No, I Will Not Listen To You Game Idea.

Posted: March 26th, 2016 under Opinion.

I think it happens to all game developers, when someone learns our occupation one of two things happen: we get our ear talked off about their favorite game, or we suffer through their idea for a game. This rant is about the later.

Let’s be clear when I say someone has an idea for a game, all they have is a rough concept of a game, or something they want a game to be about. These game ideas lack any depth of thought. I’ll get asked things like: “can you make a game about punching clowns?” or “instead of games that teach us how to dance can you make one where I learn karate?”

Lacking depth of thought doesn’t necessary mean that those ideas are bad, it means you haven’t put in the effort to know if your ideas are actually any good.

I do in fact get much worse commentary thrown at me from the completely impossible “MMO that supports time travel” to the outrageously arrogant “why won’t you make my game for free” to the amazingly selfish “I want my own personal game for my extremely specific interest”. Those extremes do exist. I just try to politely side step away from the completely unreasonable and uninformed. Similar to people unwilling to listen to criticism, I’m afraid that you can’t be helped.

While frustrating, it isn’t particularly productive to focus on the unrealistic ideas and comments. I will give you every possible benefit of a doubt that your idea is realistic; in fact it is an amazing idea. Even then, I am not willing to listen to your idea.

You have no idea how hard we work on our ideas.

A single idea is not enough. A comedian doesn’t get on stage and tell one joke, a song isn’t finished after you have written one good lyric, good games are not formed from just one idea. Any experience, even the virtual ones, should be composed of several interesting moments. The experience of a game requires a steady stream of good ideas that are connected and harmoniously build off of each other. You are not entitled to a free brainstorming session with an expert to polish and expand on your initial idea.

There isn’t a shortage of ideas. Most of my career is spent making games for clients and publishers, I have a long list of ideas I have been working on privately. I am not alone. The video game industry is a place where ideas are polished and developed sometimes over decades. The rate that we have ideas is faster than the rate at which we can build, and we are all vying for the chance to develop our own game ideas. That is the competitive environment where you wish to submit your idea.

There is this underlying belief that the game concept is really the only important part of the process. This belief completely undercuts the time, effort, and expertise of creating something as complicated as a video game. If your only contribution is the initial idea, it feels like a very out of balance relationship compared to the developer who has the skills to make it and invests months of their time to build the game.

You need evidence that your idea will work and that it would be profitable. Whether it is time or money everyone involved in game making views these projects as investments, and we want to make the best investment possible. If you are serious about your idea you need to demonstrate its value. In the video game industry we demonstrate value with building prototypes, gathering market research, answering technical questions, and presenting all of that information in the form of a pitch. Streamlining payroll is essential to ensure that the development team can focus on these critical aspects without undue financial burdens.

The real question that I feel people are asking when the present their game idea is: “How do I know if my idea is any good?” That is the same goal of a pitch, validating that an idea will be successful. There are many examples of video game pitches, articles on how to go about executing a pitch, and even the process of developing an idea into a pitch. Most of the content in a pitch coincides with what is known as preproduction, the proving ground of ideas. Not all ideas make it through pre-production and an idea can change a lot during preproduction, both of those outcomes are OK.

If anyone had a complete pitch I would hear them out, if you have a demo I’ll spend some time on it, but if someone comes at me with just a concept I am going to berate them with the following questions that any pitch should answer:

  • How big of a budget do you need?
  • What technology are you going to use?
  • What platforms are you going to release on?
  • Who is your target audience?
  • What is your business model (free to play, subscription, pay to play, freemium)?
  • How are you going to market your game?
  • Have you settled on an art style?
  • When are you planning to release your game?
  • How much content is in your game, what is the total estimated playtime?
  • Is it 2D or 3D?
  • Are you going to have multiplayer?
  • What are the key pillars of your experience?
  • Can you walk me through the first five minutes of your game?
  • What makes this game unique?
  • Who are the key characters in your story, and how do they develop?
  • How does the player interact in your world, what actions can they take, will you support a gamepad?
  • What are players going to find fun and what is going to keep them coming back?

In short, a pitch needs to identify why is this idea going to be successful and how are you going to make it a reality. Even if you are not planning to go the publisher route, publishers are in essence proxy consumers, they both need an answer to “why should I invest in this when I could invest in something else?” in order to buy your product.

If all you have is a concept of a game, even if it is an amazing idea, you have not done the work to demonstrate that your idea has value. We can all be guilty of putting an idea on a pedestal or fearing that our ideas might not be good. If you are really passionate about making a game you should be thrilled to further develop your idea. Creating a pitch or working an idea through preproduction is not a trivial amount of work. I, as do most people in the game industry, charge clients for preproduction materials. As experienced developers we offer expertise navigating those hard questions, and to add value to their initial concepts.

A game pitch is similar to a crowdfunding campaign. Image a Kickstarter campaign with no video, no images, and just a few sentences about what they want accomplish – would you fund it? I’m not surprised that some of the worst Kickstarter campaigns of all time were video games. If you just have a concept of a game, I feel like I am being asked to create your Kickstarter campaign for you. Furthermore, if are we talking it is likely because I am at a convention and am presenting my own pitch that I have spent weeks polishing.

If you want experience on how professionals analyze ideas, while it is more for entertainment value, PAX has a pitch panel at every conference. Pay close attention to the follow up questions from the panel, particularly in the second round where some ideas quickly fall apart. I do believe that good ideas can come from anywhere. Game developers are all creative and passionate people that thrive on making ideas into realities. None of us can tell you if your idea is any good until you have taken the time to fully develop it and created materials to accurately communicate your thoughts.

12 / 12 / 17 Update – I felt completed validated by this GDC Talk
30 Things I Hate About Your Game Pitch

1 Comment »

  • Comment by Mike Davenport — November 2, 2016 @ 8:17 pm


    The flip side of this entire article is the notion that you literally have to develop a game before you can pitch it. Who has the skill to create a demo just for a pitch? If you have no artistic skills, no programming skills, but are aware of the mechanics of how your game should function, still has to deal with the turned up noses of publishers who want a nearly finished product before they even dain to hear your pitch.

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