Selling Ideas to the Game Industry
by Kenn Hoekstra, Producer/Project Manager
Kenn Hoekstra has a bachelor of science degree in English from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. He has designed 3D game levels for Raven Software’s Take No Prisoners, Hexen II: Portal of Praevus, HexenWorld, and Soldier of Fortune: Gold Edition. He also served as project administrator for Heretic II, Soldier of Fortune, Star Trek: Voyager-Elite Force, the Elite Force Expansion Pack, Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast, Soldier of Fortune II: Double Helix, Jedi Academy, X-Men Legends and Quake IV. Kenn has written several game manuals, the official Soldier of Fortune Strategy Guide, the screenplay for Soldier of Fortune II: Double Helix, and has published several articles on the games industry. He is currently working on Mercenaries 2 for the PS2. Kenn lives in Houston, Texas and is working as an executive producer for Pi Studios, LLC.
To be brutally honest, it’s very difficult for someone outside the games industry to get their ideas past a company’s front door. For that matter, it’s not all that easy to get a game company to look at your ideas if you work for them. There are a number of reasons for this.
First of all, there are legal reasons that revolve around the legal possession of an idea. Let’s say a company had a similar idea a year ago and they’ve spent a million dollars or more developing that idea up until this point. The company says, “Sure, I’d love to hear your new, innovative game idea” and it turns out the idea is the same as the one the company has been working on. When the game comes out, you have a “he said/she said” lawsuit on your hands over whose idea the game was in the first place. That is a hassle that no company wants. To combat this situation, most companies delete ideas and suggestions unread or send them back “return to sender” through postal mail.
Another reason game ideas are hard to sell is that most people outside the industry don’t understand the fundamentals of game development. They don’t understand technology limitations, development times, financial concerns, scheduling, or any of the multitudes of other headaches involved in developing a new product. Their idea proposals say things like, “You would recreate New York City to scale and have four million unique-looking and -sounding individuals that you can interact with, and you can have 500,000 of them on the screen at the same time when you join them in Times Square for the New Year’s Eve ball drop. That’s when the aliens attack and severely damage the city, so all of the buildings have to be half destroyed as the city is plunged into chaos and eternal night. Then you and your band of 10,000 resistance fighters lead the charge with 500 unique weapons and squad-based tactics, and the game would toggle between first person, third person, top down, and map views and on and on and on and on and on. You see what I mean? A vast majority of game idea submissions suffer from this problem. I call it “newbie ambition.” Game development is mostly about figuring out “what cool stuff you can do in a limited time period with limited cash.”
Yet another reason for not accepting game ideas is a question of “who takes the risk?” The game company is spending 5 to 10 million dollars (or more) on the development cycle for the game and, in turn, they are taking all of the risk. Why, then, should they pay someone from outside the company for their game idea when they aren’t taking any of the risk? Generally speaking, every game company has more ideas of their own on the back burner than they will ever have time to produce, and thus, there’s no reason to accept outside ideas.
Think of it this way. Everyone at one time or another has tried to write a novel or has had a great idea for a novel. How many book publishers will take an idea for a novel if they have to pay someone else to do the writing? None. Therefore, the people with the ideas have to write their own books. How many of them start writing? How many of them actually finish the novel? When they’re finished, how many get published at all? And of those that are published, how many are published without changes made by the publisher? See what I mean?
Think of game companies as established entities in the entertainment business. Generally speaking, game companies think they know everything there is to know about gaming because they’ve paid their dues and worked their way to the top. Just as you won’t sell a Star Wars sequel to George Lucas or a Spec Ops book to Tom Clancy, odds are you won’t sell your big game idea to a game developer. Sadly, it’s just the nature of the business.
The only possible exception to the “outside game ideas” rule is if you are a world-famous person in the entertainment industry. If Stephen King, for example, came to a game company with an idea for a horror game, who wouldn’t listen? The potential to have a famous name on the box can sometimes outweigh the “we have our own ideas” rule.
Now, if you do want to get your idea made into a game, there are a few things you can do:
- Inquire with the company first. Ask them if they want to hear your idea and offer to sign an NDA (nondisclosure agreement). If you’re not interested in money or lawsuits, tell them in writing they can have your idea no strings attached if they want to use it. Don’t just send the idea in unsolicited. It will be deleted unread, ignored, or mailed back to you.
- Get a job at a game company. If you’re on the inside, your chances of getting your ideas noticed or accepted are much greater because most of the legalities disappear.
- Get a team together and make the game yourself. If not the whole game, make a solid, working demo. This will show publishers that you’re serious and it will give them something concrete to look at. Game development is a very visual business, and it’s a lot easier to judge a game idea from a demo than from a piece of paper or a wordy verbal description.
It’s a great misnomer that game companies (or any companies for that matter) employ idea people or think tanks to push the company in bold new directions. Hard work and contribution to a greater goal or the greater good of a company is the only way to get anything done in the business world. That goes for your own company or any company you’re working for. Unless, of course, your family owns the company. Then all bets are off on the hard work and contribution part.