When I was in Jesse Schell’s Game Design class back in the dawn of the century, he had an interesting final project – form a team and together pitch an imaginary video game concept to a board of real game industry professionals. At the time, I found that to be an odd project. The whole semester was spent teaching us how to think like a designer in order to make something that was fun (or at least interesting) and the final project was about public speaking and less about actual ideas.
Two years later, we are mopping up the disasterous Superman Returns handheld games and I’m assigned an opportunity: we need a Game Boy SKU for Superman. It needs to be done in four months (!) and it only has the budget for two devs and an artist. Pitch me something. So there I was, a complete greenhorn pitching a concept. While the end result was low-risk, we did go forward with my idea and it made it to store shelves, completely unnoticed since the GBA was in its death throes at the time and the other SKUs were so disappointing that only one review of the game was ever posted on Metacritic (and I think the reviewer didn’t play the game, only read the back of the box – I digress. For it’s resources, I’m proud of it.) So there I was, as far down as you could go on the seniority totem pole, but still pitching projects. At least I had practice.
From there, I’d have more chances. Every designer who is trying ends up pitching features, but I ended up pitching whole titles – first in the Design Forums we had set up at EA as an extravocational endeavor and then later as part of a new IP group. I certainly wouldn’t have thought that four years prior the things I started to learn in Prof. Schell’s exercise would put me in charge of proposing ways to spend more than a million dollars.
This past week I was at Gen Con in Indianapolis trying to gain some interest from board game publishers on some things I’ve been working on in my spare time. The stakes couldn’t have been much lower, yet here was this same tension in my chest that I first had when I was pitching the game in Schell’s class (which, btw, was essentially Crackdown two years before it would be announced. Not that the premise is that original, but it was a fun coincidence.)
There are some general lessons that I’d like to share from my experience that maybe can help someone out there the next time they have to sell an idea:
In Malcolm Gladwell’s book-everyone-carries-around-at-the-airport Blink, he speaks about one of the fundamental rules of improv comedy, that of agreement:
“One of the most important of the rules that makes improv possible, for examplem us the idea of agreement, the notion that a very simple way to create a story – or humor – is to have characters accept everything that happens to them. … Bad improvisers block action, often with a high degree of skill. Good improvizers develop action.”
Pitching is a lot like improvization. You are trying to tell a story, but you don’t know where that story will end up. If you have a prototype in front of you, then you have some basis of what the final product will be, but every single gap has to be filled in the mind of the audience. Agreeing with the audience’s perception of reality means that they will understand the gaps a lot better than if you are constantly stopping them to try to shoehorn them into your predefined view.
Back to Schell’s class for one last time. I performed what I would call an Critical Fail as the CEO of my imaginary company, so much so that Jesse would recall the story to his class the following year (I was his TA at that time). My game took place on a moon base. One of the members of the board asked if you would have to change the architecture of the buildings since the moon has low gravity. Eager to deflate a problem of having to explain odd architecure, I said: “No, it has artifical gravity generators so it is just like Earth.” Whoops. The questioner had visions of doing awesome jumps in low-gravity shooting space-mafia in slo-mo displays. Now the setting was nothing like he was interested in and he was pretty much set to be bored for the rest of it. There wasn’t even a good reason for me to say that. I just thought I was being decisive.
In future meetings, I learned to agree – to roll with the punches. In the end, whatever game you make will be wholly unlike whatever your vision was for it during the pitch. So why stick to your guns at the cost of alienating your audience? Agree with them and you can adapt. Their ideas will often be pretty good. If you deny them here, then you are hurting yourself. Sometimes they won’t be. But if they aren’t, they will likely be ironed out by the end.
There really is no reason to deny anything unless it fundamentally changes what you are presenting. I am not saying that if you present a shoot-em-up and someone asks if it is a kart racer that you agree. What I am saying is that you entertain all possibilities as to what the idea could be. The truth is you really don’t know what the idea will be either, but you want to convince someone to let you ride it to the end.
The best purveyors of this technique can make the audience believe that his ideas are actually the audience’s. That is really the pinnacle of the agreement principle.
2) Audience and Focus
You absolutely need to know who your audience is and what they want. Every presentation book tells you this because it is the God’s honest truth. Very few presenters take this to heart which is why you get presentations that are sixty slides of text and no central theme. The presenters don’t like sitting through those kinds of presentations either but they have no idea to whom they are presenting or what they want to hear so they figure if they say everything, eventually they will hit something valuable.
Hogwash. Who has time for that?
Unfortunately, I failed that test at Gen Con this past week at the first publisher I showed to because I was so focused on polishing the little bits that I didn’t realize what he cared about was the big picture. He wanted a strong theme and an original mechanic. I focused on cleverly interlocking mechanics to create a fine balance. Of course that is needed in a game, but not until later. I was like the guy presenting the sixty text slides. I didn’t tell him what he wanted to hear. Two minutes in, we started talking about why the theme didn’t work. We never got to the gameplay dynamics, which I thought were the most important. Only designers care about dynamics.
I knew the theme wasn’t strong. But look at all the other games that don’t have a strong theme: Ticket to Ride, Dominion, Puerto Rico. Some of the best games in history don’t have a strong or consistent theme. They all have strong mechanics. But that’s irrelevent because my audience was looking for something with a strong and consistant theme. Not being prepared to talk about that sunk my battleship.
It would be like pitching a fantasy MMO at EA Sports. There was a guy back at Tiburon in our design forum that had a really clever idea for an adventure game about possessing statues. How do you think that pitch went with execs? It is hard enough to get people to buy into ideas. Don’t make it harder on yourself by sending a message the audience isn’t equipped to hear.
A subpoint to this is to have a focus. The concept of the elevator pitch has been around for quite some time. To paraphrase Blink again, people make their decisions about you VERY quickly. Thus, front-load your pitch with whatever makes your idea stand out. Start with “Roll Through the Ages is essentially Civilization meets Yahtzee“. I imagine that was the opening of Matt Leacock’s pitch if there was one. Blam. The pitch both sums up the idea and is compelling on face. Civilization is extremely complex. Yahtzee is incredibly casual. How will his idea meld the two? If the audience “gets” the idea by that point they are hooked and will listen to the rest of what you have to say, building and tweaking their mental models of it along the way. If not, then they will have to work to create their mental models and who likes to work? Plus, theirs will be different, much different, than the one you want to create in their minds.
The one problem with having a focus is that you necessarily have to exclude possible ideas, which feels counter to the concept of agreement. It is not. It is only a method to create the mental model in your audience closest to your own to work with to minimize the amount of agreement you have to do explicitly. It really is the most important thing you can do for your presentation.
When designers hear feedback the inner voice starts talking really loudly. Either it starts saying: “Oh yeah, that’s good feedback but that would affect the healing rate of such and such or I’d have to change this system to do this thing” or it is “This guy has no idea what he is talking about. Look at his tie and how stupid it is.” The problem with both of these things is that while your brain is subvocalizing, you aren’t listening to additional feedback. Listen now. Process later.
Most pitches will fail. A pitch is a total waste of time if you do not understand why it failed.
Friends and acquaintances don’t give you too much worthwhile feedback. Everything is tainted by the fact that they know you and generally want you to succeed or just want to make suggestions. The best feedback comes from strangers or folks disinterested in your future and those are generally the folks that are your pitch audience. If you can convince someone who doesn’t care to care, then your idea is probably ready to fly from the nest.
People who don’t listen during these kinds of feedback sessions generally don’t get any better and generally keep making the same mistakes while thinking they are the best designers in the world and that nobody appreciates their genius.
Ask yourself: is the point of the pitch to sell an idea or to sell yourself? Boards and publishers aren’t interested in you, they are interested in possible project ideas. If you want someone to tell you what a good job you do and how creative or smart you are, your mother is probably a better audience.