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20 Years In

While writing a bio for my essay for Hobby Games: The 100 Best, I realized that I’ve been working full-time as an author and game designer since I graduated from college in 1989, twenty years ago. It really doesn’t seem like I’ve been at it that long, but that’s likely because I enjoy doing it so much. In lots of ways, I still feel like I’m learning new things and taking on new challenges all the time, and that keeps me engaged and fresh in a way that I suspect working a regular job would not.

I’ve not ever had a full-time job outside of games. When I was younger I drove pizza, bagged groceries, worked a phone bank for the University of Michigan, and even managed a pizza place once a week. I worked as a course assistant for Eric Rabkin’s Science Fiction and Fantasy courses at Michigan, which wound up teaching me even more than when I took the courses while I was in school.

I had a series of short-lived jobs too. I worked one long night as a security guard at the University of Michigan Medical School and had to go poking through the gross anatomy lab with a flashlight in the dark. I was a bellhop at the Ocean Key House in Key West for two weeks. I never even showed up for the first day of work selling steak knives.

I’ve been a freelancer for most of that 20 years. I spent four years as the president of Pinnacle Entertainment Group after co-founding it with Shane Hensley. I ran the adventure gaming division—and served as the sole employee in that part of the company—at Human Head Studios for just under two years. But I still freelanced for other companies while in both of those positions.

[Edit: Forgot to mention the six-month internship I worked at Games Workshop when I was fresh out of college.]

Today, I’m a confirmed freelancer. I make more money this way and have far more freedom. I get to work on new and different things all the time. And honestly, I have a ball.

So, thanks! Thanks to all of you who make this possible. From the editors and creative directors who hire me all the way through to the readers and players who buy my stuff, thanks for a fantastic 20 years. As much hard work and fun as I’ve put into this haphazard excuse of a career, I could not have done it without you. Meeting and becoming friends with many of you has been one of the best parts of it all.

Here’s hoping the next 20 years will be just as amazing—and that you’ll be along for the ride.

Comments 20

  1. Hi Matt,

    Congrats on 20 years! I have a question, as someone considering taking the full-time freelancer plunge in a different industry. I’ve been told that, if I’m diligent and focused and can get on the list of enough editors, I might build to a 20K income after two years. Does this fit your earlier experience building your career? What are reasonable expectations?

    Curious,
    Sandy

    1. When I started out 20 years back, fresh out of college, I only made about $4k the first year, but I doubled that every year for the first few years, so it added up quickly. It’s always hard to pin these things down. If I were you, I’d try to line up as much work as possible before I took the leap. It’s the networking and waiting for openings in schedules that takes up so much time at first—that and proving yourself to editors in a new industry that doesn’t know you as well. Once you take care of that, the wheels are greased, and everything rolls far more smoothly.

      In the RPG industry, for instance, it’s easy to make more than $20k/year—as long as you have a good rep and can write quickly. Back when I was concentrating on that full-time, I regularly made more than $50k/year. Sometimes I made far more than that, but that was usually because I added in other game design or writing work.

      Do the math. Figure out what your pay per word is and multiply that by your words per hour. Estimate that you’ll only get in about 20 good hours of writing per week after handling other chores like finding work, invoicing, paying taxes, collecting money owed, etc. You can make more if you invest more time and show more discipline, but that should at least put you in the ballpark of what you can hope to make.

  2. Hi Matt,

    Congrats on 20 years! I have a question, as someone considering taking the full-time freelancer plunge in a different industry. I’ve been told that, if I’m diligent and focused and can get on the list of enough editors, I might build to a 20K income after two years. Does this fit your earlier experience building your career? What are reasonable expectations?

    Curious,
    Sandy

    1. Post
      Author

      When I started out 20 years back, fresh out of college, I only made about $4k the first year, but I doubled that every year for the first few years, so it added up quickly. It’s always hard to pin these things down. If I were you, I’d try to line up as much work as possible before I took the leap. It’s the networking and waiting for openings in schedules that takes up so much time at first—that and proving yourself to editors in a new industry that doesn’t know you as well. Once you take care of that, the wheels are greased, and everything rolls far more smoothly.

      In the RPG industry, for instance, it’s easy to make more than $20k/year—as long as you have a good rep and can write quickly. Back when I was concentrating on that full-time, I regularly made more than $50k/year. Sometimes I made far more than that, but that was usually because I added in other game design or writing work.

      Do the math. Figure out what your pay per word is and multiply that by your words per hour. Estimate that you’ll only get in about 20 good hours of writing per week after handling other chores like finding work, invoicing, paying taxes, collecting money owed, etc. You can make more if you invest more time and show more discipline, but that should at least put you in the ballpark of what you can hope to make.

  3. Congratulations Matt. My best wishes to you for your future. Oddly enough, I only a few months ago realised that this year I’ve been 20 years living in Glasgow. 😉

  4. Congratulations Matt. My best wishes to you for your future. Oddly enough, I only a few months ago realised that this year I’ve been 20 years living in Glasgow. 😉

  5. Thanks for the upbeat assessment, Matt! And that last bit in particular gives me a great metric to test.

    Sandy

  6. Thanks for the upbeat assessment, Matt! And that last bit in particular gives me a great metric to test.

    Sandy

    1. Thanks for the kind words. The answer to that question, though, is entirely up to Games Workshop. I wouldn’t mind writing another one at all. Be sure to hunt down the graphic novel I wrote for Boom Studios, too, if you haven’t already.

  7. Hi Matt

    When will wee see another Blood bowl adventure? I really missing them.

    thamks
    Malc

    1. Post
      Author

      Thanks for the kind words. The answer to that question, though, is entirely up to Games Workshop. I wouldn’t mind writing another one at all. Be sure to hunt down the graphic novel I wrote for Boom Studios, too, if you haven’t already.

  8. Post
    Author

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