This weekend I had the pleasure of attending The Winning Pitch, a social game design workshop and pitch competition sponsored by Prudential and hosted by the NYU Game Center. After two full days of exercises lead by veteran NYC game design and freelance extraordinaire Naomi Clark, the groups presented their game concept in a grand pitch-off. The top three teams won over $5000 in prizes as part of Prudential’s generous sponsorship.

As someone with experience working alongside established brands to make games, The Winning Pitch initially excited me as incredibly relevant and useful “practice” for the reality of designing games as a career in New York City. While we here in the NYC games industry especially pride ourselves on our robust culture of indie and experimental art games, the truth is that client-based work is often the bread and butter of a working game developer’s projects. This is especially true for young game developers, where there’s a long tradition of cutting your teeth on branded games to help cultivate your design instincts and build out a strong portfolio.

Early Saturday morning, Eric Feige, Vice President of e-Strategy of Prudential, explained Prudential’s motivation in reaching out to game developers for this event. Along with every other investment management firm and federal economist across the country, Prudential has growing concerns for the young workforce. Often referred to as Generation Y, today’s young adults are showing very low rates of investing for the future. The combination of a recent economic downturn and the distance of retirement mean that much (if not most) of Generation Y is missing out on the “Golden Years” of investing. These Golden Years, around age 25 to 35, are the perfect time for the seeds of compound interest to really take root, producing enormous benefits over the course of decades.

Through events like The Winning Pitch, Prudential is aiming to increase awareness on this topic and hopefully nudge behavior in the direction of better investment habits. Traditional methods aren’t well-adapted to reaching a large audience, and are even less suited towards the type of deep engagement that can really get individuals to take action. With strong viral loops across social networks and their long history of narrativizing numeric systems, games are perfectly positioned as a natural next step.

After the overview presentations the morning was split into three main activities: an icebreaker-style party game featuring the Metagame, a discussion of Prudential’s Gen Y research by Mike O’Sullivan and Brian Bernier, and a quick lecture on the core elements of social games by Naomi. Each event was followed by writing down some first impressions, striking details, or major features on Post-It notes, all of which were collected on one wall. Just before lunch we broke up into our groups, each equipped with four to five team members with a variety of skills and backgrounds.

Returning back to the NYU Game Center lobby post-lunch, every chose a Post-It from the Idea Wall to help inspire our first group exercise: the 60-second “Elevator” Pitch. Within less than an hour, the Elevator Pitch produced some stunning results. Each of the six groups presented wildly different game concepts, from zombie survival to anthropomorphic squirrels. Both Michael and Brian of Prudential watched with delight as roughly 30 young game developers wrangled with the concerns that weigh heavily on the investment industry. Pitching in front of the elevators – pun intended, as Naomi assured us – lead to pitching to our target demographic on the street: young college students around the campus just getting ready to launch their careers.

One of the most surprising moments of the workshop came at the end of Day 1, when the groups reported back their experiences on the street. The on-the-ground pitching had revealed something critical to Prudential’s strategy of targeting Facebook as its main platform; young people are much more inclined to play games on their phones than exclusively on Facebook. This insight was powerful enough to shape all strategies going forward, encouraging many teams to shift towards a more mobile-friendly design scope.

Day 2 opened with another rallying keynote by Naomi, and then the groups dived into the meatiest exercise of the workshop: making a playable paper-prototype of our games. After about two hours of development, each group had something to show. Members of each team switched off playing versus hosting duty so that everyone got a chance to test out each other’s games and provide feedback. Prototyping moved swiftly into a brief lunch and then straight into forming the final pitches. Predictably, this was the most frantic period of work-frenzy as everyone rushed to get their materials in order.

Each final pitch had 10 minutes of scheduled presentation time in front of the rest of the groups, a team from Prudential, and a panel of judges including: Naomi, Eric Zimmerman, Frank Lantz, and Eric Feige. There were some nervous moments, but ultimately the pitches went well and the game concepts held up through Q&A by the judges panel.

After about ten minutes of deliberation the judges came back out into the lobby and began to announce the runners-up, and then proceeded up through the two second place, and then first place winners. For each group the judges offered feedback, both on the game design and on which concepts Prudential felt were especially well-suited to their aims. Prizes for the two second place teams included $1500, with a Grand Prize of $2500; all prizes were delivered as pre-paid Visas to be split amongst the team.

The Winning Pitch winning teams were:

1st Place: Saving Season
Take on the life of a squirrel and save your acorns responsibly for the coming winter.
> Zeke Abuhoff
> Greg Lane
> Karen Li
> Roland Li
> Grant Reid

2nd Place: Future Planning Agency
Watch your city grow as you help a diverse group of clients reach their life goals and dreams.
> Mohini Dutta
> Jakob Haglof
> Nicole Leffel
> Joseph Mauriello

2nd Place: Prudence
Maintain the trust and happiness of the young professional Prudence as you guide her through spending decisions.
> David Epstein
> Dan Hunter
> Barry Kramer
> Jared A. Sorensen
> Mo Qian

Prudential has set a great precedent for reaching out to young developers and offering an unbeatable learning experience. It would be absolutely incredible to see more major brands – whether commercial or non-profit – sponsor challenges like this. Hopefully more companies will take note and follow in Prudential’s footsteps!