Category Archives: Business of Games
This is a very small thing… and yet an important one.
When, as a freelancer, you turn your project over to the contact with the client (be that editor/developer/manager/producer/publisher), make sure you are giving it to them in the format they want.
If they have a style guide, READ AND FOLLOW IT.
If they DON’T have a style guide, ASK how they want it.
For many years, I VERY much preferred writing in WordPerfect, then exporting files as rtf or text, depending on what my client would take.
But over the years, more and more of them specifically wanted .doc, or .docx, or even styled Word documents using specific fonts and styles.
So, I had to give up my Beloved WordPerfect, more than a decade ago.
The vast majority of freelance work I do now is turned over in styled Word docs, as requested by the publisher.
Some publishers HATE styled Word docs. Some need things in google docs. I literally had one ask me to send the material in the body of an email… which would be anathema for everyone else I work for.
So the takeaway here is that it’s very little effort to ask, and it wins you a lot of goodwill to give publishers materials the way they want them.
Writing for tabletop games, RPGs in general, doesn’t pay fabulously well. Especially as a freelancer. The pay rates range from about half-a-cent-a-word on the lower end, to a ceiling of about 10 cents/word. An average is about 4-5 cents a word… and has been for this entire millennium.
Most of that is work-for-hire as well, so there’s no royalties, no residuals, and no opportunity to get a big payday when a project is a smash hit.
So, if you write 1,000 finished words a day, every day (which in my experience means writing 2-3k total words a day, so you have time for dead ends, revisions, and second drafts), AND you sell it all, AND you get paid for everything on time you’ll make… $1,500 a month.
With no vacation, sick leave, or benefits.
So, how does anyone survive on that amount of money?
Sorry, this is going to be a bit grim.
Don’t Quit Your Day Job
The fact of the matter is, most people who write for tabletop games don’t make enough money doing so to pay all their bills (and especially not to do that and pay their own health insurance, put money away for retirement, build an emergency fund, and so on).
I’m not saying it can’t be done. I AM saying don’t assume you can do it until you’re seeing evidence it’s true.
Especially as you first begin to write for money, I strongly recommend you make that a side gig. It can be a fun way to make extra money, and it can reduce the stress of knowing your nascent writing skills/fledgling career has to pay the bills.
When I first began freelance tabletop game writing, I just wanted to make enough money to pay for a Dragon Magazine subscription. That was a reasonable early goal, and it wasn’t until I was making more money writing than my 40-hour job I went full-time. I strongly recommend this path. Yes, it reduces the pressure to succeed, and some people thrive under that pressure, but it also gives you time to make contacts, build a reputation, and settle in to a new lifestyle.
Live Someplace Cheap
Telling someone the secret to surviving on a tiny amount of money is to move someplace cheap sounds like out-of-touch advice from someone who doesn’t have to do it, and I’ll happily acknowledge that it’s just not a realistic option for everyone.
It is, however, exactly what I did for the majority of my freelance career.
In 2001 I was laid off from a salaried position at Wizards of the Coast, just 14 months after I was hired, and just 3 months after I had sold my out-of-state house and bought a new one on the assurance my job was secure.
And, suddenly, I couldn’t afford to live in the Seattle area anymore.
Note that it wasn’t as expensive them, even relatively, as it is now. But I also wasn’t as well-established then, and looking at making it as a full-time freelancer my wife and I could see it just wouldn’t be possible if we stayed in our new home, hung out with our new friends… or kept our new house.
I could have gotten a non-tabletop game industry job and made ends meet. But we decided nor to do that.
Instead, we moved to Norman, OK, one of the cheapest places in the US to live, and a place where we had an extensive support network. An there we stayed for the next 13 years, as I worked at being a full-time tabletop/RPG writer, up until I was hired by Paizo in 2014 and we moved back to the Seattle area.
So it wouldn’t be an honest or complete list of options from me, if I didn’t include one of the main coping methods I used.
We moved someplace cheap, and stayed there almost a decade and a half.
Ask For More
Don’t be a dick about it, but there’s nothing wrong (BEFORE agreeing to terms and signing a contract) with telling someone you want more money for a project. The difference between 4 cents and 5 cents a word may not seem like much, but it’s a 25% raise.
See if you can retain any rights. See if they can revert to you after 5 years. See if you can get profit sharing. Don’t come back with these over and over on the same project, but do feel free to ask for SOMETHING if you think you’ve earned it. If you are doing your 4th or 5th project with the same people, it’s worth seeing if you can get even a minor raise. It doesn’t have to be a cent a word– if they are offering $55 for 1,375 words and they won’t go for boosting it up to $68.75, ask if they’ll just do $60.
Every. Little. Bit. Helps.
And if you are someone who hates asking for more, or are afraid even one request for a raise will cause a potential client to immediately drop you?
The industry will be happy to never give you more… to your significant detriment.
People who pay you to write for them have a legitimate expectation you’ll do your best work for them, regardless of what they pay you. Once you agree to a pay rate, you are agreeing to do a good job for that amount of money.
Writing is, in my experience, a task where I can ALWAYS do a better job if I have more time. If I have a completely finished draft, ready to go to editing and layout, and a publisher asks me if I could make it better if I had a new deadline and they were going to pay me the per-word rate again to make it better?
The answer is always yes. That’s literally what developers do. And even with my own material, I can always find ways to make it better.
Which means, I can always find ways to take longer than I can afford to.
I’m absolutely not saying to rush through a job or delivery a crappy manuscript. Not only do I consider that unethical, it’s a bad way to build a reputation and a career.
But I AM saying that there’s is a reasonable level of effort to be expected from you, and if you constantly go above-and-beyond, you are going to make it hard to write enough to make a living. If doubling your time spend would give you a 5% boost in quality, then that would probably be spending too much time on that project.
The other end of “Write Fast” is to see what you are doing in your writing time that doesn’t put words on the page. Does every trip to Google to look up poisons used in ancient Rome end up with an hour spent looking at TVTropes? Then you may need to set yourself a research timer.
Did you spend more time watching videos of anime space battle that writing about space battles? Then you may need to set yourself some rules on what constitutes “writing time.”
Don’t make yourself miserable, but do remember that if you want freelance writing to reward you like a job, you need to treat it like a job.
Make Your Leisure Writing Work For You
I am assuming here that you DO leisure writing. That there’s SOMETHING you write for fun.
If not, I have no idea why you want to be a tabletop game writer, and you can just skip this one.
Whatever it is you write for fun — campaign histories, fan fiction, descriptions of fabulous gay taverns in Waterdeep — try to find a way to make money off it. Keep it legal — don’t violate copyright to make a buck — but do consider what your options are. If you are writing material for a campaign you don’t own, see if you can rewrite it to be generic and set it up as a Patreon. Post it to your blog and have a Ko-fi.com tip jar. Save it as material to raid if you get a writing gig you can repurpose it for (assuming you haven’t published it some other way at that point). Gather it together into it’s own product and pitch it to publishers… or get into self-publishing.
If you are a writer, all your writing has value. Don’t overlook ways to monetize anything you have written. If you wouldn’t have written it anyway and posting it gets you $10 a month? That means you can cover one more $100 expense once a year.
Recognize Feast and Famine, and Act Accordingly
As a freelancer, sometimes you’ll have a (relatively) large amount of money drop in your lap at the end of a project… and then nothing for months.
Try to prepare for that.
Hold back money for bills you can predict. Try to build an emergency fund. If you have extra money, that’s a great time to buy in bulk if it’ll actually save you money. But if you don’t know when your next payday is, it’s a good idea to spend as little a possible. You don’t want to get a great deal on 40 gallons of peanut butter, then not have money for any other groceries–or gas, or rent–for 3 months.
I am not the person to tell you when it’s time to take a big risk, or give up, or move on, or take a temporary gig to make ends meet. Only you can do that.
But you need good data to make that call accurately.
So keep track of it all. What you made, what you spent it on, how long it took.
Maybe you discover you can write adventures much faster than campaign settings. Or that you spend too much on pizza delivery when you are on deadline. Or that you can save money on taxes with business deductions.
I don’t know. And if you don’t keep track, you won’t know either.
Yes, relationships with publishers, developers, and editors, in an effort to be kept in mind for work. But also other writers (to bounce ideas off of, commiserate, or in case they become publishers, developers, and editors). People in your community who do freelance work (you never know what resources are out there, and local folks are good contacts to find out). Even fans… sometimes.
Your career is more than your skill. It’s who is willing to pay you for that skill, which means who knows you. And who they think will pick something up because you wrote it, which means who they think knows you matters too.
As an introvert with social anxiety I found this one of the hardest things. But I discovered that when people at conventions invited me out for drinks, they didn’t care if I drank or not. I could get a club soda. It was just an opportunity to network, hang out, make connections. I set my career back at least a decade by avoiding those opportunities for most of my career.
Be smart, be safe. But when you are safe and comfortable, reach out to folks, and make connections.
A strong community will pay dividends in ways you can never predict.
Post Your Thoughts, Ask People to Pay You For Them.
There’s always SOMEONE who cares what you think, and who looks up to where you already are.
Some of them will pay you if you post to a blog, and have a link to some way to give you money.
If you found this useful and you’d like to support the creation of more such content, (and/or if you want the best venue for suggesting more topics to me), check out my Patreon!
So, as with everything on this whole site: I am not a lawyer. This is not legal advice.
And if you are at the stage where you’re writing contracts, you likely could do with some real legal advice. Yes, that costs money. But if you want a contract that’ll actually hold up to a legal challenge, you want a lawyer in your state to have looked at it. Preferably one with some understanding of publishing and trademark and copyright law, if not specifically gaming. Chances are you can find a generic contract online, make changes to it to fit your needs, and take it in for a review for a modest amount of money.
(Or, if you’ve signed some contracts with other companies for game content, you can use that as a template of what to include, though don’t copy the wording whole-cloth without permission.)
Of course heading off legal challenges are far from the only function of contracts. I have found the MOST common (and an extremely useful) purpose they serve is to make the scope and details of the responsibilities of all sides of a deal clear, and to preserve them against bad memories or misunderstandings. More than once, I have discovered at the contract stage that I was supposed to do more than I thought, or get paid less, or give up more rights—or had a freelancer tell me they got a similar surprise when looking over a contract I sent them.
((A note to freelancers: That’s okay, by the way. Until it is signed, a contract is a suggestion. Sure, most big companies won’t change most terms for you… but it’s both worth asking, and worth knowing what you are agreeing to if you go forward with a contract you’re not a huge fan of. And they MAY pay you more, or change a deadline, or make some other accommodation. It should never hurt to ask.
And if asking about the terms of a contract brings some major negative drama? That tells you something about working with those people too.
Also, never work without a contract.
Not even for me. Not even for your friends. (Especially not for your friends!)
If money, rights, intellectual property, work, credit, or anything that has or potentially will have value is exchanging hands or being used by anyone other than its creator, get a contract. It can be short. It can be basic.
But get one before ANY work gets done.
Okay, back to talking to publishers!))
So, with all that forward out of the way, what kind of information should a contract cover?
Yep, step one is who are the parties in the contract. It’s easiest of that’s two parties, such as a writer and a publisher, but you certainly can have multiple-party contracts. One useful thing I notice in a lot of contracts is that once the two parties are identified, they are then referred to by some other defined term, such as “This agreement is by and between Rogue Genius Games, a Washington company having a principle place of business at _[address]_ (hereafter “RGG”)…”
That’s useful, because you can then just use RGG in the rest of the contract. For contracts you want to use as a template, it also means you can have a place for the freelancer’s name and address, and then say (hereafter “Freelancer”), and not have to change the name everyplace you want to refer to the freelancer later in the contract.
While it’s usually obvious, who a contract is between can be surprisingly complex and important. For example, if I ask someone if they want to write a project for me in a casual conversation, it may get lost if I am asking them as a private individual, as the publisher of Rogue Genius Games, in my role as a developer for one of about three other game companies I work with, or some other role entirely. Any lack of clarity about that is my fault, but a contract makes sure that the person working for me knows who they are working for before they formally agree to do the work.
Also, some freelancers do work through an LLC or other legal entity, rather than as sole proprietors of their doing-business-as under their own name. That’s normally not an issue, but when it comes time to claim expenses or report income, it’s super-helpful if I tell the IRS that Freddy Freelancer earned money, and he wants to report it under Freelancer LLC, that out records line up.
It’s also a good idea to define who is getting what kind of credit, and maybe even where. Is the freelancer going to be listed as the author? A writer? As ‘additional content by’? Listed on the cover/ Not mentioned at all? Not every contract covers this, but they certainly could.
It’s also a good idea to give a name for the project, so everyone knows what you’re talking about. But a lot of contracts I see add “or such other title as [Publisher] shall decide to use,” which is obviously a potentially useful bit of CYA.
What laws govern this contract? Your home nation? Home state? Where your LLC is registered? Look into this, and have the contract spell it out.
After a contract covers who, it’s time to get to what—what work is being products. Is it writing? If so is it being figured in words? In pages? In what topics are being covered? It’s important to have a clear description of what the contract is covering. If you need a longer outline, it’s okay to note that there is an outline separate from the contract, or one as an “Exhibit A,” or however your lawyer tells you to set it up.
On top of what the end product is supposed to be, it’s worth calling out the expectations and duties of each side. Many contracts require the freelancer to note the material they turn over is original, never-before contracts, used, or bought, and absolutely not licensed or plagiarized material. Mostly, this is about the publisher having a documents stating they bought the material in good faith, believing it did not violate anyone else’s rights. But it also serves as a reminder for newer freelancers who may not realize that just because something is on Wikipedia or a fan page somewhere doesn’t mean it’s available for commercial use.
In addition to describing the work itself, it should describe the rights being transferred. Is it work-for-hire which (probably) means the author isn’t even considered the author for purpose of copyright law. Is it all rights transferred in perpetuity? Is it just first publishing rights? Can the freelancer still use it for purposes of personal promotion (especially important for visual art). Legal terms can have a lot of weight here, but clarity can also just be useful to set expectations among the parties involved.
The more rights the contract transfers, the more it should pay. I’ve done work for a much lower rate because it just granted exclusive right to use it for 90 days, and then I could reuse or resell it (though noting if I did sell it that it wasn’t new content, but previously published work). I’ve save tons of money on art buying things like second-use rights, or only licensing it to my exclusive use for a limited period of time.
But that all needs to be covered in the contract.
Can the freelancer subcontract? Send you the final manuscript by Facebook chat? Write in in crayon on coffee filters?
Define what format you want the work in, and how it should be sent to you. Email and ftp systems are pretty common now, but if you want it inscribed on vellum and shipped by carrier pigeon, you need to have that in the contract.
Deadlines are important. Include them in the contract.
If you want the freelancer to show you progress before the final deadline, put that in the contract as well. It’s perfectly reasonable for a contract to state that the freelancer needs to turn over a draft with half the work done by the halfway point of the work period. It’s not reasonable to not give any warning you want such advance peeks at how things are going, then get upset of the freelancer doesn’t do so after the contract is signed. They owe you want the contract says they owe you—if you want to be able to dictate when and how and where they do the work, you need to actually hire them.
Also cover if the deadline is when the work is to be done, or when it is to be in your hands. Cover what happens if the deadline is missed. Are you going to start deducting money from the end payment? Are you going to cancel the contract? Do you want to have the right to do either but not be required to?
Put it in the contract.
By ‘why,’ I mean what is the other side getting out of this. You get the freelancer’s work so they should get… paid.
There are lots of parts of that. How much are they getting paid? Is it per word, regardless of how many words they turn over, or is it a flat rate for an approximate wordcount? Is it per word, but only words you end up suing after editing and development? Is it a profit share arrangement? And if so, is it a percentage of the gross, the net, or some other number (such as the gross of the amount you get from distribution, rather than gross of cover price, but after any money for pod and shipping)?
When is the payment coming? Upon acceptance? If so, what qualifies as acceptance by you (and how long do you have to accept before the writer can take their work back)? Upon publication? (That sucks, btw, but if you do it you need to define what counts as publication, and how long after that you have to pay, and what happens if you haven’t published it 90 days, or 9 years, after getting the work in).
How much? And is that in US dollars? Canadian? Australian?
How are you sending the money? Check in the post? PayPal? If there are fees involved in the payment method, are those your responsibility, or the freelancers?
Does the freelancer get anything else? A free copy of the book? Three free copies? The right to buy more at a 50% discount?
When you are discussing this project, with the freelancer or anyone else, keep a notebook (paper or virtual), and take notes about anything important that comes up that people working on it need to keep in mind. Do you need map sketches to send to a cartographer? Well your contract with your writer had better say that. Do you need art descriptions of monsters? Or do you need three writers to work together so none of them duplicate each other’s work? Do you want everything playtested? If so, does the freelancer have your permission to disclose things to playtesters? Do they need to sign NDAs? Or is everything a secret, not to be discussed with anyone until the project is announced?
Think about what you need and who you need it from, then put that in the contracts.
If you found this useful and you’d like to support the creation of more such content, (and/or if you want the best venue for suggesting more topics to me), check out my Patreon!
I had a chance to sit down with the awesome folks of Nerdarchy at Gen Con 2018, and talk a bit about tabletop gaming, content creation, and the evolution of RPGs!
(And some thoughts on Starfinder RPG, Paizo Inc., 5th Edition D&D, Green Ronin, crowdsourcing, and more!)
If you enjoy any of the content on this blog, please consider adding a drop of support through my Patreon campaign!
We covered some of the work you need to do well before you actually make a pitch to a game company in Writing Basics: RPG Pitches (Part One). Now we can go on to What to Pitch and When to Pitch It.
What to Pitch
Okay, so if you’ve gone and done the work we outlined in Part One, you have a number of game companies you know are publishing work for the game system you want to write for, and you know what kinds of projects they publish.
So, now it is time to pitch some things very similar to what they already do. Hopefully, there are projects you are excited about that are a good fit for one or more game companies.
If no-one is publishing the kinds of things you want to write, you have some tough decisions to make. Pragmatically, I recommend you get experience and contacts and a good reputation by pitching the sorts of things publishers are already interested in before you try to pitch unique projects no one else has ever thought of. The latter is amazingly useful if done well—but most publishers are going to be dubious about your ability to do something so nonstandard well until they have some idea of who you are and the quality and tenor of your work.
The best way to earn trust to do something outside the box is to prove you understand what the box is and why it’s there. Publishers gets weird and unusual pitches fairly often—everything from people who don’t understand the legal limitations of publishing (it’s hard to lose my interest faster than by pitching a project I legally can’t do, or that required me to do a lot of work on my end to get the legal rights so you can write a thing).
Once you have written a few things for a company that have turned out well, you can begin pitching more out-there ideas.
If you happen to have any special advantages or skills that make you the perfect person to write a pitch, be sure to include that info. For example, if you DO have the legal rights to do a licensed project that seems similar to what a game company is already doing, that’s something to mention early in a pitch. Make sure you’re actually right about that—for example if you have to have a friend who is a best-selling author and casually said they’d be fine with you writing game material set in their universe get that in writing (preferably with some details on timeframe, rights, royalty needs, and so on).
Or if you are pitching an adventure set in a sewer, and you have a professional wastewater civil engineering job, that’s worth mentioning.
When developing your pitches to suggest to a company you have never worked with before, come up with projects at the shortest end of the things that publisher does. You can include one longer one in a set of pitches, but in general something short is a great first project. It’s not asking the publisher to take as big a risk, and it’s not eating up as much of your time to create. Once you and the publish have a project or two together under your belts, you’re both in a better position to know if you want to work on longer projects together.
(Also, you can make sure the publisher is fulfilling their end of the contract before you get more work tied up with them. Do. Not. Work. Without. A. Contract.)
When to Pitch
Well, as soon as you have done your homework, and know your own schedule, and have a pitch written.
“But… but… gen Con and the GAMA Trade Show and the publisher’s announced schedule and my school year…”
Yep. Pitch now anyway.
Look, there is no “perfect” time to pitch. Your schedule, the publisher’s schedule, both of your sets of needs—those things are in constant flux. Shoot pitches out there asap, and then begin scheduling when you get replies back. If you have enough work booked for 6 months you can pause, but in general even if you have some work lined up it’s worth pitching new things—just be clear in your pitch what your timeframe likely is. Chances are you won’t hear back about your pitch for weeks anyway, and if your availability is different by then, just be honest.
I only included a When to Pitch section because people have asked me tons of questions about getting the timing of this right.
You can’t. Just do it. The time is now.
The Things You’ve Wanted Me To Tell You For 2,000 Words Now
Your success is going to depend a lot on how much you have read and absorbed all the notes and processes I’ve outlined up to this point, and on being persistent and not getting discouraged when the first company you contact turns you down. And the second. And the next ten.
But yes, there are some basic things you should do once you are actually writing and sending the pitch, and for those of you who have been wanting that list, you’ve finally reached that point in my advice. For all of these steps, remember what I’ve said about doing your homework, pitching things similar to what a company already does, and being ready to actually produce once you get a green light.
If at all possible, find the company’s “Contact Us” page, and use the appropriate email to send your pitch. If you can’t find that, contact them through other (public, professional) means and ask what their process is for accepting pitches. Read their whole website and Facebook page before you do that though—getting this right the first time is a much better impression on your ability to get details right.
Begin with an at-most 2-sentence introduction. If you have any connection at all to the publisher or company, mention it here but keep is SHORT, and don’t suck-up.
Pitch 3-4 projects each time you contact a company to see if they are interested in publishing something of yours. Try to make these different enough that if the company has a gap on its schedule, at least one of your ideas is a good match for their needs. Make sure the projects are all things you are actually interested in and able to write. (Some people try to have one “real” pitch and 2-3 terrible ideas they presume no one will choose to publish. Don’t do this.)
Your pitch should include the following information about each project:
A proposed title. This can be a great chance to prove you know their game product lines.
An elevator pitch description. (That is: if you found yourself sharing an elevator with a publisher and you mentioned you were a writer, and they said “Oh yeah? Got a project you’d like to write for us?,” the description of your idea that is complete but short enough to get out before the elevator finishes it’s ride is your “elevator pitch.” 2-3 sentences, top, and one is better.)
A length, in words. (Doing your homework on the company’s project should held you estimate wordcount based on the words in similar projects.)
A timeframe when you could complete it by, in weeks. If your timeframe has other limitations (“if I don’t get started by August I’ll have school, so writing will take long”) include that information.
Your flexibility on any of these points—but only promise what you can deliver.
Anything that is likely to convince the publisher that you are a particularly good choice to write the product in question. Again, be short.
Here’s a sample pitch, though in a real message I’d add 1-2 more project pitches.
Dear Rogue Genius Games,
I read your publisher’s blog article about game product pitches, and it inspired me to write to you to see if you had interest in some projects I’d love to write for you.
Title: Bullet Points: Halfling War Muffin Recipes.
Length: 600-1,500 words.
A 1st edition Pathfinder RPG rules guide that gives options for adding combat-effective and game-balanced baking-related abilities for players and GMs who want cooking-themed character abilities. Similar in size and scope to your existing Bullet Point projects that add rules for one theme, such as 3 Things Made From Crabmen. (This could also be expanded to be a longer Genius Guide-style project, more like the Genius Guide to name Traits.)
With my current workload I expect this would take two weeks to write once we decided to proceed, although if other freelance projects get greenlit first I might need to schedule more like 4 weeks.
I’ve written numerous OGL products for Pathfinder, and worked on Gingerbread Kaiju (an edible boardgame that included a gingerbread recipe in it), and have insights on how to make this both a useful game supplement and something that appeals to foodie gamers.
Thanks for your consideration,
Owen K.C. Stephens
(You can also put your phone number here, if you actually answer your phone. I don’t.)
And that’s it!
Now, go make a dozen more pitches, and while you wait to hear back about those, write for your Blog, Patreon, social media, make some videos… throw your creative spaghetti at the wall, and see what sticks.
Then make more pitches.
Also, Back My Patreon
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So, real talk.
The game industry does not run on motivation. It runs on hard work. The people I see who don’t grasp that, or who can’t accommodate it, don’t last.
It’s pretty easy to write when you’re motivated. That seems self-evident (it’s pretty close to the definition of ‘motivation’), and it’s one reason a great deal of writing advice talks about how to GET motivated, and STAY motivated. When that works for you, that’s great–I’ll take a motivated day of writing over an unmotivated day any time I can. Inspirations, muses, focusing techniques–these are all things that make game design and development much easier to actually do. They may or may not impact the quality of the end product, but they absolutely make it easier to get the work done.
But they are not the end-all, be-all of making it as a successful full-time professional.
I see people struggle all the time with making the leap from side-gig or hobbyist freelancer to growing professional, and a lot of that has to do with being able to operate without motivation. To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with writing as a hobbyist or side-gig, I did it for years in the 1990s before I finally became a true full-time professional. Not everyone even wants to depend on the game industry for their full-time career, and I don’t blame them.
But if you DO want to make that leap, you are going to have to learn how to get work done, at a high quality, when you are not motivated to do so. When it’s just as hard as any other job.
I used to be asked fairly often how I got over writer’s block, and I’d glibly say I looked at my mortgage (nowadays it would be looking at my rent due). While that was clearly an effort to be funny, it’s also more true than I realized at the time. If I didn’t feel words coming to me easily, then I worked to get the words that were hard to produce. Because motivation was inconsistent, and as a game designer looking to make this my primary source of income, I couldn’t be inconsistent.
And in time, that became a skill like any other.
That’s not to say there aren’t tricks to use to get you through periods low on inspiration and enjoying the writing or developing process. Sometimes you can take a break from a project, and discover some other kind of game work is more fulfilling. Sometime you can subvert expectations or analyze what about a project you find lacking and, by addressing that, both become motivated and make the project better. Sometimes you can shuffle the order of things and do boring scut work–whatever that is for you, be it tables, paginations, formatting, outlining, finishing touches, whatever–when you’re not feeling creative to save the “creative” work for when your muse is working.
But sometimes, you just have to tackle the grind and get the job done.
I’ve discussed things related to this topic fairly often. I’ve talked about making sure the whole world isn’t your job, coping mechanisms for impostor syndrome, watching for signs of burnout, and even balancing the needs of burnout and the rent. I’ve also talked about working sick, which is closer to the kind of doing-the-job-when-you-don’t-care skill I’m talking about here, and what I see as the basics of game industry professionalism. And I’ve made lots of posts about coping mechanisms.
But I don’t think I’ve every just come out and said this:
“To be a successful, full-time professional in this industry, you have to do the work even when you are in no mood to do the work.”
And its corollary: “If you want people to trust you to be able to get the work of a full-time professional done, they have to have confidence in your ability to work when unmotivated.”
You don’t have to start there. But you do have to GET there, eventually, or you’ll hit a ceiling of success.
I have coping mechanisms for this, too, of course. I have no idea how universal they are, because this is a topic no one ever seems to want to talk about, until we’re huddled around drinks after-hours at a convention telling horror stories. So none of this may be useful to anyone but me. I offer them up regardless.
These may not help you do the work when you couldn’t care less, but you have to find SOMETHING that can.
So what do I use?
I talk to a trusted source, and see if they can spark some excitement. To be honest, this ENTIRE blog post comes from me not being motivated to write anything for the professional end of my blog this week, and talking to a trusted collaborator who suggested that itself was a topic I should tackle. And in this case, writing about lack of motivation was a perfect task for when I’m not motivated.
I try to change the conditions of my environment. Different-than-usual music, different diet drinks, different things on my desk–anything to alter the physiognomy of my work space. Even if I can’t spark motivation, I can alter the feel of the drudgery so it’s less wearying than the same thing over and over and over.
I work in bursts. Often I am better off writing for 20 minutes, no matter how bad or annoying or 5-degrees-off-true the words are, and then taking a short break. This works especially well if I am having trouble writing, but am still okay to develop existing words. By the next day, the work is existing text, and I can make improvements to the less-than-stellar work of the previous day.
That last one hurts. It means that, at the time I am doing the work, it feels like it’s not work worthy of me, or my employer, or the project.
But for a professional, sometimes what you have to focus on is that at the end of the day, it needs to get done. Every professional I have ever discussed this with agrees that sometimes, you just have to grit it out, so there adventure is finished, the book is published, the project can move forward…
The blog has content.
This is one reason editors and project managers and publishers talk about the value of a freelancer who hits their deadlines and stays in communication before they talk about awesome ideas and inspired writing. Obviously “great” is better than “adequate,” but adequate is better than greatness so late the company has gone bankrupt.
Without people who can do the job even when the muse is silent, inspiration doesn’t strike, and motivation is lacking, you can’t have a game industry. Once careers and house payments and full-time jobs and health insurance is involved, the product must get done, even if it’s not the most inspired entry in the field. And I don’t think we do anyone any favors to hide that fact. Sometimes this career is fulfilling and awesome.
Sometimes it’s what we have to do to fulfill our obligations.
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I think it’s helpful for the name of an RPG to tell you something about what the game is (supposed to be) like.
For licensed properties, this is easy. A Star Wars RPG is about Star Wars For licensed properties, this is easy. A Star Wars RPG is about Star Wars (even if some folks will always claim it is just the Ghostbuster’s rules of D&D, “reskinned”).
Dungeons and Dragons does a good job of this–it’s a game about monsters and underground locations. Yes, it’s more than that, but it still tells you something. And it’s ubiquity allows you to show kinship with it easily enough — Tunnels and Trolls is clearly giving a similar feel as D&D. Mutants & Masterminds was brilliant.
Hero System and Champions are both pretty good.
Shadowrun was not as good as Cyberpunk, originally, but it is now. Gamma World was good, but Aftermath was better, and Marrow Project at least as good.
But Omega World was brilliant, because of Gamma World.
Both Vampire and World of Darkness did good jobs with this.
Star Frontiers was better than Traveller in this department, but Space Opera may have been better than either.
I’m not comparing the quality of these games as games. Just the ease of branding offered by their names.
I think about this, when I am working on things like Really Wild West, which I hope does a good job of immediately identifying itself as a kind of over-the-top Weird West setting.
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Sometimes, it’s useful to know how a given RPG is doing, both in absolute terms (how many units sold total, how many this month), and relatively (what is it doing better than? What is it doing worse than? Are it’s numbers trending up, or down?)
Especially if you are a 3pp and you are considering doing a licensed product linked to a core game, it can be useful to know how those core games are doing.
But, game companies don’t normally release numbers like that. And even if you want to compare a game to something you publish, you only have one set of those number (your units sold). (And sometimes you don’t even know that if you have things out to distributors with a returnability clause, meaning things you think you have sold might still come back to you and require a refund–but that’s another post).
So the best you can do is gather what little information the industry has, much of which is vague and anecdotal, and then make you best guess.
Since the Starfinder Roleplaying Game is a system covered by the Open Gaming License, and my blog does OGL things compatible with it, let’s see if we can figure out any sources of info to help pin down the game’s popularity.
When released at Gen Con in 2017, the Starfinder Core Rulebook sold out in 5 hours. That’s a fine start, but it doesn’t tell us much about sales now, or how many total units moved.
The Starfinder Core Rulebook is #69 for RPG gaming books on Amazon for gaming books. The Pathfinder Core Rulebook at 66. Other Starfinder books are also in the Top 100–Armory at #52, Alien Archive at #48, Armory #52, and Pact Worlds #93.
Pathfinder has one other entry, the GameMastery Guide at 94.
Battletech, Call of Cthulhu, GURPS, Savage Worlds, Shadowrun, Cortex, FATE, 13th Age, World of Darkness, Mutants and Masterminds and for that matter most other non-D&D tabletop rpgs don’t have any books that make the top 100. That’s only one seller, but it’s a big seller.
Now that’s all relative information only, but it does tell you something about whether new Starfinder books are still moving well, and how they do in physical, online sales compared to other RPGs. You can also try to use that information to guesstimate sales per month, though again you can’t really trust the quality of that data. Still, that data, iffy as it is, says the Core Rulebook is moving 290 units per month on Amazon alone.
You can also look at ICv2‘s ranking of Top 5 RPGs, keepign in mind again that the data is from just one set of courses and not gathered scientifically. ICv2 listed Starfinder at #2 for Fall 2017 and Spring 2018, (behind D&D in both cases).
Roll20 periodically does a quarterly report showing how many games and players are using it for games of various systems. The latest report I can find (June 12, 2018) says “Starfinder is growing steadily, from #16 to #11 over the course of two quarters, and we anticipate that the release of the official Starfinder sheet, as well as some excellent Starfinder products, will break it into the top 10 in no time.”
For many games, you could also look at their relative sales position on DriveThruRPG (for a relative sense of recent sales compared to other games sold on the site), and the metallic best-seller values of specific products (for a feel of total sales over that product’s lifetime). However, Paizo does not sell the Starfinder pdfs or print books on DriveThru, so the best you could do is compare various Starfinder-compatible 3pp products to the 3pp products of other games. There might be times when that kind of comparison is useful, but they are going to be rare enough I’m not going to dig up sample data just for a blog article.
NONE of these sources of info are definitive. But they do give something slightly better than a wild guess, or asking people at a single game store of convention what they *think* is doing well. It seems clear that Starfinder’s sales are healthy, and so far that appears to be a steady or growing trend. There are other things you can look at, like what kinds of products has the publisher of the game announced? The fact that Paizo has a Starfinder Beginner’s Box coming at least suggests they are looking at new customer acquisition, which may help keep Starfinder sales robust.
You can sometimes augment the utility of such things with your own sales information–if you know how well a print book of yours is selling on Amazon, you know books rated about it are moving more units than that.
And sometimes you can tease out other trends as well–but that’s a practice for people who think there’s specific information they need, and I wish them the best of luck.
It’s not GREAT data for making business decisions, but in general I do find it better than nothing.
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I talk a lot about how the best way to get work as a freelancer is to put your name, in a positive context, in front of people who can give you work as often as possible. That’s true in my experience, but it also just hints at another truth about the tabletop game industry in general.
It’s not just what you can do. It’s also about who you know, and who you are.
The tabletop game industry is stunningly small. Personal relationships, personality matches, and private opinions carry a lot of weight on who everyone does business with. At a pragmatic level, the bigger a company the more likely it is to try to just look at objective questions of what makes sense for a business, but those decisions are made by individual people, and their preferences and biases can impact everything from who gets a faster reply to an inquiry to who is trusted with big-dollar budgets.
Obviously it’s helpful to have friends in the industry, but equally obviously most people don’t start off with that advantage. It is absolutely possible to make friends, but more importantly it is possible to build relationships based on trust and respect. Friendship can cause problems as often as it gives an advantage, because people don’t like to give their friends bad news. And the tabletop game industry is all-too-often a place where business decisions are bad news.
Building relationships within the industry can happen organically just by being active in industry activities. Post regularly on messageboards. Write reviews. Engage in social media. Go to conventions. Volunteer to help with events, especially running games for organized play programs. None of those things generally gives you a direct payoff in “game industry friends earned per month,” but they do expose you to people who, like you, are building a network of people known.
Pragmatically, remember that with all these interactions being professional and honest and accurate is going to impact how people think of you. I absolutely do not recommend being a kiss-ass–most people aren’t actually very good at that, and yes-folks aren’t as useful as people who can give an honest, professional opinion. But you also don’t want to be an asshole. There are successful game industry professionals who use ‘asshole” or “grumpy curmudgeon” as their brand, but I don’t recommend it. It’s a lot of work, it requires a lot of talent, and in my opinion they often do themselves as much harm as good and are sometimes buoyed up by cults of personality who can give them bad feedback, false promises of support, or even turn on them.
The main point with this kind of industry engagement is to let people know who you are, and hopefully learn who you get along with. Tabletop game projects often involve a lot of interaction and back-and-forth among their participants, and a lot of us want to know we can get along with someone before we commit to working with them for weeks, months, or even years.
That means that all those things people want to keep out of business decisions–politics, sense of humor, debate style, even questions of spirituality–can impact who you want to work with, and who wants to work with you. I know people in the industry who dislike being in long conversations with me because I am too likely to extensively engage in at-best-mid-quality puns. Obviously that limits my ability to get those people excited to work with me, even if they think I have the skills and connections to help a project along. Equally obviously, I’m not willing to change how I interact with them enough to remove that block to a working relationship. Sometimes we get over that hurdle (often by using middlemen or online-only communications, where I can regretfully delete clever wordplay that’s out-of-place). Sometimes we don’t. But by knowing each other well enough to foresee an issue, we can decide if the extra work is worth the payoff.
Especially early on, extra complements and support can help open doors to more opportunities to show people who you are. from Kickstarters to Patreon campaigns to pre-sales to social media posts about upcoming projects, people who make things happen in the industry often have ways you can show your support, and that is not the worst way to introduce yourself to someone. But don’t pander–it’s not a good basis for any long-term relationship, and it’s exhausting.
I’m not going to try to present this as reasonable or the way things “should” be, but the tabletop game industry is hard enough that many of its professionals just don’t have any interest in working with people they don’t get along with. Sometimes this results in people playing favorites, and that can be frustrating when you are the outside of a social circle. But it’s also something that can mostly only be overcome by developing your own social circle. You have to do the work, be available, put yourself out there, but you also have to remember that every interaction with everyone in the game industry is a preview of what you are like to talk to and hang around with.
Memories in the industry are often as long as the industry itself is small. If you insult someone, slight their work rudely, fail to uphold your end of a contract, or honestly do anything that seriously annoys them, it can impact their desire to work with you forever. I have friends and partners who avoid ever being on the same project because they can’t get along with one another. I don’t recommend trying to walk on eggshells–you have to live your life–but respect, consideration, politeness, and fulfilling obligations once you undertake them go a long way to build a reputation and network of people who appreciate your efforts.
You can’t compromise who you are or what your values are–there are people I won’t work with for moral and ethical reasons. You shouldn’t take risks you can’t afford even for friends–there are projects I have declined to get involved with because while I liked everyone working on it, I had no confidence in their ability to see it through. You can’t make people like you–there’s no one I know in this industry who doesn’t have a few serious detractors, deservedly or not. But you can be aware of the impact of your personality and behavior, and remember that it’s not divorced from your ability to make deals, get work, earn trust, and move forward with career goals.
This is a long-term concern. It takes years, often, for engagement to build any relationships that help you know who you want to work with, and who wants to work with you. But those years are going to pass one way or another. I find it’s best to try to use them to increase my opportunities, rather than burn bridges.
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