Category Archives: Business of Games
It should, perhaps, be no great surprise that when I publicly discuss my various mental health issues, professional failings, and depression-driven concerns of failing others, one common refrain is “Relax. Don’t worry about it. It’s just a game.”
I know that, at least in most cases, these declarations are coming from a palce of caring and a desire to be helpful. But, in fact, they are spectacularly unhelpful for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is: it’s not “just a game” until it exists and you and your friends are deciding whether or not to play it.
When it’s still being written? It’s a project in a business, no different than making the donuts for a coffee shop or writing music for a professional band. It is work that not only pays my bills, but that is used to generate money to pay the bills for my colleagues, coworkers, and friends.
Now in the case of things I am writing for myself, to be published as a pdf or at most POD for Rogue Genius Games? Then if I fail, I most likely impact only myself. I need the money, but anyone else I involve isn’t brought in until the project is done—though in the case of projects I need to develop for freelancers working with me, THEY are certainly in financial limbo if I can’t find the time to get the project out.
But for some of the other companies I work for? The ones who do print runs of hardback books numbering in the thousands, with developers, editors, layout artists, art directors, customer service agents, warehouse/shipping crew and so on? Those companies live and die by the ability to schedule and plan to get these books out on time, with all the steps needed to do that tied to my ability to produce the words. If I fail, there are anywhere from a handful to dozens of people whose livelihoods I am threatening. For them it’s not “just a game,” it’s the product that pays for their health insurance, apartments, mortgages, retirement funds, and so on.
No, I don’t stay up at night worrying about if some player somewhere has to wait an extra 30 days to get their hands on an adventure, or a new character option. But I do feel the full, hefty weight of being one of the early cogs in a financial machine that feeds people.
The game industry is brutal. Even big, established companies are no more than a handful of flops from going under, or at least having to make hard choices that can lead to cutting back, laying off, or changing plans. I work for some very smart people, but I have also seen companies that were common names in the games industry go bankrupt even without a project being late.
This industry is brutally hard under the best of circumstances. Unprofessionalism, tardiness, poor quality, or a dozen other things I could get wrong can have real impacts on the quality of life for other people.
THAT is what I worry about. And, to some extent, I hope every freelancer thinks about it at least occasionally.
Once it exists and is sitting on your table, it’s “just a game.” When it covers payroll, it’s a business. A profession. A career. And, as a freelancer, a duty.
Speaking of My Career
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I hope to put up a series of videos this week, beginning some some that recount the many tales of my very first day of work at Wizards of the Coast, back in 2000.
If you enjoyed this, check out the other videos I’ve posted on my page of Youtube videos.
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So let’s open with this – Rogue Genius Games (RGG) has a Kickstarter running at the moment (until Oct 15th). That obviously colors my opinions, and I want my biases up front. And, to be clear, I hope you’ll click on that link and consider backing my KS campaign. This post serves triple duty, as content for my blog, as an ad for our current KS, and as a way to start a conversation about how the industry is evolving.
That said, there are a lot of people, including many in the game industry, who feel an established company, or a big company, “shouldn’t” fund projects with Kickstarter. What counts as established or big varies by person (and, honestly, sometimes by conversation, and in some cases without an accurate idea what the actual size of some of the companies involved is), and in many cases RGG is likely small or struggling enough we come in under the theoretical line for it being “fair” for us to use Kickstarter
Now to be clear, if someone doesn’t want to back a Kickstarter that’s an entirely reasonable position, regardless of their reasoning. It’s a company’s job to convince you to invest in a KS campaign, and no project is “owed” support by backers. A Kickstarter campaign being run professionally has to expect both doubt and even naysayers, and one that isn’t being run professionally is a much bigger risk to backers.
Even so I think it’s worth taking some time to explain, from my point of view as someone running a company that has used (and plans to continue to use) Kickstarter for bigger projects why I find it useful and believe it’s a legitimate and useful tool for business of any size. Of course as a producer of tabletop games, mostly RPGs, that’s going to be the focus of my thoughts.
- In the Modern Tabletop Era, Pre-Orders Are Largely Meaningless
The idea of selling a product that doesn’t exist yet is not new. From the early days of gaming, companies would take orders for books they hadn’t finished, known as pre-orders, and use that money and information to finish the book and determine how many to print.
When I was first getting into the game industry in the 1990s, many of the people I worked for were already decrying the death of the pre-order system. At least for many companies, it used to be that if you announced a product that would come out 6-9 months later, you could expect a decent percentage of your sales to be pre-orders. Fans would pre-order from game shops, game shops would pre-order from distributors, and distributors would pre-order form game companies. With that information, and historical context, you could make a reasoned estimate of how well a product would do, and set the size of your print run accordingly.
The size of a print run has a huge impact on the profitability of a game product (with the exception of Print on Demand, which has its pros and cons but is generally a discussion for another day). The more books you print, the less each book costs. Which is great—as long as you sell them all. It can be very difficult to know if you are better off printing 1,000 copies at a unit cost of $2.75 each, or printing 1,500 for a unit cost of $2.55 each. Obviously the difference in pure profit is notable, and having more to sell means more potential income. But it’s also $2,750 vs. $3,825 to pay for the whole print run. If you end up selling 999 copies, the lower per-unit cost doesn’t matter.
Working with many game companies in the modern era, the feedback I get is that not only are pre-orders much smaller and less reliable than they used to be, they are no longer particularly useful for predicting total popularity. Books tend to get roughly the same number of pre-orders regardless of how well they end up selling. I presume this means that only hardcore fans and stores are pre-ordering, and thus tend to do it regardless of a product’s general appeal, but it’s also possible that online sales have changed how the system reacts to demand. Regardless, the point is that knowing I pre-sold 40 copies of a book does nothing to tell me if it’ll sell 1,000 copies, 1,500 copies, or 3,000 copies.
A Kickstarter goes a long way to solving this problem. First, the number of Kickstarter backers a book gets almost always exceeds what it would have gotten in modern preorders, which helps replace the funding pre-orders used to give companies to do books. Also, it sets a floor for how many copies I need, helping narrow down print run sizes. Third, it seems to be a better tool for determining the overall success of a product. Both from my own experience and having spoken to numerous game companies and even retailers, books with more successful Kickstarters generally are also more successful in sales after the Kickstarter. That’s useful information to have.
- Failure Is Useful
It’s especially useful information for a game company when a Kickstarter fails to reach its funding goal. That’s frustrating, but it’s also crucial information. Game companies can be killed by a single massive failure in a book they printed. Numerous companies HAVE dies from a single big flop, though admittedly usually companies with other problems as well. But discovering a project can’t raise the minimum needed to finish it before you spend that money is a huge help. It allows game companies to take risks, which leads to innovation, because they have both a read on popularity and a source of income to do things that might cost more than their normal efforts. Discovering that something is a bad idea, or at least needs retooling, before spending all the development and print and shipping and warehousing costs for it is an enormous incentive to try riskier things. I believe that is both good for the industry overall, and for creative endeavors of specific companies and creators.
- It’s Good Advertising
There aren’t all that many great, affordable venues for reaching tens of thousands of potential customers in the tabletop industry anymore. At one time Dragon magazine had a circulation over 100,000 copies. While there are successful game magazines still running (Rite Publishing’s Pathways is amazingly steady and has affordable ad options – but again, I am biased as someone who works for Rite), none of them have anything like that reach. The closest I can think of with that kind of power is John Reyst’s d20pfsrd.com site, and numerous companies I know have made great use of it… to advertise Kickstarters.
I strongly suspect that one (admittedly of many) reasons pre-orders are down in the modern era is that there isn’t a “magazine of record” for RPGs and tabletop as a whole. Dragon was, at least for a good chunk of its existence, much more than a D&D magazine. I read reviews of and saw ads for many competing game systems in its pages, and nothing with that broad base appeal and vast reach seems to still exist.
A Kickstarter is an event, and it’s one that encourages word of mouth. Because of the structure of stretch goals, people already backing you have an incentive to tell their friends and get THEM to back you, so the end product is better. And it allows a game company to push advertising for a specific time period—the duration of the Kickstarter campaign, and know that those efforts pay off in terms of total product size and quality, and likely long-term sales.
- Speaking of Stretch Goals
If a Kickstarter goes crazy-popular, and the creator manages it properly (and yes, you can mishandle a Kickstarter as a creator, but that’s hardly a problem unique to the platform), you can discover demand for something is much higher than you thought. If you offer a campaign to fund a 32-page supplement on Halfling War Baking, and it turns out what the world really wants is a 160 page hardback full color book on the topic, it’s great to discover that while there’s time to value-size your project. Similarly done properly (again, which doesn’t always happen), a Kickstarter can also let you test the waters for supplements and related add-on products. A game company might well have no other way of getting this information, and thus customers might have no other change to indicate they want it. As a connection directly between creator and consumer, this is huge. Speaking of which:
- It Creates a Community
There are pros and cons to this one, on both sides, but having a venue where people who have put their money where their mouth is can speak directly to creators has a vast potential I think creators are still learning the right way to benefit from. For customers, being able to pledge $1 to be able to speak directly to the creator, in a venue where other customers can publicly see your opinion, has a strong potential for encouraging accountability. Or course it also creates a new potential for trolling, but you take the bad with the good in this case.
Creators can also ask question directly of the people already paying them, adjust a product based on popular feedback, explain their processes—it’s a weird combination of written seminars, ad space, and forums. At its worst, it can become a toxic pool, but so can most means of online communication. At its best it’s an open and creative forum of stakeholders in a developing project, and I think that benefit is both underappreciated and still developing.
Compared to entertainment option creators like movie studios and big novel publishing houses, even the largest tabletop RPG game creator is tiny. I think there is a strong benefit in having a new and interactive way for just folks who have proven their interest in a project get to interact with the creators of it to try to build bonds and (hopefully) earn trust and buy-in.
- Finally, From Folks Smarter Than Me
Monte Cook Games are great, smart folks, who do RPG Kickstaters well. Like, expert-level well. Since it’s a public post, I am going to link to a Facebook post of Shanna Germain, where she talks about and shows a post by Charles M. Ryan that speaks to “Why Kickstarter?” I think it’s well worth the read.
Speaking Of Online Funding Sites
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There’s been some interest expressed recently in what my résumé looks like, inspired at least in part with the fact that Paizo has job positions open, and I have managed to get hired by Paizo. That’s a fair point, and goodness knows I got help when I was first trying to put together a game-industry facing résumé, but before we discuss the subject at hand, I want to point a few things out.
First, I am not an expert, or even a talented amateur, on the subject of résumés. My advice is of the hardscrabble trial-and-error type, and even if you find it interesting I strongly, STRONGLY advise you also get some professional help. There are guides online, books on the subject, centers that offer free help in some cases—look for them and use them. We’re talking about your first impression for an opportunity that could change your life. The offhand commentary from a free gamer blog should NOT be your primary source of guidance.
Second, my résumé objectively has a horrible track record. Don’t get me wrong, I am THRLLED to be working for Paizo, Green Ronin, and Rite Publishing. But I applied for jobs at Paizo three times before I was hired. I applied for jobs with other game industry positions seventeen (I counted) times between my first game industry job at Wizards of the Cost and my current full-time position. Now those results may be typical—but they don’t point to my résumé being the ur-model with which all game industry jobs become attainable.
For the most part, people who hired me already knew me and had worked with me. I can’t express how important that is. If you want a full-time game industry job, you need to be getting published. Write on your own free blog if no one else will pay you. Reach out to tiny game publishers. Work cheap (but NEVER for free—if anyone is making money on your work, you need to be making money on it).
Third, this is my general “résumé for the game industry” advice. It’s not Paizo specific, following my suggestions does not assure you any special treatment in any current hiring situation, and there isn’t a test over it. This is my personal, experienced-based opinion, and nothing more.
Fourth, this is advice for a game designer/developer/editor type of position. If you are applying for human resources director, or accounting, or marketing, or some other professional position in a game company that isn’t making and polishing text for games? Ignore my advice. Those are jobs that require you to prove you can do THOSE jobs. Don’t apply to be a game industry accountant with a huge list o game credits. It’s worth noting you understand and enjoy games… but what you need to focus on for that is accounting.
So, with those notes in place, what does my résumé look like?
It Doesn’t Look Like A Character Sheet
Some readers are shocked I feel the need to say this, and others are shocked I am going to speak out against it. Yes, there was maybe a time when making a “cute” or “creative” résumé would get more attention and give you a leg up in hiring. That time was the 1980s. Now everyone assumes you “love games,” are “uniquely creative,” and “can bring fun and great ideas to your company.”
What they DON’T assume is that you can be professional, work in an office environment, and take things like formats and deadlines seriously. This is your first change to show them you can.
No bright orange paper. No unicorn doodles in the margins. No formatting your résumé to look like a character sheet, a set of wargames rules, a wanted poster, or anything other than a professional resume. Don’t use weird fonts, custom graphics, or flowcharts. Those cute ideas look great on your blog, as proof you are creative. They don’t look great on the des of a manager who has to find someone who can sit in a cube 40 hours a week and produce useable text and documentation.
Your résumé should be black ink on while paper (or background for electronic résumés), have headers for each section, and list things in concise, possibly bullet-pointed lists.
It Offers Simple Info, Not Complex Explanations
If you went to Clarion West in 2014, absolutely list that with education or experiences. DON’T go into great detail about who instructed you, who you sat next to, or what the name of the insold manuscript you created is. Yes, the person hiring may want to know those things. And you want them to want to know those things. You also want them to have to call your for an interview to learn those things, and you want to have neat things to say in that interview.
For your résumé? Just the facts, man.
It Excludes Irrelevant Info
No one needs to know your worked for Burger Clown from 2003 to 2007. Really, unless it speaks to your ability to make games, no one needs to know anything about your jobs from 2003 to 2007. If you were working at a library, museum, book bindery, archeological dig, computer lab, another publisher (of anything), or even a deadline-and-rules focused job, it’s worth mentioning.
Otherwise? Just skip it.
You can mark your employment history “Recent Employment” or “Key Job Experiences” or anything else you like that’s simple and factual if you want it to be clear you aren’t listing every job you’ve had your entire life. But useless info that doesn’t make you look like a better game industry employee is just more words they have to get through while looking for a reason to hire you.
This is ALSO true of education. If you have some college? Mention it. If not, and there’s nothing else there that you think will make a game industry manager want to hire you? Just skip the section entirely.
The game industry has everything from high school dropouts to M.I.T. graduates. Focus on the things that make you look good, no matter which end of that spectrum you’re on. And if at an interview stage someone asks you why you dropped out of school, “I was too busy playing games” isn’t a bad answer in THIS industry, despite sounding terrible for any other job.
It Includes Everything I Was Ever Paid to Write, Develop, Edit, or Consult On
Yep, everything. I have a Publication Credits section, after everything else, and it is pages and pages of credits. It’s arranged by type of credit (author, designer, developer, and so on), and then by year, and then by product. If I wasn’t the only person doing that job, I include a “with” note (“with JD Wiker and Jeff Grubb”). For series and magazine articles I sometimes compress them together with a note a full list is available. (Dragon magazine, various articles issues 251-355, full list available upon request).
Your credits are your REAL résumé for the game industry. If you have a blog? List it. Include the url, so a reader can go check out how brilliant you are. If you have 31 self-published credits each of which has sold 4 copies? List them. It’s proof you can finish something. If you have a wiki on game rules for DragonBurger, an obscure boardgame from 1993/ List it. It shows you have passion and the ability to organize information.
I try to keep a running list of everything I have credits in, so I don’t have to take 12 hours to compile them later. That’s what I say “resume you résumé,” because if you want a job in this industry, you should be working on your resume nonstop, a little at a time, every time you get a credit.
It Has Everything Else the Job Posting Calls For
Cover letter. Writing Sample. Whatever the job posting says to include, I include. This is your first chance to prove you can do what the people hiring you tell you to do. And that is WHY they are hiring you—to do what they say. Game industry jobs can be fun, but they ARE jobs.
Your résumé is your first chance to prove you understand that.
It’s Spell Checked, and My Wife Reads It
A typo in your résumé may not be a dealbreaker… but why risk it?
It Doesn’t End With a Link to My Patreon
Though honestly? Maybe it should. But my blog DEFINITELY should, because my patron’s support is how I manage the time to write things like this. If you found this useful and want to support more content like this? Please consider offering some support.
I’ll be at Gen Con! Here’s what my schedule looks light right now.
I come in before noon. I have a few informal things planned, but you might be able to catch me someplace (like the Omni hotel lobby) if you want to.
I’m open most of the day! I might try to Meet and greet hour someplace, if folks express interest (and yes, that would be a good time to have me sign stuff).
I mysterious disappear around 7pm, and likely for the rest of the night.
I’m on several seminar panels!
11am Location: ICC room 212
Introduction to the new Starfinder RPG. Learn the story of the Starfinder universe, what you need to start playing, & where to begin your own character’s legend.
Starfinder Rules Q&A
12pm Location: ICC room 212
An up-close look at the rules of Starfinder, including differences between the Starfinder & Pathfinder rules. Ask questions & discuss the philosophy behind the Starfinder game system.
I’ll be at the ENnie Awards! A great time to meet a lot of your favorite game designers, especially those with products up for awards!
Starfinder Rules Design workshop
10am Location: ICC room 212
Participate in a hands-on workshop focused on rules design in the Starfinder universe & assist in developing original rules from concept to execution.
Designing Starfinder Aliens
12pm Location: ICC room 212
Learn the secrets of monster making & everything that goes into creating a truly terrifying foe.
Secrets of the Pact Worlds
1pm Location: ICC room 212
Come explore the inner region of space in the Starfinder universe. Learn about Absalom Station & discover alien species.
Starfinder – The Digital Tools Horizon
2pm Location: Crowne Plaza Victoria Stn B
What does the digital destiny of Starfinder look like? Leading companies answer your questions & outline their visions of the future!
I mysteriously disappear again in the evening. 😀
Currently wide open!
This is the OTHER day I might schedule an open meet-and-greet, if there was interest.
I fly out in the afternoon, and I suspect I’ll watch the Moon eat the Sun from the airport.
I used to send type-written article proposals to Dragon Magazine via US Postal Service, with a S.A.S.E. (That’s a Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope, for those of you who weren’t trying to get published in the 80s and 90s.)
Then I’d wait 4-6 weeks for a response. If there were things he’d like to see some different version of, I had to send ANOTHER written physical piece of mail. If something was approved, or approved with changes, I had to type that out, then mail in the typed article.
When then-Editor of Dragon Dave Gross sent me an email address (sent my US post) I could use to send in magazine proposals and submissions from that point on (with orders it Not Be Shared), around about my third article, it was a HUGE boost to my career. But I began with paper submissions.
By the time I was interviewed for a job at Wizards of the Coast, I could bring files with me on a 3.5″ floppy, in case I stayed someplace with a business center that had a computer I could work on. (A laptop, though they existed, was entirely outside my economic grasp.) So when I was flown out for a in-person interview, I managed to finish a Dragon article between when I left home and when I arrived at the old WotC building to wait an hour or so for my interview, so when a Dragon editor ran down and asked if I knew when the article would be ready, and I gave him the disk, he hugged me and ran back upstairs to begin editing it immediately.
Of course, that meant the people who were about to decide if they wanted to hire me heard about how I brought a much-needed article with me, just before my interview.
Paper. Stamps. Email. Floppy disks. It could be done before filesharing and blogs and Google Docs.
(Looks around. Nods once. Trundles back to dinosaur cave.)
The Modern Era
Now, I can offer material directly to the end-users, with things like My Patreon!
Full-time, on-staff tabletop/pen-and-paper RPG writers with benefits are incredibly rare in the US.
I was told in 2000 there were more full-time astronauts in the US (149 at the time) than full-time, on-staff RPG writers. I suspect that was true at the time. There are fewer US astronauts now, and a lot more small companies with 1 or 2 people running it as full-time jobs, so whether it’s true now is going to depend on how you define things.
Getting on-staff at a game company as a creative of any kind (designer, developer, R&D, writer… titles vary by company) requires you to have a proven track record and a reputation for being someone that is easy to work with. In my opinion, nowadays the easiest way to get those started is by writing things for social media (one of the reasons I have a blog, for example), then work cheaply for small game companies, often for pdf-only or print-in-demand products. Hopefully you’ll get better, get more work, and come to more people’s attention. As your network of contacts spread and more people know about you, the size of company that is interested in working with you goes up.
The leap from that to an on-staff position is still a big one. I worked for Wizards of the Coast from 2000 to 2001, then was a full-time freelancer for most of the next 13 years before I got another staff job here at Paizo. You may have better luck than I did, or you may want to start your own publishing company, or begin a Patreon, or just do freelance work for several different companies, many of them smaller than Paizo.
Good luck to everyone who tries!
I try to be open about my various mental, emotional, and physical issues. But I also try to not harp on them. I’m not sure what the right balance is, but as I sit 10 days from Gen Con, and the release date for a whole series of books that have eaten up a lot of my headspace, it seemed reasonable to offer a snapshot of how I am doing.
The idea here is not to bemoan my circumstances (I am fortunate and privileged in many, many ways) or ask for help (I have the support I need). But I do want people who feel their own limitations puts various achievements out of reach to be able to see the spectacular level of imperfection that is normal for me. Your path may well be much harder. I’m not trying to give some life coach pep talk. Just honestly share where I am, and let all of you who care to read it decide what that information means for you.
There’s more work to be done than hours or brain cells to do it, and even when I have the time I don’t always have the capacity. Numerous things that trigger many of my anxieties are all happening at one, and even knowing I have been through these things many times before doesn’t really seem to help me keep a handle on things. This is a spectacular confluence of events hammering my sense of calm. As an analogy–knowing ripping the band-aid off will hurt, and that it’s both necessary and temporary, doesn’t reduce the pain of doing it.
I’m not getting enough sleep, and I am stressing too much. These factors will build until after Gen Con, and then, maybe (but only maybe) I can get my life back to some semblance of normalcy. Until then, I am desperately trying not to let anyone down, not turn over sub-par work for anyone else to have to clean up (a task at which I have apparently already failed a couple of times), and not cry in public. That last is trickier now that I work in an office than it was when I worked from home 90% of the time.
I know, intellectually, I am going to get through this. I am even proud of a lot of the things I am accomplishing, and I have no intention of giving up. But I also am being honest with myself–there are yet more rough times ahead. There will be great times mixed in with them, too. That’s kinda how life works. My depression is a wild card, but even that I’ll get through if it rears up. The important thing is to keep doing everything I can, whenever I can. Some days will be good. Some will be bad. And I need to keep to my coping mechanisms, and forgive myself when they break down.
I’m exhausted, and repetitious, and run down, and worried. But sometimes I am proud and excited, too.
To a lesser extend, this is what any major new release or convention appearance does to me. this year is just magnified significantly in all regards.
It’s all imperfectly normal for me.
So if there’s one thing I learned in RPG publishing*, it’s that your d20-based fantasy rpg publishing company needs a small, fantasy-themed, murderous creature to use as a mascot.
Sadly the obvious choices–goblins, gremlins, kobolds, the demon god Orcus–are taken.
So, that pretty much leaves us with dark creepers, dretch, mites, and orang-pendaks.
I think we can all agree mite is the “big” winner here.
Of course, that means (by law), I have to think about a free RPG day adventure** featuring Mites.
For this sort of thing, the name comes first.
Here are my current choices:
A Mite. B Giants.
Doom (The Spell) Comes to Fog-Town
The Mite-y Horde
Vermins and Vigilantes
Clearly***, this is the first step to a much greater level of success for me!
*And there might not be. And this is satire. Though there still might not be.
**I only have to think about it. I don’t have to do it. which is good, since I’m not going to.
***It is not clear.
This is weird
Yes it is. I give some explanation of it on my Patreon, in a currently patron-exclusive format.
This industry eats people alive. That’s because it’s extremely demanding, draws in those who are passionate, but doesn’t pay well. I’ve been a full time game writer for most of the past 20 years, and more than a decade of that was freelance. A lot of people who began when I did have left, for computer games, novels, or in some cases security guard gigs or farming. They leave because the time demands, creativity demands, occasional unprofessional ruining either your projected income or something you love, and the pay is, compared to other things with similar demands, low. And often, they leave broken, vowing to never return.
To be clear, I don’t blame anyone for those facts. That’s the way the industry is. I work for, and with, a lot of great people who do their absolute best to take care of everyone they can. I’m not railing against some corporate greed, or claiming I could do better. heck, I’m a publisher as well as a writer and developer. I know what the economic realities are. I am very fortunate to have as many great employers as I do. It’s just a rough business, and it’s somewhere between hard and impossible to do well by only putting in 40 hours a week.
So, I do more than that. But that’s not a universally good thing. I know I take on a lot, and I try to give everyone what is expected. And, I fail sometimes. Sometimes very publicly. I’m in my late 40s, I have two decades under my belt, and I still feel like this is all a learning experience.
And like a lot of game designers, I live locked in battle with two extremes—burnout, and the rent.
Burnout is real, and if you fully burn out you are done. There are lots of signs of burnout—never enjoying the work instead of only not liking some parts of it; not being able to force yourself to work on a specific project; depression; panic; confusion, as to why what used to work to get projects finished doesn’t anymore; apathy; slowing of new ideas; reduced quality; a willingness to cut corners in ways you know aren’t right (be that ethically, legally, or just not the kind of work you like to produce, depending on who you are and how badly you burned out).
But just because you can see potential burnout, doesn’t mean you can walk away. Everyone will tell you to… but they don’t know your budget, your needs, your situation overall. If you have people depending on your to provide for them, if you know you can’t survive a loss of income, if you’re going to be homeless if a project falls through, “taking a break” may not be a realistic option for you.
I have flirted with burnout more than once over the years. Sometimes I’d love to have walked away, but at that moment it wasn’t financially practical. Other times I knew if I could push through some specific project, I’d be fine. It isn’t always the big projects, either. Sometimes something small will suck up hundreds of hours of time, because you just can’t get it right.
On the other hand, you also can’t just ignore signs of burnout. If you see it coming, you need to do something. Stepping back from even one big responsibility can make a huge difference. So can powering through something to see the results of your hard work. So can assign for help, if you have people you can ask.
In my experience, those things don’t fix problems immediately. But if you don’t take steps like that, and burnout gets worse, you are traveling a dark path. One that has taken out better designers than I.
Big and important projects—new core rulebooks, connected series of adventures, new jobs that have extremely steep learning curves, ventures with partners counting on you—can be particularly brutal. And if you do more than one of those at a time, the effects multiple, rather than add.
But such projects also, eventually, smooth out. Either you finish them, or you learn the ropes.
It’s all too easy to end up in a position that is unsustainable, caught between burnout and the rent. But small changes do, eventually, make a different. Not everything must be sustained forever.
Also, know what helps. Or if you don’t know, look. I’ve been very public with a lot of my mental issues, and I have posted a lot of retrospectives, like this. These are both a release valve for me–a cheap and useful form of stress relief–and something I do because I would have loved to have this information in 1997, when I was writing freelance material but nothing had been published yet. It helps me, and I hope it helps someone else.
Each person must navigate their own path between these creative and financial Scylla and Charybdis. And sometimes you just have to strap yourself to the tiller, lay on sail, and hope you are still above water when you reach the far side.
But if you do that…keep those navigational charts, and try to avoid those waters in the future. Most people, myself included, bring burnout down on themselves. Try to learn from it.
You’ll keep making mistakes, of course. Just try not to make the same mistakes over and over.
I have a patreon. It’s one way I try to navigate between burnout and the rent, and it has some exclusive content.
If you ever find my posts to be entertaining or useful, consider offering a dollar or two a month of support.