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What Publishers Want: 10 Tips for Getting Your Game Funded

In such a competitive landscape, how does a developer possibly stand out when trying to land a deal a game publisher? Perfect World's VP of business development John Young shares what he looks for in a pitch.

September 11, 2012

12 Min Read

Author: by John Young

In such a competitive landscape, how does a developer possibly stand out when trying to land a deal a game publisher? Perfect World's VP of business development John Young shares what he looks for in a pitch.

As a developer, you're only in the market to find a publisher every few years, but publishers are courting developers constantly. How do you stand out? What goes on after you leave the room? How specific should you be, when you don't really know yet what you have? What can you do to be the "must-do deal"?

Of course, you need a great game and a great team. But you've already got that, right? So, what can you do to avoid common mistakes, make a lasting impression and convince us to work with you? We started talking internally after meeting with hundreds of developers through the years, and a top 10 list was born. Here's what publishers would love developers to know:

1. LinkedIn is for Seduction Only

Let's start at the beginning -- the request for a meeting.

We get plenty of LinkedIn requests, and what works best is a short, pointed message that moves the conversation to regular email. What we'd love to see is: "Hi. We have an action RPG made by Will Wright, with a $3 million budget. If you send me your work email, I'd love to send more details." (I'd feel really happy if I got this email, as I did in my dream last night.)

However, far too often we see a long and twisty essay, the point of which is often never found. The worst part about these pudding-like requests is they are embedded into the LinkedIn invitation. This means if we want to accept you as a contact, we lose the essay. It turns out, unsurprisingly, to be much easier to ignore the whole request.

Use LinkedIn for initial seduction only. Send a tantalizing but to-the-point message and keep the courtship to meetings and Outlook.

2. Make Friends and Influence People

Another great way to get noticed by publishers and financiers is to come at us from someone we trust. We like it when we've made money with someone before and can speak freely with them and trust their judgment on new contacts.

If you don't have such a relationship with the person you want to pitch to, find someone who does. There are a number of networking events, meetups, and conferences developers can take advantage of in order to meet others in the industry.

Or consider getting an agent. DDM, CAA, ISM, UTA -- these intermediaries make our lives easier by bringing extensive knowledge of the industry to bear on the courtship process. Having your own personal Ari Gold can be very helpful at breaking through and getting noticed.

3. Timing is Everything

Part of our sense of well-being -- and some days our apparent purpose in life -- is to clear out our email inboxes. We really do want to give a timely response to every request that comes in, especially considering that it may contain the opportunity to discover the next Portal or League of Legends.

But when we go to a conference or a developer roadshow, our ability to check email is practically nonexistent. When we look at our inboxes afterward, it's like sedimentary layers of encrusted history, with fossils of things we don't need anymore. Your awesome pitch might be somewhere down there.

You may think your idea is so great that anyone hearing about it would come back from vacation to fund it, but the reality is that you should track when industry events take place, not only so you can attend and network, but so you can be aware that any emails sent during that time are most likely getting lost.

Having spent plenty of time on the "buy side", it's clear that the publisher/financier mindset is much more receptive when your pitch comes at a less busy time.

4. Simple Phrases for Simple People

Convoluted pitches make life more difficult for us, as most business development people are often fairly simple. We haven't spent as much time with your baby as you have. We might not have read your deck completely. We sometimes key in on details that are not the essence of what you want to sell.

So when you come at us with a complex pitch for a genre-busting game that transforms the way players relate to each other, we might not understand what you're really trying to build. Or worse, we imagine what we want to hear, not what you're trying to convey.

So a simple catchphrase is really helpful at the start of your pitch. When you tell us that you want to make "Gears of War meets Tribes", we can understand the rest of your pitch easier. Try this at home: Can you imagine "League of Legends meets NBA Street"? How about "Hero Academy with deck-building"? or "Neverwinter Nights meets FarmVille"? These are slightly disguised versions of pitches we've received recently at Perfect World. Such phrases sound trite and don't do justice to the subtleties of your design, but they really, really help us to get a sense of what you want to build.

Remember, we're simple people. You can fill us in on the details later, after you have our interest.

5. Create an Auction Mentality by Being Prepared

Let's say your pitch went great. The money guy on the other side of the table loves it and wants to fast-track things. We ask for production schedules, headcount builds, cash burn projections, team bios, design docs, art looks and feel details and a server network architecture overview. Are you ready to send all this over? You better be!

Having these details ready makes us feel you are ready to go with or without us. Done right, you create the impression that you're spending the week talking to us and all our competitors, and I'd better move quickly because you're ready to hire up and build. When you have everything we want on demand, you appear reassuringly structured and capable to execute on your plan.

By contrast, if it takes a week to send the team bios, it makes us think that perhaps the team is not fully gelled. Maybe the reason it takes a week to send the financial model is because it was never created in the first place, making us wonder if you can really deliver on time and on budget.

While publishers usually won't react well to ultimatums ("You better fund us this week or we're going elsewhere"), you can help your chances of being fast-tracked by creating a perception of a hot deal that will get funded one way or another. We're not all that different from teenagers who only want to go to the dance if other cool people are going, so fostering an auction-type environment where your perceived value is higher works, because we know the best teams get snapped up fast.

6. Help Me Persuade My Colleagues

Things went well in the pitch. The biz dev person loved it and is clamoring for info. Now your job is to make sure you are equipping them with everything they need to convince their colleagues.

The biz dev person cannot do a deal solo. All sorts of constituencies must sign off before we can move forward. Some tech expert is probably going to vet your idea for feasibility, and some production expert will second-guess your headcount growth. Finance people, lawyers, marketers, and senior management all weigh in. This part may be invisible to you, but for a multimillion-dollar investment, many other people need to say "yes".

Your job at this point is to make sure your pitch deck, and the mind of the biz dev person, is equipped to appeal to all sorts of personality types. Biz dev types are often extroverted, visionary types (or want to think they are) and may consume information in big picture swaths, but not everyone gets convinced that way.

Some people want anecdotes or social proof ("It's what the team at Cryptic is playing after hours!") Others want system design details ("We will encourage social grouping without a class-based holy trinity by...") Others want clever efficiency ("Our team can deliver everything by Tuesday"). Almost everyone loves pictures, so good concept art is worth its weight in gold. Some people want facts ("Eight classes, seven races, 60 levels, 12 zones…"), while others want historical proof ("Our team did X units/DAU/CCU on our previous projects").

Your job is to appeal to all types of people, even ones you don't see. Put bits of each type of persuasion into your pitch.

7. Confidence, Milestones, and Certainty

It may be hard-fought reality that a team needs to iterate to find the fun in a game, that an agile approach to making the product is better than rigid waterfall planning, and that developers should prototype first and ship when the product is ready to ship. (You learned the folly of predicting the precise arrival date of something so unknown as "fun" years ago in your career, right?)

But when you acknowledge the uncertainties and refuse to commit to specific deliverables, we imagine that fateful day, a year from now, when we're $4 million into a $3 million project and we have to decide whether to keep funding you because things are "almost there", or cut our losses and declare failure. We dread that day, and it scares us that our investment might turn out that way. We want to avoid that feeling whenever possible.

So what we really want to hear -- what we really need to believe in order to stand up to our CEO and swear that we'll stake our career on your success -- is that you're going to do what you say. Your team will be different. Your team will have no surprises. Your team is expert enough to see all the problems in advance and can ship a profitable product despite the unknowns, because you are smarter than us.

We love that feeling, because it means you're taking the risk! Whereas if you tell us all your uncertainties, you're forcing us to take the risk. And we really want you to do it.

Some developers hear this, and say, "So you're asking me to lie?" Not at all. We already discount your chances of shipping on time, and consider that we might have to fund you more. But if we think that you're unsure of what you're about to do, we discount more and your project looks riskier.

This may be the business equivalent of "does my butt look big in these pants?" There is only one response to such questions. A sure, swift answer with what you know the questioner wants to hear.

Be confident. We eat that stuff up.

8. Don't Be 100 Percent Original

It's not popular to say this, but most gamers choose to play something at least vaguely similar to what they've played before. And most publishers make money from a better FPS, a better MMORPG, or a better insert-your-established-genre here. Sometimes developers want to be too original, with the result that publishers and financiers perceive too much risk.

There is a role for experimental games, but it's a lot harder to be trusted by the money people. What we really want to believe is that you're adding a breakthrough new feature to something proven. Stay one degree of difference away from what works, not three.

Publishers and VC types feel more confident if you've done it before, and will achieve your success because of 80 percent hard-fought "repeater" wisdom and 20 percent new insight. When you are super-original and redefine everything, we might think you are brilliant... but you're out for funding, not compliments on your brilliance, right?

9. Stand Out

This will sound ridiculous, but most BD people generally look the same -- look at any of the ones you may know on LinkedIn. While it may be okay for the suit on your team to look and act like he or she was stamped from central casting, publishers like it when developers look and act distinctly and memorably. Don't hide your personality! Embrace and accentuate it!

Standing out benefits you in two ways: First, it shows you are "all in" to being creative. We need you to be creative! That mohawk, nose piercing or distinctive personality tells us that you think differently about the world, which is what we want (as long as things stay on time and on budget; yes, we do want it both ways).

But in a more pedestrian way, standing out helps us remember you. We might meet three developer teams per day on a roadshow, or six a day at a big conference. Remembering who is who after three days can be challenging. We love funny guy, super-enthusiastic girl, and beard guy. They really stand out!

10. Play Your Role

Pitches work better when each presenter has a defined role. One person should be the leader type, another might be the vision-holder, a third the tech genius, and so on. The impression you want to create is that you are a team with everything needed to succeed. You want to be like the A-Team. It's easier to convince us you are an expert at one thing, and that you're working side-by-side with a few other experts who can lead their respective discipline to success.

Generalists may be great in reality, but in a pitch, hold back the appearance of everyone being able to do everything. We've occasionally been in meetings where we keep checking business cards, thinking, "Wasn't that guy Brad? Says on the card that he's the CTO. But why is he talking about environment design? Maybe he's the art guy..." You don't want us thinking that; we want you to succeed, and in our experience it's hard to be good at multiple things at once.

Putting it All Together

Remember, we really, really want you to succeed. We take the meeting and hope that you are the perfect team so we can discover you, green-light you where everyone else failed to see your brilliance, enjoy huge success together and bring our companies to greatness in wonderful partnership. We imagine clinking martinis on our yachts in 20 years, laughing about the early days. We really hope you'll be the one.

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