How to survive a publisher’s game approval process.
Our game evaluator shares what makes a strong first impression and tips on how to get your game on the green light fast-track.
As an indie publisher, Modus Games has received thousands of game submissions from developers. Sometimes, this means we even have to turn down games we think are good because we have something in the pipeline that’s even better. While we take time to carefully evaluate each one, a good first impression does matter. Similar to a job interview, you not only have to possess the skills required to succeed, but you must prove that to your potential employer – and better than the rest of the candidates. As the games evaluator for Modus, I’ve seen many great games that were hindered by poor submissions. Many elements need to come together to excel during this stage and mastering the art of a successful pitch isn’t as daunting as it sounds if you take the right approach and prepare the right materials.
We have shed some insight before on this topic last year in our article “How to pitch your game to publishers”, but I wanted to provide a deeper insight into the final and the most decisive stage – the game approval process. In this article, I hope to give you the behind-the-scenes perspective of what a publisher is looking for in your game submission. I’ll tell you what we like to see, and what we don’t, as well as a look behind the curtain as to what the evaluation stage looks like.
What does the Greenlight process look like?
While, every publisher has their way of determining what games they sign, at Modus we’re very hands-on. This means that we take the time to play every game that gets submitted to us. Typically, titles are screened by an evaluator, like me. If they pass the initial quality threshold, we often share it with other team members to get more input. The game evaluator then creates an evaluation document, similar to a mock video game review you might see online. We then discuss the candidates at our weekly executive greenlight meeting where the evaluator shares their thoughts of the game. This initial phase takes between two-to-three weeks. The three criteria we take into consideration in this phase are game quality, uniqueness, and potential market demand. If the game meets these criteria, it moves to the next phase – forecasting.
At this point, we write up an analysis of the market for this title, based on our experience and current trends, evaluate the competitive landscape, and use a tool we built internally that provides sales projections based on several variables. With this information, we evaluate what we believe the financials will look like if we’re investing in the game. It’s the unfortunate reality that many good games fail to pass this stage, especially if the forecasted margins are small from a low MSRP, niche genre, or a variety of other factors.
After the forecasting stage, we’ll schedule meetings between the developers and our executive managers. Here we discuss more the company and what services we can offer, and most importantly, what the developers are looking for in a publishing partner. If all goes well, we send out a term sheet to the developer. This non-binding document lists the terms that we’d like to offer. If both sides agree on the proposal, we will then sign a binding contract. If you followed the advice in our previous article, it should be evident by now that you are pitching to the right publisher who is capable of providing the services you need to make your game the very best it can be, and finding the agreeable terms should be much simpler.
During this multi-step process, there are many reasons for a game to be rejected. Most publishers only sign a fraction of the games that get submitted to them – and this is the reason for the necessity of a strong first impression mentioned earlier. Luckily, a simple and effective pitch can be broken down into four parts.
The four elements of a successful pitch.
- Playable (prototype)
Much like writing an article for a website, a strong game submission needs a hook. What’s special about your game? What makes it unique from all the other titles in its genre? Take a moment to compare your project to others with similar mechanics. “[Your Game Name Here] is a fast-paced action platformer with difficult encounters, an engaging story, and a beautiful 2D art style” may seem like a great hook, but can you replace the title of your game with that of a comparable game? Not so indistinguishable, now is it?
If your game is an action platformer, perhaps the interesting hook is that it melds Metroidvania gameplay with the goal of collecting a cast of colorful cats on an alien world. You could even call it the first Kittenvania! Make sure you get this point across – in a world of copycats, new and interesting ideas shine through.
What should you include in your initial submission? There’s no hard and fast rule, but the standard is a pitch deck or a one-sheet that contains all the high-level information about your game, a milestone calendar, and a playable prototype. Links to your game design document, gameplay videos, and financial information are all welcome as well. Be sure to do some research on the company you’d like to publish with, and express why you think your game would be a good fit for their catalog.
If there’s one thing that publishers hate, it’s juggling back and forth between several emails trying to get basic info. Make sure that your pitch includes all the relevant information to your game, especially all the information regarding the publishing services you need and the information we need to know about your game. This includes how much funding you need, when the game will release, what platforms it will launch on, at what price, etc. Often, developers will not share enough information, forcing the publisher to contact them with questions. This delays the internal evaluation process and can reduce the priority of your game. Don’t leave anything out!
Many publishers even have online forms that you can use to submit your game and check off all the relevant information you should include. If not, and are sending a blind email, please check out our online publishing form for details about what we look for in our submissions. This is our preferred way to get games on the agenda.
As mentioned above, Modus Games typically requires a build of your game to proceed. Very few publishers will consider signing a game on a concept alone, regardless of how good it may seem on paper. If your prototype isn’t at a place you think is compelling and an accurate depiction of what you want to create, then you likely aren’t ready to pitch to publishers yet. Unless you already have a well-known title and/or the sequel in an established series (such as Trine 4), you should include a vertical slice of your game. Publishers understand that early builds do not entirely represent the final product, but should still demonstrate a compelling experience that gives a taste of what the game will become. At Modus, we grade our submissions under a six-category scale.
- Graphics: Is your game visually attractive or unique? Depending on what art style you’re going for, this section takes that into account.
- Sound: This category includes music, sound effects, and voice acting.
- Story: What is your game trying to express with its characters and world?
- Controls: How fluid is the gameplay input, is the camera effective, does the UI convey all the necessary information?
- Gameplay: Are game mechanics at play interesting? Is the core loop interesting or original?
- Fun: Perhaps the most nebulous category, fun refers to the overall enjoyment of the evaluators who tried your game. It also refers to their interest in replaying the game in the future.
This can be a tricky topic for many developers. It’s very understandable to be worried that an unsavory publisher might take advantage of the information you provide and share it with others (leaks) or use it for one of their projects – which is another reason why it is important to research a publisher before you pitch. For that reason, there can be a level of caution when sharing details about your game. It’s the simple truth that publishers receive hundreds, if not thousands of submissions, every year. Ideas are a dime a dozen, but good games and strong development teams are what we’re truly on the hunt for. Do not leave anything important out of your initial submission.
If you made it this far, then you are one step closer to bringing your game to the market and that is worth celebrating. Game development isn’t easy, but the years of hard work will be worth it as great games are played and enjoyed for generations. I look forward to seeing your games in our submission feed. The world always needs more good games, so take the steps necessary to make yours noticed.