E3 2003 – One of the toughest, least glamorous tasks for a designer is to pitch a game. You spend weeks (sometimes months) preparing documents, guiding concept art, and working on a playable demo (if you’re lucky) with the intent of convincing somebody you’ve most likely never met before that they should give you a large amount of money to make a game that may or may not be successful! In this case, I was pretty excited to pitch a game to one of my design heroes! However, the experience soured considerably when most of the Japanese delegation showed up wearing SARS masks and the star attraction just sat there and said nothing at all about the pitch. I have no idea what his problem was. Maybe he was tired. Maybe he was disinterested.
When I was a kid, I briefly worked a telephone sales job where I had to cold call people and try and sell them a magazine subscription to some weird Amway-style catalog. It was a very tough sale compounded by the fact that a coked-up manager patrolled the floor to ensure that we read off of a preprepared script. “Hi, my name is ______ and I’m presenting you with a unique opportunity that could change your life!” The only thing worse than getting hung up on or yelled at for interrupting dinner was the lame incentives in place for success. If we actually managed to make a sale, we got to go over to a locked storage room and pick one item out of an Aladdin’s cave full of giant-size candy bars. That’s right. Minimum wage and the promise of a giant-sized Twix bar. Pitching a video game is essentially the same experience!
First, put together a plan for the pitch. This is the preprepared script. Have your documentation, supporting materials (concept art, videos, free t-shirts, etc.), and script (what you’re going to say and who’s going to say it) ready long before you start making phone calls. Practice your pitch in front of people who are going to give you frank, honest criticism and revise the pitch with the intention of making it as concise and interesting as possible. During my time at Crystal Dynamics, one of the pitches to our parent company Eidos went through months of revisions and refinements before it was presented.
Next, you have to make a connection: a friend, a friend of a friend, an ex-coworker, somebody you met while you were drunk at E3, or even somebody who you don’t know at all with the hope that your name, company, or idea will somehow resonate enough to initiate some sort of interest. Keep in mind that the person you’re contacting won’t always be the person who makes the final decision on whether you’re idea is green-lit or not, but treat everybody with equal importance. Also be very careful that you don’t damage any part of your relationship with a connection. It’s a relatively small industry and everybody talks!
There are roughly three types of pitch environments: a pitch at a their place (publisher, venture capital partnership, etc.), a pitch at your own place, or a pitch-fest at a convention or trade show. Pitching your game at their place is probably the most ideal situation despite the fact that you will probably have to go through the process multiple times with different groups of people as you get closer to the person who will make the decision. At one publisher, I pitched my heart out to some guy who turned out to be an employee’s friend visiting for the day. That was a little weird! Also keep in mind that the pitch is on your dime, so don’t be frustrated by repeat visits to companies that are hundreds of miles away. Pitching the game at your place can add a certain comfort level, but can also affect a potential investor’s opinion of your ability to produce a game based on your surroundings. At one company I worked at, the company next door would “hire” us to make their company look bigger when investors came through! On several occasions, we had an executive producer from a publisher stop by for us to pitch to him, but all he really wanted was the free lunch that we would take him out to. Lastly, you can pitch your game at a trade show. This is a real mixed bag depending on when you pitch because a lot of these companies will line up a ton of pitches during this time and you may end up pitching to a room of people who are hung over or want to rush you so that they can get to the next pitch.
When it comes time to pitch the game, try and get some idea of who will be at the pitch. Look up their bios on LinkedIn to get an idea of their background and consider adjusting the pitch slightly depending on who you’re talking to. For example, a pitch to a group of game designers should probably focus more on core gameplay mechanics, tools, and design process rather than budget and marketing possibilities. If you can’t find information beforehand on who you’re talking to, make proper introductions when you get to the meeting and carefully look at business cards before putting them in your pocket / wallet (a no-no in Japan) or placing them on the table in front of you in relation to the person it came from. The above cartoon actually happened during a pitch where a developer came in with a follow-up project to a title that had been plagued with bad design. Naturally, as designers, we asked him about their design process on projects going forward in order to prevent similar problems. Unfortunately for him, he neglected to find out who we were before the meeting started and his answer didn’t inspire a lot of confidence! DOH!
Finally, you need to strike a good balance of providing information while giving your audience enough leeway to inject their own questions and opinions which you can respond to in a constructive manner. You don’t want a pitch where you finish talking and everybody is quiet, asleep, or texting away on their phones! When you’re done with your pitch, always let them know that you’re done and ask for further questions. You’ll get some great questions and some not-so-great questions depending on who you’re pitching to. Either way, the trick is to make the meeting feel participatory for everybody involved!