Whuf. So I woke up to this message (excerpt is part of a larger one) in my email. I think it’s worth talking about in public. Here’s what they said, asking for advice, and what I had to say about it.
“I make games that can not sell. But these games are my identity, my signature. It is all I am. But I chose to make games as a means of survival.”
That’s the crux of a problem right there. Well, problems, but I’ll try to unentangle them here.
I’ll start with the last part: “I chose to make games as a means of survival.” — This is not something anyone should do.
By and large, at most scales, games do not sell well enough to be a component of survival. I’d estimate at least 95% of people working in games cannot make a living from the work they do in games. The market simply doesn’t support that kind of income generation unless you’re able to aggregate a lot of smaller revenue streams into a bigger one and that often doesn’t happen at the creative end of things. (Sad fact, creativity is not in short supply. High supply vs. demand means the prices for creativity stay low.)
When I started Evil Hat in 2005, I definitely was not choosing to make games as a means of survival. I had a solid enough financial base already—and a spouse with health coverage and a salary—that as a household we could afford me making that decision. I was paid nothing or nearly nothing for most of the first five years that followed—I simply sunk sweat equity into the company, and took little compensation for that. From what I’ve learned about entrepreneurship, that’s pretty typical. 3-5 years of making nothing or losing money in order to start up a business in the first place. By 2010 I was firmly doing primarily business-work rather than creative-work, and from there on forward to now I’ve continued to. Luckily I’m wired to enjoy business-work, and I’ve been able to focus on publishing, which fits the “aggregate many small streams into a larger one” model nicely. Now, ten years in, I have a salary. A small one relative to what I’ve made in the past. Miniscule if you spread it out to cover the time I spent making nothing.
So, games to survive, games to pay for living — this doesn’t exist except at larger scales. You can’t milk that stone.
Then there’s “these games are my identity”. I understand that feeling — it’s common in the creative temperament. But it’s a dangerous feeling to combine with “and I try to sell these games”. Because “I make games that can not sell” is also a common experience, for one. Not to mention, if I took games out of the equation, and said, “Sell me your identity,” that would probably feel pretty… uncomfortable. Pairing your identity with a profit motive is a recipe for unhappiness. It positions you to feel every failure — and there are PLENTY of those in games — both in your pocketbook and your heart. At the same time. And that’s simply too much to carry.
My advice? Continue to make games. For yourself. If folks happen to like them enough to give you money for them, that’s great.
But address your need to survive by doing something else that actually makes money. MOST people in games do not actually work in games as a job. The work they do for games is something they do as a sideline, a hobby, something they fit into their spare time when they’re not at their day job. Find something you can do that earns your keep, and break that deathgrip you’ve established between your identity and your wallet. Without some kind of financial support to back up your love of making games, there simply won’t be enough of you left for those games in short order.