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.
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?