar influences at the same time. Don’t be too disappointed if the publisher doesn’t fall off their chair in amazement when you unveil the Big Idea, it doesn’t mean that it’s not a good idea, but maybe that it’s the 3rd time this week that they hear about a similar concept. What they are interested in, and  where you can make the difference, is : what are you going to do with this idea?

2. Don’t be clueless about your audience

In traditional roles breakdown, the publisher is the one supposed to be market-savvy. Developers can go ahead and focus on the game, which they prefer to do anyway, because as we all know, marketing is a wacky subject  practiced by evil people in suits. Once the game is ready, the publisher markets it to customers with their Magic Marketing Wand. I suspect that has already changed a lot for offline games, but in online games, you just can’t separate development and audience. Ideally, your service is running on a live environment as soon as you can and you iterate on it listening to your community’s feedback. But even as you start designing from day 1, you need to have your audience in mind, guess what they like and dislike, while building something flexible enough so that you can constantly adapt it. Again, this is a service, so there is no way to develop it in a vacuum.

At pitch stage, you need to show that you understand your future customers, so be prepared and research beforehand, and show how flexible you will be in accomodating audience feedback.

3. Don’t spend on expensive leaflet, T-shirts, etc
That might be very subjective, but every time we received a glossy brochure or a promotional item for something that was still at paper stage, we thought that the studio should have used the money in game design, research, prototyping, and the like. Maybe some publishers care, but we really didn’t. Especially if the brochure doesn’t tell us anything about gameplay. Pitching is not like marketing to consumers : as a player I (way too much) like  merchandising about the games I care for, but as a publisher, all we wanted was info allowing us to understand the project and assess the risk so we can allocate our development budget and build our portfolio efficiently. If you’re a small studio giving expensive gifts, the publisher might draw conclusions about your budget keeping abilities.
It doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t pay attention to details – your documents should have a graphical policy, with your  company logo, fonts, etc – don’t just hand over a plain Word document either, it doesn’t make your company look professional.

4. Don’t focus the pitch on the storyline, universe, art, etc.

This is very online games  focused. The publisher wants to know why people will keep playing your game for thousands of hours, which is not necessarily what storylines are good at. It’s nice to know you have a background story and a coherent world and awesome signature characters, it will surely have its importance in marketing the game, designing community events, but really at pitch stage the gameplay and  meta-gameplay matter the most.
Also, story based content tends to be linear, not very reusable nor systemic and thus expensive to produce, so if you promise too much of it without a good explanation on the systems allowing you to do it efficiently, that might raise an alarm bell in the publisher’s head.
In the same way, publishers want to know about your art direction, your animations, your music, want to make sure it’s fit for the game, appropriate for the audience etc, but moreover want to know your systems and your gameplay (hence the importance of prototyping).

Raph Koster has a nice metaphor in his book “A Theory of Fun” about the “salad” (gameplay, systems) and the “dressing” (art, music, story, generally content). The dressing is important, it’s what gives your game flavour, and make people come and play it. It has to be good. The salad is different, it’s just plainly essential (and you can’t put a good dressing on an awful salad). It’s already true in offline games, but they are much more forgiving in terms of putting a lot of shiny sauce on a average salad and still sell boxes. It never works in online games, because they’re a service, meant to be played for years and what can be okay for a 20 hours experience doesn’t work for a 2,000 hours one, at which point you won’t even notice the dressing anymore.

5. Don’t take “maybe” for an answer
Unfortunately publishers are not necessarily good at saying “no” upfront to projects, usually through fear of missing something, which is bad because they will waste time, theirs and yours, and if you are on tight deadline/budget you can’t afford to lose time. Check if they actually can afford your project (it they are publicly listed, look at their financials). Ask them questions about their decision process. Check if they ask you enough questions on their side, it shows interest if they’re picking on details. Don’t hesitate to give them a deadline for answering fitting with what they tell you about the decision process.

If they do say “yes” for real and are offering you a deal that you generally find fair and agree with, have your legal counsel check it by all means, negotiate important points, but don’t spend a lot of time arguing over details , as the cost to you is also high if they change their minds in between (especially if you have turned down  other offers in the meantime).
If they say “no”,  it is an opportunity to ask for feedback on the project. Be careful though, you don’t want to appear to contest their decision, just explain that the feedback is useful to you to help you improve your pitch process for a later project or another publisher.

Please don’t hesitate to share your own pitch experience, wether it is pitching or being pitched! We are interested in knowing what other industry actors think of the pitching game.

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