It's hard out here for an independent developer, and one of the most nebulous areas of independent game development is shopping titles around to publishers and then navigating the turbulent waters of publishing contracts.
During the Nordic Game Conference in Malmö, Sweden, six video game industry executives, agents, and business development directors gathered to discuss the finer points of dealmaking, via basic principles, anecdotes, and bullet point warnings.
Present were Epic Games VP Mark Rein, Microsoft Game Studios Europe business development director Peter Zetterberg, Team17 studio director Martyn Brown, Capcom USA business development director Adam Boyes, Digital Development Management president Jeff Hilbert, and Peligroso Entertainment Group (subsidiary of DDM) president Tobias Sjögren.
First Party Freedoms
Zetterberg kicked off the session explaining the structure of Microsoft Game Studios, which has not only regional divisions but also separate business units for its most successful franchises, be they internally- or externally-developed, such as Halo, Microsoft Flight Simulator, and Gears of War. He noted that the publisher's limited scope and platform torchbearer role allows it to sign products in a less market-driven way than third-party publishers.
"As a first part we believe in platform exclusivity - 360 and PC only - which helps us focus on game development" rather than multiplatform ports, he said. "We don't pick up opportunistic games. We have a long term plan for all titles - no 'let's make a DS game about this quick'"
With that mentality, however, comes selectivity. Said Zetterberg, "We get about 600 games a year sent in, from pieces of paper to presentations and demos, and 50 of those are demoed to marketing and so on. Ninety percent are thrown out at the door. Six might get signed, one gets cancelled, so one percent get published."
What Not To Do
Boyes took a punchier approach to his advice, echoing how many on the panel suggested developers present their game pitches. He listed a number of things not to do when showing up the day of the presentation.
Among them were, "don't wear a wife beater and gym shorts," "don't bring your mom or a friend of your dad as your agent," "don't only bring words," "don't be thirteen and show up alone" ("You need someone charismatic," he elaborated, "if you aren't them, send someone who is."), and "don't fail to explain the pitch in 200 words or less."
He then delved into meatier topics. "Asking for $25 million is probably not going to work out of the gate," he warned. "Start with a smaller game. Dropping names that aren't somebody we've heard of isn't going to help either. We don't care about 'Frankie Frankton' from gamesgames.com."
Other participants added their "don'ts." Said Rein, "Don't change your pitch in the meeting, be confident." He stressed that such tactics are easily seen through: "We've seen devs completely change their pitch in a meeting. You can't change your game on the fly."
Despite heading up an agency that represents and consults developers, Hilbert added, "Don't count on an agent to help you. There are so few, and they're usually full to capacity."
The Technical Angle
Boyes also cautioned against relying on technical pitches. "Don't tell us it's going to take a week to port to PS3. If you can port from 360 to PS3 please leave your card with me. It's not going to happen," he said. "Bringing us homebrew engines not used for commercial productions isn't going to get through the door, just use proven tech."
Hilbert agreed, going even further in downplaying the issue. "Publishers don't give a shit about tech anymore, they care about game mechanics and game design." Rein, Epic's consummate salesman, took that opportunity to offer his own sage advice: "People should save time and money by licensing game engines."
Prototyping For Fun And Profit
The panel generally agreed that it's good to have a video to show at a pitch, and better to have a rolling demo - but best to have a playable prototype.
Brown chimed in to note that Team17's last four games have had prototypes when being pitched and were all signed. Still, he cautioned against overloading the first meeting - show a one-minute visualization, but have more to show if necessary.
Frequently, panelists came back to the idea of being short and simple with the verbal explanation. Said Zetterman, "Just be able to say, 'It's Ghostbusters meets Halo,' and have the rest of the information to hand."
Continued Brown, "The chances of getting a pitch in is close to zero, so make your meeting memorable, even if the game isn't successful. We treat it as fifteen to twenty minutes of standup. Enjoy it and make the most of it."
Boyes suggested asking for feedback if the pitch went well, but Rein noted that that can lead to difficult situations. "The dirty trick is the publishers asking for new features in a prototype," said Rein. "The publisher isn't saying yes, they're just not saying no."
Striking The Deal
Sentiment nearly across the board was that developers must be very cognizant of the deal they are being offered and the terms of the contract.
Said Hilbert, "Get an industry lawyer. As far as getting a deal done, that's essential. They can sort out the contract in lawyer-speak and get that done quickly."
Rein emphasized the importance of keeping deals in a healthy perspective: "The publishers are lending you your money. Don't lose sight of that. They get hung up on the idea that they are giving you money."
Hilbert pointed out another perspective on the same matter: "But who else will give you an unsecured loan of $10 million? It's the cheapest money you can get."
However, when Sjögren raised the question of whether "bad contracts" still exist from publishers these days, Hilbert was quick to answer emphatically in the affirmative. Several major publishers "have nonsensical, borderline-illegal contracts," he said.
Hilbert emphasized the importance of developers staying strong in their principles and not bending to all feedback and suggestions. "You'll bury your studio if you become a whore," he said. "Publishers will give you time and money. Ask them for the time and money. If you explain it correctly."