(Don’t) Quit Your Day Job

Last week, T.S. Luikart (I assume—he’s the only T.S. I know outside of the long-dead poet Eliot) rightfully pointed out that you should examine your potential output before you decide to make the leap to full-time freelancing, if that’s what you’re after. I dug around in my files a bit and found the old article I’d written on just that for my “Gameslinger” column at (the now-dead) www.GamesUnplugged.com. Rather than put it up as another PDF, I’m posting it here.

Every so often, someone asks me about breaking into the gaming industry as a designer or maybe even starting up their own game publishing company. My first answer is usually: “Don’t quit your day job.”

By that, I mean, don’t throw caution to the wind and launch yourself into the wilds of the adventure game industry if you and your family rely on you providing a steady paycheck. Seriously, there are only a handful of people who make a living as full-time freelance game designers, and the vast majority of people who work for small game companies—whether they own them or not—are horribly underpaid.

Let’s run some numbers to show you what I mean. Assuming that you’ve already proven yourself as a reliable freelancer and can get work from some of the mid-sized companies—the ones that make the most use of freelance talent—you’re often happy to be earning about five cents a word.

That’s right: a shiny nickel for every word you write. In the case of a 128-page sourcebook, which might have an average of about 500 words on each page (once you figure in things like the artwork, and front and back matter, and so on), you’re looking at about $3,000 for writing that book.

If you’re able to consistently write a book every month, you can make about $36,000 per year. Now, that doesn’t sound so bad until you realize that you’re on your own as far as benefits and taxes go. Adding the self-employment tax (which covers the bits that an employer would normally pay for payroll taxes) onto the standard income tax, you’re going to hand over about a third of that money to the federal government. Which means you’d take home about $24,000.

But let’s look at this plan a bit more. You need to write a book a month. That means that you must write around 3,000 words every weekday. Assuming an eight-hour workday, that’s 375 words per hour. If you write less than that, you have to make it up later, maybe on the weekends. If you can manage more than that, it’s all gravy.

Honestly, most people can’t manage that level of output. The larger companies realize this. In Wizards of the Coast’s roleplaying division, the writers are responsible for only 32 pages of text per month, a quarter of what our hypothetical freelancer is writing. At that rate, the freelancer would gross $12,000 per year and take home $8,000. You can bet the designers at Wizards are making a lot more than that.

Of course, Wizards of the Coast can afford to pay their designers better than anyone else. They sell that many more copies of each book, and everyone in the company gets to share in that wealth to one extent or another.

But, hey, it’s not all bad news. Some of the top designers can command a lot more than five cents a word. Or you can simply write faster.

I know of three people in the industry who regularly crack out over 1,000 words an hour: Shane Hensley, Steve Long, and myself. (There are probably others, I’m sure.) [Note: I think Mike Mearls manages this these days.] And we’ve all made a decent living as freelancers.

The real catch here is that you’re never likely to get enough practice to be able to write that fast if you’re not dedicated to what you’re doing. If you’re writing games on your free weekends, it’s not a job, it’s a hobby, albeit one at which you might be making a small bit of cash.

So if you’re really serious about making a living—or even a career—as a game designer, you should quit your day job. Take that plunge. Jump into the deep end. Just don’t be too surprised if you decide to haul your butt out of the pool before you become a world-class swimmer. That’s some rough water out there.