Published on May 12, 2021. Last Updated on May 1, 2023.
After months of playtesting and lots of iterations, you’ve built a game that’s fun, stable, and at least a little different from what’s already out there (Well done by the way!). You’ve decided to pitch your game to a publisher (as opposed to Kickstarting it, though maybe that option is a plan B).
So… how do I do that?
Step 1: know what makes a game worth publishing.
Publishers have a reason to be the gatekeepers they are. There are more game designers now than ever before, and they are producing more games now than ever before. Saying they have to be picky is an understatement – lots of great games just don’t get published. If you don’t believe me, come to any online playtesting group and try out some of the excellent games people are making. Go to one of the playtesting events at a convention. There are some absolutely amazing games out there.
Part of this process means finding your game’s hook or USP (unique selling proposition). What is it? What’s the promise your game makes? What’s something cool your game does that few (or no) other games do? What’s the twist on mechanics and themes that have already been done?
If you know this, excellent! If you don’t know this, it’s time to think about this some more. Not every published game needs to have a mind-blowingly unique mechanic or theme, but games need something to help them stand out amongst the crowd.
In short, this is American Idol, not the local animal shelter. Harsh reality check here, but that’s how it goes sometimes.
Step 2: Understand the publishing process and reasoning.
Publishers are in this to make money, pure and simple. It costs real-world, upfront money and time to sign a game (such as that advance you as a designer will make), then develop, manufacture, ship, distribute, and market it… and all of this money and time is spent on the hope it will eventually turn a profit. More than a few games never do turn a profit. If that happens more than a few times, a publisher’s going to have financial problems.
So that’s part of the reason they have to be picky. The other big one: branding. A publisher has their brand to consider, and every game they put out (usually) has that brand on the front of the box. They need to be proud to have their brand on every game they sell.
What is that brand? Sometimes you can get a sense of what elements are important by looking at the last few games they’ve made. Sometimes they specifically say it on their website for designers.
To use two specific examples:
- Button Shy Games makes 18 card games, held in a cool little plastic wallet. Virtually every game in their lineup has 18 cards – no more, no less. A few have expansions and maybe another thing or two, but these are the exceptions to the rules.
- Genius Games makes Euro-style games using real-world science — not ‘dumbed down for games’ science, but actual, real-world science (and STEM, in more general terms). It’s accurate to the point where they’ve won awards from educators.
If you want to pitch Button Shy Games, the only type of game to pitch them would be an 18-card game, full stop. It’s literally a waste of everyone’s time to pitch them anything else. Further, they tend to publish specific *types* of 18-card games – there’s more going on during your turn than just ‘draw a card, play a card’. With 18 cards, games would be over really quickly… so what else can you do to use cards in multiple ways, or multiple times during play?
If you want to pitch Genius Games, the only types of games to pitch them would be games reflecting true, accurate scientific concepts. It’s literally a waste of everyone’s time to pitch them anything else. Looking at the specifics of their last few games on Board Game Geek, you can see the ‘weight’ of their last several games has ranged from 1.5 to 2.5. These look and feel like Euro-style games (e.g. no player elimination, true winner not known until the end), so pitching them a party game probably wouldn’t be a fit.
Step 3: research, research, research.
Some people are going to love this part. Others? Yeah, not so much.
The good news: this is why I created Tabletop Publishers, a great resource for researching publishers, and the hardest part has already been done for you. There’s still more to do, but you’re the only person that can do the rest since no one else knows your game as well as you do.
Researching a publisher means understanding what they publish and what they want as best as you can in order to pitch them well. It helps with the relationship-building (which is so important in such a small industry). It means looking at their website, their social media, their Board Game Geek page, and so on. Once we return to real-world conventions, it’ll also mean chatting them up, networking, and so on. It might mean volunteering at their booth, making appointments beforehand, or just stopping by their booth to say hi and see what’s coming up.
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Researching also means checking for cannibalization, in case the term is unfamiliar, is what happens when you launch a new product that cuts into the sales of a similar product. If a publisher just put out a worker-placement game involving aliens, it’s probably not a great time to pitch them another worker-placement game or another game about aliens.
Step 4: put the package together
You may have already put together a sell sheet, and that’s a good start. Having the rulebook ready to show should be considered a necessity, and a couple of pictures of how the game looks should be easy enough.
The thing I’m seeing more publishers request (or require) is a video. These have been required for contests for awhile now, and from the perspective of a publisher, a 3-5 minute walkthrough of the game helps them evaluate the game in an easy, visual way.
For some designers, the notion of a video might feel like a lot of work. Consider this one of those skills to learn, however – and understand it doesn’t need to be great production to get your point across. My iPhone, held by a selfie stick and stabilized by a tripod, does a great job at getting videos of my real-world prototypes. Use Shotcut (a free open-source program) to edit the video, or whichever program you like on your smartphone (iMovie on iOS has worked great for me).
If making a video of the virtual version of your game, you’ll want a screen-capturing program. I personally use Bandicam, which is a desktop program, but there are plenty of extensions that start from a browser. Screencastify is recommended in Chrome by some people I trust, so I’d start there.
Step 5: Think sniper, not shotgun
A lot of new designers think ‘shotgun’ – find a bunch of publishers, get their e-mails, write up a generic pitch, and then copy and paste it to them all.
Put simply, this is a terrible thing to do.
Turn it around – from the publisher’s point of view, why would you want to read an e-mail from some designer that hasn’t taken the time to reach out to you personally? If you’ve ever worked at a place where you were on the receiving end of e-mails like this, you probably didn’t think too highly of these sorts of e-mails.
It takes a lot of time to read through the electronic ‘slush file’ – time most publishers don’t have when they’re busy developing their current pipeline, connecting with distributors and manufacturers, working with graphic designers, updating and creating content for their website or social media… Checking e-mails and reading pitches has got to be on the low priority side of things, considering everything else happening in their lives.
When you pitch, you need to be thinking ‘sniper’, not ‘shotgun’. Think how a sniper approaches a target – they set up, learn what they can about their target, wait for the right moment… Now you’re not *shooting* the publisher (I hope), but the mindset is the same – it’s an individual pursuit rather than a group one. It’s going after one target for a specific reason at a specific time, hoping for a specific result.
That means sending one e-mail, to one person, about the one or two games you have that are the best fit for this publisher, at a time. With the sniper approach, you might only send a handful of e-mails to a handful of publishers. Those e-mails are the last step, though, the culmination of everything else I’ve talked about here.
Tabletop Publishers: sort, search, and filter through 500+ publishers
Step 6: follow up… in a few weeks, maybe.
This part requires being conscious of what else is happening. Is it the holidays (meaning they’re traditionally gearing up to get products shipped), or are they gearing up for a convention? Did they just get back from a convention? This is another great reason to check their social media feed.
In most cases, it’s fair to say that if they haven’t responded in a month to either your initial e-mail or a follow-up (emphasis on a single follow-up), let it go for now. Try a more personal connection, if you have one.
Step 7: When it’s time to pitch…
Take it seriously, and respect their time. 30 minutes might be all you have, but that’s enough to teach the basics of a game, go through a couple of turns, and answer some questions.
Take the time to listen and ask questions about them, what they like, what they’re looking for. Ideally you already have a good answer to this from your research, but these things change. You might hear hints on what they’re working on or other elements that aren’t publicly known yet.
It’s extremely unlikely you’ll get an offer just from the first pitch, so think of it like a first interview. If they pass / say no, remember it’s an elimination process at most places, but remember: they were intrigued enough to get this far. Moving forward usually sounds like ‘I’ll need to show this to my business partners / my boss’ or ‘I like what I’m seeing here’.
If they start making design suggestions (‘have you tried starting players with 3 Wood instead of 2?’), take this as another sign of interest, then give it a go if time allows. This is a great way to show you’re willing to be flexible or take advice.
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