It’s no secret that games are not cheap to make.
Even small projects from indie studios come with sizable costs, ones that can grow exponentially over time. Developers don’t just need money to fuel the making of a game, either. They need to consider the costs of marketing projects, in addition to other necessary outgoings like QA and localisation.
As a result, studios often need to go out and hunt for funding, be that from investors or from publishers. Not only is this hugely important for the future of both your business and your project, it can also be incredibly difficult to score the necessary cash.
Thanks to the availability of development tools, there are more game creators out there than ever before. Publishers and investors receive pitches from a lot of studios, so it’s incredibly important to ensure that yours stands out from the crowd and doesn’t make some common mistakes.
There are some key things that developers need to take into consideration and these vary hugely depending on whether you’re pitching to a publisher or an investor. Very generally speaking, the former will be interested in putting money behind a specific project, while the latter will be focused on giving you cash to fund your studio in exchange for a percentage ownership of your company.
“As an investor, I will have a lot of questions regarding your plans for building the company and how to make it go from just surviving to flourishing,” explains EA and DICE veteran Karl Magnus Troedsson, who currently runs early-stage investment vehicle Loot Spawn. “A publisher is solely focused on your current game at hand and how you together with them can make it a success.”
Depending on whether you are talking to investors or publishers will also impact some aspects of the pitch, such as what stage of development you are in. Generally speaking, investors are happy to take a pitch before actual work begins on a game project.
“I'm quite happy being pitched a project before a line of code is written,” game investor David Amor says. “If the investment is project financing then it's important to know what that project is, but if it's equity financing then I don't care too much about the project itself and care more about the founders, the processes, audience and strategy.”
For publishers, who will likely be financing a specific game rather than the studio making it, having a project in a state that it can actually be demonstrated is much more vital.
“Ideally the developer would have a very clear idea of what the game is and be able to back that up with a playable build of some sort,” Kwalee’s publishing scouting team manager Ben Ellis explains.
“Depending on the detail in the other materials provided, that could be a vertical slice or a more basic prototype, but a vertical slice is ideal.”
And while a pitch will be different depending on whether you are trying to secure funding for your company or for a specific game, there are some very basic things that developers need to do in order to make sure their presentation lands as intended.
“First of all, check your sums and proofread your slides,” Jonathan Burroughs, director of Virginia and Last Stop developer Variable State, says.
“You don’t want to be caught out by embarrassing errors. Then, in anticipation of the pitch meeting itself, rehearse and familiarise yourself with the material exhaustively, so that when you come to deliver the pitch you can do so off-the-cuff, with confidence, without having to refer to notes or a script."
“You want to come across as sincere and enthusiastic. You need to be prepared for people to interrupt you with questions and break your flow, without your whole presentation unravelling. Enter the pitch with a comprehensive understanding of your material and speak with passion. And rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. Perform the pitch in front of people you trust to give you harsh, objective feedback. Better you know if your presentation has any shortcomings before you’re in a pitch meeting.”
Pitching to Investors
From an investor’s perspective, a pitch is a means of sussing out a developer; who they are, where their talents lie and their ability to overcome challenges. In essence, it’s checking that the foundations are solid and that this studio has planned – and is committed – for the long haul.
“As an early-stage investor, I am very much focused on the team, their different skills, experience and plans for the future,” Troedsson explains.
“I would like to know what companies and games they have worked with in the past, what you have learnt from successes and failures, and how their new team will adapt and overcome. I am also specifically interested in what I personally refer to as the ‘soul’ of the founding team. This is a set of soft measure points which are super important for me when making the decision whether to invest or not.”
This isn’t so much a measure of how creative a developer is, but is more concerned with the personalities of a company’s founders and how this will inform its growth.
“There is no clear right and wrong here,” Troedsson says. “But based on several decades in the games industry, I have formed strong opinions on what traits and culture which increases the odds of a team’s success, such as honesty, trustworthiness, open communications, grit and perseverance, flexibility in balance with steadfastness. All of these are outside of the pure creative and practical skills required to make a game.”
It’s vital that developers handle pitches knowing what investors are looking to get out of the deal. While you can have wonderful and friendly relationships with your financial backers, ultimately they are looking to make a return on the money they are giving you.
“[A developer must] be able to think about a pitch from an investor's point of view,” Amor explains. “They are looking to get a return on their investment in the same way as investing in shares of Apple might get them a return. They're not there to help you get their game made. Either they see their return when the project they invest in is successful or they see a return when the company making it is acquired, depending on the structure of the deal. Understanding how those are possible will help the investor see the opportunity.”
When building a pitch deck for meeting with investors, there are a few tenets that it’s wise for developers to stick to.
“Start with the why,” Troedsson explains. “Motivations and ambitions are super important so let us investors know why you want to embark on this journey. Follow up with a description of yourself and your fellow co-founders – who are you, what are you good at, how will you work together. Now it is time to give us the high-level pitch of what your first game is going to be. Don’t go too deep, focus on things like why you want to go after a certain genre, what will set the game apart, how much will it roughly cost, how many people and of which skill sets will be needed.”
Troedsson says that developers should skip trying to predict sales figures and financial forecasts for your debut project as this is “near guaranteed to be wrong” and can actually harm your pitch. But he also says that it’s vital for studios to have thought beyond that first game.
“Since I’m investing in your company, I want to know what you’ll be doing after the game is out,” he says.
“What are your dreams for the next game and how will you fund it? Is there a red thread to the games you want to develop, for example, in the same IP or are you specialising in a genre? Therefore an early studio budget is so important. How do you plan to keep the lights on when the first games come out and tanks? (Reality check – the worst case scenarios should always be the baseline) Will you fund your games with publishers or do you plan to raise more capital from investors? Financial forecasting of sales is hard, but projecting costs are actually kind of easy using median salaries and basing team sizes on previous knowledge.”
It’s also vital that developers are honest with investors. For one, these are generally connected people who will not only do some kind of due diligence on a company before they sign on the dotted line, but also know a lot of people in the industry. As a result, most falsehoods will be discovered before you receive any funding. But this also extends to developers pandering to investors in hopes of receiving money.
“Avoid the psychology of a master-and-servant, where you're happy to tell the investor anything they want to hear in the hope that they'll give you some money,” Amor explains. “Treat it as a professional game maker giving an investor an opportunity to invest in something where they stand to see a great return.”
Pitching to Publishers
As mentioned earlier, pitching to publishers is generally about securing funding for a specific game. Unlike investors, these companies will be much more interested about the nitty gritty of what your project actually entails.
“[Developers should give] as much detail as possible about the game itself, the studio and what they need from a publishing partner,” Kwalee’s Ellis explains. “Things such as when they plan to release the game, the platforms they’re developing the game on, some rationale behind their decision to develop that particular game. In other words, they should answer the ‘so what?’ question – why are you making this game and why should anyone else care?”
But, of course, publishers are still interested in the business side of things.
“For me, the top things are: firstly, having a compelling game idea which is distinct and which you can speak about enthusiastically,” Burroughs says.
“Secondly, you need a credible explanation of who the team will be and what the timeline is to deliver the game, which factors in contingency and isn’t lowballed. And finally, it’s vital to have realistic costing based on the team and timeline and industry standard salaries. If you have your full team already in place, then great. If not, then your founding team needs to have sufficient expertise that you can credibly make the key hires or outsourcing arrangements you need to deliver the project.”
Much like approaching investors, when developers are preparing for a pitch with a publisher, they have to try and understand what concerns the people they are meeting with will have.
“For me, the most important thing to do before starting the pitch is to ask yourself what questions the presenter would ask if they were sitting in the publisher’s chair,” Ellis says.
“If you start there, you’ll usually end up with all the information you need to create an informative pitch. If you’ve ever seen Dragon’s Den on TV, do what the best pitches there do – say what the game is, why you’re making it, who your competition is, when it’ll be ready, what it’s costing you and what you want from us. And a quick tip – don’t just quote the game in your genre that sold millions of units. That shows awesome ambition but often isn’t very helpful.”
It’s important to hone down the pitch to just the essentials. There’s a lot you can say in a presentation but not all of it is going to be necessary.
“The two major mistakes I see the most are, firstly, too much irrelevant information, and secondly, more time spent on how the presentation looks than what it contains,” Ellis says.
“Absolutely you should talk about the games that have inspired yours, the mechanics that you’ve altered to make them your own, but be realistic about your ambitions and don’t compare your FPS with Call of Duty if you don’t have a 200-strong dev team and a multi-million dollar budget.”
As with pitching to investors, oftentimes developers can fall into the trap of presenting ideas to publishers based on what they think a company will like, rather than showing them a genuinely creative idea.
“The mistakes I’ve encountered most are with the core creative idea itself,” Burroughs says. “Making a pitch for what you think the investor or publisher wants, rather than what you sincerely want to make. More than likely you’ll just end up showing them something someone else has already pitched to them and you won’t be able to speak to the idea with sufficient passion."
“Another pitfall is striking the wrong balance between an idea being inspired by other games and being derivative of other games. Ultimately, your proposal needs to have some kind of originality to it.”
There’s a lot to consider when it comes to trying to secure money for either your company or for a game you want to make. It’s vital to be prepared and to know your audience; to understand the concerns of the people that you will be pitching to, to have done your homework and know both exactly what you are selling and what you need.
But it’s also essential to remember the market you are working in. Video games may be a billion dollar business, but it’s also an entertainment industry built on creativity and innovation.
“The games industry is not the same as fintech or medtech, for example,” Troedsson explains. “You aren’t writing software to solve problems for customers; you aren’t focused on making their lives safer or more effective. It is about creating interactive entertainment to be enjoyed, much more like writing a book or maybe directing a movie. This puts extra importance on making sure your motivations are true, that your vision is clear and that your passion really shines through."
“This will be key to both motivating your team, as well as convincing me to invest.”
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