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Postcard from GDC Europe 2005: Getting a Deal: Focusing on What Really Matters to Publishers


September 6, 2005
 

Sony's God of War

This early afternoon session in the Production and Management Issues track was aimed squarely at third-party developers looking to sign a deal with Western publishers.

The lecture was given by Lee Jacobson, vice president of business development and acquisitions at Midway Games. With twenty years experience in the industry, beginning as a programmer, Jacobson's talk proved highly popular with attendees, even if much of the advice he was imparting was not necessarily what they wanted to hear.

Jacobson admitted that he had made little attempt to adapt his discussion for a European audience and this was obvious in many of his references - from talk of Wal-Mart and T-Bills to the concept of God of War selling well – which were likely to have been lost on the predominately European audience. His more general comments though were easily applicable on both sides of the Atlantic, beginning with an admission, often repeated, that for publishers predicting the likely success of a game and choosing which titles to fund and publish was still, as he put it, a crapshoot.

What Publishers Want

The main thrust of the presentation was focused on understanding what publishers were looking for in a new project. Jacobson started by emphasizing that their overriding goal was to make money, and not necessarily to fund creative ventures. According to him, although publishers well understood that the blockbuster titles traditionally compensate for the losses or only minor returns of other titles (“winners carry the losers” as Jacobson put it), they were still focused on gaining better than average returns on all titles. The lack of a predictable income source (excepting evergreen sports series) was citied as one of the main concerns for publishers.

With these issues in mind, Jacobson's advice for developers focused on a few very specific areas that he saw as vitally important to publishers. The first called for developers to “do their homework”, researching the platforms and genres that they were planning to work in, not only for their own edification but as a means of reassuring publishers and at the same time impressing them with their level of preparation.

As Jacobson pointed out, focus testing is being used more than ever before at all stages of a game's development, with publishers looking for either a large potential market or one where the number of competitors is low. He also emphasised that a level of cultural relevance was absolutely necessary in today's market, a comment which drew the first grumblings of disapproval from the audience. Jacobson acknowledged this, and although he made no apology for his comments, his remarks about it being enough to simply come up with a cool idea in the “old days” seemed to imply that he was no happier with the current situation than many of the attendant developers.

Key Elements For Success?

In summarizing the four key elements need for a successful game Jacobson listed, in chronological order:

1. Right concept
2. Quality game
3. Pre-launch awareness
4. Effective marketing.

Again he emphasized the need for relevant content for the target audience, with believable storylines and dialogue; graphics and technology; attention to detail; and most importantly high production values being of enormous importance in today's market. He used past examples of Midway games as recent as Psi-Ops to illustrate a game where the storyline had been created by the lead programmer, and compared this to a forthcoming Snopp Dogg title with Hollywood ‘A' list voiceover talent and script writers. This, he said, was a benefit not only to the game itself but also in terms of marketing – with a game which might only have gotten specialist magazine coverage now being able to attract the attention of the mass media.

The Four 'T's

Jacobson then moved on to what he referred to as the “4 ‘Ts'” – four elements which he saw as the most important aspects that publishers look for in a pitching developer. These were:

  • Team: Do you have the people to do the project? How are you going to manage large teams?
  • Talent: What is their background (staff AND management)? How does this group work together? Does the team have a previous hit title?
  • Treatment: Is the treatment relevant to the mass market consumer? What is the “X Factor” of the game?
  • Technology: Is the technology suitable for the type of game being developed?

It was emphasized again and again that publishers continually talk to each other about developers, swapping notes on their performance and abilities. According to Jacobson, then it was vitally important that developers gave publishers very specific reasons to publish their game. Again, these were broken down into simple bullet points, including a high concept summary of the project (nobody reads design documents, according to Jacobson); a list of key selling points; team bios and company info; staff schedules and budgets; a carefully crafted DVD or AVI akin to a movie teaser trailer; and, ideally, some form of playable demo.

This last suggestion again caused some consternation from the audience, but Jacobson was adamant that despite the difficulty in creating it, the beneficial effect it could have on getting a game signed was significant. The demo didn't need to be big, but a small “vertical slice” of gameplay was, Jacobson felt, vitally important now for a smaller developer, or one without a significant pedigree, to get their product signed.

Conclusion

In conclusion, Jacobson likened the signing of new games from third-party publishers to the Hollywood production cycle. This, he said, was even more chaotic, and as he pointed out, if Hollywood still had no way to guarantee a hit after all these years, then video game publishers certainly had no chance of doing so. This was why he felt it was vitally important for a developer to minimize a publisher's risks at all times, and to reassure them as much as possible about every aspect of the game and its production.

At this point Jacobson launched into a lengthy Q&A session against an audience that was clearly hostile to much of what he had said, albeit appreciative of his candor, and saddled with the increasing realization that he was probably right. Among all the concerns about focus groups and pandering to casual gamers, the most vital question asked, in a rather strained voice, was whether publishers “had no ambition to create innovative, creative games?” Jacobson immediately replied, “Yeah, that make money.”

______________________________________________________


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