Me and an unnamed publisher.
Hello, I am Creative Director at Warhorse Studios where I am currently working on as yet unannounced game. During the development, I am blogging about our journey to create a big open world RPG (you may read my older blogs here).
Last time we left off just at the point when we were embarking on a pitching tour of publishers to try and push our game on them (read it here). So it’s obvious what’s coming this time. Yes, you are about to find out what was conjured up at those mysterious meetings with the people who decide what games you get to play. Will ours be one of them?
We were fairly well prepared for the trip – I would say even well above standard. We had a working version of the game that looked good and contained a half-hour quest with all the basic game mechanics fully functioning, a several minutes long trailer, lots of screenshots, a presentation and a nice flyer on luxurious paper – all data recorded on flash disks shaped like gold bars and packed in leather cases. You’ve got to make an impression, and when I compare it to how we pitched other games in the past, this is a whole other league.
It’s worth mentioning all the stuff we hauled with us. Seeing as it’s not advisable to assume that a game development firm will have a computer in its conference room capable of running the game, we took along our own, which we named The Beast. Based on the catalogue, we thought the barebone case we picked was small. As soon as it arrived at the office, we found out that wasn’t entirely true. Nevertheless it was the smallest case that would hold the graphic card we needed.
Of course we couldn’t trust The Beast and the build on it to baggage handlers, so we had to haul it with us everywhere we went. Seeing as there was no bag or rucksack big enough to hold it, Martin’s wife made some nice straps for it. The trouble was, though, that The Beast looked a bit like a WMD and we were planning to drag it around airports for three weeks, so we were expecting from the outset that someone might try and confiscate it.
The Beast met its match.
Here we come
Surprisingly, nobody took it from us en route to our first stop in LA and the airport security guys only grilled us about what kind of guts we had inside it. The first issue came up at the LA airport, where we found ourselves with The Beast alright, but without Martin’s suitcase, which contained everything else – the flash sticks, gamepad, keyboard, brochures, cables...
We had a day to the good and the airline promised to deliver everything to us. The following evening, though, a few hours before our first presentation, we lost our cool and set out for the nearest Best Buy to buy everything (plus some underpants and shirts for Martin, who obviously also had all his other stuff in the suitcase too). After spending a couple of hundred dollars, we went back to the hotel and found the case sitting in the room, and surprisingly no one had ransacked it either. If anyone wants a wireless keyboard with a touchpad, we’ve got an extra one here.
How it works
Pitching is a thankless task. Usually you’ve got a few (score) minutes to persuade someone who’s not very interested in you to give you money for something you’ve already invested a huge amount of time and money in. And if they don’t give you the money, very often it means the end of the line.
The pitch usually has several rounds. First you have to get past the “doorman”, who weeds out the worst trash and sends you on further. Then you get to meet the producers, who really can make decisions, but even if they like you, they have to sell the idea internally to the company management and marketing division. Someone from a publishing firm once said that out of several hundred pitches a year, only about five games reach the shelves. Anyway, 100:1 odds are still better than the 100,000:1 shot for iPad, especially when the deciding factor is quality and not chance.
I admit that even though we’re no greenhorns, it would be beyond our powers to set up meetings with the right people in all the important publishers, so we employ agents. Those are people who help you sell your game and are usually themselves producers. They know who to go to, who needs what, how and for how much. I’ve known our agents since back in the day when I pitched a game to one of them when he was still working for a publisher.
The agents select their clients and the publishers know it. With a good agent you can slip past the doorman in the pitching pecking order and go straight to the producer. In our case the plan was to visit 15 publishers in two continents in the space of a few days. Organizing a thing like that is something of a marvel of logistics.
On the eve of the big push the team that was to deal with us arrived – Sean and Tim. We made a dry run of the presentation, showed them the build, showed the new version of the video that the graphic artists had sent us from Prague in the interim and then went out for dinner in a Mexican restaurant (good dining is a favorite pastime of all agents – when they invite you, you can believe it’s worthwhile), where they were just showing the Oscar awards on TV. Let mañana bring what it may.
One of our splendid repasts.
Time to roll
Before I get into this, let me straighten out a thing or two. Don’t expect me to name names. Given the nature of the negotiations I will be describing here and the fact that some are still open, that should be pretty clear. As it is, I am already letting the cat out of the bag a bit more than some people would regard as healthy.
I was pretty nervous before the first meeting. How will my presentation come off? Will everything work? Will we make an impression with our game? What if our competitors have done the rounds of the publishers with something much better and the benchmark has totally shifted? As a Czech, and therefore a representative of a nation unpleasantly frank and pessimistic, I was also a little anxious about dealing with Americans. Just like the majority of Czechs, I am thrown a bit off guard by extra-positive people who out of politeness say things they don’t mean (which is the European idea of Americans).
The very first meeting straightened things out, though. The presentation went down well, pretty well I’d say, and the negotiations were straightforward and open (really almost shockingly for me). The turn-up was that what we do was too expensive for them, despite the fact that we cost about a third of what a US company does. We left in a good mood though. They liked it, even if our seed will not take root there.
A typical crime scene.
We had sushi in another top-notch joint and headed for the Hollywood Hills, where we were greeted by a somewhat bigger fish and a cold shower in the form of a categorical ‘No’ – “It doesn’t look bad, the team is OK, but right now it’s simply not in a state in which we can see potential.”
I have to admit that an answer like that riled me a little. When you bring to someone a prototype that looks almost like the finished product and it’s not enough for them, what more do they want? The finished game? But then we wouldn’t have to come to them; we’d just put it out ourselves! In retrospect, though, I see it as a totally fair deal. A straight ‘no’ right at the start is better than one that comes on the same grounds after months of pointless negotiations.
But a rejection like that can seriously rain on your parade and make you pretty anxious. Next up was another smallish publisher, where the presentation was played to two poker faces. In the light of previous events, it didn’t make me at all happy, but on the other hand the fact that someone doesn’t exactly jump for joy when they see the first demo doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t like something. Let’s see how it works out. At least my spirits were raised in the underground parking lot by a gorgeous DeLorean.
I went to bed that evening considerably disquieted. Two meetings hadn’t turned out very auspiciously. What if the coming days would continue in the same vein? Until now I had thought that our prototype was totally sensational and, given the price, we had come along with an offer nobody could refuse. But it hadn’t looked much like that today…
Straight from the future.
In the morning we went to see the big fish – so big that we anticipated in advance that we hadn’t the slightest chance of success. Company mottos were hanging in the corridors and you would never think that the people you met here worked in the game industry. More like in a bank - expensive suits, high-heeled shoes and twin-sets. The guy we were presenting to didn’t fit into that pigeonhole, though, and turned out to be quite a likeable grouch. The presentation was again a little on the cool side, though it didn’t end up with a “no”, but a promise of further talks, which, we were told, was an almost incredible result.
I swear it wasn't me.
On the beach in Santa Monica we chowed down on what Tim said were the best burritos on the planet and then headed off for the other side of town to see a Japanese publisher. There we were greeted by the biggest audience yet of mainly Japanese producers, and the response was absolutely incredible. If we were on anyone’s wavelength, then it was theirs. You could see they really had to get a grip on themselves to keep from shouting from the rooftops how much they liked our game. They followed up with the right questions, which was no surprise, because they have experience with a similar game. Everything was looking really fantastic and I have to say I was really attracted by the idea of working with people who were so enthusiastic about the thing. Until we found out a few days later that their parent company was in trouble and they could forget about investing anytime in the near future. A crying shame.
Hard at work.
That evening we had a beer in the bar with the best view of the Malibu sunset, and in the hotel lobby by a hearth ornamented with an equestrian statue we began tweaking our presentation with Sean on the basis of the preceding experiences. The thing was, everyone had been asking lots about the thing I had thought would interest them the least - the background story and the development of the main character. I must admit I had been expecting questions about the wow moments and not that at all, and it was basically a pleasant surprise.
Most expensive view in Malibu.
The problem is, in a 70-hour sandbox RPG it’s pretty hard to explain the story. So we told Sean, who had worked in his time with Francis Ford Coppola, about the historical background of our game and, after several hours of brainstorming, came up with one PowerPoint page describing what it was about, with an emphasis on who the "Ginger Fox” was (Czechs know already). I would never have dared putting that in a presentation. No one could be interested in that, after all. But it turned out quite the contrary.
A tasty statuette.
Last minute surprise
The next day we were supposed to move on to San Francisco, but first we had lined up a quickly arranged presentation with a representative of a truly huge, powerful firm. Unfortunately it was only in the hotel where he happened to be staying. Given the conditions and the circumstances of who we were and whom we were going to see, I regarded it from the outset as a lost cause. And again I was surprised. The guy we met was the epitome of Mr. Nice and he liked our presentation so much that he immediately set up a meeting at his company HQ two days later. That’s what I call a wow moment and I began fantasizing about how we would be put out by a major publisher.
Then we boarded a plane and set off for Silicon Valley, where another big fish awaited us. Here, though, our chances were stronger. The people we were meeting knew my previous games (they had worked on similar ones) and the talks were very friendly and open. They told us straight up that for pushing our game in-house they would need materials with more wow moments than there were in our low-key quest. If we wanted to put out an AAA game, we wouldn’t get anywhere without epic moments. We assured them truthfully that ‘Epic’ is our middle name, only right now we are lacking a little thing called cash, and we promised we would deliver them something more epic.
That evening Martin and I decided to go to the nearby store to buy something to eat and some beer. We had no idea of the adventure we were embarking on. About three hours later, after we’d visited Walmart, Costco, Foodmart and a bunch of other chain stores, we realized that we really couldn’t buy groceries anywhere that weren't frozen or in half-ton packs. We bought a sandwich in Subway and beers in the gas station and talked until the early hours about how things were shaping up.
Big in Japan
The next day we were meeting two Japanese publishers and had another meeting arranged with the corporation mentioned above. The reaction from one of the Japanese teams was lukewarm, because the real decisions were made elsewhere, and the reaction from the second lot was warm, on the other hand. Except for the small detail that they were already preparing an RPG for the next gen (even though it was a lot different to ours) and therefore our chances were very slim. Anyway, we were questioned again about wow moments and the main protagonist and Sean boldly took charge of the history lecture.
At the big corporation we were greeted by a delegation of producers who had the biggest hits under their belts. All of them looked very satisfied. We didn’t screw up. I came to the general conclusion that the more successful the people, the more easygoing.
This is a stock photo and has no relation to the text.
We then moved on to San Francisco where just one publisher awaited us. Across the road from the company’s historical HQ was a pub with Czech beer where we gathered our strength. There were lots of people at the presentation and they seemed to like it, but again it turned out in the end that they would come to no decision about us here.
After a weekend of seeing the SF sights, we again boarded a plane and flew to the HQs of two more mega-corporations. In one of them they told us that they liked our game a lot and we could definitely count on their support – apart from funding, that is, because they were not publishers (true). At the second corporation we received a pleasant welcome from a large delegation. Unfortunately, as usual in big corporations, the one who had the final word was not sitting at the table and everything will depend on the outcome of talks that we won't be party to.
I swear this isn't me either.
After we parted ways with our American agents, with whom we had become very friendly after 14 days of travel and hanging out in luxurious restaurants, we set out for London and the European leg of our tour.
On the way there we had a stop off in Canada, where we had the pleasure of our first altercation with Immigration – not on account of The Beast, but because I didn’t have the required visa for the switch from one plane to another. The Immigration guys drove us round the airport in a golf cart and finally came to the conclusion that it was better to get rid of us than to keep us, and stuck us on the next plane to London. They even gave us food vouchers to get us through the night at the airport.
In rainy London we were joined by my good friend Francois. We had a major meeting lined up in the UK with the European branch of a corporation that had taken a real shine to us. We were expecting a lot from the meeting, but we didn’t meet with the kind of optimism we saw in the US. They didn’t think their American cousins would be very keen on a game set in medieval Europe, even though they liked it. Now, if it were about King Arthur... Our hope vanished as fast at it had arisen.
In the next company we came across an old acquaintance, who back in the day had discovered a few teams in Eastern Europe, and so we were hopeful that history might repeat itself. Of course, we would have to wait through the in-house green light process.
At another Japanese publishers they liked our game so much and it fitted their portfolio so well that it almost looked like they were ready to sign with us on the spot. They would definitely get back to us and they were looking forward to collaboration! I was looking forward too.
We had some spare time and visited the British Museum archelogy department.
Then to wind things up came France, along with a whole series of unexpected pitfalls. Firstly, thanks to Martin’s Android telephone and its crash we missed our plane, and then two millimeters of snow fell, which caused a nationwide collapse in France, so for several hours there were no trains or planes running and nobody was working. In the end, though, despite the conspiracy of nature and socialism, both meetings went ahead and turned out very well. Both companies liked our game a lot, I would say more than anyone, and they will most probably come and check us out.
Little snow goes long way in Paris.
This isn't mobilisation in 1914, only there were no train services from Gare de Lyon for four hours.
To sum it all up, we had a good feeling at the end of the day. There was only one clear NO. A few more NOs came due to issues at the publishers (other RPGs in their portfolios, bad financial situations…), but the game went down very well. With several publishers we pretty much got to the second round of talks and we even had interest from people we had gone to practically just on the off-chance. More than half of the meetings ended with a promise of further talks and some turned out very promising indeed.
But it wasn’t all rosy. Quite often we heard the criticism that the game didn’t look epic enough and the hero wasn’t cool enough and looked a bit square. Our hero isn’t a boring character – the mistake was that we chose the beginning of the game, where the majority of heroes in RPGs are starting from the bottom.
The fact that our game isn't a fantasy game and it could be an issue came up a few times and once it totally ruined our chances. On the other hand, in at least two cases it was a huge plus. The presentation itself basically went down well. The game didn't crash, everything worked and the reactions to my explanations seemed good and our answers to queries were satisfactory. According to our sources, no one had any problem or concerns about our ability to get the game finished.
Our plane was last to leave Paris that day.
Out of a total of about 15 meetings, at least 8 publishers are supposed to follow up. Something's got to come out of that…
Dan Vavra, Creative Director