RPG Evolution: RPGs Have a Health Problem

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?


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


Secondly, if businesses were against getting something for free, then it’s pretty odd that they keep taking free money in the form of said tax breaks and subsidies

Nobody is against getting something for free, they are against someone getting something for free. Get it? lol

It doesn't have to make sense, reality is pesky that way.

In my experience of running businesses, generally there is support for medical care as it's cheaper for businesses. Then we wouldn't have to offer healthcare to be competitive.

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The problem isn't due to any particular government or healthcare system when you are specificallyb talking about artists. The problem is really the fundamental fact that being an artist and expecting to make a great living at it requires patronage. It's no different than in ye oldest tymes when an artist would find a wealthy patron. Now access to art is easier, but that access comes at the price of having more patrons but less of them able to provide you a living. With a niche like TTRPGs, the quantity of patrons is low.

This is exacerbated by distribution channels that own the copyright rather than the artist.

These two things mean that to be successful, you either need to control your own copyrights or have RPG products as only a part of your portfolio.

Now if you are talking healthcare amongst the US genpop, the issue isn't healthcare per se, it's the fact that health insurance makes healthcare so much more expensive, coupled with a US government that refuses to allow price negotiations with big pharma - the US pharma consumer subsidizes the rest of the world's pharma prices.


Hello, just adding my two cents as an example. I'm not a writer or designer by any means but I do make a good living working in Information Technology. I have health insurance for my wife and myself and over the summer while I was working on crafting some terrain for D&D I cut one of my finger tips almost off doing something stupid instead of taking the time to be safe.

Well long story short my wife takes me to one of the new satellite Emergency Centers and not an Urgent Care facility. Come to find out I didn't cut bone and didn't need even need stitches just answered questions got a shot and bandage. Almost a month later a bills show up for close to $1500 and another one I'm assuming just showed up for $99 for the being seen by a Nurse.

To say that the US Healthcare system is broken is an understatement, but like others state there a lot of moving pieces, from Lawyers, to Doctors, nurses, insurance brokers, and the government.


On that metempsychosis tweak
The issue is specifically tied to the American way of doing things. In other countries there is no where near the imbalance.
The American Way of doing healthcare is complicated. While the U.S. has one of the best medical systems in terms of technology, doctors, and medical skill, it's very difficult for many people to access these systems.


The issue is specifically tied to the American way of doing things. In other countries there is no where near the imbalance.
No, you just have people who don't have access to healthcare at all or wait and wait. Despite it costing more, there is a reason well-to-do people travel to the US for lifesaving procedures - better that than dying while on a waiting list (or worse, being told to just go home and die).

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