The Message

When you're working on a startup, one of the things you're supposed to have honed to perfection is the "elevator pitch". The idea is that you end up in an elevator with someone influential, and you've only got the time it takes to get to their destination to convince them that your idea is worth investing in. 30 seconds or less. Ideally, a sentence or two.

It's a surprisingly hard thing to do. You can try it. Describe yourself in one sentence to someone who's never met you. Capture the nuance of what makes you different than anyone else. Why someone might love you, or hate you. It's like making a really elegant one-page resumè, but then instead of one page, you have one sentence. All the nuance, all the complexity, the depth - all the things you see in your idea that are wonderful and beautiful and unique, in one sentence.

On a previous project at a previous company, I'd been moved to a project that had been going on for a year. It struggled to find its unique identity, and after talking to a lot of the folks involved, it was clear that the project lacked strong direction. So I convinced folks that it would be worthwhile to take everyone in a leadership position on the project and lock ourselves in a room until we could describe the game we were already making in one sentence.

It took an entire week.

And while it sounds insane to say that it's worth eight people in a room for a solid week to craft a single sentence, the results were astonishing. Before, the concept art was brown and green, and largely indistinguishable from anything else out there. The features of the game were basically "everything", and there was no way for anyone to make a decision about anything, because when your game is "everything", there's no way to know how to focus your efforts. Ask eight people, and you get eight different responses.

At the end of the week, we walked away with this: "[GAME NAME] is a super fast, hyper-agile gun & run... with style."

Everything in that sentence is important. It's not fast. It's super fast. It's not agile. It's hyper-agile. It's not a run & gun. It's a gun & run. The order matters, because in this game, despite the focus on agility, shooting is more important than running. Oh, and it's got style. The environments are stylish. The character is stylish. The animation is stylish. What kind of style? The kind that facilitates hyper-agility. The kind that can move super fast.

The thing with a sentence like this is that you can use it like a razor. You can chop away everything the game is not. At a time when the cover mechanics of Gears of War were still novel, should we follow their lead? No - because Gears of War is about "stop & pop" gameplay. That's not super fast. It's not hyper-agile. And it's not stylish.

It becomes immediately clear what the game is, and what it is not.

This is one of the "before" pieces of concept art. Sure, it's beautiful and technically well made, but what is it? What's important? The scale of the humanoid character implies a certain "largeness" to the world, but beyond that, I'm left without much of an idea of what this is really about.



Oh, look. He's moving. The background is blurred, because he's moving super fast. He's jumping off an enemy, dodging attacks & shooting simultaneously, because he's hyper-agile. What's the first thing you see? The huge red blast of the ricocheting energy beam, because focusing on the firepower puts the gun in the "gun & run" hierarchy in the right place. The background may be a blur, but it's colorful, because the world is stylish. The character's armor is orange, not grey, because stylish. The gun is bright, and the ricocheting balls have a neat trail because stylish. 

The amazing thing is that all the concept art became immediately coherent, and a story almost started telling itself, through the design of the character, the design of the environments, and the design of the enemies. When you've got everyone on the same page, and they're all working off the same core idea, and share the same core values, you don't need to tell anyone what to do. They know, themselves, what to do. All you have to do is sometimes remind them.

It's a super fast, hyper-agile gun & run... with style.

This game pitch - we did it eight years ago, and I'd bet money that if you asked anyone who was in the room that week, and anyone else on the team who worked on the project, they'd recite that line back to you, most with 100% accuracy. That's how clear the message was. And if you go back and ask whether it was worth getting everyone in that room for the entire week, yes, it was worth it a dozen times over. It seemed like a lot of effort for a small result before, but the impact was enormous.

Last week, I was lucky enough to attend a conference where I heard a handful of talks on "messaging", and it was really great to hear this concept repeated by people who've achieved a good deal of success in the world. It was a two-day conference, and I left halfway through the 2nd day, because it was clear that our biggest issue was getting the message right. It starts with the team-facing message, like the "super fast" one. It lets the team focus on what we're doing, even if as a marketing slogan it's a little clunky.

For us, what we're working on, our internal message is this:

"[GAME NAME] is a stylish, constantly-evolving social card-combat game you can play anywhere in minutes."

Like the previous message, it's meant as a "razor". Is a feature going to enable "constant evolution"? Is it social? Can you play it anywhere in minutes? No? Cut it. Change it. Focus on the things that reinforce the message.

These things can change over time, and as a much smaller team, we're okay with an evolving message. But we need to be able to tell you, "this is what we're working on", and we all need to understand what that means. At some point in the future, we'll need to re-focus that in a message that will let us tell you what we're working on, in a way that hopefully gets an idea across that you really want to engage with. It has to be clear immediately that this a game you'll be interested in.

"Fight your friends in a casual, strategic card-combat game you can play in minutes."

It's still a work-in-progress, but we'd love your feedback. Is this something you're interested in? What kind of game does this sound like? What about it works for you? What about it doesn't work, or turns you off from the idea?

Let us know!