Jun 102011

So, this question came into my inbox today, and it’s a question I’ve been asked before to varying degrees:

Can you really make a living in the gaming industry without working for a company like Wizards of the Coast or any other large established company?

Standing on its own, the question’s frustratingly vague. (This time it did not stand alone in the message, which is good, but more often it’s asked as if it’s a specific enough question. It isn’t really.) What kind of a living? Living where in the country? Supporting a family or just yourself? With or without insurance? Retirement savings? Doing what kind of work in the industry?

For all but the cheapest versions of the answers to those questions (just yourself, no insurance, no retirement, no family, living somewhere with a low cost of living), I come pretty close to answering the question with an unqualified “no”. If I’m more charitable about it, I’d say “if you’re lucky, yes.” But lucky, here, should be taken to mean:

  • By working really hard at it for several years at below the pay scale you need.
  • By having a spouse who has a day-job that can provide magical things like insurance and savings and mortgage payments.
  • By continuing to work really hard at it once you’ve “made it”.
  • By continually seeking out new opportunities to work on more projects.
  • etc

Luck, as my friend Rob Donoghue likes to say, is largely a matter of paying attention.

Keep in mind, though, that I do not have magic goggles that let me peer into the financial particulars of everyone who does manage to make a living in this hobby. I can only speak to my own direct experience. Which goes a little something like this:

When I came right out of college, I went into work in the internet industry. I got myself into a website customer support job back when that was a pretty new idea. I made somewhere between $20,000-$25,000 at the time. I grew my skills, moved on into doing perl programming and internal website design for a while, went in other directions from there, and so on, and so forth. Eventually I found myself in California, and eventually I found myself in one of those great, time-sucking internet jobs that paid just under or just over six figures, and I did that for a while. Moved back to Maryland. Kept doing it, with a worse commute. Found myself dead-sick of it, just terribly unhappy about the job all the time, and feeling unable to leave it. Until my wife found some job security of her own, and then told me to frickin’ quit already, because it’s making you miserable, and no, you don’t have to have another job to go to right away.

We have ever since been relying massively on her salary to keep the household running. That’s not to say I don’t make my own financial contribution. Through a combination of:

  • Running Evil Hat (I made $0/month for several years; then we got a little success, enough to justify $450/month for a while; I’ve gotten to increase that since, but I am pretty sure I’m still not quite rating McDonald’s wages, and unless Evil Hat can improve its product output over the next few years, I’m not sure the increase can be sustained; behold part of my motive to grow the company! I should note I don’t charge the company anything else for any writing, development, or layout work I do beyond this monthly draw.)
  • Running Jim Butcher’s online presence (the site has amazon referrals, other referral programs, the occasional ad revenue, cafe press gear, all of which funnels to me to pay the website costs and then pay myself the remainder for doing the work of creating & running all that over the past ten-plus years)
  • Freelance layout work (which is bursty, unpredictable, and can sometimes wind up with late or very late or never-happened payment if you’re not careful)

… I am just in the last year or two finally at the point where I’m making about what I made when I started in the internet industry back in 1996. Only without any benefits (save those that I get as a spouse), which is a lot like saying that I am making 30+% less than what I was making in 1996.

Some of this depends on the kind of work you’re expecting to be doing in the industry. When I do layout work on a full sized book I can pull in between $1500-$2500 these days depending on things like size, complexity, template development, color or black and white work, etc. When I was “making my name”, my project fee ran more like $500, but I’ve gotten better since and my time’s gotten more valuable. Writers may get to see entry level rates around 3 cents/word. Editors may get to see entry level rates around 1 cent/word. Artists may get to see entry level rates around $100/full page.

And all of this with the proviso that a) many someones out there would be eager to take less than the entry level in order to get their foot in the door (though those who accept such offers may be getting the quality they’re paying for), and b) very few companies can afford to pay above entry level, ever. Supply is abundant, and demand and budgets are relatively low in comparison. In that environment, how many books or words or images would you have to create in a year in order to get what you need to make, and do you think that environment will readily hire you to do that work over others?

This is what many freelancers are referencing when they talk about “the wolf at the door”. Something out there is hungry to ruin your security. It’ll come huffing and puffing the moment you slow down and don’t get your minimum of work.

Mind you, I’m paid in spades in terms of happiness capital, of course, and so long as my family’s mortgage and meals don’t depend solely on the income I bring in, how I am living now is sustainable.

But really, it’s sustainable only because my wife is awesome.

If you can’t engineer a similar situation and you’ve got mouths to feed and bills to pay, you should likely consider a day job, and be glad of getting a few hours here and there each week to put effort into sustaining your hobby.

But as I said, I can only speak to my own experience. I know that Ryan Macklin fought the wolf and the wolf won, at least a little — he’s back in a day job. So’s Chris Pramas, despite having a company like Green Ronin to build an industry career around. But there are other folks out there who seem to be making it without the day job. My guess is that they’re “lucky” by the definition given above.

So what’s your experience, readers who are trying to make a living at this crazy thing? Where do I have it wrong? What’s your story?


  33 Responses to “Dear Deadly: Making a Living in the Game Industry”

  1. I have been pretty much doing a “Day Job, with X hours devoted to my hobby” lifestyle. It pays NO BILLS, but it is finally after a few years starting to pay for itself. I am getting better work and doing the sort of things I’ve been dreaming of doing since I was 12 years old.

    You can’t really put a price on that.

    But, we’ll see where this goes when my child is born and I need to maintain something that looks like work/life balance.

    RPGs just don’t seem like something you do without loving it. As much as it’s nice to get paid well for doing awesome at stuff you love, I have given up on that for sure. Maybe if the market expands, but it just doesn’t seem viable until that point.

    Thanks for sharing Fred.

  2. I know that Ryan Macklin fought the wolf and the wolf won, at least a little — he’s back in a day job.

    I’m also happier. By not trying to make this my life, I get to sit back and try to enjoy it again.

    I’m reminded of a Chuck Wendig post — a bit about how freelancers can smell medical insurance on a potential mate like it’s a pheromone. Technically I’m still a contractor, but in tech. I still don’t have medical insurance. And that is…uncheap. So yes, yes it is.

    Most of the people I know doing this have awesome spouses. I do not, so instead I have a day job again. 🙂

    – Ryan

    • Given that I also live in one of the most expensive parts of the United States, attempting to struggle with the Wolf here was perhaps an unfortunate move. Still, I learned a lot doing it.

      – Ryan

  3. I came to the conclusion that I will not have an RPG career several years ago. Knowing this is amazingly freeing and amazingly frustrating at the same time. I have a day job and it takes priority 2 – right behind my family (which is in the priority 1 spot). That means that, at best, my RPG hobby/RPG-pseudocareer takes a back seat position of 3rd priority.

    It is incredibly freeing to know that I must put effort into my day job because I do not have on rose-colored glasses telling me a lucrative RPG career is “just around the corner” if I would only make it priority 1! I don’t fall for that line. At the same time it is frustrating to know that there really is no corner to turn and it is more than likely that I will never have a lucrative career in the RPG industry (partly because I do not make it priority 1). The saving grace is that the lucrative RPG career does not exist, and would not exist even were I to make finding it priority 1.

    It’s a vicious cycle of temptation to keep trying to build a career in a niche industry that is already oversaturated, but needs a constant infusion of creative talent. It would be harder to resist the temptation if we didn’t have guys like you telling us how it really is. Thanks for that.

  4. I’ve been working as a full-time freelancer since 2003. I lost my previous job as a programmer and gave myself three months to try writing. I picked up enough work to keep me going until I got a full-time gig with Mongoose. At its height, that brought in around $30,000 (tax-free, thanks to the Artist’s Exemption).

    Since leaving Mongoose in at the start of 2010, things have been a lot tougher, as I’ve had to relearn how to juggle multiple deadlines and multiple clients. My wife’s back in college; once she gets a more stable job as a maths teacher, the plan is to throttle back on my freelancing and do more of my own stuff/find gigs outside the gaming industry (and take care of any kids, if IVF works.)

    Am I making a viable living? More or less. I’ve got a few advantages – I inherited a house and some money when my mother passed away, and I’m tax-free, but things are still tight. If I could go back in time, I’d probably have pushed my former self towards computer games or something.

    That said, I worked in computer games for a few months, and it was much less interesting than writing tabletop material. Making up worlds and monsters is fun. That’s why they don’t pay you much for it.

    • “That said, I worked in computer games for a few months, and it was much less interesting than writing tabletop material. Making up worlds and monsters is fun. That’s why they don’t pay you much for it.”

      That it’s fun does reduce potential pay in the sense that many people are willing to work for RPG publishers, but the main reason isn’t related to that. It’s simply that most publishers don’t sell enough copies to pay any more.

  5. Yep, that sounds bang on. Existing as a freelance writer was great when the work was there and the bills paid on time, but there were long, lean gaps between and only a better-paid wife saw us through.

    I’m much happier now that’s just a hobby once more, although I’m lucky enough to be working in the (war)games industry full time as an editor as my day job.

  6. I have had many friends in the industry as game developers as far back as the early days of White Wolf in the 90’s. One career that some have taken, is finding their way into the video game industry. The skills do cross over some, though the pressures are different. No one goes into table top games because it will make them rich. You do it because you love them, and hope maybe to get enough to subsidize things a bit. Video games on the other hand have a lot more money involved and you cannot screw around. It is a day job, just with some related skills.

  7. I got my very small-scale RPG publishing to the level of paying a couple of bills per month. I’d like to maintain that and maybe grow it a bit more, though that requires keeping putting products out. I view it as an enjoyable part of my portfolio.

  8. I’m with Fred:
    “…it’s sustainable only because my wife is awesome.”

    Sums me up as well. That and I’ve learned to take other freelance work in other industries. Fortunately there’s enough overlap in Print Design that you can usually “get by” by doing things like menus, flyers, and the occasional advertisement.

    I’ve been doing layout and such for ever five years and I’m still not making as much as Fred does in the RPG sector. Oh, and I still don’t have health insurance.

  9. I’m really happy to read this article and the comments. I’ve been eyeing RPG publication recently, and there has been just enough of a glimmer of what DMSamuel was talking about that I feel better having it squashed. I don’t really mind it being squashed. It will help me keep everything in perspective. I think it will also mean that I will produce better work as I move towards publishing RPG material. Not having my financial future hanging in the balance every time I sit down to write material or edit material or lay out material will be a relief.


  10. We’re extremely lucky that the dear husband’s company has not gone under yet. Because the game company is NOT going to support the four of us. Not even if I managed to find any work around here for above minimum wage. MAYBE if it were still just the two of us, but there’s no way a family of four will make it. We were lucky when he got laid off a couple years ago that with his unemployment we could scrape by the last two months before he got rehired. But it was close and full of stressy sleepless nights. Even living in this horrid low cost of living place we still could not get by on just the game company.

    We make some money off the game company, but split three ways the profit does not go too far. We also don’t pay much to our writers or artists or our layout person. Thank goodness they are all hobbiests in it for the glory and not the money. 🙂 When we signed a print deal with Osprey we managed to lose some of our overhead, but we still pay our artists (miniature painters and photographers rather than the drawing sort of artist) and writers out of pocket. We got really lucky with the Osprey deal and know it. I think we’ve used up ALL our luck for awhile on it.

    The general plan is to keep a decent day job for awhile longer and then see about easing into part time work and running the company full time. Because I don’t know how much longer before two full time jobs leads the other half to serious mental and physical damage.

  11. After I graduated from Kubert School I knew I didn’t want to even try for the comic book industry as a freelancer, hoping to get taken on full time in any capacity be it writing or inking (my strong suits). The market was absolutely flooded especially since Image was still in its toddler/infancy stages and snapping up talent like whoa. I had no interest in moving to the Pacific Northwest where they were located (silly me, since I ended up there anyway), and when I did live there they had become something I and other comic minded artists saw as The Great Betrayal by Modd TacFarlane. I did know someone who was working at WotC but didn’t want to dip my feet into the RPG world by that point either. Here’s why:

    I met some folks through AOL chat RPG (ah the old days) who worked freelance for an RPG company that was just getting into printing their books through PDF format. They had a writer who dumped on their contract and needed someone to pick up to meet the deadline. They asked me to submit a writing sample and lo…they were just that desperate. This was going to be perfect since they wanted me to create their world of darkness-ish and I had my eye on White Wolf. Can we say resume padding? I did it. Created the whole dang thing minus the tech rules including plot springboards and one full play module. There was more than a little research that had to be done too since we needed to keep it far separate from WW, and the deadline was tight. The result? No check. EVER.

    Then I was stupid and worked for them again when they came yowling for someone to pick up the pieces again for a writer that ditched on their contract. The deadline was a month and they assured me it was a “filler” job. Super soldier type stuff. (I’m a bit of a fluff girl so what I know about that can fit on my pinky!) The easy filler job turned out to be 40K words in less than a month. Their writer didn’t just ditch, he was a deadbeat dad! I told them they needed to give me way more time since I was working full time elsewhere. The deadline was extended another month. I made it. But again. No check.

    Now I just write for the hell of it. I have a good job with bennies. I write for myself, one digital comic with another in the planning stages but I don’t actively look for anything even resembling a check anymore. If any one asks me to write something that will get published, I just ask for credit. It’s more satisfying that way.

  12. […] posted a terrific insight into making a living as a game designer. Basically everything he’s said there applies to being a novelist, […]

  13. I have a few freelance RPG writer friends who work 60+ hours a week, are considered successful, but struggle to make over 20k a year with no benefits. After many years working RPGs, they’ve found they can make more money and have more fun self-publishing Kindle books.

    The other question, is it sustainable? How much does past and present success help with future success? My friends who do well in RPGs frequently have on and off years, no matter how successful they have been. Although the same is true in fiction and non-fiction publishing. 1 successful book doesn’t guarantee anything for your next book. Although there are strategies you can employ to leverage past success but not to a degree that feels comfortable.

  14. This is a great article, and your honesty is to be applauded IMO. I disagree about $.03 a word as an entry level for writers. What I see nowadays it is more like $0.01 for an entry level writer (and one publisher offered me that in Canadian dollars and would not agree to a payment due date). That is why I still keep the six figure day job, because with a wife and kids dependent upon me for income that is not a hell of a lot of money but it is more than what I can make in the RPG industry for a lot less work in terms of hours needed. 🙂

    • When I said “entry level” about those rates, what I should have been saying is “minimum that should be acceptable”. Whenever I’ve found a situation where a writer’s willing to take more like a penny a word, I worry both about the quality of his/her writing and about my quality if I accept. That’s not to say it hasn’t happened in financially leaner times, but it’s something I’m left wanting to correct.

    • I agree, and that is why I don’t accept offers at $.01 per word even though I am starting out by most people’s standards (soon to have two books under my belt). You have to value your own work before anyone else will.

      I expect a publisher to hold me to their level of quality and to expect me to deliver my work on time. There is no reason why the publisher should not expect me to want to negotiate an offer that they have extended to me unsolicited. This is just the nature of business of any type.

      Unfortunately my experience with some RPG publishers looking for writers has been quite different. I am treated as if they are doing me a huge favor. Maybe if I was making my living through RPGs my attitude would be very different, but it is insulting to be told “How dare you even think to ask for more money per word!” (that is an exact quote) when I feel that an offer is too low or needs to have a payment due date attached to it. I would much rather be told “I will not be requiring your services.” instead of being lectured on how difficult the life of a publisher is. Business is tough, and that is why we are not all millionaires.

      I wish I could say that I have had these types of experiences in other fields, but I have not. Maybe it is because some people enter the RPG business as a natural extension of their RPG hobby, and perhaps they have never been exposed to how things are done in other professions. I have noticed that publishers who had careers prior to RPG publishing behave differently when it comes to such matters.

  15. I do both acting and writing work. Neither, on its own, is enough to amount to a living, but together they start to get there.

    On the writing side, it seems important to look at different sources of income. I write scenarios for Pelgrane and publish my own stuff too. It helps to have the two things together.

    I’m encouraged by the Stealing Cthulhu fundraiser I ran recently. It went high enough that, in retrospect, working on the book for two months was a sensible decision. I’ve got something approaching a decent return for it.

    Soon, I’ll return to university to train as an occupational psychologist. That may turn out to be a freelance thing too, which I’ll combine with the writing.

    (It also helps, of course, that in Britain we don’t need medical benefits.)

  16. Fantastic article Fred (as usual).

    My goals are a little less grand. I hope that I can earn a little bit out of the game industry. I know it will never replace my day job salary. If I can justify the cost of an annual trip to gencon, cangames, and pax prime plus the cost of computer hardware and software. Even getting reasonably close to breaking even after paying those costs – then I will be “living the dream”.

  17. A partner of mine and I started White Haired Man during Spring 2008. Our revenue has at least doubled each year, yet we’ve yet to take money out of the company. Every cent of revenue goes back into growing our company. Some examples of our costs are Tax filing fees, Internet hosting, Internet registration, a one time $600 investment into a block of ISBN numbers, and now we are contracting outside freelance artists to increase the visual quality of our work.

    In short, our work is a labor of love without hope of renumeration in the short term (5 to 10 years). If our revenues continue to double or more each year, we might have built a revenue stream for our time and effort in the long run. Regardless, it is the satisfaction of creating high quality adventure content that sustains us. As long as we remain satisfied we will create.

  18. From another side of “The Industry” (Now with airquotes!)

    I personally couldn’t work at EndGame for what I pay myself there, and live a lifestyle I want to. That sounds bad, but I like security. I like Health insurance which I couldn’t afford for me and my wife and two kids on my salary. That’s tops. Right there would be a deal breaker for me without my wife’s currently awesome corporate salary/benefits.
    I would live in a much smaller home and I doubt i would own it, and that’s getting into the Bay Area market in ’98. Market is still twice+ what I got in at. I wouldn’t drive as anice of a car as I do, and conversely it and my wife’s counterpart might not be as safe to drive our kids around in.
    I like dining, and I still get to do some of that…again, all dual income based.

    Now, on the flip. I got to be there for both my sons a LOT more when I joined the store. I was working 4/3’s and took/take them each to school every day. My stress is different than any other job I’ve ever had, and in most ways more manageable. It also tends to be personal on both the home front and the works side for me, due to how much I have mentally/emotionally invested in the store, whereas every other job i’ve had ended at the door when I left. Add that into this weird calculation wherever you want. Flexibility is worth a LOT of money to me, yet I can be flexible due to the financial support of my wife’s more traditional carrer.

    So if I were in a different life, didn’t mind renting, led more of a austere lifestyle…I might be fine. I dunno.

    All my personal reasons. I know there are people who do perfectly fine for themselves in my line of work.

  19. This is a good conversation for me to be a fly on the wall, as it were. I’m very much on the other side – the not-yet-getting-paid side (or not being paid a significant amount). It seems like the way to make a living in the rpg hobbistry is not to depend on rpgs for your living. I’ve heard this again and again, and it’s fine with me. My lofty goal is for what I’m paid for rpg design and editing to pay for going to conventions and for games. If someday there’s some left over, awesome. Luckily, my dayjob is flexible and rewarding.

  20. Okay, so.

    I’m one of those people with a spouse providing terrific health insurance. Neither of us makes much money, though. She works at a school. I’m a freelance writer in the hobby-game, video-game, and fiction markets. I’ve been freelancing since 2001. Some years are better than others.

    How much do I make? I won’t say, because I won’t know until the year’s almost done. Every year is different. But not much. I made more when I worked at White Wolf and I made more than that, on average, when I worked at Starbucks (thanks to tips). Some years are better than others.

    Worst of all, I can go long stretches without checks coming in because publication dates shift, projects fall behind, vendors are slow to pay people who owe me, and a million other things. We squeak by and hope that the next year will be better. When we get rear-ended by a hit-and-run driver, like we did in January, we have to wait to pay the deductible and get the car fixed until the checks come in. Some years are… yeah.

    The wolf at the door is a real thing.

  21. *blush* You give me too much credit. I get paid in happiness capital too. It’s so much nicer to have a husband who loves his job than one whose soul is being crushed by uninteresting work and a horrid commute. Plus, the choice we made allows you to be a huge part of your daughter’s life (and soon to be son’s). In your old setup, you would have seen them on the weekends, and for a maximum of 30 minutes a weekday, assuming all went well; now you are the primary care giver. To me it is a total win, but it helps that we are both people that measure success in happiness, not in dollars.

  22. In the arrangement Amanda and I have, I’m the one in the relationship with the full time corporate job with benefits. No way we could do it with both of us in the field full time; hard enough with her in 3/4 time and me in for a few hours a week. (Seriously, ask industry couples with kids about childcare during convention season. We have it easy, and it’s still not easy.)

    I’m still working on being truly, genuinely OK with this arrangement, to be honest. I have a good job, but I’d really rather be writing, y’know? Need to remind myself from time to time that if I made it my JOB job, the romance would evaporate pretty damn fast.

  23. I couldn’t imagine trying to live on game sales. I think at one point I figured to match my current salary I’d have to have 11-12 games for sale equally as successful as Primetime Adventures, and they’d have to stay that successful, or else I’d have to keep churning out similar hits to fill the void.

    And since I haven’t created anything new in the last… damn, 7 years? I guess I’ll hang onto that day job for a while. On the other hand, the long tail for that one game is a really nice supplemental income.

  24. Outstanding posts and comments!!

    I would love to make a living just doing my RPG graphic work, but for me it’s a matter of lifestyle. I too have the benefit of the awesome spouse and his awesome insurance, but while we could pay the bills without my corporate gigs, I just haven’t been able to justify the loss of income.

    Happiness capital is different for everyone, but for me I’ve found that the ability to travel, to enjoy expensive foodie excursions and concerts when we please, and all the other benefits of being DINKs. (dual-income, no kids.) While my husband’s job pays the mortgage and the other bills (we’re very fortunate that way), my salary is what pays for our retirement and our extra-curricular activities, as well as car repairs or other unexpected finances so we don’t tap into our savings. When my income level goes down, our extra-curriculars get ticked off the list.

    My gaming work side-job keeps me sane. It allows me to make a living as a corporate freelance designer because it provides the creative outlet I crave. I know that even if I have a painfully boring day working in healthcare or agriculture, I can come home and spend hours digging through Leverage screenshots to find the perfect shot of Christian Kane for a particular section. It’s intensely gratifying and makes me love my job. I’d never dream of charging my corporate rate to a small game publisher (nevermind that I’d never, ever get the work, no matter how good I was), but when we’re considering a 3-10x difference in earning potential, I just can’t give it up.

    I would LOVE to be able to quit it all and focus solely on gaming work because I’ve really developed a passion for it, but when it comes down to it, I’d rather sacrifice the sleep I lose than the money I can make in corporate.

  25. […] So, yes, you should probably read this post by Fred Hicks: Making A Living in the Game Industry. […]

  26. […] I’ve had the urge to work on table top game-design (and no I’m not quitting my day job).  One of the things that surprised my wife is that I haven’t done any game-design.  After […]

  27. […] Fred Hicks at Deadly Fredly (owner of Evil Hat Productions) gives some good advice to the aspiring game designer, and whether it’s a feasible career choice.  We especially […]

  28. […] I invite you to watch from the safety of your own home as I undertake this exciting and often warned against career move. Will he be able to make rent? Can he find affordable health insurance? Will he […]

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