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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

Von Ether

Adventurer
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.
As a long time creative, I hear this comment levied to more than just RPGs, but also fiction writers, other artists -- and even teachers. There was even the story of a novelist being introduced to a rich matriarch, who proclaimed, "all you do is write and tell tales? That's a skill I picked up at four."

And in my life, when someone says, "How hard can it be?" It's more a sign of what we used to call ignorance but now goes by the phrase, "The Dunning-Kruger effect." I've also noticed that for many professions have certs and education can be as much about being methods of social gatekeeping, and adding prestige than ascertaining mastery.

So those who ask such questions, I posit to your own RPG core book and be willing to be judged on the writing, the layout, the editing and the design. Most (of the very few) who take this challenge probably won't even finish the first draft.

And since I mentioned teachers I'll just drop this classic here.
 

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aaronm

Explorer
As a long time creative, I hear this comment levied to more than just RPGs, but also fiction writers, other artists -- and even teachers. There was even the story of a novelist being introduced to a rich matriarch, who proclaimed, "all you do is write and tell tales? That's a skill I picked up at four."

And in my life, when someone says, "How hard can it be?" It's more a sign of what we used to call ignorance but now goes by the phrase, "The Dunning-Kruger effect." I've also noticed that for many professions have certs and education can be as much about being methods of social gatekeeping, and adding prestige than ascertaining mastery.

So those who ask such questions, I posit to your own RPG core book and be willing to be judged on the writing, the layout, the editing and the design. Most (of the very few) who take this challenge probably won't even finish the first draft.

And since I mentioned teachers I'll just drop this classic here.
Happily, we don't have to speculate or rely on dubious analogies. The market has spoken, and the pay for designing RPGs sucks. If you have plausible explanation for why this is the case -- other than supply and demand -- I'm all ears.

Edit: That's also not really how Dunning-Kruger works. But whatever.
 
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aaronm

Explorer
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 . . .
"Any bloke off the street" is a bit of a straw man. But I would argue that anyone with an aptitude for language and some interest could become relatively proficient in a very short time.

But assume for a second that I'm wrong, and RPG design is an uncommon skill. How, then, do you explain the terrible pay?
 
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rknop

Explorer
The vast majority of musicians who try to earn a living as musicians do not make very much money.

Would you say that just anybody who picks up a violin and tries to play is going to be anywhere close to as good as somebody who has a gig as a second violinist in a moderate but not large sized city orchestra?

There's a case where the pay is poor, but, unless you REALLY have no clue how hard it is to play the violin, you would never agree that the skills are common.
 

rknop

Explorer
Also, Dunning-Kruger : there are two parts to it. One part is that somebody who is really good at something, particularly somebody who is highly experienced and trained (although I hate that word) tends to think that what they are able to do is easier than it really is. Those folks tend to de-value their own abilities, because they think that more people have them than really do.

The flip side is that people who have very little experience and very little skill at something tend to overestimate their own skill at it. Again, the result is that they think that more people should be able to do those things than are really able to do them, because how hard could it be after all?

You seem to think that you -- or anybody who's an above average writer -- could sit down and write an RPG that other people would want to buy. This is exactly how Dunning-Kruger works. Almost by definition, the people falling for it won't believe it's Dunning-Kruger, because they have misestimated how good they are at something.
 

whimsychris123

Explorer
Happily, we don't have to speculate or rely on dubious analogies. The market has spoken, and the pay for designing RPGs sucks. If you have plausible explanation for why this is the case -- other than supply and demand -- I'm all ears.
The low pay is much like all the arts. It's an attractive profession, and therefore many people are drawn to create content regardless of the demand. Unfortunately, only a few get paid the big bucks no matter how many highly-skilled individuals exist in the field.

There's a reason why WotC's books have dozens of names attached to them. Game design is a monumental task requiring a lot of different types of skills.
 

aaronm

Explorer
Also, Dunning-Kruger : there are two parts to it. One part is that somebody who is really good at something, particularly somebody who is highly experienced and trained (although I hate that word) tends to think that what they are able to do is easier than it really is. Those folks tend to de-value their own abilities, because they think that more people have them than really do.

The flip side is that people who have very little experience and very little skill at something tend to overestimate their own skill at it. Again, the result is that they think that more people should be able to do those things than are really able to do them, because how hard could it be after all?

You seem to think that you -- or anybody who's an above average writer -- could sit down and write an RPG that other people would want to buy. This is exactly how Dunning-Kruger works. Almost by definition, the people falling for it won't believe it's Dunning-Kruger, because they have misestimated how good they are at something.
Dunning-Kruger is when one "lacks the meta-cognitive ability to recognize one's own incompetence." Please note that I made no claims about my own competence; only an observation about the relative commonality of the apparent skill set. But let's assume for the purposes of this discussion that I had.

In essence, you are correct: I don't believe that RPG design is all that difficult. Whether or not that is because I lack personal experience (and am therefore ignorant) is the subject of our disagreement.

Let's look at your example for a moment: Playing a violin. Despite a complete lack of any personal experience whatsoever, I recognize that playing the violin is an extremely specialized skill. If I were suffering from Dunning-Kruger, my ignorance should mean that I would "tend to overestimate my own skill at it." Yet I remain aware that I could NEVER just pick up a violin and play.

On the other hand clear writing is not an extremely specialized skill. Nor is a grasp of basic probability, or understanding the genre in which one is working. All of these are skills which are commonly used in a variety of other industries. And while I do not doubt that there are some gifted individuals working in the field of RPG design, the barriers to entry for the field as a whole are extremely low (as evidenced by the sheer number of indie RPGs). Low barriers to entry help to ensure wages stay depressed.

Could I be wrong? Of course. But you're going to have to be a little more specific than just throwing "Dunning-Krueger" at me.

TLDR: I've never run a marathon, but I know I couldn't just do it. I've never worked as a cashier at Wal-Mart, yet I know I could. Dunning-Krueger is more than a synonym for ignorance.
 
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aaronm

Explorer
The low pay is much like all the arts. It's an attractive profession, and therefore many people are drawn to create content regardless of the demand. Unfortunately, only a few get paid the big bucks no matter how many highly-skilled individuals exist in the field.

There's a reason why WotC's books have dozens of names attached to them. Game design is a monumental task requiring a lot of different types of skills.
I believe that you're arguing that the low equilibrium price (wages) is more attributable to (the relative lack of) demand than it is to supply. Ultimately I do not agree, but I acknowledge that your position is a reasonable one (not to imply that you require my acknowledgement -- rather, I am conceding your point).
 

You also have to factor in that art skills are different then business skills. Making art and selling art are also separate skill sets, and many artists lack in the later.
 

rknop

Explorer
Sure, anybody who can write can write an RPG book and put it for sale. Will it be any good? That's a very different question. Just as anybody can pick up a basketball and throw it through hoops, but, to paraphrase Winton Marsalis, they'd really be playing basketball, but it's not necessarily something you'd want to see.

You seem to be under the impression that anybody who's played an RPG and has some idea what they're about will be able to sit down and write an RPG book that will be comparable in quality (of text, at least) to anything else out there. People who actually write RPGs have already said otherwise. Whom should I believe?
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
Dunning-Kruger is when one "lacks the meta-cognitive ability to recognize one's own incompetence." Please note that I made no claims about my own competence; only an observation about the relative commonality of the apparent skill set. But let's assume for the purposes of this discussion that I had.

In essence, you are correct: I don't believe that RPG design is all that difficult. Whether or not that is because I lack personal experience (and am therefore ignorant) is the subject of our disagreement.

Let's look at your example for a moment: Playing a violin. Despite a complete lack of any personal experience whatsoever, I recognize that playing the violin is an extremely specialized skill. If I were suffering from Dunning-Kruger, my ignorance should mean that I would "tend to overestimate my own skill at it." Yet I remain aware that I could NEVER just pick up a violin and play.

On the other hand clear writing is not an extremely specialized skill. Nor is a grasp of basic probability, or understanding the genre in which one is working. All of these are skills which are commonly used in a variety of other industries. And while I do not doubt that there are some gifted individuals working in the field of RPG design, the barriers to entry for the field as a whole are extremely low (as evidenced by the sheer number of indie RPGs). Low barriers to entry help to ensure wages stay depressed.

Could I be wrong? Of course. But you're going to have to be a little more specific than just throwing "Dunning-Krueger" at me.

TLDR: I've never run a marathon, but I know I couldn't just do it. I've never worked as a cashier at Wal-Mart, yet I know I could. Dunning-Krueger is more than a synonym for ignorance.
Lots of people can write an RPG, sure (hell, even I've done it). Not everybody can do it well. I hope I have, but I know there are game designers who have done things that I look up to and admire immensely.

Lots of people can run. Far fewer of them can do it well.

Plenty of people can cook. Plenty of people can play football. Plenty of people can sing. That does not negate the achievements of chefs, professional football players, and opera singers.
 

aaronm

Explorer
Lots of people can write an RPG, sure (hell, even I've done it). Not everybody can do it well. I hope I have, but I know there are game designers who have done things that I look up to and admire immensely.

Lots of people can run. Far fewer of them can do it well.

Plenty of people can cook. Plenty of people can play football. Plenty of people can sing. That does not negate the achievements of chefs, professional football players, and opera singers.
And I dispute none of that.

As I've stated, my intention wasn't to disparage people in the field of game design, merely to explain why the industry doesn't pay well. After all, the fact that the industry doesn't pay well was mentioned in this thread as coming as a surprise to many fans, which in turn surprised me, as the reasons why this is the case seem fairly obvious.
 
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aaronm

Explorer
Sure, anybody who can write can write an RPG book and put it for sale. Will it be any good? That's a very different question. Just as anybody can pick up a basketball and throw it through hoops, but, to paraphrase Winton Marsalis, they'd really be playing basketball, but it's not necessarily something you'd want to see.

You seem to be under the impression that anybody who's played an RPG and has some idea what they're about will be able to sit down and write an RPG book that will be comparable in quality (of text, at least) to anything else out there. People who actually write RPGs have already said otherwise. Whom should I believe?
You should believe whomever you like, though I would suggest that, in general, one is better served by considering the content of an argument rather than the source. YMMV.
 

DaveMage

Slumbering in Tsar
And while I do not doubt that there are some gifted individuals working in the field of RPG design, the barriers to entry for the field as a whole are extremely low (as evidenced by the sheer number of indie RPGs). Low barriers to entry help to ensure wages stay depressed.
Yeah, I think this is a killer right now. Over-supply is huge. It's likely affecting all of the various markets for creative writing (RPGs, fiction, etc.).
 
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rknop

Explorer
...and when the content of the argument is "I assert that this is true", then, yes, you should consider the source.
 

aaronm

Explorer
...and when the content of the argument is "I assert that this is true", then, yes, you should consider the source.
If you truly believe that is what my argument amounts to, then I'm afraid there is little point in saying more. Except, of course: Good evening.
 
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Michael Dean

Explorer
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.
Ha ha, I feel the opposite! I usually walk away after meeting a creator at Gen Con kicking myself because I feel like I acted like a total kiss ass. Glad to hear they actually like compliments.
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
"Supply and demand" sounds pithy, however, wages are not solely dependent on that factor, and many times not at all. One could cite talent being the biggest factor in any artist's success, nevertheless we know that isn't true.
 

Von Ether

Adventurer
Designing RPGs requires no special skills...at least none which I can discern.
Creating RPGs requires switching among several skill sets, especially if you're a one-person band. Just writing alone jumps between technical writing, aspects of fiction writing and marketing. It's also sitting in your chair and getting. the. darn. thing. finished. And then there's editing, which is a skill related to writing but also different.

As well editing. Layout and design is another skill that goes beyond just slapping stuff on a page. There's a balance of white space and the grey wall of text. There is also understanding art direction to enhance the product and sell the zest for wanting to play. There's also the knowledge of the printing processes (CYMK vs RGB), etc.

And the majority of this is on the job training, btw. If not also your own money.

So if that is new information for some who judges that RPGs need no special skills ... well, we can agree to disagree on K-D then.

I think there are two questions here. Why is the pay bad now? And why was the pay bad back then?

For both time periods, one of the factors is that creatives are irrational actors working in a system where publishers are gatekeepers.
In fiction publishing, it has always be a passive aggressive adversarial. For the longest time, publishers refused to let writers look at the spreadsheets to confirm if their royalties were correct. Also new creatives who don't know what they are worth don't help.
(PG-13 video for swear words)

RPGs are more of being over the map because a talent can become their own publisher.

The other universal constant is that our culture doesn't value art, or can't afford, depending on who you talk to. Or they do to some degree but want an added benefit*. Or if it's a pop cultural thing, then the consumer becomes their own irrational actor. It's like you are either Stephen King, a painting that happens to also match the drapes, or "I don't know you, you must suck." Not much middle ground there.

Beyond those constants, In the past:
  • TSR's principals dropped the ball, leveraging the irrational actor bit to establish a low base line as they tried to turn Waldenbooks (or whoever) into an ATM.
  • Other companies were so shoestring and/or small shops that profits were sorely meager.
My guesses for today?

Owen said it in the post above, there's no solid data for overall sales. (TSR never even ran customer/demographic polls. They just created their product lines on what someone upstairs thought sounded cool that year.) And for those that do have some real data, they are not sharing it. It is also a very fractured market with lots of smaller private companies that are leery of sharing their data and sales numbers.

And thanks to Kickstarter and technology, the bar of hopefuls is much lower -- but it is still learn as you go. With streaming, now the path is "stream until you get a big enough audience, then make your own stuff."

So it sort of like when a graphic designers could make $60k in the corporate world back when Quark Express was a mysterious black box no one but the designer knew how to use (And cost hundreds of dollars to own.) Now InDesign is taught at the community college and the pay is third of what it used to be, which is good because you can barely afford the $60 monthly fee for Creative Suite. (Those names sound new to someone? Hello, K-D)

So it is a flooded job market in a small industry that is now probably even more fractured but still is very open to you becoming your own entrepreneur if you can master and juggle several different software programs.

If anything, I wouldn't be surprised if the industry is making more money than ever, but the pie is micro-sliced at the same time. So between traditional attitudes towards pay in the field and most smaller companies not seeing as much of a rise as they could, pay is still depressed. Which means the answer is one part culture and one part economic.

*I have small press published and self-published fiction and RPG PDFs. The PDFs sell much more because people are more excited to get stuff for their game than a new story.

Just my 2 cents.
(Dang, I should have just made this a Pateron post.)
 

SavageCole

Punk Rock Warlord
There are certain game designers whose work I admire immensely. I owe people like Gygas & Arneson, Greg Stanford, Kevin Ross, Oscar Rios, Graeme Davis, Gareth Hanrahan, Mark Morrison, and Gerard Christopher Klug so much for the great times I’ve spent at the table because of their work. With a few exceptions, these guys did not see real financial rewards. Not because they didn’t have absolute genius for this sort of work, but because the market for their product is so niche. The reason it’s not a lucrative field is not that anyone can do it well. It’s that done poorly or well, there’s just not that much of a market for it.
 

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