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Getting Your Game Idea Published… or Not

December 20, 2007

One of the most difficult moments for a practicing game developer is this: several very enthusiastic people walk up to you, tell you they have a great idea for a game and want to know the best way to a) write up their idea and b) contact [EA / Activision / Blizzard / THQ / NC Soft] so they can get their game idea developed and published.

The bad news: They don’t need your ideas.

In situations like this, there’s an awkward moment of silence before the disappointing truth comes out: “Actually…” The words are always different after that “Actually…” depending on how much of a surprise the news seems to be, but the end result is always the same: no game developer and no game publisher anywhere at any time wants your ideas unless you have a proven track record of publishing commercial video games or are linked with a serious IP. Even then, those ideas may have to get in line behind the 100 other ideas everyone else in their company would love to develop.

There are, of course, exceptions – elite rockstar developers who have achieved critical fame or VC’able respect can take ideas to the bank. Their name is money, and they can sell the idea of Shigeru Miyamoto’s Bucket of Random Code if they want to. And people will buy it. You know they would (“It’ll be like Mario Galaxy, but with buckets and semi-colons and include statements!“).

In the game industry, there is no shortage of ideas. Right now, I have three games… four… five (seriously, my brain keeps incrementing the count, remembering designs that I want to work on even as I type). I am willing to bet every person on every development team has at least one game idea.

The key points here are these:

  • There is no shortage of game ideas
  • A game idea will not get you in the door of a publisher (or a developer, for that matter)
  • A prototype of said idea implemented may get you in the door, if it’s really good

Does this mean you should give up? No. On the contrary, it means you should develop the game. Consider what you and your team can possibly and reasonably do, whatever your team size may be. If there are three of you and a few PCs, trying to develop an idea that’s “even better than Gears of War” is much more likely to result in a whole lot of frustration than anything else, but it will be an amazing learning experience. Though things like Project Offset do happen, they are the extreme exception to the rule.

The game industry is a business like any other. To get in the door as a development team/group/company, you need at the very least a product, a really, really good product. You need to show that you can do what you say you can do, not with words, but applied action.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. December 20, 2007 3:38 pm

    I’ve seen this advice a lot of times, and I do agree with that (I’ve already begun to develop my first game). But I have a lingering question: do I need to create the whole game? I mean, for instance, on this game of mine I’m still developing its main mechanics and gameplay, thus I haven’t given a though on level design. And, as I have conceived it, the game should have a bunch of levels in both single and multi-player modes. The thing is, do I need to design *all* of the, say, 20 levels before taking the game to a publisher? Or just a couple of levels would do fine, just to give a glimpse of the bigger picture and to demonstrate the mechanics working? Or does it depend?

  2. December 20, 2007 4:25 pm

    Actually, yes, the ideas are the most important things. It’s true that everyone in the game industry (and the film industry, for that matter) says that they aren’t. It’s also true that virtually all people say “the sun goes up” and “the sun goes down” when in fact the sun does neither – the earth turns.

    As book and magazine publishers say, they get lots of submissions from unknowns which get thrown onto the huge “slush pile”. However, every once in awhile they will roll up their sleeves, take a look through this heap of stuff, and low-and-behold, find a gem in there.

    By the way: the argument that Company X has a hundred ideas doesn’t mean that any one of them is better than the one the outsider is proposing. It only means they have a hundred ideas. If yours is better it’s better. End of story.

    For more on this:

  3. December 20, 2007 4:45 pm

    @Alvaro – A prototype will do the job in many cases. If you’re hoping to independently publish the game, the prototype may get you funding to finish it. I do know of several independent devs who have taken this route. I also know of some who released a game without all the intended features of the final version. They sold the game online by subscription and built it organically with the proceeds from the initial game.

    @GG – You raise a good point, but I don’t buy it. Ideas are, of course, important. However, it’s been a long time since publishers even accepted ideas from people without a proven track record to back it up, as I note above. Activision’s site says as much (main site -> contact us). In many cases, unsolicited games will be returned outright for legal reasons (lack of an NDA). A proven track record = previously released products or an actual demo of your running product. The metaphor for a book isn’t an accurate one. The text is the “final product.” It might need an editor to polish it, but it’s done. The ability to execute is in the “slush pile” as it were. A direct comparison would be this – sending a letter to a book publisher saying, “I have an idea for a book, and here’s the idea.” If you haven’t previously published, you will receive a form letter that states, “We’d love to see your completed manuscript (completed game) or sample chapters (i.e. demo to show you can do this).”

  4. December 20, 2007 4:54 pm

    @Alvaro: If you’re just looking to make a game for your design portfolio for the purposes of getting a job, your game will need to be designed differently from if you’re trying to make a complete, saleable self-published indie game.

    For a portfolio, it probably SHOULDN’T be a complete 40-hour epic; what hiring manager has the time to play through it all? Give a solid, well-polished 5-minute experience. Maybe one to three levels, but with enough of the mechanics implemented that it’s obvious where the potential is. IGF student submissions are similar — as I say on my blog, find the fun in the first 30 seconds.

    @Grassroots: Two problems with “I’ve got a great idea for a game”.

    First, great ideas aren’t always obvious: “I’ve got a great idea for a game: let’s send this little yellow hockey puck around a maze eating dots and running away from ghosts! Let’s call him Puck-Man!” Do you really think this idea would have been “obviously” good as a concept in 1980?

    Second, a great idea is nothing without solid execution: “I’ve got a great idea for a game: take a dance game like DDR but have it accept any music CD and have it auto-generate a step chart for you!” Yes, this is an obviously awesome idea. Now go check the review scores for Dance Factory and see how well it did.

    Actually there’s many more problems than just that, but these are enough.

  5. December 21, 2007 8:50 am

    Whew. What a relief. Actually I was thinking more or less like that, to produce a thinner but fully playable version of the game just for portfolio purposes, and then, depending on its reception and suchlike, try selling/enhancing it. I think I’m doing fine, then.

    The problem is, like Brenda said, the flow of ideas is really tempting. As any of you guys, I have a lot of ideas which I would like to try too, but its a matter of focusing on getting one thing well done.

    I hope I’ll be able to show you my little baby soon. 🙂

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