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.