HOW TO SELL YOUR IDEA

FOR A VIDEO GAME

by Tom Sloper

I am often asked, "I have a Great Idea for a video game... how do I sell it and get it made?"

That's the way it's usually asked, as though it was just one question. But in fact it is actually two explicit questions:

  1. How do I sell my game idea?
  2. How do I get my idea made into a finished game?

The short answers are:

  1. You can't sell it (nobody pays money for game ideas from industry outsiders). But write it down, then get more ideas and write those down. If you don't write them down, they definitely will never get made. But if you do write them down, and they're good, you can get a job in the game business!
  1. You probably won't get your idea made into a finished game... unless you get into the industry. If you haven't yet graduated college (and you are still young), then get a college degree and go into the game business as a career. You might have to make the game yourself, but hey - once you're an industry pro, you'll know how!

And of course, those short answers lead to many more questions:

  1. How do I get into the game biz?
  2. How do I write a game design?
  3. How do I make a game myself?
  4. How do I sell my completed game?

So, I doubt that you are all that satisfied with the short answers given above. So read on - you are now entering into... the long answers.

1. NOBODY WILL BUY A GAME IDEA

I don't know why so many people think that game ideas are a sellable commodity. Have you ever heard of an industry outsider selling a game idea? I haven't! And I've been in the game business for over twenty years!

Finished games, now, that's an entirely different matter! A game idea may not be a sellable commodity, but a finished game is. Lots of guys have made their ideas into finished games - and those you can get paid for.

But first you'll have to be in ... guess which industry? That's right! The industry of making video games!

WHY NOBODY WILL BUY YOUR GAME IDEA

The game biz is... a business. And business is all about managing risks.

It would be bad business policy to give a million bucks to every guy off the street who walks in with an idea. After all, what guarantee does the game company have that their money will be well spent?

They want to see a finished game. Or at least to know, if the game is not yet finished, that the presenter (the guy pitching the game idea) is capable of taking it all the way -- of making it into a finished game. And that the presenter will proceed in a professional manner (a manner that takes the realities of the industry into account).

Everybody in the game business has ideas for games - and there isn't enough time or money to make them all. So on the one hand they have a lot of free ideas already sitting there not being made, and on the other hand there's this idea that comes in over the transom, for which they would have to pay royalties. It's not hard to see why they'd be reluctant to pay for ideas from outside. Especially when the submitter does not have industry experience.

2. NOBODY WILL MAKE YOUR GAME FOR YOU

I assume that you are thinking mainly about console games. PlayStation 2 games, GameCube games, Xbox games, Game Boy Advance games. Or commercial-quality PC games. There are lots of folks who make their own little PC games, but that's an entirely different endeavor than a console game or commercial-quality PC game.

Commercial-quality games are hugely expensive to make. You can read about budgets and schedules in game magazines, especially developer-oriented magazines. And I've written an article on "The Finances of Game Development" at the idevgames website. (http://www.idevgames.com/articleshow.php3?showid=29). It may cost a million, or two million dollars, or even more, to make a commercial-quality game. It takes teams of dozens of people a year or two, working nonstop, to make a commercial-quality game.

While all those people are making your game idea, they can't work on their own ideas. Everyone in the industry (the programmers, artists, designers, producers, marketing managers, sales managers, and corporate executives) has more ideas than time to work on them all. Ideas are a dime a dozen (and that's probably an inflated value!). I have several ideas myself, and get more all the time. But because it takes so long and costs so much to make one game, it just isn't possible to make them all. So when an outsider comes to a game company with an idea, all the pros should just drop their own ideas and make that idea instead?

The making of games is a business. And business is all about making a profit. There are always risks in making any game - nobody can predict whether an idea will succeed in the marketplace. It's all about managing risks. And industry pros are a better risk than outsiders and wannabes.

3. GETTING INTO THE INDUSTRY

It's not hard to get into the game industry if you have the appropriate education, abilities, and attitude.

For starters, get a college degree (see Lesson 3 at my website, http://www.sloperama.com/advice.html, for course suggestions).

There are also a lot of things you can do at home to build a design portfolio and to flesh out your resume (assuming that your college studies and youth have thus far prevented you from getting professional experience to fill your resume):

        Play a lot of games.

        Discuss their strengths and weaknesses with other gamers on bulletin boards and newsgroups.

        Host multi-player games (act as dungeon master or perform other such roles)

        Build levels for games that come with level-building tools

        Volunteer for beta testing

        Write and draw

o       Write about whatever interests you. Anything that inspires you to work and create. You need to develop habits of working on projects, and finishing them.

o       In your writing, develop good writing habits - use punctuation marks, complete sentences, and the shift key.

o       Draw whatever interests you so you can polish art skills

o       Write your own game designs (see Lesson 2 at my website)

        Books to read -- see Lesson 8 at my website.

        Follow your interests! Read, write, research on the internet and at the library. Get out there and do, participate.

Lesson 12 at my website goes into detail about these ideas, and about portfolios and demo discs. A portfolio of well-written reviews, thoughtful articles, and well-presented game designs is a great way to present yourself to potential employers in the game biz. They won't buy your ideas, but they might well give you a job (it might be an entry-level job, but hey, it's a job in the biz).

That's how I got started, 20+ years ago.

I made a board game design, and I tried to get it published. Eventually (2 years later) I gave up on that, and used the board game as a part of my portfolio to get a job at a thinktank for electronic toys. I took an entry-level job as a toy modelmaker, and one day I had a chance to design an electronic game. Next thing you know, I designed 2 games for the Vectrex game system. Then I worked at Sega, Atari, and Activision. I parlayed my idea into a career. My first board game has never been published. But I've designed and produced a number of electronic games, and have a great career.

See Lessons 4 and 7 (at my aforementioned website) for advice about getting a game industry job, and information about various types of jobs.

You'll need to be a team player, a professional who works on projects without letting his own ambitions get in the way of doing a game other than his dream idea. See Lesson 9 at my website for an article about professionalism in the game business.

 

4. WRITING A GAME DESIGN DOCUMENT.

The first thing you ought to do is describe your game idea in writing. There isn't one standard format -- every game design document looks different. It needs to be well written, with good spelling, grammar, punctuation, and with a coherent and well-organized outline. It needs to tell what is special about your game (why your game will stand out from the other games in the market), told in a clear and informative manner -- you need to understand the competition, and express that understanding in the document. The document needs to describe your game's look, the tone, the gameplay, the user interface, and go into excruciating detail on what the game will be. The document needs to be well illustrated. See Lesson 2 (at my website) for a sample outline for a game design document.

 

With a game design document in hand, it's possible to go to the next step (getting the game made). Without a design, the idea is just so many electrons darting around in the synapses of your brain.

5. HOW TO MAKE A GAME

I can't tell you how to make a video game in this article. It would take several books! But basically, you have two ways to go: (a) DIY (Do It Yourself) or (b) get a career in the game industry. I call these two paths "The Lone Wolf Route" and "The Career Route."

a. The Lone Wolf Route - You're on your own if you want to DIY. Go forth and teach yourself about programming and about management and business and marketing. Read the postings at the game design newsgroups ( news:comp.games.development.design and news:rec.games.design), the programming newsgroups, the graphics and animation newsgroups, and go get a bunch of books (see Lesson 8 on my website). Research. Learn. Create. Do it all, all by yourself.

b. The Career Route - My recommendation is that you begin by working in the game industry for a few years before going it alone. Working at game companies will not only teach you a lot about the process of making games, it will also introduce you to a lot of game professionals who can help you (with graphics, sound, programming, and even marketing).

Okay, let's skip ahead a few years. So you've written down your game idea, and you went into games as a career. You met a lot of people in the industry and came to appreciate the skills they bring to the picture. You learned all about making games, and either you've convinced the bosses that your game is going to make everybody rich or you've gone off on your own. You got the best programmers and artists you could, and together you've made a game.

Or you went the Lone Wolf route, and made a game all by your lonesome.

But now you have one little problem - your game doesn't have wide enough distribution. You need a publishing deal.

6. HOW TO SELL YOUR COMPLETED GAME

There are two factors to take into consideration in determining one's chances of success at getting anything for his game idea:

a.      What level have you taken the concept to? (At the bottom of the scale, all you have is an idea in your head - at the top of the scale, you have a complete programmed working game.)

b.      What level have you attained in the game industry? (At the left end of the scale, you own a professional game development company - at the right end of the scale, you are just some guy on the street.)

Taking those two factors into consideration, the probabilities of getting a publishing deal can be illustrated by this grid:

REJECTION RATES

Professional game developer

Industry professional

Professional but not in industry

Not in industry; not professional

Complete game

90%

91%

92%

93%

2/3 complete game

93%

94%

95%

96%

1/3 complete game

95%

96%

97%

98%

Small interactive demo

96%

97%

98%

99%

Animated presentation

97%

98%

99%

100%

Written presentation

98%

99%

100%

100%

Verbal presentation

99%

100%

100%

100%

Idea in your head

100%

100%

100%

100%

A publisher probably gets ten finished games to review for every one game that they decide to publish. Or (another way of looking at it) a developer probably has to take his finished game to ten publishers before he finds one to publish it. And the finished game is, of course, the most likely to succeed, compared to any of the other possible submission formats listed above. So I plugged in numbers to illustrate the point. If you want to get your game accepted, you need to be in the yellow area on this matrix. You do NOT want to be in the gray area. Lesson 11 on my website goes into more detail on this topic.


CONCLUSION - GET INTO THE BIZ!

Now we've come around full circle to where we were at the beginning of this article. I don't want to discourage you from dreaming up game ideas. But sending a concept around in hopes of getting something for it, or of getting your game developed, will just lead to rejection and frustration. Sorry for the "bait and switch" with my choice of title for this article. But by now you should see that there's a better way to proceed after you've written down your idea.

A portfolio of creative and well-written game designs could get you a job in the game industry.

If you have a passion for designing games, and you are not yet in the game industry, then I hope that you are planning to get into it. It will require hard work, and you'll have to be patient and professional. But if you want to make games, I don't see any way to do it except from the solid footing of being an industry professional.

If you want to make games, then where else should you be, but in the game industry?

o o o

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Sloper's game biz career began at Western Technologies, where he designed LCD games and the Vectrex games "Spike" and "Bedlam." There followed stints at Sega Enterprises (game designer), Rudell Design (toy designer), Atari Corporation (director of product development), and Activision (producer, senior producer, executive producer, creative director). In 12 years at Activision, Sloper produced 36 unique game titles (plus innumerable ports and localizations), and won five awards. Sloper worked for several months in Activision's Japan operation, in Tokyo. Sloper is perhaps best known for designing, managing and producing Activision's Shanghai line. Sloper is currently consulting, writing, speaking, and developing original games.

 

Sloper's website is http://www.sloperama.com/advice.html, where he writes monthly lessons for aspiring game designers and hosts a Q&A bulletin board where questions are answered daily.



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