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RPG Evolution: RPGs Have a Health Problem

Increasingly, the families of older gamers in the U.S. are turning to crowdfunding campaigns to fund their medical costs. Although gaming hasn't always been a lucrative field for designers, it's clear that even our most experienced designers aren't making enough to manage a medical crisis. Can we do anything about it?

As the game industry ages, our iconic game designers are aging with it. Increasingly, they are turning to crowdfunding campaigns to fund their medical costs. Although gaming hasn't always been a lucrative field for designers, it's clear that even our most experienced designers aren't making enough to manage a medical crisis. Can we do anything about it?

gofundme.jpg

The Scope of the Problem

For some designers, yearly deductibles have crept up to the $10,000 range; with game designers often working as freelancers without insurance, costs are even higher. Incidental expenses, like wound care supplies, specialized diets, and transportation all add to these costs. To address these expenses, GoFundMe (and it is usually GoFundMe, which accounts for 1 in 3 crowdfunding campaigns for medical costs) has become the crowdfunding platform of choice, with over 250,000 medical campaigns raising over $650 million each year.

Is it possible to make a living working on games? We have some notable data points.

It's Not for Everyone

Fred Hicks shares his perspective:
Through a combination of: Running Evil Hat (I made $0/month for several years; then we got a little success, enough to justify $450/month for a while; I’ve gotten to increase that since, but I am pretty sure I’m still not quite rating McDonald’s wages, and unless Evil Hat can improve its product output over the next few years, I’m not sure the increase can be sustained; behold part of my motive to grow the company! I should note I don’t charge the company anything else for any writing, development, or layout work I do beyond this monthly draw.) Running Jim Butcher’s online presence (the site has amazon referrals, other referral programs, the occasional ad revenue, cafe press gear, all of which funnels to me to pay the website costs and then pay myself the remainder for doing the work of creating & running all that over the past ten-plus years) Freelance layout work (which is bursty, unpredictable, and can sometimes wind up with late or very late or never-happened payment if you’re not careful)… I am just in the last year or two finally at the point where I’m making about what I made when I started in the internet industry back in 1996. Only without any benefits (save those that I get as a spouse), which is a lot like saying that I am making 30+% less than what I was making in 1996.
Louis Porter Jr. responded to Fred's post:
But there is another side to this. The side of what is "making a living"? I live is South Florida where I own a house, two cars, have a wife, one year old son and mother-in-law all living in the same house. My wife and I do well financially (She's a therapist and I am a graphic design / web designer) and LPJ Design gives me extra money to do a few fun things. But can I live off of it? No. But do I work it like a 40 hours a week job where I get full medical, weekly paycheck, 401k retirement planning, free use of internet, copier fax machine and roughly four and a half weeks off and 2 weeks of sick time? No. But I do know if I worked the LPJ Design business as well and hard as I work my "real" job the out come would be different.
Louis mentions the 1,000 fans theory, and given the success of crowdfunding in role-playing games it seems there's some merit.

The 1,000 Fans Theory

The 1,000 Fans Theory espouses the belief that creators don't need to have a large number of fans, they just need a highly-engaged base that will support them:
Here’s how the math works. You need to meet two criteria. First, you have to create enough each year that you can earn, on average, $100 profit from each true fan. That is easier to do in some arts and businesses than others, but it is a good creative challenge in every area because it is always easier and better to give your existing customers more, than it is to find new fans. Second, you must have a direct relationship with your fans. That is, they must pay you directly. You get to keep all of their support, unlike the small percent of their fees you might get from a music label, publisher, studio, retailer, or other intermediate.
If each fan provided $100 per year, that would amount to a $100,000 year income. It's worth noting that a percentage of this number also covers things like insurance and medical bills. The total number of fans can be adjusted up or down according to the individual's needs and goals -- those creatives who live in areas where they can get by on $50,000 need only 500 fans, while those who have fans with less disposable income may need double that amount. Where do RPG fans fit in this model?

There are two constraints that working against game developers hoping to make a living using this model. For one, tabletop RPG fans are not nearly as large a market as video games or other creative outlets. For another, gamers are accustomed to lower price points than other entertainment, including the aforementioned video games.

As the market continues to expand, we're seeing movement on both of these factors that may give future designers hope. The market is growing -- Hasbro CEO Brian Goldner told Mad Money that "people are more into Dungeons & Dragons today than ever before. In fact it's enjoying its best year ever, it's been the last couple of years where it's grown. People are reengaged with that brand because it's a face-to-face game, it's immersive, and it's a game that people really enjoy playing with one another. We have more new users coming on board -- double digit, new user growth."

Along with that growth is a fan base willing to spend more, as Andrew addressed in his article, "How Expensive is Too Expensive?" This in turn means creatives can get paid more. Russ has written an excellent reference piece on EN World that every writer should read. It's worth noting that when it comes to paying fairly, Russ is a leader in the industry -- and I speak from personal experience working for him.

A third factor to consider is that the barrier to entry into role-playing games has dropped considerably. Thanks to digital platforms like DriveThruRPG and the DMs Guild, creators can make and sell games at very little cost. By keeping their expenses as low as possible, game designers can net more profit from their games. There are also more platforms to allow fans to directly contribute to creators, like Patreon.

Adding this all up, the 1,000 fan theory seems more achievable for game designers than ever before. But until the market expands enough to support more creatives in the field, economic conditions will continue to push everyone in the tabletop RPG field to test the 1,000 fan theory in the worst way...when they have a medical crisis.
 

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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

And there are little children becoming rich, filthy rich, only because they are in youtube videos opening toy boxes.

Maybe the future of the industry is in something like the sponsorpay where you get points watching advertising videos, and you spend those points in the store of a videogame (for example clothes, hair and furnitures for the sims 3), or PDFs of TTRPGs. I think this is the best strategy because the spot is linked with a positive stimulus, a reward, and then we are more receptive than when the movie in the TV is interrupted for the advertising.
 

eyeheartawk

#1 Enworld Jerk™
It's a niche market with easy access, meaning it's small but there is also alot of noise. To truly make a living in this industry you have to get very lucky. I wouldn't count on anything in the RPG field being a full time career type job, just given the chances.

That all being said, it's almost as if the prevalence of gofundme campaigns for medical expenses is the sign of some larger systemic problem in America rather than anything unique to the RPG industry. It's weird how I don't see any medical fundraising for European designers :unsure:. I can't figure this one out, fellas.
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
That all being said, it's almost as if the prevalence of gofundme campaigns for medical expenses is the sign of some larger systemic problem in America rather than anything unique to the RPG industry. It's weird how I don't see any medical fundraising for European designers :unsure:. I can't figure this one out, fellas.

We're not going to get into a general discussion about US politics, thanks, guys. Stay on target. I know the topic veers close.
 

This is really a fundamental problem of the American healthcare system.
The American healthcare system has a health problem.

Another issue is that minimum wages are too low.

Another issue is the sense of entitlement from RPG consumers. Who try to justify piracy. People worked hard on those books. F balking at spending an amount for RPG books.
 
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Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
I honestly dont think you can discuss this issue without talking about the healthcare system in America, and you can't do that without talking about politics in America. They are all fundamentally tied together.

Update - I've changed my mind. This is an important conversation to have, but it will be closed without notice if it drifts into a full-fledged politics thread and doesn't stay on topic. And I don't want to hear any political jabs at the opposing team(s).
 
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DWChancellor

Kobold Enthusiast
I don't see how this market is much different than art, or performance in that there are many many more really talented people who are driven to create than there are people driven to pay full price for value.

I walk into a Morton Arboretum (a non-profit taken over by MBA parasites but that's another discussion) Artist's Guild show and see fully masterful pieces by two dozen people only two or three of whom have ever made much money off of it.

Street performers around my city perform at a very high level and... get to perform in the street.

I don't see a difference for game designers and RPG writers. The internet has only exacerbated this by making access to the public trivial while at the same time making access by the public trivial. Without any gating, huge numbers of hopefuls jump in and design/write their hearts out.

You might say, "why doesn't my society better support the people who can't help themselves trying to make the world richer and more wonderful," but it isn't like Europe and every other continent isn't covered in hopeful never-makes it too. I just don't see how this boils down to anything more than the fundamental question: do we as a society want to "liberate" people from their base needs so they can freely and without dire consequence "do."
 

Ulfgeir

Hero
That all being said, it's almost as if the prevalence of gofundme campaigns for medical expenses is the sign of some larger systemic problem in America rather than anything unique to the RPG industry. It's weird how I don't see any medical fundraising for European designers

Well, we had here in Sweden one case where a crowdfunding-campaign was used for medical reasons (it was cancelled though due to possible conflicts of policies). One of the makers of the Swedish game Western (and the largest Swedish roleplaying magazine Fenix) is relatively ill (terminally as far as I know), and they set up a kickstarter to get money so that her partner could take a leave of absence from his job, and take care of her, while they worked on finishing as much material as possible for the game while she still has the strength to do so.
 

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