10 key things designers need to know about submitting a design to a publisher
By Caezar Al-Jassar and edited by the ACG team
I decided to write this blog to help designers get the most out of their designs. We get a lot of pitches through our games submission form on our website. However, even though we try to make it very clear what we are looking for on our games submission form, which is updated every 4-6 months, I’d estimate that about 70% are incompatible with Alley Cat Games, or the designer is sending it to multiple publishers hoping one of them takes a sniff.
So I decided to write this blog post to give a bit of subjective guidance. That’s the important thing to note here, this is most definitely a subjective list, and I ask other publishers and designers to pitch in in the hope it can be refined further :)
1. Have you playtested the game enough?
This should be a given but it has to be said. Some designs pitched to us have glaring broken mechanics and are, in all honesty, a complete waste of time for us to pursue further or to even test it at all. Unfortunately, it can leave a sour taste in our mouth. Playtesting to us has to be done a number of ways:
Firstly, playtesting with your friends and family (particularly those who aren’t gamers) is a valuable first step for any game design but doesn’t count for much in the long run. It’s good enough to get the concept tested but their input can often be useless owing to lack of experience and withholding critical feedback to not hurt your feelings.
Secondary, playtesting with other game designers/developers is probably most useful as they are able to pick specific issues with the game. However, each designer/developer will have their own subjective opinion on games, some may like ultra simple games, others, ultra complex and deep games. It’s the pinpointing of the flaws that is most useful here.
Finally, you need to playtest with different groups which are from your intended audience. Playing your euro game with wargamers is pointless as they will not grasp the fun euro gamers will enjoy, and vise versa. The “different” part here is key too. If you keep playtesting with the same group a) there will be what we call “playtest fatigue” whereby players will often lose sight of the original intention of the game, but also b) showing the game to different groups will allow you to see patterns, such as broken mechanics, or nuances that are picked up repeatedly by players that make the game a worse experience.
Having a heavily playtested game, that at the end of it is hugely fun to the intended audience, makes your game far more attractive to a publisher!
2. Know the publisher inside and out
I can’t stress this one enough. I myself design games, but more as an exercise for my brain to potentially pitch to mass market publishers. Therefore, when I design those, I have about 1-4 publishers in mind to specifically pitch them to. As a result, those 1-4 publishers are the ones most likely to take them on. Luckily, and so far, with the mass market designs I’ve pitched, 100% have taken physical prototypes to assess further.
One of the main reasons to know the publisher inside out, is mainly not to waste your own time, but also the publisher’s. Most publishers I’ve spoken to do not appreciate it when a designer sends them something which is completely different to anything they’ve published before, or makes a submission so generic that it was obviously blasted to maybe a dozen or more others to “save time”.
3. Know what published games go up against your unpublished game
I read a blog from another publisher (sorry I forgot which one!) which talked about seeing whether your product is worth releasing into the world compared to another. While it is the role of the publisher to make it differentiated enough and to market the game, the designer can help the decision making process during the design and pitching stage to figure out what else is out there that even remotely matches your game.
If the publisher asks what similar games there are to yours (this is one of the questions we ask) and you answer “there is no game like mine” that just tells us you haven’t done enough research or played enough games!
I’ve heard countless stories of designers, but also publishers, that have created a game so similar to something else, that it eventually gets lost in the ether, either before or after it gets published.
Don’t ignore that similar game to yours. It can be your friend. Learn as much about it as possible. What are it’s strengths and its weaknesses? Learn the key differences to what makes your game fun, as well as the other game(s). Then, sharpen and refine the design to make your game stand out. Which leads me to my next point...
4. What makes your game stand out? Unique selling point.
At Alley Cat Games we strive to learn what is the unique selling point right at the beginning of the process. This can be things whereby either one part of the game that stands out, or a collection of individual parts that create a sum that is unique. This can be something as simple as the name, all the way up to a complex set of mechanics which plays like nothing else.
Our quick test for the uniqueness of a game is whether it can be explained simply in a single line which is clearly and refreshingly different to anything else out there.
5. What is your product?
This is more of a publisher responsibility, but I’m hearing from more and more designers that they are being asked to present a “product” from publishers. This is also something we’d recommend too.
But what is a product? For me, this is something that is subjective in our industry. However, in our eyes, it is the overall package of the game, its unique selling point, the packaging itself, as well as the gameplay and a good price point (consider your component count!).
A few years ago, in the hobby industry and particularly Kickstarter, art itself would have sold the game alone. However, we’re seeing more and more great looking games that do not do as well now, as they would have done a few years ago. Hobbyists now want a great game, with great art, and the key here now is that: it is different to something else out there.
6. How does the publisher appreciate being approached?
Each publisher has their own set way of looking at new designs. Figure out by talking to other designers or even publishers how they operate. Many of the larger hobby publishers and mass-market publishers do not consider any external game pitches at all, and only use internal designers. Some small publishers only self-publish. Other hobby publishers will require you to submit a basic form. Others like us, actively discuss what we are trying to look for in great detail, with a complementary and comprehensive submission form. BGG and your extended designer/publisher network is your friend here.
7. Prepare well for cons
Even if you don’t have a game to pitch (or you do), it's worth trying to get a meeting with a publisher from one you admire or wish to submit to in the future as you believe your games align.
Once you’ve got a meeting setup (this can be through a contact form, a friend giving you a shoe in or by asking if the responsible person has time at a con) ensure that you can show them the game in both: a brief 1-2 min overview pitch and then further into a 5-10min more in depth pitch. The overview pitch should highlight why your game is different, where the fun of the game is, who the game is targeted for and a description of the components. The 5-10min more in depth pitch should do all the things from the previous sentence but actually show this in the game by giving examples through gameplay.
8. Make a great sell sheet
Publishers typically only eye-ball sell sheets rather than fully read them. Get them at the first look, and they’ll read more.
You don’t need to be a great graphics designer to create one. Publishers don’t expect flashy prototypes, in fact, the more flashy a prototype is, the more we suspect you’ve spent more time making it look nice, than you have playtesting it (!) The same goes for the sell sheet. However, it should be with the caveat that you make the sell sheet display the best parts about your game. There should be a good amount of pictures highlighting core components/in game action shots and a good summary of text. Importantly, the text should be easy to read and preferably, (IMO) bullet pointed with maybe a small blurb about the theme and interplaying mechanics. There is nothing worse than reading an essay on a sell sheet - it just means that the game struggles to get across its fun, and therefore the publisher will have the same issue doing the same to consumers.
Finally, and this is missed a lot, we want to see the basics: component counts, number of players, time to play and age range. It sounds basic, but publishers are already formulating how much it is going to cost to manufacture and therefore how much the end product will be to the consumer. If that end product cost is too expensive for the consumer, that is an immediate turn off for the publisher.
There are lots of good resources out there to help you improve your sell sheets. Try joining this Facebook group and seeking feedback there.
9. Don’t be stuck to theme or mechanics
Publishers get it, you’ve worked on your game and you’ve fine- tuned the theme and mechanics. However, sometimes the publisher you've pitched to doesn't think the theme will go down particularly well with their audience. This is the key point, that each publisher will have an audience that they appeal to but also know that they can reach through their distribution methods, the two don't necessarily overlap all the time. This does also mean that if you’ve found the right publisher and they think that the theme doesn't work you'll need to let go of that theme. It doesn't mean that the theme wasn't right in the first place, it's just that the publisher needs to be able to sell the game to whoever they are able to sell it to.
10. Be prepared to let go of creative control
Letting go of creative control can be a very difficult thing to do. However you need to ask yourself the question of how much creative control you are happy to give away? Smaller publishers may be more willing to keep you in the loop, ask for your creative input, maybe even ask you to help with finding artists and completing the development of the game. However, bigger publishers are unlikely to do this, particularly if you are a first-time designer or one who hasn't had many published games. The reason they do this is one I can personally relate to as we have worked with designers before who have wanted to go down one path but was clearly different to what our audience would want. It's not to say that you can't be right, far from it, we’ve certainly made mistakes ourselves! It is in the best interests of the publisher to make that process as streamlined and as quickly as possible in the interests of getting the game out to consumers to recoup development and wage costs.
So there we have it folks, a semi comprehensive take on getting your pitches and designs ready for pitching and hopefully publication with the right publisher. In the end, making a great playtested game is the most important part of this process, but there are a number of other nuances that hopefully should take it from “great prototype” to “published game”.
We’re always looking for great games so please do check out our games submission page where you will find a comprehensive list of types of games we are looking for.
Designers/publishers, what have we missed? Are there things you disagree or agree with, and why? Do comment below!
Thanks for taking the time to get to this bit, we know your time is valuable.