(This is an interview conducted on the Game Dev Unchained podcast)
GDC 2019 is in a month and it's a time for many indie developers to network and pitch their games to investors. Rebekah Saltsman is one/half of Finji, which makes and publishes indie games. She has a decade of experience listening to and making pitches and is gracious enough to share her insight with us. She helps answers all the common questions an indie developer may have and all the do's and don'ts when meeting with prospective investors.
Can you introduce yourself to our readers?
“My name is Becca Saltsman and I am one-half of Finji. so I do all the business development basically. Including the business contracts, legal finances, marketing, and a bunch of design work. Finji is a independent developer and also a micro publisher. We released Night in the Woods two years ago and now we're launching Overland and Wilmots Warehouse this year and we have Tunic coming sometime in the future.Adam and I have been doing this for a decade now. In a former life I did PR and media relations.”
Going to Publishers/Investors…
“I'm doing a talk at GDC about pitching and the popular the title is like very click-baity, which is “So You’re Ready to Pitch to a Publisher? You’re not” I don't mean that in a super snarky way I mean that with two years of mentoring experience. The recent years of my life have been walking teams through pitching. Pitching is a much bigger thing and I'll get to that but it starts with your game and the game itself can't be divorced out of that pitch. If you have a short-form story game I can't tell you to go and pitch that for hundreds of thousands of dollars to these various people. That's not a viable business plan because investors want to make money. Consoles want to sell copies. You always have to think what is the goal between you
making the game and the person you're talking to. Where is the overlap? And that's the thing you're pitching, the overlap. Anything outside of that doesn't matter in the relationship at that exact point.
If you take a project like Night in the Woods and you just think about the three consoles. The pitch for each one of those consoles is different based on the overlap. PlayStation is a pretty easy pitch for Night in the Woods. It's a teenage game about feelings that looks beautiful and it's
Cool. I know Scott would die if he heard me. Night in the Woods looks very cool. It looks very hipster even though none of the characters in it are actually hipsters but it felt, even at the very beginning, a very obvious fit for PlayStation. But it's a much harder fit for Xbox just based purely on the demographic. If you go to an E3 for Xbox, it's an hour and a half of machine gun fire. They've got a corner on a market and pitching Night in the Woods to Xbox was a very different experience because our overlap is different. Pitching it to Nintendo was even more different because at that point the Switch was just coming out. Who are the early adopters and what kinds of games are they looking for? How do they use the media? How does their fan base use the internet? Those are the things you think about when you're preparing a pitch and that's just for consoles. When you get to a investor, that’s a whole different items of things that you're
actually thinking about. But the main thing is, what is the overlap on the relationship and what are you both trying to gain? If you tailor it towards that you're usually heading in the right direction.
We have this as a venn diagram which is true things about your game and lies. Then the middle are interesting things about your game that are lies. The middle is the the only piece you ever talk to the public about. Bigger publishers get it way WAY worse because somebody will come up and pitch their game with 30 minutes of lore. That's boring trash. I have lore for Overland but I don’t tell anybody. Because that's a hundred percent from the exterior just boring trash in something like a pitch.”
What to focus on…
“The questions you should ask yourself is ‘Why are we making it? What were the influences at the beginning? What are the feelings we're trying to generate out of the players? How do I want them to play? What ways can I get them to interact with others as they play either locally on a couch or over Twitch?’ Those are the things if you're talking just about to anyone, that's the thing that helps them share your content. If it's a confidential pitch document I'm looking at like five pages of what essentially looks like a magazine spread on like a keynote or something that I've burned off to a PDF that changes compared to the types of enthusiasm or excitement I get on a show floor.”
What to expect at GDC...
“What you want at GDC is your game’s version of a vertical slice. You want to give the person that you're showing the game to a complete playthrough experience in 7 to 13 minutes. Basically a demo and you want it to be as polished as you can make it without hurting yourself So that changes depending on the genre. Something like Overland, we call it a gameplay slice because it doesn't matter what the art looks like. What matters is that the actions that you're doing in the game feel just as good as if the art was polished. Because that's a strategy game. It's a lot different. But if I showed up with a not art complete Night in the Woods vertical slice you'd be ‘Why are there pink boxes floating around. This is awful. I can't figure out what's going on.’ Because you need the context of everything that you see. So your vertical slice or your gameplay slice needs to be complete and you you should be able to do it in a 7 to 13 minute playthrough.
For Night in the Wood’s first demo, you have a really long conversation with the mom but as soon as you got out you had a fight with the old guy. Overland can sometimes take 7 to 15 minutes because it you'd need to get them into a position where they have a close call where they escape something that should have killed them. Then Tunic is even more different where you can run and swing your sword around and whack some bad guys. Put cute animations on it and the demo is done. The Fox is amazing because you understand it's a character with a sword so much to lean on. As long as your combat feels good. That's the important thing for Tunic. The combat is really sticky and the animation is whimsical and people are impressed with that and then the art is the frosting on the cupcake.
If you're talking to me, I got 30 minutes, and I need to be able to see it as fast as possible because I got something going on 15 minutes after our 30 minutes is up. Finding that sweet spot, I guarantee you you as a dev team you are probably not going to find it. You need to bring friends over. You need to sit down. You need to have them talk to you while they play. You need to listen when they tell you ‘This is not fun.’ ‘This is opaque.’ ‘I can't figure out what's going on.’
‘The UI is really tricky.’ ‘The buttons feel sticky.’ If you're going to take a game with gamepad controls and you have platformer or something, try to make that one level feel really good. Because imagine trying to play Super Meat Boy or something like a demo level and the controls suck. It would just be so frustrating. You just die over and over and over again. That is a reasonable ask because it could even be just one celestial level. That could be a vertical slice or you do two screens wide and the controls feel amazing. That way somebody who understands games or publishing they be able to be to say “There's something here. We could dig this out.’ ‘What are they planning on doing?’ Then the publisher would ask for more info.”
Things to impress investors right away...
“One is to focus on the art style. I don't mean that in kind of a weird way but what's special about the art style and what makes it different? So if I look at a screenshot, I want to think about your game and not necessarily someone else's.Second don't sell someone else's game better than you sell your own. Like ‘this amazing thing that sold eight billion copies and this game that's sold eight billion copies…’ I would just feel like playing those other three games. You just sold them really well. Finji had to be really careful with this because journalists actually called Overland years ago XCOM meets Oregon Trail. Which is not true at all. I don't necessarily want someone talking about XCOM when thinking about Overland. The third thing is know your audience. I have sat in many pitches and watched many pitches and where somebody will literally say girls won't play my game. They'll make some sort of off-hand gender-biased comment about their players or they assume their demographic doesn't allow women players. Even though, as publishers, we know the strategy genre or the fighting genre there's a gender disparity. We don't necessarily want there to be one. We want to sell more copies of the game. If we think that you're already being exclusionary it makes us super sad. ‘Why would you think that nobody would want to play your game?’ In your brain, everyone should want to play your game, including my grandma and my mom and my in-laws. That's the kind of enthusiasm I want to see. But it's happened multiple times during a pitch that quote ‘girls won't play WOW.”