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Wednesday, September 28, 2022
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Pitching tips from Rami Ismail: “Only list Unique Selling Points that have meaning”

This article is part of the game-dev advice newsletter Levelling the Playing Field by Rami Ismail. If you want to know more about the art, craft and science of game development, you can subscribe here.

I end up teaching one simple pitching trick often enough in consultancies that I’d thought I’d write about it. The trick is to ask yourself “would anyone ever claim the opposite”?

While there are very few things that are absolutely necessary to a pitch, there are a lot of little tricks and preparations (like these ones) that can help you convey the value your project to potential funders. Today I want to focus on one specific thing I always look for in a clients’ pitch or sales page before sending them off to the races. Unique Selling Points (USPs) that are not unique at all.

Meaningless content

I like to think of pitches the same way I was taught math in High School. Simplifying a mathematical expression generally makes it shorter, easier to read, and easier to execute. The more we can simplify our pitch and its individual parts, the easier it’ll be to follow the story you’re telling. The story of why your game should be funded.

Take your Unique Selling Points, usually listed in bullet point format near the middle of your pitch, or near the top of your game’s store page. To simplify our Unique Selling Points, there are a few elements we should get rid of first and foremost. And that’s meaningless content. Most USP lists simply contain too much of that.

World of Poetry

Let’s take a fictional example. Say that you’re making a short action game about a world of poetry. With lots of rhythmical skill-based minigames and interesting dialogue written in rhyme. Now take a look at the following five bullet points. Three of these don’t actually mean anything in the context of a pitch. Take a moment to see if you can identify which ones don’t mean anything in the context of Unique Selling Points.

  • Fun gameplay with plenty of things for players to do
  • A short, focused single player campaign
  • Great value-for-money for players
  • High-speed skill-based arcade gameplay
  • Interesting dialogue in an engaging world

The simplest way to check is to ask yourself: evaluating the adjectives, would anyone ever claim the obvious opposite about the thing you’re trying to sell? If not, there’s no point in saying it – you’re simply wasting the audience’s time & attention on things that don’t say anything of value. Let’s take a look:

  • Boring gameplay with not many things for players to do
  • A long, unfocused single player campaign
  • Terrible value-for-money for players
  • Slow-paced, exploratory, calming gameplay
  • Uninteresting dialogue in an throwaway world

I’ve bolded out the things that actually are meaningful. Those are the only things in the bullet points that are actually of note. So  we’re looking at an arcade game with a short singleplayer campaign, that is high-speed, skill-based. That, of course, isn’t super interesting either. But it’s far more interesting than anything else the bullet points listed.

Borderline impossible

The people you’re pitching to expect that your game is interesting, the levels are good, and the game offers value. So, if those are your unique selling points, you’re barely meeting the baseline for what most publishers would consider funding. If that’s the best you’re bringing to the table with your game, you have far bigger problems than these bullet points themselves.

You might find it very hard to write three to five USP’s that nobody would claim the opposite of. That is because it’s borderline impossible. An incredible amount of extremely different games get made every year, but the point of this exercise isn’t to be exhaustive. It’s about the gut feeling. I’m sure someone made a game about playing 99 uninteresting characters in a final boss fight without any context because they could, but please don’t take that into consideration here – this exercise is not meant to be used that way. It won’t magically identify everything that’s bad about your USPs.

Great USPs

It could, however, help focus you on things that are good Unique Selling Points – as they’re the opposite of what we’re filtering for here. Following that logic, you might arrive at great USPs. Things like concise statements that focus on standout features or content, notable atmospheric or emotional qualifiers, unique ways of engaging the audience & potential customers, and subjective qualifiers unrelated to quality. Often enough, specifying exactly what you mean takes a generic statement and turns it into something more unique.

Going over the earlier example of our poetry game, here’s an example of how the Unique Selling Points might play out:

  • Playful gameplay full of silly activities
  • A dense but short singleplayer campaign
  • High-speed skill-based arcade gameplay
  • Poetic dialogue in a world filled with rhyme and rhythm

We’ve replaced ‘fun’ with ‘playful’ – which has an opposite in ‘serious’. ‘Silly’ instead of ‘plenty of things to do’, because ‘silly’, too, can be ‘serious’ instead. ‘Short’ we keep, but ‘focused’ turns into ‘dense’ because ‘dense’ is more specific & evocative than ‘focused’. ‘Interesting’ turns into ‘poetic’ and ‘engaging’ into the far more precise ‘rhyme and rhythm’. I got rid of the ‘great value for money’ bullet point – it was unsalvageable.

Useful for everyone

Note that these new USPs evoke far more of a vibe than the originals that we started from. We now understand the game is playful, silly, poetic – it’s high-speed and skill-based, and it’s a short game. That is exactly the point of this exercise: if you’re going to pitch, treat it like High School math – the fewer ambiguities and complexities that remain, the more useful it will be for everyone.

Actionables

  1. If you don’t have Unique Selling Points at the ready for your game, try establishing them now, and in the future ensure you establish them early in the development process (they should be established before your Vertical Slice). Knowing what is unique about your game gives your more time to identify potential production issues, as they’re frequently development-technical unknowns.
  2. Go through your Unique Selling Points and eliminate the meaningless ones using the “Would Anyone Claim The Opposite?” approach. Things to particularly look for are generic claims of quality, engagement, and fun – if those are prevalent in your USPs, see if you can figure out more specific or precise wording.
  3. Do a simple test with someone that doesn’t know the game you’re working on: if you read out your Unique Selling Points only, can the listener evoke a vague sense of the game when questioned about it? Can they establish the tone of the game, the type of game, the things that you’re excited about? What are they missing?
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