Your Ideas Don't Matter… Much
Jason Della Rocca ponders the subject of pitches - and how marketing and business models need consideration
Many paradoxes exist within the games industry. One such paradox is the reality that ideas are simultaneously worthless and the fuel that drives the entire industry. How many of us have been approached by someone with a "great idea" for a game? My reaction, regardless of the quality of the idea, has always been to push for a tangible expression of the concept. That is to say, the idea alone is pretty meaningless until you execute on it.
Game developers are full of ideas on all aspects of game creation, and indeed many of these ideas find life in games. Some fail and some succeed, and having tolerance for the exploration and experimentation of ideas is vital to the game creation - and innovation - process. A problem arises when any one idea becomes too precious, as is often the case for those "I've got a great idea for a game" situations.
Part of the problem is that we have no real way to predict the quality or success of a given game idea. It is interesting to look at the pitch-to-publish ratio (which is a concept I first learned about from Wideload's Alexander Seropian a few years back). Many other entertainment industries have a rather high ratio, meaning a studio or artist has many pitches (or ideas) in the works and is pushing them to the various gatekeepers all the time. This allows for flexibility in meeting the needs of gatekeepers, and staying agile vis-a-vis the tastes of the marketplace.
The games industry, however, is notorious for having a very low pitch-to-publish ratio. I've got my single awesome game idea of a lifetime, and I'm going to push that one idea like a steamroller until I get someone to greenlight it. The harder and longer I try, the more precious the idea becomes to me.
Which, sadly, is the exact opposite of what you need to be doing when trying to get that idea funded. This became painfully obvious during a panel session on investing/funding at the 2009 Nordic Game Conference in Sweden. The panelists were quite clear in stating that investors don't really care about your precious game idea. They care about how you plan to make money. Or rather, how they will make money - or, to be very precise, how you will make them money.
Given developers' focus on ideas, funding pitches are heavily weighted towards the awesomeness of the game concept - perhaps with some time in the presentation left to cover budget and schedule. The Nordic panelists were suggesting a new strategy was in order, whereby 90 per cent of the pitch was about the business model and how revenues would be generated, with a final 10 per cent to cover the "oh yeah, this is my cool game idea" part.
How can we be so off the mark? We are thinking about our awesome idea, and they are thinking purely about business models. I won't go as far as to fully support Mitch Lasky's view that innovation in distribution and business models is the only area where true value is generated in the game industry, but there does need to be some balancing off. Countless developers walk away from funding pitches empty handed - not because the potential investors didn't like your idea, but because they just didn't care that much about it, and you didn't spend any time covering what they did care about: how you plan to monetise that great idea (beyond the usual publisher-will-sell-it model).