Pitching your game to a publisher remains one of the most mysterious and challenging things an indie game developer can do. Part art, part science, many resources have focused on the pitch itself: what to put into your pitch deck and how to best get across the awesomeness and commercial potential of your game.
While it is certainly valuable to have those templates and guidelines, the most common question from developers is, “When should I be pitching my game to publishers?” Good question!
My typical rule-of-thumb response is mid pre-production, when there is a strong enough demo for the publisher to evaluate and still plenty of time until launch for them to do all their publisher duties (eg, ramp up marketing efforts).
But, the puzzle of timing is more complicated than that simple rule-of-thumb and is inextricably linked to traction (i.e. the progress and momentum of your project or studio). So, we are going to look at both timing and traction side by side to get to a more nuanced understanding of when to pitch publishers.
Caveat: The material in this article is most relevant for those pitching their premium-priced PC or console game to a publisher for project funding and marketing. There are many subtle differences for pitching games-as-a-service or free-to-play studios to angel investors and venture capitalists for equity-based funding, which are beyond the scope of this article.
4 Ways that Time Factors Into a Pitch
The “when to pitch” question is just one critical element of time that is important to consider when you are pitching to publishers. Let’s take a closer look at the four main time related elements.
Time to Pitch
The best time to pitch a publisher is simply when you have sufficient traction to convince them that this will be a successful deal. The simplicity of that statement belies the complexity behind having “sufficient traction,” hence the need to include the section on traction below… That said, understanding that a publisher is seeking success is important. Meaning, the best time to pitch is not when you are most desperate for funding, but rather when you can make a strong case for commercial success.
Time to Produce
Each pitch deck should have a slide dedicated to the game’s production timeline: When did the project start, what phase are you in now, when will core production start, timing of the closed beta, date for the Steam showcase participation, target launch date, etc. This timeline should include both the key production milestones (alph, beta, launch, etc), as well as anticipated major marketing beats (announcement trailer, Steam festival, PAX booth, etc).
When you build your timeline, assume that you already have the funding you need. That’s the plan the publisher is buying into. The publisher doesn’t need to see your plan B where you take five years working on weekends to finish the game.
Time Until Launch
Now that you have a clear sense of the time needed to produce the game, the publisher can evaluate two key factors. First, will they have enough time to do all of their publisher duties (i.e., marketing, localization, QA, PR, etc, depending on the nature of your deal). Some publishers are quite flexible, while others don’t like signing a deal unless they have at least 12-18 months until launch.
Second, the time until launch allows a publisher to determine if they even have an opening in their release schedule. For example, publishers will often fill up their pipeline 12 months in advance. When in a pitch meeting, it is critical to determine time to launch compatibility relative to the publisher’s comfort level and space in their lineup.
Finally, there is still some aspect of luck that plays into the timing of every pitch. Being at the right place at the right time…like randomly bumping into a publisher at a GDC networking event. Or, having the exact style or theme that publishers are looking for today. This can work in your favor, or work against you (e.g. if you were pitching a viking-themed game before or after the launch of Valheim). This aspect of timing is hard to plan for. In general, the better you stay on top of news and trends and keep plugged in with the community at large, the more timing may play in your favor.
5 Types of Traction for Pitching
Now that we have a more nuanced sense of how time factors into pitching, let’s look more deeply at traction. While more traction is always better than less traction, it is never clear exactly how much traction is needed. There is no precise number or goal to hit, which makes gauging your traction often frustrating. Nailing any one of these elements convincingly is usually sufficient to de-risk a project and win you a deal. That said, having solid traction across multiple elements is all the more convincing.
When your team is made up of true "rockstars" and veterans, deals come more easily. We see these announcements in the news, like when That’s No Moon launched with $100 million of backing from Smilegate. Clearly they banked on their experience shipping major hits like Call of Duty, The Last of Us, and God of War. When members of your team are directly responsible for major successes, the more team traction you can claim.
While we all believe we are working on something awesome, how well does your early demo or prototype convey that awesomeness? It’s quite rare for a publisher to sign a project without first playing a demo. A truly mind-blowing demo can trump having zero traction in the other areas. But I don’t use the term "mind-blowing" lightly…just having a build up and running with basic functionality is not enough.
Did your teaser trailer get a million views? Is the game being hyped as a highly anticipated release for next year? Are you already winning festivals? With a lot of buzz, publishers will actually start chasing you!
Building community around your game is always a wise strategy, both in terms of getting input on the game itself and finding your fans. This is often manifested as an active Discord server, as well as engagement across social media. The bigger and more engaged your community is, the greater degree of community traction.
The naked truth of raw gameplay metrics can be pretty convincing. If you are running a closed beta and can demonstrate player engagement (number of sessions, average playtime, week to week returns, etc) it is hard to argue against data that shows players are spending time in your game and enjoying it.
Given publishers receive a non-stop stream of game pitches, you can see how a combination of different elements of traction can tilt the scales in your favor, de-risk the project, and convince them that doing a deal is a good idea. If you have very low or no traction across those five areas, then you are not ready to pitch yet.
Ultimately the real timing puzzle is less about when to pitch but rather ensuring you plan for enough time to build up traction before you go out to pitch.
Jason Della Rocca is a game industry entrepreneur, funding advisor, and co-founder of Execution Labs.