The Art of Waiting
by Daniel Vavra
Our pitching tour over, we went back to work. A moderately nervous team was waiting there for us. “How did it go? Does anybody want it? Are we going to carry on? Can I take a mortgage? Should I be looking for a new job?” “You know, we’d like to know that, as well! But this, ladies and gentlemen, is the gaming industry, and that means everybody has plenty of time!” Everybody but us, of course.
If you, like our colleagues, were expecting our phones to start ringing off the hook one day after our return, swarming us with promises of millions of dollars, then you were expecting incorrectly. The first call finally came about a week later, and it was from our agents, letting us know who had already passed on our game. Very disheartening.
One of the biggest blows was being turned down by a very promising, international publishing company. Although the U.S.-based wing of the corporation seemed very excited about the project, their European representative let us know that they didn’t think the game would fly with Americans. We’ve faced rejection from other companies, too, of course, but that one was perhaps the most painful.
Internal processes of a giant mastodon
It may be worthwhile to explain briefly how publishers work, so you can better understand some of the complex events that are about to unfold. Making a decision within a large corporation can be a tricky, lengthy process!
The people we’ve been presenting our game to are, despite their elevated place in the hierarchy, not the ones that have the final word. If they like our game, they must, in turn, prepare an internal pitch to their superiors and persuade them about the merits of our project. This takes place in the so-called ‘greenlight meeting,’ which only occurs from time to time. The people from marketing and the company executives take a look at the game, and, if they’re intrigued, the next step is usually the ‘due diligence,’ a visit from the company’s producers to the developer’s studio. The goal is to take a closer look at the developer, to see if they are able to deliver on their promises, and to talk about controversial details. The whole process can take months.
The Wow Moments Factory
We decided to use the time on our hands to create materials to dispel the doubts we encountered on our tour. First among those was the absence of ‘epic, wow moments’ in our demo. There was also the issue that our hero looked like a wimp, going around in our demo dressed in a potato sack (two hundred years before the first potato appeared in Europe), and kept apologizing to everybody he met.
Both were my mistakes. I thought people were going to be more interested in our ability to create a huge RPG world with lot of assets and mechanics than in our proficiency in capturing cool animations and playing them back. But you need a balance. As it turns out, a functional demo of a large RPG is only so useful. Marketing people need to see something that tells them they’ll have fertile, eye-catching material to pitch to consumers – a castle exploding or the Tower of Pisa crashing down on a crowd of innocent peasants – and we fell short in that regard.
While our concept artist, Stephen, started to create story boards for one such animation, I made a ‘stickman-style’ storyboard for video that would, with a minimum amount of effort and a few new assets, make maximum effect of a mega, epic wow game. Our approach was simple – we have a trebuchet model… we have a castle model… so how much work is it going to take to make a five-second animation of a trebuchet firing at a castle? One day? Fine! Another epic shot! In a similar manner, we’ve been able to create more than 60 seconds of video that look really good, showing terrific stuff that is planned for the game but not implemented yet, and, had we possessed this footage earlier, things might have turned out differently.
Is it going to be fun?
Additionally, I was working on a new presentation that addressed the most frequent questions we were asked to help our champions within publishers prepare for their greenlight meetings. It outlined most of the features of our game in great detail – especially the answer to the most burning issue: “IS IT GOING TO BE FUN (without dragons and magic)?”
Countless days of hard work and PowerPoint drudgery produced ninety slides of animated, visually sophisticated presentation materials that had EVERYTHING. It was an interactive encyclopedia of our game! I sent it over to Francois (our main contact in ISM, our agency), who told me that although it looked great, I should shorten it to twenty slides, drop all the animations and change the font to something plain and readable. Arrgh…
With polishing complete, we sent all of our new materials to everybody who had shown interest, hoping it would strengthen their hand in internal meetings.
Staring down the abyss (part I)
It had been two months since our journey drew to a close, and no proper feedback was forthcoming. We were starting to get nervous. It might have to do with the fact that our accounts balance was rapidly dwindling. In other words – we were going broke.
How could this happen? Our original plan assumed the pitching tour would start two months earlier than it did. We failed to notice that this would mean pitching it on Boxing Day, and, for some reason, this is difficult to do (our stupid mistake). We also didn’t realize it would take months for publishers to organize meetings, much less make a decision. We assumed and arranged with our investor that we were going to have a publisher in April. Or at least we would be in an advanced stage of negotiations. This just didn’t happen; at that point, we’d have been happy if we could get to that stage by the end of summer.
We informed our investor about this delay in advance, of course, but investors are busy people, and by this time several, much larger deals needed to be made on the other end of the world. Among all these reorganizations and restructurings, we couldn’t be sure that we would not be reorganized out of existence once our investor’s attention turned back to us.
And while you have an oral promise from people close to the investor that at least the work already spent will eventually be paid in full, you would be lying if you pretended that everything was OK. But if you tell the unvarnished truth, you run the risk of people just up and leaving – and never coming back.
Nice and fair guys that we are, we explained our situation as it was to the staff, and, because we have a wonderful, dedicated team that believes in our project, everybody stayed on board. If you ever wonder about the color of my hair, I hope I wouldn’t have to explain to you why it is such as it is.
Part of the restructuring that came was a new guy, Martin, who worked as a liaison between us and the investor. We had to introduce him first to the game business, as such, then to our game and then, in the interest of our survival, write a number of memos explaining our situation – how did we get here and why, and what we planned to do about it.
Martin liked our work, and our budget for the next few months was formally approved to allow us to continue negotiations with the publishers. And wages were finally paid – what a relief.
There is still enough time
Just as we were thinking about the last things of company, our agents gave us a call, telling us that a third-party development department of a certain major publisher had been eliminated, and, out of its ashes, a new publisher had been born. This new company had lots of money and wanted to sign a letter of intent with us (a LOI is a first step toward a contract). How happy we were!
We gave them our company details and calmed down. Everything will be all right! Three days later, we learned that they had changed their minds, and nothing was going to happen there.
The week after that brought further gloomy tidings – the Japanese publisher, which had looked almost certain to make us an offer, couldn’t do anything. Their headquarters had made a decision to not sign any more third-party titles. ‘Only’ five buyers remained in the running, three of them big.
Three (!!!) months had passed since our tour, and most of the serious buyers hadn’t even had their greenlight meetings yet. Of course, we kept working, adjusting our plans, creating budgets, revising our design, but we certainly weren’t working in full production mode. Instead of the fifty people we had planned on, we had barely half that number, and we were splitting time working on wow moment videos and what not. As for myself, instead of working on quests, I was constantly working on presentations.
A few publishers were talking about visiting our studio (good sign!), but suddenly realized that with E3 approaching, it would be better to meet there. Of course, this presented a far less favorable situation for us. A half-hour meeting on a trade show and a full-day visit in our studio are two completely different things.
Sunshine and lollipops
On the whole, the atmosphere was tense. I tried to put on a brave face, but it was obvious that a lot of people were checking job offers, and I could hardly blame them. One can’t feed one’s children with words. But we still had some serious interest, so our chances were looking good.
We asked ourselves whether the prolonged negotiations were a tactic on the part of the publishers, par for the course, or whether our game was just crap all along. We didn’t settle on either choice, pushing on instead.
If the mountain won’t come to us then we must come to E3. We were not very happy about it, but at least we were going to see the reveal of the new consoles firsthand.
Martin, our investor’s liaison, wanted to go with us and take part in the meetings. That was a great idea; nothing illustrates the ins-and-outs of our industry as vividly as actually meeting some publishers, and, beyond that, he would be able to see their reactions for himself and wouldn’t have to rely on our reports.
It wasn’t off to a good start. The very first meeting – with the other large corporation, giving us a second chance – went from bad to worse. I won’t go into details here, but in the end, we looked like incompetent chumps. And I probably got the brunt of it, as I came dressed in a heavy metal t-shirt, as becomes an artist, but did not produce much artistry.
The next day was fortunately much better. We had meetings with another two prospective companies. We received apologies for delays and assurances of continued interest. A person from one company’s Japanese management was present at one of the meetings, and it looked as if he liked us.
Martin could see we hadn’t pulled his leg – there was genuine interest for the title in the industry. But our industry is specific, as Martin observed after meeting a publisher that was supposedly very interested in our game, despite the fact that the people at the meeting hadn’t a clue who we were. So instead of talking about the details of the deal, we showed them the trailer again.
Back to waiting?
The E3 meetings gave us new hope, but if you expected things to start moving once we got back, you were wrong again. Upon returning from E3, people have to recuperate, get through their meeting notes, evaluate their options, and only then something new can happen. Despite that, not one, not two, but three different due diligence visits were eventually planned. Not now, not tomorrow. Next month. Again, there was time to wait.
This gave us an opportunity to fix some things we were too busy to fix earlier, though. We updated our plan and revised the design, incorporating new stuff into it (especially many pages of notes I made over the last half a year). We created several budget variants. Some people left the studio, but new people took their place.
La degustation Bohême
After weeks of waiting, the first batch of producers finally arrived for their due diligence visit. By mistake, they appeared in our offices one week earlier than we were expecting them, but that did not throw us off balance, and everything went well. It was one of the smaller publishers we’d been pitching our game to, and, while in the beginning we hadn’t much hope for them, in the end they turned out to be the most reasonable, most serious of our prospective buyers. Our game was a tad too expensive for their taste, but they could see that it offered exceptional value for money and could compete with much larger projects for the fraction of the cost. They suggested dividing the game into several chapters in order to minimize their risk exposure; fortunately, this would not present a major problem with our story structure. In fact, a much larger, wealthier publisher had pitched the same concept – everybody has their own tight budget to worry about, it seems.
The next visit brought the representatives of a large, Japanese publisher. One of the positive things about selling your game is you get to visit great dining places – you take your guests out, then they take you out in return. So we first visited a really nice French restaurant, and then spent the next day talking about our design, story, and plan.
Speaking of planning: we are pretty proud about our agile methodology and scrums. When I mentioned this over dinner, one of the producers immediately warned me not to repeat it again in front of his colleagues, who see ‘scrum’ and ‘agile’ as obscenities. But even here the meeting was quite successful – we were able to answer all of their questions, and we felt good about it.
The third publisher let us know they were busy and wouldn’t be coming before Gamescom. Actually, we could just as well meet at Gamescom. Once again, we had no shortage of time on our hands.
Back to waiting
We created some new assets, mixed them with the older video, and got a really cool, epic trailer. Pity we hadn’t had it with us in February. Based on the questions raised in our due diligence meetings, I created, together with our concept artist, a short presentation about our hero (because we’re making an RPG, our hero has no definite look, which can be a little baffling for people in marketing trying to figure out how to sell a blank canvass). I created a few more presentations, including comparisons of our game to its competition. We smoothed some internal quarrels. And then we waited for Gamescom.
Gamescom took place at the end of August. That was about two months before we were going to run out of money again. Two negotiations looked promising, but simply weren’t there yet. Martin came with us again; by that time, he’d managed to wrap his head around the games industry admirably fast.
The first meeting was a disappointment. Instead of discussing the deal or a straight refusal, we were treated to vague promises and the same questions as a month ago. None of the other meetings brought anything tangible. Arrgh…
We met several free-to-play publishers. Like us, they’re not afraid to take risks, which we liked about them. It’s a shame our game wasn’t a F2P MMO…
Back to waiting: Patience is a virtue
One of the publishers who had been to visit us had their greenlight meeting shortly after, but for some reason our game hadn’t made it to the agenda. The next one would be held in a month, and our takeaway from that turn of events was that further interaction would be unproductive. The other big publisher also postponed their decision about our game to their next greenlight meeting, so we counted them out, too.
The smaller publisher, however, started exhibiting increased activity. They wanted more info about our budget, a playable demo, and to do their own focus group testing. It looks promising.
If this does not work out, though, we have a problem. The only other option would be to try to persuade our investor to back the whole game by himself – not very likely – or to find a co-investor. We tried contacting a few people, but it didn’t look good. One investment banker from London told us in no uncertain terms that PC and consoles are dead, and if we’re not making a free-to-play MMO for iPad, we’ve got no chance. This is, of course, rubbish, but being right is little help to us.
So that’s where we stand. We believe in our game, but selling a novel concept to publishers is difficult. Welcome to the exciting world of game development!
The grand finale of this story will start next month. But before that, we have prepared a kind of Christmas present for all of you: the first official TEASER video, a new teaser website, and the official name for our new RPG – Kingdom Come: Deliverance!
If you really like us and want our game to see the light of day, support us, please! For now, it will be enough if you share this blog, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter. We need fans – lots of them! Thank you!(source:gamasutra)