”Unfortunately there are no awards handed out for Best Budgeted Project,” says Seb Canniff, an executive producer at Sony Computer Entertainment Europe.
Nevertheless, he says, clever budget planning is one of the most important disciplines that game developers should master. He says that the challenge with games is “finding out how much fun actually costs” – that a subjective goal like making a game fun is something tricky to budget for.
With a career that spans ten years at SCEE Worldwide Studios London, Canniff has overseen development of major titles under the guidance of one of the biggest publishers in the world. Speaking at a GDC Europe speaker session, he offered four pointers to give your game idea the green light.
1) Know your enemy
Or, as Canniff diplomatically put it, know everything about the publisher you’re pitching to.
He says publishers aren’t the prosaic, buttoned-down money fetishists that they are so routinely portrayed as. “Publishers are creative, they do see a lot of games”, he said, but a major element to their duty is looking to reduce risk.
According to Canniff, the three main questions publishers ask themselves is
* Does the game meet our business needs?
– in that, are you pitching a triple-A blockbuster to a publisher that’s looking for less costly, more boutique products?
* Does the game fit well within our portfolio of games?
– in that, are you pitching a cutesy platformer to a publisher that has several of them in the pipeline?
* What is the team heritage?
– in that, does your studio have a reputation for fucking things up?
He says that, once you know what the publisher wants, you can build your pitch to their hopes.
And, he adds, you shouldn’t fixate solely on the profitability of the game. “You both want to make games that make people happy, you both want to be recognized with award-winning product,” he said.
2) Be sharp, be interesting
You know when you’re watching a terribly boring movie that becomes so insipid and pointless to you that you begin to become exhausted by the mere act of sitting down in front of it? Publishers feel that too.
It’s because, despite being pivotal decision makers for publishing empires, publishers are behind their suits known as human beings. They get bored. They get excited.
Knowing that the person you’re pitching to is vulnerable to boredom is key, Canniff explains.
He says that your pitch should be snappy – it should leave out unnecessary details. “Full concentration only lasts a few minutes,” he says, “so make sure your pitch is clearly structured as a story – with a start, middle and end.” Not only is a story easier to digest, he says, it’s also easier to remember.
And in regards to the end of your story, where the game launches to market and goes on to win multiple awards, be prepared to answer questions about what comes next. Publishers tend to like sequels.
”Make your presentation visual,” Canniff adds. “You remember things 65 per cent more when represented visually.”
3) Remove the risk
Halfway through his speaker session, Canniff presented a chart which, he says, explained the timeline of risk and cost of a project.
Running from start (prototype) through middle (production) to the end (market launch), the chart showed that publishers see risk at their true height at the very start – during the pitch. It is also the period where the investment is at its very lowest – in fact it’s at nothing before a deal is made.
As soon as a game is green-lit, the costs shoot up and, as the game is more refined, the risk falls down at a proportional rate. By the end of a project, the risk of the project failing is now at its lowest, and the project costs are at the highest. The two lines form an ‘X’ shape.
So your pitch, by definition, is the riskiest period in your new relationship with the publisher. For them, this is the best time to walk out of the deal.
”So, it’s absolutely crucial that you word your pitch as an opportunity,” Canniff said.
”If you present yourself as having a good idea, a strong business case and a great team, that for the investor is a chance for them,” he said.
”You want to make sure your idea is relevant, distinctive in a crowded market.”
4) Don’t fuck up the numbers
”A pitch is all about building a bridge between art and money,” Canniff says. And while it’ll be natural for you to get the art side of the pitch correct, you simply cannot fail on the numbers. Doing so has a potentially cataclysmic short term effect on the project, and will have a negative long-term effect on your reputation.
He stressed that crystal-clear communication was imperative when planning for budget. When timing a project milestone, the details of that milestone should be outlined without any ambiguity. What isn’t communicated, he said, can quickly become misinterpreted.
”What you don’t want to do is leave out a lot of stuff in your game, and come back and ask for more budget to add it. By that point you could lose your game – it may no longer be seen as a profitable game by adding on more budget.”
He said that this again comes back to the key point of being clear with what budget is needed for exactly what.
Canniff stressed that developers should think of everything when looking at development timelines and costs. Don’t forget the forgettable; holiday sickness, rework and approvals, demos and trade show work, user testing turnaround.
”And do a sanity check, get other people to look at your budget before you put it to a publisher, get feedback. Do an historical data check, look at budgets of similar games, and take a fresh look at your own.”
And it may seem counterintuitive, Canniff says, but finishing a game way under budget will disgruntle a publisher as much as a title over-budget.
”Let’s say the publisher gave you four million and you only spent three, the publisher may not be happy at all. Because that extra million could have been used on other projects that were cancelled, and also the money may have been borrowed which could have incurred interest payments.”
He said what was crucial is that you’re an honest Joe, that you stand by your figures, and never trick the numbers.