So here it is. My first dev diary entry. I was going to discuss world-building for Project Untold, but I changed my mind. Instead, I’m taking us back to the beginning. Way back to where it all started.
Okay, maybe not that far back. But back to the beginning of Untold. Let’s talk about turning your game ideas into pitches.
Industry veteran John Sutherland wrote a guest post about pitches for my gamewriting FAQ. It’s great general advice about the process, RFPs, and prototypes. You can read it here (at the bottom of the post). But my experience was different from John’s, and it’s worth discussing.
It seems like everybody has a game idea. I’ve worked at studios with shelves full of unsolicited game proposals—that we weren’t allowed to look at for legal reasons. I’ve had fans at PAX approach me after panels or at restaurants to tell me about their winning game ideas.
People submit game ideas through my website all the time. “What do you think? Is it marketable?” they ask. The truth is that they need to answer that question themselves. (Okay, the real truth is that I don’t know because I don’t read their proposals. Let’s not get nitpicky though, jeez.) A general game idea isn’t enough. You need more information than that for a persuasive pitch. So here’s how I went about the process.
Disclaimer: this might not work for you. I’m not offering this as infallible advice. I’m telling my story.
In October 2014, I was settling back in to DC and starting to think about looking for work in the area. I made some vague noises about my job search on Twitter and was contacted by a mid-size studio in Massachusetts. They were looking to take the company in a new direction and had a senior design position open. Would I be interested in visiting the studio and pitching some game ideas to them? I said, “Of course!” Then I hung up the phone and thought, “Crap.” I’d never even thought about pitching a game. What should I do?
First, I solicited a pitch template from John Sutherland, and then I googled “video game pitches” to see if I could find any more examples. Boy, did I. There’s a great site called GamePitches.com (imagine that), which has a repository of design docs, pitches, and other useful resources. I found Irrational Games’s Bioshock pitch the most helpful. After extensive research, I decided that my pitch required four key elements: Game Overview, Market Demographics, Risk, and Return.
- Overview: What is the game story? What is the gameplay? How is it like best-selling games? How does it innovate?
- Demographics: Who will buy it? What’s the audience like? How does the game meet the audience’s needs or desires?
- Risk: What’s the budget—for both money and time? What are the odds of success? Is the market glutted or untapped?
- Return: What would success look like? What are the long-term possibilities? Are there ongoing profits? Sequels? Cash shops? Tie-ins? Merchandising?
If I gave persuasive answers to these questions, I knew I’d have a good pitch. Maybe you’re surprised by how small a role game story and mechanics play in my pitch. I was. I questioned that decision for days, but finally decided that a pitch was about business. The studio wanted an idea that was going to make them successful, whether that was Littlest Pet Shop or Hatred. I was confident I could write a compelling story. I needed to convince the studio that my story would make them money.
As I sat down to assemble my pitches, one surprising fact became clear: I’d been creating a game in my mind for a long time without knowing it.
Nobody reading this diary should be shocked to hear that I support diversity and inclusivity in all media and, well, life in general. When I play video games, I’m frequently frustrated by the depictions of gender, sexuality, and race available on the market right now. Things are getting better, but it’s still rare to see a new game trailer that doesn’t make me pull a muscle rolling my eyes. I talk to people every day in the industry and on Twitter who feel the same way I do. But some folks argue that we represent a tiny fraction of the gaming community and that there’s no money in making games for us, blah blah, ad infinitum. So, long before I thought about creating my own games, I was in the trenches doing research to prove the demand.
I gotta tell you, research has never been so fun. My college library excursions were never this entertaining. I visited secret message boards and became a part of fan communities for shows and celebrities I’d never heard of before.
I even picked up a few obscure OTPs that I root for to this day. As I spoke with people about what they like and what they want to see more of, I discovered that some fans were so starved for connection that they’d drive halfway across the country to small cons where they could be around people like them for a few hours. Some fans would pay $150. a pop for a five-minute photo op with stars of their favorite shows. And they’d consider that money well spent. They’d buy anything from pins to pillow cases if it was branded with the right images.
I found fans who were compensating for the lack of good stories about women, POC, and all sexualities by writing their own stories on fan fiction sites. And then I stumbled across the world of Kpop, which has a reputation for the most rabid, stalker-ish fans in the world. And okay, some of them are scary as hell.
But I also discovered groups of young people so passionate that they organized votes for their favorite idols—carefully assigning voting times to teams by global time zone to maximize their effectiveness and maintain a constant level of activity. I discovered fans who were buying bushels of rice for charity and building entire libraries—all in the name of their idols. They formed loving, supportive communities based around a single common interest and accomplished amazing things.
So there they were. This lively, powerful market starved for songs, and shows, and stories made for them. I‘d found my audience. And after spending six years dishing with them about everything from Supernatural to Sistar, I had a good idea of what they liked. Could I design a game around those interests?
Spoiler: I did.
My research experiences provided almost all the information I needed for my pitch. I knew who my audience was and what they wanted. I wrote a story overview based on what I knew they liked. I proposed some ways we could keep the audience invested in the game long-term, both financially and as a community. I calculated the risks of catering to this market. All I had left to do was figure out gameplay.
I already knew what types of games my demographic was interested in, but I wanted to be sure I was playing to the studio’s strengths. So I looked at their website to see what kind of games they were making. I incorporated gameplay mechanics from their most popular games and put my own spin on some other aspects of gameplay. In other words, I built on what they already had to minimize the initial outlay for the game.
This approach worked for my game because it’s story-based. It obviously won’t work for everyone’s idea. And some of you may have exciting ideas for new game mechanics, but might be light on story. My point is to tailor your pitch to the capabilities of the studio. Pitching a triple-A game to an indie studio is pointless. They won’t have the resources to make it. My advice is to think big, but realistic. Your pitch should be feasible.
And that’s it. That’s the work that went into my game pitches. Writing up the story was easy once I knew who my audience was. Coming up with gameplay was easy once I knew who I was pitching to. And the risk and return became obvious as I worked out the details of the game. I wrote pitches for two game stories that would be released using an unusual game distribution method. (The distribution model was the studio’s idea, so I can’t discuss it.) My final pitches were about eight pages long each, including cover page, table of contents, and reference photos. When I had my pitches assembled, it was time for the next step: selling my game ideas to the studio.
I’ll write about my pitching adventures in next month’s dev diary. Here some high points to anticipate: cider donuts, pot-smoking in the conservatory, a haunted inn, and my visit to the studio