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  • How To Pitch A Video Game

    [07.22.21]
    - Lukasz Hacura

  • Game pillars

    Game pillars are a way to clearly define the design boundaries of your game - what your game is, but also, maybe more importantly, what it is not. If you have your game pillars well defined, it's a great tool used to determine if an idea - be it for a system or a feature or character - fits your game. Suppose it's contrary to the pillars; it probably does not, although there is also a chance you did not do a very good job on the pillars, to begin with.

    Those should also relate later to your marketing pillars - what message you are pushing in your outside communication about the game - so in that sense, thinking about your game pillars as tools of how to describe your game to future players through marketing is pitching.

    Game pillars may vary in form depending on the genre and the USPs of the game. Here are our pillars for Gamedec:

    No Combat - By removing the combat system, players can focus on role-playing instead of tactical optimization. This allows them to focus on actual detective work, with no-fail states in the game. If we succeed, we will effectively create a new genre of games, like removing guns from FPS-created walking sims.

    Cyberpunk - Gamedec gives players the chance to explore completely different virtual worlds: They can solve a case in a prehistoric landscape pulsating with dangerous reptiles only to be thrown into the blazing heart of America's Wild West for their next mystery. Rich with dilemma, all these worlds are enmeshed within a gritty cyberpunk dystopia with no clear path to goodness or evil.

    Isometric RPG - This genre broadly aims to mimic the feeling of playing tabletop RPGs. There is a thin line between designing interesting interactions for players and letting them figure out how to make interesting interactions of their own. The line between designing interesting interactions for players and letting them figure out how to make interesting interactions of their own.

    I do have a problem now with how we named our pillars. Today I would go with things like "P&P RPG feel" instead of "Isometric RPG" because without the description, stating a genre in your pillars is misleading, but the descriptions are mostly fine and showcase the game's focus.

    My two favorite examples of really well-defined game pillars are the God of War (2018) and Doom (2016). From the God of War presentation, you can see how game pillars are also subject to change during the production, and you also iterate on them while you're using them, similar to the logline.

    Key features

    This should be a brief list of game features that you view as either unique selling points for the game or main features that will be very important for the overall game feel, so they will receive a lot of love and iteration in the production. Although every game is different, some are more or less complex feature-wise. Your list should have between three to five features. It's not a design document; not everything needs to be listed.

    One of the cool definitions of a key feature is if you pull it out of the game, you have a different game.

    A key feature is not only a name; it should be followed by a one to two-sentence description of the feature. References and mockups are also a nice touch to have.

    Here are two examples from a Gamedec pitch I made a couple of years ago:

    Interactions - An advanced dialogue system that mimics the experiences of tabletop role-playing games as accurately as possible. We expand on the idea of faction effects as presented in Tyranny, where access to dialogue options depends on the player's previous choices and gathered knowledge.

    If I gave myself feedback on this one, I would have had a better name for that feature, and a mockup or screenshot would also go a long way, just in case the reader does not know what we are referencing in the Tyranny game. But other than that, it is quite good.

    Codex and Deduction - The Codex is a holistic map that links NPCs, companies, locations, and other case-relevant objects. It contains a Deduction Field mechanic where players can unscramble facts and evidence to conclude a case. What is important about deduction in Gamedec is that there is no fail state. Instead, case revelations present moral dilemmas. Players can base their conclusions on personal ethics, lawful integrity, or a sense of poetic justice, and Gamedec will remain neutral to their choice. However, the characters within it will respond to the player's decisions according to their own ethical and personal beliefs.

    This one is a bit too long; maybe it could have been split between codex and deduction because, truth be told, nothing is innovating about the codex part. It is the deduction that is the USP. So I would tighten that up, but besides that, it is a good key feature pitch.

    Gameplay summary

    The intention behind this section is to "cut the bullshit." This is where you're not pitching, not selling, not using big words. This is a summary of what the gameplay experience on a very basic level will look like. What you are seeing, how you are interacting with the game, what changes, based on your input, you can observe.

    Depending on the type of the game, you can go about it in several ways. You could use core loop graphs - that work well for games with an extended meta gameplay and many interacting systems. You could use a player story, a verbose description of player experience in a slice of time, usually one minute. It can be an extended description of game modes, which will feel like an extension of the key features section.

    Whatever way you are going about it, the important thing is that after this section, the reader should have a firm grasp of what we are doing in the game. Not who we are, not the story, not the grand concept, not even the emotional state we are going for, which is the essence of the pitch, but what the player does in the game.

    If, for example, we are building a tactical game with an extended meta, you should be able to say if you are aiming for a 20%/80% split between meta and tactical, or 40%/60%. You need to know how many systems will be there to interact within meta and how long you are planning to have the combat missions. This is not the final game design. Most of this stuff is subject to change, but you need to show here that you know where you would like to end up.

    Story summary

    If you can remember one thing from this article, please remember this - no one cares about the story of your game.

    I might be too radical here; first of all, if I wanted you to remember just one thing, it would be the importance of a good logline. But seriously - I know the story is very important, especially in a heavy narrative game. Still, the whole idea of a well-written narrative is that you must make the player care about it, and you can't do it by shoving exposition down their throat. This is a known principle in any kind of narrative. So why would you do it in your pitch? I've seen dozens of game pitches that lead with the story or made it a very big, multiple-page part of it. I've even seen story documents, written in a movie scenario format, send out in place of a pitch. This is not the time nor place to do it. A few sentence summary that supports the mental picture and the player fantasy is totally fine. Think of the back of a book description and then cut it by half.

    Art direction

    This should be heavy in art and light in words. If you have any concept art that has been created for your game, use it here. If not, rely on references and other games. If you don't have an art director on the team yet, go with similar game references. But it goes a long way if you can show that you thought things through and go outside of the video game medium. Ideally, you should be able to create a mood board for your project. I am a versatile video game developer, but art is my Achilles heel, so I will not pretend that I know how to create a mood board. Usually, an artist makes one for me, based on the references and a rough idea of emotions I was going for in a pitch.

    There is also a lot of online material on how to create a mood board. It is important to remember to precisely describe what you're showing on a mood board because it might be color-coding, and the recipient might think this is how you will depict characters. One to two sentences is sufficient, just do not leave it up to chance. Somebody might misread the grand idea. You can also have multiple mood boards prepared if you have the time and resources - for characters, overall game tone, color coding, and more. The example of a color mood board below was created for a TV series Russian Doll:

    Color Mood Board for

    And here is an example of a color palette board from Assassin's Creed: Odyssey from this article:

    Color palette board from Assassin's Creed: Odyssey

    Technical summary

    This is not a mandatory paragraph for me; it depends on the technical uniqueness of the project. If you're making a single-player PC game using UE4, mentioning UE4 alongside the platform in the Overview section would be enough. But if you're making something more complicated, like multiplayer, multi-platform, VR, proprietary engine, hardware-dependent features, and so on. It's good to describe this in this technical summary paragraph. It would raise questions either way and including the answers in the pitch shows you thought things through. This is also a good place to list any fancy middleware you're planning to use.

    Team

    I have already stressed the importance of the team in the pitch, so I will not repeat myself here. Show the experience of the team based on the list of the projects they have been a part of, ideally together as a team. There is a different probability of success for a team of experienced individuals that already delivered something together versus a newly assembled team. If any of the titles the team or individual have worked on, won any awards, have high Metacritic, user scores, or have sold well, be sure to mention that.

    It's also good to mention the team composition; a complete team is less risky to invest in than a team that is still looking for a programmer or an art director. Key positions are important, like design, programming, and art. If you do not have those positions filled, it will raise red flags. Kickstarter is full of successful game projects that were never pursued because there wasn't a full team behind the idea.

    Contact Info

    Easy to forget this one; keep in mind that even if you send a pitch through email with all the contact info in the email footer, it's good practice to have all the necessary information in a single document. Hence, it's easier to share inside a company, through pen drive, and so on. The easier you're making it on the recipient to contact you back, the better.


    Rip-o-Matic

    A tool widely used in movie pre-production that is getting more popular in gamedev. The idea is that you create a target render movie or a trailer of your game, but you use whatever you need that you have available, with disregard to proprietary rights. It's like creating photo/screenshot bashing mockups but movies.

    Here is a great example of a Rip-o-Matic for the movie Looper. It's hard to find good examples online; most studios do not advertise using those because of the previously mentioned proprietary rights. I've used Rip-o-Matics for both Detached and Gamedec. It's a great tool not only to pitch your game but also as a pre-production tool for trailer creation.

    Target Render

    It's a video that showcases how gameplay will look; it's not interactive but usually made in an engine. I was never involved in a game that used a target render, but it is a tool widely used by companies like Ubisoft. Depending on what resources you have at your disposal, how much you can use from previous projects, and what tools you have, creating a target render might be a valid way to pitch cost-effectively. There are examples of its usage in the indie world, like, for example, this video from Limbo - they called it a concept video.


    Prototype

    This phase should answer all the questions the team imposed on themselves during the concept phase. It usually involves either the most important or most unique mechanic of the game. It does not need to be a singular prototype - you can have multiple prototypes showcasing multiple things; the trick is to later be able to coherently present the results.

    For example, assuming that the art style is not super unique in this game and it's not the unique selling point, you do not need to showcase it in the prototype, but it's nice to have mockups ready to show, so that when you present the prototype, you can say something along the lines of, "It will play like this, but look like that," pointing to the mockups. Considering the rapid expansion of art tools, high availability of art packs, and more, I also recommend doing at least a small vertical art slice, sometimes referred to as a "beauty corner," so a small fragment of the game that showcases the target quality art.

    This is the most common pitching material requested by the publishers. It's not that far along in terms of the financial burden of the project, so the publisher can have a major impact on the production, but at the same time, the biggest risk that the idea itself is shitty has been mitigated by the prototype, as in, what you play is what you get, just smoother, bigger and nicer looking.


    Vertical Slice

    This should be a full representative of your game, systems, narrative, art, audio - everything. In theory, it should give you a slice of the final product. The closer the vertical slice is to the final quality in which you release the game, the better the production was running. Considering that video game production is a super complex process, the vertical slice looked quite different from the final product, mostly on the polish and UI side.

    But at this point, there really should be no surprises for the investor. You see what you get; we have a slice; you want more, pay us more. The minimal risk involved assuming the same team that delivered the vertical is available to deliver the entire game and scale up if needed.


    Trailer

    Trailers are great pitching tools. The primary idea of a trailer is to pitch your game to your players, so it quite reasonable to assume that you can use it as a tool to pitch your game to publishers. Gameplay trailers are always more favorably looked at because it builds a better mental picture of what the game is like. But if you're early in the development process, a trailer that sells the player fantasy and the game's main idea without showing the actual gameplay will also work.

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