Adventures in Essen, Part 3: Pitching to a Publisher

Going to Essen as a game designer can be very beneficial if you plan properly and have a modicum of sales or personal skills. In this post I’ll walk you through how I pitched to all the publishers I met with while in Essen. To catch up to where we are in the series, here are the previous posts:

Adventures in Essen, Part 1: The Fair

Adventures in Essen, Part 2: Attending as a Designer

Because we’ve been published already, I started each conversation by bringing out a copy of Train of Thought and Belfort. I did this for a couple reasons.

  1. To let the publisher know that I’m a published designer of two great looking games and,
  2. To let them know that we’re looking for international partners. If the publisher was a European publisher and showed some interest in either one, then I’d quickly review the game and then gauge their interest levels. The more interest they show then the more details I provide, going so far as to open the box and give them an example of game play.

Sales Sheet for our game, Akrotiri

Once we were finished talking about International rights (which Sen and I do not have, but I was there to gauge interest and connect them with our publisher for negotiating), I’d bring out my folder full of Sales Sheets. Prior to the meeting I’d review the emails with the publisher to see if they expressed interest in specific games of ours or not, and if they did then I’d only show them the Sales Sheets for those games. If I didn’t have any guidance from previous emails as to which games they prefer to see, then I’d start with the games that I felt fit that publisher the most.

I’d bring out the Sales Sheet and face it towards them and give them the 30-second elevator pitch, just like in Step 16. Based on how interested they were, I’d continue by explaining how the game plays while pointing to each picture on the Sales Sheet. I’d ask them if they’d like to see a sample round played out and if so, I’d grab the baggie with the prototype and quickly set up enough components to play a round. Depending on the game I would explain a certain percentage of the rules since not all rules would be needed to play a round or two. Basically I’d follow what we detailed in Step 25. Whenever it made sense I’d point out key strategy aspects but I always let the publisher make up their own mind as to how to play.

A small room where I just finished pitching Swashbucklers to a publisher (the publisher left for a moment so I snapped this image with my iPad!)

During a pitch session the time for humility is at the end of the session if the publisher has feedback, but at the beginning and during your pitch, throw humility out. I mean, don’t be an egotistical ass, but this is the time that you really have to highlight what’s unique and special about your game. As we play I’d point out how unique a movement mechanic was or how clever or novel a specific aspect of the game was. I’d say things like, “What I like most about this game is that everyone is playing at all times” or “The hook to this game is that you’re giving many tiny clues which, by themselves mean little, but when put together they make more sense.” You have to remember that this publisher is possibly spending their entire time at Essen seeing new designs every 30 minutes from different designers. How are you going to stand out and be remembered?

After playing a round or two I am usually pretty forward and like to ask their opinion about the game from what little they know of it. This is key if you have many games you’d like to present. Each of the meetings I had were specific slots of time – usually 30 minutes (though one was an hour), so I wouldn’t want to ‘waste’ my entire time on pitching just the one game. When the publisher gives you feedback, remember to follow what we reviewed in Step 26. Now IS the time for humility. Don’t be defensive and just accept whatever they say. There’s no argument that you can provide that would convince the publisher that their opinion should be different.

Whatever their opinion is, start packing up the prototype if it’s out, while the publisher is contemplating or sharing their thoughts. Keep eye contact with the publisher and don’t appear rushed, but I knew I had a few more games I had to get out and I was just trying to be as efficient as possible. None of the publishers seemed to mind this at all.

At the end of the session I’d always review the key take-aways. I’d summarize which games they were interested in and then, as detailed in Step 27, I’d ask them if it was ok to come back with the prototype at the end of the Fair, and all the publishers were cool with that. I’d shake their hand and thank them for their time and ensure I got a business card and be on my way.

It’s key during these pitches to really try and be yourself. You can’t be super salesman-y the entire time as that comes across as cheesy and forced. Show them that you’re a good person and that you’d be fun and professional to work with if they chose your game to be published. I never found it necessary to comment or flatter them with praise about any of their existing games as I felt like that would come across as pandering and fake. I think they appreciated that I was good humoured but also got right down to business.

I need to underline the importance of Sales Sheets again. I’ve talked about them in previous posts for sure, but I actually asked a few publishers their thoughts about Sales Sheets and every one of them said it was a great idea. One specifically liked that it helped him remember which game was which since they had pictures, while another preferred them during the pitch sessions as it was quicker to explain games instead of hauling out tons of bits and pieces. In the future I think we’ll be tweaking our Sales Sheets a bit to make them even a better aid when explaining how the game is played.

Up Next: A review of the publishers I pitched

– Jay Cormier

Step 23: Getting your game in front of a publisher at a convention: Approaching the publisher

For any publisher that you don’t already have a meeting set up in advance (see Step 20), it’s time to approach the publisher – or at least someone who’s working in the publisher’s booth!  My approach is always with a smile and sounds something like this:

“Hi, I’m a game designer and was wondering if you’re looking at submissions while you’re here?”

If you’re not speaking to the right person then you’ll be told who to speak to, but otherwise this approach has served me well.

At this point I usually get a vibe of disappointment from some publishers as I’m not a potential customer to them.  Imagine how many designs a publisher sees in a year/month/week.  How many of those are awesome?  So you can see why a publisher doesn’t always have high hopes when a designer approaches them at a convention.  That said, a lot of publishers have told me that they only look at new designs at conventions, so it’s not all doom and gloom!

The response you get from a publisher at this point will be one of the following:

a)     Sure, tell me/show me what you got

b)     Sure, why don’t you come back a X:XX time

c)     The person who looks at submissions isn’t here but here’s our submission guidelines/email this person

d)     We’re not accepting any outside submissions at this time

If you get ‘d’ then make a note and move on. If the convention lasts a few days and there are a ton of publishers at the convention then it’s quite possible you’ll forget which ones you’ve talked to by the end.

If you get ‘c’ then you’ve got a contact and it will give you an in when you do email them the week after the convention.  Make sure you get the name of the person you spoke to in person at the convention so you can say that you were talking to Susan at the convention and she referred me to you.  Makes it sound less like a cold call.

If you get ‘a’ or’b’ then you’re in luck.  The first thing I do is I let them know that I have many games but I have selected a couple that would really fit well with their company.  I said this to Atlas Games at a convention once and the rep at the booth was so thankful that I wasn’t about to show her 10 different games.  This made me think that a lot of designers had been showing her tons of games throughout this convention – and that some of them weren’t a good fit for her company.  Atlas Games had games like Beer Money and Gloom and we thought our game about collecting geeky things like comics, figures and movies would appeal to them. She appreciated that we knew her business.

As I’m saying this I bring out my sales sheets (see Step 14) and begin showing the ones that fit this publisher.  I have often noticed that the attitude of the publisher changes immediately once they see my sales sheets for my games.  It’s as if they realized they were speaking to a professional designer instead of some jimmy-jo-jo designer who’s invented a really cool monopoly clone.

Now it’s time for the elevator pitch (Step 16)!  This is it – this is what we’ve been leading up to.  Hopefully you’ve practiced saying this out loud quite a few times already so it will come naturally when you say it to a publisher.  While you’re saying your pitch you can use your sales sheet as a visual aid.  Point out the specific components and highlight what makes the game unique. The end of every pitch at a convention should be an invitation to try out the prototype – because you have it with you.

Check out the next blog post which will be about showcasing your prototype to a publisher – the Do’s and Do Not’s!

-Jay Cormier

See how it all comes together? As I alluded to in our last post, there’s not a whole lot of luck about how we got published. It’s about setting a course of action and executing your plan.

You know how there’s that saying about first impressions? Well, it’s true. You need to make a good one with each and every publisher you meet, especially if you hope to be in this business for a long time – it’s a small community and you’ll end up seeing the same people over and over if you go to multiple conventions. So make sure that you present yourself well – professional, considerate, and well-groomed. A little bit of effort in this department can go a long way. Publishers need to have confidence in not only your game, but in you as a designer.

This means knowing your target audience so that you only pitch appropriate games to specific publisher. It means knowing how to take “no” or “not interested” for an answer. It also means having your act together – quite literally!

Jay and I will often role play pitching our games to a publisher to help Jay get his “patter” down. As a sales person, an actor and a street magician, Jay’s patter is strong, but even a vet like him gets nervous from time to time. He needs to prepare his responses to questions like “Why aren’t there more dice in this game?” or comments like “This looks like the same game as Knizia’s last one.” It sounds silly, but rehearsing helps immensely. It helps with flow, timing, and hitting all the key points. In fact, some of the times, we come up with things that we end up including on our sales sheets because they are excellent points to highlight!

Speaking of the sales sheets, what you’re actually aiming for is to be able to use a combination of everything we’ve talked about before – your pitches and your sale sheets – to interest a publisher so much in the idea that they want to see the prototype. You need to be able to tell a prospective publisher nearly everything about a game without even bringing the game out on the table. Why? Because in a crowded convention hall there may not be the opportunity to play the game right there and then. So use words and pictures to get the idea across strongly enough that a publisher will want to playtest the game. This can mean setting an appointment for a later date, giving the prototype to the publisher for them to take back with them, or mailing it to their head office in Germany.

Designing an awesome game is all well and good but if you can’t sell it to a publisher it’ll just sit on the shelf. You need to sell yourself as well as your product. So polish up that silver tongue and make some snappy sales sheets because no one wants to be a Jimmy-Jo-Jo (Not even Jimmy-Jo-Jo!)

-Sen-Foong Lim