log in or register to remove this ad

 

Retiring as a Game Designer

We previously discussed the Thousand Fan Theory (TFT) and what it takes to support a full-time game designer's salary by reaching 1,000 fans contributing $100 a year. It’s a daunting strategy because it takes years to build up to a thousand fans willing to pay that much. But what if you need less than $100,000 to live on?

retirement.jpg

Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

Let’s Talk About Retirement

With rising medical costs, the uncertain future of game developers can have a deleterious effect on their long-term finances. The popularity of GoFundMe campaigns for medical expenses has made that clear. But these situations are new—the tabletop RPG industry is in its infancy compared to other tabletop gaming platforms—and it’s a useful exercise for game designers to consider their long-term future in the industry, particularly as the population ages

One of the challenges of the TFT is that it takes time to build an audience. For most middle-aged gamers, the opportunity to create a sustainable platform using TFT has already passed. But it might not entirely be a lost cause, because the TFT can also be beneficial for designers who have time on their side in retirement.

The Three Pillars of Retirement

Retirement varies by country and its benefits. Using the U.S. as an example, retirement is supported by three pillars of income: pensions, savings, and Social Security.

Defined benefit plans (like pensions) are increasingly rare these days as companies continually cut back. In some countries, a government job may still contribute a pension; being part of a union can mean access to one. But for most workers these are rare, and of course game designers would need to have a second job to create the pension in the first place.

Defined contribution plans like the 401(k) in the U.S., are increasingly the retirement benefit of choice for employers, but it requires an employee to contribute (sometimes with the company matching the contribution). This is essentially a tax on your existing income for the future, which pushes the TFT higher.

Social Security benefits provided by the U.S. government pay out a range determined by the age you declare retirement. Anyone born after 1960 will only get 70% of the benefit if they retire before age 67 (they can retire as early as 62). You can collect retirement at a later age (as late as 70), at which point you receive 124% of the benefits. This is a plus on the game designer’s side, as long as their minds are sharp and they have access to a computer, their work horizon is much longer, and can therefore officially retire (as a government term) much later. If we use professional writers as a template, their professional has no need for retirement.

Of course, game designers will want to declare retirement so they get access to any benefits their government provides, but that doesn’t stop them from developing games. By officially retiring at 70, the maximum benefit a game designer could receive is $3,538 a month from Social Security. This matters a lot, because in the TFT, it reduces the number of fans you need considerably.

Reduced Income, Reduced Expenses

If a game designer has a day job, they may be forced to retire from it for a variety of circumstances. Depending on the job, they may not physically be able to continue, or the job might offer them early retirement. Worse, shifts in the economy may force them out. The TFT is largely immune to these changes since you’re your own boss, but creating a pool of savings is difficult unless you can build a buffer beyond the $100,000/year.

Conversely, retired game designers will hopefully have reduced expenses in retirement. The recommended guidance is that your expenses will be considerably lower, as much as 70%:
This 70% to 80% estimate is based on the likelihood that your expenses will be lower in retirement than during other phases of life. Student loan payments will hopefully be in the rearview mirror and your mortgage may be paid off as well. Plus, some (or all) of your kiddos may have already left the nest by the time you decide to retire.
Like Social Security, this changes the equation. Assuming you downsize, you’ll need just $70,000.

Adding it All Up

If a “retired” game designer’s income goal is $70,000, the TFT requires 100 fans to contribute just $70 per month, or just 70 fans to contribute $100 per month. And unlike the scenario where a middle-aged designer has no time to catch up, a $70,000/year model is much more feasible because the game designer has time to get there; maybe 30 years depending on their age, if not more.

With the revised $70,000 goal, the TFT equation changes. On Patreon, you would need to make $78,000 per year, which equates to 100 patrons paying $65/month. On DriveThruRPG, you would need to make $108,000 per year, which equates to 90 products selling 10 copies at $10/month. On YouTube you would need 1 million views per month or around 60,000 highly engaged subscribers. For Kickstarter you would need to make $85,000 across all your Kickstarters, or 10 successful Kickstarters achieving a goal of $8,500 each (which incidentally is in the sweet spot for successful Kickstarters).

All of these theoretical calculations don’t consider spouses, adult children who don’t move out, loans that aren’t repaid, residencies that can’t be sold or downsized, and health problems. There are many variables that can potentially damage your financial retirement future.

However, the Internet’s long tail means that there is no shelf life, no distributor who will take away your product or remove it. As long as you continue to cultivate a fan base and keep putting out product, you will keep selling, including content you wrote years before. It adds up over time.

The reality is that a game designer who depends on the TFT to survive will never retire. But for the many of us who are part time designers, it may well constitute an important part of our retirement income. As game developers get older, it’s an important question to ask: what will you do with the free time you have left?
 
Last edited:
Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca


Jd Smith1

Adventurer
As a retiree, I would add another feature to your three pillars:

Housing: Ideally the retiree will have paid off their mortgage before they retire; if they are still renting at that point they could face serious future problems, as the gentrification in several major cities show. And there is always the threat of rent increases.

And insurance issues for homeowners. Hurricanes Katrina and Ike (and others) have established that certain natural disasters are only minimally covered, even with extra policies. The loss of a significant portion of the value of one's home can be crippling to retirees.
 

Dire Bare

Legend
Supporter
The idea that writers, or game designers, don't need to . . . or can't (artistically) . . . retire from writing, is ridiculous. There is a point for all of us when we can't keep up with what we do for a living, writing or otherwise. A writer may no longer have the mental capacity or energy to maintain their earlier output, or simply the desire or motivation. You certainly could write until you die, if you are lucky to remain mentally sharp up until the end . . . . but that isn't something you should be planning your future around. Sadly, there are plenty of stories about famous writers who didn't make enough to invest in their own retirement . . . . and were broke with looming health issues in their elder years . . . and were not able to write their way out of the situation.

Also, you aren't limited to the "three pillars" of retirement listed (pensions, 401K, social security). Anyone, writer or otherwise, can also invest for retirement, such as in an IRA (Individual Retirement Account).
 

Jd Smith1

Adventurer
The idea that writers, or game designers, don't need to . . . or can't (artistically) . . . retire from writing, is ridiculous. There is a point for all of us when we can't keep up with what we do for a living, writing or otherwise. A writer may no longer have the mental capacity or energy to maintain their earlier output, or simply the desire or motivation. You certainly could write until you die, if you are lucky to remain mentally sharp up until the end . . . . but that isn't something you should be planning your future around. Sadly, there are plenty of stories about famous writers who didn't make enough to invest in their own retirement . . . . and were broke with looming health issues in their elder years . . . and were not able to write their way out of the situation.

Also, you aren't limited to the "three pillars" of retirement listed (pensions, 401K, social security). Anyone, writer or otherwise, can also invest for retirement, such as in an IRA (Individual Retirement Account).

There's better investments than IRAs, although I believe the Three Pillar principle lumps investment income into 'pensions'.

And speaking as a retiree, the time to start planning your retirement is on the first day of your first job. Far too many people leave it until they're in their 30s or even later, and will feel the pinch, if not outright hardship, because of that.
 


philreed

Adventurer
Supporter
Personally, ramping up my own projects is directly related to my retirement plans. I very much enjoy creating and publishing, so I've been making a little extra time for that around office responsibilities as I start to look to a retirement date. So, even when "retired," I fully expect to keep working in some way.
 

talien

Community Supporter
The idea that writers, or game designers, don't need to . . . or can't (artistically) . . . retire from writing, is ridiculous. There is a point for all of us when we can't keep up with what we do for a living, writing or otherwise. A writer may no longer have the mental capacity or energy to maintain their earlier output, or simply the desire or motivation. You certainly could write until you die, if you are lucky to remain mentally sharp up until the end . . . . but that isn't something you should be planning your future around. Sadly, there are plenty of stories about famous writers who didn't make enough to invest in their own retirement . . . . and were broke with looming health issues in their elder years . . . and were not able to write their way out of the situation.

I think it's a valid point. I didn't mean to imply that you HAD to work until you died, but rather that you could, and nobody can force you into retirement. And perhaps most importantly, if you have digital assets that make revenue, you don't have to do much to continue to make money once you build up a significant fan base.

Will that fan base erode over time if you do absolutely nothing? Yes. But it will still make something, which is better than nothing at all, and if you build up enough fans it could take time before inertia completely stops giving you any funds (I am still making revenues off of products I created for D20 Modern, for example).
 

talien

Community Supporter
“the tabletop game industry is in its infancy compared to other gaming platforms”

Wait wut? Since 1974....
The board game industry has been around since 1843: The Mansion of Happiness - Wikipedia

The playing card industry, depending on when you start counting the "industry" goes back anywhere from 1300 to 1400s.

So yeah, comparatively, tabletop RPGs are a young industry.
 

talien

Community Supporter
Personally, ramping up my own projects is directly related to my retirement plans. I very much enjoy creating and publishing, so I've been making a little extra time for that around office responsibilities as I start to look to a retirement date. So, even when "retired," I fully expect to keep working in some way.
I'd like to interview you Phil. Your early enormous output of PDFs shaped my entire outlook on the industry!
 


The board game industry has been around since 1843: The Mansion of Happiness - Wikipedia

The playing card industry, depending on when you start counting the "industry" goes back anywhere from 1300 to 1400s.

So yeah, comparatively, tabletop RPGs are a young industry.

And the elephant in the room is the computer gaming industry which is bigger than the rest combined. As an industry the first commercial arcade game anyone has heard of is Pong in 1972 (although there were a couple of coin-op arcade games the previous year), and the first home console, the Magnavox Odyssey, came out that same year.

Which means that the RPG industry is a mere two years younger than computer games as an industry. For that matter Colossal Cave Adventure, one of the most influential video games of all time, was created in 1976 and explicitly inspired by D&D.
 

talien

Community Supporter
And the elephant in the room is the computer gaming industry which is bigger than the rest combined. As an industry the first commercial arcade game anyone has heard of is Pong in 1972 (although there were a couple of coin-op arcade games the previous year), and the first home console, the Magnavox Odyssey, came out that same year.

Which means that the RPG industry is a mere two years younger than computer games as an industry. For that matter Colossal Cave Adventure, one of the most influential video games of all time, was created in 1976 and explicitly inspired by D&D.
It's a fair point, I should have written "tabletop gaming industry." I'll update the article, thank you for the feedback!
 


imagineGod

Adventurer
When I was younger, I dreamed of being a role playing games designer. But in recent years seeing the sad state of finances for many independent and even famous games designers requiring GoFund Me support for healthcare, with some who passed away who offered me a launchpad, I am now resigned to working my stressful job in software instead.
 

Mercador

Explorer
When I was younger, I dreamed of being a role playing games designer. But in recent years seeing the sad state of finances for many independent and even famous games designers requiring GoFund Me support for healthcare, with some who passed away who offered me a launchpad, I am now resigned to working my stressful job in software instead.
Same here. I wish I could have a lifetime job as a creator but I decided to go for the safe financial route. Choosing a career is also planning for the retirement.
 



R_Chance

Adventurer
I'm a game designer and my lucrative day job is... teaching.

I clearly have flawed judgment.

I teach myself, so that is funny. One thing teachers have though is a retirement system. I'm within a year (maybe 2) of retiring myself. I own my home. My youngest is finishing college this year (which obviously affects my retirement plan :D ). We are considering moving to be closer to my oldest (and out of California - my wife is not fond of the part of CA we live in). Cost of living is a factor in that decision. I am glad I have a retirement system, otherwise I'd be working until I couldn't.
 

It's a fair point, I should have written "tabletop gaming industry." I'll update the article, thank you for the feedback!

How about "no electricity required" gaming industry? ;)

And yeah, that $100k per year can vary wildly between parts of the worlds or just parts of the US. Counting just supporting myself, I could comfortably live on $25k a year. Toss in a few thousand more for decent insurance and make it $30k. And of course, at the other end are places like LA and NYC, where you could likely be practically homeless if you are just making $100k a year.
 

Halloween Horror For 5E

Advertisement1

Latest threads

Halloween Horror For 5E

Advertisement2

Advertisement4

Top