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Interview: Jason Della Rocca Talks Pitching, Games as Art, and Masterclass

Video games are an artform—but they're also a business. Funding is one of the key parts in getting a developer's game in the hands of players. Jason Della Rocca is a game industry entrepreneur, funding advisor, and cluster expert who's spent years helping studios and creators master the art (and business) of pitching. Now, he's here to answer our burning questions about how it's done. 
Jason chatted with GDC over the phone about his virtual GDC Masterclass course in December—Funding Your Studio: Pitching to VCs and Fundraising Strategy. He shared what makes each pitching process different, the most-common mistake to make when soliciting your game, and what he loves about helping others get their art out to the world.
Below is an edited, condensed version of our interview.
GDC Staff: You’re back for another round of GDC Masterclass, including a course about getting your studio funded! How is pitching to investors different than pitching to publishers?
Jason Della Rocca: It's a common misunderstanding for most developers that, when you need a bag of money, you just go out in the world and look for the people who have money—like publishers, investors, and VCs (venture capitalists). It doesn't really work like that.
Publishers are quite different than VCs. The main difference is that publishers invest in your project. You're pitching them your game project, and they're trying to decide if they think that game has a lot of commercial potential. Does it look great? Is it fun to play? Does the budget make sense? Do they think they can market it well? The ways they can help make that game succeed as your partner. So, the pitching process is really there to demonstrate to the publisher that you've got a winning game on your hands, and that with them as your partner, together, you'll have great success.
Whereas investors, or VCs, they're looking to invest in your company. They're buying equity in your corporation, and they're becoming shareholders alongside you and your co-founders. In short, they are becoming part-owners of your studio. It's like they're getting married to you for the long-term. It's not one project. They're with you for the life of the studio. What they're looking at, really, is the leadership of the founding team. That they believe you have the energy, the grit, the perseverance, the wisdom, and the leadership skills to take your studio and grow it to something great and successful over time.
GDC Staff: Let's say I’m the head of a small studio trying to get my game out there, what's the easiest or most common pitfall to avoid?

Jason: Oh my goodness, I have a list of so many.

GDC Staff: That's why we're only doing one! 

Jason: The main pitfall is not understanding which type of funding to pursue. Here's the rule of thumb. If I'm doing premium games, $20 on Steam and Switch, that are consumable content—single-player, 10 hours, fight all the dragons, save the world and then put the game down—that is usually only viable for publishers. That's the realm of project-based financing. But if I'm doing something like games-as-a-service, free-to-play, online, multiplayer, match-based, session-based, MMO. This kind of persistent, liveops-oriented type of game, game service or platform. Then that's the realm of equity or company-based funding. The biggest pitfall is the developer doesn't realize that split, and they waste their time pursuing the wrong types of funding. They have a premium Steam game and they go chasing VCs, and the investor  says, "We want to see the next Fortnite."

GDC Staff: What's one question you love getting from your GDC Masterclass attendees—or hope to get asked one day? 

Jason: A question I often get, and I hope they ask me this, is: When's the best time? When should I go chase for money, go hunt for funds?

The real answer is: It's the right time when you can demonstrate that your game is on the path to success. When you have traction to demonstrate that, okay, this is going somewhere. When someone can see that this is going to be successful. It seems obvious, but how do I do that? Where do I have to be in order to demonstrate that? Part of it is the demo, you have to have a great demo. But part of it is also the engagement of my community. Have I been working to engage a community and get their input, and showing they're enjoying the early demos, alphas, or betas of the game? Have I been able to build up a certain amount of buzz? Did I put out trailers or teasers that got viewed a bunch? Am I already entering festivals? Did I win at the IGF Awards? The kind of stuff that builds buzz around what I'm doing. 

It's very rare that you can be hiding in a cave and then just pop out and go get funding. The way the world works today—with Twitch, streamers, social media, influencers, festivals, and all this kind of stuff—you're trying to build up some of that validation, that traction. So that when you do pitch to an investor or a publisher, they can see there's already hints that this is going to be a success. 

GDC Staff: But how should a studio or game developer define success, when it comes to pitching?

Jason: In most cases, it has to be commercial success, first and foremost. Publishers are businesses, right? They're in the business of making money. They have their own backers, investors, and shareholders. They have to show profit. VCs are professional money managers, they're investing the money of other entities. It's their fiduciary responsibility to take the money they have and make more money. So it's a very commercially driven definition of success.

Now, that being said, publishers and investors also want to back innovative stuff. Cool stuff. Beautiful stuff. They want to back great teams that are doing interesting work. There is a kind of balance there. If you're just making something super boring, that maybe is going to make money but isn't meaningful or interesting, you might have a tougher time getting a buy-in from investors who maybe don't see the potential. Whereas if you're doing something really pioneering or innovative, that they also believe is going to make lots of money, that's really where the magical formula is. 

GDC Staff: What drives you to share your knowledge and experience with others?

Jason: I grew up playing games. When I was in kindergarten, I was at my friend's birthday party and their dad brought home a Pong device. We screwed it onto the TV and we were playing virtual tennis! It just blew my mind. I had the original Atari, Sega, Nintendo, all that kind of stuff. I kind of grew up as games grew up, and saw the rise of the medium, the artform, and the industry. Just like many other people, it's your dream to become part of this industry. Games are the artform of the 21st century. They're so amazing as a medium of expression, but they're also amazing as a piece of technology, and as a business and economic driver.

Everything I've been doing for the past two decades has been around developer success. I've been very fortunate to be in the industry for a long time, and work around entrepreneurship and funding and pitching and all these kind of things. It's not magic. It's not something that you're born with or not. These are things you can train and practice and learn. And they do have a massive effect on your ability to succeed. Finding the right partners, getting funding for your vision. In many cases, it's do or die. Either we're going to have a run at this and have the right partners, or we have to give up our dream. 

I've been in games for pretty much my whole professional life, and I just want to see people succeed. I want more and better games to come to life. If that means I can help start-ups, indies, and developers learn a little about this critical skill called pitching, that makes me happy. 

Be sure to head to GDC Masterclass for more information on Jason's Funding Your Studio course, which runs December 9 and December 10. Keep in mind this course is happening virtually, not in person. You can also check out Jason's article in Game Developer, where he shares more insight into pitching. 

For more information on GDC 2022 visit the show’s official website, and be sure to subscribe to regular updates via FacebookTwitterLinkedIn, and RSS.


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