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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

GrahamWills

Adventurer
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).
The estimated size of the US and Canadian rpg market in 2018 was about $65m. Now of that pie, how much pages to authors, artists and other creatives? In the overall book world, 10% is a pretty reasonable figure, so that leaves $6.5m. To pay a median US salary of $62K, that‘s pretty close to 100 people.

The RPG market is absolutely tiny. 100 full time creatives are all it can support. That’s less than 2 people per state/territory. That’s the level of demand that is there for RPG creatives. That’s why you have many people paid so little. That‘s why it is not true that writing RPGs is a relatively easy thing; you have to be ungodly good at it to have a chance to win out against the others who are only fantastically good at it. You have to be the lucky one among the other ungodly good people. And you have to work at it incessantly, because everybody else is.

Last year at about this time I thought Universal Basic Income a nice idea that was bit unrealistic. Now, especially seeing how COVID has highlighted how fragile our economy is, it begins to look like the best solution to making sure that people can do work that people value and that they want to do, without destroying their ability to actually, well, live. Imagine how much better an RPG freelancer’s life would be if they knew that they’ll still never be as rich as if they took that IT job, but at least their family will be fed and they won’t die from lack of healthcare. If UBI is a bit of a stretch for you, think about other ways our society could make it easier for those who simply will never get paid as much as the average person. Health care, obviously, but there are other ways too. This may feel a bit political, Nd even a bit left-leaning — if so, just ignore me and look for other ideas that fit your philosophy. But we have to find some way to make the economy work for all people, not just for some.
 

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

Veterinarians go through the same degree of schooling as human doctors do, have to diagnose patients without them being able to talk about their symptoms and get paid significantly less.

The degree of skill and training involved has almost no relationship to how much one is compensated. Otherwise, someone who looks pretty and is decent-enough at looking scared of imaginary transformer robots in a Transformers movie would somehow be vastly more skilled than a brain surgeon, which is clearly not true.
 

clearstream

Be just and fear not...
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.
Your question is something like: why are RPG designers paid so little? Without evidence, you speculate that it is because it "requires no special skills", positing a firm valency between skill and pay (itself doubtful). Like others in this thread, I believe there is a more compelling alternative. The market is very small (<$100m), so as @GrahamWills pointed out there's only room for a hundred or so well-paid people in the industry.

It might also be a factor that there is a low barrier to entry - so that there are far more novices trying their hand than can be sustained commercially. Once we factor in the quality of the work delivered, the picture becomes more nuanced. Doing RPG design at a novice level requires no special skills. It takes great skill to perform RPG design at a high commercial level of quality.

The range of skills involved is more than you might think. Designers frequently hold relevant degrees, and will model their game systems in software as one (of many) strategies to test and refine them. They will be expert both in doing the writing, and in structuring the approach to the writing. I can often tell the skill of a designer before they write anything, just from their plan of attack. Designers apply a toolkit of specialised methods. They will be able to estimate up-front roughly the effort and iterations needed to deliver a given piece of work. Usually, they have familiarity with IP law - the applicability of trademark and copyright, the meaning of licensing versus assignment, the moral rights, the inapplicability (in most cases) of patents. They will know the field and be able to list and critique the more important or avante-garde works of the year. Some designers pair their day job - designing - with PR work for themselves and their company.
 

rknop

Explorer
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.
What evidence have you provided that anybody who's able to write can sit down and write an RPG product that will be comparable in quality to the ones that actually sell halfway decently? You've just stated it as if it were self-evident. If you think that that is a more cogent argument than asserting that something is true and everybody should believe it, then I have nothing more to say to you than: I'm sorry.
 


Von Ether

Adventurer
To get back on track, Owen touched on retirements and other benefits.

Now a days, we look to employers to provide that. But there used to be/is an option that fell out of vogue, professional organizations.

The gaming industry has GAMA, so the question there is what are GAMA's hurdles to providing something to individual members and company members.
 

aaronm

Explorer
I think there's a reason why online forum became less and less popular over the years. It's because there's always at least 1 stubborn person with a baseless strong opinion, that gets 3 pages of counter-arguments, and the discussion is still going nowhere.
Allow me to present an alternate hypothesis to explain the forum's decline in popularity: Contrary opinions, no matter how well-reasoned or politely expressed, and are often met an insular response...just like this one.

But message received; I'll show myself out. :mad:
 
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Von Ether

Adventurer
I think there's a reason why online forum became less and less popular over the years. It's because there's always at least 1 stubborn person with a baseless strong opinion, that gets 3 pages of counter-arguments, and the discussion is still going nowhere.
And I'd add that if a strong opinion eventually changed their mind, most simply ghost on the discussion than give closure or vindication to the counter argument. After a while, people get tired of shouting at the wind when they don't see results.
 

R_Chance

Adventurer
Allow me to present an alternate hypothesis to explain the forum's decline in popularity: Contrary opinions, no matter how well-reasoned or politely expressed, and are often met an insular response...just like this one.

But message received; I'll show myself out. :mad:
What you should have said (as opposed to it taking no skills), is that there are no clear professional requirements (degrees, apprenticeships etc.) for the job and the lack of gate keeping leads to a higher supply of would be designers than otherwise. Combined with the (lack of) market size, the indie / amateur game scene, the high production costs / low profits of physical products, and other factors and you get low wages. My 2 cp.
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
Wages are stagnant across all industries, if game designers are in a vulnerable group previously, then the economic downturn will exacerbate that trend. For example theaters were under fierce competition from streaming services, the pandemic has devastated their business. As previously posted, the RPG market is relatively small, without the ability to support too many full time designers, so any losses will seem large.

The real solution is to grow the total market value, thus enabling designers to increase their revenue stream without changing the competitive mechanisms.
 

Dire Bare

Legend
Supporter
Wages are stagnant across all industries, if game designers are in a vulnerable group previously, then the economic downturn will exacerbate that trend. For example theaters were under fierce competition from streaming services, the pandemic has devastated their business. As previously posted, the RPG market is relatively small, without the ability to support too many full time designers, so any losses will seem large.

The real solution is to grow the total market value, thus enabling designers to increase their revenue stream without changing the competitive mechanisms.
Wages are stagnant across MOST industries, but not all. There are pockets of the economy that are doing better than ever.

Not really sure how the pandemic and economic turmoil is affecting the RPG industry overall . . . but we are seeing a surge in online play and interest in D&D and other RPGs. I would be curious to hear from industry professionals how they feel the pandemic is affecting their company and the industry at large.
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
Wages are stagnant across MOST industries, but not all. There are pockets of the economy that are doing better than ever.

Not really sure how the pandemic and economic turmoil is affecting the RPG industry overall . . . but we are seeing a surge in online play and interest in D&D and other RPGs. I would be curious to hear from industry professionals how they feel the pandemic is affecting their company and the industry at large.
Well, the pandemic closed down game stores, and that in turn closed down some distributors, who in turn delayed paying publishers, who had to find the money elsewhere to pay staff and freelancers. So there's that!
 

Zardnaar

Legend
Wages are stagnant across MOST industries, but not all. There are pockets of the economy that are doing better than ever.

Not really sure how the pandemic and economic turmoil is affecting the RPG industry overall . . . but we are seeing a surge in online play and interest in D&D and other RPGs. I would be curious to hear from industry professionals how they feel the pandemic is affecting their company and the industry at large.
It's still too early really.

Online play is booming compared to what it was but you can see how many games are being run.

Gamestores are closed, there's Amazon but how many people are gaming in person?

I've got that luxury, the movie industry I suspect will be hit hard even if they do figure out how to film stuff. Even if theaters can open who's gonna go in similar numbers.
 

I would be curious to hear from industry professionals how they feel the pandemic is affecting their company and the industry at large.
I gave my US-focused thoughts on that at my blog last month.

 

macd21

Adventurer
Well, the pandemic closed down game stores, and that in turn closed down some distributors, who in turn delayed paying publishers, who had to find the money elsewhere to pay staff and freelancers. So there's that!
There’s also supply chain issues. Books that were meant to be on shelves were trapped in warehouses, or not printed at all, because staff were in lockdown.
 



Windjammer

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.
This is obviously and unarguably true. Especially because you wrote, "Designing RPGs" and not "Designing RPGs that sell well" or "Designig RPGs that win awards like the Ennies." You didn't, and yet that's the goal posts people moved to, to more easily dismiss your post.

The other point you made is "requires." You didn't say "RPG designers don't have skills" or "Published designers don't have skills." Yet that's the opinion you got attacked for. Very typical for this forum where people become extremely defensive when they smell an affront to their beloved hobby.

It's a fact that there's no quality control inherent in the RPG industry. None whatsoever. It's worse than journalism or academic publishing which have internal quality control (like peer review) or writing standards (like the Chicago Manual) in place; or require writers to get certified, join a professional association, or what have you. Still a far cry from how lawyers and doctors get certified, etc., but it's there. Not so in RPGs.

RPGs are a "free for all." There's a reason we talk about the d20 glut. And that was 2001! Talk about 2020. With self-publishing PDFs, the RPG "industry" has become a quagmire as rudderless and unmoderated as Facebook. Ironically, this means we have greater diversity of content, but it's also completely out of control. My favorite recent work is Gene Weigel's self-published book on Amazon which you can buy for $40. Go ahead, click on Preview, and you'll see that the author is illiterate of even the most basic Word formatting functions. Even using bold font is too much. That's cool. It's still a better dungeon than a lot of other stuff people put up for sale.

None of that is a knock against authors like Owen. Quality in this hobby obviously does exist, but it fights an uphill battle against every last person who thinks they can publish their home brew and charge money out there.

The final ingredient is sheer quantity overload. Someone once analyzed how long it must have taken Hogsmead Publishing (?) to put together Warhammer 1st RPG. I think it took years. And they were shy putting out supplements, which were equally labor-intense. These days, the recipe is: throw as much sh_t on the wall and see if any of it sells. Of course there's not much time that way to get playtested. That, I think, was one of Owen's points here too. And he makes the great point that often 3PP publishers playtest MORE than the big publishing houses. I think FFG gave up playtesting and proof reading (I'm serious) for their product in 2008 or so. It just wasn't worth their dime.

In short, the industry's lack of internal and external regulation is hurting the very people who want to make a living in it. That's not a knock against the people who try to enter the industry; perhaps the only mistake in your post was to not make that clear from the get go. Other than that, I find it hard to argue with your point.
 


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