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Game design: hobby or career?

Started by Sonja, January 22, 2004, 10:12:40 AM

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If somebody has a talent for game design, can they genuinely make money and a living out of it? I am inclined to believe it is only a hobby or maybe at most a supplement to one's "day job", unless you're Steve Jackson or something.

Am I being realistic? or pessimistic? Are any of the designers on this forum living off their games, for example?

Matt Snyder


You're likely to get different answers regarding this question. Likely, here on the Forge, most of those answers will be "Keep your day job." That's certainly my answer. For me, game design is a hobby, not a career. I have a good, full-time job that provides a healthy salary and much-needed benefits to my family. I own my home and two cars. These things are more important TO ME than being able to live life as a full-time designer.

That said, it's a hobby I take pretty seriously, and one I'm very dedicated to. I enjoy it, but I'm not living off my games.

You really must decide for yourself whether you (1) want to be a full-time game designer and (2) whether you can be a full-time game designer (i.e., whether there's enough revenue to put food in your mouth .. and, you being in Canada, keep the heat on!).
Matt Snyder

"The future ain't what it used to be."
--Yogi Berra

Ron Edwards


I tend to draw a big distinction between "business" and "career."

A business does or doesn't return a profit, based on how much money gts sunk into it.

A career provides enough money, for a given person, to use for most life-decisions.

Typically, one makes one career by getting associated with a pretty extensive business with lots of people involved. Some people are able to make a career from a personal business.

Somewhat more subtly, some people are able to make careers from staying afloat among a sea of others' businesses, some of which may not be successful at all.

Anyway, I suggest that role-playing publishing is very unlikely to provide a business-makes-career on a one-to-one basis. You might be surprised at the number of RPG folks whose reputation says they do so, but whose reality reveals some other means of support. As far as I can tell, the majority of successful career people in RPG publishing are more like the last case - freelancers and consultants who move among publishers, rather than the publishers themselves.

Based on my observations, my own decision (and everyone can of course make his or her own decision about what to do) is the same as Matt's: make my life-style possible through my career, and keep Adept Press afloat by running it as a business which happens not to be my career.



When I took a creative writing elective a few years back in college, one of the things we discussed was a statistic from Writer's Digest (I think that was the source) that only 200 writers in the US made their primary living off of fiction.  Now I don't know exactly how many thousands of professional fiction writers are out there, but it's obvious that the vast majority make more money through their spouses or a second job (which is often teaching).

So, if the RPG is about 1% the size of fiction publishing... you get the idea.

Also, I'm not sure of exactly how you're using the term "game designer" but it's a worthwhile distinction that there are many things that have to be done to sell a game.  I'm a game designer, writer, graphic artist (layout), proofreader, editor, accountant, salesman, manager, janitor, and fulfillment department all in one.  When it comes to making money from a product, sales and art are the most important element in gross revenue, and management and accounting are the most important elements in being profitable.  Actual game design isn't all that important, which explains a lot of products on the market.  

Anyway, at this stage, my game business is not even supplementing my other income.  In fact, it's pretty much swallowing it whole.  But even successful ventures have to expect some losses during the start up phase.
Justin Dagna
President, Technicraft Design.  Creator, Pax Draconis

Mark Johnson

Hobby or career?  Nah.   Addiction is more like it.

Ron Edwards


To counter-example Justin's well-considered point, and Mark's implied one ...

Adept Press not only pays for itself, it also pays for my health insurance during those times when I'm not teaching full-time.

Hobby? No. Career? No. Successful business? Yes.



Quote from: SonjaAm I being realistic? or pessimistic? Are any of the designers on this forum living off their games, for example?

I've been making a full time living as a game designer since 1998. It is possible, it's just that the odds are not in your favor. Talent is certainly a factor, but luck and knowing the right people honestly have as much to do with it. That's one of the reasons I always tell people interested in getting into the industry to go to GenCon and meet people. You never know when the fellow freelancer you met in the Velvet Room will end up as the line developer for your favorite game. Or you might meet a publisher at the very moment when he desperately needs a replacment for some other guy who flaked out. I got my first paying gig in the industry in 1993, working on Mayfair's Underground RPG, because they needed someone in a hurry to fill in for a dropout. They even paid me 6 cents a word because it was a rush job (little did I know I would not see 6 cents a word for years after that).

You will find though that a lot of people who dreamed for years of breaking into the industry end up leaving for greener pastures. After the bloom comes off the rose, you realize that you can make a better living doing almost anything, unless you end up involved in one of those rare ventures that pays off. A lot of the people I met on the way up left the industry long ago, to write novels or work on computer games or practice law or whatever.

My advice: do good work and be a stubborn sonofabitch.
Chris Pramas
Green Ronin Publishing


Quote from: Mark JohnsonHobby or career?  Nah.   Addiction is more like it.

I was going to quote Matt word for word, but Mark's statement seems to sum it up more accurately ;)
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I think allot of new indie game publishers have the false idea that they will be able to jump right into the industry and make a living of it when infact it will take anywhere from 2 to 10 years of being a 'hobby' to actually be recognized enough in the industry to make enough profit to live off of and support employees. If you look at most success stories there is usually several years at min. of work involved with no real success. Now to look at it from the glass half full. What I mentioned above is true for most new businesses in most industries. So the question becomes are you willing to dedicate several years to game development with no real profit generated from it? Well, for me I would be willing to give it the rest of my life. I love the vibe of this industry, and the people are fantastic and I believe its mostly because its not a money driven industry and I would not trade that for anything.