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The topic of clearly and concisely conveying an idea to another human being is one of the most important aspects of video game development and probably of any collaborative endeavor.
In our industry, pitching is a skill that can enable funding of your game idea and help sell it to your team and players.
It is essential.
We pitch in various circumstances – To investors, to publishers, to clients, to our peers. But the goals of a pitch are usually the same. We are trying to convince someone that our idea is awesome and plausible. There is never one without the other. For example, while pitching to publishers, it’s important to show that not only is the idea good, but the game can be pulled off.
I have worked in gamedev since 2006. I co-founded Anshar Studios in 2012, and I am the main person responsible for business development here, which means that I’m responsible for pitching ideas to other companies. I make them pay us millions for the games we make.
In this article, I will try to convey some of my experiences to do the same for your gamedev endeavor.
Before you get into the nitty-gritty of the game idea you have, it’s important to understand your motivation behind the idea. That motivation will determine the pitching outcome more than the idea itself.
We often know what our game is about; we sometimes even know how to do it, but we rarely focus on why we want to do a game we are pitching, and this is a critical factor. You can pitch the same game in the same way, but depending on the “Why,” the strength of the pitch will vary.
Let me give you an example: Let’s say we want to pitch a battle royale game in 2021 after having already had games like PUBG and Fortnite. So, because of those games, we can say:
“Battle royale games are continuously popular, and although we will be a little late to the party, there is still a big deal of money to be made on this genre if you put a good idea on top of that. So, we propose to do a game about…”
“Yes, we know it sounds crazy to pitch a battle royale game in 2021, but hear me out – we love BR games, we breathe BR, and most importantly, we understand BR games. We have an idea that can push this genre forward, despite the immense competition out there. So, we propose to do a game about…”
Even if you pitch the same game afterward, you know that you’re dealing with an opportunistic dispassionate approach in the first pitch. In the second one, you’re dealing with a passion-driven, innovative approach. Of course, I’m simplifying things here with this example, but the point is that the “why” gives you an insight about people, and this is what it is all about – the people.
Ideas are cheap; ideas are easy.
I am not saying that having a great idea doesn’t help or is irrelevant, but the hard part is doing it. You have to forge that idea into tangible gameplay. That is also how most of the investment sector works. Investors do not invest in ideas; they invest in the people behind those ideas. People they believe can pull it off. So, the “Why?” in pitching can be translated into the authenticity of motivation. What drives you as a person determines the believable degree of success you can achieve.
The theory behind this is well explained in this Simon Sinek TED talk, “How great leaders inspire action.” In it and his book Start With Why, Sinek explains that to inspire someone, you need to focus on the human reasons for creating something before focusing on the product itself.
With this subject, it’s crucial to watch Jason VandenBerghe’s “Forging Honor: Providing a Coherent Vision for a New IP.” This encapsulates the Simon Sinek “Why” idea in a very real game development context.
How to pitch your game is closely connected to whom you are pitching the game to and in what phase of development. But we need to start somewhere; we will get back to different types of pitches and phases later. For now, let’s break down a basic pitch structure.
I use a logline movie template from a very popular book on screenwriting by Blake Snyder titled Save the Cat!. The first chapter, called “What is it?” describes in detail how a movie script logline should be structured:
– Isn’t it ironic? – Irony in the sense of setting up unusual and interesting situations, like a cop trying to reconcile with his estranged wife, getting trapped in an office building with a bunch of terrorists (Die Hard).
– A Compelling Mental Picture – When you hear the idea for the movie, you should immediately be able to visualize it in your mind, and it should be interesting to you.
– Audience and Cost – The pitch itself should give at least a broad idea about what type of movie we are talking about so that we could derive a ballpark budget and a target audience from it.
– A Killer Title – Self-explanatory; a good pitch of a movie script usually involves a good title.
Although movies are very close to video games in many ways, I do not think you can copy this approach for both without some transformation. Here is what I propose:
“Isn’t it ironic” -> “Unique Selling Point”
The infamous USP does not necessarily need to be a new, fresh, and unheard-of idea. There is no such thing. True innovation is iteration and added value to already existing content. But you do need to flesh out what you will be iterating. It can be anything from a systemic, narrative, or art angle. But it needs to be encapsulated in one or two sentences.
“A compelling mental picture” -> “Player Fantasy” and/or “Reference mashup”
I think this part is the most important one. You must be able to paint a mental picture with one sentence that answers the following questions: “Who am I? What am I doing? Why is it cool?”.
Most video games are about playing out a fantasy. If you can describe that fantasy in one sentence, it is compelling; that is your pitch. You can follow it up with a reference mashup. Some sources will tell you that using references in pitching is dangerous because it can lead to monster pitches like “It’s GTA 5 meets Minecraft, but better.” It can create a mental picture of a spectacular production-wise disaster instead of a compelling player fantasy.
Using wisely can drastically shorten the time needed for mutual understanding between the one giving and receiving a pitch.
“Audience and cost” -> “Genre description”
If you know exactly what the genre is, it should be mentioned in the pitch. If not, it can be a part of the reference mashup to help show cost and audience.
Things that hint at the camera, art style, and how animation-heavy the game is will give a pitch receiver an idea of what the game scope can be and what types of players will be interested. An RTS with a survival mechanic twist immediately points to a notion of an isometric or big zoom-out top-down view. This, in my mind, creates the cost and scope of the project, the same way a third-person action-adventure perfectly encapsulates the immense animation scope the game will require.
“A killer title” -> “Promo art”
I have personally worked on over a dozen video games in my career that changed their title at the last possible moment. Using codenames or even a copyrighted title in production is not uncommon. For example, I worked on a game codenamed Gravity inspired by the movie under the same name and later released it under the title Detached.
I learned not to get too attached to a game title, so I do not think it is important in a pitch. A codename, work-in-progress title will suffice. But the one immensely important thing is the promo art. By promo art, I do not mean a mock screenshot. By promo art, I mean art that conveys the emotions and tone of a game.
It is much easier to sell a game idea that has good promo art. It can be costly to develop – a professional illustrator will create one anywhere between two weeks and two months – depending on the complexity, number of characters, and more. All in all, I think it’s a worthy investment for a AA game that tries to get millions of euros in investment. But, it might not be worth it for a small indie project. The thousands of dollars promo art might cost could be spent on something else. Video games are a very visual medium, so it helps immensely if you can pitch not only with words but also with art.
A good example of suggestive promo art is Ark: Survival Evolved:
It’s a matter of opinion whether it’s an amazing piece of art, but it describes the game well. Lady with a machine gun riding a dinosaur with sci-fi buildings in the background. This art speaks volumes about the game, adds a brief, visual description of what you do in the game, and shows what the USP is. With this kind of promo art, you are golden.
A logline from the Save the Cat! is also often referred to as an elevator pitch, which got its name from when you’re in an elevator with a high-level executive, and you want to pitch them your idea, you have about 30 seconds, so you need a clear and concise way to do it.
While I know that such situations happen in real life, I would not count on it. In a normal business environment, you will often find you have a short amount of time to pitch an idea. Your idea will normally be pitched to a very busy and easily distracted person. This could be a meeting with a busy CEO or a tired developer. Either way, communicating your idea in such a way is crucial, and it takes time to practice it. So practice whenever you have the chance, on your friends, on your co-workers, and others. Always remember Practice. Your. Pitch.
Once we know why we want to pitch something and how we will pitch it, we can finally focus on what we are going to pitch. Like I mentioned in the beginning, it is about the game and who and will be creating it and how. You need a great idea and a great execution plan; one without the other will not work.
To be able to convey a game idea, first, we need to clearly define it for ourselves. What constitutes a game idea? Most games are not single mechanic gimmicks. Even if they are, implementing and iterating on that single mechanics means dozens or hundreds of mini decisions that need to be made along the way. The ideas can evolve into drastically different products, depending on the execution.
This is precisely why publishers are reluctant to sign a deal based on a pitch document. The decisions have not been made yet, there are many questions unanswered, and the risk is too great. Studios that do get funding based on a pitch usually have a track record showing that they know how to make those decisions and know how to execute an idea. Especially if it’s in the genre, they have experience in.
So how do you define what a game is before it exists? I don’t think you can. But what you can do is confine the future decision space. There are different names for those in game design; some call these confinement design pillars, others a creative box that limits the decision space. Either way, it’s a set of clear guidelines by which you decide if an idea fits your game vision.
Let us take the 2018 God of War, for example. The design pillars for that game are combat, exploration, and a relationship between Kratos and his son. If a system or a feature idea does not support any of those pillars, it should be scrapped from the game.
Such an approach to a game vision helps with building a mental picture of the game. Clearly defined game vision is nowhere near a clearly defined game design, but it allows us to imagine what the game will be about and to better understand the pitch.
From my perspective, the team is much more important than the idea. You can deliver a lousy pitch along the lines of “I want to create a 3rd person action-adventure game.” But if, for example, it’s Patrice Désilets saying it – the creator of Assassin’s Creed – you will listen carefully.
The team portfolio legitimatizes the pitch. If there is a gap between the ambition of the project and the team potential, then it is a big weakness. Aiming for the stars is good, but a team of scientists and astronauts at your side makes it better. Making games is challenging, and even the team with all the expertise in the world will not guarantee success, but it minimizes the risk.
The way you showcase your team is super easy; you just line up the titles they worked on previously. Their degrees do not matter, their years of experience do not matter, their unique personalities do not matter.
Only what they have done matters. I had a discussion once with one of the world’s leading gamdev studios, bizdev. They have a huge back catalog of big IPs, and we wanted to offer our remastering services as a company. The first question was, “What have you remastered so far?” This was before we did Observer System Redux, so I got nothing, and I also bizdeved nothing that day, besides a relationship that I could use after I got more remasters under my belt.
I have heard hundreds of stories like mine over the years. A team portfolio is a crucial factor in a pitch. Nobody will believe that you can deliver the next Hellblade cause you want AAA quality in a nicely scoped AA game with the rag-tagged team of five friends fresh out of college.
And yes, I know that there are examples of indie teams going big, but don’t give in to the survivorship bias of these successes. If you want to create a game of certain quality and complexity, you need to have a certain quality and complexity on the team.
To better understand how to pitch and include in a pitch depending on your development phase, we need to agree on what those phases are. Different companies have different nomenclature for each phase, so I will describe what I mean by them.
This is the phase where we develop a business context for an idea. This is a pre-pitch phase where we decide what avenue of gamedev we are trying to explore. This is a phase where you decide things like the estimated budget or what genre you will attack. You will also decide what the target audience is and how the project will fit into your overall strategy.
This is super important and is often skipped in small companies. You never develop ideas in a vacuum; there is always a context to the things you will be creating, and defining that context will make the concept phase much easier. At the end of that phase, you should end up with a Vision Doc. You usually do not pitch a game at this stage. Some rare examples of extremely well-known studios or individuals can simply say, “I want to make an RPG,” and that will be it, but this does not normally happen.
This is an extremely important phase for pitching because even if you will not seek funding at this stage of development, this is the first time you start vocalizing what the game is about. This is where you start the process of learning how to speak about your game, a process that will not end until launch.
You should end this phase with at least two things: A Pitch Document and a series of questions you want to be answered through prototyping. Another thing to create at this stage is a Rip-o-Matic.
Pre-production has two stages: first is prototyping, where you try to answer as many questions as you can by prototyping different mechanics and approaches. This minimizes the risk on the production and allows you to prove to somebody else but yourself that the idea is truly remarkable.
The second stage is creating tools, pipelines, and restrictions for production. The more time you spend on planning those out, the less waste there is going to be in production. Depending on the idea, you can end this phase with a Vertical Slice, a Target Render, a main Prototype, and a series of prototypes. Every project is different, but there should be something tangible that you can show.
This is also the moment where many publishers like to start participating in the project – the hard questions have been answered, we have a proof of concept that the idea works, and the risk is lower. The only thing left is to invest a lot of money into production. This is not always the case; some publishers like to be involved from the beginning to shape the context. But that is more of a first-party development scenario, and even if it happens for third parties, it usually does not involve funding, only feedback.
Pitching a game after you have a vertical and are well into production is quite easy. You already have the pitch prepared, although it is a good idea to update it once in a while because things change in production, even if they should not. You probably have a Trailer and if not, just record some Gameplay Video, and you are good to go.
Sometimes, be it rarely, you pitch an almost ready game. It’s usually super easy; you simply send over the game alongside a pitch and a trailer – usually a gameplay trailer – and that is it. Creating pitching materials at this stage is easy; you have talked about the game a hundred times. Usually, pitching at this stage is not to publishers but storefronts and first parties, be it for a better visibility deal or some minimal guarantee deals.
I have seen hundreds of pitch documents during my career, but not that many Vision Docs. The line between “This is the context in which we want to create a game” and “We have an idea for a game” is very blurry at many studios. I try to make a distinction between the two because you never create a game in a vacuum. So how do you convey the context to the team that is supposed to create the game pitch and develop the idea?
You start with a statement – what is it that we want to accomplish here. It’s not a logline yet, because you do not know what the idea is exactly, but you know you want to accomplish something in a certain context. It can be your personal preference that you want to explore. You might have something to say with the game, or you can work for a company with a clear publishing strategy planned out and looking for titles aligned with that strategy.
The second thing to consider in this context document is the target market – the type of audience and platforms you want to develop. This can but does not have to determine the genre of the game. Some type of market analysis must be here; there are tools out there that can help you do that, from Quantic Foundry reports to SteamSpy and SteamLabs.
If the company strategy does not determine that, you also need to develop a time frame and budget context. Those are usually not rigid and, depending on the developed idea and new information coming in, it will be subject to change. But anchoring ourselves at this point – that we are or are not creating a 200m USD franchise – is important.
From my perspective, vision does not need to have the actual game idea, especially one often passed down by executives and marketing people. It just builds the context for the actual idea to flourish. But it can contain something like a mandatory IP that needs to be used on this game.
Some tools can help you determine if you are there yet with your idea. One tool you can use is Warren Specters 6+2+1 series of questions described in his Classic Game Postmorem: Deus X.
This is the single most important document that you will create for pitching. It should sell your idea clearly and concisely while answering all the most important questions that will be raised in the readers’ minds while going over the pitch. It should be so good that it does not require any pitch meeting to sell the game well. Even if you’re lucky enough to be in the room and pitch the game the first time you present it to a publisher, it’s going to be distributed to multiple stakeholders and decision-makers along the process, and you’re not going to be there every time it’s read.
Every project is unique, and every publisher is different. There can be times when you need to squeeze your pitch in a particular format, but in case you start with a carte blanche, below is a structure that I propose you use. I have iterated it over the years and used it as a starting point for my pitches, but every pitch is unique, so make sure to adjust accordingly if your game requires it.
Sometimes I like to call this section “summary” instead of “overview” because it is essentially a summary. It should never be longer than one page and should have all the information required for a successful pitch.
Why do you start with a summary, and why exactly one page? Because you usually have that exact one page to convince somebody to read it further. You don’t want to push your luck; the person reading it might not have a lot of patience and read through the entire thing if they aren’t hooked on the first page. We live in a world where mind space is crucial for many people, so you don’t want to add an additional strain. All the necessary information should be on this single page.
You can start with either a logline or overview summary points, which are:
- Platforms you think this game will be a good fit for
- Genre and/or target audience of a game; if it’s a mashup, name a mashup. If you think your idea is unique, that mashup is not enough; you can change into a target audience. For example, you’re not saying it’s a shooter, but people enjoying shooters should also enjoy this one.
- Number of players & game modes: This might not age well, but in 2021, it’s super important to be clear about the game mode. You market and target games with different modes very differently, so it’s important to be crystal clear about it
- Estimated release date/estimated production time left: You don’t need to worry about this binding in any way. This just gives the reader an idea of how big the project is and where it could potentially fit into the publisher release schedule.
- Estimated budget: Now, this one is controversial; many sources are stating that you should, in fact, not mention the budget. They say the combination of the genre and logline can help the recipient estimate the budget, and you don’t want to undersell yourself, especially when pitching from a country with cheaper labor costs. I, for one, like to put in the estimated budget because it immediately sets the tone. If I’m pitching a 4m Euro AA game, I don’t need to go through an extensive pitching process with a publisher that has its limit set on 1m Euro. By anchoring the budget, we speed things up. But on the other hand, I’ve been doing it for a while, I know what budgets are floating out there, and I know my costs for a small indie studio that is just setting up a permanent development operation. It’s very easy to create a small and unrealistic budget, so in that situation, not to mention the budget, team size might be preferable.
This is the logline mentioned earlier; the one to two-sentence pitch of your game, maybe followed up by some references. This is the most important part, so no pressure. You want to spend a lot of time iterating on this and testing it out on people.
Game pillars are a way to clearly define the design boundaries of your game – what your game is, but also, maybe more importantly, what it is not. If you have your game pillars well defined, it’s a great tool used to determine if an idea – be it for a system or a feature or character – fits your game. Suppose it’s contrary to the pillars; it probably does not, although there is also a chance you did not do a very good job on the pillars, to begin with.
Those should also relate later to your marketing pillars – what message you are pushing in your outside communication about the game – so in that sense, thinking about your game pillars as tools of how to describe your game to future players through marketing is pitching.
Game pillars may vary in form depending on the genre and the USPs of the game. Here are our pillars for Gamedec:
No Combat – By removing the combat system, players can focus on role-playing instead of tactical optimization. This allows them to focus on actual detective work, with no-fail states in the game. If we succeed, we will effectively create a new genre of games, like removing guns from FPS-created walking sims.
Cyberpunk – Gamedec gives players the chance to explore completely different virtual worlds: They can solve a case in a prehistoric landscape pulsating with dangerous reptiles only to be thrown into the blazing heart of America’s Wild West for their next mystery. Rich with dilemma, all these worlds are enmeshed within a gritty cyberpunk dystopia with no clear path to goodness or evil.
Isometric RPG – This genre broadly aims to mimic the feeling of playing tabletop RPGs. There is a thin line between designing interesting interactions for players and letting them figure out how to make interesting interactions of their own. The line between designing interesting interactions for players and letting them figure out how to make interesting interactions of their own.
I do have a problem now with how we named our pillars. Today I would go with things like “P&P RPG feel” instead of “Isometric RPG” because without the description, stating a genre in your pillars is misleading, but the descriptions are mostly fine and showcase the game’s focus.
My two favorite examples of really well-defined game pillars are the God of War (2018) and Doom (2016). From the God of War presentation, you can see how game pillars are also subject to change during the production, and you also iterate on them while you’re using them, similar to the logline.
This should be a brief list of game features that you view as either unique selling points for the game or main features that will be very important for the overall game feel, so they will receive a lot of love and iteration in the production. Although every game is different, some are more or less complex feature-wise. Your list should have between three to five features. It’s not a design document; not everything needs to be listed.
One of the cool definitions of a key feature is if you pull it out of the game, you have a different game.
A key feature is not only a name; it should be followed by a one to two-sentence description of the feature. References and mockups are also a nice touch to have.
Here are two examples from a Gamedec pitch I made a couple of years ago:
Interactions – An advanced dialogue system that mimics the experiences of tabletop role-playing games as accurately as possible. We expand on the idea of faction effects as presented in Tyranny, where access to dialogue options depends on the player’s previous choices and gathered knowledge.
If I gave myself feedback on this one, I would have had a better name for that feature, and a mockup or screenshot would also go a long way, just in case the reader does not know what we are referencing in the Tyranny game. But other than that, it is quite good.
Codex and Deduction – The Codex is a holistic map that links NPCs, companies, locations, and other case-relevant objects. It contains a Deduction Field mechanic where players can unscramble facts and evidence to conclude a case. What is important about deduction in Gamedec is that there is no fail state. Instead, case revelations present moral dilemmas. Players can base their conclusions on personal ethics, lawful integrity, or a sense of poetic justice, and Gamedec will remain neutral to their choice. However, the characters within it will respond to the player’s decisions according to their own ethical and personal beliefs.
This one is a bit too long; maybe it could have been split between codex and deduction because, truth be told, nothing is innovating about the codex part. It is the deduction that is the USP. So I would tighten that up, but besides that, it is a good key feature pitch.
The intention behind this section is to “cut the bullshit.” This is where you’re not pitching, not selling, not using big words. This is a summary of what the gameplay experience on a very basic level will look like. What you are seeing, how you are interacting with the game, what changes, based on your input, you can observe.
Depending on the type of the game, you can go about it in several ways. You could use core loop graphs – that work well for games with an extended meta gameplay and many interacting systems. You could use a player story, a verbose description of player experience in a slice of time, usually one minute. It can be an extended description of game modes, which will feel like an extension of the key features section.
Whatever way you are going about it, the important thing is that after this section, the reader should have a firm grasp of what we are doing in the game. Not who we are, not the story, not the grand concept, not even the emotional state we are going for, which is the essence of the pitch, but what the player does in the game.
If, for example, we are building a tactical game with an extended meta, you should be able to say if you are aiming for a 20%/80% split between meta and tactical, or 40%/60%. You need to know how many systems will be there to interact within meta and how long you are planning to have the combat missions. This is not the final game design. Most of this stuff is subject to change, but you need to show here that you know where you would like to end up.
If you can remember one thing from this article, please remember this – no one cares about the story of your game.
I might be too radical here; first of all, if I wanted you to remember just one thing, it would be the importance of a good logline. But seriously – I know the story is very important, especially in a heavy narrative game. Still, the whole idea of a well-written narrative is that you must make the player care about it, and you can’t do it by shoving exposition down their throat. This is a known principle in any kind of narrative. So why would you do it in your pitch? I’ve seen dozens of game pitches that lead with the story or made it a very big, multiple-page part of it. I’ve even seen story documents, written in a movie scenario format, send out in place of a pitch. This is not the time nor place to do it. A few sentence summary that supports the mental picture and the player fantasy is totally fine. Think of the back of a book description and then cut it by half.
This should be heavy in art and light in words. If you have any concept art that has been created for your game, use it here. If not, rely on references and other games. If you don’t have an art director on the team yet, go with similar game references. But it goes a long way if you can show that you thought things through and go outside of the video game medium. Ideally, you should be able to create a mood board for your project. I am a versatile video game developer, but art is my Achilles heel, so I will not pretend that I know how to create a mood board. Usually, an artist makes one for me, based on the references and a rough idea of emotions I was going for in a pitch.
There is also a lot of online material on how to create a mood board. It is important to remember to precisely describe what you’re showing on a mood board because it might be color-coding, and the recipient might think this is how you will depict characters. One to two sentences is sufficient, just do not leave it up to chance. Somebody might misread the grand idea. You can also have multiple mood boards prepared if you have the time and resources – for characters, overall game tone, color coding, and more. The example of a color mood board below was created for a TV series Russian Doll:
And here is an example of a color palette board from Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey from this article:
This is not a mandatory paragraph for me; it depends on the technical uniqueness of the project. If you’re making a single-player PC game using UE4, mentioning UE4 alongside the platform in the Overview section would be enough. But if you’re making something more complicated, like multiplayer, multi-platform, VR, proprietary engine, hardware-dependent features, and so on. It’s good to describe this in this technical summary paragraph. It would raise questions either way and including the answers in the pitch shows you thought things through. This is also a good place to list any fancy middleware you’re planning to use.
I have already stressed the importance of the team in the pitch, so I will not repeat myself here. Show the experience of the team based on the list of the projects they have been a part of, ideally together as a team. There is a different probability of success for a team of experienced individuals that already delivered something together versus a newly assembled team. If any of the titles the team or individual have worked on, won any awards, have high Metacritic, user scores, or have sold well, be sure to mention that.
It’s also good to mention the team composition; a complete team is less risky to invest in than a team that is still looking for a programmer or an art director. Key positions are important, like design, programming, and art. If you do not have those positions filled, it will raise red flags. Kickstarter is full of successful game projects that were never pursued because there wasn’t a full team behind the idea.
Easy to forget this one; keep in mind that even if you send a pitch through email with all the contact info in the email footer, it’s good practice to have all the necessary information in a single document. Hence, it’s easier to share inside a company, through pen drive, and so on. The easier you’re making it on the recipient to contact you back, the better.
A tool widely used in movie pre-production that is getting more popular in gamedev. The idea is that you create a target render movie or a trailer of your game, but you use whatever you need that you have available, with disregard to proprietary rights. It’s like creating photo/screenshot bashing mockups but movies.
Here is a great example of a Rip-o-Matic for the movie Looper. It’s hard to find good examples online; most studios do not advertise using those because of the previously mentioned proprietary rights. I’ve used Rip-o-Matics for both Detached and Gamedec. It’s a great tool not only to pitch your game but also as a pre-production tool for trailer creation.
It’s a video that showcases how gameplay will look; it’s not interactive but usually made in an engine. I was never involved in a game that used a target render, but it is a tool widely used by companies like Ubisoft. Depending on what resources you have at your disposal, how much you can use from previous projects, and what tools you have, creating a target render might be a valid way to pitch cost-effectively. There are examples of its usage in the indie world, like, for example, this video from Limbo – they called it a concept video.
This phase should answer all the questions the team imposed on themselves during the concept phase. It usually involves either the most important or most unique mechanic of the game. It does not need to be a singular prototype – you can have multiple prototypes showcasing multiple things; the trick is to later be able to coherently present the results.
For example, assuming that the art style is not super unique in this game and it’s not the unique selling point, you do not need to showcase it in the prototype, but it’s nice to have mockups ready to show, so that when you present the prototype, you can say something along the lines of, “It will play like this, but look like that,” pointing to the mockups. Considering the rapid expansion of art tools, high availability of art packs, and more, I also recommend doing at least a small vertical art slice, sometimes referred to as a “beauty corner,” so a small fragment of the game that showcases the target quality art.
This is the most common pitching material requested by the publishers. It’s not that far along in terms of the financial burden of the project, so the publisher can have a major impact on the production, but at the same time, the biggest risk that the idea itself is shitty has been mitigated by the prototype, as in, what you play is what you get, just smoother, bigger and nicer looking.
This should be a full representative of your game, systems, narrative, art, audio – everything. In theory, it should give you a slice of the final product. The closer the vertical slice is to the final quality in which you release the game, the better the production was running. Considering that video game production is a super complex process, the vertical slice looked quite different from the final product, mostly on the polish and UI side.
But at this point, there really should be no surprises for the investor. You see what you get; we have a slice; you want more, pay us more. The minimal risk involved assuming the same team that delivered the vertical is available to deliver the entire game and scale up if needed.
Trailers are great pitching tools. The primary idea of a trailer is to pitch your game to your players, so it quite reasonable to assume that you can use it as a tool to pitch your game to publishers. Gameplay trailers are always more favorably looked at because it builds a better mental picture of what the game is like. But if you’re early in the development process, a trailer that sells the player fantasy and the game’s main idea without showing the actual gameplay will also work.
On the one hand, you want to pitch as soon as possible, to check if your idea has any chance to take off. On the other hand, there is this very fragile moment in the conception of the idea, that feedback can kill it too soon. The most common scenario is that you start pitching when you have things thought out.
Sony published a blog recently that clearly stated you should have something visual to present the game, and a build or a prototype would be the best way to do it. You can find similar sentiment shared throughout the years both from publishers and platform holders.
Most discussions I had with publishers indicated that they want to know about the possibility of cooperation as soon as possible, even a simple logline that includes a genre so that they can share with you if there is a possibility of a deal. Then they like to be updated regularly about the conception progress. Still, serious discussions about funding start with a full-blown pitch document and end with a prototype or a vertical slice. Of course, there are exceptions. Especially if you have a long track record or history of cooperation with that publisher or have zero experience and no track record, sometimes just a pitch is enough to get the funding for the first scenario, and you usually can’t have any serious discussions without a vertical slice in the latter.
We covered many different ways you can pitch your game, but the most important one is still the logline – those couple of sentences that define your game fantasy. That is why I will now break down some examples to deepen the topic.
Let us start with a clean slate case study, an indie game made by Lucas Pope called Papers Please. We know the game won numerous awards, had massive critical acclaim, overwhelmingly positive user score, and sold well, so it should be easy to pitch, right? An example logline could go like this:
Papers Please is a puzzle game where you need to match certain administrative rules with the actual state of papers of people that try to cross the border. The game becomes more complex and ramps up the difficulty as you continue, all in a unique pixel art setting.
Sounds good, right? You add that promo art to it, and you are good. Well, wrong, that was a horrible pitch. Technically everything that was written there was correct, but I failed to build a compelling mental picture. There is no hook, no player fantasy, nothing. Let’s try this again.
In Papers Please, you are an immigrant inspector at a border checkpoint in the communist state of Arstotzka. Every day you make life and death decisions about the fate of people wanting to cross, and you weigh that against your family’s survival and your moral compass. Glory to Arstotzka!
Now that was a good pitch. From now on, this is how you pitch. There are still things to tweak here like for example, the game does not convey what camera the game will be in and how we will control the action. With Papers Please being a unique puzzle game, it is hard to do it with references, so maybe a mockup would be a good idea because adding another sentence with the word “puzzle” in it would not do the game justice, in my opinion.
Let’s go through a couple of Steam store descriptions. Those should be a good example of a logline because you need to convey in just a few sentences what the game is about. It is a bit easier because you have a game capsule above the description, and the description itself is shown alongside a trailer or a screenshot, but still, it should be really good.
This War of Mine
“In This War of Mine, you do not play as an elite soldier, rather a group of civilians trying to survive in a besieged city; struggling with lack of food, medicine and constant danger from snipers and hostile scavengers. The game provides an experience of war seen from an entirely new angle.”
“SUPERHOT is the first-person shooter where time moves only when you move. No regenerating health bars. No conveniently placed ammo drops. It’s just you, outnumbered and outgunned, grabbing weapons off fallen enemies to shoot, slice, and maneuver through a hurricane of slow-motion bullets.”
Both This War of Mine and SUPERHOT has a really good store description, in my opinion, while keeping in mind that you show that with a trailer and screenshots. This does not need to have a clear description of what the actual gameplay looks like.
Empire of Sin
“Empire of Sin is a new strategy game brought to you by Romero Games and Paradox Interactive that puts you at the heart of the ruthless criminal underworld of 1920s Prohibition-era Chicago.”
I do not like this description. First of all, Romer Games and Paradox Interactive are shown right below that description on the Steam page, so it is a waste to emphasize it. Empire of Sin fits nicely into a “tactical” game genre, and instead, in the description, the broader “strategy” genre is used. The setting description is nice, but I do not know who I play in this: A police officer? A mob boss? A grunt gangster?
“Gamedec is a single-player cyberpunk isometric RPG. You are a game detective who solves crimes inside virtual worlds. Use your wits to gather info from your witnesses and suspects, getting to the bottom of deceptive schemes. The game continually adapts to your decisions and never judges.”
Clearly stated genre, who you are, and the two USPs – being a game detective, and that the game is about choices and consequences with no right answers. The jury is still out if we need the third sentence here because it is more fluff than distilled information.
We can even go back to the last century and see the original pitch for Diablo. The logline looks like this:
While it aged quite well, you have the USP and a clear focus on an audience, what is deeply missing is: “Who am I? What am I doing? Why is it cool?” But the next paragraph looks like this:
Now I am good.
Except for Gamedec, one of the games made by my company, every example here was of a fairly big, well know the game or from some big names. Let try the same approach with a less know game to prove a point.
At the time of me writing this, the Steam store description for DISTRUST was:
“DISTRUST is an isometric survival adventure with procedural generation on an Arctic research station lost in the endless dark of a polar night. A story-rich fiction with multiple endings that suits both single-player fans and co-op enthusiasts.”
Alongside a promo art that looks like this:
The title, setting, and facial expression, clearly points toward a horror aspect of the game. The game genre builds a pretty nice picture of the game except, I still don’t know, “Who am I? What do I do? And partially – why is it cool?” Let’s try to tweak it a bit:
- While procedural generation is a big feature, I do not think it’s a main selling point of DISTRUST, and if it was, I would point to re-playability, not the tech
- There is a nice description of the setting, but the player fantasy is missing
- Game goal or antagonist would be nice to setup
- Mentioning coop is important; it should stay
“DISTRUST is an isometric survival adventure on an Arctic research station, where you play as a scientist sent on a rescue op, where you quickly find out that weather is the least of your problems. A story-rich fiction with multiple endings that suits both single-player fans and co-op enthusiasts.”
I like this one better, but we could iterate on it more. If I knew more about the game, I could probably point to some important pillars that I am missing as a player, that I would know as a developer. For example, one of the first things I would iterate is the nature of the problems. Maybe it would be good to hint here that they are paranormal?
It’s only a couple of sentences, but you can tweak them and iterate on them a lot and for a long time. And you should. Because when time on development passes, your understanding of the game grows and shifts, and that allows you to refine your logline.
That is all I have for you. If you do the following, you should be able to pitch your idea clearly and concisely, which will greatly increase your probability of being successful:
- Start with the “why;” you need to be able to clearly communicate why you want to create this particular game. Watch Jason VandenBerghe’s talk on this
- Create, iterate, and practice your logline; this is the most important part of your pitch
- Create a good pitch document; this is the most important piece of documentation you will create from a pitching perspective. Use the structure described in this article, but adjust it to the specifics of your idea
- Do not only pitch the idea, but the probability of you pulling it off as well. The team behind the execution is a crucial part of the pitch.
- Practice. Your. Pitch.
For reference, I listed some of the things that influenced me heavily. You might like to research the topic more and come to your own conclusions.
Pitching to Publishers: How to Impress and What to Avoid, 2012, Pete Smith
Thirty Things I Hate About Your Game Pitch, 2017, Bran Upton
Forging Honor: Providing a Coherent Vision for a New IP, 2017, Jason VandenBerghe
Classic Game Postmorem: Deus X, 2017, Warren Spector
Simon Sinek: How Great Leaders Inspire Action, 2009, Simon Sinek
Save The Cat!, 2005, Blake Snyder (just “Chapter 01: What is it?” is highly relevant to pitching)
I would also like to include my own speech I gave a while back:
I would update a lot in that speech, but I still think it is valuable. I did it again in a new format with new insights, but it is only available in Polish:
When we are done with the pandemic, maybe I will do a new one in English!
If you ever want to reach out, you can find me on Twitter: @LukaszHacura
My DMs are always open.
Agata Hacura, Marek Pańczyk and Kacper Szymczak for constructive feedback on this article.