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How to pitch to publishers at GDC

Wired Productions MD Leo Zullo offers advice to developers ahead of those all-important meeting next week

While plenty of studios attend GDC to learn more about their craft, countless more will no doubt be hoping to make that crucial business deal that takes their project and studio forward.

Pitching to publishers and investors can be one of the most nerve-wracking experiences, particularly for new and independent developers. Fortunately, Wired Productions' managing director Leo Zullo is on hand with advice on how to ensure you're fully prepared for that life-changing meeting.

Research, research, research
Whoever you're meeting, don't turn up knowing nothing about them, whether they're a service provide, a publisher, tools provider or press. Do your research. If you're creating a mobile game, find a mobile publisher. If you're creating a PC/console game, find a PC/console publisher. Time is tight, and no-one likes to waste it. Good research before a meeting will shine through and make an impression.

"Don't think it will be a one-way street. The publisher will be asking you tough questions back, but the tougher the questions are, the more interest there is."

Once you've done your initial research, and have matched with the correct type of publisher, think about the games they've published before, and about their current pipeline; are you the right fit for them? If it's money or just getting a deal, make sure you're talking to the right people, or you won't secure either. Find out what games they've published and how well they've done, from a sales point of view, and from a marketing standpoint. Don't be afraid to ask these questions of a publisher, because if you're going to be working with them, you need to know they're going to hold of their end of the bargain, as they will expect to hold you to yours.

More importantly, know who your customer is, and be realistic about your targets. 2D platformers look great, but they're not huge sellers at the moment. What makes yours stand out, and why will consumers make your game the exception? If you know the answer, you're closer to cementing your audience, and with that, can set targets more efficiently and honestly.

Don't think it will be a one-way street. The publisher will be asking you tough questions back, but the tougher the questions are, the more interest there is.

Be honest and humble
Be realistic about everything: your budget, development timeline, the number of formats you're aiming to deliver, and the staffing you'll need to achieve it. We and many other publishers will offer development support through our partners, because your job is to make the best game possible, not stretch yourselves to make a great game good on four platforms. Make a great game, and if you're interested in more platforms, accept the help. It will make the world of difference.

Ensure the scope of your game ties into your targets. Can you really deliver 100 vs 100 battle royale gameplay in 13 months, crossplay enabled with stellar performance across console and PC from scratch? The answer is probably not. If you believe the answer is yes, prove it. Show me how... back to the first point: research!

Know what you want, and more importantly what you need. If you turn up with a telephone number budget backed up with little substance then it's going to be obvious pretty quickly. Likewise, if you have a track record of sub-$250,000 budgets and ask for a cool $5 mill you've got an uphill struggle. If you need funding including setting up your studio, then it can be done, but remember asking someone else to fund your company may sound great but it's going to cost you.

"Decks should be five to ten pages at maximum, and loaded only with the key information. You've got to quickly convince a publisher you or your game are worth more of their time"

The journey you embark on with a publisher is a long one, often two years or more where working with the publisher is like a relationship; there must be give and take, but without trust and respect, you'll be going nowhere fast. It's called the video games industry because it's a business, but a publisher will sign with a developer because of the person or the team. As much as the game is good, the promise of a good relationship can go just as far.

Self-publishing is becoming harder by the day, with discovery still an issue, sales and distribution a challenge and marketing, PR and influencer relationships more difficult as the market shows no sign of becoming less crowded, but more so. And if you still want to self-publish and do deals for specific territory distribution deals, or co-publishing agreements, then we'll all wish you the best of luck.

But going into a meeting looking for partners and expecting to secure a great deal is less likely; because publishers know the work that goes into getting a game from prototype to market riding high among the latest releases. It's a concerted effort by large numbers of people, more often than not globally, and you'll need to consider how much work you and your team can take on. Do you go for full-fat self-publishing, or do you get help with sales, marketing, PR? Asking for funding for the project with an unrealistic expectation of what work you can achieve yourself will see some doors close quickly.

Prove that you've assessed funding options, and don't turn up saying, "We're going to launch on Kickstarter in three days." It's all about preparation! Investors, seed, local grants; have you exhausted all avenues? If you have, and been successful, be honest about the implications on any investment you've received, because that coming to light as you approach term sheets can be a deal-breaker.

Is your game suited to retail, or digital only? Does your game appeal to multiple platforms, or only work on Switch? These are questions that you need to be asking yourself before meetings, but if you haven't answered these questions, do it now; time is tight at GDC, and wasted time is a crime.

Unless you've got a huge community following or are the best at PR in the world (you're not), then self-publishing is going to be tough. Some are lucky, but they are the exception, rather than the rule. Community building, marketing and PR will be the biggest issues your team will have with bandwidth throughout the campaign, so consider if this is really something you can do, or if you're just telling yourself that in the hope of saving money.

Tactical Assault
Before your meeting, prepare what you're going to show. If you're more than one person, don't load all the talking onto one of you; teams are there to be heard and conversations had. You'll have 30 minutes on average, and an hour if you're lucky, so make sure your presentation is compact and act like you've got no time to waste.

Decks should be five to ten pages at maximum, and loaded only with the key information; because you can talk about the detail - that's where the follow up calls and meetings come in. In a very short time, you've got to convince a publisher you or your game are worth more of their time. Consider key points you want to make, emphasise them, alter the pitch of your voice, and above all, show us why your game is fun. This is business speed dating and at stake is the difference of a deal! As you're communicating the project, remember that if you can't sell it to us, you won't succeed in selling it to consumers.

"What impresses us even more than that is your plan B. How are you going to respond if the game doesn't sell 400,000 units on Steam on day one (because it won't)"

Tell us why your game is different, and what your hook is. Not your gimmick, but the thing that's going to make people buy your game and keep them playing long after release. What impresses us even more than that is your plan B. Show us your successes, and tell us about your failures. How are you going to respond if the game doesn't sell 400,000 units on Steam on day one (because it won't)? How will you involve the community? How will you listen to feedback? How will you react?

Importantly, if you don't have a demo, that's not the end of the world. A video is just as good, because this is your opportunity to open a door, and you won't be signing anything at the meeting. If you do have a build, don't hesitate to show us, but don't say we're playing it wrong; there are different kinds of gamers, and we'll have teams ready to try the build at a later date. Convince us its worth the effort, and your target audience will be able to assess the game. How many CEOs or publishing directors do you know that play games religiously? If they're not your audience, give them time to adjust to the controls, and tell them why your audience will like aspects they may not instantly be drawn to.

Think about the options, but don't play the field
There are so many kinds of publishers and distributors out there, and we all offer different deals. The important thing is to not believe your game will make its development budget back on day one. A good publisher will be able to market and monetise and nurture the title over its lifetime. The longevity of sales is as important as player retention. The longer a publisher pushes a title, the better chance of it becoming an IP with value.

Most publishers are good, but the larger they are, the better the deal is for them. You're likely to get more funding from the bigger players, but your residual income after costs will be low. If you get the deals right, as well as the partner, your game can be successful for you for a long time.

If you don't know what you want, start with what you need. Rather than a large advance, think about the long-term goals of the game; advances do happen, but you don't need to pay for development with the signing of the deal.

If you have a game that is in demand, don't play the field. Focus on two to three potential deals, based on solid decision making process. It's not cool to play the field, and it is obvious if you are doing that.

The Essentials
Now, we're all human, and we all have needs. If you're meeting for the first time, don't leave your business cards at the hotel; a publisher will want to email you. Bring coffee and mints, and don't be afraid to share them. Like you, publishers will be talking to 20-plus people a day, and there's little break from the conversation.

At night, San Francisco comes alive, and we'll know if it exploded for you. GDC isn't about parties, it's about learning and understanding the business. Sure, say hi to friends, and go along to a couple of mixers, because you might meet your next partner, but don't get hammered until 6am - save that to the end of the show. Stay fresh; earn the respect you need the moment you walk into the meeting and you'll be half way to securing your deal already.

Good Luck!