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Pitch Stalling & The Risks of Publisher Feedback

Throughout 2023, the ecosystem for games has contracted significantly. That has made the practice of something I'm calling "Pitch Stalling" far more common, and as a massive risk to your game project, So what is Pitch Stalling, what dynamics create it, and how do you avoid it?

Rami Ismail
Rami Ismail
7 min read
Pitch Stalling & The Risks of Publisher Feedback
Photo by Aron Visuals / Unsplash

Pitching and getting funding has always been a slow process, but in economical downturns it slows down even further. Publishers have less funding, platform funds have dried up, and grants have reduced their spending. Game productions spend a lot more time in the pitching phase.

As publishers can take fewer bets, they're more picky about the ones they take. This often means slowing down the process to have more overview of potential opportunities. As the entire publishing and investment field has slowed down, that does not put them at a relative disadvantage compared to one another at this point - slowing things down only means they see more games before closing deals.

Developers react accordingly, meaning that developers are more likely to chase down opportunities that are looking pretty good but are not necessarily very likely to close. Most studios pitching a quality game at the best of times get three to ten interested publishers for their game out of several hundred potential partners, a few dozen rejections, and the rest will give no response at all. At the time of writing, it takes two or three rounds of pitching spread over several months before studios will connect with the eventual publisher of their game, and often that publisher is the only option left at that point.

That means the economical downturn creates an even more distorted playing field than is currently common: publishers have more power, and developers have more urgent needs as they burn money in their (extended) pre-funding stage. Publishers have taken to not considering games without advanced vertical slices, and some no longer accept games that do not have good wishlist numbers (and let me re-iterate reminder to not publish your Steam page before your first round of pitching unless you're deeply confident that you can easily make those numbers work for you to a magnitude of thousands or tens of thousands).

The Danger of Pitch Stalling

With that comes the risk of Pitch Stalling. To further evaluate a title, publishers will often ask for additional developed context: an extra level, a more advanced core loop, more completed content. The publisher will give an indication of what kind fo work would increase the chances of signing the project, and developers will find a way to prioritize the development of that content: after all, "any bite is better than no bite", and "if all the publisher needs is a bit more content, we'll figure out how to make it".

Here's the problem, though: publishers aren't trying to make a good game, nor run a games studio. What they're trying to do is get a clearer view of the risks involved in funding you. That means that frequently, what they're asking for is not actually beneficial to the development of the game - it is beneficial to their ability to evaluate their risk. Developers prioritizing the development of such publisher-requested content means that development of the game lags even further behind as valuable resources are wasted on one-off or otherwise unusable content, which means the pre-production phase is extended even further, which means the likelihood of project success decreases even further.

Additionally, Pitch Stalling can last for months, or in extreme cases even years. That is deeply demotivating to the development team, which has to navigate shifting targets and milestones, without seeing any actual momentum on the title. Designers are ideating content that'll never be shipped, programmers are made to prioritize things that would otherwise be low-priority, artists spend hours making things without properly defined direction, and musicians draft entire tracks for trailers that are probably to be discarded after the pitch.

Over the past years of working with hundreds of developers on their pitches, I've seen only a single publisher that actually did change their mind based on developer adjustments that they requested. So, I feel rather comfortable advising that if the original response isn't a "yes", prioritizing some arbitrary publisher request will not turn your proposal into a "yes".

The Risks of Publisher Feedback

The other uneven dynamic is in understanding of the pitch process. Publishers issue hundreds or even thousands of rejections a year, but developers only get a single rejection per publisher per project - and most developers do not pitch to enough publishers. That means that many developers are deeply unfamiliar with what the normal process of communicating with a publisher looks like.

Here's the ground rule: if a publisher hasn't signed the paperwork to publish your game, you have a "no". Kindness does not mean "yes". Interest does not mean "yes". Excitement does not mean "yes". A quick reply does not mean "yes". Negotiating terms does not mean "yes". A trustworthy face does not mean "yes". The only thing that means "yes" is their signature next to yours on the paperwork. Until that time, you have a "no", or at best a "maybe".

Many publishers' developer relations teams are specifically good at saying "no" kindly. They want to ensure that, even if they're not interested in your current game, your good experience with them means you'll come back to pitch the next game - the one that might be of interest to the publisher. Thus publisher representatives will generally let you know that they're excited about the game, but the issue is them, not you - they'll pin the rejection on the market, their budget, some fiscal necessity, a portfolio issue, a lack of slots, or a genre fit issue.

When you hear these reasons, know that the representative is simply finding a reasonable kind excuse to reject you softly: I worked with two developers that pitched to the same publisher weeks apart, and while the first was told the publisher had no more slots nor budget & simply wouldn't have any for the remainder of the year, they signed the one they were introduced to two weeks later within a month and a half. That means that in general, you can ignore this feedback without collating it.

Some publishers are more gracious, and will give you genuine feedback on your game as part of a rejection. Publisher feedback on your game's business plan (timeline, comparative analysis, or budget) is to be considered with appropriate care: publishers are in the business of, well, game business. Remember to filter their feedback through their context: a publisher that generally publishers in the US$100K will give you feedback that US$150K is too high, but that doesn't mean the budget is not correct - it just means it is too much for them. It is absolutely worth collating this information, and evaluating it after a round of pitching.

What should not be taken as seriously is publisher design or product feedback. I stress this specific situation because I've talked to too many teams stuck in a Pitch Stall trying to implement design feedback from a publisher that was clearly meant as a kinder rejection, rather than a we're interested if only you do this.

While it's often very well-intended, the folks giving feedback are scouts or developer relations folks are rarely game designers - and they're trying to find a kind design reason that your game isn't a fit for them. Treat their feedback like audience feedback: if they identify problems, that is worth noting and -if you deem it relevant- investigating, and if you deem it actionable, fixing it. If they offer solutions, unless you agree with those solutions, ignore their solutions and see what problem they're trying to point at. In the end, you're responsible for the creative vision of the game.

Stick To The Timeline

My recommendation to every team I consult in these situations is to stand your ground in publisher conversations. If a publisher ask fits your current project timeline very well, and it basically wouldn't take away resources from development, there is no reason to object to it: simply let them know when they can expect the adjustments, continue with development normally, and reach back out when you've completed their ask.

If a publisher ask requires a significant diversion, or worse, the creation of one-off content, I generally propose asking the publisher what question they're trying to answer with that content, and seeing if anything on your existing timeline would also suffice to answer their question. If nothing on your timeline suffices to tackle their issues, thank the publisher for their interest, let them know you might get back in touch further down the line of development, and move on.

In general, a "no" for any specific state of your game will never turn into a "yes" unless significant development is made on the game, or notable outside influences affect the situation (ie. a viral post, an prestigious award, you getting significant funding from a non-publishing party). The type of adjustments you can "rapidly prioritize" are usually not the ones that'll help your game get funded: several months of focused development might increase your chances.

This is why Pitch Stalling is extra insidious: in trying to chase a glimmer of opportunity, developers are led astray by rapidly chasing ever-changing & sometimes conflicting feedback from a range of different publishers with different goals. And chasing those false opportunities then end up distracting from the one thing that could actually benefit their project: continuing to build the game under their own creative direction and production priorities.

Keep in mind that at some point, you have to accept the "no": more time will not always fix things. Stay realistic with your iterations, keep them relatively short & evaluate per cycle what will happen if the next one fails. As always, please keep your prototypes quick and dirty, and use mock-ups, target renders, and drafts extensively. That way, you'll have spent as little money and time as possible working on a project that nobody was going to fund.

And if there's someone that might fund it, if you do some extra work, no they won't. Keep working on the game the way the game needs you to. You're the game's developer, and the publisher, well, they're not.

Actionables

  • If possible, learn to develop your games in a way where you can pitch early. I cannot emphasize this enough: if you need funding, learning early on whether there are "maybe's" in response to your title instead of just "no's" is a skill you'll need to learn.
  • Be skeptical of publisher requests and feedback. Publishers are neither friend nor enemy, they're business with their own interests, and those interests only start to align with yours in case of a deal. Consider specifically the usefulness of publisher (design) feedback, and be extra-critical of the impact of chasing publisher requests on your timeline and team morale.
  • Pitch to everyone. Use Alan Dang's list of publishers and do not filter publishers besides for platform - if they publish on a target platform, pitch to them. Ignore any assumptions you may have about the publisher that are not explicitly stated on their submission form or website. If you want to pitch a game about breeding cute farm animals to a publisher that only does gory retro adventure games, go for it and pitch. Who knows, maybe they want to expand their portfolio.
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Rami Ismail Twitter

Gamedev. Exec.Director of gamedev.world & creator of presskit(). Speaker, consultant, helps devs globally. 33% of the The Habibis podcast. Traveler. Was 50% of Vlambeer. He/Him. Muslim. Dutch/Egyptian

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