What a Pitch!

By James Portnow [06.24.08]  Do you have a game inside of you that you're burning to make? We all do.

Do you want yours to actually be made? Then I'm going to give you one simple piece of advice: Learn how to pitch.

It all comes down to the pitch. That's where all games start.

What's a Pitch?
A pitch is simply a concise way of explaining why your idea is good. It can be formal or informal, technical or abstract; so long as the goal is the same, it's a pitch.

Many people outside the game development industry (and even some experienced professionals) don't understand why it's important to know how to pitch. This is simply because they don't realize how often they are called upon to pitch. You pitch every time you try to convince your friends what to do on a Saturday night or where to go out to eat. Throughout the course of a development cycle even the most junior employees will get the opportunity to pitch features and development ideas; a lot of the time they just don't realize they're doing it.

No One Makes Games Alone
Very few games today are made by a lone developer working in isolation. Rather, they're made by teams, and no matter who the development team is, the project will start with a pitch.

It doesn't matter if it's a pitch to your friends to convince them to help you build agame, or a pitch to your college professor to let you pursue a game project, or a pitch to your corporation for financial support. It's still a pitch.

Pitching doesn't stop there. You'll find you'll have to convince people that you're doing the right thing throughout the development process, not just when the game idea is first put on the table.

Where Should I start?
In order to convince someone that you have a good idea, the first thing you need to do is know why your idea is good. This seems silly. You're probably saying to yourself, "Of course I know why my idea is good." But take a minute to really think about it.

Your reasons need to be concrete and expressible. They can't be statements like, "It would be super fun" or, "Because making RPGs more complex makes them better."

When trying to hash out why your idea is good, be very careful about using the word "fun." Yes, Super Mario Bros. 3 is more fun than McKids, and Gears of War is more fun than Dikatana, but almost every time you use the term fun, you are obscuring a deeper question about what makes something fun.

Before you delve into what makes your idea good or fun, take a moment to think about why the following ideas were good when they first came out:

What did you learn? (Don't click to the next page until you have an answer.)

 The key to analyzing why something is "good" is by answering the question, "What problem does it solve?" If you understand what problem you're solving, the next part is a lot easier.

The Elevator Pitch
Once you know what problem your game solves, you should prepare and practice an elevator pitch. This is probably the hardest part of the pitching process, but if you can nail it, the rest comes down to the time you can put into it.

What is an elevator pitch, you ask? Imagine Donald Trump walks into an elevator with you and says hi. Suddenly, out of nowhere,you have until the time the elevator reaches his floor to convince him that your game is good enough that he should fund it entirely himself.

Everything you say in that elevator ride is your elevator pitch.

An elevator pitch should be extremely short. I try to keep mine to two sentences. If it's more than 30 seconds, no matter how complicated your game is, you've failed to make your elevator pitch.

An elevator pitch should be like a hammer to the face. It should make people pause and ask for more (this metaphor might be going too far... hammers to the face rarely seem to actually make people ask for more). For example, if I were working on Gears of War and Mr. Trump got in the elevator and asked me what I was making, I'd say, "Linebackers with chainsaw guns!" Or if I were making The Sims: "Virtual dolls."

The elevator pitch should emphasize what's cool about your project and express it in a way that's understandable to someone who has no familiarity with your product (or perhaps even video games in general). Remember, all the elevator pitch needs to do is get someone to say, "Tell me more."

The Full Pitch
Now you're ready for the full pitch. The full pitch is what you give when someone's actually willing to sit down and listen to your idea.

The first step you should take when preparing your pitch is to list what questions your game answers, and then to explain how it answers those problems. Go into detail and write it down.

Once the list is complete you should begin looking for ways to prove that your solutions really work. Some of this can simply be tautological proof, but for the most part, you're going to have to rely on evidence (because no one won't accept that "magic squirrel pants" are the next big thing just because you said so).

Go back to your list and find evidence to support as many of your claims as you can. This will tell you where your case is weak or (be very careful about doing this) where you can claim that you are ahead of the curve and have identified something no one else has caught onto yet.

The key to creating a successful full pitch is the same as the key to game design: know your audience. I can't stress this point enough. If you know whom you are pitching to and can pitch to them, you'll be fine. All you have to do is ask yourself, "Which of the problems that I am solving will these people care about most?" Once you've answered that question, you can return to your list and build your pitch from there.

But Don't I Need to Know PowerPoint?
Before you pitch, you should all:
1. learn PowerPoint,
2. buy some nice clothes, and
3. pick up a laser pointer.

These are all invaluable tools for pitching and presenting. But do you need them? No.

Most of the pitching I've done has been over a meal or in a coffee shop where I didn't have my slideshow or my fancy props. You should be prepared to pitch your game whenever and wherever you get the opportunity.

The final and perhaps most crucial pitching skill is simply being aware of when you are being called upon to make a pitch. Sometimes you'll have the luxury of being invited to formally pitch your ideas but, much more often, you'll be in a situation where you're engaged in a normal conversation that suddenly opens up and becomes an opportunity to pitch.

This skill is really just an intuition that you gain over time by simply trying to be aware and alert, but here are a few tips that might help you:
  1. Be aware of other people's problems. When someone starts talking about a challenge or a difficulty they are trying to surmount, they are usually asking for you to pitch them a solution.
  2. When people are taking an active interest in what you are doing, it is often because they think that whatever you are doing has some value to them (even if it's just curiosity). This can easily turn into a pitch if you understand why what you're doing is interesting to them.
  3. So-called weak ties (acquaintances), are often the people whom you'll have the most opportunity to pitch to. They know you enough to listen to you without knowing you so well that pitching becomes awkward.
Everything starts with a pitch, despite whether you know you're making it. Even this article starts with a pitch.Go back and read the first paragraph. The pitch is aimed at you.

James Portnow is a game designer and CCO of Divide by Zero Games, a recently funded startup game studio. You can email him at [email protected].

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