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  • How To Pitch A Video Game

    [07.22.21]
    - Lukasz Hacura
  • What it's all about

    The topic of clearly and concisely conveying an idea to another human being is one of the most important aspects of video game development and probably of any collaborative endeavor.

    In our industry, pitching is a skill that can enable funding of your game idea and help sell it to your team and players.

    It is essential.

    We pitch in various circumstances - To investors, to publishers, to clients, to our peers. But the goals of a pitch are usually the same. We are trying to convince someone that our idea is awesome and plausible. There is never one without the other. For example, while pitching to publishers, it's important to show that not only is the idea good, but the game can be pulled off.

    I have worked in gamedev since 2006. I co-founded Anshar Studios in 2012, and I am the main person responsible for business development here, which means that I'm responsible for pitching ideas to other companies. I make them pay us millions for the games we make.

    In this article, I will try to convey some of my experiences to do the same for your gamedev endeavor.

    Why are we pitching? The importance of motivation

    Before you get into the nitty-gritty of the game idea you have, it's important to understand your motivation behind the idea. That motivation will determine the pitching outcome more than the idea itself.

    We often know what our game is about; we sometimes even know how to do it, but we rarely focus on why we want to do a game we are pitching, and this is a critical factor. You can pitch the same game in the same way, but depending on the "Why," the strength of the pitch will vary.

    Let me give you an example: Let's say we want to pitch a battle royale game in 2021 after having already had games like PUBG and Fortnite. So, because of those games, we can say:

    "Battle royale games are continuously popular, and although we will be a little late to the party, there is still a big deal of money to be made on this genre if you put a good idea on top of that. So, we propose to do a game about..."

    Vs.

    "Yes, we know it sounds crazy to pitch a battle royale game in 2021, but hear me out - we love BR games, we breathe BR, and most importantly, we understand BR games. We have an idea that can push this genre forward, despite the immense competition out there. So, we propose to do a game about..."

    Even if you pitch the same game afterward, you know that you're dealing with an opportunistic dispassionate approach in the first pitch. In the second one, you're dealing with a passion-driven, innovative approach. Of course, I'm simplifying things here with this example, but the point is that the "why" gives you an insight about people, and this is what it is all about - the people.

    Ideas are cheap; ideas are easy.

    I am not saying that having a great idea doesn't help or is irrelevant, but the hard part is doing it. You have to forge that idea into tangible gameplay. That is also how most of the investment sector works. Investors do not invest in ideas; they invest in the people behind those ideas. People they believe can pull it off. So, the "Why?" in pitching can be translated into the authenticity of motivation. What drives you as a person determines the believable degree of success you can achieve.

    The theory behind this is well explained in this Simon Sinek TED talk, "How great leaders inspire action." In it and his book Start With Why, Sinek explains that to inspire someone, you need to focus on the human reasons for creating something before focusing on the product itself.

    With this subject, it's crucial to watch Jason VandenBerghe's "Forging Honor: Providing a Coherent Vision for a New IP." This encapsulates the Simon Sinek "Why" idea in a very real game development context.

    How are we pitching? The importance of a great logline

    How to pitch your game is closely connected to whom you are pitching the game to and in what phase of development. But we need to start somewhere; we will get back to different types of pitches and phases later. For now, let's break down a basic pitch structure.

    I use a logline movie template from a very popular book on screenwriting by Blake Snyder titled Save the Cat!. The first chapter, called "What is it?" describes in detail how a movie script logline should be structured:

    - Isn't it ironic? - Irony in the sense of setting up unusual and interesting situations, like a cop trying to reconcile with his estranged wife, getting trapped in an office building with a bunch of terrorists (Die Hard).

    - A Compelling Mental Picture - When you hear the idea for the movie, you should immediately be able to visualize it in your mind, and it should be interesting to you.

    - Audience and Cost - The pitch itself should give at least a broad idea about what type of movie we are talking about so that we could derive a ballpark budget and a target audience from it.

    - A Killer Title - Self-explanatory; a good pitch of a movie script usually involves a good title.

    Although movies are very close to video games in many ways, I do not think you can copy this approach for both without some transformation. Here is what I propose:

    "Isn't it ironic" -> "Unique Selling Point"

    The infamous USP does not necessarily need to be a new, fresh, and unheard-of idea. There is no such thing. True innovation is iteration and added value to already existing content. But you do need to flesh out what you will be iterating. It can be anything from a systemic, narrative, or art angle. But it needs to be encapsulated in one or two sentences.

    "A compelling mental picture" -> "Player Fantasy" and/or "Reference mashup"

    I think this part is the most important one. You must be able to paint a mental picture with one sentence that answers the following questions: "Who am I? What am I doing? Why is it cool?".

    Most video games are about playing out a fantasy. If you can describe that fantasy in one sentence, it is compelling; that is your pitch. You can follow it up with a reference mashup. Some sources will tell you that using references in pitching is dangerous because it can lead to monster pitches like "It's GTA 5 meets Minecraft, but better." It can create a mental picture of a spectacular production-wise disaster instead of a compelling player fantasy.

    Using wisely can drastically shorten the time needed for mutual understanding between the one giving and receiving a pitch.

    "Audience and cost" -> "Genre description"

    If you know exactly what the genre is, it should be mentioned in the pitch. If not, it can be a part of the reference mashup to help show cost and audience.

    Things that hint at the camera, art style, and how animation-heavy the game is will give a pitch receiver an idea of what the game scope can be and what types of players will be interested. An RTS with a survival mechanic twist immediately points to a notion of an isometric or big zoom-out top-down view. This, in my mind, creates the cost and scope of the project, the same way a third-person action-adventure perfectly encapsulates the immense animation scope the game will require.

    "A killer title" -> "Promo art"

    I have personally worked on over a dozen video games in my career that changed their title at the last possible moment. Using codenames or even a copyrighted title in production is not uncommon. For example, I worked on a game codenamed Gravity inspired by the movie under the same name and later released it under the title Detached.

    I learned not to get too attached to a game title, so I do not think it is important in a pitch. A codename, work-in-progress title will suffice. But the one immensely important thing is the promo art. By promo art, I do not mean a mock screenshot. By promo art, I mean art that conveys the emotions and tone of a game.

    It is much easier to sell a game idea that has good promo art. It can be costly to develop - a professional illustrator will create one anywhere between two weeks and two months - depending on the complexity, number of characters, and more. All in all, I think it's a worthy investment for a AA game that tries to get millions of euros in investment. But, it might not be worth it for a small indie project. The thousands of dollars promo art might cost could be spent on something else. Video games are a very visual medium, so it helps immensely if you can pitch not only with words but also with art.

    A good example of suggestive promo art is Ark: Survival Evolved:

    Ark: Survival Evolved Promo Art

    It's a matter of opinion whether it's an amazing piece of art, but it describes the game well. Lady with a machine gun riding a dinosaur with sci-fi buildings in the background. This art speaks volumes about the game, adds a brief, visual description of what you do in the game, and shows what the USP is. With this kind of promo art, you are golden.

    The famous elevator pitch

    A logline from the Save the Cat! is also often referred to as an elevator pitch, which got its name from when you're in an elevator with a high-level executive, and you want to pitch them your idea, you have about 30 seconds, so you need a clear and concise way to do it.

    While I know that such situations happen in real life, I would not count on it. In a normal business environment, you will often find you have a short amount of time to pitch an idea. Your idea will normally be pitched to a very busy and easily distracted person. This could be a meeting with a busy CEO or a tired developer. Either way, communicating your idea in such a way is crucial, and it takes time to practice it. So practice whenever you have the chance, on your friends, on your co-workers, and others. Always remember Practice. Your. Pitch.

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