Most self-identified indie devs will agree that we can update the standard advice from “just make a good game” at least to “make a good game and market it well.”
The problem is that even that’s not enough. You also need a good pitch.
If you’re skimming, let’s just reiterate that one more time: you need a good pitch.
A good pitch doesn’t magically transform a bad game into a good one. However, it does have the magical power to detect that vein of gold within your pile of ideas.
As my friend and mentor Jason VandenBerghe put it in a recent conversation: “If we don't have a great pitch, we don't have a great product.”
You need a pitch that clearly communicates the actual value of your promised experience. A solid pitch is neither wholly design nor wholly marketing -- it’s an unholy alliance between the two factions, who usually meet on a battlefield.
I’ve heard my share of yelling matches between designers and marketers. Their goals don’t always align. Both want the game to be high-quality, but how they define that can differ widely. One cares about the sales and the hype and will feel personally betrayed if the game is delayed; one cares about the reviews and the bug-count and will feel personally betrayed if the game is rushed out the door.
This tension becomes magnified when the designer and the marketer are the same person, as is often the case in a small indie team. One minute we work on the game in a high fever, playing and exploring and iterating towards the ideal player experience. Then we get nervous that we’re not doing Important Business Stuff and we mine sales numbers and gather market research and take interviews and make appointments until we realize we haven’t done Real Work on the game for far too long.
It’s not all in conflict, of course, especially under the guiding light of a great pitch. It helps that the goal for both designers and marketers is to create. We both want to create a game, to create hype, to create a community, where there was previously nothing. Or, more accurately, where there were only empty promises.
I’m a designer by education and experience. When I went indie, I self-taught myself marketing as much as I could. I read up on the subject, and at first it seemed easy enough. setting aside for now the idea that we can measure what ‘good’ means, you just make a good game and then figure out how to tell people what’s good about it. Then they buy it because it’s good.
I used to think the formula for success was Sales = GameQuality * MarketingEffort. No problem.
Except that due to fierce competition, it’s to your advantage to tell everyone up-front about your good game. In fact, you probably should start telling people about the game before it’s good. In fact, if you can’t afford to bankroll the project yourself, maybe you should start telling people about it before it’s even a game at all. Campaign like you’re going to get elected.*
Except if you do that, maybe the game you end up with won’t be the game you pitched. Even a novice game jammer knows how a game can twist and turn until it finally reaches its ultimate evolution.
And suddenly marketing feels very close to lying.
When we put up our Moon Hunters Kickstarter last year, we stated very clearly that we didn't have a game demo ready and that we would need at least nine months to have a game fit for release (which later became over a year). Many of the elements in the campaign video were animations and mockups to show what we wanted the game to be. It was a hope, a wish, and we invited backers to hope along with us. Luckily for us, they did, to the tune of $178,000, and then we set about turning the lie into truth.
Kitfox programmer & co-founder Jongwoo, showing off the Moon Hunters trailer at PAX 2014.
Photo by Mariko at Gamerwife.com
Backers came by our PAX 2014 booth to ask if they could play the game. I panicked. We didn’t have a game. We barely had a video. But we had made a real-enough-looking video that they believed we had a game already! I panicked.
I saw three options:
I chose B. I confessed, rather apologetically, and braced for retribution against my evil trickery. I physically stepped back from the player, anticipating their disgust. Remember, I am a female game director, literally asking for money for a game that didn’t exist yet, in the late summer of 2014.
But instead of attacking me or seeming even slightly surprised, each backer would nod happily and say, “Well, good luck! I can’t wait! I’m cheering for you!”
Backers kept coming, and I kept telling them we didn’t have a game, and they kept cheering me on anyway, as if my fake video weren’t a crime against all that was good and right.
By the end of PAX, I realized that some amount of “fakery” is par for the course. Literally every game that you hear about had to release some kind of hacked-together material before the game was done being cooked in the oven, before the team is even sure there will be a game.
Now, of course, I wasn’t intentionally deceiving people. I fully intended to make Moon Hunters, up to the specifications I described. And, a year later, it looks like we’re on course to deliver it, mostly. Thank all the gods. But when we wrote it, and made that video, we were sharing a vision of a game, a pitch. These elaborate fabrications plaster themselves all over E3, not to mention Kickstarter, and YouTube every day. The only difference was inside me, reconciling that a pitch has its own value, distinct from the game itself.
The difference is that a good pitch document (such as a Kickstarter video) is a self-fulfilling prophecy because it focuses on the trajectory, not the facts. It aims in a direction and invites the player (and the development team) to join in the journey. If the destination changes a bit, that’s understandable; but the core idea remains juicy, even if the execution evolves.
My mental formula now for game success looks more like: Sales = GameQuality(^PitchQuality) * MarketingEffort
A bad pitch document can fail in many ways, but the most common I’ve seen on Kickstarter is a document that focuses solely on communicating things about the game. Which is unfortunate, because it’s possible that your game has no value.
* Of course, there are successes that break out of this mold, such as the recent hit Beginner’s Guide. However, unless you have the connections and credibility of Davey Wreden, it seems risky on the order of self-destructive to mimic his strategy. See also: Confirmation Bias, Survivorship Bias.
The core problem with designers-turned-marketing is that we are used to living inside the game, where the player is already there to meet us. We collaborate with the player (some would even call the player a co-author), and we obsess over everything that the player experiences.
As a design-focused developer, it’s common to think of the Game as the only aspect of the experience you’re creating and (hopefully) selling. After all, if you’ve considered everything from the moment the player presses Start to the moment they press Quit, what else could there be?
When you work in a larger team, and/or you start practicing your pitching skills, you’ll notice that the experience you’re creating actually begins long before they press Start. It begins as the story a friend tells their friend, a banner on the front page of Steam, a Reddit post, a Facebook ad, a PAX demo, etc. If you came from a different medium of expression or industry, this might be where you started thinking about the player experience. The game begins as a perception, which is crafted uniquely to the experience (whether accidental or intentional), and which most designers think of as entirely separate from design.
After all, marketing can promise anything from escapism to empowerment to education. To a designer, a game’s image is a promise, which the game design then can abandon, fulfill, or exceed. Designers ask ourselves what is our game communicating? What difference will our game make to a player? Why are we making this specific game?*
As the ever-brilliant Robert Yang puts it: “The concept, and your explanation of that concept, and your audience's understanding of that concept, is your game.”
The problem is that both of these components (the game and the perception) can potentially miss a crucial aspect of a game’s success in fulfilling its marketing promise: why the player wants to buy it. Airscape was a cute game with an excellent marketing effort, and yet nobody bought it. They didn’t see the value.
To many designers, including Past Me, the value seemed self-evident within a well-designed, well-marketed game. It’s valuable because it’s balanced and huge and immersive and fun and meaningful and interesting and well-made! In fact, it’s awesome. Why aren’t we done yet?
It’s because your game’s pitch sucks! And a pitch isn’t just the way you talk about it, it’s how you make it, and why you make it. Not all good games can have a good pitch, but every good pitch can be executed into a good game.
As Ryan Clark put it so neatly recently, an indie hit isn’t necessarily about having the best design, it’s about having the best “hook.” A “hook” is a potentially viral seed in the game and its perception that not only convey the game’s value, but are, themselves, intrinsically valuable. It makes the game, or its intention, remarkable.
To put it simply, a good pitch is a way for a human to fall in love with your product. That’s right, ALL humans! Not just some vague “player”, but also, crucially, you, and anyone who works with you.
We made the Shattered Planet prototype with no pitch -- only the directive of “make a game about exploration”. Then, after we had a nice little prototype we liked, we had to figure out how to market it and sell it and show the value to the team and consumers. Unsurprisingly in hindsight, it was difficult.
One of the final marketing images for Shattered Planet. "Aliens Ahoy?" Like there are players out there just thinking “Geez, I wish I could buy a game with MORE ALIENS IN IT!” But the enemy variety and content depth was one of the only value propositions we had.
By contrast, Moon Hunters started with a rather extensive pitch, and we homed in on “building mythologies” before any prototyping started. Although the game changed again and again over the course of production, that pitch made every “detour” feel like another step forward on the road to a single, valuable destination.
A slice of a recent cutscene, promising mythological ramifications in Moon Hunters.
Just kidding! I’m not going to try to teach you how to pitch. I’m not qualified. I’m still figuring it out myself. I know it’s important, and I know it’s an art form, but I’m still in the novice stages.
But, I did promise to help you however I could, and I’ve pitched to a few different folks (investors, publishers, fans, funding agencies, my team, my future self), so here’s what meager advice I have.
I don’t recommend reading up too much on the business/traditional side of pitching, because finance folks tend to talk in lots of shallow jargon and don’t have much to say other than how to trick people out of their money. Just practice and get used to talking to people about game concepts and figure out how to shape them into something with value, instead of a box of features and themes. I hear Think8 is really good at coaching this kind of stuff, so maybe check them out, if you can afford it.
And, as with all things, continually try to practice and improve. Only you can know your personal best, so only you can hold yourself accountable for beating it!
As a developer, you can spend your efforts, talents, and tears on making any game you can imagine. Why do you want to make this one more than any other?
Players can buy and play any game. Why would they want to play yours more than any other?
A good pitch, unlike marketing or design alone answers these questions, for this specific game.
Without a good pitch, your tight design and/or beefy marketing campaign are held back. It doesn’t matter how many prototypes you make or how many game concepts you dream up if you can’t answer the why. It’s more than a “unique selling point” -- it’s something you can get genuinely excited about.
A good pitch can’t save a good game with no value. It isn’t some kind of mystery ingredient that you can stir in at the end as a garnish and voila, money appears! But if you are working on a game solely because it’s fun to work on, or it’s just “a good game”, please re-consider, and take the time to assess what is valuable about your game. Your players, your team-mates, and your future self will thank you.