In every game development project there are times when you need other people to say “yes”. Maybe you want an investor to fund your game. Maybe you are hiring a graphics artist to create a logo. Perhaps it is as simple as getting a team member to commit to an additional task. The circumstances vary widely, but the goal is the same. You need to know how to close deals in game development.
This article is a summation of my personal approach on making deals that I’ve gained after several years of indie game development as well as extensive communication and negotiation research. This approach is most suited to smaller and more personal deals, yet can really be applied to any deal making process.
During the course of this article I will refer to my recent work on Pulsen (https://pulsengame.com), a music and rhythm game currently in late Steam Early Access, to provide some more concrete examples of what to do and not to do.
While not every deal can be closed, with proper preparation, effective communication, and timely closing, most deals can.
1) Figure Out What You Really Want
This sounds obvious, but it is vital, and it is surprising how often this step is rushed over.
Early on in Pulsen we rushed on a deal. We thought we were happy with the song and paid the artist very quickly for the license. When we tried to actually work with the song in game, it wasn’t very appealing. Although the song was great to listen to, it was repetitive, didn’t have enough sustained energy or phat beats, and did not have enough going on to create interesting step patterns. In short, the song was amazing but not amazing for our game. We ended up getting a remix of the original by another artist, and it required many extra hours and much additional money. We should have made a proof-of-concept and figured this out before making the deal in the first place.
Figure out specifically what you want. You can’t be vague here. You can’t just say you want some awesome music or you want as much funding as you can get from a potential investor. Much better would be you want 30 static 2D portrait images created for your RTS, with a specific art style in mind and basic descriptions of how each portrait should look. Whatever you want, make sure it fits within your goals and the larger aspects of the project like scope and budget. If you’re not sure what you want, do research. Use placeholder assets for internal tests, or ask the community for ideas. Don’t proceed until you’re certain. You can waste a lot of time and money pursuing leads that don’t follow your project’s goals.
2) Determine Its Value
You always have to give up something to gain something. Often this is money, time, and stress, though can be other things like perceived quality of your game.
For Pulsen, we always have to ask ourselves what value we attribute to each song license. There are many aspects to that: well-known artists are better for our marketability, songs with vocals are better for engagement and to add variety, and more recent songs are generally more popular. We could have filled the game with freely available music, but that would really affect the quality of the game.
You need a good understanding of what you really want to determine its value and how to get the most value. For contract work, maybe hiring a professional is worth the extra cost to avoid stress, get higher quality, and minimize risk. Perhaps a lower price is more important than getting the non-urgent work done immediately. Maybe you realize that equity in your company is more important to you, so you’d rather seek a loan than an investment. Don’t forget to factor in hidden costs of a deal like the time it takes you to communicate with an artist and implement his or her art in game.
Before initiating a deal, you should know the max you are willing to pay for something (money, time, stress, etc). This should be a hard limit you set internally. If you don’t have a limit, you will go over or potentially miss out on a deal. Make sure to have all your payment options thought out too, as the other party may ask about or prefer them. Payment options could include a fixed hourly/monthly rate, flat rate, royalty, upfront and/or deferred payment, equity in company, and even exchange of services.
In addition to your max limit, try to figure out the most likely you will end up paying, and your ideal scenario or stretch goal. This can help you when thinking about pricing and what to offer. If your max limit is lower than what you’ll likely pay, don’t be upset when your offer is turned down. Sometimes you will be surprised during a deal when things go way better than expected, and you should be prepared to take advantage of it. For example, when a music artist says he will give you a discount if you buy multiple song licenses at once.
3) Use Straightforward Communication
Say what you mean and mean what you say. Unless this is a lengthy presentation or you expect a lot of resistance to your deal, just be direct and concise. There is no need to waste your time or their time. The other party should know the purpose of your communication within your first two sentences.
Make sure the proposed deal is clear to both parties, then bring up the matter of payment. This can be a touchy subject for some people since you want to get the best deal but don’t want to offend the other party, and you might not have any idea of what the going rate is. Even market research is very difficult because every situation is so different. Most people aren’t upfront about what they charge or have a fixed going rate in my experience.
I’ve heard a lot of traditional approaches to this issue, like let the other person make the first offer, don’t say yes right away, and make sure to haggle. I think those approaches might have merit if I was in a corporate boardroom or a flea market, yet personally they haven’t worked the best for me in the indie game community. If I’ve already prepared beforehand and know the value of the work to me, I just open up with a reasonable offer. I find that the possibility of overspending is often outweighed by having the person working with me being happier and be on better terms, as well as closing the deal more quickly.
Here’s the email subject line that has gotten me the most success in starting music licensing deals for Pulsen:
“($) USD Music License Offer In Music/Rhythm Game Pulsen”
So why do I use this line? The subject line is clear, short, and direct, even if the English isn’t perfect. This immediately tells the reader key information: what I want, an idea of what compensation I’m offering (swapping out the $ for the offer amount), and what the project is. (I started putting USD after the dollar amount since some artists are international or get offers in Canadian dollars, plus it drives the point of actual payment). In many of my early emails I would ask the rate of licensing music and get the response of “make me an offer”, so I don't do that anymore.
Side note: A surprising amount of people don’t respond to the first email. They are busy being awesome and sometimes things may slip by them. It’s fine to send a reminder after a week, and a second reminder after that.
4) Highlight Your Strengths
Don’t lie or misrepresent yourself, but definitely highlight your strengths. People like being part of exciting projects, and almost every project has at least something to be excited about. Maybe your game has a really great story or unique mechanic. Maybe your voice actor has worked on other well known games. You should be talking about those.
5) Emphasize Benefits and Address Concerns
You need to convince people that the deal is in their best interest. The earlier you do this, the quicker and more likely you can close a deal.
Let the other party know why this is a good deal for them, besides just any financial compensation. This doesn’t have to be directly stated, sometimes it is inherent or obvious, or you can hint at it in your communication. In the case of Pulsen, many artists are excited to get their songs in a music and rhythm game where their music is the focus, and since they are licensing previously created assets there was essentially no additional work involved on their part. There is also the potential benefit of the artists gaining more fans and selling more music. For startup indie companies a benefit might be allowing someone a lot of creative freedom for their work, while veteran companies might be able to provide the benefits of better promotion and great working conditions.
In addition to highlighting what is good, also address any issues that may come up, ideally before they happen. In game development this often centers around:
A) Will I get paid?
B) Will the game be released?
C) Will the game be good?
Figure out how to best address these general concerns and the specific concerns relating to your deal. If an investor is concerned about your team’s inexperience, show them a well put together business plan and offer ways to minimize their risk. Maybe you stand by your work by offering a guarantee. Sometimes it’s as simple as agreeing to send a weekly update. For Pulsen licensing emails I made it clear upfront that these were non-exclusive licenses, addressing the likely concern that artists want to use their work in other--even competing--games.
6) Make Your Deal Easy To Close
It should be as easy as possible for the other party to say yes. This goes beyond being clear on what you want and addressing concerns before they come up. Anything that can make things more convenient and quicker should be considered. For Pulsen, I gave a super brief explanation of the deal process along the lines of once we reach an agreement we will send you the full payment via PayPal within 3 days, then you send us the high quality sound file. I also attached a filled out contract in the very first email. It let the artists read over the fine print, and if they were willing to do so right then (which some were), they could just close a deal with their first contact to me.
Stay on top of communication and keep things moving. The longer you wait the less likely a deal is to happen. As soon as the other party is ready to make an agreement you should be ready to close it.
WHAT TO DO WHEN A DEAL DOESN’T HAPPEN
Don’t give up immediately if a deal doesn’t look like it will happen. Do your best to understand why the other party is saying no to the deal (hint: asking them “why” works well), and try to address that if you can. It’s not always related to financials and sometimes means getting creative. You miss out on 100% of the chances you don’t take.
However, some deals just can’t be done under the current circumstances. Sometimes you and the other party are so far apart that nothing can be done. In cases like that, don’t worry. Everyone I’ve met in the community has been really nice, understanding, and supportive even when we don’t reach an agreement. Sometimes you need to compromise, but often you can do this in such a way where any compromises don’t negatively affect the quality of the outcome. And remember, there is always another opportunity around the corner!