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Level Two: Polishing
Beat 3. Propagation
Amplifying the Wave
The third and final part of your pitch presentation is about yourself and the team your project will need; a competitive analysis; time and cost estimates; and the project’s possible risks, constraints, and opportunities. After that, your presentation should end exactly how it started: with your title, tagline, and logo. Once more, let’s look at each element in more detail.
You will have to introduce yourself, who you are and what you did and your most relevant projects so far, both in terms of overall importance and in relation to your proposal. Preparing to introduce yourself goes beyond presenting facts from your vita, and also beyond the actual introduction itself. As a matter of fact, you need to prepare your whole pitch as an elaborate introduction into your personality!
As David S. Rose famously put it in his 2007 TED Talk “How to Pitch to a VC,” the single most important thing in a pitch presentation is you. This applies to video game pitches as well. Are you the right person to lead that project to success? Rose lists ten personal characteristics that you have to convey during your pitch, of which the most important one is integrity, and the most important three are integrity, passion, and experience. All three are hard to fake when facing a room of industry veterans who’ve seen it all. For the experience, you will have to acquaint the audience with the most relevant projects you worked on in the past, and you should always do that, regardless of how sure you are that everybody in the room knows exactly who you are and what you did. (Spoiler: they don’t.) Then, never conceal past failures. Not only would that be dishonest and count against your integrity, it deprives you of showing that you have learned from your mistakes and thus gained more experience. How much experience should you have? Well, all else being equal, that’s a question of scale and of proportions. The project you propose should be built on prior experience, and not exceed it by a large margin. It should be ambitious with respect to your prior career, but not flamboyantly so. The next two characteristics are knowledge and skill. Both you should convey through your game treatment and your knowledge about its economic conditions. But as you can’t have all the knowledge and all the skills that your project demands, leadership is another vital characteristic that you need to convey. Can you develop, inspire, and motivate a team and lead it to success? Your vita will vouch for you, hopefully, and your overall performance during the pitch. (And maybe you’ve already assembled a team, or part of a team, to be discussed further below.) Then, you need to convey commitment, that you won’t jump ship when worse comes to worst. A good indicator for that is how much time, effort, money, and other resources you have already committed to your original idea. Then, both vision and realism should inform everything you present. Finally, you should prepare the impression that you have what Rose calls coachability, denoting your openness to recommendations and advice. Yes, that’s a whole lot to incorporate in your pitch. But that’s what it comes down to if you want to successfully pitch not just your game treatment, but also yourself as the bearer of its vision.
Closely related to the matter of yourself is the matter of your projected team, which you will introduce after you introduced yourself. If you managed to collect commitments from experienced developers, artist, writers, and so on, for a capable core team, that’s terrific news. Because if you inspired them to commit in principle, that’s a powerful indicator for the viability of your proposition. This applies to any pitch type—in-house, studio-to-publisher, indie-to-whatever. Vice versa, if you can’t come up with anyone who would be willing to commit to your project, that’s awfully bad news. There might be exceptions to this, but circumstances had better be exceptional, and reasons convincing. Then, what if you have a team, but it’s not very experienced, and maybe you aren’t very experienced either? In his GDC 2017 presentation “30 Things I Hate About Your Game Pitch,” Brian Upton gave an answer to this. Without a reasonable amount of presentable experience, the only thing that can attest to your abilities and those of your team is a terrific prototype that is both playable and polished. That’s the thing that will speak for you, and it’s the only thing that can speak for you under such circumstances.
For the competitive analysis, you’re well-prepared already with your value characteristics table that you developed in the Preparation phase. You should check now whether you deviated from your planned value characteristics during the Process phase, and whether you need to incorporate new titles that hit the market after you started out. Should either be the case, correct for it, and you’re set. Putting your value matrix on a presentation slide amounts to overkill, Harvey Balls or no, but you can and should prepare it for your proposition handout (more on that in Level Three: Presenting). For your pitch, just prepare the most important points that determine and support your key value decisions.
For your preparation of the next two elements, estimates for your time frame and costs, this treatise cannot give you detailed calculations or formulas for your specific treatment. It can only provide you with a basic framework, and you need to flesh out that framework for yourself. Besides having experience, which goes a long way, you can find and ask domain experts for the game-, type-/genre-, and scale-specific parameters you need to know. Go to conferences, developer meetings, indie meet-ups, trade fair shows, and prepare in advance whom you want to meet and what you want to ask. Also, you can send polite inquiries per e-mail! And don’t forget Twitter. Twitter is a repository full of illustrious industry natives who’ll be glad to answer your questions as long as you pick and ask the right people the right questions in non-annoying ways.
Let’s start with how you prepare your time frame. During your pitch, you should be able to present an estimate for completion that is well-supported by facts and based on typical development cycles for your type of game, its scale, its platform, and so on, and on projected time allocations for everything from story development to casting, cinematics, and voice recording to testing and QA and localization. To do that, you have to break literally everything down that needs to be done into person hours and distribute them over your project plan. Factor in all known dependency relationships. Adjust for the average number of sick days and vacation days. Even after that, don’t stack everything too tightly—the number of team members might need to fluctuate at times, for example, and not everything or everybody might always materialize on schedule. Adjust for that, too. The more scrupulous your estimate, the better. Will you need projected milestones for your pitch? Probably not, except when your proposition is part of an existing franchise and you know exactly what the outcome will be, as discussed way back in the Preliminary phase. But chances are your pitch will be based on a brand-new idea where change is inevitable, and that calls for an agile approach. So instead of milestones, you might want to lay out a rough schedule for a number of viable but elastic interim products that allow for course corrections.
Then there’s your preparation of the cost estimate. Don’t ever let that become the elephant in the room. The better and more specific your time frame estimate, the better and more specific your budget estimate will be. If it’s an in-house pitch, this shouldn’t be too difficult. If you’re an independent game studio or a team of indie developers pitching to a publisher, that’s a more formidable task because you might not be aware of all the costs your project entails.
Here’s a handful of elements to consider for your preparations (many of them courtesy of Thomas Friedmann, business director at Funatics). Everybody who’s working on the project should be able to pay their rents and fill their fridges and pay their taxes over the project’s whole lifespan, and don’t forget social security and insurance contributions. Basically, you take all the person hours from your time estimate and attach price tags to each. Then, depending on your type of game, there might be third-party costs toward casting, actors, voice talent, localization, and similar. Or writers—for everything from menus to quick-start guides to story, plot, dialogues, and descriptions in a dramatically complete game. Next, calculate what equipment you will need, hardware and software alike, and if you want to license an engine or music or other assets. Then, there are several types of operating costs: office rent, heat, electricity, telecommunications, hosting services, cleaning services, insurance, tax consulting, to name a few. These aren’t directly devoured by your project but needed to maintain it. Add to that all kinds of expenses, including travel expenses, that you will need for research, presentations, meetings, and so forth. Also, you need to adjust for the location where your project will take place! There are measurable cost differences between running a studio in San Francisco or Seattle and running a studio in Salt Lake City or Austin. As an example, there’s a famous Twitter conversation where industry legend Tim Schafer, alias @TimofLegend, explains how his San Francisco–based team of twelve people in a two-year development cycle and with fixed costs of $200,000 for music, voice talent, localization, etc., burned through $3 million without even a hint of extravaganza. Normally, if you’re pitching to a publisher, you need not concern yourself with marketing costs. But if you have to, for whatever reasons, here’s a ballpark estimate: as of 2018, you can expect marketing costs for an indie game to go into six figures, and into seven figures for a mobile game. But, again, for your specific game, you need to inquire a bit deeper into it than that.
Then, after having prepared both your time and budget estimates, apply some math. How do these figures compare to the economic data of all the games that you analyzed in the Preparation phase (and collected in your reference guide for your value matrix)? To repeat, all that market data is far from reliable, but it will give you at least a rough idea about how your time and budget estimates compare in context.
Next up, you need to sketch the possible risks of your project for your presentation. To be able to do that, you need to make your homework and learn everything about the industry that is even remotely relevant to your specific game and its development cycle. There can be technological risks, when your game requires hardware or software that doesn’t exist at the moment, but will be available soon—hopefully. Effectively, there’s always a technological risk involved. If you want to play it safe and plan exclusively for hardware, software, graphics specs, etc., that already exist, your game will look dated when it comes out in two years. Which is just another form of risk! Then there are industry uncertainties, from sudden price hikes for hardware (think RAM) to ubiquitous consumer software going up in flames (think Adobe Flash) to strikes (think voice actors). Or, there might be a potential threat that the market will be flooded with similar games before yours is release-ready. Or that there will be dozens of cheap knock-offs with similar names two months after release. Be thorough with your preparations. Find the risks, substantiate them, and try to come up with contingency plans. (They don’t need to be perfect.) Being conscientious will score you a lot of points in the personality department discussed above.
The constraints your project faces are factors that are not risks per se but might become risks if they’re not handled correctly. Every game treatment has its own palette of constraints. But among the constraints you almost always have to face are the game’s principal adaptability to various markets and regions and the desired ratings for each of these regions. Here, aesthetic considerations can be constrained by economic considerations, and vice versa. Which is not only about sex, violence, and gambling! Specific to regional culture and legal issues all over the globe, there’s a shockingly wide range of factors to consider that runs from the reasonable to the quaint to the outright bizarre.
There will be more and other constraints that apply to your game, specific to your treatment, your game type, your country of residence, and so on. Be aware of them! Above all, as touched upon in the Preparation phase, be aware of the constraints that the Money–Time–Quality production triangle and its “Pick Two!” principle will impose on your development cycle. Ask yourself how this principle would apply to every major component of your game treatment and sort out your priorities in the context of your core idea, your USP, and your theme. If you can’t square this principle’s constraints with your vision, you’re in trouble. If you can, that will boost the viability and credibility of your proposal considerably.
Obviously, it would be a curious pitch that ended on risks and constraints, for psychological reasons alone. So try to think of additional mid-term or long-term opportunities that your treatment might support. The stress is on additional—everything that is cool about your game treatment as such doesn’t belong here! Instead, ask yourself whether it could accommodate sequels, spin-offs, adaptations for other genres, adaptations for different media, licensing, merchandising, or what you can think of. But whatever it is, be specific, and prepare these specifics thoroughly. Don’t just go and proclaim that your game could be easily adapted for other media, for example. Instead, suggest that a graphic novel would be a blast. And don’t just suggest that a graphic novel would be a blast. Explain why that’s the case, and do that by showing that you’re intimately familiar with graphic novels’ narrative, aesthetic, and economic conditions. Vague, unsupported statements won’t do you any favors. (While the question of intellectual property rights is outside the scope of this treatise, there will be a few thoughts on that topic in this level’s Outlook section right below.)
After preparing to end on a positive note in this manner, the only thing left is to wrap everything up with your final slide that contains your title, tagline, and logo, just like your first slide, and serve it to your audience with a plain verbal “thank you.” That’s all you need to prepare for. Everything else, from profuse testimonies of gratitude for listening to you to a final slide cluttered with personal and networking information, distracts from your cause and looks unprofessional. Everything anybody might ever want to know about you and your communication channels belongs into your proposition handout (more on that in the upcoming level). Don’t ask if there are any questions, or proclaim that you’re looking forward to answering them. Simply conclude your presentation with your title, tagline, and logo on the screen, and say “thank you.” That’s all. It’s not hard. Everything else will develop from there.
Now, preparations are just that, preparations. How much of it will appear in your actual presentation depends on the nature of your game treatment and several other factors, the most important being time. But there’s another important factor. When you select your material that will go into the pitch, always remember, as has been stressed over and over, that you’re not only pitching your game treatment but yourself and your team. As Brian Upton puts it in his already mentioned GDC 2017 talk “30 Things I Hate About Your Game Pitch,” your pitch has to answer two questions, not one:
Let that guide you throughout your pitch preparation, for your slides, your demeanor, and your handout, all of which we will discuss in this phase’s upcoming and final Level Three: Presenting.
But before we break camp and set out, let’s close this level with a few words concerning IP, or intellectual property rights.
IP rights won’t be part of your pitch, but you should have a clear goal in mind to guide you through contract negotiations later. What you need to develop is what’s called a BATNA in negotiation theory: your best alternative to a negotiated agreement. It’s not a bottom line. A bottom line is certainly useful, but it makes you inflexible during negotiations and leaves no wiggle room for imaginative solutions. As Roger Fisher and William Ury put it in Getting to Yes, you should think through and calculate all the possible choices you have, so that you’re neither too optimistic nor too pessimistic about viable alternatives, and know exactly the limits of these alternatives. During negotiations, then, you can always measure the result of any proposed agreement against the result of your best alternative, your BATNA, and decide accordingly—while remaining flexible toward imaginative “out of the box” proposals. These often come about through “broadening the options,” as has been mentioned before in a different context. In the context of IP rights, this could be scope or time limits or interesting compensations and conditions. Whatever it is, you can always measure it against your BATNA! Why is that important? Because IP rights are immeasurably important. Once you have given away your IP, you’ve made yourself more dependent on your publisher than might be advisable in the long run. Now, it doesn’t mean your IP could never come back to you—maybe you negotiated a time limit after which it will return to you. Or you can buy it back—IO Interactive’s management buyout from Square Enix in 2017, e.g., included buying back the Hitman IP under terms that were called “supportive.” But such examples are rare. Some will make you believe that relinquishing your IP for a publisher deal is industry standard, but that’s simply not the case. Shahid Kamal Ahmad, who headed Sony UK’s Strategic Content division for over a decade and commissioned hundreds of titles from indie developers for the PlayStation 4, Vita, and VR, put it very succinctly in “Pitching Is Courtship”: you want to own your IP in as many cases as you reasonably can. To sum it up, if you have a BATNA with respect to your IP, both you and your negotiation partner should be doing fine. And there’s yet another angle. If you’ve built up your IP from humble beginnings, by self-publishing a less ambitious game, by having written stories related to that IP that sold reasonably well, or comics or a graphic novel, or a web video series, or whatever you’re good at, that would strengthen your position considerably. Not only is your IP then something that already exists, it’s an asset you bring to the negotiation table.