- An elevator pitch: Yes, your eyes are rolling around at the mere thought of this cliche, but it’s an amazing conversation starter and a great way to get folks interested in your game quickly. I recently described A Plague Tale: Innocence to some friends as Hellblade and The Last of Us-meets-Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons — they were instantly able to decide if A Plague Tale was for them or not.
- A GIF: An interesting visual or some gameplay in a small enough file that the funding source can easily send it to others through email or text. The people you’re meeting with are highly social. Give them something to share, and it’ll go a long way. Heck, you can even reuse the GIF for your social media to gain interest and get folks to come to your website — that’s two benefits for the price of one.
- A prototype: Whether it’s a first playable, a vertical slice, or something else, please take the time to nail this asset. Given the amount of your funding request, this needs to be fun immediately. It can be short and focus on gameplay and feel. If you don’t have fun playing the prototype, chances are neither will the person sitting across the table, which means you won’t walk away with the funding you need.
- A gameplay video: Preferably, show off something cool and visually appealing that won’t be seen in the prototype or something that shows off “unforgettable moments.” This approach, if done correctly, will leave the funding source wanting more or even coming back to the prototype to ask “where do I find that?” It’s OK to include a teaser/promotional video as well, but remember that a gameplay video is paramount.
- A presentation deck: Include details from the list below in 10 to 12 slides or fewer. Start by answering these basic journalistic questions, with a video game slant, to give the funding source the right information to help them decide in your favor.
- Who: Who is the game for?
- What: What is the game? What will it cost? What engine is the game built in?
- Where: Where is the audience for this game? What else are they playing (list of three to five games)?
- When: When did development start? When will the game be ready?
- Why: Why are consumers going to care? Why will they stop playing something else to play your game?
- Complete budget breakdown: Include how much you’ve already invested and how much you hope to receive for funding. I’ve seen a lot of developers forget to give themselves credit for what they’ve already put into the project in terms of real money and sweat equity. If you don’t give yourself credit for this, no one else will. This can also help you negotiate a better deal because you will have reduced the project’s risk a bit. By the way, don’t provide round numbers in your budget unless they’re 100% accurate. Round numbers generally paint one of two pictures in the minds of funding sources: you haven’t done enough research or you’re dishonest about your previous and projected spends.
- Will this project be your sole focus? Is your team working on any other games on the side?
- Reasons to believe why you are the studio to make this game and how you can deliver the final product.
- The game(s) you have shipped together as a team and/or individually
- Unique selling points (game features, etc.).
- The initial release platform and any future porting opportunities.
For those in the earliest stages of development, include at least a few images from your game’s “visual target” (what you expect the game to look like when it’s done). Don’t expect anyone else to imagine your game or get into your head to understand your vision — be prepared to show it off and convince the funding source that players will spend their time in the game.
You may ask, “Do I really need to have all of this to pitch?” The short answer is “Yes!” You may be able to get away with less depending on your level of experience and track record, but in most cases, it’s wise to include these essentials to advance talks with potential investors.
It’s good to have these, too
Another passage dedicated to pitch preparation? Yep, it’s that important. Developers seeking funding should consider adding these business info nuggets to their presentation deck, especially when meeting in person (though that may not be possible during the pandemic), to make the best impression. It’s OK to have these immediately ready for follow up if requested, as sometimes this information is sensitive.
- Burn rate: The amount of money you spend per month to operate your studio. At this stage of the pitching process, the funding source will want to know your burn rate for the project or how much you plan to spend per month on the game you are pitching. Adding this detail is valuable both for you and the funding source since it creates an expectation of monthly spend.
- Staffing plan: List current key team members and add the positions/individuals you hope to hire in the future. The funding source will want to know when and how you propose to bring these people on since that impacts the overall budget and schedule/timeline.
- Porting costs: This one is rather straightforward, but it illustrates your capability to look to the future and expand. Account for any costs it could take to port your game to any other platform not included in the initial budget. If you have not done ports before, be honest about it.
- Post-launch plan: Similar to porting costs, a post-launch plan reflects what you intend to do with your game in the future. Provide concrete details around downloadable content, live operations work, server costs, and general upkeep to the game.
- Marketing strategy: You don’t have to account for marketing in your budget or staffing plans if you’re pitching to a publisher; however, if you’re pitching to an investor, be sure to provide some semblance of a PR/Marketing strategy.
Now that you have a good idea of what to include in a pitch, review these tips on how you can best support it — no matter the development stage of your game.
- Pitch in person whenever possible, even if by video chat, given the current environment.
- Pitching is a practiced art, so take every opportunity you can to pitch.
- You don’t need to show up in a suit and tie; as a matter of fact, if you did, I’d probably think you were trying to sell me insurance.
- Plan on how to stay in business post-launch.
- Even with a little success, it may be months until you see a penny; it could take even longer if the funding source recoups first.
- As a rule, I suggest you budget for a minimum of 3 to 6 months of operational costs post-launch as you will have to support the game. Also, as mentioned above, it could be longer than you expect until you actually see any revenue.
- Build a community.
- Whether it’s on Discord, Facebook, or Twitter, work to build a community.
- After building a community on one of these platforms, work to migrate that community to your own website so you can own a direct relationship with your players.
- If you build enough interest, you may not even need funding, or may — at the very least — be in a much better position to negotiate with funding sources down the road.
- Whether it’s on Discord, Facebook, or Twitter, work to build a community.
- Get your game into the public eye.
- Submit the game to showcases and contests wherever you can.
- Bring your game to consumer events to gather feedback and record people playing it. Tweak it accordingly. Then, rinse and repeat.
A word of caution here, though. It can be tempting to spend too many resources on preparing for and attending events. They can be addicting with their crowds, exciting real-time feedback, and socializing. However, this can take valuable time/resources away from completing your game, so work to find your balance.
So, you’ve pitched your game … now what?
Be persistent yet patient in requesting a response. If you meet someone at an event, give them time to settle back down before you begin to follow up. My general rule: wait at least a week, unless they have specifically requested that you reach out sooner.
Your first follow-up email should be as simple as “Do you need any more info or materials from me to evaluate the game?” It’s also fair to ask your contact if they have a timeline for when you should expect to hear back. If you don’t hear anything after your initial follow-up, I recommend waiting a week to reach out again. Ambivalence is the enemy here; a “yes” is what you want, however, a quick “no” with good feedback can also be invaluable. However, please don’t take it personally if you don’t get feedback, oftentimes this is about their lack of resources and not about the quality of your game.
Developer relationships with funding sources
Another common complaint I hear from my developer friends is “I pitched my game and I haven’t heard back yet — what’s going on?” While I understand how unbelievably frustrating this may be, I’d like to provide some reasons why it’s often easier to get a long “maybe” rather than a straight “yes” or “no” from a funding source.
- Investors and publishers listen to and receive dozens of pitches every week, which means they don’t always have the bandwidth to review every submission as thoroughly as they would like. Plus, since you’re dealing with people, sometimes it can be as simple as them forgetting to follow up. Either way, try to exercise patience and remember that the people on the other side are just that — people.
- There are many stakeholders in the decision-making process, and one dissenting voice may be the nail in the coffin for funding for your game. On top of that, getting timely feedback from every stakeholder is often an exercise in herding cats.
The flipside to this point is that your contact probably doesn’t want to be the person to turn you down. Think about that — who wants to potentially turn down the next big hit? If that were to happen, they would most likely tarnish their reputation and perhaps risk losing their job.
So, anticipate the limbo of the long “maybe” more regularly than you’d like; the people from the investor’s side are looking for validation before they flatout give you a “no” or “yes.”
Avoid these types of deals at all costs
I didn’t plan to discuss negotiations in this article; however, given several recent conversations — it’s infuriating to hear how this still happens to folks — I felt that I must restate the obvious. Developers: Do not sign deals with “publishers or investors” when they are not committing money toward the development, marketing, or PR of your game. The promise of “Well, you finish your game and we’ll market it” in exchange for 50% of the revenue (or more) isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on! Doing a little homework here can help. Reach out to other developers they’ve worked with to find out what they’re about.
These types of “publishers” will usually have legal language in a contract that will allow them to recoup their entire investment from the game’s revenue before sharing any with you. Moreover, if the game doesn’t launch well, they are under no obligation to spend a dime to help out — sounds like a crap deal, right?
The entire point of signing a deal is an exchange of value, and in this case, you gain no value unless they commit capital and resources. If you’re still thinking about making this type of deal, please speak to an industry lawyer; if they tell you something different, fire them on the spot! And let me know who they are so I never have to work with them. There are lots of good lawyers who specialize in games and represent developers so if you need one, just ask.
I’ve said a lot about what it takes to pitch your video game and how you can improve your odds of success throughout the process. Ultimately your pitch needs to tell a story; a story about your game, your capability to deliver on its promise, and a story of why this game is not a risky investment.
Above all else, I want to leave you with one last thought — leave a positive impression on the people you pitch. Even if the funding source doesn’t sign this game, the most important part of this dance is developing long-term relationships, building trust, and creating opportunities for future dialogue. Who knows? The parties you pitch may refer you over to another investor. I’ve done this before when a game didn’t fit my organization’s portfolio and I thought it might be a good fit for a contact of mine. If you work hard on your pitches and your interpersonal relationships within the video game industry, you’ll find your way. It’s like the old industry joke says: People don’t leave the industry, they just switch booths at the next tradeshow, or digital conference for the time being.
Justin “Dark Yoda” Berenbaum is Vice President of Strategy at Xsolla and GM of Xsolla Funding Club and has more than 25 years of strategic development experience in the video game industry that includes Activision, 505 Games, Capcom, and many others.
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