As the end of 2018 approaches, I think ahead to my conference calendar in the first half of the next year. Events such as CES, DICE, GDC, E3…and many conferences abroad are annual traditions for business people in the video game industry. Most game studio CEOs attend several shows a year to meet with publishing executives and pitch the games they want to make. These days, even if you have the means and intention to self-publish your game, chances are you still attend these conferences to meet with companies who might pay you for the rights to publish the game in some other territory or perhaps you are pitching for an investment. Game Dev CEOs always find themselves pitching. Too often this finds you all alone in a room with a handful of people from another company showing a demo and explaining the game you are making or intend to make. This is the core of my advice in this article: Don’t pitch alone! Pitch as a team!
A common but tired refrain we hear about VC firms as they consider investments into tech startups is that they are betting on a team more than an idea. An idea that sounds good on paper may turn out to be deeply flawed. But a strong team trumps the quality of the idea because it has the wherewithal to figure out a path to success regardless. This is no different in our parallel universe of games. Publishers and investors in the game industry don’t want to buy one guy with a PowerPoint deck and a demo. No. What Buyers really want to buy is a story of a great team with a dream. Sure, what you are selling must make sense – that’s a prerequisite – the idea must have resonance and the numbers must work out on paper. But beyond those basics, the way you sell your idea matters and can be the reason you get an offer versus not.
I spent over a decade in Business Development for a leading publisher, I used to do the gauntlet every conference of holding endless pitch meetings in my hotel suite with all manner of developers both famous and unheard of. It was typical to be forced to sit through forty pitches in a five-day period. Often towards the end, I would start to feel like some political prisoner cruelly confined to a room against his will. (One GDC I laughed out loud at the irony of finding myself in the Marriott Marquis in a suite with a single window that overlooked Alcatraz, the infamous island prison, as a constant reminder of my prisoner status). Through those years doing the job, I remember one developer CEO who always met me and pitched me alone – no leads, no partners. Even though he claimed to operate a studio with 20 or more employees. Even though he was not himself the Creative Lead or the Engineering Lead or the Art Lead he would give me his pitch every year and field questions on each of these topics. As much as I came to like this CEO, I never gave that developer a deal. It wasn’t because the pitches were bad, quite the contrary, I felt this studio’s pitches were mostly original and possibly even commercially viable. There seemed to be talent behind the pitches. But as I reflect upon it, subconsciously, I was never compelled to act on his pitches largely because I never met anyone else associated with his studio. I always found myself wondering who the other people were behind this pitch – were they competent, did they have passion for the idea, what kind of dynamic did they have between them?
I know you may be thinking, “well, why didn’t he just visit the studio to find out?” But consider that a business development guy or publisher-side executive has no time to just whimsically fly off and visit a studio anytime they are curious about a pitch. Most of the time, you have that one chance to make an impression and sell your game. If you are pitching a publisher, you are in a heated competition against rival studios with rival ideas – it is incumbent on you, the developer, to put your best foot forward all the time, every time. You must assume there will be no second chance to make a better impression.
Why is it important to assemble your leads together in a room to make a pitch? What do publisher executives look for? Let’s unpack what I wrote earlier: What Buyers really want to buy is a story of a great team with a dream. Corporate buyers are shoppers. And like all shoppers, they really want to buy. They don’t like to go out and come home empty handed, they want to come home with amazing opportunities to excite the folks back home. But they can’t just buy an idea, because you can’t sell an idea back at headquarters to your colleagues. No. You must give the buyer a compelling story so that they can sell your story back at the office to the others who collectively make decisions.
I’ve said it and I’ve heard other biz dev people say it many times, “I’d rather invest in a great team with a good idea than in an ok team with a great idea.” Making a video game today (with rare exception Eric Barone or Jonathan Blow) is a collective endeavor. The story you present has to be a story about your team: who they are; where they come from; what are their individual and collective superpowers and how good a team you are. The story must wrap around the game idea – why does this team feel so passionate about MAKING THIS GAME compared to any other game. The buyers will watch each member of the team during the pitch. Publishers take mental notes on the strengths and weaknesses of the individuals on the team. They will look to see if any of the leads seem particularly talented. They will take notes on how each member interacts with the other members of the team looking for a positive vibe and the presence of balance and creative conflict. They will look for the weak link. They will look for individuals who seem checked out or don’t contribute sufficiently to questions in their domain. They will compare the game idea being pitched against the background and skills of the team – do you know how to build a game like this or do you seem to have the skills and will to figure it out? You see the buyers don’t want to hear just another game idea – they want to see the group passion to make that game. A game idea is a dream that is collectively imagined by a team who is willing to fight to make that game.
Publisher executives and investors look for all these subtle signals when a team is placed before them and all this data goes into the decision-making process. Reading the paragraph above, you can see that when a team presents their pitch it will produce so many more data points for the publisher executives than a meeting with a CEO alone. It’s no wonder that any CEO entering a pitch meeting by themselves will find it impossible to provide as much data and instill as much confidence as a team pitching the same game together.
CEOs and Founders ask me what to do if the team does not all present very well. Usually they mean that one or two of the leads may be introverted or shy or even misanthropes. These are not usually big problems, your people can be coached, they can practice, they can be given roles during the pitch, explanations of their super powers can be made to provide context for the quieter members of your team. The introverted highly-skilled lead is not so difficult to find in the game industry and we are all used to running across them. In most cases, I lean toward including them in pitch meetings rather than excluding them if you expect their contribution to the game at hand will be high. In some cases, however, members of a team don’t get along well, or the weaknesses of a lead will be so glaring as to be impossible to mask. In those cases, you have a much bigger problem in your studio than just selling a pitch. You probably fundamentally need to change personnel and reconsider your leads before you go out and sell.
There is one final and very important reason I want Game Dev CEOs to pitch with their teams and not by themselves: the necessity of gathering feedback. Just as the publisher is taking notes on you, it is just as important for you to take notes on the publisher during the meeting. When you are all alone, there are no other eyes and ears who can read reactions in the room to what is being pitched. When you are alone, you’ll be busy just talking the entire time. You won’t be taking many mental notes and the ones you take may not be completely accurate. No one can discuss it with you after the meeting is over. No one can help you sharpen your delivery or give you clues on how best to follow up. Who were all the people in the room, how did they interact with each other, when did they get excited, when did they express concern? These are all signals the publisher provides you that are easy to miss when you give a pitch all by yourself. It is critical to have someone in the room with you so that afterwards you can compare notes on how the pitch went and how to tune the pitch better for future meetings.
I recognize that sometimes it just isn’t possible to bring others with you to a pitch meeting. Travelling as a group can be cost prohibitive or production fires are raging back at the office and demand attention. However, if you really want to improve your studio’s chances at getting a deal whether that is publishing or investment or something else, you should make it a best practice to pitch as a team whenever possible. Remember, it is hard to sell one guy with a PowerPoint idea when everyone wants to buy a team with a dream.