[Having trouble getting your projects signed? Experienced game industry pitchman Cameron Davis, formerly of Krome Studios, delivers a guide to how you can up your game and get your project signed with sensible -- but somewhat elusive -- information.]
The creation and presentation of the pitch is one of the most important parts of developing the structure and success of any video game, yet is routinely overlooked by designers and producers. Considering that most games don't pass the initial pitch stage, you would think there would be more discussion of the subject. I'm hoping to address some of that here.
Now, let me be clear from the outset: there is no exact science to creating the perfect pitch. However, there are a couple of guidelines you can follow in order to increase your success rate, and many of them come from outside the world of games.
Primarily, a successful pitch comes from being a good salesman first and foremost. This is why I think many pitches fail. It's not for a lack of talent, passion and creativity, but we, as an industry of developers, are absolutely hopeless at selling ourselves.
So you've had a positive conversation with a publisher, they've expressed some interest in what you and your team can do, and a meeting time has been set up to discuss a potential new project. Congratulations, you've just jumped over one of the hardest hurdles in the industry! Now comes the hard part -- actually doing the pitch.
Know your audience. Every publisher has a unique approach to rounding out their roster. For example, Warner Brothers Interactive Entertainment isn't known for realistic sports games, just as a place like Atlus isn't the flag-waver of the first person shooter genre. So before you start writing the pitch, find out what they are interested in and play to their strengths. Not only will it establish that you're a good fit for them, but it helps narrow down the scope and style of the project before you start work.
Know your product. This is salesmanship 101 stuff but missed all too often. Everyone from your team presenting the pitch should know every aspect of what the game is going to be about, even if that isn't part of their area of expertise. This is important because it tells the publisher -- even on a subconscious level -- that the team knows the game and believes in it together. If you don't, bite the bullet and solve that issue ahead of time. It may lead you to change things that would have caused major project issues months down the track.
Further to that, if you're pitching for a license, you should know everything about that license -- even stuff that isn't related to the game. If it's a cartoon, watch a bunch of episodes. Study other products that bear that license -- toys, books, clothes -- and note what common themes you find in the presentation of characters, logos, and dominant IP features. (For example, Barbie never frowns). You want to assure the publisher and licensor that you care about and understand the brand they'll be entrusting you with for the game.
One more note on this point -- make sure you develop the elevator pitch version of what you're selling. This is an old advertising term where you have the time it takes to get on and off an elevator ride to convince the person you're in the elevator with to invest in your idea. Hence, it needs to be short, memorable and fire the imagination. The most common form of this is the x meets y in z world formula.
For example, the elevator pitch I used for Viva Pinata: Party Animals was "Mario Kart meets Mario Party in an episode of The Amazing Race". The use and combination of established properties, genres and tropes might sound trite, but it gets your idea across a lot quicker. Even if you don't use the elevator pitch in front of a publisher, developing it is essential just so you can establish what the key pillars of your game are internally. You can also use the elevator pitch to start the ball rolling on your larger pitch.
Prepare something special. Remember, the pitch is basically you asking someone to give you a large amount of money to make something that doesn't exist yet -- but should. You have to make every element of your pitch go towards that goal.
The best way to get this across to your audience, in order of preference: interactive gameplay prototype, non-interactive video presentation of gameplay, concept art and environment views cut like a trailer (no more than two minutes, since YouTube has taught us that attention spans plummet after that point), and spoken presentation with supporting materials.
The most basic version is the written document with some concept art, which usually contains an executive summary of the game, a briefing of the main "Unique Selling Points". For example, the USPs for Just Cause 2 would be: a huge open world, the grappling hook, an over-the-top Hollywood movie experience.
Finish up the document with a one to two page gameplay walkthrough. The latter section would be written from the point of view of the player, describing key gameplay mechanics and event sequences they would experience during a particularly interesting moment in the game. No matter the medium, it's always good to promote the best aspects of the game, elaborate on the unique selling points and offer the promise of the game being even better than what you've shown – i.e., the first rule of show business: leave them wanting more.
(A small point that many people forget with interactive or video presentations -- always have music and sound effects in them. It makes the world of difference to how professional it looks.)