In the 70s and 80s, there were some memorable TV advertisements for Reese's Peanut Butter Cups that described the mix of chocolate and peanut butter as "two great tastes that taste great together."
Here's one of the first Reese's commercials: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GuENAWds5B0
They're really cheesy, but they were very memorable, and therefore presumably successful.
If you've been in the games industry for a while, or heard a lot of pitches for any kind of products, you've almost certainly heard similar pitches. They all follow this format:
"It's successful concept A meets successful concept B. It'll be huge!"
I like to call these pitches Chocolate and Peanut Butter pitches. They're popular for a reason: they usually promise a quick and easy path to big success. After all, since we know what A and B are already, shouldn't we be able to easily replicate them? And shouldn't Successful Concept A + Successful Concept B generate A+B profits and popularity? Any reasonable person knows this isn't true, but these pitches keep happening again and again, and they are greenlit again and again.
Often times, the pitch is a mash-up of two successful games. Other times, it's a successful game, but in a different setting. Recently, the popularity of mobile gaming has spawned endless pitches that suggest porting a popular console or PC game game to mobile platforms for quick and easy success.
Most of these pitches miss an obvious point that Reese's got in its marketing message: they need to explain why the two ideas will work together such that the product becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Reese's had it easy: it's because chocolate and peanut butter taste great together. And they could easily prove it with an edible prototype. Explaining why a game will be fun, why it's techincally possible to make it, how to market it, why people will want to pay money for it, why helps reinforce a brand, and knowing exactly what players will do when put in control of it, is far more difficult.
Many of these pitches are greenlit. Some of these products go on to make a lot of money. Some of them are actually great products. Most of them are failures. Before we go farther, let's consider some Chocolate and Peanut Butter pitches for a variety of products, since I think it'll offer some perspective. Of course, I wasn't there for all of these, and I have no idea what the actual pitch was for many of these, but I'm throwing these out just to get us all thinking about the concept.
- World of Warcraft meets the Warhammer universe (Warhammer Online)
- Resident Evil in space (Dead Space)
- GTA in the Wild West (Red Dead Redemption)
- Crazy Taxi meets The Simpsons (The Simpsons: Road Rage)
- Porsche performance and style meets SUV (Porsche Cayenne)
- MacOS meets UNIX (OS X)
- UNIX meets open source (Linux)
- Desktop OS meets mobile OS (Windows 8)
- Pyjamas meets blanket (Snuggie)
- Phone meets PDA (Palm Treo)
Why I don't like Chocolate and Peanut Butter pitches
Let me get straight to it:
- The presenter often has very little conviction in the idea, but is fishing for an idea that will be greenlighted quickly.
- They often fail to describe why A+B is an unusually great combination.
- They are rarely written with a customer's interests in mind.
- The presenter is afraid to propose something interesting and innovative because there is no historical data to show that it will sell, or because it will be perceived as technically challenging and risky.
- If A and B were successful ideas, someone is surely already making a better A and B. Therefore, your team is likely to be randomized and frustrated during the entire production every time sequels or competitors to A or B appear. If you can't say how you are unique, and how your game is far more than the sum of its parts, you will be playing catch-up, you'll delay your game, you'll go over budget, or you may just get canceled while trying to one-up everyone else who's doing something similar.
- They rarely give the team that has to go build them specific direction about how to go about building them. Teams succeed when they can focus, when they know what makes them very unique, and when they're confident that their ability to execute is high.
- Great products are almost always successful because of a team's execution in building them. Coming up with ideas and identifying an opportunity is the easy part. A mediocre idea that's well-executed can turn out fantastic. A brilliant idea poorly executed is worthless. These pitches almost always underestimate how dificult it is to build A and B.
Why they sometimes work
Chocolate and Peanut Butter pitches aren't always bad, and don't always result in bad products. In the examples above, there are some big successes. Some financial, some critical, some both. But there are bad ones, too. And we have a bad memory for bad products. It's really easy to correlate ingredients with success, but we rarely look for those correlations with failures, becase we spend so much time studying the success cases.
We can conclude, therefore, that Chocolate and Peanut Butter pitches aren't a formula for, or sufficient for, success.
When they do work well, they make it easy for the audience to understand a novel concept quickly. Great pitches are always brief and easily understood. I find that Chocolate and Peanut Butter pitches most effective when you understand how your product is totally unique and can pitch it without them, but have these kinds of pitches ready for when people are having trouble seeing what you're seeing.
Product pitches versus Marketing Material
Who knows how Reese's went about ptching their Peanut Butter Cups? I suppose it's possible the idea began with a slide presentation, but I'm almost certain that it began with an edible prototype. Also keep in mind that the commerical for Reese's Peanut Butter Cups that we started out with is marketing material, not a product pitch.
And that's an important point - great pitches explain why people will love a product, and therefore can closely inform a marketing campaign. They can show show that A+B will create something greater than the sum of its parts.
Be sure to distinguish between a pitch that inspires a team to go build something great, and a marketing campaign.
Show, don't tell
The easiest way to avoid bad Chocolate and Peanut Butter pitches is to prove the idea. Show it in action. Your pitch can be very simple if people can see it in action and see why it's a great combination of ideas.
Unlike peanut butter cups, software takes an incredibly long time to create, with large teams of people with very different skill sets. And you won't get to sample the product until it's pretty far along. That's extremely risky. Reese's had it easy: they took two common foods, mixed them together, and tasted them. And they found a magic combination. If it takes you years to just be able to test whether you have a magic combination, you probably won't be right, and you probably won't want to have to tell everyone you work with that you were wrong.
Why we take bad advice on pitching
There's a lot of bad advice out there on how to pitch new products. I've been given the advice to make Chocolate and Peanut Butter pitches many times throughout my career. And I think there are some basic reasons that people take that bad advice.
The first reason is that we look to games or products that succeeded in the past for advice on how to succeed in the future. And we associate all of the things that went into making a product with its success, even if some of those things were very bad ideas and affected it in some negative way. So, if someone tells you that a very successful product was pitched and greenlit with a Chocolate and Peanut Butter pitch, they're likely to belive that's how they should be pitching their next idea. The truth is, many of the techniques used in creating massive successes are also used in massive failures. But we tend to ignore that fact. We are highly suceptible to confirmation biases.
The second reason is that we like making difficult things seem easy and easily replicable, and so we constantly attempt to turn difficult, complex things into simple formulas. Big, publicly traded companies spend a tremendous amount of effort on creating processes, playbooks, and best practices in the hopes that they'll achieve easily replicable success. Struggling businesses are always seeking a simple way to turn their fortunes around. Everyone loves the idea that they have some secret that'll make their job easy. When someone successful tells you a secret that makes success seem simple and formulaic, it's hard to resist.
When your boss is under pressure to make a lot of money quickly, your boss will probably tell you that these are the kinds of pitches that he or she wants to hear. And we all like to tell our bosses what they want to hear.
There are no simple formulas for success, even though people will tell you there are. When it seems like there is a formula, rest assured that you aren't the only one who has discovered it, and you'll have very little luck standing out from the crowd.
Don't trivialize what you do
Has success ever been easy? Has it ever been easy to do exceptional work in your role? It hasn't, I'm sure of it.
Do yourself a favor. Don't tell anyone, including yourself, that your idea will be easy to pull off. Nothing worthwhile ever is, and you're only making your job seem trivial. If your job or your proposal is perceived as trivial, you will never get the time, talent, or money that it takes to do something worthwhile. And if you fail, you've done no one a favor.
What's the point of a good pitch?
A great pitch informs a great design. Chocolate and Peanut Butter pitches often miss the entire point of design: to create products that improve people's lives. Great products should excite and inspire. When you start a pitch with "A makes money, and B makes money, if we put A and B together, we'll make tons of money!", you're not starting with customer's wants and needs in mind.
My litmus test for a great pitch is whether or not I'd want to give it to a random person walking down the street. If I'm excited to give it and I think they'll be excited and inspired by it, then I know I'm on to something.
A good pitch is needed to get your idea greenlit. But if you're pitching your game to a team of people who believe strongly in the Chocolate and Peanut Butter product formula, you're wasting your time. They typically want quick, large, and predictable profits. And these pitches, which they seem to offer those things time and time again, in fact don't deliver. Ask your friends who work at big companies - I guarantee you they'll tell you far many more stories about how these pitches ultimately fail than stories about how they led to wild success and inspired teams.
But more importantly, a good pitch needs to inspire your team and give each and every person on your team, from every discipline, a clear idea of why people will want it (the best pitches describe why people will need it), what's unique about it, and what's important to focus on.
My personal definition of great design is this: a well-designed product becomes more than the sum of its parts. A good pitch should show how the ingredients you choose can become just that.
But my boss says that I need to focus on the bottom line this quarter/year/product cycle.
I've heard this throughout my entire career. The fact is, companies whose bottom lines are healthy are ones that have happy, loyal customers who can't wait to try everything that the company produces.
That said, I want to make a distinction here between art and design. Art, in my definition, is in service of the artist, and a great artist seeks an emotional reaction from their work. We know that's a good thing, but it's a hard sell. Few artists can create great businesses from their art. I believe this is what most people are afraid of when they say that they need to focus on the bottom line.
Design is in service of people. A great designer knows a lot about people, what they want, how they think, what they aspire to, and how they'll react to a product. Good design is good business.
By no means am I trying to cast negative light on artists or art as a discipline. In fact, we always look for artists who also have great design instincts, because they aren't exclusive skills. Those that have both are the most effective game makers.
What's my formula for good pitches?
I've used dozens of different techniques to pitch games. Some worked better than others. Sometimes, the same techqniue works well for one audience and not for others.
The simplest answer to this question is that every game, every company, every audience will respond best to different pitches. You could spend your time making many, many different pitches, in the hopes that every pitch is perfect for the situtaion. I've been caught in that trap, too, and I've found myself on a neverending quest to create unique pitches for every person I talk to. It gets you nowhere.
What ultimately works best is to remember that giving a pitch is just another design problem. You need to understand why you're making something, understand your audience deeply, understand why it'll be a great business, and why it's the perfect product for your company's unique portfolio. It needs to be easy to understand and inspire the audience with an infinite number of the ways that they could imagine exploring and enjoying it. Your pitch is a product.
Figure out what problem you're trying to solve, and build your presentation around solving it. If the problem is "how do we make lots of money, fast" then refer to the points above about why focusing on the company's needs above the customers' needs never, ever works in the long run.
Also, consider the possibility that if you can't get people to bite on something you believe in deeply, maybe it's not your pitch that's the problem. Maybe you're pitching it to the wrong people, at the wrong company, or that you might just consider just going out and buliding it. The list of games and genres that were invented by people who had nothing to lose, and built them as tinkerers and hobbyists, is quite long: Counter-Strike, DoTA, Minecraft, and Team Fortress are just a few. If you have a radical new idea, I assure you that big publishers are almost never going to bite on it. They prefer predictability and familiarity.
The best advice I've ever been given was to just have fun when giving a pitch. If you aren't having fun pitching it, it's probably not worth hearing.