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Getting Published, Part III: What to do if you've been Rejected

Despite your best efforts, your game submission has been rejected by a publisher. Perhaps a few times. Nobody is willing to give you money for your game, at least not now. You don't want to just give up, but you're not sure what to do next. It's time to ask yourself some questions.

Questions to Ask Yourself

Despite your best efforts, your game submission has been rejected. Perhaps once, perhaps a few times, or perhaps (gulp!) a few dozen times, you've gotten negative feedback. Nobody is willing to give you money for your game, at least not now. You don't want to just give up, but you're not sure what to do next. It's time to ask yourself some questions:

  • How interested were publishers in your game submission? Did they reject it out of hand, or did some of them come close to offering you a deal?
  • How far into the development cycle is your game? Is at the concept stage, or do you have a working demo?
  • What sort of feedback did publishers give you? Did they give you the indication that if you changed things, or did more work, they would be interested in a resubmission?
  • Who did you submit your game to? Is it possible that other types of publishers would be interested, either for different formats, or different markets? Is it possible that you were not talking to the right people at the companies you called on? Did you perhaps not submit your games to enough publishers?
  • How flexible are you? Are you willing to do whatever it takes, as long as it takes, to make it in the games industry, or are you dead-set on getting your current project published?

Locating the Problem

Answering these questions may help you think about where your game or your pitch falls short. If you're not getting the reaction you desire from publishers, one (or more) of the following five things is probably an issue:

  1. Audience: You are not talking to the right people.
  2. Pitch: You are not presenting your game and/or your team the right way.
  3. Idea: Your game idea is not strong enough to get published.
  4. Execution: Your game demo, technology, and/or art assets are underwhelming.
  5. Team: The publisher does not have enough confidence that your team will deliver what you promise on time and on budget.

If you don't know which of these is the problem, by all means, contact the publishers that turned you down, and ask them. You need to know what the problem is before you fix it. The following are approaches regarding how to overcome each of these 5 issue/problem areas:

Solving Issue #1: Audience

This is a relatively easy problem to fix. If you're pitching your game idea to the wrong people, find out who the right people are and pitch it to them. You want to pitch your game to the right people, in the right divisions, of the right companies. Depending on the genre, platform, and status of your game, certain publishing companies will be interested, others won't. Do your research, and look for (1) companies that have a history of publishing games like the one you are working on, and (2) companies that are in the process of starting to publish games like yours. Make sure you are talking to the right division/group within the publishers you are contacting, and make sure you are talking to the right people (typically product development/acquisitions people).

Gaining the attention of the right people is not always easy, but you have to do it. Be ready to invest time to identify who they are, get their attention for your game submission, and follow up with them after they have accepted your game submission to be sure they've reviewed it. Getting an opportunity to present in person is better than over the phone, but many publishers prefer to review your demo prior to getting together in person. Trade shows (E3, GDC, ECTS) are obvious places to find the right people and (better still) to present to them, assuming you scheduled an appointment ahead of time. If you are having a problem identifying and getting in front of the right people, it may be that you need someone's help in that area, either a business development person, or an agent.

Solving Issue #2: Pitch

It may be that there is nothing wrong with your game. It may be that you are not presenting the information in a way that makes publishers want to look more closely at your materials/demo. If the only problem with your game submission is the pitch - in other words, if the idea, execution, and team are sound - you definitely want to fix your pitch and keep trying to find a publisher.

Here's an important thing to remember as you gear up to pitch your game. You want to convey your game's genre, platform, and status when making initial inquiries, but you should always keep it very simple. Conveying detailed information about your game up front is unnecessary, and may alert people that you are an amateur. Asking a publisher if, for example, the company is interested in "a racing game for the PC that is 12 months from being finished" is a good question. If the answer to this type of a high level question is no, you know they are the wrong publisher to speak with. If the answer is yes, you can go straight to telling them that you have such a game, and asking them how or to whom you should submit it, as opposed to trying to have a long conversation that might result in them not being interested.

In general, your pitch should be both a document and an oral presentation that you are ready to give. A pitch should have the following parts:

  1. Description of the game: This should be kept brief and high-level (big picture). You should identify the genre, platform, and intended number of players. Also, it is helpful to describe what game(s) your game is like.
  2. "What makes it cool?" section: What is unique or special about your game? Why are people going to buy it over competing games? You need to explain what differentiates your game from the competition. In addition to listing the features, characters, gameplay, license, technology, etc. that can differentiate your one game, if you have a brand franchise plan (sequels, add-ons, etc.), let the publisher know that he's not just getting a one-off game, but the potential for an ongoing game business from you.
  3. Time/Budget: How long will it be until your game is ready? How much will it cost the publisher? How much time/budget have you invested to date?
  4. Team Overview: You'll want to list who's on the team, what titles the team has done, and what previous companies/titles each of your team members have been associated with. You'll definitely want to stress why your team is uniquely qualified to make your game.

With regards to tactics and tips for pitching publishers, the last article in this series went into detail describing some of the dos and don'ts in this area. One thing to pay special attention to is contacting publishers for the second time. Make sure that you have something new/different for them to look at, and that you can clearly articulate why what you have is new and different.

Solving Issue #3: Idea

If you have indications that your idea is not a good one, you need to address this issue head-on. Either you have to convince yourself that the people giving you this feedback are wrong (they don't get it), or you have to look hard at modifying or discarding your idea. Some of the issues surrounding your game idea are:

Target Market: Your game idea has to have a market that a publisher feels they can make money serving. It may be that the market for your game is too small, or it may be large, yet too saturated by competing products. If your market is a problem, that probably means you need to redefine your whole game.

• Platform: Developing games for out-of-date or unpopular platforms is obviously a tough sell, though typically this is not a problem for most developers. For example, I don't know of to many teams that are developing for the Amiga at this time. A more common problem is that developers will pick a platform that doesn't fit with the type of game they want to make. For example, choosing to develop racing or sports games for the PC. Nothing wrong with PC racing and sports games, but these are game genres that sell best on console. Most game types/genres are usually identifiable as console or PC experiences, and trying to develop for the wrong platform can be a problem.

A note about online games: Times will change, but as of 1999, developing games that are only playable multiplayer/online – in short, games that don't have a single player mode - is a bad idea. With the exception of massively multiplayer persistent world games such as Ultima Online and Everquest, there is not a proven market for online-only CD-ROM games. Even if the heart and soul of your game is the multiplayer online experience, plan to include a single player mode if you want to get it published in the near future.

Technology: 2D technology is becoming less and less viable for game development, and not just for sports and first person action games, but also for strategy games (both turned-base and RTS), and adventure/ role-playing games. Many classic game formats, including side-scrollers and point-and-click adventures, are all but dead. Also, the lack of technology (3D hardware acceleration, Internet multiplayer), can be the reason for a game idea needing to be changed.

Timing: It's a bad idea to take a long time to come out with your game, as it might already be outdated by the time it ships. Also, it's a bad idea to have your game get caught in the crossfire from competing products - you don't want to launch an RTS the same season Command & Conquer II is coming out, for example.

License: The issues with license include (1) the wrong license (2) an unavailable or too-difficult-to-get license, (3) a too expensive license, and finally (4) the lack of a license. For example, an unlicensed mystery game may not appeal to a publisher, but one with the Sherlock Holmes license may be a different story. For developers, securing licenses is difficult. Typically, only small/unexciting licenses are available to under-funded, unproven developers, and publishers typically are not interested in those types of licenses. A nice situation to be in is to have a game demo that obviously lends itself to a particular license, and then to present that game to a publisher who either owns or has access to the license.

Price: It may be there is a market for your game idea, but not one large enough to support the development budget you have in mind. For example, hard-core PC wargames often sell between 50,000 and 200,000 units. If the budget you propose for a wargame would require 500,000 units sold to break even, you have a problem. One solution to the price being too high is to reduce the size/scope of the game.

The Game Itself: The game needs to be fun, and it needs to make sense with regards to the setting, the genre, and what the player does during the game. It may be that you have mixed and match your genre, setting, and game type in a way that doesn't appeal. For example, a detailed simulation is a good approach for a WW II air combat game, but might be a poor approach for a pro wrestling game.

If the problem with your game is the idea, it may be possible to fix/modify, or it may require you to move on to a whole new idea.

Solving Issue #4: Execution

If there is a problem with your execution, it will either be a problem of quality, or that it is still too early (you haven't developed enough yet). If the problem is quality, sorry Charlie, you have a big problem. If the art or technology looks old/bad, if the game demo is no fun and/or buggy, then you have no choice but too fix it. Showing an inferior demo and telling a publisher to "just imagine" what it would look like once your team was funded is not a recipe for success.

If the problem is that you are too early, you need to develop more. Three things tend to sell game projects: a track record for hit games, a relationship with the publisher, or a gameplay demo. If you don't have the track record or the relationship, you really have no choice but to develop a demo that plays like your vision of the final game. It doesn't have to be huge, but it does have to let the user feel like he is playing the final version of the game. It has to look/sound cutting edge, and it has to be fun. Developing a proper demo is expensive; you have to have the time and/or cash to do it. If you don't, you are not going to compare well with other choices publishers have for investing their limited game development capital. Raising money for game development is not easy either. One option is to put your game on hold, and look to get a work-for-hire contract with a publisher to do a port for one of their games. With money coming in from the contract work, you can allocate some time/resources to keep working on your demo in the background.

Solving Issue #5: Team

If publishers are indicating they don't believe in your team, here are some options:

  1. Develop your game to the point that "the proof is in the pudding." In other words, they can judge the team by the work accomplished.
  2. Have them meet the team in person. This can be most useful for situations where the publisher's opinion is not 100% formed and there's some room to win them over.
  3. Hire new team members with good track records/resumes, either as employees or contractors.
  4. Partner with another, more established developer in some fashion. Maybe you could co-develop, or maybe they become the developer, and your group joins their company in some manner.
  5. Get a track record by taking on a work-for-hire opportunity, and then revisit the issue of your game.

Get A Job

If things are looking bleak, either because fixing your game looks too difficult or you don't have the money to get there from here, yet you don't want to just give up and get a "real job," there is still another possibility: get a game development job.

It may mean putting your game on hold, and/or it may mean dissolving your company, but if you are relatively new to the game industry, a key question to ask yourself is: "What's more important, my game, or my personal future as a game developer?" If your game is more important to you, there may be things you can do to push the project forward, but they may not be in your career's best interest. If a career in the game industry is more important to you, you may be best off shelving your game temporarily, if not permanently.

"Your game versus your career" is an important issue to confront. If being in the industry is your #1 concern, it may mean that taking a job with an established development company is your best strategy short term. If you are a zealot for your game, then you are going to pursue only options that will allow you to further your game project, and you must accept the fact that you might fail and you won't have a place in the industry.

An additional consideration with regards to the game versus career question is time. If you have the patience to wait several years before continuing to work on your game, and if your game is such that it will still be a viable game concept several years out, your quickest path to getting a publisher to fund your game might be to take a job at an existing studio. Several years of good experience can yield the following benefits:

  • A better resume, which will increase the confidence of potential publishers, especially if you were involved with one or more hit games.
  • More experience, and the exposure to the methods/practices of other professionals.
  • Exposure to leading-edge game development ideas, prodding you to upgrade/improve your design.
  • A network of programmers, artists, designers, and producers that you may want to recruit to work on your game.
  • The possibility to develop your game where you work.

The idea is similar to the concept of choosing whether or not to go to college. While going to college, you forego the opportunity to do what you really want to do, but going to college may be the fastest (or only) way to accomplish your goals. One thing I tell people making career choices regarding the game industry is that console development is a better business than PC games development, and that depending on their long-term goals, they may be better off getting a job with a console game developer instead of running their own PC game development studio.

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