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  • How To Pitch A Video Game

    [07.22.21]
    - Lukasz Hacura

  • What are we pitching? The idea and the team

    Once we know why we want to pitch something and how we will pitch it, we can finally focus on what we are going to pitch. Like I mentioned in the beginning, it is about the game and who and will be creating it and how. You need a great idea and a great execution plan; one without the other will not work.

    The Game

    To be able to convey a game idea, first, we need to clearly define it for ourselves. What constitutes a game idea? Most games are not single mechanic gimmicks. Even if they are, implementing and iterating on that single mechanics means dozens or hundreds of mini decisions that need to be made along the way. The ideas can evolve into drastically different products, depending on the execution.

    This is precisely why publishers are reluctant to sign a deal based on a pitch document. The decisions have not been made yet, there are many questions unanswered, and the risk is too great. Studios that do get funding based on a pitch usually have a track record showing that they know how to make those decisions and know how to execute an idea. Especially if it's in the genre, they have experience in.

    So how do you define what a game is before it exists? I don't think you can. But what you can do is confine the future decision space. There are different names for those in game design; some call these confinement design pillars, others a creative box that limits the decision space. Either way, it's a set of clear guidelines by which you decide if an idea fits your game vision.

    Let us take the 2018 God of War, for example. The design pillars for that game are combat, exploration, and a relationship between Kratos and his son. If a system or a feature idea does not support any of those pillars, it should be scrapped from the game.

    Such an approach to a game vision helps with building a mental picture of the game. Clearly defined game vision is nowhere near a clearly defined game design, but it allows us to imagine what the game will be about and to better understand the pitch.

    The Team

    From my perspective, the team is much more important than the idea. You can deliver a lousy pitch along the lines of "I want to create a 3rd person action-adventure game." But if, for example, it's Patrice Désilets saying it - the creator of Assassin's Creed - you will listen carefully.

    The team portfolio legitimatizes the pitch. If there is a gap between the ambition of the project and the team potential, then it is a big weakness. Aiming for the stars is good, but a team of scientists and astronauts at your side makes it better. Making games is challenging, and even the team with all the expertise in the world will not guarantee success, but it minimizes the risk.

    The way you showcase your team is super easy; you just line up the titles they worked on previously. Their degrees do not matter, their years of experience do not matter, their unique personalities do not matter.

    Only what they have done matters. I had a discussion once with one of the world's leading gamdev studios, bizdev. They have a huge back catalog of big IPs, and we wanted to offer our remastering services as a company. The first question was, "What have you remastered so far?" This was before we did Observer System Redux, so I got nothing, and I also bizdeved nothing that day, besides a relationship that I could use after I got more remasters under my belt.

    I have heard hundreds of stories like mine over the years. A team portfolio is a crucial factor in a pitch. Nobody will believe that you can deliver the next Hellblade cause you want AAA quality in a nicely scoped AA game with the rag-tagged team of five friends fresh out of college.

    And yes, I know that there are examples of indie teams going big, but don't give in to the survivorship bias of these successes. If you want to create a game of certain quality and complexity, you need to have a certain quality and complexity on the team.

    How to pitch depending on the development phase

    To better understand how to pitch and include in a pitch depending on your development phase, we need to agree on what those phases are. Different companies have different nomenclature for each phase, so I will describe what I mean by them.

    Context phase

    This is the phase where we develop a business context for an idea. This is a pre-pitch phase where we decide what avenue of gamedev we are trying to explore. This is a phase where you decide things like the estimated budget or what genre you will attack. You will also decide what the target audience is and how the project will fit into your overall strategy.

    This is super important and is often skipped in small companies. You never develop ideas in a vacuum; there is always a context to the things you will be creating, and defining that context will make the concept phase much easier. At the end of that phase, you should end up with a Vision Doc. You usually do not pitch a game at this stage. Some rare examples of extremely well-known studios or individuals can simply say, "I want to make an RPG," and that will be it, but this does not normally happen.

    Concept phase

    This is an extremely important phase for pitching because even if you will not seek funding at this stage of development, this is the first time you start vocalizing what the game is about. This is where you start the process of learning how to speak about your game, a process that will not end until launch.

     You should end this phase with at least two things:  A Pitch Document and a series of questions you want to be answered through prototyping. Another thing to create at this stage is a Rip-o-Matic.

    Pre-production phase

    Pre-production has two stages: first is prototyping, where you try to answer as many questions as you can by prototyping different mechanics and approaches. This minimizes the risk on the production and allows you to prove to somebody else but yourself that the idea is truly remarkable.

    The second stage is creating tools, pipelines, and restrictions for production. The more time you spend on planning those out, the less waste there is going to be in production. Depending on the idea, you can end this phase with a Vertical Slice, a Target Render, a main Prototype, and a series of prototypes. Every project is different, but there should be something tangible that you can show.

    This is also the moment where many publishers like to start participating in the project - the hard questions have been answered, we have a proof of concept that the idea works, and the risk is lower. The only thing left is to invest a lot of money into production. This is not always the case; some publishers like to be involved from the beginning to shape the context. But that is more of a first-party development scenario, and even if it happens for third parties, it usually does not involve funding, only feedback.

    Production phase

    Pitching a game after you have a vertical and are well into production is quite easy. You already have the pitch prepared, although it is a good idea to update it once in a while because things change in production, even if they should not. You probably have a Trailer and if not, just record some Gameplay Video, and you are good to go.

    Last stretch

    Sometimes, be it rarely, you pitch an almost ready game. It's usually super easy; you simply send over the game alongside a pitch and a trailer - usually a gameplay trailer - and that is it. Creating pitching materials at this stage is easy; you have talked about the game a hundred times. Usually, pitching at this stage is not to publishers but storefronts and first parties, be it for a better visibility deal or some minimal guarantee deals.

    Pitching materials

    Vision Doc

    I have seen hundreds of pitch documents during my career, but not that many Vision Docs. The line between "This is the context in which we want to create a game" and "We have an idea for a game" is very blurry at many studios. I try to make a distinction between the two because you never create a game in a vacuum. So how do you convey the context to the team that is supposed to create the game pitch and develop the idea?

    You start with a statement - what is it that we want to accomplish here. It's not a logline yet, because you do not know what the idea is exactly, but you know you want to accomplish something in a certain context. It can be your personal preference that you want to explore. You might have something to say with the game, or you can work for a company with a clear publishing strategy planned out and looking for titles aligned with that strategy.

    The second thing to consider in this context document is the target market - the type of audience and platforms you want to develop. This can but does not have to determine the genre of the game. Some type of market analysis must be here; there are tools out there that can help you do that, from Quantic Foundry reports to SteamSpy and SteamLabs.

    If the company strategy does not determine that, you also need to develop a time frame and budget context. Those are usually not rigid and, depending on the developed idea and new information coming in, it will be subject to change. But anchoring ourselves at this point - that we are or are not creating a 200m USD franchise - is important.

    From my perspective, vision does not need to have the actual game idea, especially one often passed down by executives and marketing people. It just builds the context for the actual idea to flourish. But it can contain something like a mandatory IP that needs to be used on this game.

    Some tools can help you determine if you are there yet with your idea. One tool you can use is Warren Specters 6+2+1 series of questions described in his Classic Game Postmorem: Deus X.


    Pitch Document

    This is the single most important document that you will create for pitching. It should sell your idea clearly and concisely while answering all the most important questions that will be raised in the readers' minds while going over the pitch. It should be so good that it does not require any pitch meeting to sell the game well. Even if you're lucky enough to be in the room and pitch the game the first time you present it to a publisher, it's going to be distributed to multiple stakeholders and decision-makers along the process, and you're not going to be there every time it's read.

    Every project is unique, and every publisher is different. There can be times when you need to squeeze your pitch in a particular format, but in case you start with a carte blanche, below is a structure that I propose you use. I have iterated it over the years and used it as a starting point for my pitches, but every pitch is unique, so make sure to adjust accordingly if your game requires it.

    Overview

    Sometimes I like to call this section "summary" instead of "overview" because it is essentially a summary. It should never be longer than one page and should have all the information required for a successful pitch.

    Why do you start with a summary, and why exactly one page? Because you usually have that exact one page to convince somebody to read it further. You don't want to push your luck; the person reading it might not have a lot of patience and read through the entire thing if they aren't hooked on the first page. We live in a world where mind space is crucial for many people, so you don't want to add an additional strain. All the necessary information should be on this single page.

    You can start with either a logline or overview summary points, which are:

    • Platforms you think this game will be a good fit for
    • Genre and/or target audience of a game; if it's a mashup, name a mashup. If you think your idea is unique, that mashup is not enough; you can change into a target audience. For example, you're not saying it's a shooter, but people enjoying shooters should also enjoy this one.
    • Number of players & game modes: This might not age well, but in 2021, it's super important to be clear about the game mode. You market and target games with different modes very differently, so it's important to be crystal clear about it
    • Estimated release date/estimated production time left: You don't need to worry about this binding in any way. This just gives the reader an idea of how big the project is and where it could potentially fit into the publisher release schedule.
    • Estimated budget: Now, this one is controversial; many sources are stating that you should, in fact, not mention the budget. They say the combination of the genre and logline can help the recipient estimate the budget, and you don't want to undersell yourself, especially when pitching from a country with cheaper labor costs. I, for one, like to put in the estimated budget because it immediately sets the tone. If I'm pitching a 4m Euro AA game, I don't need to go through an extensive pitching process with a publisher that has its limit set on 1m Euro. By anchoring the budget, we speed things up. But on the other hand, I've been doing it for a while, I know what budgets are floating out there, and I know my costs for a small indie studio that is just setting up a permanent development operation. It's very easy to create a small and unrealistic budget, so in that situation, not to mention the budget, team size might be preferable.

    Elevator pitch

    This is the logline mentioned earlier; the one to two-sentence pitch of your game, maybe followed up by some references. This is the most important part, so no pressure. You want to spend a lot of time iterating on this and testing it out on people.

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