High above the E3 show floor, the fabled battleground of hundreds of video game content developers and publishers, a group of mostly young, independent game developers and soon-to-be developers gathered to hear a group of successful publishers and one successful developer insight into one of the most difficult and fabled aspects of the game creation process: the pitch.
For this group of industry veterans, the pitch is not just a formality of a blockade between losing and winning a single contract; in fact, a good pitch can be the beginning of a multi-tiered structure of industry relationships that can be the difference between having nothing and thriving in an increasingly crazy world of electronic entertainment.
On the workshop panel were: Lee Jacobsen, Vice President of Business Development - Midway Games; Jeremy Gaffney, Vice President of Product Development - NCsoft; Dan Kitchen, Vice President, Product Development - Majesco Entertainment; Randy Pitchford, President - Gearbox Software; and Timothy Campbell, Director of Business Development - THQ. Moderating the panel was Trent Ward, a former veteran video game journalist now working as Creative Director for Backbone Entertainment's Vancouver studio.
Those in the audience were treated to a nearly non-stop flurry of pieces of advice and informative anecdotes from years of giving and receiving pitches. Ideas from one panelist smoothly elided into supporting tangential ideas from other panelists, a pastiche of thoughts that eventually formed for many in attendance a solid, almost alluring portrait of the game pitch.
Gearbox's Brothers In Arms.
Readying the Pitch
"E3 is bad," Jacobsen replied quickly in response to the question of good timing. Dan Kitchen felt differently, saying that "All year, we are willing to listen."
Pitchford, the lone representative of the developer side of the pitch equation, drew from his recent experience with titles like Brothers in Arms and Halo."Q1 is a great time to [pitch]," he said; Pitchford explained that while Christmas is game shipping season and E3 time see development acceleration season, spring finds many publishers laid-back and attentive to new ideas. But, the best timing in the world doesn't solve the "who you know" problem.
Breaking in isn't as a difficult a proposition as many think, however. Jacobsen explained that "the field is actually getting smaller.especially in the console business. Find those people!" His comments were echoed by the rest of the panel.
Pitchford emphasized the importance of proper research. "You should have profiles on publishers. and update them from time to time," especially as the company personality changes as management shifts around.
Gaffney emphasized the importance of the demo. It must be able to do something really well. "If it's fun but looks like crap, you're going to get somewhere. if it's boring but looks really good, you're going to get somewhere." Jacobsen emphasized the importance of being polished rather than merely big. He believes good demos should clearly "show the essence of the game."
Campbell added that developers should not forget to address marketing in the initial pitch. "A green light decision will come down to finances... the unit forecast... times the average whole sale price." Others echoed this sentiment; "If you can't get through marketing the rest doesn't matter," said Jacobsen.
"We like stuff that hasn't been done yet," said Gaffney of unique and innovative ideas. Cycles of what will be hit games all come around. "RPGs are dead about every four years... until someone makes a good one... Good games sell."
This was counterpointed with the mention of Psi-Ops, the highly rated console game. While it was very polished and very well rated, "but not enough for mass market appeal," said Jacobsen, who noted the game's ~400,000 in unit sales. While a respectable number, it is not encouraging in the face of ever increasing budgets.
When it comes to matching the right developer with the right game, publishers keep extensive lists of developers and studios they're looking to place. "Get in front of these guys so you can get on that list!" said Jacobsen. "Make sure they know [your team, tech, and tools.]" When a need hits a publisher and you were smart enough to get on that list, you will be very fortunate.
Getting on the list of a publisher is a difficult prospect but not impossible. "New developers should. work on a Game Boy product," said Dan Kitchen. With a lower budget, lower resource game, new developers can acquire portfolio and credibility to move up the ranks to current-gen and next-gen development.
Independent contracting is another important step that many developers successfully utilize. "Gearbox [with 50 employees] worked with 90 independent contractors in 2004," said Pitchford. Many of those contractors are using the fruits of their work at Gearbox to build up credibility for their own pitches to publishers.
Building the Pitch
When it came to actually building the pitch, the panel saw little dissent. You should have an executive summary for the "suits" that will be seeing the game. Also for the high brass, there should be an analysis of marketing appeal, the competitive landscape, and genre analysis. All on the panel agreed that the idea of a five-hundred page design document is terrible. "It all ends up changing anyways," said Jacobsen.
Timothy Campbell cautions that thoroughness should not be sacrificed. "I want you to provide enough information that I can become your advocate," he said. A good design document should allow the reader and advocate for the game to give meaningful answers to questions from executive management; it should also provide enough information to build up enthusiasm.
Pitchford also noted that listening to an idea is an easy thing for most publishers to grant, especially if you are on their radar or have worked with them before. "If you can't get at least ten people to listen to your idea, blow it away and start over. or get out of the business." He explained that you should start with an idea before moving to a paragraph, before moving to a trailer, before moving to a demo. He emphasized the importance of taking it one small step at a time. "If you build the demo and no one cares, then you just wasted a ton of time and money." However, if you take it slow, you can "build a good relationship before the dead end."
Kitchen noted the importance of having a strong internal management team. Publishers like to know that their developer has the self-discipline for the long haul. Developers should be able to clearly state, "Here's how we police ourselves; here's how we get ourselves on time."
Other things to prepare for the pitch include beat sheets, design walkthrough, and prior media, including those from competing products. Anything that can help the reader visualize the experience and the core feedback loop helps great in making a successful pitch.
Making the Pitch
Making the actual pitch, of course, is quite different from putting together the pitch. Other than practice, sometimes the only thing to do is to find the right guy to deliver it. "If you don't know anybody that's good at it," said Pitchford, "Hire a street performer. They're good at it."
There is also the danger of commitment; when exposing your idea to the public rather than shopping around to publishers quietly, a developer may unwittingly be committing himself to an idea that could simply or not-so-simply be not worthwhile.
Once the process of getting a game started, you should keep the process moving, said Gaffney. "If you haven't heard anything in a week or two, thing have died. push things forward."
Toward the end of the workshop, many developers with experience and titles came forward to ask how they could increase their radar profile, and the panel agreed that cold calls are a perfectly good way to communicate with publishers. For developers with published titles, Pitchford suggested shipping a box of their shipped games out to the publisher, along with their ideas for new business opportunities.
The last question touched on how mod developers could get started as actual development companies. While it's extremely difficult and unprecedented for mod team members separated geographically to get together as a company, many in the mod community have found independent contracting a way to move into the professional ranks.
The art of the pitch is a rather difficult one to grasp, but the audience came away from the workshop with a much clearer knowledge of many of its aspects than before. Of course, these developers will have to wait a little while longer to put their new found knowledge to the test. Reiterating a sentiment from the very beginning of the panel, publishers throughout the room asked not to be pitched to so soon after the workshop.