Midway's Jacobson on successful games

Continuing their GDC Europe coverage, Gamasutra posted a transcript of a lecture by Lee Jacobson, vice president of business development and acquisitions at Midway Games, on what independent games developers should do to get a publishing deal. Fairly predictable overall, but I found it interesting that Midway apparently doesn’t even look at proposals anymore unless they already include a playable demo…

As Jacobson pointed out, focus testing is being used more than ever before at all stages of a game’s development, with publishers looking for either a large potential market or one where the number of competitors is low. He also emphasised that a level of cultural relevance was absolutely necessary in today’s market, a comment which drew the first grumblings of disapproval from the audience. Jacobson acknowledged this, and although he made no apology for his comments, his remarks about it being enough to simply come up with a cool idea in the “old days” seemed to imply that he was no happier with the current situation than many of the attendant developers.

According to Jacobson, then it was vitally important that developers gave publishers very specific reasons to publish their game. Again, these were broken down into simple bullet points, including a high concept summary of the project (nobody reads design documents, according to Jacobson); a list of key selling points; team bios and company info; staff schedules and budgets; a carefully crafted DVD or AVI akin to a movie teaser trailer; and, ideally, some form of playable demo.

This last suggestion again caused some consternation from the audience, but Jacobson was adamant that despite the difficultly in creating it, the beneficial effect it could have on getting a game signed was significant. The demo didn’t need to be big, but a small “vertical slice” of gameplay was, Jacobson felt, vitally important now for a smaller developer, or one without a significant pedigree, to get their product signed.

At this point Jacobson launched into a lengthy Q&A session against an audience that was clearly hostile to much of what he had said, albeit appreciative of his candor, and saddled with the increasing realization that he was probably right. Among all the concerns about focus groups and pandering to casual gamers, the most vital question asked, in a rather strained voice, was whether publishers “had no ambition to create innovative, creative games?” Jacobson immediately replied, “Yeah, that make money.”

The problem is that a “vertical slice” doesn’t make sense in games. The amount of work involved in getting to that point is prohibitive for a demo, and simply results in a lot of dog-and-pony shows getting pitched. :roll:

I think what he means by a “vertical slice” is just some sort of playable thing that demonstrates the core gameplay idea. I think that’s a realistic expectation from a competent team.

I interpreted “vertical slice” as one fully playable level/map/whatever, or perhaps a decently sized part of it. Overall my impression of the lecture was that Midway only picks up games that are essentially complete, except for extra/better art assets and more levels.

So, they want to pick up finished games, without footing any of the development bill? That’s cool with me. Are they in turn going to offer developers a reasonable percentage of the profits, and be forthright in their dealings with developers? That would be a refreshing change.

I expect they’ll still maneuver to claim the same greedy percentages as before, only now without the burden of investment up front.

A verticle slice is a cut through of all your key pipelines, art, design, programming, etc. that shows how your game plays at that specific point in development. It doesn’t have to include everything, but should give an overall idea of what to expect from the game. Whether or not you have to produce one before or after signing a deal with a publisher pretty much depends on how good a reputation you have as a developer.

Yes, a demo even if its not playable, is extreemly critical. Basically you need to prove you can actually make the game, not that you just have a great idea. Are your coders good? Are your artists good? Is the design good? Can you actually put it all together? All these questions are answered by having a demo. Even companies who have published some games in the past still need a demo to sell new ideas.

What exactly does he mean by “cultural relevance” in the context of gaming? That every game needs to sound like MTV and look like The Gap (or whatever the kids are wearing these days)? Have lots of cussing and bling like a Grand Theft Auto? Star Wars, Lord of The Rings and the various Marvel superhero movies are huge so does that make sci-fi, comic themes and fantasy culturally relevant? If so, didn’t gaming, including older PnP roleplaying games, help to shape current pop culture for better or worse? I don’t think I’m quite following what this fellow’s on about.

I think he means that you should not make a game about something no one is intrested in. For example, you might find the life of a mideval dirt farmer facinating, but most people will not. So even if you create the most awsome dirt farmer sim ever to be made with production values that would make blizzard jellous, it still will tank.

Yeah, that’s a lot to expect of developers, though I can see a publisher’s viewpoint too. I guess it depends on whether it’s a buyer’s or seller’s market when it comes to publishers signing up games.

It looks like the era of unknown startups making it big in the gaming biz are about over.

Like I said, it’s actually a large amount of effort to get to such a point (at a level of polish that, let’s face it, publishers expect from a dog-and-pony show), and tends to be wasted effort in the larger context of the project because of all the unsightly hackery that inevitably goes in “just for the demo.”

The vertical slice is a terrible idea, and really wastes more time than it saves (unless the project is canned, in which case I would argue that the same conclusion could be drawn from more sanely-defined milestones).

Developers should self-fund. The whole concept of actually getting money from a publisher to develop a project has become unworkable.

From what I’ve heard developers who self fund don’t necessarily get better publishing deals, with developers then taking all the risk while publishers keep most profit. So what’s the advantage of self funding?

Or perhaps you mean self publish?

I don’t think the publisher views the vertical slice as “saving time” in the first place. It’s not supposed to be a logical milestone along the development path; it’s supposed to be proof that an untried developer can actually do all the stuff they claim they can do. If you can think of a cheaper/saner way to convince a publisher that you know what you are doing, great.

As much as this rubs some people on this board the wrong way this is why I’m glad STEAM exists. This isn’t to say that its the perfect example of online distrabution(its not), but I’m glad its out there and that Valve is trying to evolve it and make the system better. I hope Valve can be successful with it and Ritual can make a go with the new Sin series.

While its nice that this Midway guy was pretty honest I think the last line in the last quote pretty much says it all.

If steam can become a new way to publish games, that would change everything. I think the only purpose publishers would have would to be handle advertising and the occasional funding, although even that would go away.

Right now the big problem is, even if you have an awsome game you totally developed yourself, you have very little chance of getting EB to put the product on thier shelves. Of course if EB gives way to EBOnline, shelf-space will not be an issue anymore, which leaves advertising as the only big issue for the indie developer.