Everything you need before you even think of pitching to a publisher
GYLD's co-founders break down all the information and materials that publishers request when assessing your game
So you posted some nice GIFs on Twitter and, much to your excitement, a horde of scouts and publishers slid right into your DMs. Nice!
You then sent them a budget breakdown? How much time have you set aside for console lotchecks? What's your future hiring plan? How are you planning to handle cross-platform multiplayer support?
Sounds about right... right? You might be asking yourself: "Why didn't anyone tell me I needed to prepare all of these things?!" It's OK, we are here to help you demystify the processes that publishers go through when evaluating your game and what you can prepare in order to make the process as pain-free as possible. To start, let's put ourselves in the shoes of a publisher.
With 10,000+ games released on Steam in 2021 alone, the vast majority of which have generated less than $5,000, publishers simply aren't willing to take as many risks as they used to when it comes to signing games. Gone are the days where a ten-slide pitch deck with some cool concept art could land you a publishing deal.
Publishers are looking to limit their exposure and reduce the risk of releasing a title that's anything less than a slam dunk. No doubt you have seen dozens of news articles about publishers raising obscene amounts of money, whether it be from listing on global stock exchanges, raising multiple series of investments, being acquired, or building war chests from venture capital investments.
You can bet your bottom dollar that publishers are going to go over every small detail of your game with a fine-tooth comb
As far as we're concerned, it's awesome to see the traditional money world taking the video game industry more seriously; but the other side of that coin? Well, you can bet your bottom dollar that publishers are going to go over every small detail of your game with a fine-tooth comb in order to satisfy their stakeholders' risk profiles.
Long story short, publishers are more risk-averse than ever, and trying to convince them to partner with you and fund your game can be an ordeal. The more prepared you are with your project materials, the more likely it is that you'll get the right publishers wanting to take the plunge with you. Furthermore, it'll increase the bargaining power you have when negotiating the right deal for your game.
With that in mind, it's important to recognise that game developers have an obligation to themselves (and their stakeholders) to satisfy their own risk profiles when greenlighting any game production before considering approaching a publisher for funding. Aside from increasing the chances of getting your game funded by a publisher, it'll increase your negotiation power.
The greenlight process
In order to understand the materials you need to provide a publisher, the first thing to do is understand the publisher's evaluation process (often called the 'greenlight' process).
Bearing in mind that each publisher is different in how they conduct their greenlight process, we'll only cover the basics of the most common stages, from initial assessment through to signing a game, and how much time these stages can take.
- 1. Assessment of your pitch materials
Time estimate: <1 week
Publishers first assess your pitch deck, key game info, team bios, and track record at this stage to understand if there's a good match. Think of this stage like the publisher's 'swipe left or right' moment. If things are looking good, it's likely that they will jump on an introductory call with your team.
- 2. Assessment of your production materials
Time estimate: 1 - 4 weeks
If all went well in the introductory call, publishers will then request your production materials. They'll do a deep-dive into these materials to further understand your game design, development and release timelines, team info, capabilities, liabilities, and the level of financial and production support required. You may also be introduced to the publisher's production department, who may request revisions of your materials.
In order to understand the materials you need to provide a publisher, the first thing to do is understand the publisher's evaluation process
- 3. Playtesting
Time estimate: 1 - 2 weeks
Publishers have their team (production, marketing, QA, and other departments) play and evaluate your game build, and document their experiences with it. They will sometimes provide feedback, which can be useful for understanding where your game needs to improve, in order to satisfy the publisher's quality bar before signing.
- 4. Assessment of your marketing
Time estimate: <1 week
Publishers will then look at the marketing activities you've undertaken to see how your game is tracking with its audience (Steam wishlists, social media followers, Discord members, and so on), as well as learn about your post-release updates/DLCs/sequel plans, and future marketing potential.
You may be introduced to the publisher's marketing department at this stage, who can share their insights and potential marketing plans for your game. This is your moment to ask the publisher about how they would market your game to new audiences and leverage their existing ones.
- 5. Market research and financial forecasting
Time estimate: <1 week
Publishers will look at the costs, scope, platforms, similar titles, audience, and monetisation model of your game to create a financial forecast and retail pricing model.
Forecasting is critical for the publisher to develop their Profit and Loss (P&L) statements, which identify their break-even point by way of calculating the number of units needing to be sold and at what average price in order for them to be in profit. These internal calculations form the basis of the financial terms of their offer. Publishers will typically look to historical sales data and gamer profile databases when calculating their forecasts.
Sometimes a rejection is not a reflection of your game's quality or its commercial viability
- 6. The greenlight meeting
Time estimate: <1 week
The publisher's decision-making departments will come together with the goal of determining whether to progress the deal or decline the partnership. It's the moment when the publisher's team can state their case for or against your game.
It's important to recognise that even though a publisher may love your game, each publisher's decision-making process is different and sometimes a rejection is not a reflection of your game's quality or its commercial viability.
- 7. Headline terms
Time estimate: 1-2 weeks
If the greenlight meeting results in a positive outcome, publishers will progress the deal to an offer. Headline terms tend to be presented simply in an email or as a short high-level document that establishes the fundamental components of the publishing deal terms. This is when you can negotiate your needs, wants, and offerings.
- 8. Contract
Time estimate: 2 - 16 weeks.
Once the headline terms are agreed upon, publishers will reflect those deal terms in a long-form contract. These contracts typically cover the provisions around rights, licences, warranties, obligations, finance, duration, termination, territories, and more.
This may be the most important stage of the process to be meticulous about, which means it's the stage that can sometimes take the longest.
It's typically advisable to have a legal budget set aside for this stage.
In short? The greenlight process is a series of critical evaluation steps that can take anywhere from a few weeks to several months, depending on company size and agility. It can be a brutal, trialling system, which aims to pressure-test game developers and their products.
Now that you understand the typical stages of greenlight, you can probably see how easily things can get delayed if you don't provide the necessary information to assist and progress the evaluation.
If you want the evaluation to go smoothly, it's advisable to be prepared with the following materials and documentation:
- 1. Pitch deck
Much like a good pitch deck, we'll keep this section short. There are some great articles on the Gamesindustry.biz Academy about how to put together a pitch deck. The key to a good pitch deck is to think of it like a children's book: visually nice to look at, easy to read, and short (we typically stick to ten to 12 slides max).
For game developers who need further direction on how to put together an effective pitch deck, GYLD has an easy-to-follow pitch deck guide.
- 2. Production plan
Your production schedule and production materials are the blueprints to making your game. Without these, it would be like trying to build a house without a floor plan. It forms the basis of your budget as well, so it's essential to be comprehensive with these documents.
Below are the production documents that are most commonly requested by publishers:
- Project timeline (in months) broken down into milestones: ie. pre-production, vertical slice, pre-alpha, alpha, beta, release candidate, PC Gold, Console Gold (if applicable), post-release milestones, etc.
- Project task lists with each task's associated departments (individuals or groups), and duration of each task (in days).
Publishers will sometimes require your plan to fit into their release schedules, which can either mean cutting production time or adding to it. So, think about where you can make concessions and where your production can benefit from extra time or content.
Other production materials:
- Staffing plan and overview, detailing personnel details and their roles, and your hiring plan for staff in the future.
- Outsourcing plan, detailing the management, requirements, and selection of freelancers and outsourced asset creation/services to be utilised.
- Asset lists with clearly defined assets across the different art types, including subsets of relevant details, eg. rigged animations, dynamic audio, lighting, etc. This one can be quite time-consuming to put together, but is essential to any good production plan.
- Technical Design Document. If you think of a GDD as the document that answers the 'why and what?', then a TDD answers the 'how?' - eg. list of tools, processes, coding, AI, networking solutions, etc. This is not always necessary for publishers to see, but is worth having to ensure your team is working together cohesively.
- Market research reports showing your understanding of the audience and total market potential.
Production is a hard thing to master; it's both an art form and an academic skill set. GYLD has a 'cheat sheet' to help any developers looking to brush up on their production knowledge.
The more comprehensive your production plan is, the more accurate your budget will be
- 3. Budget
Everybody knows that budgets and timelines rarely go as planned. A budget 'blowing out' is the most common risk that publishers face, given that they aren't typically managing the day-to-day production; they rely on developers to be organised and have a well-oiled production pipeline.
As we explained in the previous section, your budget relies heavily on your production plan. The more comprehensive your production plan is, the more accurate your budget will be.
So, when putting together a budget plan, include the following:
- Staff salaries (including other staff incentives, bonuses, allowances, etc.
- Utilities and overheads (software, hardware, bank fees, source control, rent, website hosting, etc)
- Contractors (outsourced service providers and content creators)
- Business expenses (accounting, legal, taxes, insurance, employee benefits, etc)
- Testing and certification (Localization, porting, ratings, user testing, QA, etc)
- Travel, marketing and PR (flights, conferences, promotional assets, agencies, etc)
- Prior investment and direct contributions (from developers and stakeholders)
- Current assets and liquidity (money in the bank)
- Rebates, grants, tax offsets (government, platform, and organisation incentives, etc)
- Contingencies (a buffer allowance to your budget)
Additional materials (if applicable): Previous sales and forecast, including previous titles in a franchise, or in the case of a port, previous sales on other platforms.
This should create a total cash flow breakdown, which will allow you to forecast when milestone payments would be required.
These payments typically tie to the milestone schedule, so make sure to cross-check your production timelines and the proposed milestone payment dates in any publishing contract. That way you should stay ahead of your planned expenses and not fall behind on payments to employees and contractors.
- 4. Strong playable build
Publishers are visually driven and love to see screenshots and gameplay videos but ultimately, they base their assessment on playing your game, whether that's a prototype, a vertical slice, or something more substantial.
If the game isn't 'fun' or if it's missing that 'secret sauce', it won't pass through their greenlight. Publishers are short on time and have a never-ending list of games to evaluate, so you typically have one, maybe two opportunities to impress a publisher with an engaging build.
The key things GYLD often looks for in a playable build:
- The fun. Does it engage us and would we play this again? Games can be a slow burn, intentionally. Be sure to communicate this in advance, to set expectations if this is the case for your game
- Thoughtful game design. Does the developer make good use of the 3 Cs (Camera, Character, and Controls)? Do they have a clear understanding of their genre and audience needs?
- Outstanding visuals. Is it visually immersive? High fidelity isn't always required, but the art must evoke an emotional response in the player.
- A clearly defined game loop. Are the core pillars of the game evident?
If you want the playtesting phase during greenlight to go smoothly, the best thing you can do is to invest in a strong, fun, and stable playable build. When your build is convincing of the game's potential, not only can it speed up the evaluation process, it can also give you more negotiating power.
Additional materials (if applicable): Keys to previous games, so the publisher has a clear understanding of your track record and sets production quality expectations.
Some publishers cannot play .exe files simply due to company policy (as they pose a security risk). In general, publishers prefer to get access to a demo of your game via a Steam key.
- 5. GDD
There has been debate in the game dev community in recent years about whether it's worth creating a Game Design Document (GDD) or if it's a waste of effort and time. The main arguments being that GDDs are 'irrelevant' for small teams or 'obsolete' by the time they are completed.
While the sentiment that GDDs can become outdated rather quickly may be true, it's better to consider your GDD a living, breathing document that is the source of truth for your team and key stakeholders.
It's better to consider your GDD a living, breathing document that is the source of truth for your team and key stakeholders
There's a growing trend in using a wiki to host GDD content for this reason -- it can be a cleaner and easier way to update your GDD. There are a number of free, open source wikis such as MediaWiki and dokuwiki (among others) that are easy to pick up and use.
The relevance of a GDD to any risk-averse team (and publisher) cannot be underestimated. Not only is it critical to demonstrating that you have a clear outline for your game's design, it's also typically included and referenced to, in publishing agreements.
- 6. Shareable folder
When providing all of your materials to any publisher, there are certain things to be conscious of. You want to make sure publishers can easily access your materials. The last thing you want is for key documentation to get lost across multiple email chains, or slip through the cracks because someone was accidentally dropped off Cc.
Having a single cloud-based shareable folder that contains all of your materials is an easy way to address this.
Depending on your security sensitivity, it's also useful to use a cloud-based shareable folder, that will give you permissions controls (and potentially analytics) over who has access to your materials.
Similarly, if you're sharing Steam keys with publishers, you can always revoke access when they no longer require access to your game.
It's worth noting that RAR/Zip files can also be a no-go for some publishers, depending on their security policies.
The reality is that the preparation of your game's production materials is critical to the future of your studio. When you mitigate your own production risks, you'll give yourself the best foot forward when exploring opportunities with publishers and lay the foundation for the best possible deal terms when you begin negotiations.
So, even if you're getting offers left, right, and centre, it's important to recognise that being prepared will see positive returns, and prevent you from signing bad deals, losing opportunities, and overpromising on a sub-optimal budget.
Fabian Malabello and Lex Suurland are the co-founders of GYLD, which was founded to champion video game developers on their quest to obtain better publishing and investment deals on a 'no win, no fee' basis