(x-posted to Whose Turn Is It Anyway)
Robin Lees, host of the very enjoyable Whose Turn Is It Anyway podcast, wrangled a few designers together to write about different aspects of designing, playtesting and publishing games. Here’s the piece I wrote, which I thought I’d share on this site too. For the other articles in the series, head over to the Whose Turn site.
Part I – Get Ready for the First Pitch
Designing games is hard enough. Endless hours of prototyping, the slings and arrows of outrageous playtesters, and constant writing and revising rules. But all of that is just the prelude, the prep work for actually getting a game published. When you’re done with the design, when you finally have a good – no, a great – game, it’s time to get publishers to take a look.
Designing a game is the first phase of a larger process. Pitching is the next phase, and you’ll need to spend time and effort building up marketing collateral to help you sell the game to a publisher. Remember though, you’re not just selling your game, you’re selling yourself, so be presentable, be professional, and be courteous in all your publisher interactions.
Let’s go back to marketing collateral. Marketing collateral is a term used to describe all the bits and pieces that you’ll use to market your game. This includes photos, a sell-sheet, playtester feedback, pull quotes, your rules, your publisher prototype, and possibly even a playthrough video. Let’s break it down.
Taking good photos of your game can really help your marketing efforts going forward. You’ll want product photos as well as play photos. Your product photos should feature a few shots of the game laid out, with all of its components easily visible, as well as a game set up and in mid-play. You may want some more artistic close-ups of certain components, especially if you have something unusual, component-wise, in your game. Finally, you want pictures of happy, attractive people enjoying your game. Keep in mind that taking photos during play may not give you what you need. The faces people make while playing brain-burning games aren’t always photogenic, so go ahead and stage your play pictures. Most of us aren’t professional photographers, but try to take lots of photos in bright lighting so you’ll be able to show off your game in the best way possible.
Pro Tip: See if any of your friends is a photog and has a softbox you can use to shoot the game. A softbox will give you photos on a white background with no shadows, which is a a very appealing look. You can even make your own DIY softbox!
Your sell-sheet is your game’s resume. It will include all the vital stats, like number of players, length of play, ages, and component manifest. You’ll also have one or more photos of the game, and bulleted points describing how the game plays, why it’s different and why it will sell. In one page, this sell-sheet needs to:
- Inform publishers about what kind of game it is, who it’s for and what it will cost them to produce;
- Distinguish the game from all other similar games on the market; and
- Convince publishers of the unique value proposition that this game is making.
This is not so easy to do, and certainly not in 95 square inches of paper. Some of these goals are in opposition to each other. For example, you want to indicate the family of mechanisms your game uses, e.g. Worker Placement. This helps inform the publisher about the game without having to dive into the minutiae of the rules. But you also need to make your game stand out from all the other Worker Placement games on the market, to distinguish it, perhaps by explaining that in your game, Workers are animals on the African Savannah, and a zebra placed all alone might get eaten by another player’s lion!
If you want to learn more about making great sell sheets, check out these two great posts:
Pro Tip: If you’re not graphically inclined, spending a few dollars on a graphic designer to produce a logo and lay out your sell sheet is an excellent investment. Check out designers on sites like oDesk.com and eLance.com, where you can pay as little as $20 – $30 for a designer to help you with this project.
Some publishers will ask you to produce documentation of your playtesting. It’s not very common, but having a few feedback forms in a folder can’t hurt when you go pitching, especially if you’re an unpublished designer. It shows that you know not to waste a publisher’s time with an untested game. It will also be very helpful to keep track of great pull quotes from players, especially reviewers or fellow designers. Those quotes serve as trust signals that can validate a publisher’s interest. It also demonstrates that you are part of a larger community that is refining your ideas, not a mad scientist in a basement somewhere.
Much has already been said and written about prototypes and how nice they need to be. Just in the last two years, as I’ve gone to pitchfests at major conventions, I’ve noticed a significant uptick in overall prototype quality. More prototypes are being produced through POD outlets like the Gamecrafter and Print Play Productions. Designers are using icons from www.Game-Icons.net, downloading graphics from Google Images and Wikimedia Commons, and are generally upping their prototype quality. The days of hand-sketched prototypes may be coming to a close. While I still wouldn’t advise spending money for game art in a prototype, the bar has gone up, and good-looking games will garner more interest from publishers. This is another opportunity for you to signal to publishers how serious you are about your design, and what your vision for the game is.
Pro Tip: Bring a couple of copies of your prototype with you to a convention, so you can hand a copy to interested publishers. Sometimes, they’ll even play it at the show!
Your game already has a written rule-set, right? After all, it’s been out for blind testing, and you’ve spent a ton of time refining and revising your rules. It’s fully illustrated, laid out professionally, and is the next best thing to having you at the table teaching the game. Well, ok, maybe not. This is certainly the ideal, but it is honored mainly in the breach. Truth is, most designers struggle to write great rules. It’s really a very different skill-set from design itself, so it’s no surprise that alpha rulesets can be tough to get through. Yet publishers consistently offer that most of all, they wish for better rulebooks from designers.
Typically, after a publisher expresses interest in your sell-sheet, they will ask you for rules before inviting you to submit a prototype. In other words, if your sell-sheet is your resume, your rulebook is your interview! Do everything you can to have a clear rulebook that helps designers learn to play your game. Diagrams, setup instructions, and examples of play are all really helpful. The problem is that even a well-done alpha rulebook is still going to be more challenging to learn your game from than the rulebook of a published game. Your rulebook likely leaves publishers with a pretty high barrier to entry, which leads to my next recommendation:
Probably the easiest way to explain to publishers what your game is about, short of being there yourself, is teaching them to play in a video. A 15-minute video that teaches the game will make it much easier for many people to learn to play your game, and it will give you an opportunity to stand out and be a person, rather than a game submission. Not all of us are performers, and there’s nothing wrong with asking a trusted playtester to make the video if you’re not comfortable on camera. But the chances of your game getting noticed and getting played go up tremendously. Whether you’re doing a fancy shoot with 3-point lighting, multiple camera angles and a shot list, or you’re just looking at your webcam and hitting record, an instructional video will make your game much easier to evaluate and learn.
Pro Tip: Your smartphone is a much better video camera than your webcam. For under $20, you can get both a pocket tripod and a mount for your phone. With this setup, you can record high quality video anywhere. Both Mac and Windows have simple editing software to help you polish up your video. Don’t forget to smile big!
Part II – And Here’s the Opening Pitch!
Pitching a game to publishers can happen a few different ways. Some publishers will list submission guidelines on their website. Others aren’t as formal, and can be pitched by email. Conventions are a great time to make appointments with a publisher and events like Unpub and Protospiel often have publishers scouting for games to sign. Some of the larger conventions even have publisher-designer speed-dating events where you can pitch to as many as ten or fifteen publishers in one night.
Each of these avenues has plusses and minuses, and each should be handled a bit differently. Let’s take a look at them one at a time.
When publishers list submission guidelines on their website, they’ll usually indicate what kinds of games they’re looking for, and how they accept submissions. Sounds great, right? Yes and no. On the one hand, you’ll have pretty specific instructions on how to pitch the game. Typically, a publisher will ask for a description of the game, the components required, and other basic details. The downside is that these submissions can feel like sending your game into a black hole. Publishers get many submissions, and while publishers vary in their communication style, it’s not uncommon not to receive a timely response. It is perfectly normal for months to go by between submission and hearing something back. You’ll have to check in every 4-6 weeks, and that’s assuming that there’s an email address listed to check in at.
Once your initial submission is approved, the publisher may ask you sign a non-disclosure form (NDA). Usually, this form says that you agree that the publisher isn’t committed to doing anything with your submission, and that if they make a similar game in the future you have no rights or claims to it. This is totally normal. What should make you more wary is if the NDA stipulates that the publisher receives license to the game simply by the act of your submission. Once you’re past this step, the publisher may ask for rules, and eventually, a prototype. Since you’ve done everything listed in Part I, you’ll be ready when they do!
Pro Tip: Publishers are evaluating you based on your game description. Treat it like you would a cover letter, by personalizing the pitch to the company. If you’re selling to a company like USAopoly or Cryptozoic, who do lots of IP license games, demonstrate how your game could fit multiple licenses. Trying to reach Plaid Hat Games? Let your love of Ameritrash shine through!
If a publisher doesn’t have formal submission guidelines, see if you can figure out whom to pitch to at the company. Ask around, send emails to the general inbox, search on LinkedIn, and try and find the person who evaluates new games at your target company.
Once you know whom you’re talking to, go ahead and craft an email. You’re going to attach your sell-sheet to it, and links to your instructional video, so the email body is really an opportunity to introduce your game very briefly, and then explain why it’s a good fit for the company you’re pitching. We touched on this above, but let’s go deeper.
Companies try to sell to specific audiences, and develop product lines that conform to a business model or strategy. For example, box size and weight will dictate shipping costs. Publishers often have a small box-size around which they want to develop a line of games. Does your game fit that line? Say so in your email!
Another common issue is understanding the publisher’s audience and scale. Companies like R&R and AEG reach a bigger audience than Kickstarter publishers like TMG or Crash Games. Larger companies are going to want to publish games that they believe have a broader appeal and will work in more than just one market or niche. It’s ok to design a game specifically for one or a handful of publishers. In some ways it’s preferable. The more you understand that your game is eventually going to be a product that needs to find its market, the better you’ll be able to refine your designs and make them easy to license.
Some conventions are better for pitching, like BGGCon, while others are more difficult to pitch at, like GenCon. But even the worst pitch at GenCon is better than an email pitch so try and get in front of publishers as often as you can. That said, notable cons for pitching also include Origins and The Gathering of Friends (if you can score an invite). Unpub and Protospiel aren’t exactly conventions for pitching, but many publishers attend and sign games, so they should be high on your attendance list.
Try and line up your meetings in advance. You may design games as a hobby, but most publishers are doing this as a business. Their time is valuable and setting up meetings in advance shows them you will be a good business partner. No doubt things will come up, some meetings will get blown off, and opportunities will arise to demo games that you weren’t expecting. But start by reaching out to publishers 6-8 weeks before the convention to set up a meeting. These emails look a like email pitches, except that the call to action is to set a meeting at whatever the upcoming convention is.
Prepare for your meetings. Have a 30-second intro that explains what your game is about – not its mechanics, but its story, its premise, its soul. Then touch on mechanics. Richard Launius, designer of Arkham Horror and Eldritch Horror and Run Fight or Die and many more likes to retell his pitch for Arkham Horror. Listening to him talk about the terrifying Great Old Ones rising, and the investigators hoping to save the universe even as they slowly go mad is enrapturing. I don’t care what the mechanics are, I want to play! That’s what you’re aiming for – setting the hook so you can then unfold your game to a willing audience.
Remember that unless you have a short game, you likely won’t get a chance to play it all. Ask up front how much time you have, and be ready to show your game in anywhere from five to thirty minutes. I like to have more than one game on hand, in case the publisher isn’t interested in the first game. Having more than one game also demonstrates a certain expertise in design on your part – as a practicing designer you have more than one finished design ready to show. You may also want to bring a friend if your game requires more players. Try and bring folks who are fun to play games with, but who know why they’ve been invited – to help you show your game off!
I’ve tried to be as affirmative as possible up to now, and talk about what you should do, but let’s talk about don’ts for a moment. Don’t be late, smelly, or discombobulated. You can wear a t-shirt, but preferably not one that’s wearing your lunch. Don’t be someone you’re not, because if your game gets signed, you’re going to be in a long-term partnership with the publisher, and you won’t be able to keep up the act. Don’t be defensive. if a publisher gives you feedback, acknowledge it and say thank you. Even if you think the publisher has misassessed the game, don’t push back too hard. You might say something like “I thought that was going to be an issue too, but it didn’t come up much in playtesting,” but don’t go beyond that. Ultimately, a publisher is going to play your game a few times before signing it anyway. Your goals right now are to get the publisher interested in your game and in working with you, not proving that your game is perfect. It’s not, and the publisher will have a large role in improving it.
And one last thing. If the publisher asks about changing the art or the theme, be honest with where your lines are. Personally, I’m very open to those kinds of changes, but every designer has their own feelings about these issues, and every publisher handles them differently. Stronghold Games prefers designers who will take on the art direction of the game once it has been signed, for example. If this issue comes up, try to come to a meeting of the minds on this.
In the last few years, thanks primarily to James Mathe of Minion Games, some conventions have featured events where designers do very brief pitches to many publishers over the course of a single evening. You might see 15 publishers for 6 minutes each over a 90-minute or 2-hour event. These are fantastic events and I highly recommend participating. But how do you handle these quickie encounters?
First, you have to remember that the publisher who sits down in front of you is mentally stressed. His or her brain is receiving rapid-fire pitches from designers who aren’t all experts at pitching. It takes a lot of mental energy to wrap your head around a new game every six minutes! I know, because I’ve been on that side of the table.
Second, in six minutes, your goal is only to get to another conversation. Unless your game is very quick, like Win, Lose, or Banana quick, don’t teach it. Say your hook, show off the main mechanism, and then turn it over for questions. When a publisher sits down for a speed-pitch, they’re going to look at your theme, intended audience, game style and component manifest and make a snap judgment about whether this game might even fit their line. If the answer is yes, they’ll listen for why your game is different, neat and fun. They may have some clarifying questions too. Pay attention to those questions – they’re actually a kind of feedback on your game. And make sure that every publisher walks away with a sell-sheet. It’s pretty common for publishers to ask to play the game later at the convention, or even right after the official event, so put your mobile number on that sheet so they can text you later. At that point, you can shift into a more standard pitch, or even into a full play-through depending on publisher interest.
Speed dating is its own beast. Be rehearsed, don’t try and wing it. It’s not a lot of time, and you have important goals you’re trying to achieve. You’ll also find that trying to market your game in a short span of time will help you really hone in on what’s great about it. That can be refreshing, since as a designer you often spend a lot of time dealing with what’s NOT great! Use the opportunity to fall in love with your game all over again.
Pitching games is really another phase of the design process, and it calls upon a different set of skills. Be honest with yourself about your personal strengths and weaknesses, and find a pitch strategy that works for you. You may be great at design and fearful of face-to-face encounters. Great! Do more email pitches and send out kick-butt sell-sheets. Love the art of the schmooze? Hit up as many cons as you can! Handy with a camera? Video pitches and video rulebooks are your stock in trade. Be a boy scout, and be prepared with everything you need to show off yourself and your games the best way possible. Then take a deep breath, relax, and be yourself. Now get out there and start pitching!