RPG Evolution: Making It in the RPG Industry

Can you make a living in the tabletop role-playing industry as your sole source of income? Unless you work for one of the major game publishers, the odds are against you. But there’s another way, and it revolves around the Thousand Fan theory.

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The Thousand Fan Theory

As I noted in a previous article, the Thousand Fan Theory (TFT) posits that a creator can make a living off of 1,000 superfans paying $100 year, with few middlemen and low additional fees. This approach changes a creator’s goals from simply creating product to creating relationships. It is more important in the TFT to have subscriptions than it is to make one great product.

Applying the TFT to the tabletop role-playing game industry, this means it’s not enough to simply make one tabletop game. In fact, it’s more lucrative to create many products over an extended period of time as incentive to keep superfans coming back for more. So while a core game may provide a temporary boost to income, it’s subsequent supplements, accessories, and adventures are key to supporting a creator.

This shift in focus from one large product to many products over time means that individual creators need to create constantly. Certain mediums lend themselves to this, like web comics, podcasts, and video streams. This is why great podcasters (Russ’ podcast being one example) record so frequently. You can’t create a fan base without a steady stream of content.

Conversely, a loyal fan base does not come quickly. It can take years to launch, which means that the TFT is not feasible for someone who needs the money immediately. Ideally, a creator planning to use the TFT needs to start creating before they graduate from whatever education they’re pursuing. They’ll need at least four years to build that fan base and create a content stream.

For most adults going without income for four years is simply not feasible, so achieving the TFT means having a full-time job or a partner who pays for other expenses in the meantime. Raising a family complicates this calculation; a spouse may be able to help with expenses, but costs increase accordingly to support a family.

It’s daunting, but achieving the TFT is possible. And we know this because there are creators out there doing it. Here’s how.

Patreon

Of all the income streams, Patreon has the clearest path to the TFT. To achieve $100,000 year in come, you would need to make about $112,000 (Patreon takes up to 10%, but this can vary based on your legacy membership with the platform). This assumes you have a tier of $10/month or a flat contribution of $120 that members contribute yearly.

In terms of RPG content, a creator will likely need to bolster their Patreon with updates frequently, if not on a daily basis. Fortunately, RPGs lend themselves to this. One monster, artifact, species, or class a day is entirely feasible.

DMDave is an example of a RPG creator clearing the $10K/month mark. At the time this article was written, DMDave ranks 16th in the games category. Interestingly enough, there are higher-ranked Patreon RPG creators but those affiliated with tabletop play are all mapmakers. DMDave’s Patreon went from just 12 patrons in November 2018 to 3,563 patrons in June 2020, earning $15,835 month or $4.45 per patron.

DriveThruRPG

After Patreon, DriveThruRPG is probably the single-most likely distribution channel that an individual creator can use to achieve the TFT. DriveThruRPG takes 35% of the sale of each product, so you would need to sell $153,846 worth of product a year or make $12,820/month (updated thanks to JohnnyZemo). If the average product sells 10 copies a month and retails for $10, you need 128 products in circulation, selling well (most products sell a lot initially, and then level off to a trickle).

It’s worth noting that DriveThruRPG’s algorithm favors new products over old ones. Appearing on the front page of DriveThruRPG is key to driving sales. This means that to keep a content top-of-mind for consumers amid the massive amount of content on DriveThruRPG, a creator needs to produce products monthly if not weekly.

The adamantine list currently has 74 products in good company, ranging from R. Talsorian's Cyberpunk Red to Hero Kids to ZWEIHANDER to FATE. We know that if a product is on the adamantine list it's sold over 5,000 copies, but that's no guarantee of steady income. The product has to both sell at a certain price and frequently enough per year to achieve the $153,846 mark. I plan to reach out to the creators on the list to see if they can achieve this level of steady sales enough to support themselves with the income.

YouTube

Many kids these days want to be YouTube stars, but it’s a lot of work to get there. More production tends to be involved with video, which means successful YouTube stars are actually teams rather than individuals, segmenting the overall income stream. Additionally, YouTube scale is variable depending on a lot of factors, which makes it difficult to accurately estimate how much any one YouTuber makes a year. We can make some educated guesses, however.

Google pays 68% of their AdSense revenue, but advertiser rates vary between 10-and 30 cents per view. On average, a YouTube channel receives $18 per 1,000 views with advertising, or $4 per 1,000 views total. The calculator at Influencer Marketing Hub gives us an idea of what it takes to achieve the TFT.

That's 18 million views per year on YouTube, to reach the upper end ($104K). That implies an engagement rate of 81%, which is highly engaged. To reach that, you'll need subscribers. Your average subscriber can contribute around 200 views. You'll need at least 100,000 subscribers to reach that. For an example of a video channel that achieves this, see the Critical Role YouTube channel with 957,000 subscribers.

Kickstarter

Kickstarter takes 5% of any revenue with an additional processing fee of up to 5%, which means to achieve TFT you’ll need to make $112,000. According to The Hustle, games (including video, card, miniature, and tabletop games) make up 10% of all Kickstarters, are successful 38% of the time, and of those successful Kickstarters they tend to have goals around the $13K range. For games, 76% of the most successful were in the $1K to $9K range. Despite these challenges, successful game Kickstarters net on average $54,635, for a grand total of $879 million in total since 2009.

To achieve the TFT plateau of self-sufficiency, you would need to launch 11 successful Kickstarters a year with goals of $10K. The more successful you are with each Kickstarter in exceeding those goals, the less additional Kickstarters you would need for self-sufficiency. Given that almost all the highest earning Kickstarters in the game category were video or board games, this can seem daunting for tabletop gamers, but it’s not impossible. Matt Colville’s Strongholds & Streaming made $2,121,465.

Adding This All Up

Any one of these sales channels alone is probably not enough to sustain an individual. Even if they did, there's no guarantee an income stream one year will be the same the next year. Patrons leave, subscribers quit, and pandemics happen. And none of these estimates take into account advertising, marketing, development, licensing, and other production or distribution costs. This thought experiment also doesn't assume you hire anyone else -- teams of people are necessary to make great products, so if you only use your own talent, you're going to be doing a LOT of work up front.

Conversely, effort put into one channel can bolster the others; Colville's YouTube channel was a massive boost to his Kickstarter, which created a virtuous cycle of fans generating income multiple times through different streams.

Can you make a living creating RPGs? Absolutely. But it will take a lot of effort, a lot of time, and more than just writing; creating includes editing, art, layout, design, marketing, and sales. If you’re planning to make a living from the industry, you’d better get started now!
 
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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

Von Ether

Legend
I think your point about risk mitigation bears repeating. Especially because I believe that working as a RPG/board game designer is, by itself, a bit of a career risk. This skills are simply less fungible than others.

I know a guy who is a programmer that started a company doing freelance software and consulting. If his business fails, he'll have to shut down shop and get a new job as a programmer and any other company that uses programmers. Worst case scenario, his freelance work becomes his portfolio for future job interviews. Ditto for the guy who started an independent mechanics shop; failure means he goes back to working for a dealer. Even failed restaurateurs have something to show on their resume and experience they can bring elsewhere. There are ways to fall up.

If you get into RPG design and spend years of your life starting a company and fail (for any reason), what do you have to show for it? To be clear, I'm talking about your career only here; obviously, you still have personal satisfaction, life goals, etc. Is there any place you can go that will look at that "game design" and "worldbuilding" experience on a resume and say "Wow, that's this skill we need for this job"? The marketing experience my be the only re-marketable skill from starting your own small RPG company, and if that's something you don't enjoy you're SOL.

The writing aspect can go into other writing careers, sometimes, but that's just jumping from one shaky career to another. It pans out a little better if you can make the leap to video games (and leave near Seattle doesn't hurt.)

The "safest" route is to have already have a graphic design day job and then do your game writing and layout at night.* In fact, quite a few freelance graphic designers in the industry have their commercial work subsidize their industry work. I even know a few game company owners who operate this way. (The more writery types focus on their company between video gaming gigs.)

You'll find that there's some similarity between the comic book industry and the RPG industry once you replace artist and colorist with layout and art design. You'll find that while some of the established stars may get away with doing one thing and doing it well, the rest of us have to pretty much do a bit of everything to bring a project home.
 

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The writing aspect can go into other writing careers, sometimes, but that's just jumping from one shaky career to another. It pans out a little better if you can make the leap to video games (and leave near Seattle doesn't hurt.)

The "safest" route is to have already have a graphic design day job and then do your game writing and layout at night.* In fact, quite a few freelance graphic designers in the industry have their commercial work subsidize their industry work. I even know a few game company owners who operate this way. (The more writery types focus on their company between video gaming gigs.)

You'll find that there's some similarity between the comic book industry and the RPG industry once you replace artist and colorist with layout and art design. You'll find that while some of the established stars may get away with doing one thing and doing it well, the rest of us have to pretty much do a bit of everything to bring a project home.

Aren't video game designers and comic book artists generally in the same boat as RPG designers? Legitimately asking here, not being rhetorical. I've read a lot of horror stories on the internet about how video game designers are treated in the industry. And I know a few people who have tried to make a profession out of comics. None managed to make a career out of it.

You're probably correct about graphic design being the safest fallback.
 

You might look at getting your project management certifications and moving into management. Every field needs project managers, and any entrepreneur is going to have a boatload of skills related to that kind of work.
 

Von Ether

Legend
Aren't video game designers and comic book artists generally in the same boat as RPG designers? Legitimately asking here, not being rhetorical. I've read a lot of horror stories on the internet about how video game designers are treated in the industry. And I know a few people who have tried to make a profession out of comics. None managed to make a career out of it.

You're probably correct about graphic design being the safest fallback.

My comment on the comic book industry is that both industries seem to have similar-sized teams, workflows and use of freelancers per book and most projects are in-house once you switch out the artists/colorist for layout and graphic design.

I assume that creatives in all three industries "enjoy" the same pitfalls as all creatives do.

The parallels in processes may switch over to more like being a video game, though, when you compare WotC and Piazo's workflow to a Triple A title but even then most of the work has been in-house. WotC stopped sending things out and FFG/Edge seems to be more of a licencing deal like Paradox does with Modiphous.

The biggest career difference, though, is that the odds are much higher that you might make a livable paycheck while working on a video game project (and that there are many more Triple A houses and studios than there are WotC and Piazos.)
 

aramis erak

Legend
The "safest" route is to have already have a graphic design day job and then do your game writing and layout at night.*
Presuming your employer doesn't have a no-off-hours publications work policy...

Several media companies non-compete policies go so far as to claim ownership of all IP created while employed, whether on the clock or not, while more reasonable ones simply prohibit publishing while in their employ.

Essentially, Gygax himself fell afoul of a non-compete with Dangerous Journeys...

(While Dangerous Journeys wasn't the sole issue that brought down GDW, it did contribute.)
 

Von Ether

Legend
Presuming your employer doesn't have a no-off-hours publications work policy...

Several media companies non-compete policies go so far as to claim ownership of all IP created while employed, whether on the clock or not, while more reasonable ones simply prohibit publishing while in their employ.

Not so much when you are working marketing and ad agencies -- especially if you are freelancer.

The big taboo I saw, though, was corporate graphic artists staying late to "work" on a project and then doing a sideline with the computer software in the days when QX or InD was hundreds of dollars.

Some even asked for an extra licence so they could company work at home (as well as start up a freelance/RPG biz.) But as long a deadlines were met, it seems the bosses didn't care.

My personal frustration was from an RPG professional who kept harping on me learning layout and design as they did exactly this at their day job -- while expecting my broke butt to shell out hundreds of dollars I didn't have.
 

joe5mc

Villager
I read the original article with interest. While I'm not exactly what the article is looking for, I am getting there. A few things to note - I'm not completely self-employed, I draw a small salary, but most of my income is freelance. Also, one can argue if I'm actually an 'RPG' writer or not. I have done a bit of RPG writing, but most of my income has come from Rangers of Shadow Deep and Frostgrave. The later is wargame with rpg-flavours. The former is either a solo/co-operative wargame with a lot of RPG trappings, or a solo/co-operative RPG that requires the use of miniatures.

I don't know if I have 1,000 true fans or not, as this isn't always an easy question to answer. I suspect my number is closer to 500. Frostgrave has a lot more than 1,000 fans, but, as it is released through a traditional publisher, I get a royalty that is much smaller than if I self-published.

Rangers of Shadow Deep, I self-published through DriveThruRPG and Amazon. I convinced an artist friend and a graphic designer friend to join the project, and both receive a royalty on everything. To date, I have released six supplements for the game. After the game reached Adamantine level on DriveThru, I decided that the sales had peaked, and licensed the main rulebook to Modiphius, who are currently selling a Deluxe Edition. However, I retained all rights to create and release supplements myself. I've also licensed a couple of foreign publishers to release the game.

I have never used either Kickstarter or Patreon, but am ready to give either or both a try if it proves necessary.

I have never earned $100,000 in a year, but I also don't need near that much to live. I guess if I had some advice to people trying to make it in the industry, it would be:

1) Diversify your income streams. You never know which parts of your work will take off, and which will dry up, so try to have as many different income streams as you can manage. Self-Publish, try to get main-stream publishers to publish your work, and do work for hire. Use Patreon and Kickstarter if you need to and think you can. (Also, create a blog, use affiliate links, etc.). The more things you try, the more likely you are to succeed.

2) When you can, focus on the projects where you retain the most ownership. In the long term, creating your own game has by far the greatest earning potential, and anything you own has at least the possibility of earning money in the future.

3) Keep your expenses as low as possible. The less you spend, the less you have to earn. The life a game writer can be a great one, but in general, it's not likely to be a hugely profitable one. So, likely, you are going to have to make sacrifices in other areas of life to make it viable. Buy the small house, or rent the smaller apartment.

4) Learn to love marketing...

5) Write every day.
 

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