Designing “pitch-first”

I am a member of the Game Artisans of Canada, a guild of Canadian game designers, publishers, and artists. My first meeting with other Artisans, one of them said “These days, I don’t work on something I couldn’t pitch.” That, to me, was a sellout attitude: only in it for the money! What about the art? But I was wrong: “something I could pitch” means “a game which can grab people’s attention”, and those could be publishers, but also playtesters, potential customers, other designers. And these days, I also make sure an idea can grab people’s attention before I start working on it.

But I didn’t always: Art Traders, my first solo design, was designed mechanism-first -I wanted to make a mid-weight Euro with the Yatzhee scoring, which I thought was a great, unused tool in modern games-, and so the first pitch went like this:

“Art Traders is a 60-min long Euro about running an art gallery. You alternate between two phases: acquisitions, which is one-way worker placement, where you always have to place further than the last worker you placed; and Exhibition, where you choose one of four criteria by which to evaluate your collection, but you have to choose each criteria once and only once.”

As a mechanism guy, that is very interesting to me, but it has a very niche appeal: it’s very mechanical, and it reads like a “this is A and B mashed together”. A pitch is not to meant explain the game, but to grab people’s attention, whether a potential publisher, a playtester, a customer.

Now, compare this to the pitch I had for SuPR at ProtoTO a few months ago:

“SuPR is a coop game where you play as a PR firm who just signed a superhero for a client. You’ll have to balance the crime fighting and the TV appearances, and fill up the Love-o-meter before the baddies manage to destroy the city. You’d think saving lives would be enough, right? And of course, you want the best for the city, but… the worse the situation gets, the better it looks when you swoop in and save the day. But if you let stuff get too bad…”

The game is still early in its development, but my pitch is already ready, and honestly, probably my best one in my opinion. It contains multiple hooks: ways to grab people’s attention. There is:

  • The theme: Superhero, but we’re just the PR firm. I usually get a chuckle, and people do a double take;
  • Balance crime-fighting and TV appearances: mechanically, it’s the exact same as curing cubes and amassing cards in Pandemic, but the words sound new. By now very few people are uninterested.
  • Catchphrase: “You’d think saving lives would be enough” will probably be the game’s subtitle. It suggests exactly what I want the game to be about: just saving the world would be easy, and just getting liked would be easy. It’s trying to do both that makes it hard. Again, new words to express a pretty standard feeling in coops.
  • “The worse the situation gets…”: That part is where the game becomes different. In standard coop, you usually avoid “on the brink” situations as much as possible: in this one, you actually manipulate them into being. This is what makes this game different.

I’m not saying I’m a master pitcher: holy molly am I not. But I think the main difference is nowadays, the pitch is the first thing I think about. I use the #IsThisSomething to share on Twitter ideas I have for games, and if I can’t write what’s interesting in 280 characters, it’s not refined enough. If I get no traction, it’s not interesting enough. Sometimes I go back and work on it, sometimes I just forget about the idea: I have enough game ideas to forget about most of them and still not have enough time to work on the ones that are left.

Writing that pitch also gives me something to design towards, a vision statement of sorts. SuPR was first a roll-and-write game, but when I realized “coop roll and write” was interesting, but not pitch-worthy, I threw it out. When we ran into trouble with earlier versions of Cybertopia, it was much easier to see what we should focus on. With Art Traders, changing from the Puerto Rico lead-and-follow to the one-way track felt like a much bigger change, because it changed The Pitch.

To be completely transparent, I make it look like I do this purposely and in an organized fashion. In reality, it’s more that I let a game marinate for a bit before I work on it. I post about it on Twitter, I talk about it with friends, and through that, I find the kernel that is interesting to me, and that others respond to. Then, eventually, I put it all down on paper.

How early, and how much, do you consider your pitch in your design process?

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