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GDC Canada: What Do Game Publishers Want?

Current or former execs from Capcom, Foundation 9, and Next Level Games discussed pitch tips at GDC Canada, explaining how "passion for the product" and hands-on demos can differentiate developers from the pack.
What do publishers want from developers? A panel of business development experts, both from the publishing side and the development side, appeared at GDC Canada on Thursday to nail down some of the things both parties should be considering. Included on the panel were Sean Murch, in business development at Next Level Games; Adam Boyes, who was head of product development at Capcom, and is currently president of Beefy Media; and Chris Charla (pictured), vice president of business development for Foundation 9 Entertainment. They started by tackling the vague question of what publishers want. “The big thing we found at Capcom,” said Boyes, “and I think this is true of Japanese companies especially, is passion for the product.” But for him, the biggest factor was always prototypes. Having something hands-on is much better than a four page word doc, he said. “The guys that know the games, they understand white box, grey box, and prototype stuff that’s not finished,” he added. “But also there will be people in the room who think they’re looking at a finished game. You’ve got to have something that’ll really wow them,” such as some nice high res art or renders. “You kind of have to know what the publisher likes,” added Charla. “Some really want passion, they want to know about the story, they want to know about the gameplay, and some publishers just want to know the title, the budget, and when it’s going to ship. So you have to know your audience.” For Murch, the primary goal is building relationships. “When you have a strong relationship you have a two-way dialog,” he said. “They’ll help you if you have a good relationship, to be successful.” But what do publishers hate? One thing is long, dull PowerPoints. Boyes related a particularly painful anecdote. He was once pitched by an eager developer armed with an 84 page PowerPoint. “Each page had 6 points that came out at default PowerPoint speed. And after each one would come out he would read it, after I’d already read it, of course, because it came at a snail’s pace.” “You’ve got to hear about the biggest things right out of the gate,” he added. “I was in a pitch meeting recently where in 2 hours they spent 45 minutes talking about their audio pipeline.” You’re usually given one hour to pitch, he said. “If you have a compressed time schedule, start with the pitch right out of the gate. Then you can give the info about your studio later.” An audience member inquired – how long should your pitch be, then? “My answer to length is 30 seconds,” said Charla. “It’s called an elevator pitch for a reason. You’ve got to be able to do it in 30 seconds, and then you can expand from there.” He related an anecdote in which his team prepared 5 hours of material just in case the meeting went longer, but had rehearsed it at an hour. The pitch wound up going 3 hours, and was largely successful because they’d built the pitch to scale. “Our best pitches ever were the ones where we could come in and know we could crush it,” added Charla. “When we were 20 people that was knowing we could crush a Game Boy Color game... Even now I wouldn’t go in with Foundation 9 and be like ‘we’re going to make Mass Effect 2.’ Because we can’t.” The panel agreed that developers should be honest about what they can and can’t do. “You don’t want to be in that mode where you feel like a salesman,” said Murch. “You want to feel like a partner. You should get to the stage where you can be like ‘why do I need to work with this publisher, why do I want to work on your product?’ “I’d say in the last year, a lot more publishers want you to do what they already know you can do,” Murch added. “In the publishing community there’s a lot more awareness of that issue,” he said, referring to the pedigree of developers. “There’s a lot of typecasting,” added Charla. “If you start out as a work-for-hire company making Barbie games, they’re going to start associating you with Barbie games.” People will keep coming to you just for that, and maybe that’s not what you want to do with your life. “A lot of people are so afraid of turning something down from a publisher,” Boyes agreed, saying that he respects when developers don’t accept projects that don’t fit their culture. Obviously it’s difficult to turn down money though. “You must have options,” said Murch. “You can’t, as an independent developer, be in a situation where you have to say ‘I’ve got to take this project.’ We (at Next Level Games) need to have at least three options, or else we’re really nervous. And we do that 6-8 months out.” Beware the death spiral, concluded Charla – “If you take a crappy project, then you’re less attractive to publishers, and then you have to take a crappier project, then you start losing the contacts,” and then it’s just a downwards spiral into obscurity.

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