Why Game Publishers Aren’t Interested In Your Game Idea

Back in the early 1980’s, a friend introduced me to her father, a television cameraman, telling him that I worked in the video game industry. “Oh, really?”, he said. “You know, I have an idea for a game.”

“Oh?”, I replied cautiously.

He stopped for a moment to consider whether he should reveal his idea. After a few seconds thought, he said, “Well, I’ll probably never do anything with it.” He then glanced quickly around the room, as if to make sure there weren’t any spies listening in. “You fly around in an airplane, and land at different airports!

Now, actually, that wasn’t a bad idea, but I had to give him the bad news that his idea was already the basis of Microsoft Flight Simulator.

That wasn’t the last time I’ve had to tell people that they had vastly overestimated the value of their  “million dollar game idea.”  Over the past three decades, many people have told me that they had an idea for a game and wanted to know if a publisher would be interested in  it, and each time I’ve had to give them an unwelcome dose of reality.

Most ideas are not unique, which is one reason why publishers will not accept unsolicited game proposals — the idea may coincidentally be similar to a game the publisher is already be developing.  When I had my own company, I opened up a bulky piece of mail to discover that it was an unsolicited game proposal, along with a letter from the author saying that he sent another copy of the proposal to his lawyer — an implied warning that he’d sue me if I stole the idea he had sent me.  It so happened that his proposal was very similar to a game my partners had discussed developing, but fortunately we decided not to proceed with it.

Even original game ideas are not that valuable.  It’s not all that hard to come up with an idea for a game.  One assignment I give my game design students is to come up with 100 game ideas in an hour, and none of them have ever failed to come up with the required number of concepts.  The fact is that every game developer has ideas, far more than they can ever hope to make.  I have some ideas that I’ve been carrying around in the back of my head for as long as thirty years, waiting for the right opportunity and spare time to develop.

It’s true that some ideas are better than others, but even great ideas have their time and place.  When I was a producer at The Walt Disney Company, I pitched an idea based on Walk’s Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow.  The player, I explained, gathered resources to develop new technologies, and depending on the type of technologies developed, the citizens of the city would become happier and more prosperous.  “No one would be interested in a game like that!” was the verdict of my superiors.  The next year, Sid Meier came out with Civilization.  His idea came at the right time and place, mine did not.

Sid’s implementation of that idea was also much better than what mine would have been.  Implementation is everything in business.  As this chart from CD Baby founder Derek Silvers indicates, ideas — even brilliant ideas — have very little value by themselves.  It’s the execution of ideas that matters, and ideas are just a multiplier for the worth of that execution.  Poor or mediocre execution of even the most brilliant idea is worth very little.

Game publishers put such a high value on value on execution that a professional-looking PowerPoint and a business plan (you have done some marketing research to determine the real business potential and value of your concept, haven’t you?) isn’t going to get you a deal in today’s competitive game market.  An established game studio can have a hard time getting a deal even with a 300-page Game Design Document, a 100-page Technical Design Document, an Art Bible, and complete schedule and budget.  These days, a game publisher wants to see a proof of your ability to execute in the form of a technical and gameplay demo before agreeing to fund a game AAA with an eight-figure budget.

While a cynical person might (rightfully) say that the publisher wants to put all the risk on the developer by having them develop a substantial portion of the game on their own dime, there is another way to look at it: “Ideas are a dime a dozen.  People who implement them are priceless.”, as Mary Kay Cosmetics founder Mary Kay Ash famously said.

Game publishers aren’t interested in your ideas — they’re interested in your ability to implement them.  And that’s why a game industry novice is not going to sell his or her idea to the game industry.  If you really want to see your idea get implemented, you are either going to have to fund the development or develop the ability to implement it yourself.

There’s also a third option — the one that most of us in the game industry take.  Develop your skills by executing other people’s idea, and maybe, one decade, you’ll get an opportunity convince a publisher to fund its development.



About David Mullich

I am a video game producer who has worked at Activision, Disney, Cyberdreams, EduWare, The 3DO Company and the Spin Master toy company. I am currently a game design and production consultant, a game design instructor at ArtCenter College of Design, and co-creator of the Boy Scouts of America Game Design Merit Badge. At the 2014 Gamification World Congress in Barcelona, I was rated the 14th ranking "Gamification Guru" in social media.

Posted on March 21, 2016, in Career Advice and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. Thank you for this article! I’m ashamed to admit that, but I greatly enjoy articles about Idea Guys – not because I feel like I gain anything from them (in fact, I removed most traces of this attitudes long time ago), but because it makes me feel better (“hey, I don’t do this! I’m so cool!”). In fact, I found your blog when one evening I sat before the computer screen and decided to google “idea guy” to cheer myself up, and was surprised to see really insightful and thoughtful analysis (I think I mentioned that in the past, possibly in an e-mail I sent to you).

    Regardless, thanks anyways; I believe this article will be of great use to me, because I’ll be sending it to people with an attitude in question, I think it’ll be helpful to them. In the past I sent them this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OfWiRXZasQE , but but I’m in a school of thought that writings teach better than videos.

  2. That third option is nice… except that nowadays most game dev companies expect you to have already developed your skills to the point where you have released a game before, either as part of another company, or as an indie developer. Which really means you have to start with option 2.

  3. Hiya.

    I came to your blog from a quora question on the topic that you answered and I felt that every single answer from every professional including your own attacked a strawman of what at least some people would like to be doing.

    One answer in particular from a fellow colleague Chris Nash exposed the strawman in his own answer when asking rhetorically:

    “I have an idea for a movie, but lack the resources to shoot it. What is the best course of action to produce it?”

    The crux of the strawman or problem is the word idea that needs definition.
    As the video you link (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OfWiRXZasQE) so well illustrates, ideas are a dime a dozen.

    But as a few “idea guys” expanded on, their concept of idea is closer to a script or in this industries parlance a game design document. He explained how he had been working on an idea of a game, with art, gameplay, gameloop, goals and so forth since he was a little child. Now yes, some people have the know how to program that as well, and in those cases we may get something like Minecraft or Dwarf Fortress but:

    Movie scripts are sold constantly, so why aren´t game design documents?

    Someone may even have an fully fleshed out idea for a game mode that can be implemented in already established franchises.

    If someone is willing to spend dozens upon dozens of hours of their time writing this, the way someone writes a script for a play or a film then how doesn´t that hold value? Granted there may be many worthless ideas both conceptually and in terms of the difficulty of implementation but considering how little time and effort it takes to read a document like that, or at least the abstract/pitch part of it compared to how much effort it takes to compile it…

    Well I´m just thinking that the industry must have missed and oppurtunity to oursource this part.

    Could a reason by that indeed developers have so many of their own ideas that they do not want to give this space up to outsiders? Both because they want to develop their own ideas (unless they are directly payed not to) and because they feel that those people who haven´t “put in the work” that would be equivalent of acting, filming, editing, aren´t deserving of designing a game?

    I just don´t know and having browsed over 30 answers that none really address the issue Im really hoping that you could illuminate it a little bit better.


    • An idea is a concept that can be expressed in just a few words. If someone has created “art, gameplay, gameloop, goals and so forth”, that’s not just an idea — that’s a design. A design is worth more than a mere idea.

      As to why game design documents aren’t sold like movie scripts are, I think that’s because so many game studios have designers on staff who write GDD’s as employees. There just isn’t that much need for independent designers.

  4. Please re-merge this if you want or delete it, do as you please. It´s just a clarification. I Know that a common argument is that there is the legal issue of reading an idea and then being possibly opening yourself to a suit.

    But again, if movie studios have been able to work around this for over a century, couldn´t game developer studios implement a standard, especially for dealing with more fleshed out and thus specified and more narrowed down design documents?

    If its true that ideas, especially less fleshed out ones, are a dime a dozen then they can´t be worth much and if execution is everything like you write in your blog then any execution can be adapted to differ somewhat from a very basic idea if the originator demands too much money.

    The way the game Battleships that as a concept is patented has been re-imagined a thousand times https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battleship_(game)

    If the idea includes everything from risk analysis, user demographics and market research, personas and basic user testing, gameloop and gamegoals, character design and story archs then you either like it enough to pay for it and go for it or you don´t and you risk nothing from reading it and discarding it.

    Right? Or am I missing something?

    • If the idea includes everything from risk analysis, user demographics and market research, personas and basic user testing, gameloop and gamegoals, character design and story archs, then it’s more than idea. My article is about people who just have an idea and no more than that.

  5. Why not meet halfway? Instead of dismissing people who as per your definition just have a basic idea expressed in a few words as something nobody wants to hear instruct them to develop it into a design.

    And then be ready to hear that design. It doesn´t make sense to me that an industry as creative as this isn´t open to pitches. It´s not just scripts, every industry is full of investors and potential partners who, with a little bit of luck (the right place at the right time) and hard work on behalf of the pitcher are willing to listen for 5-10 minutes.

    All these people in other fields, all these companies, all these studios have people working on things including new products, new solutions, new films, etc.

    • There are thousands and thousands of people who have ideas for games, books, movies, etc. No one has time to listen to everyone’s ideas. Creative industries employ creative people, and those people already have lots of ideas of their own. Executives and investors with limited time would rather spend that time hearing pitches from people who have proven they can implement those ideas rather than from someone who hasn’t.

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