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!
Board game designer and developer discussing the ins and outs of game design.