With 2017 behind us and smoldering quietly, I wanted to take some time and think about how we pick the games that come across our desks. While it's true that in a lot of cases, this boils down to nebulous gut feelings as much as it does other factors, at the end of the day a good pitch is an undeniable factor. And I don't mean how well you can dazzle us with fancy terms, jazz hands, and an elaborate monorail-themed song and dance... or at least not just that. So I wanted to share what has wound up being the most informative and instrumental to the pitches that have really shone to us. Even if you're not pitching to us specifically, I hope some of this basic advice can be useful to you!
Note: If the publisher you're looking at has specific pitch guidelines, make sure you follow those!
Can you provide a vertical slice?
That may sound fancy, but at its most basic, a vertical slice is a playable demo, art samples that get as close as you can to what you envision the final game looking like, and a game design document. A good GDD doesn't have to be pages and pages of detail; just take some time and walk us through the game's features, your concepts and plans, and so forth. Include the nuts and bolts, such as what you're using to make the game, and the platforms you're targeting.
If you don't have a demo, even a basic playable prototype, you can absolutely still pitch your game! If your demo is very early, however, make sure you consider whether it puts your game's best foot forward. If you really want to provide a demo, but feel like what you could currently offer would need a lot of asterisks to explain things or would be too rough in key ways, consider coming back to your pitch when you're more comfortable with it. No aspect of your pitch should be rushed!
Who are you?
The team seems to be one of the most overlooked aspects to a lot of pitches. Knowing about the people behind the work is, at least to us, incredibly important! You don't have to worry about spinning us a long, captivating narrative about each person (although if any of you have ever, like, saved orphans from a burning tiger or whatever I definitely want to hear about it), but sharing your team's background and a bit about each person involved helps us better understand who we would be working with. Don't be shy about sharing links to your other work!
Why are you making this game? What inspired it?
We like to work with passionate people who are genuinely excited about their own game. Sharing what motivated you to make it, why you're sticking with it, can help a publisher understand where you're coming from and your level of commitment. Nothing gets me more interested in a project than talking to someone I know is pumped up to do it.
Also, sharing any games that have influences on your own can not only help communicate what motivates and inspires it, but also how you're planning on implementing that. Think less, "[Popular Game] has this mechanic, and so that means ours will have the same success!" and more, "We liked the way [Popular Game] did this and felt it would work best with our project because... "
What's the project's status? What's your timeline?
In addition to understanding what level of completion the game is currently at, as well as how long you've been working on it until now, having a basic timeline of goals is valuable in a lot of different ways. Not only does it help communicate how you plan your work and how far off the project is from completion, it gets you and the publisher on the same page as to what to expect. Things to consider here include whether you're going to be working full time on the project, how the different platforms you're aiming for might affect your release, and so forth.
What sort of funding are you looking for? What will it be used for?
You knew it was coming. The dollar figure attached to your project is important, and arguably one of the things you should spend the most time researching and considering. Consider the expenses of everyone involved in the project. Crunch some numbers The cost of any software or assets like music you might need.
The two worst things you can do with your project is over-or-under-estimate the cost involved. Don't pull out an unreasonably small number just to increase your chances of a yes if you feel like you'll probably need to ask for more later, and don't throw out a huge figure that doesn't accurately represent your needs just because it sounds good to you. A good publisher will want you to have everything you honestly need and value your time, so do them the same courtesy!
Do you need a publisher?
This might sound like a dumb thing to consider, but it's important! Publishers, especially experienced and connected ones, can be a lot of help and provide a lot of extra value to your project beyond just funding, in everything from marketing and QA, to ratings, platform gatekeepers, in-and-external testing, and more. But depending on the scope of your project and its goals, you might be perfectly capable, and better suited, to releasing it on your own. This isn't to dissuade you from reaching out to anyone! But take some time to think about what you're doing and what you want to do before you do something that requires signing a contract.
Here are a few final points...
- When in doubt, ask! The indie community is, simply and professionally put, amazeballs. Whether you're researching costs or just want to know if anyone has had an experience with the publisher you're looking at, don't be shy about reaching out to other developers.
- Don't be embarrassed about not knowing something! There's no shame in asking for clarification in something when talking to a publisher, or need to apologize for not being familiar with a process or terms or anything.
- Don't let getting turned down deflate you! Not every publisher is right for every game, and just because one company gives you a no does not mean you shouldn't keep trying or looking!
- Trust your instincts and know your rights! If something feels weird to you in your publisher talks for any reason, don't ignore it. It's better to walk away from a deal than to potentially get stuck in a bad situation.
- Make sure you're ready! It's easy to get swept up in the excitement of making games, especially in the beginning when all your ideas feel exceptionally shiny. However, even more than having a game plan ready for talking to publishers, it's important to make sure that both you and your game are in a place where you're ready to commit, you've done your research, and your project is more than a few doodles on a cocktail napkin.
Making games can seem like a long, arduous process, regardless of whether you decide to go with a publisher. Be kind to yourself, and don't try to run before you've got a comfortable trot going, and you'll get where you're going.