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What it was like to 'go indie' in the 90s
What it was like to 'go indie' in the 90s Exclusive GDMag Exclusive
September 26, 2013 | By Susan Lewis

September 26, 2013 | By Susan Lewis
More: GD Mag, Design, GD Mag Exclusive

Times have changed, but the drive for developers to strike out on their own has not. In this reprint from the August 1998 issue of Game Developer magazine, industry agent Susan Lewis offers advice for burgeoning independents -- and plenty of it remains true today.

So you've decided to split and do your own thing -- you've gathered some industry cohorts and you have a "great idea for a game." Congratulations... and I mean that.

It's a gutsy move in a chaotic, often cutthroat industry, and it's not for the faint of heart. As an agent, I work with a variety of development groups, both startup and veteran. Shopping your game to publishers can be a stressful, emotional process, regardless of your level of experience, and particularly if it's your first attempt. Doing your homework first will allow you to go in prepared. I have a list of specific tips that I like to pass on to game developers who are contemplating taking the plunge.

Put Together a Viable Team. I know that sounds vague and obvious, but you'd be surprised. A designer and a former tester do not a solid team make. Ideas are a dime a dozen in the game business, like film ideas in Hollywood. Without strong technology and proven skills, your development effort will hold little attraction for publishers. A viable team should be skilled in programming, animation, design, and project management. Without any of these pieces, you put your chances of getting a deal in serious jeopardy.

Write a Detailed Design Spec. I cannot tell you how thrilled I am when a developer comes to me with a fleshed out design document; to a publisher, this shows you're serious and have thought the concept through. Publishers get rather concerned when the developer seems to be designing the game "off the cuff" during an initial meeting. I recently met with one rather enterprising developer who actually wrote a technical design document, along with the design spec, before meeting with the publishers.

Develop a Prototype. A game concept, on its own, means very little in this industry. Publishing executives and agents are hit with loads of concepts every week, and without technology to back ideas up, your chances of landing that contract are slim. Unless you just jumped ship from the latest hit title, few publishers are willing to risk the necessary millions on an unproven team without a core technology. The best prototypes are fully interactive, allowing the user to explore a bit of what the game world is expected to look like. The final game rarely resembles the prototype, but it gives publishers a feel for what the core team is capable of putting together in a relatively short period of time.

Know Your Publisher. Set up meetings with only the most appropriate publishers, so as not to waste your time or theirs. In other words, it makes little sense to begin your tour by pitching a PC game to a console-only publisher. Likewise, some publishers are visibly boutique in their title line-ups; it would be highly unlikely for a publisher only interested in PC military simulations to cut a deal on a 3D platformer for the PlayStation.

Do Your Research and Develop a Solid Pitch. Make it easy for the product development people to explain your concept concisely to the other executives and marketing people. Everyone hates to think of their game as a "me too" title but if marketing is going to predict how the game will sell, they need to compare it to everything else out there. Take Grand Theft Auto, for instance — indisputedly a highly original game. Yet, one might pitch it as "Micro Machines meets A.P.B. meets Syndicate Wars (meets Quentin Tarantino…)." Legal Crime could be pitched as "Grand Theft Auto meets SimCity meets Capitalism." Army Men equals "Command & Conquer meets Toy Story." You get the point. You might think that your game is unlike anything anyone has ever seen before, but when you leave the meeting, the producer or business development person you just met with has to explain your game to the rest of the company. Make it easy for them. And be prepared to discuss how comparable games have done in the past and to predict how your game will compete in the market that your game will face 16+ months from now.

Building a Brand, Sequels. Very few publishers have succeeded in developing major brands. Electronic Arts, Hasbro, and Mattel have arguably been the most successful in this endeavor, and various publishers have succeeded in churning out tremendously successful sequel lines (the Doom/Quake series, Mortal Kombat, and Final Fantasy, to name a few). Most publishers are keen to leverage the money they spend developing version one into derivatives, sequels, add-ons, and ports. What is the long term potential of your game, and how does the publisher garner long-term profits?

Tell the Truth. Be honest when discussing how much time you'll need to develop your game, how much it will realistically cost to complete, and how long your team will take to ramp up to begin the project. If you make unrealistic guarantees, most publishers will quickly recognize this. And even if you manage to convince them to sign the deal, nothing prevents them from backing out later. Keeping a deal can be more work than getting one signed, particularly if you've given the publisher unrealistic expectations of your abilities.

Financial Stability. Publishers get nervous when they know you're hanging on by a thread, financially. This means that if you slip on a milestone and they delay payment, they run the risk that you'll go out of business. If a publisher has already put hundreds of thousands of dollars into a product, you have them over a barrel. And don't think of this as a way to gain leverage; remember that the publisher owns the game you're developing and can, in many cases, take the project away from you and assign it to a more dependable developer. Having your staff and the equipment that you'll need in place makes you more attractive to a publisher. If you come to them without any company infrastructure in place, they'll know that a sizeable portion of your budget will be going to setting up your company (hiring, computers, furniture, and so on), and that the publisher for your second project will benefit from the money that could have gone into the first.

Understand the Relationship Between Developer and Publisher. Understanding deal structures and publisher-developer dynamics keeps you from looking naive (and hence, vulnerable) to the publisher. Know what a realistic development budget is and understand that this budget is an advance on royalties, not a cost borne by the publisher; and with that, know what a realistic royalty structure is for a first-time developer. Bear in mind that the developer does not receive any back-end royalties until the development budget has been recouped by the publisher. The sad fact is, depending on the advances that you received to develop the game and the royalty rate that you negotiated, it would not be unheard of for your game to have to sell in excess of 250,000 or even 300,000 units before you received any further money.

Get in Front of the Check-Signer. This point should be obvious, but locating the bottom line at a publishing company is never easy (and sometimes impossible) for a startup developer with few or no connections. You want to meet with the decision-maker or someone close to them. It's a painfully subjective business, and if an inexperienced submissions coordinator fails to see the value in your game, the powers that be will never see it. Again, these are connections that take time to develop, but when the opportunity to pitch your game to the executives rises, go for it and don't be intimidated. If the game is as good as you think it is, they should want to make the time to meet with you.

Getting a publishing deal is a daunting task. As a startup company, be prepared for a lot of rejection. In an industry where typically only the top 20 games make money, where fewer than 10 percent of all games released sell over 100,000 units, and where the average development budget has risen to $1.5 to $2 million, publishers are understandably cautious. Why is your game going to hit the top 10? What distinguishes you from the hundreds of other groups approaching each and every publisher every month? Who is your target audience? How can this be leveraged into future titles? Why will the consumer buy your game instead of Tomb Raider 3, Quake 3, Final Fantasy VIII, Resident Evil 3, Madden '00, and so on, and so on, and so on? Do not take a meeting with a publisher if you are unable to answer these questions.

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Randy Angle
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In 1998 retail was still the BIG deal - it was pretty much the gravy train that made game developers sustainable. Even iD and 3D Realms needed an avenue to retail to break into the big numbers. I was actually an indie game designer in the 80's - that doesn't mean I could even pay for the tools and equipment I needed to make my games - I had a 'real job' and gave away my games for free. In 1991 I joined the game industry and have been making my income via it since. Throughout the 90's I watched the shareware movement and indie studios with keen interest - occasionally one or two would have a run-away hit in a year and truly impress everyone. Meanwhile, I was helping small studios take advantage of the 'nextgen' console boom and leverage that success. When the death-march of 2-year projects with armies of developers started with PS2 and Xbox, I broke loose to create my own studio, Pronto Games, with some close friends. I believed at the time we needed a sustainable and growing studio that was diversified in handheld, mobile, toys and downloadable. We grew to 45 employees before the financial crisis crushed us. We would work on as many as 10 games a year, and each team was custom crafted to be as productive as possible with small sizes. These days, via LudusLabs, I recommend to Indies or micro-studios to bypass the publishers - if they want - and add those skills to their team with training, partnerships, or careful hiring. With really small team sizes we can avoid startup costs and either crowdfund or pay for development via profits from other work. I think the relevance of publishers, investors and retail has changed with digital distribution and app store economics.

Michael van Drempt
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Wow, there's a lot here that's not all that relevant anymore. Like, how about "Don't get a publisher, because they'll screw you on the IP; there are other options"?

Jonathan Murphy
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Back then there was an expectation for indie games to be hobbies, practice to get into a company. Back then I could chat with Blizzard, Capcom and many others. Today the WALL is massive, game budgets, and prices have gone up. For indie this is the golden age, for big companies this is the black death.

This is the result of keeping that barrier of entry(high prices) for consumers, employees high. This is what became of the comic industry. Today comics have a crutch called, Hollywood. We have no such luxury.

Randel Reiss
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Everything in the article was dead-on, except for one: "Tell the Truth." We routinely lost, and still lose, business deals and funding to teams that were golden-throat liers. Investors and publishers (as well as everyone else) pay for perception, not reality - and that's still true today - just look at Kickstarter.

But no one needs to read these comments past Randy Angle's, above. He's the poster child of indie development! Randy, U DA MAN!!!