It’s quarantine o’clock and I’m responding to comments that I got on a post I wrote a few weeks ago: What confuses you about board game development? This time, I’m going to talk about pitching to board game publishers. Yes, those mysterious entities with make-or-break power over your creative dreams. Let’s talk about what they want and why they’re so weird.
First, I’ll level with you. There are a ton of perfectly good articles online about how to approach board game publishers. Here are a few examples:
- How to Pitch Your Board Game to a Publisher
- How to Pitch (and Not Pitch) Your Game to Stonemaier Games
- Board game designers are bad at pitching games to publishers. I can help.
This is really just scratching the surface, too. There are plenty more articles that aren’t at the top of Google. I encourage you to read them.
In this article, I’m not going to write about how to specifically word a pitch. I’m not going to tell you the name of the right publisher to contact.
What I will instead do is talk about the mindset you need before you pitch a board game to a publisher. You could even apply this advice to any kind of product by any kind of company.
I choose to focus on this angle because I feel this is what is really missing when people talk about pitching to board game publishers. You need to give them a reason to run with your ideas.
You can sweat over every single word of your pitch, what you wear, and the attachments on your email. Or, alternatively, you can focus on building an empathetic understanding of what companies need to succeed and how you can help them.
1. Board game publishers have to meet consumer demand.
The only reliable way to build a business is to routinely meet market demand. You have to make products that fit markets that already exist. Board game publishers, who were already working with super tight margins before the coronavirus pandemic, have to follow this rule with even more vigor than most.
That means if people want worker placement games, most publishers will try to make worker placement games. If people like sci-fi or fantasy, most publishers will try to make sci-fi games, fantasy games, or both. Publishers are not gods but rather they are captains of ships upon the waves of consumer demand, which is a much mightier force.
The law of product-market fit is ironclad. Companies that ignore it go out of business. Just ask Kodak and Blockbuster. That means if your game does not satisfy a need in the market, then it doesn’t matter how well it’s designed – it won’t make money.
Publishers have a moral duty to differentiate marketable ideas from unmarketable ideas. This is how they stay in business and keep their employees paid. People’s lives literally depend upon the ability to discriminate between board games that meet consumer demand and board games that don’t.
Thus, a publisher’s condemnation of your idea, if it comes to that, is not a condemnation of you as a person. It is merely the result of a hardnosed but necessary business move governed by the inexorable laws of what people want, which often differs from what is obvious.
2. Understand consumer behavior to understand board game publishers.
If pitching to board game publishers requires understanding that they have to meet consumer behavior, then there is a logical next question. “What does consumer behavior look like in board games?” I write about this in length in People are Weird, Markets are Weirder…Especially with Board Games.
I definitely encourage you to read the whole post I’ve linked because it’s a more nuanced take than I have space for here. Nevertheless, the basic idea is that there are tons of choices, people tend to make “safe choices.” They pick themes they already like with mechanics they already like at price points at which they’ve previously purchased.
For this reason, publishers tend to bias their decision-making based on revenue shown by similar games from the past. Material costs are also a huge factor, which is part of why some components (such as meeples) are more common than others (such as minis).
Now sometimes it is okay to take a risk on a new idea. Publishers will every once in a while do something wildly innovative. Yet when they do so, because it’s so risky, they hedge their bets by making “safer games” to offset potential risks from higher-risk games.
I’m not giving publishers grief, and I hope you don’t either. Again, they’re responding to how board gamers behave so they can keep their businesses running and employees paid. This must be understood when you’re pitching to them. Try to think how publishers think!
3. When pitching to board game publishers, consider their needs and how you can meet them.
The previous two points have addressed broad needs held by every board game publisher. However, publishers are all different. They have unique audiences, products, portfolios, and interests.
Before you pitch to any publisher, look at what they’ve released and what they are planning to release. You want your board game to fit in with their overall product portfolio! After all, a hardcore wargaming company like GMT Games isn’t going to make the next Twister. Nor should they be expected to!
After you do that, research each publisher’s style too. Every publisher has different branding, a different social media presence, and a unique “voice.” Study them and figure out what makes each publishing company tick. Find some of the people involved and get to know them personally without being salesy. By doing this, you can both network and figure out what the companies are actually looking for.
Pitching to board game publishers may seem mysterious, but it’s not. They are reacting to what board gamers want, which is exactly what they ought to do. Try to understand how their companies work and how you can help.
With a more nuanced viewpoint, everything else will be easier. Once you understand publisher’s needs, submitting your pitch will come much more naturally. Instead of being a desperate designer trying to shortcut a two-year backlog, you could be a trusted partner who thinks in terms of mutual benefit.