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Getting Published

This article is the first of a three-part series dealing with the issue of getting published. It provides a framework for evaluating whether or not your game submission is good enough to realistically approach a publisher with.

The problem with game development as a business is that too many people want to do it. Game development is just like any other entertainment business, such as movies, sports, and music; hordes of hopefuls are always trying to break-into show business, get drafted into professional sports, or get signed to recording contracts. "Wannabe" game developers are no different. As a group, they all love games, some have genuine talent, and most eventually end up trying to talk to established publishers about funding or publishing their game.

When they do try talking to publishers, they get referred to someone in the product development (PD) department, or to a division within product development which is sometimes called acquisitions, licensing, A&R (Artists and Repertoire, a music industry term), or inventor relations. For many "wannabe" game developers, talking to product development is an unexpectedly difficult experience. Why? The truth is, PD professionals at publishing companies, many of whom are really great people, must make a hard decision. Either:

  1. They are nice to everyone that contacts them, giving each and every person ample time to tell them about their game.
  2. They are quick and to the point, cutting off discussions with anyone that gives the indication that they just might turn out to be a waste of time. When dealing with mailings, emails, and voicemails, unless they know you previously, it’s a roll of the dice if and when you’ll hear back from them.

The problem with the first option is that it leaves PD person with no way of getting his or her job done – too many game submissions, not enough time. Very few PD people choose the first option, and most of those that do work for little known companies, have no time for social/family life, or both.

The problem with the second approach is that it makes the PD person appear rude and/or unreachable, and even if all you want is five minutes of that person's time, an answer that her or she promised you five weeks ago, or just a clear "No thank you," getting that person to focus on you is like pulling teeth.

This article is the first of a three part series dealing with the issue of getting published. This article will outline a framework for evaluating whether or not your game submission is good enough to realistically approach a publisher with. Next month’s article, "How to Approach Game Publishers", will provide helpful hints regarding the dos and don’ts of getting publishers to pay attention to you and your game. The third and final article in the series, "What to do if you’ve been Rejected", will be of value to anyone determined to succeed as a developer, and who is willing to do whatever it takes to get there.

The Calculus of Product Development

To analyze the viability of game submissions, nearly every PD person looks for the following traits:

  • Low development risk. Can the team complete the game as envisioned in a timely manner?
  • High production values. Will the graphics and user interface (and to a lesser extent, audio) be state of the art when the game is released?
  • The "cool factor." Is there something about the game that makes it unique, cool and different? Clones are usually not welcomed.
  • Salability. There have to be reasons to believe that the game will sell, that it will attract potential buyers.
  • Fun. Is the game fun? Is it addictive? Will buyers play and replay, telling their friends to buy it? Not every PD person looks for this, but most do.

Let’s examine each of these traits in more depth.

Development risk

The lowest development risk for a publisher is, naturally, a game that is already finished. This may be obvious, but many developers, including those with "hit game" experience, are surprised at the number of submissions publishers actually get for games that are done or nearly done. A beta of a game is less risky than an alpha, while a playable demo is less risky than a technology demo. Solid, experienced teams with "hit game" track records are a lower risk than new teams; even a new team made of up of individuals with stellar backgrounds is considered a significant risk – the question is, can these guys work together as a team on a 12- to 24-month project?

Technology is also a source of development risk. Reusing an engine that the team has used before is low risk, while having to build or use technologies that the team has limited track record with is high risk. Off-the-shelf technologies can often be viewed as lower risk, unless their integration with the rest of the game is a potential issue.

Production values

No matter what the game genre or target platform, a game submission must look better than anything out there already, and be at least on par with competing games that are expected to ship at the same time. Does your first-person-shooter look as good as Quake II? If so, that’s great – if it had shipped when Quake II had shipped. It’s amazing to me the number of wannabe developers that think that being "as good" as a current game is good enough; sorry folks, but production values in this industry are definitely a moving target.

When assessing production values, the overall look and feel of the game is important, as well as the technology behind it. For real-time strategy games, for example, you can make a gorgeous, fun game using 2D sprites; unfortunately, the state of the art is moving to true 3D. But technology alone doesn’t make a game beautiful; a game can have a higher polygon count than any other game in the genre, yet could still be unattractive for other reasons – poor textures, clunky interface, and so on. Here’s a tip for developers in love with their own game: before telling publishers that your game looks better than X, Y, and Z, get some people to do side-by-side comparisons of your game versus X, Y, and Z. You’ll either confirm your beliefs or you’ll get a dose of reality before you lose credibility with a publisher.

Cool factor

With 4,000+ titles coming out per year, to get attention, a game has to have something that makes it unique and different, and that "something" has to instantly be recognized as "cool" when you describe it. The game itself doesn’t have to be completely alien to anything anyone has ever experienced before. If you’re able to say that your game submission is "like this other hit game, but with a twist", that’s a strong position to be in, provided that the "other game" was a hit, and your "twist" is really cool. Was Rainbow 6 totally alien, or did it offer familiar first-person shooter game play (like Quake) with a twist (mission planning, Tom Clancy license)? Was Starcraft totally alien, or did it offer familiar RTS game play (like Warcraft) with a twist (three races, each requiring a different "mindset" to play)?

You want an element of your game submission to be truly unique. If you can say that your game submission is the only game that has X, or that does Y, that’s important. If a publisher wants a clone or a knock-off, it will typically assign an internal team or an outside team it has worked with in the past to develop the project; it doesn’t need an outside game developer that it’s never worked with to develop a clone. Either through gameplay, graphics, technology, platform, or a license, you should have at least one element that no other game has.

Salability

If a publisher doesn’t think it can sell a game, it doesn’t matter how beautiful the graphics are or how fun it is to play. Ed Del Castillo, the producer of Command & Conquer and Command & Conquer: Red Alert, likes to say that "interactive games are these slippery, unknown quantities that most consumers will not pick-up off the shelf unless the game has handles placed on it." Handles can range from eye-popping graphics, to familiar movie, book, arcade, and board game licenses, to sequels of popular interactive games, to very cool, familiar themes/subject matter, to even putting a big name actor on the cover. Even the platform of the game can be a handle; right now, there are still not a lot of Windows CE games, there are not enough Color Game Boy titles, and when the time comes, Sega Dreamcast titles will have handles on them just because they are out early.

One of the problems with highly innovative games is that they can be hard for a publisher to market them, and for the sales staff to sell them to the channel. "Familiar" and "understandable" are two traits that retailers look for when making purchasing decisions. Is there any question in anyone’s mind why sequels are so popular in this industry? Or why familiar toy, board game, and arcade brands (Barbie, Monopoly, Frogger) have been so successful? Or movie, book, and sports licenses? Do you think that part of the appeal of the Deer Hunter phenomena was the fact that a segment of mainstream America can fundamentally understand and connect with what they see on the cover of the box?

Fun

Over the last decade, a number of Hollywood and media/entertainment industry companies have started up interactive divisions, failed, and have exited the market. They didn’t "get it". In other words, they didn’t understand what interactive entertainment was all about. The problem for some of these companies is they thought that their skills (e.g.,. animation skills, story-telling skills, engineering skills, marketing skills) for creating other types of non-interactive entertainment (such as movies) were sufficient to make high-quality interactive products. Unfortunately for them, interactive entertainment is fundamentally different than other entertainment ventures – there has to be something fun for the player to do in the game, otherwise it’s a dud. The majority of interactive games are duds – it’s hard to put "fun" in a box, and its hard to explain to someone who doesn’t "get it" just what "it" is.

A great measure of whether or not your game is fun is if it’s addictive. If people that are not on your development team can honestly say they like the game enough to play and replay, that’s very good. Don’t let "realism" or "authenticity" get in the way of making a fun product; the fun product is going to have a much better chance of getting published, and of selling big numbers. For example, many people would argue that Diablo was not a "realistic" RPG, or that the Panzer General series was not a realistic family of wargames. The fact is they were both fun, and sold very well for their genres.

So, for most PD professionals, an ideal game submission is:

  •  
    • A nearly finished game (not a concept or design doc)
    • Created by an experienced team whose last game sold well (over 250,000 units)
    • A technical and graphical marvel
    • Highly addictive and satisfying in terms of gameplay.

Another big plus is if it’s easy to sell, so if the game is "like this other hit game, with a twist", if it has a big license associated with it (already secured, of course), or if it is part of a successful, established brand franchise, that’s even more appealing. Did I mention publishing plans? If a game submission is a fit with a publisher’s current plans (i.e., if it is in a genre and on a platform that they are actively seeking outside submissions for), that’s good too.

Game Submissions by the Numbers

Is your game submission good enough for to get a PD person excited, and to eventually land you a publishing deal? Here is a test to determine whether you’re stuff is "submission-worthy". While some of the questions have necessarily subjective answers, and only the PD person’s opinion really matters when it comes right down to it, these questions may help you get a better picture of your game’s potential.

 

1. Which best describes your team?

Experienced team, previous games have sold poorly, or have poor quality

-2 to -4

New team, yet to be published team

-1

New team, members have decent resumes

0

Experience team, previous recent games have sold well

+1

New team, team members include major contributors to recent hit products

+2 or +3

Experience team, previous recent games have sold VERY well (hits)

+3 to +5

AAA team (defined by Graham Fuchs of Activision as teams like id or Blizzard)

+10


Subtract 1 from the score if the team has not completed a development project together, -2 if the team is not a team yet (i.e. a "proposed" team).

 

2. How complete is your game?

Concept

-3

Design Document/TDR

-2

Technology demo

-1

Gameplay demo

0

Alpha

+1

Beta/Gold Master

+2

 

3. What’s the underlying technology? (Only answer this question if the team does not have at least a technology demo.)

Proposing to create technology that the team doesn’t have track record (or a demo) for

-4

Proposing to implement technology team doesn’t have track record for

-2

Proposing to build/implement technology team does have track record for

0

Team has engine already developed

0

Proposing to license hot technology (e.g. the Unreal engine) that the team has track record for working with

+2

Team created the engine; engine being licensed to other parties

+3

 

4. What do the graphics look like? (Skip if no graphics are available, i.e., still at the concept stage)

 

Functional graphics, but not the best quality

High-quality graphics

Amazing/breathtaking graphics quality

Old, out-of favor graphics technology (FMV, side-scroller)

-8

-6

-2

Current technology will be used.

-4

-1

+2

Leading/bleeding edge technology (curved surfaces in first-person shooter, full 3D in real-time strategy games, etc.)

-3

+1

+4

 

5. What does the user interface look like? (Skip if no user interface graphics are available, i.e., still at the concept stage)

User interface clunky, not as beautiful as the main graphics

-2

Average to good UI

0

Very well designed, with lots of cool special touches, not cluttered

+1

 

6. What is the audio quality like? (Skip if no audio is available, i.e., the game is still at the concept stage)

Disappointing sound – non-existent, disappointing, bad voice acting, or sounds like "a bunch of computer sounds"

-2

Average to very good sound – 90% or more of games fall into this category

0

Fantastic sound – immersive, people actually talk about it after playing the game, saying it added to the experience, making you feel like you were there

+1

 

7. What is the game’s "cool factor"?

Clone of not very successful game (i.e., sold less than 100,000 units)

-4

Clone of successful game (i.e., sold more than 300,000 units)

-2 to -3

Cool/unique (e.g., the first 3D game in a previously 2D genre, adding multiplayer to a previously single-player genre, letting players customize their character/vehicle/units/tech tree/scenarios/levels, and so on.)

0

Something really cool/unique (e.g. a first-person shooter with plot and thinking opponents (e.g., Half-Life), mixing RTS gameplay with the themes/resource management of Sid Meier’s Civilization (e.g., Age of Empires)

+1 to +2

Something really cool/unique that ties in to a timely event (i.e. the movie Titanic, the resurging popularity of the band Kiss)

+3 to +4

 

8. What platform is it targeting?

Obsolete or limited appeal platform (includes online-only games)

-2 to -4

PC

0

Console (Playstation, N64, future platforms, but NOT Saturn)

+1

Very hot platform (e.g. currently Color Game Boy is hot)

+2

Macintosh

?

 

9. What genre/theme is the game?

Out of favor genre/theme (e.g., any kind of underwater game)

-2

Highly competitive genre/theme (sports, RTS)

-2, unless it’s really good

Very hot genre/theme (e.g., action-RPGs)

+1

Other genre/theme

0

 

10. Does it use any licensed/franchised material?

Yes, an obscure, limited appeal, or niche license (example: Red Sonja, Avalon Hill’s TV Wars, the movie Citizen Kane, Critical Depth)-2

-2

No licensed/franchised material

0

Yes, a solid license, franchise, sequel (examples: Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Frogger, Xena: Warrior Princess, Panzer General)

+1 to +2

Yes, a fabulous license, franchise, sequel (examples: Star Wars anything, John Madden Football, Tiger Woods, Mario)

+2 to +4

Note: Licenses/franchises can be hit or miss, unless you are the license holder. If you are not the license holder, there still are opportunities. For example, companies like Hasbro have properties for which they are looking for outside submissions for interactive products. The challenge with developing designs and demos for other companies is that the license holders may already have plans for the license, and those plans may preclude your game, no matter how good it is. Do some research into the status of the license before spending too much time on a submission that may have no opportunity associated with it.

 

11. Does your game meet the publisher’s needs?

Note: Just because a publisher is looking for certain types of games does not necessarily mean those games will sell better at retail. However, it does mean the PD people will have an easy time selling your game internally to their companies’ marketing and sales departments.

A platform and/or genre that the publisher is actively looking for submissions for

+1 to +2

A license, franchise, sequel, or property that the publisher is currently looking for a team for

+3 to +5

 

12. How familiar is the subject of the game?

Subject matter is obscure, or doesn’t relate to things people know about

-1 to -3

Subject matter is somewhat known and understood when explained

0

Subject matter is easy to understand for gamer audiences

+1

Subject matter is easy to understand for mass audiences

+2

 

13. How fun is the game?

Slow, not very interactive, or somewhat boring

-5 to –10

"But at least it’s interesting/realistic"

-2 to -4

Very fun

0

Highly addictive

+1

Third-party verification that the game is very fun (respected game website reviews)

+2

Scoring

If you have given yourself a –4 or lower for any category, don’t worry about the rest of your scores – you have a problem that you need to address. If you have a –3 for any category, you are on the borderline – you better have something real good elsewhere, and you still should look at addressing the negative category. Add up all your scores, and see where you fall in the table below.

An overall score of…

Means…

-10 or below

You have unrealistic expectations for your game. What are you thinking? You don’t have a clear view of how competitive this market is. Do not quit whatever job you have at this time; if your job is outside the game industry, you probably should stay outside the game industry. You will make a fool of yourself and your team by approaching PD professionals with your game.

- 5 to -9

Don’t submit your game to a publisher. You most likely will find no publishers interested in your game, and you may earn yourself a bad reputation; instead of making your first impression with publishers a bad one, go back to the drawing board to reinvent your submission. Taking a job with a top name developer, if you don’t already have one, would probably be a good move for you.

-1 to -4

Your game is not ready yet to be shown to a publisher. You are most likely shy of having something that’s going to land you a publishing deal, but you may have potential. Do what you can to get your score up (getting closer to a Beta, securing a hot license, etc.) For ideas on other things you can do to make your game submission more viable, read "Getting Published, Part III: What to do if you’ve been rejected.", the third installment of this series (coming out in May). If you choose to submit as is, trial balloon your submission with only 1-3 companies; that way, if the feedback is worse than you expected, you have only made a first impression at a few places.

0 to +2

Your game is on the cusp. You may be able to get a publishing deal, but you shouldn’t count on it. If you’re in a position where you have to get cash into your company now, you should consider getting true investors (venture capital, an angel investor, seed money, loans from friends/family) in lieu of going to a publisher. If those options aren’t open to you, and you have to go to a publisher now, there are a number of value-line/budget-line publishers that may be willing to pick your game, to be published at $19.95 (or less) or as part of a multi-game pack.

+3 to +7

Start submitting your game to publishers. You have something that you won’t be embarrassed by, and you should start getting "in circulation". Best case scenario, you’ll find a publisher ready to sign you. Most likely scenario will probably be that you’re told that the publisher can’t do anything now, but they’d like to see the game when its further along; you’ll probably also get some specific feedback on what needs to improve, which is very valuable. Worst case will be that the publisher says not interested in that particular game – which is still good information for you.

+8 or more

Your chances are very good for getting a publishing contract. You have a winner; anything is possible, but this should be a game that gets signed. If you don’t have a business manager in-house or an agent, consider getting one. With the value you are bringing to the table, you don’t want a disappointing publishing deal because you didn’t get your game in front of the right publishers, or because (surprise, surprise) you are not as good at negotiating as you are at game development.

So you think your game has what it takes, that you are ready to get a publishing deal? Stay tuned for next month’s article, "Getting Published, Part II: How to approach game publishers."

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