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Getting Published, Part II: How To Approach Game Publishers

The process of approaching publishers is not easy. It's time consuming work, requiring significant amounts of preparation and persistence, and it is fraught with opportunities to "blow-it. Here's how to avoid blowing it with a publisher.

Gil Winters, Blogger

April 30, 1999

22 Min Read

So you think your game has what it takes, that you are ready to get a publishing deal? You next step is to find a publisher for your game.

The process of approaching publishers is not easy; it's time consuming work, requiring significant amounts of preparation and persistence, and it is fraught with opportunities to "blow-it": a screw-up can often result in a product development person prematurely concluding that your game submission is not something they would be interested in. To understand why this is so, consider:

  • Like other entertainment industries, the games industry is all about relationships; people prefer doing business with people they know, like, and trust.

  • 95%+ of game submissions from external developers get rejected.

  • Product development (PD) professionals are swamped – these are very busy people.

  • There are entirely too many game submissions from too many developers to keep track of for most publishers.

  • Publishers regularly get burned by developers; developers miss milestones and ship dates, products don’t live up to the hype the developer promised, etc.

  • Most games do not make money; many actually lose money for the publisher.

Unless you have a pre-existing relationship with a PD person, right off the bat they will want to quickly identify if you are a waste of time. Why? Because most people that contact them are a waste of time; again, 95%+ of game submissions get rejected. Since they are so busy, PD people need to be short and not lose their time with game submissions that are not going anywhere. If once in a while they make a mistake by turning down a game (that eventually turns out to be a hit elsewhere) before giving it a fair shake, that's one mistake out of a hundred – or a thousand. If dealing quickly with the hundreds (or thousands) of rejects they see each year lets them save enough time to sanely make it through the year, this only makes sense; after all, there is a lot more for them to do than spend time on the rejects.

Eight Tips for Pitching a Publisher

So, what can you do to avoid being the "baby thrown out with the bath water"? Here are my eight suggestions.

1. Have a good game submission to begin with

In "Getting Published: Part 1", I explained how you can determine if your game is good enough to submit to a publisher. If your game isn't, and you submit anyway, you are not only setting yourself up for disappointment, but you are going to earn yourself a reputation that will make it hard for you to submit games in the future. You get one chance at a first impression; waiting six months so that you can deliver a proper game submission is much better than getting in front of publishers quickly with something that is sketchy and not credible.

Pick one game – that’s it. You want to have just one game submission that you are committed to. In my experience, developers that have "tons of ideas" and who submit multiple games at once don't appear committed to any of them. Publishers would much rather talk to a developer about the game they are working on rather than talking to a developer about all the game ideas they have that they are willing to do if only a publisher will fund them. An analogy to this situation is a job interview; a job applicant that says they want a job as a 3D modeler is more credible than an applicant who says "I'll take anything", being equally interested in a job as a programmer, artist, designer, or producer.

2. Protect your credibility

The minute you blow it on the credibility front, you have done long-term damage to yourself. Don't exaggerate or make juvenile boasts. To say that your game "has the best graphics of any RTS in development" or "is the most realistic RPG ever" is ridiculous, and pointless. If you haven't seen what dozens of other developers are working on behind closed doors, you could be very wrong in your claim, and you will look foolish. And even if you're right, what's the point? Your goal is to be taken seriously; you don't need to have the best game ever in order to receive a fair evaluation for your game submission. You could say that your game "has graphics superior to all of the major RTS games on the market today" and that's a fairly powerful statement; being able to say that your game is competitive with individual titles currently in development (Command & Conquer II, Dark Reign II, WarZone 2100) is even more powerful.

Beyond exaggerations and boasts, lying is even worse. Saying that you've thought hard about the multi-player aspects of your game when you haven't, or telling the PD person that your game has certain features that it doesn't, is a bad idea. It's okay to say "no, the game doesn't have this or that" or "no, we haven't given any thought to that yet." If the fact that you don't know something or that the game doesn't have something is a problem, lying about it won't help. What may help is to clearly identify whether the missing information or feature is crucial, describe to the publisher a plan for fixing the problem by a certain date, and if he or she is interested, delivering the fix in a timely manner. For example, if you are asked about multiplayer by a PD person, and you haven't spent much time at that yet, say so, and ask if it’s a problem. If it is, suggest that you'll spend some time with your team, and get back to him in one week with an answer as to whether or not it's feasible, and if so how much additional time and budget would be required to add it to the game. Don't just gloss over and say "yeah, we can add it to the game." When you say you are going to do something, you need to do it, whether it's meeting a milestone, or simply making a phone call.

3. Listen

Paul Neurath of Looking Glass Studios will tell you one of the top five dumb things that developers do when pitching a game is going into a long-winded description of the game's back-story, as if they were J.R.R. Tolkien. Developers sometimes build up pressure prior to a pitch, and just wait for somebody to "inflict" their pitch onto. They sometimes feel that if they only can get out their full story, full of passion and without interruption, then whoever is listening will "get it", and surely will want to sign them up to do a game.

You don't need me to tell you that instead of helping, this approach has to be the worst one imaginable. Yet lots of developers do exactly this. Some are nervous, some are poor presenters, some feel that they have to tell the whole story or you won't "get it". True, you do need to have something to say, but more importantly, you have to be able to listen and to respond to what has been asked for. For example, in an initial conversation, the only information you should "inflict" on the PD person you are talking to is that you are a developer, and that you have a game you'd like submit. He may ask you to tell him the long version of your game's back-story; if so, charge ahead. More likely, he'll tell you information about how to submit (NDAs, submission policies, when to call back) or he'll ask some qualifying questions (genre, platform, team's experience, how long until gold master). Answer questions quickly, concisely, and make sure you have a conversation going, not a soliloquy – give the PD person the chance to keep you on track, (i.e., to supply information that he cares about).

Make sure you follow instructions. If a PD person wants a half-page email describing what makes the game cool, don't write a book -- send him only a half-page email. If you can't communicate what you want in a half page, get someone to help you with it; I've yet to see a description for a new game that couldn't be boiled down to half a page.

Know the PD person’s hot buttons. Either by listening or by asking some good questions, find out what the "hot buttons" are for the PD person you are talking with. When you find a hot button, such as the knowledge that they are really looking for one type of game, or that they need games that have certain attributes or features, do three things:

  1. Ask a clarifying question so that can make sure you truly understand what the hot button is.

  2. Write it down.

  3. Without being blatant or cheesy about it, focus on the part of your game or presentation that directly speaks to the hot button.

For example, let's say that your title is a puzzle game that lets players do jigsaws of any graphic file they want – any .jpg, any .gif, .avi, and so on – and that you can cut the puzzle from 4 to 1,000 pieces. If you have picked up that a "hot button" for your audience is Internet-based multiplayer games, and your puzzle game has such a component, stress that and go into some detail on that front. Even though you personally think the other features are cooler, or were harder to program, or whatever, focus on what your audience cares about – it’s a lot easier to be successful this way than to try to get them to care about what you think is important.

4. Have good timing

Timing can make all the difference for game submissions. Over the course of a given week, there can be better days to call, and better times of day to have conversations. If you get a PD person at the wrong time and in the wrong mood, you can get a "no thank you" that your game submission doesn't deserve. Over the course of a year or two, things change, both in terms of the market ("what's hot and what's not"), and also in terms of corporate priorities.

Use tactical timing. Speaking to people when they are receptive to you and your pitch is important. Just because you caught them on the phone or cornered them at a trade show does not mean you should instantly go into pitch mode. Find out if now is good to talk about a game submission, or if not, when would be good for them. When calling people or arranging for meeting times, the time of the day, the time of the week, even the time of the year can be important. You want to meet with a publisher to show him your game at GDC or E3? Calling six months in advance to get an appointment is too early, while calling six days in advance is too late. If you get to choose a meeting time, choose something earlier in the show and earlier in the day so that you don't get lost or forgotten if other meetings back-up or if someone has to leave the show early.

When calling people, you obviously don't want to leave endless messages, but you may want to keep trying to see if you can get through. If you are not getting called back as soon as you like, keep calling, and try different times of day. For some people, early in the morning is good, for others, you can often catch them between 5:00 p.m. and 7:00 P.M. at their desk. A lot of PD people travel frequently, they may be out any given week; it may be best to wait until the following week.

Take the long view. If your planning horizon allows for it, the time of the year can also be a factor to plan around. In August and in late December, it’s hard to get anyone due to vacations. Much of the time before Christmas and major trade shows is a hectic period for PD people – a bad time to try to get their attention. Getting a chance to pitch at a trade show is a mixed blessing; yes the publisher wants to hear about your game, but you're competing with a lot of other games getting reviewed, plus all kinds of other industry activity, socializing, and so forth. If the overall timing of your product is good, either because it's in a hot genre or on a hot platform or is using an "in vogue" technology, or because the genre has nothing coming out right now, take advantage of that by stepping up your pitch efforts and letting publishers know that your game submission is timely.

If you have been shopping your game for a while, it may be that a publisher that previously turned it down may have experienced internal changes at their company and could now be in the market for your game. If a publisher thought your game submission had potential but turned it down because it didn't fit in with their plans, that doesn't mean you should never try calling them again on it. If, let's say, six months has gone by, and you still haven't placed your game, you may want to call them back, tell them of the progress that has been made on the game, and ask them if things have changed at all and if they'd like to re-evaluate it.

I touched upon the topic of first impressions earlier, but let me address it once more. You don't want to wait until your game is 95% done to bring it to publishers – you need feedback prior to that or you might wind up with a lot of wasted effort that could have been avoided. But you also don't want to go to a publisher too early, either. Ideally, unless your development team has a serious track record, you need to get your game to the state of a playable demo prior to approaching publishers. The playable demo does not need to be long, but it does need to have high production values, and actual, fun gameplay – you want to give publishers a snapshot of exactly what the final game is going to be like.

5. Make it easy on the publisher

Don't make it a chore to play your game or to see the documentation. The majority of developers I come across don't fully appreciate the importance of this point. The fact is, you are competing for attention with many other game submissions, job responsibilities, and the personal life of PD people. If they have to print out a design document because you placed it on the CD-ROM instead of sending them a printed, bound copy, or if they have to download your demo from an FTP site instead of just installing it off a CD, you may shoot yourself in the foot. If they have to read through a long design treatment or document just to find out the three things that make the game cool, that's bad, and they may not do it.

If you're meeting a PD person at a trade show, and you have a CD-ROM of your demo, that's nice – it might get looked at, if the publisher is set up for it. They also might ask you to just mail it to them back at their offices, where it may get looked at in the next two months, or it may not. Now if you were carrying around a laptop with the game running on it at the trade show, that may make all the difference in getting mindshare for your game.

Volunteer to make things easy for PD people. Many of them react favorably to a passionate, eager developer that is very respectful of their time and is willing to meet anywhere, anytime, to get their game submission looked at. A flexible, accommodating attitude can do two things for you:

  1. You might be perceived as a "good guy", and people like to make time to listen to "good guys".

  2. If you're perceived as being flexible and accommodating, you might be a better developer to work with down the road. Being able to communicate/demonstrate that you have a "can-do" attitude, that you solve problems instead of making them, is very good.

When you are at the point that you are actually submitting your game for evaluation, and you're past the point of gathering information about a publisher, by all means try to meet in person. In-person meetings have the following advantages/benefits:

  1. You'll be present to walk the publisher through the game demo correctly. They won't get frustrated, you'll be able to troubleshoot if it's not working, and you'll be able to explain what to do and what to pay attention to.

  2. A PD person can ignore a package on his desk, or can rush through the materials without really paying much attention to them. An in-person meeting forces people to pay attention.

  3. Did I mention that the games industry is all about relationships? If you want to establish a relationship, and become someone that a PD person remembers and cares about, there is no substitute for a face-to-face meeting. In person, you can read each other's body language, you'll have time for some socializing and small talk, and you'll become a real person in their eyes – not just yet another game submission chore.

Often publishers will ask you to mail the demo, and will decline a meeting "at this time." One thing you can do is say that you were planning to be in their city anyway on a certain week, and that you can make the demo really easy to get into if they'd like you to stop by for a few minutes. Another approach is to meet at a trade show. Don't be obnoxious, but if you can arrange to meet the PD person face-to-face, that's better.

6. Talk to the right people

There are a lot of publishers, and each publisher has a lot of employees. Additionally, there are a number of non-publishers that can help you get your game published and are worth talking to. Just because somebody works for Electronic Arts, for example, does not mean they make product decisions. Just because somebody makes product decisions, doesn't mean they make product decisions for your type of game submission – it might be the wrong genre, platform, or geography for them. You want to do your research to make sure you are talking to the right people, at the right level, in the right departments, in the right companies.

It is really important to know the publishers that are candidates for your game submission. A good thing to do is to create a database of potential publishers, and to update it from time to time. You want to pitch publishers that are interested in your type of game, and who are looking to make acquisitions in your time frame. As you're researching publishers, try to find out the following:

  • What genres of games they have published in the past, and want to publish in the future.

  • What platforms they have published on in the past, and want to publish on in the future.

  • What price points of games they have published in the past, and want to publish in the future.

  • What their current acquisition needs are, and what their overall appetite for acquisitions is.

For example, a company famous for PC CD-ROM military sims might not be interested in such a game if it is getting out of that business (e.g., Interactive Magic), while a company (e.g., Microsoft) that is committed to a genre (PC real-time strategy games) might have a full publishing schedule for that genre, and is not interested in new products in that category at this time. A great opportunity for a developer is a publisher moving into a new area that needs titles in that category.

Cold calling the senior vice president of product development for a publisher is probably not the best approach. Instead, you probably want to talk to people at the right level after gathering intelligence on them; cold calling should not be your first choice. One gathers intelligence by talking to other people – other game developers, people that work at the publishing company in other capacities, the gaming press, and so on. If you know the hot buttons of the publishers you are going to talk to before talking to them, you have a much better chance of making a first impression. Publishers also like to work with people that "know the drill", in other words, a developer that doesn't come across as a wannabe who is clumsily learning the ropes of who to talk to and what to talk about.

7. Prepare – Know your pitch cold

You're in a elevator at E3 with a publisher you've been trying to meet and show your game to. You casually mention this to him and he says "Great – tell me about your game." You know you have about 45 seconds before the elevator ride is over. Do you know what to say?

You have to be able to describe the most important elements of your game submission in 45 seconds or less. This is really important, and most developers I spend time with don't completely appreciate this at first. Whether in an elevator, on the phone, by voicemail, or at a noisy trade show booth, you need to be able to deliver enough pitch in 45 seconds to make people want to hear more. Not only that, but the people that hear your pitch (PD people, producers, and so on) have to be able to give the same 45 second pitch to other people within their organizations; as hard as you have to sell your game to them, they have to work even harder selling your game internally to senior PD people, marketing, and sales.

What should you say in your 45-second pitch? Well, creating these things is more of an art than a science, but some things to consider including are:

  • A high-level description of the game. For example, a PC horror game, based on the "Call of Cthulhu" license, with gameplay similar to Half-Life meets Alone in the Dark.

  • One or two reasons why the game is cool. These need to be short, easy to understand, and preferably original/unique. If you are able to honestly say yours is the first game of its type that does X, that’s good.

  • A very quick description of the development team. Naming several projects you've worked on in the past, even if you've changed companies, is perfect (e.g., "We’re the guys behind 7th Guest, 11th Hour, and TLC").

  • The project status. "We currently have a pre-alpha build with limited gameplay, our target gold master date is March 2000".

When you get a request to "send in your stuff", you want to make a good impression. Things to include in your submission package are the following:

  • A CD-ROM (or cartridge) with your game demo on it.

  • A "quick start" instruction sheet to make it very easy to get your demo up and running, and to guide an evaluator through the game.

  • Graphical assets, whether on video tape, glossy print outs of screen shots, or concept art.

  • A pitch sheet – one page describing everything at a high level.

  • A design treatment or design document, that includes milestone and budget information

Also, remember that one size does not fit all; tailor your submission package (and your pitch) as much as possible for each audience you're going after, focusing on each particular publisher's hot buttons.

Be ready to answer questions about everything, including your technology, gameplay, the market for your game, and the deal you are looking for. If, for example, you don't have an answer to the question "so how much is it going to cost to complete your game?", you are not ready to talk to publishers yet. Your answer could be contingent on what features the publisher wants, but you should have a range, and you should have an opinion regarding what features you feel the product needs to have. Spend some time pretending you are a publisher, and thinking up what questions they might ask, and then spend some time with other developers and ask them what questions they have been asked. With a good list of potential questions, you can develop quality answers ahead of time.

8. Treat submissions as a full time job

Preparing game submissions, pitching, and following up is a full-time job. If it was easy, if games just sold themselves, developers wouldn't use agents, and they wouldn't hire business development people. Game developers that don't have a business development person or an agent still have someone fulfilling that role – typically their president, who is no longer working full-time as a designer/producer/programmer.

Landing publishing deals is a very time consuming process, especially when you don't have many relationships with publishers. If you treat it as an afterthought, telling yourself, "look, I built a great game, I just need to mail it off to a few people and it'll be on the shelves by Christmas", you're probably going to be surprised, and not in a good way.

If you don't have persistence and patience, get them, or get someone that has these qualities to help you sell your game. You really need to maintain good humor as you call week after week, month after month just trying to find out if the demo you sent six weeks ago has even been looked at yet. You can't lose your cool, and you can't just ignore it, figuring that if the publisher hasn't called you, that means that your game has been thoroughly evaluated and rejected. If you are talking to someone six weeks after you sent your submission in, be ready (with good humor) to resend the same package in the event that it got misplaced at the publisher. Make it easy for a PD person to review your material, don't try to make them feel guilty that your package is around there somewhere and that they should stop whatever they are doing to find it -- they might not.

Next month’s article, Getting Published, Part III: "What to do if you’ve been Rejected", will be the final installment of this series. Do you really want to be a game developer, but you've not had any success yet, despite your best efforts? Next month we'll discuss some options for what to do next

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