Mike McShaffry, programmer and producer formerly of Microsoft, Ion Storm and Breakaway Games, now works as a freelance consultant, and at the 2007 Independent Game Conference in Austin, he discussed effectively communicating your message to big game publishers in five key stages.
Stage Zero: Concept
First off, McShaffry began, your concept should be original -- but not too
much so. "The idea needs to be somewhat grounded, and something the publisher is familiar with," he advised, born from an idea that you can point to and say, " If you liked playing this, you'll enjoy playing our game."
Brainstorm like crazy, he advised, and understand everything about your idea. "By the time you pitch, you should have a hundred times more information about the game than you tell them," he said.
Stage One: Research
McShaffry then advised taking a comprehensive look at the other games out there and taking note of who has published what. The key is finding the right publisher for your kind of game -- but at the same time, don't push something too similar to what they already put out. "Sell them something different," he stressed.
He advised talking to the publisher's business development people. "You can literally cold call a publisher, and say 'I'd like to speak to business development please,'" McShaffry explained.
Ask them lots of questions, he advised: "Do you have any licenses? Anything in your catalog that you'd like to exploit?" Most especially, highlighted McShaffry, get lots of info about their greenlight process, because every publisher is different
"Some publishers have entire committees... all these people are going to have a vote on whether your game gets made," he pointed out, adding, "As a general rule, the larger the committee, the more difficult it is."
Stage 2: Rehearsal
Practice, practice, practice for the big pitch, said McShaffry. Use friends or colleagues and rehearse it all, from setup to breakdown. "Rehearse it, and make sure you have all the materials you need to do the pitch before you get there," McShaffry said. "You'll make a better pitch if you do the rehearsal."
Stage 3: The First Meeting
"This is where most people screw up," McShaffry pointed out, "because the first meeting is not the true pitch."
For that first meeting, he advised, prepare some basic pitch materials. "You don't want to tell them everything," he stressed. " Show a vision to getting to the end. The idea is to get your foot in the door."
This is not the real pitch, but a meeting with a goal of proving you are "not a psycho" and garnering the interest of the greenlight committee, McShaffry explained.
"Be prepared to spend a lot of money to do this," he added. "If you do it cheaply, they'll definitely know." So at minimum, McShaffry advised, take a game designer, a production person, and a technical person. Have those legs covered, and make sure they know how many people you're bringing.
Stage 4: The Real Pitch
"They may ask some interesting questions that you need to go away and prepare for before you see the greenlight people," cautions McShaffry.
Of course, the basics are important too -- make sure you know exactly where the publisher is. And, he noted, Google Maps can be wrong -- he recalled Google Maps leading people astray who were trying to find Sega's offices. As a matter of fact, an attendee at the Austin event had told McShaffry that Google Maps claimed his hotel was in San Antonio (it wasn't).
"Make sure you have the right car - that everything fits. It's kind of like going out on a date. Show your best side first," McShaffry stressed, adding that with LA traffic plus set-up time, teams should leave well in advance and leave plenty of extra time.
"There's always something that could go wrong," said McShaffry, recalling one incident wherein, "we left a piece of demo equipment at the last publisher."
Another reason to rehearse - is that you'll know how much time it takes to set up. And if you need anything special, tell them ahead of time
"Once, we got stuck with no AV equiptment, no table or anything. We just walked in and thought 'this isn't going to work,'" McShaffry recalled.
"Take special notice of who shows up," he added. They'll almost always have a stack of business cards ready, so have a stack of business cards ready." One tip McShaffry offered is to set out people's business cards in the order they are sitting so you remember and can use their names during the Q&A session.
Added McShaffry, "It's really tricky to get multiple publishers to do this simultaneously. You have to manage that a little bit. If one publisher makes you an offer and you haven't had your other pitch meetings yet, there may be some delays."
Above all, said McShaffry, "This is where you need to really shine. Most of the time you're not going to get the chance to do this a second time."
It's also important to be flexible with travel plans, McShaffry noted. He recalled a pitch meeting where he was going with a client to see one person at a publisher's office. The day before the flight, the publisher called to reschedule the 3:00 PM meeting to 7:00 PM -- the time when McShaffry and his client were scheduled to fly back home. This can happen at any time, so McShaffry advises booking flights directly through the airline so that flights can be changed easily, and preparing to spend an extra night if necessary.
Had a pitch mtg where a client and he were going to LA to see a publisher (one person). The day before the flight they called "can't meet you at 3:00. can meet at 7:00." His flight out was at 7:00. Be flexible with travel plans. Book directly through airline so you can change flights easily. Be prepared to spend an extra night.
Essentials of Communication
"You need to be standing on the chair waiving your hands saying 'this is going to be the best game ever,'" said McShaffry, stressing the importance of communicating with passion.
Communication with authority is important, too. "Your spokesperson needs to know the game backwards and forwards," he said. The publishers will have plenty of questions, and, "You have to know what the answers to these questions are."
"Oh, and use a powerpoint deck, but make it a great one!" Added McShaffry. A few screens of art, video and sound would be good -- with one caveat. "Do not use the stock PowerPoint deck templates. Everyone has seen them a million times."
McShaffry continued, "Put visuals up on every single slide if you can. This is the first expression of your creativity and your style."
He even explained how the slide presentation should go -- slide zero should be "just cool art," which makes the publisher think, "Interesting, I wonder what that's all about." The first slide should introduce the team and your studio - "This adds credibility to your group."
The second slide should focus on the game concept, in direct sentences -- "What's the main character? What's the setting? What are they trying to do? That's what I want to know."
Specify the genre, too: "Be worried about cross-genre. They don't like that stuff. Even if your game isn't a pigeon-hole game, specify a genre so they can make comparisons." Finally, add thought impressions that answer, "What's the creative soul? What am I going to feel like when I play it? Compare it to other media - movies, comic books, et cetera."
The third slide should discuss why the game is fun: "If the game was already done, and you picked it up at Best Buy, what would you tell your friend about it to get them to play it?"
The fourth slide should deal with the story, characters and setting, as McShaffry explains, "Why do people buy games? It's about the game mechanic. But nobody talks about games that way. They talk about characters and setting. Concentrate on that."
The Almighty Demo
"The best demo to do is an actual, live, running demo - where you can actually play the game," McShaffry advised. "If possible, hand them the controller and let them play."
The goal is to prove the mechanics, the artistic design, and the team's ability to execute, he said. "You're going to crystallize whether or not the game team can deliver and show why the game is fun."
To save money, you can also use a pre-recorded demo, added McShaffry. Be sure to capture the game mechanic. The downside to this method, though, is that it doesn't show whether the game technology is capable of doing what it is supposed to.
Said McShaffry, "I've seen games actually get signed on nothing but storyboards, and I've seen games be pitched with nothing but a poster. It's possible. But not probable."
After the demo, discuss target market and market objectives -- "You've got to tell them up front what your goals are." Slide 7 focuses on the technology being used, and slide 8 should focus on the team, with the goal of increasing sales potential and removing risks.
Slide 9 should show the project's actual current status. And finally: "Ask for what you came for." Explained McShaffry, "If you just want to introduce them to the idea, and you want nothing more than their feedback - tell them that. That's usually a good tactic at the first meeting."
"Clarify where you are and what you want - but don't throw in the deal-breaker! Don't hide anything. Don't mislead them. But also don't volunteer any negative information they didn't ask for."
Time For Questions
"If they don't ask questions, you are doomed," continued McShaffry. "There are almost always questions. And you can tell by the nature of the questions whether or not they got it."
"Be flexible, but not too flexible," he added. "Have visuals ready to back up your answers. Use them, but don't ever show the main menu of all the slides you have."
Be ready to be blindsided and handle stupid questions, McShaffry adds. "The one that I hate the most is, 'Uh, I don't get it. Why is this game fun?' And I've had pitches where I literally watched them have fun, and then they come back and ask that."
Always be polite, informative, and take every question seriously. They may be trying to test you, and you may get a question you really hadn't considered. The best thing to do is admit defeat. Go back to the drawing board and work on it.
Stage Five: Following Up
Do a post-mortem - after you have left the building, McShafferty advised. Talk out your experience, who said what, who seemed to like the idea. But, "Do not say a word until you have left the building," he stressed, "even in the bathroom. You never know who's in the next stall."
And be prepared to wait for feedback. "It may take weeks," he said. Have patience, and let them get back to you. After a few weeks have passed, it's more acceptable to call and ask for feedback.
Added McShaffry, "Never tell them someone else is interested, unless you are really about to sign with another publisher. They already know there are other publishers in the mix."
He concluded, "If it all goes well - they will call you and they will likely want to visit your studio - you have passed the first major hurdle."