Late last month, the Electronic Game Developers Society (EGaDS), a student group at the University of Texas at Austin, held a game design competition called GameCraft, which emphasizes the game pitch rather than creation.
The competition, sponsored by Sony Online, has student who are interested in game design create a professional pitch for a game based on an original idea. While a working version of the game isn't required to compete, the plot, visuals, gameplay mechanics, and production costs all must be accounted for and delivered in a neat and effective package, the same way a professional game development studio would pitch to a potential publisher.
After a grueling question-and-answer session with the judges, the top two presenters were named.
But the journey is more important than the destination for this competition. With game industry veterans as judges, GameCraft is really an experience in learning how to pitch game projects professionally.
Executive producer at Red Fly Studios Mike McSchaffry gave contestants some early advice at the preliminaries back in early November. His top elements of a perfect pitch, he said, are originality, preparation, conciseness, and a lot of art.
“This is a visual industry,” McSchaffry explained, encouraging participants to show, rather than tell publishers about their game. He ended by reminding aspiring developers not to be nervous. Big publishers like EA need people with ideas just as much as people with ideas need funding.
This kind of advice is exactly what students and EgaDS members want to hear.
“[We're] mostly made up of students who want to work in the game design industry,” said Joseph Harding, president of EgaDS. “[Our group] serves as an educational networking resource for these students. UT does not have a game development program, so we fill that role. As our members do often go on to work in the game design industry, we keep in contact with them and try to maintain an industry-student relationship.”
The five judges in this year’s competition were Julianna Budding, an EGaDS alumni and designer at SOE; Jared Carr, art director at SOE; Oge Young, producer at SOE; Steve Jackson, founder of Steve Jackson Games; and Kalani Streicher, founder of Kalani Games Inc.
After all the teams pitched their projects, the judges gave advice to the aspiring game developers.
First, Jackson asked contestants to justify the time that goes into coding a part of a game with the amount of time the player will spend actually using and exploring that content. Unless it is integral to gameplay, a mini-game, which might sound great on paper, may not warrant the time and money it would take to code. Programmers, like all the members of a development team, are a resource that must be used wisely.
Passion, something all the contestants showed, was a big plus in the judges' eyes. Games often take years to complete, and a developer's passion serves as a crucial anchor for the entire team. “It's the ones you really care about that you're more likely to finish,” Jackson said.
Jared Carr shared an exercise that he has used in pitching games, which helps to tighten the concept. After the development team has formulated a basic idea, they should design the box for that game. This includes the cover art, title, back cover, and all the text that appears on the box. Having a fully designed box instantly expresses the game's tone and visual style. It also helps the developers to see if their game stands out against competitors’, and it forces the team to boil the game's unique features down to three or four bullet points.
All the judges echoed this need for “uniqueness,” for two reasons. First, it sets the game apart from the competition, giving buyers a reason to choose it over a hundred other games, and second, it gives publishers a reason to hire the team, rather than make the game itself.
The judges stressed how crucial it is to put the development team into the picture when pitching a game. If the idea, for example, is to combine the gameplay from Gears of War
with the visuals from Team Fortress 2
and the plot from Wall-E
, it must be clear to the publisher why they need to hire “you” to create that specific game and not simply switch Gears of War for Unreal Tournament and make it themselves.
Lastly, Oge Young praised the elevator pitch as a crucial element of any presentation. The formula – “This meets that, but with this other thing” – instantly establishes common ground in explaining a concept. He added one last warning when employing it: “For god's sake, use a good game to compare yours to.”
Christopher Burke is a student and writer in Austin.