The video game acquisitions process

Pitching a computer or video game product for acquisition is one of the most important jobs for a game developer hoping to secure a publishing deal or development funding. For this reason it is vital to understand the game publisher’s acquisitions process.

Many game publishers have a dedicated acquisitions department, responsible for tracking down new developers and finding original games. This department will usually be the first port of call for a developer and it is important that a product is submission properly if it is to have any chance of success.

From the game publisher’s perspective acquisitions can be a time consuming process. They receive a large number of submissions which vary widely in quality, from highly professional documentation, backed up by a working prototype; all the way down to the crayon drawings of ten year old youngsters. The computer and video game acquisitions department must sift through these submissions in order to find the ones that have real potential. Those submissions that are badly presented or lacking in some respect will usually be consigned to the reject pile without delay.

Those game developers who have an existing relationship with a publisher may be able to short-cut the process but for the rest their product must pass through most, if not all, of the following stages.

Step one – Submission
The first step in the video game acquisition process is usually to send in a submission by post. Some game developers will contact the publisher and try to arrange a meeting, but unless they have an existing relationship or have a good track record, the publisher will usually require a submission by post. Publishers receive a large number of product proposals of widely differing quality. It is impossible for them to meet with every person who wishes to make a submission and equally impossible to tell over the phone if a submission warrants a meeting. For this reason they require games submissions to be made via the mail and will arrange a meeting only if the submission passes the initial evaluation.

Do – Phone the publisher and ask who is responsible for product acquisition.
Do – Talk to the product acquisition person and ask them what items they require in a submission (this is just to make contact and start a relationship rather than to find out what they want).
Do – Ask for a meeting (but expect to be refused); you might get lucky.
Do – Ask approximately how long the evaluation process will take. [This is important!]
Do – Address the submission to the correct person and try to ensure your proposal is relevant to the publisher concerned.
Don’t – Try to give reasons why they should meet with you if they have declined an initial meeting request. Accept the refusal with good grace and make your submission via the mail.
Never ever – Try to pitch your product over the phone.

Product submission is a vital process if you are to gain a publishing deal for your product. You will usually only get one chance, so you must ensure that the proposal is of the highest quality possible (within budget constraints) and that it clearly explains what the product will be.

Step two – Initial review
When a submission is received it will usually receive an initial review by a member of the acquisitions or development department. Those which are poorly presented will usually be rejected immediately. Those that do not contain sufficient information may receive a standard request for more information – or they may just get rejected. Those that are well presented and of interest will usually go on to the next stage.

Step three – detailed review
If a product is not rejected immediately it will receive an in-depth evaluation by one or more members of the acquisitions or development department. All documentation will be read and any demos will be viewed/played. The publisher will also test the budget against their ROI (Return On Investment) spreadsheet to ensure that the title, as budgeted, makes financial sense.

If you have followed the tips listed above you will have a good idea of how long it will take for your submission to reach this stage. You should follow-up with a phone call to the person reviewing your submission to ask if they require any additional information or have any questions. If you can not get hold of them leave a voice mail message or send a fax asking them to call if they require any additional information and then wait…….. and wait.

Do – Ask them when you can expect to know the fate of your submission.
Do – Ask if they require more information.
Do – Wait patiently for however long they have told you the review will take and then allow another whole week. Only then should you follow-up with an additional call to ask if there is any progress.
Don’t – Hound them with phone calls every other day. You only have one project on the go while they may have a large number of submissions to get through and have not had a chance to review yours yet. Publishers are unlikely to work with developers they do not like and they don’t like developers who hound them.

Note: – If there is any area in which publishers could improve it is in delivering bad news. Far too often publishers go silent when a product submission fails. They don’t seem to realise that a fast “no”, while not as welcome as a fast “yes” is still better than a long drawn out silence.

Step four – The meeting
If a publisher is interested in a product they will often arrange a meeting following the in-depth review. In some cases this meeting may not take place until after the company wide review but in either case this is your chance to pitch the product face to face.

Do – Find out how many additional copies of the documentation/demo are required.
Do – Keep your pitch short and to the point.
Do – Show your “working out”. Show your demo in all its glory and then show what went into making the demo. This highlights just how much work actually went into the 5 minute promo.
Do – Point out small but vital details in your demo which may go unnoticed such as unique or difficult technical details.
Do – Involve the publisher by asking if there are any questions or comments.
Don’t – Try to tell them the games entire background story. They can read the documentation if they want to know. Just keep the presentation short and move quickly on to questions and answers.

Step five – Due Diligence
This can often be incorporated into step four but I have listed it separately as it can often be an event in its own right (and also because it is an important step which deserves attention). The due diligence process usually takes the form of a studio visit, with one or more representatives from the publisher visiting your studio. The purpose is to check out the team, the offices, equipment and most of all the management team and processes. There is no point in having a great game idea if the development is going to get bogged down by poor/slow decision making or if development will fail due to a bad production pipeline. Any decent publisher will want to know:

  • What your technology and tools are like – Having great tech is only half the story. Do you also have the tools (exporters, map editors, scripting systems, localisation systems etc.) to allow you to make quick and efficient progress on the development.
  • What you decision pipeline is like. No point in having great tools if you can’t decide what to do with them. It is common to have creative differences in a development team so you need a management process in place for handling them.

Step six – Company wide review
A submission that makes it through the detailed review will then be presented to the other departments or individuals involved in approving acquisitions. Depending on the publisher concerned this could be just the MD/CEO or it could include the managers of all the other main departments (marketing, sales, PR, accounts) and even overseas offices in territories where the game may be published.

This stage can take anywhere from a week to two months. The publisher may request additional copies of the submission documents and may even ask you to travel to key offices in order to make your presentation. Non-development issues will take a more prominent place at this stage of the process as issues such as the commercial viability and marketability of your idea are discussed.

Step seven – Contract negotiations
Your submission has survived the review stages and the publisher is interested in publishing your game. The last, vital, stage is to negotiate a publishing contract. This is a far from simple process and there are quite a number of important issues to be decided before a deal can be signed. How much money will be paid, at what stages, who owns what rights in the game and a host of other additional issues all need to be agreed.

Do – Ensure you are aware of all the issues that are likely to come up and decide how you will handle them. Prioritise each of them in order of importance/value to you so that you can keep track of how balanced the negotiations are (from your point of view).
Do – Decide in advance which rights you are willing to give up and which you are not.
Do – Haggle. Do not simply give everything to the publisher. Request that they meet some of your conditions in return for you meeting theirs.
Do – Be honest, fair and forthright. If you feel something is unreasonable say so and ask why they think you should agree to it.
Don’t – Waste time arguing over small points. Give in with good grace and then ask for something in return later.
Don’t – Agree a deal you are not happy with or know you will not be able to keep to. Make sure you know how much money you will need to get the job done and ensure that you get it.
Don’t – Forget why you are there. The most important issue is to get a publishing deal.

Step seven – Sign the deal
Get the cash, live happily ever after……… Not!
Now the real hard work begins as you develop your million selling super game.

Final note – The above process can take anywhere from 6 months to a year. Stages 1 through 5 can take anything from 3 to six months and contract negotiation can easily add another 3+ months. You need to plan your business so that it can survive this process.

One final point is that products can be signed at almost any stage of development. Publishers will sign titles that are at an early development, alpha or beta test stages. They will also buy in completed games and sub-license games from other publishers who do not have a presence in their territory or who do not publish games on certain formats. In a few cases they will also signs titles that are at the concept stage. In this instance the word “concept” excludes anything produced using crayon, as well as most submissions which consist solely of documentation. The minimum that publishers require for a submission is a product proposal and a working demo. It is best to also include a budget and fairly comprehensive design document. They also want the concept to be backed up by a development team able to complete the product, preferably with a proven track record.