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Article #21:

The Game Concept Submission Process

This article created November, 2002 -- updated August 2017




Q: "I read your FAQ 1 and FAQ 11, where you said that it's difficult to convince someone to take my video game idea and make it into a real working video game. But I want to try anyway. How do I go about it?"

A: I wrote in FAQ 1 and FAQ 11 that it is unlikely for anyone except an industry professional to succeed in licensing his video game concept to a major video game publisher. I didn't say that it was impossible, mind you. In spite of the overwhelming odds, it does sometimes happen that a game company will take and publish an outside concept. My advice is that you don't go into this expecting to sell your concept, but rather go into the process with hopes of accomplishing something positive out of the venture. For instance, maybe they'll be so impressed with your presentation that they offer you a job. At the very least you'll have some new contacts and information that'll be useful in future ventures. The purpose of this FAQ is to discuss the submission process so that you will be better prepared to make a stab at it (should you choose to grab for the stars).


My apologies that the first thing I have to do is go back over some ground I already covered in FAQ 11...

Who Are You...

You (the "submitter") greatly increase your odds of success if you are a game industry professional, or someone with some kind of credentials that make you stand out from the crowd. Let's consider some possibilities, just to see what I mean by this.

Game industry professional - Let's say you are someone who has worked on a number of games, knows many people in the industry, and has his name listed in the credits of some "triple-A" hits. You've left your last company under circumstances that do not cast a dark shadow on your resume. When you submit your concept to a game company, and give them the phone number of some references who'll say glowing things about you, you have a good chance of getting a job at that game company (if they don't want to license your game concept from you). Very good way to begin.

Owner of established game development company - Let's say that you are the owner of your own game development company, have created several games with your company's logo on the box, and can provide the phone numbers of several game producers who'll say glowing things about you. When you submit your game concept to a publisher, you have a good chance of getting a development contract with that publisher (if they don't want to license your game concept from you). Very good way to begin.

Respected professional in some other industry - Let's say you are a Nobel-prize-winning physicist, who has contributed something substantial to the field of astrophysics. You bring in a concept about an outer space game that uses your prize-winning theories. You will definitely get listened to. Or let's say that you are a best-selling author, and you want to convince the game publisher to do a game based on your latest (or upcoming) novel. You will definitely get listened to. Very good way to begin.

Enthusiastic entrepreneur type - Let's say you have a B.A. in business or marketing, have worked for a couple of well-known (non-game) firms, and are currently doing the Independent thing. You've gotten a game idea and have even written a business plan to form a game development company to make it. The plan includes auxiliary marketing ideas (the game can expand into a line of comics, toys, apparel, and even TV). The business plan is currently in the hands of some bank loan managers, and it suddenly occurred to you that maybe you should go ahead and pitch it to some game companies. So here you are. The honest truth is, as soon as the submissions manager figures all this out about you, he's going to have a sudden desire for the meeting to end soon, so he can do something more promising.

Guy with a little bit of game industry experience - Let's say you've worked at a video game development company for a couple of years. You left due to a fallout with your former boss (who you regarded as an egomaniac), or maybe he fired you because you were always cruising websites devoted to anime (a pet passion of yours). You can't use your former boss as a reference, and maybe your name was in the credits of one game... or maybe it wasn't. This sort of background isn't going to get you a lot of attention of the good kind when you bring your concept to a game publisher. You can spot your own face in the crowd, but the submissions manager will just see a crowd.

Bright-eyed wannabe with a 2-year degree - You've worked at a couple of dot-coms that went bust, you just moved back in with your folks, you've applied for a testing job at this company but got turned down. You have a bookshelf bursting at the seams with your handwritten game ideas but acknowledge that you don't have much artistic talent (your game ideas are also peppered with many not-quite-presentable diagrams). Not too likely you're going to get far with your submission in this case, no matter how enthusiastically you wave your arms while you pitch your game.

... and What Are You Bringing To The Table?

Your submission has a greater chance of success if it's very far along. Unless you're that Nobel Prize physicist or that N.Y. Times Best-Selling author, you need to bring more, not less, to the table.

Complete or nearly complete game, already working on the target platform - this is usually the best thing to bring in. Not only does it do the best job of communicating how great your game is, but it also shows that you have the ability to handle a lot of the changes they'll want, thereby increasing your attractiveness as a potential business partner. Has to be on the best target game platform (if it's a PS2 game, it has to be working on the PS2).

Partially complete game (AKA "interactive demo") - this is usually second-best. It has to look great, and it can't crash when the submissions manager tries to play it. If it's really good, it can help you get a deal. Can be on either PC or the target game platform.

Non-interactive visual presentation (AKA "animation") - I did a game that was licensed based on one of these once. If you make a knock-their-socks-off video showing what your game will look like, they can imagine it working on the game machine. You don't run the risk of it crashing or of some bug happening, and you look like someone with either artistic ability, or someone who can afford to hire good artistic talent. But it's not as powerful a demonstration of your game as an interactive demo. This can be on DVD, CD, or VHS.

Paper presentation - This is the cheapest thing to create, of course. It has to be well illustrated and must look professional and polished. See the success/rejection matrix in FAQ 11 for your chances of getting money for a paper presentation. You will probably have a paper presentation to submit together with your non-interactive video, working demo, or even with a complete game. The more substantial the presentation, the less paper you need to provide.

Verbal presentation - If you get an in-person meeting, of course you'll be speaking while presenting whatever else it is you are handing over. Nobody will give you a deal for an idea you just tell them about (unless maybe you are Shigeru Miyamoto, John Carmack, Will Wright, or Sid Meier).


First Steps

Your concept must, of course, be in some kind of presentable form (whether it's a working game, a non-interactive video together with a document, or just a document). It's a given that you have something to submit, otherwise don't bother submitting anything!

Get a lawyer. Before you show your intellectual property to any other party, you should consult a copyright lawyer about how best to protect your property. You can submit a formal copyright application to the U.S. government (if you're a U.S. citizen or permanent resident). You should certainly have a copyright notice on your presentation. As mentioned in FAQ #8, Nolo Press has a great line of books for those who want to learn more about their legal protections under intellectual property law. It's unlikely that any game company would rip off your idea (it would be bad business for them to do so), but you should approach the matter intelligently.

Select your target game publishers. If your game is a cute cartoony kids' game, you don't want to submit it to Rockstar, the publisher of GTA: Vice City. (That just makes sense, doesn't it?) You have to select a set of game publishers for whom your concept is up their alley. (Note: I'm only talking about publishers because that's the only kind of company to whom it makes sense to submit a game - if you submit it to a developer, and they like it, then they have to go submit it to a publisher. Publishers are where the money comes from.)

Determine the submission policy of your target game publishers. Start with the publisher's website. Explore it fully and learn everything you can about this company. Many large game publishers have their submission policy stated right there on the website. Here's an example policy. If the publisher's submission policy is not indicated, and if you can't find the name and phone number of the submission manager, call the publisher's switchboard.


This device is called a "telephone."


This also is a "telephone" (perhaps you're more familiar with this type).
You need to use a "telephone" for your initial contact with the submissions manager.
I am serious. Trust me on this one.

Ask for the name and number of the submissions manager. Each game company may use a different title for this person's job - one might call it "Director of Submissions," one might call it "V.P. of New Business," another might call it "Business Development" or "Acquisitions Manager." The receptionist might not know what you mean by "submissions manager," so be prepared ahead of time with a clear explanation of what you're looking for. Be clear and confident-sounding (if you are prepared properly, you will be confident. You certainly don't want to stumble and sound like an idiot when talking to a receptionist - imagine what could happen when you finally talk to a Director or Vice President!). The next step is to telephone the submissions manager and inquire about the submission policy.
If their policy is, "we don't accept submissions from industry outsiders," well, sorry - you'll have to forget about that company.

Get the needed forms, addresses, etc. No game company likes submissions to be sent in without having a properly signed Disclosure Agreement in place. Each company may have a different name for this document. One might call it a "Submission Agreement," one might simply use a standard N.D.A. (Non-Disclosure Agreement). These agreements are usually very straightforward. You probably don't need to hire a lawyer to check it over for you before you sign. And the game publisher does not want to sign your submission agreement. If you don't like what their agreement says, then don't submit your game to them.
Never send anyone your game idea without a signed Submission Agreement in place.

  • Firstly, you are leaving yourself unprotected! By simply sending your idea to someone, you are giving away all rights to your idea.
  • Secondly, the game publisher is vulnerable to being sued by you, if they see your idea without having the protection of a Submission Agreement in place, and later you claim that they used your idea without compensating you. If you send your idea to a game company without a Submission Agreement in place, they will return it to you without reading it. And they will probably be mad at you for having done that (at the very least, they'll think you're ignorant of intellectual property law, and an untrustworthy candidate as a business partner).

    Prepare your submission package. What should put into your submission, you may ask? See FAQ 35 and read Dan Marchant's articles on preparing a pitch and preparing a demo.

    Submit your game.

    Sign the publisher's Submission Agreement (if you are underage, your parents have to sign it on your behalf) and give it to the submissions manager together with your game submission. I highly recommend submitting the game in person if you can. Don't try to wow the submissions manager with how many units you think your game will sell, and don't tell him "the players will GO APE over this game!" Describe the game clearly and with just the right level of enthusiasm. Hopefully your game is working and you can jump right in to one of the more spectacular areas. If you have to explain glitches, or apologize for incompletenesses, don't bring the game in (you're not ready yet). Be well informed about what other games your game will have to compete with in the marketplace. The submissions manager is likely to ask, for example, "it looks a lot like Bloodbucket. What's different about your game?" You need to be prepared to tell him. Don't go rooting through your briefcase to look for the Bloodbucket comparison sheet - just tell him. If you're busy with your hands on the game controller, you might say, "and there's a comparison sheet there in the materials I gave you, if you want to look for it." He may also know about comparable games that are in development at other game companies - if you aren't in on industry gossip, you at least need to be up-to-date on your reading (and I'm talking about internet game news, not just the print magazines).

    Leave after you've pitched your game. Unless you're a Nobel physicist or a N.Y. Times bestselling author, it's unlikely that the submissions manager will offer to give you a tour of the game company facility. Don't ask. When you've finished your pitch, don't wait for him to show you the door. Say something like, "Well, that's my game. I'll leave it here for your consideration. How long should I give you before I call back to check in?" He'll appreciate that. He may tell you that he'll call you after X days. Thank him for his time and go.
    ...Oh. And I recommend that you don't ask him to validate your parking stub. It's more businesslike (you come across as more substantial) if you don't appear to be worried about a couple of bucks.

    Or send your submission in. It often happens that you can't pitch your game in person. See the things I said above about the in-person pitch, and take some clues from that. Do include materials that discuss competitive aspects of your proposal (preferably in bullet points, not lengthy paragraphs like I write). Don't include any box composites or suggested ad copy. Game publishers don't need you to tell them how to make a box or an ad. It's helpful if the publisher can have an idea of the scope of the project (how long will it take to finish your game, how much will it cost).

    Agents and/or partners. I mentioned in FAQ 20 that, in the case of a toy or a board game, you need to go through an agent. There are agents for video games too, but it can be difficult to get one to pitch your game for you. It could be expensive, too. If you find an agent that you trust, and who only collects money if the pitch is successful, then perhaps you want to go together with the agent to pitch the game. Or perhaps (rather than an agent) you have a trusted advisor or partner (preferably a middle-aged man who knows how to dress for a creative business meeting) who can go along with you. It is often better to have two people for a pitch, because then if the main speaker forgets a point, the partner can bring it up at the appropriate time. Or the partner can hand over that competitive analysis on Bloodbucket when the topic comes up. I pitched a toy in Tokyo last year, and a good friend went with me. My Japanese isn't all that great, but I was going to give it my best shot. She's fluently bilingual, and we did a dry run before going to the company. You would have thought we were a polished team, that we did that sort of thing all the time! And her just being there helped assuage the nervousness I would have felt otherwise.

    Afterwards

    Follow up after an appropriate amount of time. Don't start phoning him or emailing him every couple of days. If he said he needed 10 days, give him 10 days. If you're not sure if he meant 10 calendar days or 10 business days, give him 10 business days. He may still be non-committal even after the 10 days. That's not necessarily bad. Besides, you didn't pin all your hopes on this one company anyway, right?

    Eventually he'll either give you good news or bad news. Usually bad news. I imagine that most submissions managers return your submission when they reject it. But if he doesn't return it, don't ask for it back. You didn't give him your only original copy of anything anyway, right? How much do Kinko's copies, or a CD-R, or a videotape cost? You have to expect to incur some costs in the course of doing business. And don't ask him for an explanation of why your submission was rejected. If he didn't just give you reasons that cleared things up for you already, then it's not likely that you're going to accomplish anything good by asking.

    If he gives you good news, well, now you'll need the services of a lawyer. (You've already picked one out, right?) There will be contracts, and you'll have to deal with a lot of difficult issues. For example, the publisher will incur a lot of costs in finishing and marketing your game, and those costs will have to be deducted from their profits before your royalties are calculated. The publisher may want to rename your game (or attach it to an existing franchise). And they won't want to give you much creative control over anything they do with your game after you sign. It'll all be spelled out in the licensing agreement.
    And the royalty rate will also be spelled out in the licensing agreement.

    I Don't Want Money - I Just Want My Game To Be Made

    Some aspiring designers say to me, "I don't care about getting any money; I just want somebody to make my game." Sorry, it doesn't work that way! If somebody is going to make your idea into a game, there absolutely must be a licensing agreement (in which you legally give them permission to use your intellectual property), and there absolutely must be compensation. Why? Because if your game sells a million copies and earns the game publisher a ton of money, sooner or later you (or, if you are underage, your parents) will wish you hadn't just given it away for free - and that means legal troubles for everyone. So forget about naïve ideas like "I just want someone to make my game, I don't want any money." Of course you want money. You need to have a lawyer if you license your concept to a game company.

    What kind of offer might you receive (in the off-chance that they offer you a deal), you may ask? See FAQ 35.

    Well, I've gone as far as I intended to for the sake of this FAQ. For follow-up reading, See FAQ 35 - and perhaps you might want to read my article, "Financial Aspects of Game Development,".

    And a follow-up - September 2003: Click here to read FAQ 31 ("What If I Have The Ultimate Idea, Though?").


    It often happens that a conversation on the Q&A bulletin board helps clarify a topic. The following thread is a good case in point. - Tom



    I wrote MORE about this topic in January, 2004. Need to know what to put into your submission? Need to know about possible financial considerations? Read FAQ 35.

    I wrote an article on game finances in April 2001 (while I was in Tokyo for the Tokyo Game Show) about Financial Aspects of Game Development..

    And here are two additional vitally important articles you should read on how to make submissions: http://www.obscure.co.uk/the_pitch.shtml and http://www.igda.org/biz/submission_guide.php.

    Gamasutra has an excellent article series that goes much more in depth into this subject. http://www.gamasutra.com/features/19990305/winters_01.htm, http://www.gamasutra.com/features/19990430/winters_01b.htm, and http://www.gamasutra.com/features/19990723/winters_01c.htm.

    You can see Irrational Games' original pitch document (aka "treatment") for Bioshock at http://irrationalgames.com/insider/from-the-vault-may/#.

    Think your idea will sell? Well, how can you tell? Take ... The 10-Minute Game Sales Potential Test

    The test is at http://www.gamasutra.com/features/20070212/garneau_01.shtml. Good luck!


    Got a question about this lesson? No need to raise your hand -- just click here to go to the bulletin board. You'll get answers!

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    © 2002, 2012, 2017 Tom Sloper. All rights reserved. May not be re-published without written permission of the author.