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Owen Stephens Continues 'Real Game Industry' Posts

I've been collecting together the Real Game Industry posts that game designer Owen KC Stephens has been posting on social media. You can see Part 1 here, and Part 2 here.

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  • Full-time writing, developing, or producing in the TTRPG field means regularly having to create great, creative ideas, that fit specific pre-determined parameters, on command, whether you feel like it or not. This can be awesome and fulfilling... or awful.
  • The board of GAMA, the Game Manufacturers Association, (the big non-profit trade organization for the hobby games industry) are unpaid volunteers with what time they can spare from trying to survive the harsh industry itself.
  • Most TTrpg professionals get a lot more hate mail than praise or notes that their work is appreciated. BUT Those few notes hold a LOT more weight, per-word, than the ranting and whining. One person letting me they enjoyed a thing gets through 2-3 weeks of bile.
  • No one, not any analyst, not any company, knows how many total copies of ttRPGs are actually selling in a given week, month, or year. Some big companies don't know the numbers for their OWN ttRPGs. Popular "rankings" are a compilation of unverified impressions.
  • Even when I just had a couple of Dragon credits and no one knew me; at game pro gatherings I was NEVER asked if my girlfriend got me into gaming. Or if I was just there with a date. Which has repeatedly happened to women colleagues with decades of experience.
  • When ttRPG professionals get to play RPGs together entirely for fun, the level of Ghostbusters and LotR quotes, bad puns, digressions to discuss recent movies and look at pet pictures, and fart jokes... is EXACTLY the same as when it's just fans playing. :D
  • When a ttRPG professional makes a statement that is unpopular with a segment of fans there is always a group who, with no evidence, begin discussions to claim A: The pro is incompetent, B: the pro is lying to gain attention or sympathy, or C: all of the above.
  • It is not unusual for ttRPG professional who like each other, and enjoy hanging out together, and live no more than 20 miles apart, to only see each other 1-2 times a year and only at after-hours gatherings during major conventions.
  • The most common retirement plan among full-time ttRPG professionals, freelance and on-staff both, is "Work until you die."
  • People who constantly struggle to have enough money to cover basic needs, with no job security, while being bombarded with community demands to do more, be better, and make games just for love and not money... are generally too stressed to make their best games.
  • In ttRPG industry, you will find both employees who think the very games that cover their paycheck are "dumb," and CEOs who will move a meeting out of the executive boardroom so you can play a game there. But I've met many more of the latter than the former.
  • Amazon sometimes sells ttRPG items cheaper than retailers can get from distributors. No one admits to selling them to Amazon at this price. Either Amazon is taking a loss (perfectly possible), or there's a hole in a distribution tier. This pisses off retailers.
  • When a ttRPG pro makes a change or comment regarding the real-world impact of game themes or ideas, people come out of the woodwork to strongly present their view (in the real world) that real-world concerns (presumably like theirs) should not impact the game.
  • Some ttRPG storylines, setting, themes, & even rules concepts are so tainted by racism, bigotry, and sexism that they cannot be redeemed. Even revised versions serve as a dogwhistle to toxic fans. There's no broad agreement about for which concepts this is true.
  • Much less professional material from the big and well-known ttRPG companies is playtested than you thought, and playtesting takes more time and effort than you thought. Much more material from tiny 3pp- and Indy ttRPG companies is playtested than you thought.
  • One advantage of being an established ttRPG freelancer is you can get as much work as you want. Of course most of it doesn't pay enough, so you now have the option of working 60-70-80 hour weeks to make ends meet. But unlike some folks, you DO have that option.
  • You don't HAVE to have a spouse with good benefits and insurance to be a full-time freelancer in the ttRPG industry. But it's the most common answer on how to survive doing so.
  • If you write work-for-hire on a ttRPG in the US, you can expected your work to be edited. Usually with no consultation or warning. You'll find out when the book is published. That's normal. For everyone.
  • The more mainstream a ttRPG is, the more competition there is for jobs to design for it. For staff jobs, you're often one of several hundred applicants. Sometimes one of thousands. Of course, this also means you seem easily replaceable, even if it's not true.
  • While doing contract work for a ttRPG company occasionally leads to a staff position, this is very much the exception rather than the norm. Especially if you don't already have many years of experience. It's normally a stepping stone, not a quick route in.
 
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Russ Morrissey

Comments

Dire Bare

Legend
Supporter
Again Owen, thanks for the nuggets of reality in our hobby.

  • The most common retirement plan among full-time ttRPG professionals, freelance and on-staff both, is "Work until you die."
  • People who constantly struggle to have enough money to cover basic needs, with no job security, while being bombarded with community demands to do more, be better, and make games just for love and not money... are generally too stressed to make their best games.
  • You don't HAVE to have a spouse with good benefits and insurance to be a full-time freelancer in the ttRPG industry. But it's the most common answer on how to survive doing so.
Not to detract from Owen's statements, but this is true for any career in the arts. It's incredibly difficult to make enough money to live comfortably and responsibly prepare for retirement. On one hand, why should we consider artistic pursuits as full-time work rather than part-time interests? On the other, the products of artistic expression can generate a lot of money, which often gets claimed by those other than the artists themselves. Our society values art, but undervalues and takes advantage of artists. And yes, game design is art. Fight me.
  • When a ttRPG pro makes a change or comment regarding the real-world impact of game themes or ideas, people come out of the woodwork to strongly present their view (in the real world) that real-world concerns (presumably like theirs) should not impact the game.
  • Some ttRPG storylines, setting, themes, & even rules concepts are so tainted by racism, bigotry, and sexism that they cannot be redeemed. Even revised versions serve as a dogwhistle to toxic fans. There's no broad agreement about for which concepts this is true.
Especially right now. This is happening in several threads right here on ENWorld at the moment. The latest is fans questioning the recent testimony of game designer Orion Black, a former WotC employee.
 

univoxs

That's my dog, Walter
Supporter
I have asked quite a few authors, both of ttrpgs and of novels about buying from Amazon or B&N and whether they would like me to buy from a different source. The answer I have always received is sort of "w/e you want". If I am not mistaken, this is usually because creators that are not self publishing have already been paid and where it gets sold from at that point does not matter? The deals made between creator and publisher assuredly vary but if anyone has a light to shine on that, I would appreciate it.
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
I have asked quite a few authors, both of ttrpgs and of novels about buying from Amazon or B&N and whether they would like me to buy from a different source. The answer I have always received is sort of "w/e you want". If I am not mistaken, this is usually because creators that are not self publishing have already been paid and where it gets sold from at that point does not matter? The deals made between creator and publisher assuredly vary but if anyone has a light to shine on that, I would appreciate it.
I can’t speak for anybody else, but we make more money when people buy directly directly from our website. But that’s speaking as the publisher. That said, we’re happy when somebody buys our stuff from anywhere.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest
I have asked quite a few authors, both of ttrpgs and of novels about buying from Amazon or B&N and whether they would like me to buy from a different source. The answer I have always received is sort of "w/e you want". If I am not mistaken, this is usually because creators that are not self publishing have already been paid and where it gets sold from at that point does not matter? The deals made between creator and publisher assuredly vary but if anyone has a light to shine on that, I would appreciate it.
Might depend on how closely related to the publisher they are and if said publisher has its own sales outlet. If they’re freelance, they might care a bit less than if they’re a permanent employee of the publisher. They also might have ideas about supporting the local FLGS (or not). Honestly, there are a lot of variables potentially in play.
 



FaerieGodfather

Aberrant Druid
Supporter
Great article. I wish I'd been nicer to game developers over the years. Not that I was mean, I just wish i'd thanked them more.
Hell, I've been mean. I don't have much remorse for the people I was mean to, or any regret that I won't be working with them in the future, but I hate to think about all the bridges I'll never know I burned because the people I was mean to had friends of their own... or because uninvolved third parties rightfully judged my character based on how I treated people whom I wrongfully felt didn't deserve courtesy.

I'm not worried about losing work as a freelancer, because I never was any good at working for other people-- but there are a lot of industry veterans that I admire the hell out of, and I hope I haven't already lost any chance of working with them for striving to always be the second-biggest asshole in the room.
 

Haffrung

Adventurer
There are fields that attract large numbers of aspiring creators with the promise of engaging work doing something they love. These fields almost all pay poorly, for the simple reason there are a great many people willing to do them, and only a finite amount of money people are willing to spend on the products they create.

This is not new. While I sympathize with the frustration expressed by people struggling in those industries, I do have to wonder what they expected. Did they really think being an RPG designers would be a normal job, with the security and long-term benefits of an insurance adjuster or city planner?

And if this an unjust state of affairs, If we want most RPG designers, novelists, musicians, theatre directors, etc. to make a living wage, then we the consumers better be prepared to pay more - a lot more - for those experiences. How many more RPG books would need to be sold, and how much more would publishers need to charge for them, to afford even 100 people in the world secure, long-term middle-class livelihoods in the industry?
 
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If you write work-for-hire on a ttRPG in the US, you can expected your work to be edited. Usually with no consultation or warning. You'll find out when the book is published. That's normal. For everyone.
In fact, this is normal for most sorts of writing in the US (which is where most of my writing experience is from).

It's always a great deal of fun telling someone who's very mad at you that, despite your name being the only one appended to a piece they're upset about, it actually passed through one or more additional hands and that one of them changed the piece and that you not only can't tell them why the change was made but even who did it.

(To be fair, most of the time, those other hands actually save your butt and make you look better, although not editors are created equal -- not even close.)
 

rknop

Explorer
I suspect Amazon is selling at a loss. I think they can afford to sell a whole lot of stuff at a loss. And I think they do it consciously. Not because they have an interest in putting other sellers of RPG books out of business -- RPG books are too small for them to notice. But, because they have an interest in putting everybody out of business that isn't them. Their goal is to control commerce. I suspect that routinely they sell a lot of things below their cost, because it serves their goal of increasing dominance, which so far has worked really well for them.

The last time I remember buying an RPG book from Amazon was something like 20 years ago. I do buy things from Amazon, because, well, it's so convenient, and often it's almost the only option. But I feel bad every time I do it.

When I buy RPGs online, I usually try to buy them from the publisher directly. (Sometimes I buy them from DTRPG.) I have bought some used books from Noble Knight Games. (And other places, although not in recent years.)
 

Paragon Lost

Terminally Lost
Supporter
"The most common retirement plan among full-time ttRPG professionals, freelance and on-staff both, is "Work until you die."

Pretty much looking around that appears to be the new norm for a majority of people in the US these days. Retirement benefits aren't the norm nor very good these days for most. :/
 


Von Ether

Adventurer
This is not new. While I sympathize with the frustration expressed by people struggling in those industries, I do have to wonder what they expected. Did they really think being an RPG designers would be a normal job, with the security and long-term benefits of an insurance adjuster or city planner?
Living out on a farm in the 1980s that got sold off soon after I left for college? I assumed the arts could not be less stable. And being a journalist in the 90s wasn't great, but it wasn't bad. This was just the beginning of the pensions being closed down for 401ks because the good days were going to last forever. (This was also the nail in the coffin for the facade of company loyalty to employees.)

Before then, many households in Oklahoma believed you could work a good wage at a foundry or the airlines (never mind those fancy insurance or planner jobs) and get a medical plan and pension and that was it.

Hindsight is 20/20 and I don't think anyone was planning on getting rich, but they also didn't think it was paycheck to paycheck either. It's not like a binary choice, there's a middle ground.

And for this to be such open knowledge, Owen's words seems to be opening a lot of eyes. So I am pretty sure there's a good chunk of people who are unaware how the TTRPG, Video Games, and Comic Book industries work.
 

Dire Bare

Legend
Supporter
There are fields that attract large numbers of aspiring creators with the promise of engaging work doing something the love. These fields almost all pay poorly, for the simple reason there are a great many people willing to do them, and only a finite amount of money people are willing to spend on the products they create.

This is not new. While I sympathize with the frustration expressed by people struggling in those industries, I do have to wonder what they expected. Did they really think being an RPG designers would be a normal job, with the security and long-term benefits of an insurance adjuster or city planner?

And if this an unjust state of affairs, If we want most RPG designers, novelists, musicians, theatre directors, etc. to make a living wage, then we the consumers better be prepared to pay more - a lot more - for those experiences. How many more RPG books would need to be sold, and how much more would publishers need to charge for them, to afford even 100 people in the world secure, long-term middle-class livelihoods in the industry?
A lot of folks go into the arts or creative fields knowing that it will likely be a financial struggle for them, but . . . . they might be young and foolish, they might value "working the dream" over financial stability (more likely when young), might be hoping to hit it big (in the RPG industry, working for WotC), or just not have a real great understanding of the financial downsides to pursuing the arts. High school and college career counseling isn't always top-notch.

And there's a difference between knowing and knowing . . . I'm a teacher. I knew going in that teachers don't make a lot of money and face a lot of frustratingly unnecessary hurdles between them and the actual education of children. But after a few years on the job, I began to really KNOW and understand not just how difficult teaching can be, but how unnecessarily so. And it wears on you after a while . . . when you are fresh and young (or at least a newb) you can convince yourself the hardships can be overcome and outweighed by the benefits . . . but as you get older and spend more time in the field . . .

Art types and teachers are far from the only underpaid and under-respected professions out there, society is pretty good at undervaluing groups of people. It's why I favor universal healthcare and universal basic income in the U.S., so that everybody gets a baseline of health, food, shelter, and retirement regardless of what career they pursue.
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
One could make money at RPG's, and it would be cool for a minute and then be extra bad, as burn out set in and the joy for the hobby died inside you. Like anything, it would take knowledge of business and startup capital, restaurants are worse for failing, even a gravel pit one isn't starting that with a used hammer from the flea market. What is happening across the board is that people are scrambling to make ends meet, all areas of employment.
 

That's why I'm glad I only ever worked in the RPG industry as a freelancer. I made a fair bit of money over the years, but it was bonus money coming in from a hobby, not my only means of support. (I wouldn't have been able to support myself, let alone my family, had that been my only source of income.) And I got to work on the projects I was interested in writing (assuming my proposal letters generated enough interest for the magazine editors to agree to let me send in an article or adventure - I got quite a few rejections over the years). I don't think I'd have enjoyed actually working for an RPG company full time, where I'd likely be given assignments I was much less enthused about. Same thing with any hobby, really - once I'd have to do it for a living, I suspect it wouldn't be as much fun.

Johnathan
 

aaronm

Explorer
So this is probably going to sound like I'm trying to be insulting, but I truly don't mean it that way. Is this really surprising to most folks?

Designing RPGs requires no special skills...at least none which I can discern. No manual skills, no technical knowledge, not even mathematical proficiency (thought it really, really should require math, given the probability work -- remember 4E skill challenges?), etc. At most it requires somewhat above average writing ability. Further, there are no educational, certification, or entry requirements. A "fun" job with low barriers to entry leads to a high supply.

Meanwhile, the market for RPGs seems quite small compared to, well, pretty much any other sort of creative endeavor.

High supply + low (and highly elastic) demand = low equilibrium price. It seems rather obvious that the pay would be bad, no? I always just figured most RPG designers do it as a hobby or as a labor of love.
 

Dire Bare

Legend
Supporter
So this is probably going to sound like I'm trying to be insulting, but I truly don't mean it that way. Is this really surprising to most folks?

Designing RPGs requires no special skills...at least none which I can discern. No manual skills, no technical knowledge, not even mathematical proficiency (thought it really, really should require math, given the probability work -- remember 4E skill challenges?), etc. At most it requires somewhat above average writing ability. Further, there are no educational, certification, or entry requirements. A "fun" job with low barriers to entry leads to a high supply.

Meanwhile, the market for RPGs seems quite small compared to, well, pretty much any other sort of creative endeavor.

High supply + low (and highly elastic) demand = low equilibrium price. It seems rather obvious that the pay would be bad, no? I always just figured most RPG designers do it as a hobby or as a labor of love.
Huh? No skills?!?!

That is a pretty absurd claim. Game design requires writing and design skills, which can be performed poorly or well. If the job required no skills, then there would be no quality difference between products.

There are actually a few programs on game design at various universities, although they don't focus on tabletop RPGs specifically. At nearly 50 years in, the hobby itself is still relatively "new" and there aren't standard qualifications to get a job at one of the few companies that hire designers full time.

But the idea that game design is essentially unskilled labor that any bloke off the street could do equally well . . .
 

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