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Once you have built up some experience by working in the industry, you may want to develop and pitch your own original ideas to publishers. As we discussed in Chapter 13, publishers are more likely to fund ideas that come to them with an experienced team, a stellar idea, and a good, solid project plan. But how do you get a meeting with a publisher to give them your pitch?
If you’ve been following our advice and networking with your peers and with other individuals in the industry, perhaps you know someone who can get you a meeting. If not, start researching various publishers and find a way to meet or contact them at the next industry event. Conferences like E3 and the Game Developers Conference are times when publishers set aside time to meet with new developers and hear pitches. If an event like this is coming up, try contacting them and suggesting a meeting then. You’re much more likely to get a positive response.
Another way to get your idea heard is to work through an agent. Game agents work like most talent agents, in that they sign a contract with you to represent you to their contacts in the industry. If you sell an idea via these contacts, they will negotiate the deal for you, in conjunction with your lawyer, and for this service, you pay them a percentage of your fee. Agents are not as established in the game industry as they are in other areas of media. However, as the sidebar in this chapter with Richard Leibowitz discusses, agents may be used for recruitment, business development, or deal packaging. When you are first starting out, it will be difficult to get agents interested in representing you, however, so this route is an unlikely one for a beginner.
Let’s assume that you’ve been able to get a meeting with a potential publisher. What do they expect to see? How will the process unfold? The following section explains some industry practices for established developers seeking to sell their ideas to publishers. Even if you are not yet at that stage of your career, it is worth understanding the process so that you can anticipate what you will have to do when you do get to that point.
The information and recommendations in this section are based on the IGDA Business Committee’s Game Submission Guide. In preparing this document, the IGDA surveyed and interviewed professionals throughout the industry to get a picture of trends and common practices for game submissions. The full report is available for download from http://www.igda.org/biz/submission_guide.php. With the IGDA’s permission, we’ve used the report to create the following recommendations.
Game publishers receive thousands of submissions a year from developers. Many of these are immediately rejected for a variety of reasons, including inadequate submission materials. Less than 4% of submitted ideas are actually published. Of the ones that become products, only one or two become hits. Don’t be discouraged by these statistics, though, because the odds of rejection are similar in all creative industries.
As a developer, you can increase your chances of getting past the first step with a publisher by making acceptable pitch materials. Good pitch materials will identify your team as experienced professionals and they will convey your ideas in an exciting way. When you are pitching to a publisher they are asking themselves: “Can these people be trusted with millions of my dollars?”
The first step in pitching is to get to some one who reviews third party submissions. You can sometimes find a contact address on the publisher’s web site or by calling the main switchboard and asking for someone in “third party product acquisitions.” Again, don’t be surprised if your phone calls don’t get returned. Always be courteous, but also be persistent.
When you eventually get a pitch opportunity, you should be prepared to sign a submission agreement or confidentiality agreement. This document will basically say that whatever idea you are going to present may already be in development at the company or presented to them by another developer. In any case, you will have no recourse if they end up producing a similar idea without you. Despite the one-sidedness of this document you should sign it. Refusing to sign will show that you are not familiar with the process. Submission agreements are standard practice in every creative industry including books, film, and television.
It’s best to pitch in person. However sometimes publishers will request to review the materials on their own first. Either way, present yourself and your materials in as professional a manner as possible. You don’t need to wear a suit, but ripped jeans and an old T-shirt are not appropriate.
Depending on how aggressive you are, getting through the pitch process can take anywhere from four to sixteen weeks. Make a checklist or spreadsheet of every publisher you contact. It’s okay to present the same pitch to multiple companies, but dealing with publishers that have multiple individuals evaluating your project can get confusing and you don’t want to lose track of your progress.
The package you present has to instill confidence in different types of people within the publishing company. They will be evaluating your team first, your creative materials second, and your schedule and budget third. Make your materials easy to understand in a very short time frame because not everyone at the publisher is going to read them in their entirety. Here are some materials that the IGDA guidelines recommend preparing:
Game design overview
Technical design overview
by Kenn Hoekstra, Raven Software
To be brutally honest, it’s very difficult for someone outside the games industry to get their ideas past a company’s front door. For that matter, it’s not all that easy to get a game company to look at your ideas if you work for them. There are a number of reasons for this.
First of all, there are legal reasons that revolve around the legal possession of an idea. Let’s say a company had a similar idea a year ago and they’ve spent a million dollars or more developing that idea up until this point. The company says, “Sure, I’d love to hear your new, innovative game idea” and it turns out the idea is the same as the one the company has been working on. When the game comes out, you have a “he said/she said” lawsuit on your hands over whose idea the game was in the first place. That is a hassle that no company wants. To combat this situation, most companies delete ideas and suggestions unread or send them back “return to sender” through postal mail.
Another reason game ideas are hard to sell is that most people outside the industry don’t understand the fundamentals of game development. They don’t understand technology limitations, development times, financial concerns, scheduling or any of the multitudes of other headaches involved in developing a new product. Their idea proposals say things like, “You would recreate New York City to scale and have four million unique-looking and -sounding individuals that you can interact with and you can have 500,000 of them on the screen at the same time when you join them in Times Square for the New Year’s Eve ball drop. That’s when the aliens attack and severely damage the city, so all of the buildings have to be half-destroyed as the city is plunged into chaos and eternal night. Then you and your band of 10,000 resistance fighters lead the charge with 50 different weapons and squad-based tactics and the game would toggle between first-person, third-person, top down, and map views and on and on and on and on and on. You see what I mean? A vast majority of game idea submissions suffer from this problem. I call it “newbie ambition.” Game development is mostly about figuring out “what cool stuff you can do in a limited time period with limited cash.”
Yet another reason for not accepting game ideas is a question of “who takes the risk?” The game company is spending three to six million dollars (or more) on the development cycle for the game and, in turn, they are taking all of the risk. Why, then, should they pay someone from outside the company for their game idea when they aren’t taking any of the risk? Generally speaking, every game company has more ideas of their own on the back burner than they will ever have time to produce and thus, there’s no reason to accept outside ideas.
Think of it this way. Everyone at one time or another has tried to write a novel or has had a great idea for a novel. How many book publishers will take an idea for a novel if they have to pay someone else to do the writing? None. Therefore, the people with the ideas have to write their own books. How many of them start writing? How many of them actually finish the novel? When they’re finished, how many get published at all? And of those that are published, how many are published without changes made by the publisher? See what I mean?
Think of game companies as established entities in the entertainment business. Generally speaking, game companies think they know everything there is to know about gaming because they’ve paid their dues and worked their way to the top. Just as you won’t sell a Star Wars sequel to George Lucas or a Spec Ops book to Tom Clancy, odds are you won’t sell your big idea to a game developer. Sadly, it’s just the nature of the business.
The only possible exception to the “outside game ideas” rule is if you are a world-famous person in the entertainment industry. If Stephen King, for example, came to a game company with an idea for a horror game, who wouldn’t listen? The potential to have a famous name on the box can sometimes outweigh the “we have our own ideas” rule.
Now, if you do want to get your idea made into a game, there are a few things you can do:
Inquire with the company first. Ask them if they want to hear your idea and offer to sign an NDA agreement. If you’re not interested in money or lawsuits, tell them in writing they can have your idea “no strings attached” if they want to use it. Don’t just send the idea in unsolicited. It will be deleted unread, ignored, or mailed back to you.
Get a job at a game company. If you’re on the inside, your chances of getting your ideas noticed or accepted are much greater because most of the legalities disappear.
Get a team together and make the game yourself. If not the whole game, make a solid, working demo. This will show publishers that you’re serious and it will give them something concrete to look at. Game development is a very visual business and it’s a lot easier to judge a game idea from a demo than from a piece of paper or a wordy verbal description.
It’s a great misnomer that game companies (or any companies for that matter) employ “idea people” or think tanks to push the company in bold new directions. Hard work and contribution to a greater goal or the greater good of a company is the only way to get anything done in the business world. That goes for your own company or any company you’re working for. Unless, of course, your family owns the company. Then all bets are off on the hard work and contribution part.
Kenn Hoekstra has a Bachelor of Science degree in English from the University of Wisconsin—Whitewater. He has designed 3D game levels for Raven Software's Take No Prisoners, Hexen II: Portal of PraeHexenWorld, and Soldier of Fortune: Gold Edition. He also served as Project Administrator for Soldier of Fortune Strategy Guide the screenplay for Soldier of Fortune II: Double Helix and has published several articles on the games industry. He is currently working on Jedi Academy, Quake IV, Soldier of Fortune, Star Trek: Voyager—Elite Force, the Elite Force Expansion Pack, Jedi Knight and Soldier of Fortune II: Double Helix. Kenn has written several game manuals, the X-Men: Legends. Kenn lives in Madison, Wisconsin with his wife, Michele and his Jack Russell Terrier, Toby.
This is a “short attention span” document that explains your idea as well as the target market. It’s good for the sales and marketing folks that may look at your pitch. The sell sheet should include: game title, genre, number of players, platform, ship date, two paragraph description, bullet point list of features, and some game art.
A playable demo is one of the most important submission materials you can produce. 77% of the respondents to the IGDA’s publisher survey say that a playable demo is essential to a pitch package. Demos can be built in differing degrees of completeness. The important thing is that the publisher can get to evaluate the final gameplay. Ideally, contents will include: a game level, quality artwork and sound, and an easy interface.
If you can’t produce a playable demo then a game AVI is the next best thing. It’s a video file that shows the characters and gameplay. The most credible AVI will be one created using your game code. However some established developers make them using just storyboards and narration.
Game design overview
This is a game design explanation written without excessive details. If a publisher is interested they’ll want to see that you’ve thought through the whole project but they will not want to read every last detail. Ideal contents include: game story, game mechanics, level design outline, controls, interfaces, art style, music style, feature list, preliminary milestone schedule, and a list of team members with short bios.
This is a short document that talks about the managers in your company and the team members. It’s like a resume for your company. Ideal contents include: company info (including location and project history, and proven abilities), company details (including technologies used, number of employees in each department, other differentiating information), titles in development, titles shipped (including platform info), and full team bios.
These are still images from your game. They can be in sketch form or final art or both. They are nice to include in a paper package because an executive might want to review your documents when they are away from a computer and can’t run your demo or game AVI. Ideal contents: visual walkthrough of gameplay with text explanations, play control diagrams, and character profiles.
This is a compilation of key visuals and points from your other pitch materials. It’s easy to make and it may be useful if the publisher wants to get the top points when you are not in the room. For instance, one person inside the publisher may want to present the idea to another when you are not around.
Technical design overview
This is a technical design document without excessive details. It describes how your technology works, as well as the intended development path. It should include complete explanations while being accessible for nonengineers. Ideal contents: general overview; engine description, tools description, hardware used—development and target, history of code base, and middleware used, if any.
This identifies titles you are competing against. It shows that you understand the market and your relative position within it. Ideal contents: summary of your concept’s market position and reason for success, and pro and con descriptions of competitive titles—with sales figures if you can get them.
Exercise 16.5: Preparing Your Submission Materials
Go over the previous list, and with your team members prepare as many of the submission materials as you can. Make sure to include all of the work you have done on your original game prototype, your design document, and your project plan.
Publishers only engage their time and resources with what they consider attractive opportunities. So if you represent yourself and your company as anything other than a competent, creative, and attractive opportunity from which both parties will benefit, then you will have very little chance with them. Remember that publishers literally have hundreds of properties to choose from—and they might only pick two or three for the whole year. Your submission needs to be complete and professional; your in-person presentation should be no more than 30 minutes to an hour in length.
Make sure you get enough sleep the day before your pitch, be at your best energy level, your most articulate, and if you receive criticism, be sure to take it gracefully. Keep everything in the perspective of business, and remember not to take rejections personally. The odds are against you, but they are not zero. Also, bear in mind that the rejection or criticism you get from a publisher is not failure if you learn from it. Any input you receive and act on can improve your pitch for the next publisher.
Exercise 16.6: Pitching
From your networking database and the researchyou’ve done, target a list of companies to whom you can pitch your original game. Use all the methods described previously to find a contact within the company and set up a pitch. Even if this exercise doesn’t result in the sale or funding of your idea, this is a great way to network and will help you to meet more people in the industry and possibly get a job.
Before leaving your pitch meeting, you should ask when you should expect a preliminary response to your pitch. This will set both your own expectations for a response as well as the publisher’s expectations that you intend to follow up.
Prompt follow-up on the developer’s part is important, but over-eagerness can quickly wear on a publisher. A good guideline is to follow up with a short “thank you” e-mail immediately after your pitch, and provide any supplemental materials or copies of documents that were requested during the meeting.
If a publisher is interested they will likely get back to you quickly, but if you don’t hear from them immediately, it may just mean that your contact is traveling, or busy in other meetings. If you do not receive a response after seven to ten days, you should contact the individual who set up your meeting with no more than one e-mail and one phone call per week to check on the status of your pitch. Contacting the person more than this will be seen as bothersome and is unlikely to help your cause.
What will likely be happening at the publisher during this time is an internal review process among multiple people. It is unlikely that one person will be empowered to make a decision. Most publishers are organized around three groups:
Sales and marketing
Within each group are decision makers who have input on external submissions. The people you pitch to will likely be from the business/legal group. If they like it they will take it to the other internal groups and try to build consensus. These groups often have competitive relationships because of their differing roles in the company. Ideally someone will feel strongly about your idea and fight to convince the other groups that it will be successful. If these groups like it, the publisher may ask a technical executive to dig deeper into your project. It’s a great sign if the publisher starts asking for technical details.
In essence the final decision will be based on a combination of many possible risks. These risk factors may include: time to market risk, design risk, technology risk, team risk, platform risk, marketing risk, cost risk, etc. If the publisher goes through their process and decides your project is worth the risk they will prepare a detailed return on investment (ROI) analysis that will determine profit potential for the title.
If the publisher deems all risks and the projected ROI acceptable then the publisher may send you a letter of intent for the project. This is a great day, but your submission process is still not over. As a final step, the publisher will probably want to execute a full contract. Or, they may unexpectedly kill the project at this point for internal reasons. As a rule of thumb, don’t believe you have a deal until you see a signature from the publisher on the final contract. And don’t spend any of the money you expect to see from the publisher until it is actually in your company bank account.
If your pitch doesn’t make it to this stage, know that you are not alone: you are in the company of 96% of all other submissions that the publisher has reviewed and passed on that year. Each time you go through this process you will learn more about how to pitch your ideas and you will have more and better contacts to pitch them to.
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