Should you ask for creative work as part of a pitch?

At the risk of breaking Betteridge’s law, the answer to the question in the title isn’t quite “no”, but it isn’t far off…

Trevor Klein shared this tweet with me recently, and, basically, HELL YES:

I got a bit excited:

I’d like to expand on this a bit, and reboost the signal outside of the advertising world, because I think this is a really very important point. I’ve seen this get ignored too often within both broadcast and cultural sector work, in particular. I’ll also provide an example of what you can do instead that I hope may be useful.

BUT… I wanna see the ideas  

So, the idea that we should ask for a creative pitch for creative projects seems logical at first. It is also extremely prevalent; so ingrained in fact that even when I’ve asked specifically for NO creative as part of a pitch, companies often can’t help themselves.

BUT there are several reasons why this is usually a bad idea, and one I heavily discourage when advising clients on briefs and tenders. This is some hard-won personal experience here, folks.

Let’s start with some of the points mentioned by @tomroach in their tweet.

Insufficient time, understanding, access, client input

The first part of a creative project should be a discovery process between the client and the agency. This is often several days long and involves joint meetings, brainstorms, audience research gathering, idea testing, collaboration etc etc.  This is what it takes to come up with an idea/product that might actually be a good starting point (and still just a starting point). Why would you expect agencies to come up with something worthwhile without going through that whole, involved, collaborative process?

As Tom says above, they are therefore not a means of coming up with correct creative solutions.

Creative solutions often immediately appealing, rarely correct

Creative pitches are, however, quite seductive. This is dangerous on two fronts:

a) the client (and agency) gets attached to the idea presented at the pitch and then fails to allow a properly executed discovery process to deliver something much better. It is especially important to factor in user research at this stage and genuinely tailor the product to people’s needs and behaviours. For this to happen you need to be fully open to all potential solutions at the start (within your means, of course). I’ve seen the opposite happen several times, though, where the creative idea at pitch dictates the direction of the discovery process, and the end product doesn’t really meet user needs as a result.

b) the idea blinds the client to shortcomings in the rest of pitch. They are so excited by the idea that they fail to fully question the track record of the agency, their processes, or the proposed budget. All of which are actually far more important. Which brings me to…

Creative credentials should be evident from track record

Just because someone has a good idea, doesn’t mean they can deliver it. The only way you can be sure that they can is to look at their track record (as well as, I would add, their project management processes, proposed approach and budget). Even a new company should be able to provide you with the individual track records of those involved.

If they have none, be aware, you are taking a major risk and you should spend considerable time discussing their proposed processes (especially project management, user testing), technical knowledge and risk mitigation to attempt to offset this. If you don’t have sufficient relevant experience and resources in-house to effectively mentor an agency in this type of situation, go with an agency who is very experienced instead.

And to add a further point:

It isn’t ethical to ask companies to do lots of work on spec

Especially small agencies. You are asking them to do thousands of pounds of (pointless) work for you for free, and in a competitive climate, companies will, but that doesn’t make it OK. Agencies go bust because of this, seriously, and that benefits none of us.

Any exceptions?

Maybe you’re doing something that you feel is quite new, or you’re asking agencies to break out of their comfort zone a bit and show what else they can do. If so, consider taking more time to brainstorm ideas in a workshop together, which will also give you time to see how compatible you are. But still don’t get attached to these initial ideas, see above. Be prepared to entirely throw them out when you start the proper process.

You could also pay a company who seems promising and creative to go through a more involved discovery process. I’ve actually seen this done with several companies at once, which I think worked well. It’s also, I think, completely fine to separate discovery and delivery if you want to manage risk – committing only to a week or two’s work initially – and potentially use a different company for delivery.

And (evergreen statement), if you haven’t got budget for any of this, consider whether you are really able to deliver anything worthwhile on this scale, and maybe adjust expectations accordingly. Squeezed budgets rarely result in useful or usable solutions.

What should I do instead?

Writing a good brief is a subject for another day, to be honest. But, here is a (redacted/edited) outline from a recent brief I wrote that may be useful. After outlining our objectives, requirements and parameters, we asked for proposals to include the following:

  • Scope of the proposal (including risks + dependencies). Responses should not focus on creative responses, but should instead outline an approach to delivering the specified outcomes.  This should address [specific issues related to this product].
  • Suggested timelines and a draft budget. [Or you could just say the budget that you are working to and ask for their day rates]
  • Examples of previous relevant work. Ideally this should demonstrate experience working with [list of features of this project that we would like to the chosen vendor to have experience in].
  • Brief CVs/outlines of relevant experience for the team members who would be working on this.
  • Any changes or variance from the requirements laid out in the brief

Any other thoughts? Counter examples? Feel free to share them in the comments.

How to make games on a low budget

So you’re convinced, as I am, that games are a great way of reaching new audiences and engaging them meaningfully with your message or content. But you have little or no money, what to do? It’s all very well when you have upwards of £40k to spend (and ideally even more), but what about when you don’t? Are you excluded from creating or commissioning games?

Well no, I don’t think you are. But you’re going to have to do things a bit differently. You may have to give up a certain amount of control, and be relaxed about where games end up. But you probably should be anyway, the point is to get your message out there, right?

What not to do

I’ve recently heard about two separate organisations that were looking for proposals for educational games for between ÂŁ500 and ÂŁ2500, which made me gasp, I must admit. Taking this approach to doing games on a budget – just not paying much for them – is a very bad idea, for a number of reasons. I speak from experience, believe me.

Low budget projects are ALWAYS the projects that cause the most problems and take the longest. Your game will naturally take a back seat with the agency or developer when higher paying jobs come their way, and fair enough. As the commissioner, you won’t have much clout or sway over how the project develops, and aren’t likely to have much opportunity to change it as changes=time=money. Unless the agency/developer is bad at handling that equation, in which case they are likely to go bust trying to complete your game.

It’s the old cost/time/quality triangle. If the cost goes down, either the amount time goes up or quality goes down. Or, more likely, both. And since time=money, as established, the true cost actually becomes much higher for everyone involved. No-one wins and it’s bad for everyone’s business.

Instead, maybe try one of these options.

Find more money: other funding sources

There are a number of sources of funding for games out there. My old employer, the Wellcome Trust, is keen to encourage more games on biomedical subjects and offers a number of potential grants (this development grant, for example). Other public engagement funds are also likely to cover games projects, even if they don’t explicitly state that. Look at what people like Nesta or the Arts Council are currently offering in the way of funding. IdeasTap appears to have quite a lot of funding bodies listed on its website too.

I’ll add in more examples here as I come across them, but please do suggest any you know of.

A tip. Always always always, with any grant application, get in touch with people at the funding body to find out more and get advice on whether your project is suitable, or find out what you might need to do to make it suitable. Public engagement funding in particular is likely to need some sort of decent evaluation of impact built in, so don’t just say you’ll count the number of hits, give it some thought.

Find more money: partnerships and co-investment

You might not have the money, but presumably you do have something great to offer – content, domain expertise, a well respected brand etc. All of these might well be appealing to someone who does have money. A games agency might be interested in developing something in return for profit share. A company might see a good fit with their aims and want to sponsor your project. Another similar organisation (arts, cultural, educational?) might be interested in a partnership, or perhaps a group of you could club together and pool budgets. A broadcaster such as the BBC or other online platform might be interested too.

Partnerships of this sort can be tricky, true. All parties need to be very clear about their roles, where IP rests, where the final sign-off lies and so on before getting too far along with it. Get an agreement in place as soon as you can, and you may have to be prepared to relinquish some control. Regular communication is obviously really important too.

There are potential benefits beyond just the extra budget though. Your partner might also have additional expertise or resources, for example in marketing, that could be very handy. They might have their own large audience which you would then have access to. Choosing partners for what else they can offer is therefore wise as well.

Use existing game creation tools

You don’t necessarily have to start from scratch when creating a game, there are a number of tools out there that can simplify the process. Perhaps you or someone in your organisation could even have a go at making one yourselves.

I haven’t tried many of these tools, so can’t vouch for them. I know GameStar Mechanic has been successfully used to get kids building games, as has interactive fiction creator Quest (which I am a big fan of), which should be a good indicator of their ease of us. GameMaker: Studio by YoYo games is another possibility.

Googling for game creation tools throws up loads more options, Sploder, The Game Creators, Game Gonzo and more. Anyone used any of these and had a good/bad experience?

Run games jams or competitions

Games jams involve inviting lots games designers or games development team to spend usually 24 or 48 hours rapidly building a game on a particular theme. They’ve become more and more popular recently. Done well, this could be a good way of getting lots of games about your subject matter of interest out there. Done badly, though, they can feel exploitative and yucky.

It’s probably wise to work with someone who has run successful games jams in the past, and understand what it takes to make them work. Or work with a regular games jam event. You need to make sure people have a reason to be there, that their time is valued and that they are in some way compensated for it. Oh, and that they keep hold of the IP. The ones that Wellcome ran simply paid developers for their time, and then ran it as a competition so that the winners got money to develop their game further.

Update: This “Hack Day Manifesto” provides some useful advice for running events such as these (via @oonaghtweets and @dannybirchall on twitter)

Game design students

There are many game design courses out there. I haven’t actually tried this myself, but another option might be to work with a university or other teaching organisation that has a games design course to provide a brief for students.

Are you involved with a game design course that would be up for doing something like this? Let me know in the comments!

Try something different

Does it have to be a slick online game? Could you create a paper or card game and then make it available online? Add new rules to an existing game a la the brilliant Boardgame Remix Kit? Maybe if you want to get it into schools, you should just do something simpler like provide pictures and lesson plan suggestions and upload it to TES. Or do the same with instructions for a live or pervasive game that students could play?

And finally

Thanks to Sharna Jackson, Phil Stuart and Kim Plowright for their suggestions, which I’ve incorporated into this post. If you have any more thoughts, funding sources etc, please do add these in the comments and I will update the post.


Updating to add some very useful additional thoughts from others following a discussion on the LinkedIn Games Based Learning Group.

Dustin Chertoff: The more the commissioner has completed up front, in terms of both art assets and game design, the cheaper it will be to actually develop the game. But that also means the commissioner is likely to be more resistant to the inevitable change requests from the developer saying “such and such feature doesn’t work or is too complicated.” A co-design between the commissioner and the developer is very useful in this regard, unless the commissioner already has a strong game development background (which is usually not the case).

As far as keeping project costs down, engines such as Unity3D are a huge development boon. Devs can start working on game system development much faster and there is a huge library of tools and assets available that further cut down development time.

Even so, from my experience it still takes a team of 3 (2 devs, 1 artist) working full time around 20k USD about 1.5-2 months to design, develop, test, and polish a relatively simple game. It does become faster and cheaper to add more content once you get the core game systems developed and tested though. But the low-cost commissions I’ve seen never have money beyond that first version.

Mathew Georghiou: Budget is always an issue and most people do not understand the complexity and effort required to develop a game as compared to other types of applications. There has been some industry research done that suggests the average mobile app costs $20,000-$40,000 to develop, and that seems to mirror my experience and that of Dustin’s comment above.

Some very basic apps can be done for less, but there will always be some significant compromises required as you have identified in your article.

The best advice is to always consult with someone with experience before designing your specifications or budget, and certainly before issuing an RFP, so that you can make sure to develop a plan that is feasible.

Peter Stidwill:  Although not a tip, this visual document from the Games for Impact academic consortium here in the States has some ballpark figures for professional game development. This is helpful to point to when trying to set expectations about what can be achieved. – see ‘Production cost estimate’