Good Day Internet!
This week we’re discussing the factors that makes it so difficult to be a full-time tabletop designer.
Unless you’re brand new to board game design, chances are you’ve heard the advice: “Don’t quit your day job”and whoever told you that probably mentioned something about there being no money in game design and it requires too much time. But what are the factors contributing to there being “no money” in game design and what other obstacles would you run into if you made the leap into being a full-time game design? We’re going to explore those reasons with some awesome research from Cardboard Edison (side note: if you’re not following/subscribed to Cardboard Edison, you definitely should be. It’s a great resource for any game designer).
Design, Development, and Publish Time
If you’re lucky, you can have a game ready to be submitted to a publisher in about 6 months (we’ve seen it done and did it ourselves in about 8 months). From there it will likely take at least a few months (although probably longer) to find a publisher who wants your game and you want to work with. After finding said publisher, the contract needs to be negotiated, drafted and signed, and then the publisher needs time to adapt and develop your game to fit their line. The publisher also needs to figure out how your game will fit their release schedule, which may push back the actual launch date. During any point in this process, the publisher could change their mind and decide not to release your game. In those cases the rights will return to you eventually, but your game will have been in limbo for a while before you can do anything with it.
How long it takes for the contract to be signed and the publisher to get your game ready for launch varies, but thanks to the data from Cardboard Edison we know that the majority of contracts state that if a signed game has not been published after a year or longer of signing the contract the rights will revert back to the designer. If we go with the low end and say it usually takes a year from signing a game to getting it published, then you’re looking at approximately 2 years minimum from initially designing a game to making any money, unless you get an advance.
No Advances for New Designers
Unfortunately, most publishers don’t offer advances on signing and it is becoming less and less common in contracts (most likely due to the growing number of small publishers). However, if you do find a publisher who offers an advance, it quite often is $1000+. The designers who are getting those big advances usually already have multiple published games, the game is not being crowdfunded, and they aren’t getting their name on the box. That’s not good news if you’re just starting off as a game designer. Obviously, you don’t have published games already as a newbie, so that hurts your chances of getting an advance, but new designers are also more likely to sign with a small publisher who usually use crowdfunding sites to publish their game. Contracts for crowdfunded games also have a much higher chance of providing no advance at all compared to traditionally funded games. This translates to less than 1 in 5 new designers getting a big advance and close to 2 out of 3 new designers getting no advance at all.
Let’s pretend though that you do manage to sign with a big publisher that is willing to give you a big advance upfront. That advance will have to cover all your expenses for the past year working on the game, your living expenses for that time, and your living expenses for the next year or so it takes to get it published and a royalty cheque in your hand. Basically, whatever that advance is chances are it isn’t enough to cover 2 years of living expenses.
Small Hobby Equals Low Print Runs and Less Money
Our hobby is growing and gaining in popularity, but it’s still a relatively small close knit community. There is also an abundance of new board games coming out thanks to crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter that allow for the emergence of many new small publishers. This saturation of the market means lower print runs and lower chances of reprints. On average, a first print run of a game will be about 5,000 copies or less. Since game designers usually get paid a fixed percentage per game sold, lower print runs means less money in the designer’s pocket.
Game designer’s royalties are usually somewhere around 5% of either the wholesale or retail value of the game. So for example, if your game retailed at $40 you would make $2 per copy sold, at a 5,000 copy print run you would make $10,000 (not bad, but certainly not a liveable wage for a year). You may think that only making $2 per game is low, but considering all the other costs that the publisher has to worry about (production, warehousing, shipping, distribution, marketing, other costs, and a cut for the publisher and retailer, if there is one) it’s pretty good. However, going back to the $10,000 wage per game (your mileage may vary) that means you’d probably be looking at having 5 of your games published a year to make a decent wage; that’s a lot to ask from a designer new to the hobby.
What if their was a way though that you could get a bigger print run and sell more copies of your game? To do that you need to find a big publisher, be patient with them, and give up creative control. This will increase your odds of having a game with an initial print run of 10,000+ although, finding a big publisher is probably the most useful advice. Bigger publishers will have a bigger established audience for their games, which means bigger print runs. Having to be patient with negotiations, and giving up creative control are most likely only related to big print runs due to the fact that big publishers have lots on their plate, know how to tailor a game to their line, and have the development team to do it.
Running through the numbers again, if you can find that big publisher and get the big print run, then you’d only need to maybe have 2 designs published a year. The difficult part is how do you network with a large publisher so they give your game a chance because as it turns out that seems to be part of the way pros are able to sign with larger publishers. But even if you did all that, there’s still one last obstacle in your way:
On top of the little money made per game for designers, there’s also an inconsistent paycheck paid out only a few times a year to deal with. A majority of designers get paid on a quarterly basis, but over another third are paid two times a year or less. Each of those payments is also going to most certainly be a different amount because designers don’t decide how many games they sell in a given time period. Having inconsistent pay spread over that much time is going be tough to manage and live on, even for those who can stick to a strict budget.
Despite all these obstacles that lead to so many giving the advice: “Don’t quit your day job”, we do want to say that it is possible to be a full-time designer, even if you’re a new designer. To do that though, you need some combination of an amazing work ethic, talent, be great at making connections, and some luck (savings are also a good idea). If you are planning for whatever reason to be a full-time designer, make sure you set yourself goals and be very stern with yourself. As someone who is doing their best to make game design their full-time work, it is very stressful, and financially draining. We wish you the best of luck on your endeavours and if we missed anything feel free to let us know!
Good Day Internet!
Today we’re going to discuss our experiences as tabletop co-designers and what to look for when choosing a co-designer/partner.
Allysha and I have been working on games together for over a year now and we’ve learnt a lot from each other. We balance out each other very well, which has allowed us both to grow as designers. Where I falter, Allysha excels and vice-versa. Considering that we started working together kind of on a whim we’ve been very fortunate that everything has worked out so well. However, we’ve also worked with other designers where the outcome was less than ideal. Putting these experiences together has led to a short list of things you should be looking for/asking about when searching for a co-designer/partner.
1) Determine the Length of the Partnership and Your Role
Before you can start discussing the minor details, you need to be upfront with each other about the size of the project you’re undertaking together; is it just for this one game? For a series of games? To start a new company? Each of these requires a different type of commitment, vision, and structure of partnership. Are you comfortable with those commitments, visions, and roles? If the two of you have completely different ideas of what the partnership agreement will look like, then it’s time to reconsider before you even begin.
For longer, more ambitious projects, be clear and know beforehand who will take on what role(s) (for instance: design lead, creative lead, lead developer) and who (if anybody) will be taking the lead. If your partner basically wants you to be their employee, or take the back seat, you have to consider if that’s a role you can take on happily. Last year we joined a project where we were told upfront that we would be partners. However, as the projects progressed we ended up being employees - which was not what we wanted. Needless to say, we eventually parted way and are much happier now working together under Dancing Giant Games.
2) Determine Division of Work and Expectations
Determining roles is one thing, but sometimes what is expected from those roles can be entirely different for each partner. Be clear with each other before diving into any project what the timeline will be and how the work will be done. Furthermore, discuss what each of you believe should be covered by your roles in the partnership (you may be surprised by what additional work you are asked to do). Understand also that just because there are multiple of you working on the same project doesn’t mean doing half as much work as normal. Much of the work will involve keeping in touch, updating each other, and bouncing ideas off one another (expectations of how frequently this will be done should also be discussed). How difficult that is will most likely increase if you are unable to physically meet in person. In those cases it may be a good idea to set up additional channels of communication like Slack.
During and after this discussion, reflect on the timeline and work expectations, and be truthful with yourself on whether you’ll be able to (or if you think your partner will be able to) meet them without stressing yourself or your partner out. Regardless of how good the partnership may be, if one of you can’t keep up with the timeline then there’s no point working together at that time. Until moving to the Toronto area, the expectations of being able to consistently playtest kept us from collaborating. It was simply too costly and too much of a time commitment to always be heading down to the city for playtesting. Now that we’re in the city, we are able to playtest a lot more which in turn means more time playing and assisting with other designers’ games.
3) Know Each Other's Strengths
Knowing and evaluating each of your strengths is one of the final things to consider before saying “YES!” to a co-designer/partnership. In our own opinion, what you should be looking for is not a co-designer/partner who is like-minded, but rather somebody who excels at the skills you lack and who will challenge you to be better. Your goal going into a partnership should be to learn and grow from the experience. If you only look for like-minded people, you won’t learn nearly as much and you may be forced to go contract out the work you’re not very good at (which is not ideal if you’re low on funds to begin with).
In our case, I knew I needed Allysha to help me with my games because she basically knew how to do all the things I sucked at. In the beginning of our partnership, Allysha always did the theme work for our games because I basically thought theme, in general, was irrelevant (I never used to pay attention to theme when playing games so I barely paid attention to it when designing). Eventually, having her constantly challenge me to create some sort of theme for our games (instead constantly relying on her to add the theme to a purely mechanical game) got to me. Now before I start any new design (unless I have an off day) I have a theme in mind; which has led to a huge improvement in the quality and joy our games bring. As for what Allysha has learnt from me, she has a deeper appreciation for the mechanics of a game (basically we don’t just design from either theme or mechanics anymore). Challenging one another to improve our skills (and keeping each other accountable) has made us much better designers and strengthened our partnership.
4) Work with Your Partner, not Against Them
Working with your partner and not against them sounds pretty simple, but remember, we’re suggesting you partner up with someone who is not of the same mind as you: heated discussions and arguments may arise (we’ve had a few of our own). Realize that where you differ on these subjects is where one (or both) of you need to grow. Take the time to have those long discussions and try to truly understand the upside to your partner’s point of view instead of shutting down. If Allysha and I never opened up to the other’s view then we’d both probably still be pretty bad designers. But by taking the time to eventually put the frustration aside and trying something new you’ll probably end up learning something, which is how you grow and get the best experience out of co-designing.
We hope you enjoyed our tips on co-designing and partnerships. We’d definitely would love to hear about your experiences (good or bad) involving co-designing and partnerships and what you find works (or doesn’t) for you below.
Also, just to be clear, despite bad experiences in the past we are still open to collaborations under the right circumstances.
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Board game designer and developer discussing the ins and outs of game design.