Pitch Like a Pro

I bumped into Corey Young on Twitter like I have many of my design peers. Like an athletic team recruiter seeking his first round draft pick, I began bugging Corey to write a column for Hyperbole because the man is opinionated, well-spoken, and has not one publishing deal, but many publishing deals. Corey has things to teach.

I was delighted to read what I hope is only the first of many guest columns. Corey’s advice here is outstanding, thorough, and inspirational. It is absurdly quotable. My personal plans for Poor Abby and GenCon have changed considerably as a result.  

Guest Column by: Corey Young (CoreyYoung.com)

You’ve created the best boardgame since Senet, yet for some reason the big publishers haven’t sent a limousine to pick you up. According to their websites they are not accepting submissions. Your email inquiries are accomplishing nothing. How much easier would it be if you could just meet for a face-to-face demonstration?

If you think about it, you have several face-to-face opportunities with publishers each year. Most of the major companies have a significant presence at game conventions like GenCon, Origins and DragonCon. You might be surprised to find many influential decision makers walking the floor, manning the booths, demonstrating games, or lounging in the publisher-sponsored rooms. They’re there and you’re there; Why not take a few minutes away from gaming to make your dream of being published a reality?

Does it work? It has for me. While I’ve been able to get a few publishers to agree to evaluate my prototypes via email, my rejection rate exceeds 95%. In contrast, by working the floor at conventions, I’ve been able to get publishers to accept my prototypes on the spot. Better than that, in the past 2 years, I’ve managed to get 3 games accepted for publication by “household name” publishers.

The techniques I use are simple, but it requires a bit of preparation and finesse. Think of it as a game. I can’t guarantee that this strategy will make you successful, but I’m confident it will improve your chances considerably.

(Step 1) Ensure that your game is ready: The goal of a pitch is for the publisher’s representative to look at your prototype. If the prototype isn’t complete, the pitch will lead to nothing. Game publishers are not looking for concepts, good ideas, or half-finished collections of game-like parts.

Your game should be thoroughly playtested by this point, and by this I don’t mean that your friends and family have played it “a bunch.” Find the most callous, experienced gamers you can muster, buy them some pizza, and ask them to break your game. If it can be done, they will find a way. I mention this because the first pitch I gave crumbled apart because the publisher’s gatekeeper spotted the dominant strategy within 5 minutes.

(Step 2) Research the publishers: Convention organizers release a list of participating companies months before the convention. GenCon and others provide maps of the convention floor that list the vendor locations. Focus your efforts on the companies attending.

Examine the publishers’ portfolios. What kinds of games are they publishing? Hasbro is as likely to publish a 1500-cube eurogame next year as Mayfair is to publish Chutes & Ladders II. You want a company that makes games similar to yours in terms of audience and components, but not too close in terms of theme or game-play. Also, don’t waste time trying to sell a cola product to Pepsi. If they already make a game similar to yours, why would they want to cannibalize their sales?

Put more simply, Mayfair isn’t interested in another Catan. They already have that.

Once you’ve identified your targets, start digging for contacts. The person you want is the gatekeeper. The gatekeeper is the individual responsible for discovering new games. Every publisher has at least one gatekeeper. In some cases, it’s the president of the company. I look at publisher websites and articles in Spielbox magazine to identify this person. I’ve even discovered owners’ names using WHOIS searches on their internet domain names.

I keep a 3×5 index card for each company which includes their games, news about their recent releases, and the key players. Be ready to talk about their world before trying to insert yourself into it.

Prioritize the publishers. You’re likely to pitch to more than one and you don’t want to run out of prototypes. Similarly, you could experience the predicament I found myself in last year. I had arranged to pitch to 2 publishers. The first pitch was my Hail Mary pass to a huge publisher. And it went very well! They took the prototype and asked if I would mind not sharing it with other companies. The game has a novel, but simple, mechanic that would be easy for others to copy. I agreed. I then had to apologize and back out of the second scheduled pitch. If I had approached the companies in the opposite order, I would have missed the bigger opportunity.

(Step 3) Prepare your prototypes and other media: Publishers want complete games with full rules. Don’t waste your time and talent polishing the artwork as it will inevitably be replaced. The prototype you provide them should contain all the bits, components, cards, dice, and boards necessary to play. It should fit in the smallest container possible because the representative will have to haul it home along with everything else left in the booth. Or, the publisher may only want the rules or will ask you to mail them the prototype.

Be flexible and prepared for either outcome!

If you have the skills and resources, film a YouTube video and place it in a private channel with your pitch on it. I’ve been asked by several publishers for this in lieu of physical prototypes.

You always want to leave something tangible in the publisher’s hands. In the past I created  business cards, but now I print double-sided postcards with color pictures of my game and its hook (More on hooks later). Even if they decline to hear the pitch, they’ll have something. This also works well as a visual aid during the elevator pitch. If you filmed a YouTube video, be sure to include a link to it on this card.

(Step 4) Prepare your elevator pitch: An elevator pitch is a 30-60 second appeal to get the publisher to agree to look at your prototype. The name comes from the idea of selling an idea in the time it takes to ride an elevator. You must captivate your audience for that long, which is harder than it seems. Make good use of your time! The elevator pitch is the mini-pitch before the full game demonstration. Your elevator pitch should include:

  • Number of players (e.g. 2-4)
  • Play duration (The time window should be specific to within 10 minutes)
  • Age range (e.g. 10+)
  • Target player demographic  (Hobby game market, mass market, party game)
  • Category (CCG, euro-style boardgame, kid’s game etc.)
  • The Hook

The hook is what makes your game uniquely stand out. What is your game’s secret sauce? The rest of the information in the elevator pitch is required, but the hook is what gets them to look at your game. If your game doesn’t have a hook that you can describe in 15 seconds or less, the road before you is difficult.

Here is the idealized pitch for One Way Out, the first of my games that will soon be published. I say “idealized” because I’ve never actually delivered anything as coherently as this is written. A few of the details have been omitted, but the whole pitch takes about 45 seconds.

“One Way Out is a card game that plays like a boardgame. It’s designed for 2-4 players, ages 10 and up, and would fit in either the hobby or mass markets. The overall theme is based loosely on “Time Bandits” or “Quantum Leap.” In the basic game, players collect power-ups as they race to get through 3 levels [...]. Levels consistently take between 12 and 15 minutes to complete. [...] This is what the cards look like. Players move pawns around on an emerging board that is made up of these cards. [...] If you’d like to see how it works, I’d be happy to walk you through a quick level later at, any time that works for you.”

Do not compare your game to any other game. Publishers do not want “the next” version of anything or a re-skinned copy of a well-known game.

(Step 5) Pack for success: Obviously, you’ll need a few copies of your game (at least one per publisher plus a few extras). Make sure your contact information is clearly listed on the outside of the box. I never bring more than one copy with me during the approach to the publisher. It’s better to send the subliminal message that this is a prized prototype than just another cheap copy that I’m giving out at every booth.

Notice I’m not listing anything about non-disclosure agreements (NDAs). If you’re afraid of your game design being stolen, you can keep playing your game with your friends and your lawyer, but you’re not going to get a publisher to look at it. I am not a lawyer and this is not intended as legal advice. I’m just saying that bringing an NDA to an informal pitch is as much a recipe for success as bringing a prenuptial agreement to a first date.

(Step 6) Dress for success: No, you don’t need to wear a fancy skirt or a tie. I pitch in blue jeans and sneakers. I wear a short sleeved, collared shirts. Wearing a t-shirt with a competitor’s product on it, or zombies or … well let’s just not wear t-shirts, okay?

(Step 7) Respect the publisher’s time: This is easily the most critical step. The only reason it’s listed as Step 7 is because of where it falls in the timeline of things.

The publisher is not at the convention to see your game. The publisher’s goal is to promote the games they have in the market today. Put yourself in the publisher’s shoes:

  • They’ve been up since 6 am.
  • They’ve been standing and talking and demonstrating since before the exhibit floor opened.
  • They have product to move.
  • They have game fans to hear from.
  • They have podcasts and interviews to conduct.

And now here comes yet another wannabe game designer.

Here’s how to approach the booth; Carry a single copy of your prototype in your backpack along with any cards or media you wish to leave with the publisher. If you know the gatekeeper’s name(s), check the badges. Thankfully, most conventions require all vendors to wear large, legible badges. Handy!

If you don’t know the gatekeeper, speak to whomever looks friendly. Don’t lead off with the fact that you want to pitch a game design. Here is where your homework on the publisher pays off! Ask to see what’s new and sit through a demo. Then, politely ask if there is anyone from the company with whom you can discuss submissions. Don’t be surprised if people in the booth don’t know! Many companies use local volunteers to staff their booths and conduct demonstrations. Gracious persistence pays off here.

It really boils down to one of three possible outcomes at this point.

  1. The gatekeeper is not at the convention.
  2. The gatekeeper is not looking at submissions.
  3. The gatekeeper is willing to talk to you.

The first outcome is the most likely. If this is the case, the best option is to see if a gatekeeper surrogate is available. I’ve had good experiences with people like this and a few have generously passed my prototype along. Not ideal, but better than a complete zero.

If the publisher says they are not taking submissions, then that’s that. I’m sure some sales gurus would instruct us to press on with the sale, but I’m not comfortable doing so.

Then, there’s the third outcome. The gatekeeper agrees to listen to your pitch. I typically make it clear that I’m not going to do a product demonstration right now. There usually isn’t room in a booth and the noisy, hectic environment of the convention floor is simply awful for demonstrations. At this moment, I want to determine the gatekeeper’s willingness and availability to look at my design later. Then, I begin the pitch, showing the highlights and teasing the hook.

During every step of the process, I’m honest and sincere. I can’t fake that. If I tell a publisher that I want to work with them because I want my game to be produced with the same quality components I see in their games, I mean it. I don’t flatter or schmooze. I suppose it helps that I’m a bit of a fan boy when it comes to game publishers.

That’s your moment. Like so many experiences in life, you get to do this alone.

I hope that these steps take some of the mystery and uncertainty out of the preparation. I also hope that you find it motivational. Getting your game published is an achievable goal. I’m just a guy who makes games from 9 pm to midnight after my kids go to sleep. If it can happen for me, it can certainly happen for you.

But… but…What about the actual demonstration? I’ll cover that in a later column. For now, focus on the pitch. Convention season starts early this year!

9 thoughts on “Pitch Like a Pro

  1. I’ve found, on the hobby game side, many or even most publishers want exclusive access to your prototype. If you show it to Company X and they say they want to take it with them, they may assume they’re getting the only copy. It would be wise to clarify that point with them before pitching to anyone else. The last thing you want is two publishers interested in the same game. More often than not, that will end with neither publisher wanting it, and/or refusing to look at your prototypes again in the future.

    If you can, request a time-frame on a decision from them. Give them six months to decide, after which you may start showing it to other publishers. I’ve had games languishing with publishers for years. Good games that should see the light of day!

    • I haven’t found myself in that situation yet, thankfully. I hear that it happens. Brian Tinsman mentioned it in “The Game Inventor’s Guidebook.” In his view, it’s an ideal situation – two companies bidding for your game.

      I just stumble forward, relying on my own sincerity and faith in the sincerity of the people I’m meeting. I also trust my instincts. I walked away from an offer from a seemingly nice guy that I just had a bad vibe about. I might have been wrong, but I have no regrets.

  2. Great article Corey! I especially like the part about knowing the company you’re pitching to. I think that is a pitfall a lot of new inventors fall into!

    Looking forward to reading your follow-up article!

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