Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Elevator Pitch

There have been many formative points in my career, which have shaped how I look at games and game design. I've known a lot of creative people who've influenced what I do creatively. It's a lifelong process, and it still continues. Even if I don't agree with someone's opinion, at least I've learned something. One of those people was Andrew Greenberg. 

Now let's get something out of the way up front. Andrew knows how to live life. I'd never been to a "blood bar" before, and I hope to never go again. Let's just leave it at that. Anyway, one of the things that Andrew and I did every GenCon was walk the floor and talk to the other exhibitors about their games. We were always looking for something new, so we'd question them about their game. 

But there were certain rules. The only questions we asked were "what do I play?" and "what does my character do?" If you couldn't answer those two questions, we walked away. 

I was thinking about this earlier today, when I was chatting with my friend Mark Carroll (Hi, Mark!). Mark calls this the "elevator pitch" and I've seen the idea gain traction in the industry elsewhere. Other people have used that term on me. The "elevator pitch" is something that comes from some How To Write book somewhere, and I'm sure it's very good advice if you're pitching an idea for a movie in an elevator. 

That's where the idea comes from. You're in an elevator, and you're standing next to some big time Hollywood producer, a Weinstein let's say, and you have 30 seconds to pitch him your idea. Go! 

So, you tell him the whole idea in 30 seconds. "It's about two star-crossed lovers making their way across country toward each other after a nuclear war. And one of them has been turned into a dog. Starring Adam Sandler." If someone actually sells that idea, I want a cut. The idea is to tell someone about the main characters and the central conflict as concisely as possible. 

To be clear: I am not talking about the elevator pitch. 

It's too specific. Sure, it talks about the central conflict. And that's nice and all, but it's limiting. You end up focusing solely on the central conflict. And that's not what RPGs are about. Games are about supporting a multitude of play styles and conflicts. Let's put it this way: The central conflict in World War II pitted the Allies against the Axis. But what did people do?

Maybe you're a Flying Tiger transporting vital supplies over the Himalayan Mountains. Maybe you're a spy in France. Maybe you're just a family trying to get to Switzerland.... Those are things people did. It wasn't all storming beaches and blowing Hitler up in a movie theater. 

Remember, Andrew and I were looking for what our characters were going to do in the game. 

The danger with the elevator pitch, I think, is that writers and designers end up focusing on the Beaches of Normandy, and not the other cool stuff you could do with the setting. 

Let's take an example from one of my own games. Just to be safe. Star Trek. Strictly speaking, The Next Generation was about boldly going where no one had gone before. Well, actually, it was about boldly going where a lot of other people had gone before -- I swear, almost every episode, they know exactly where they're going and something about who they were going to meet. The Enterprise-D was a giant, floating UN Mission... 

But you had a framework for the kinds of missions you could go on. You can fight the Killbots of Robotopia. You can make first contact with that race that everyone else thinks is socially awkward. You can transport relief supplies to Somalia IX. There are all kinds of things you can do in Star Trek: TNG. It gets even better when you broaden the scope and add in the other series, because now you can play the crew of a Klingon warbird, pirating things up, or merchants ferrying Vulcan horse manure, or whatever. 

You want a plethora of options within the framework you've established. The central conflict is the framework, but that's not the end of your work. Now, you've got to think about all the cool things people can do with your game. If you can only come up with things that directly relate to the central conflict, I think that's a weaker game. 

1 comment:

  1. Nice post. I like how you put the emphasis on doing stuff, real stuff, not just stuff that makes the news.