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Pitching Your Game

I frequently either get folks asking me how to pitch a game, or watch people do it in ways that are extreme turn-offs. So today, I’ll break down the wisdom others have shared with me.

(Note: this is about pitching a game in person. A couple years back, I wrote about dealing with a book’s back cover text.)

First, 25 words

Pitching is like an onion — there are layers to it, and it’s best if you don’t put the entire thing in your mouth right away, because it’s too big. The first layer follows Robin Laws’ rule of “25 words or less” — you have no more than 25 words to get me interested in listening to you.

This is the equivalent of shouting “SEX-FIRE! Now that I have your attention…” It’s just enough to get someone who will give you, if you’re lucky, a few unsolicited seconds to stop and listen to more. I like making this an interrogative, because people will at least unconsciously react to that, even if they don’t stop to talk to you further. (Mythender’s is “Do you want to stab Thor in the face?”)

You don’t pack everything your game is in those 25 words. I don’t bring up apotheosis or the struggle of mortality or that you can sunder concepts in the world. That’s for later.

Then, 30 seconds

If someone’s given you their attention after hearing those few words, then you have 30 seconds to give them a bigger pitch, to talk about elements of the game that you’re personally excited about. When I talk about Mythender, after the first layer, I’ll talk briefly about how it’s inspired by dramatic fights in cinema, batshit-crazy stuff in anime, 300, the God of War series, etc. I also mention that it’s a story about apotheosis and deicide, and that the real trick in Mythender isn’t to End a god, but is to do so without becoming a god yourself — and that being why Mythenders travel together, to make sure that if one’s about to fall, the others End him.

After That

If they are still interested in that point, and are talking to you about your game (rather than something else), then make a connection: run a little demo, hand them a card with your info or your game’s info, schedule a time, whatever. At this point, you’ve got someone who at least seems interested in your story, vision, delivery, whatever, and you can have a conversation. Importantly, I said “conversation” and not “monologue” — find out what they’re interested in and actually connect, even if only for a couple minutes. That connection will help them feel like your game or whatever will hold some meaning in their lives if they actually play it.

What not to do

There are a few don’t that, these days, I visibly wince at when they happen:

  • Do not shit on another game, whether by name of obliquely. You never know if you’re talking to a fan of that game that could also like yours simultaneously, or someone who worked on that game. Worse, it says that you made a game because you have a axe to grind rather than because of joy.
  • Do not define your game in the negative, like “this game doesn’t have classes!” You know what else doesn’t have classes? Poker. Jogging. Watching Fight Club. Such statements say nothing, except that you made this game because of said axe grinding.
  • Don’t sell your game as being “for everything.” That says (a) you have no idea what your game really is about, (b) you don’t understand game design if you think that your game fits everything, and (c) you aren’t trying to infuse me with any sort of passion. Now, maybe you have a system that can work for many things, like Fate or whatever, but just saying that doesn’t engage in any passion.

The latter is hard to do if what you built is a more universal system, and in those cases I recommend doing the tried and true method of getting people interested in your universal system: make a setting to showcase it, and later if people stay interested, they’ll click on how it’s expandable and adaptable.

 

Those of you who have successfully pitched games to people at conventions, what advice would you give to those new to it? How do you pitch your games?

– Ryan

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5 Responses to Pitching Your Game

  1. Ken Burnside says:

    “Hi, would you like to blow up some chocolate?”

    “This is a game of three-dimensional spaceship combat, playable by humans, with pen and paper, and no computer assistance.” (Lead into table demo, give them chocolate.)

    My advice:

    Make eye contact.

    Calm down. Unless you’ve got the personal charisma/charm of Cam Banks, and you probably don’t, you probably need to dial it back about three steps.

    90% of people will say “That’s uh, something, but I only play {X}.” or some variation of it. Don’t be hurt by this.

    It’s worth it to make a good impression – they may have a friend who they’ll recommend it. “Oh, I wouldn’t play this in a million years. But my friend Todd, the classics major? He’d love it.”

    Don’t patronize people. This is very much a problem when The Designer is also The Developer, and is hustling his First Game. First Games are like First Children: You expect them to invoke as much joy in the person hearing the pitch as you had in laboriously crafting every single nuanced mechanic.

    Understand that people you’re pitching the game to are usually browsing, or on their way to somewhere else. Make it fast, respect their time.

    Make sure your demo has exit points, where you can let a person who’s not interested “off the hook.” It should get them to an actual table or let them go in 10 minutes or less.

    Build a demo team for boardgames. If you’re a single person sitting at a game table setup, looking hopeful? There’s a flashing sign over your head. It reads “Loser.” Have another buddy there, and if people aren’t stopping, play a game. I don’t know if this truth holds for RPGs, which tend to have one person GMing, but it definitely holds for boardgames and minis games.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      The “I’m just one person at a table” codes as interesting for RPGs and everything else as well, though it is a bit harder to create that “come and play with us” dynamic. I know that in the height of the Forge booth/IPR years, there was a big demo space and plenty of people standing up, actively greeting people without a table in the way.

      Some of that doesn’t apply when the pitch happens in a non-booth environment, like someone telling you about their game as you step off of a panel or other activity, which is probably when I most often hear pitches outside of someone at a booth.

      – Ryan

  2. Mike Olson says:

    I could’ve used this two days ago, when I found myself pitching Fate Core to a customer at a comic/game store and floundering a bit in the attempt. Though interested, he was in a hurry and clearly didn’t want to commit to the sale right then and there — but the guy behind the counter bought it on the spot, so I guess it worked anyway.

  3. Rob Daviau says:

    Never start by telling people how to play the game. Instead, tell people how it feels to play the game.

    How to play the game = learning rules. No one likes that.
    How it feels to play the game = an emotional connection rather than a cerebral one.

    At least that’s what I do.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Exactly. These hooks are about emotions, not about logic or good design principles or whatever.

      – Ryan