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Pitching Your Video Game to a Publisher: The Inside Scoop From Maximum Games’ Jon Manahan

Posted on Jul 25, 2016 | Articles & Reviews
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As a developer, pitching your video game to publishers can be a daunting prospect. This is your passion, your creative endeavor, and laying it open for others to judge its worth can be tough. Practically speaking, a pitch meeting can also be hard to prepare for. What will the publisher expect? What will they ask? What should you bring?

To take a little of the mystery out of the process of pitching to publishers, Maximum Games’ Director of Production, Jon Manahan, has opened up in an interview about what he looks for when inviting developers to pitch their games.

Here are some of the big questions about pitching to publishers, answered:

How Can Developers Set Up a Pitch Meeting?

Publishers like Maximum Games are eager to meet developers of solid, interesting, creative projects. In order to make a pitch meeting happen, though, you need to prove through your initial communication that you’re worth the publisher’s time.

The number one thing developers need to remember is professionalism. Though it’s an obvious statement, Jon stresses, “the first impression is always important.” Publishers are looking for carefully planned proposals which show that the studio behind a game is taking the project seriously and has put thought and effort into every action.

Maximum Games' Jon Manahan“This is where first impressions come in. It’s easy to recognize pitches that are well-thought-out—they include key information about the product, who their intended target is, and how it fits into the genre.”

Initial proposals should include a clear and concise Game Design Document with the best possible screenshots or concept art. If a developer provides a solid glimpse of a game in a pitch request, chances are they’ll get a chance to share more with publishers in a pitch meeting. If a proposal is not fine-tuned, it’s generally a “preview of things to come” for any relations with a particular developer.

Game publishers need to see something in that initial request that piques their interest:

“These days, it’s hard, quite frankly, for up-and-coming games to stand out; however, if the developer is able to hit us with a great idea, and convince us that they have the right talent to provide our players with this experience, that usually catches our attention.”

Proposals should avoid derivative pitches that make their games look like everything else on the market. Publishers are looking for games that have “a unique selling point,” and it helps a lot when a studio is “able to provide features that are out of the ordinary, and prove to us why their target audience will enjoy playing the game.” There’s a lot of competition out there, so if a game doesn’t stand out instantly, it’s quite possible it’ll end up being overlooked at this early stage.

What is the Likelihood that a Pitch Request Will Be Accepted?

Although roughly 5% of the pitch requests that Maximum Games receive actually get invited to present a full pitch, there’s a good reason why many are passed over—a reason most developers can avoid. The majority of these pitches, according to Jon, are “just general, ‘Hey I have a cool game idea,’ and only a tiny segment of the gameplay experience is provided, or the pitches are simply rough sketches with a very vague Game Design Document. Putting together a solid Game Design Document takes months… even years sometimes! And it all comes back to the first impression—if you don’t put the time and effort required to create an outstanding proposal, why would potential business partners want to invest in your product?”

A game doesn’t need to be completely finished to be pitched, but a studio’s proposal needs to be solid and professional before Maximum Games will look at it. And according to Jon, anyone who carefully structures their proposal dramatically increases their chances of getting a meeting.

While they are very busy, Maximum Games is still very eager to see what studios are working on. Existing channels for contacting the company (such as email, phone, and other contact details) are there for developers to share their work—just be sure your pitch request looks the part before sending it off.

What Should Developers Include in Their Pitches?

Short Answer? Gameplay detail. All too often, developers come into pitch meetings talking about marketing plans and social media followings, with very little information on the game itself. This is good info, but that’s not what publishers like Maximum Games actually want to hear about in the beginning. Publishers want to see an exciting game concept, as without this foundation, the best marketing strategy in the world is going to fall flat.

“We’ve been in several pitch meetings where I had basic questions about the game, and the response was, ‘Don’t worry about that, we are working with a marketing team that will make sure the audience knows how awesome the license is.’ And that doesn’t answer our question, because at the end of the day I truly feel that the gameplay content will drive the product.”

What does that content need to be? As far as Maximum Games is concerned, there’s no specific genre or audience that they’re particularly looking for when seeking new titles—a good game will be accepted based on its own merits, rather than a desire to meet a particular target demographic. “Our audience base is pretty wide. As long as they’re able to convince us that this is an offering no one else has, it’s really the best approach.”

How Polished Does a Game Need to Be?

There’s no solid rule as to how complete a game should be before it can be pitched. Maximum Games regularly receives pitches where the game is anywhere from 10% to 50% complete—what often matters is the quality of the game design, and whether or not something jumps out as innovative or unique. Jon points out that “a good solid gameplay experience will essentially drive the project forward,” and proving you’ve got that is far more important than the hardcore technical details.

Jon Manahan Maximum GamesLikewise, while having a playable demo is preferred, sometimes a video of the gameplay is a better alternative when a game is in its early stages. If an unfinished buggy demo is just going to be a distraction, it will take away from your game’s potential.

You never know what element of a project might stand out to publishers, so it’s important to make sure that you give your game the best possible chance by sharing a flattering overall image of what you’re building, a sampling that doesn’t need too much interpretation to see its potential.

“There are rare instances where we instantly fell in love with a game’s art style, and only minor tweaks on the controls and environment polish were all that was needed to make it a hit.”

You know what you love about your game, but you might be surprised to find what intrigues others.

Jon guesstimates that around 10% of projects that make it through the pitch stage are accepted by Maximum Games. The ones that get chosen are the games that offer distinctive gameplay and a solid game design. The best games, according to Jon, are the ones where “we immediately saw the potential, knew what influenced their game, and knew instantly why the targeted demographic would enjoy playing the game.” This clarity isn’t always a given, so the more you can display your game’s unique strengths, the better chance you’ll have of wowing a publisher.

What Common Mistakes Should Developers Avoid?

The biggest mistake that can ruin a presentation is a lack of preparation. If a developer comes into the room without knowing their game inside and out, and without having fully thought through their presentation, it’s instantly obvious.

“There are times when devs come in and try to wing it. Depending on your presentation skills, this could be detrimental—especially when you are unable to demonstrate how well you know your product, your competition, and can barely get the game to work. In those presentations, we often don’t get the answers that we need.”

To be fully prepared, developers shouldn’t just be ready to talk about how their game works: they should also have an idea of what they need from a publisher, and what they’re able to provide to make the partnership mutually beneficial. And if you’re an inexperienced team, don’t be worried if your needs seem a bit higher than you think they should be.

“We’ve been in situations before where it’s, say, a two-person team, and it’s their first time publishing a project. In those instances, we have resources that can help them with their project—we certainly have the expertise here to get their game from start to finish.”

Enter your presentation with a fixed idea of the finances needed for a project, and how they’d be apportioned—though you shouldn’t consider this more important than getting the game itself ready. A solid game is the priority for publishers like Maximum Games, but a sturdy business strategy helps make things clearer for everyone involved.

What Questions Will Publishers Ask in Pitch Meetings?

Be ready to defend your project against some hard questions. Publishers want to see that you know what you’re talking about, and that you’ve given thought to every aspect of your project.

Jon suggests that developers will want to be ready with answers for many of the big, business-related questions that’ll be thrown your way:

  • What’s the size of your team?
  • What projects have you worked on?
  • What are your strengths and capabilities?
  • What’s your vision for the lifecycle of the product? Will there be potential sequels?
  • How does this title stack up against the competition?
  • What would you like out of our partnership?
  • Have you thought about Downloadable Content?
  • Are you planning on distributing your content physically, digitally, or both?
  • Who is your target audience?
  • Why will consumers want to play your game rather than your competitors’ versions?

While having prior industry experience can be very beneficial, it’s not always necessary. But if you’re unsure whether your studio’s level of experience is up to snuff, it’s all the more important to prove that your project itself is.

What’s the Value of a Publisher in the Era of Indie Self-Publishing?

Maximum Games teamAs a dev, you’re probably aware of your self-publishing options—and crowdfunding can make that even more doable—so what does teaming with a publisher bring to the table?

First off, it’s important to note that the majority of independent games have a hard time finding a massive audience without outside help.

This comes down to inexperience—game developers might be fantastic at making games, but knowing how to build an audience for that game requires a completely different skillset. That’s where traditional publishers like Maximum Games come in.

“Let’s not forget that there’s still an important retail component that we certainly are very experienced with—we can provide that part of the business for them.”

The retail connection is often a difficult avenue for indie studios to crack, and it’s not one that can be overlooked—so working with a publisher means a more professional, comprehensive approach to publishing and distribution than might be otherwise possible for a small indie team that is focused on making games, rather than getting them shipped to stores.

Good Luck, and Happy Pitching

From Jon’s insights, it’s clear that what publishers are looking for first and foremost is a solid, enjoyable, and unique game. A pitch that’s built around a fantastic gaming experience, no matter what level of completion the project has reached, stands a better chance of being accepted by a publisher than a polished game that lacks heart.

Do your homework. Plan out every stage of your pitch request and go into a pitch meeting ready to answer any questions a publisher might have. Where possible, know what you want from the publisher and what you’re able to bring to the table yourself, and you’ll stand the best possible chance of getting your game accepted.

Jon ManahanMaximum Games is always eager to hear what you have to say, and it doesn’t matter what your background is—if you can deliver a strong game, they’ll want to hear about it.

“One of the many things I like working here at Maximum Games, is that we have the flexibility to work with talented developers from all backgrounds.”

So bring your creativity, prepare your presentation, and happy pitching!

Maximum Games is a boutique publisher that works with a wide range of independent developers. We’re always happy to hear your ideas—or, for a picture of what we’re currently working on, subscribe to our newsletter!