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?

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

Comments

LuisCarlos17f

Adventurer
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

Explorer
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.
 

Xenonnonex

Adventurer
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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lowkey13

I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.
We're not going to get into a general discussion about US politics, thanks, guys. Stay on target. I know the topic veers close.
I'm not entirely sure it's possible to have a productive discussion about health care for people working (largely in America) and the issues surrounding same without an understanding of why America has those issues.

But yes, if you are discussing people doing freelance and/or creative work in America, then healthcare becomes a major issue for them, and this factors into their compensation.

In addition, people tend to undervalue how much effort and time creative efforts cost. For example, if an attorney tells you that they charge $500/hr, that's the cost of doing business. However, if an artist tries to sell you a painting for $5,000.00 (a large one), do you consider how much time and effort went int the painting, let alone the cost of supplies?

TLDR; people suck.
 

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

Explorer
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.
 

Sacrosanct

Legend
It’s like the saying, “The best way to end up with a million dollars in the RPG industry is to start with two.”

I don’t think I’ve ever made money as a whole putting out products, and that includes my game that went into full distribution (Impressions distribution) with a 5,000 print run. But I am OK with being a hobby publisher. I do it because I like to do it. For example, the superdungeon in my sig has sold roughly 1000 copies so far, mostly pdf with some hard copy. But not even counting my own time and effort, I spent over $3000 to get it completed. Almost all freelance art and editing. I did all the writing and layout myself, or the costs would have been much higher. And those 1000 copies are over a five year period.

So unless you have boat loads of money to build up a huge library of products right up front, it takes a long, long time to have produced enough to make a total business profit, let alone enough to do this as your sole source of income. Or you have to be lucky to catch the right attention at the right time and have your product become viral.

It just isn’t that big enough of a hobby. And like any other hobby (like crafting, or woodworking, or leatherworking (two of my other hobbies), it’s near impossible to make a decent living, let alone be able to pay for good healthcare and retirement. Until we go to universal healthcare, I don’t see that changing.
 

Sacrosanct

Legend
In addition, people tend to undervalue how much effort and time creative efforts cost. For example, if an attorney tells you that they charge $500/hr, that's the cost of doing business. However, if an artist tries to sell you a painting for $5,000.00 (a large one), do you consider how much time and effort went int the painting, let alone the cost of supplies?

TLDR; people suck.
There’s a popular meme in my woodworking circles: I’m not charging you for the 30 minutes of work, I’m charging you for the 30 years of time and effort I did to get to the point where I could do this job well in 30 minutes.
 

Scarlet.Knight

Explorer
I don't see how this market is much different than art, or performance in that there are many many more 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 between 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."
I like your analysis of the situation.

I live in Canada. These healthcare-related issues are fairly different here. When it comes to medication, we're mostly in the same boat: can't pay, can't have.

In my experience, artists, in general, do not make a huge chunk of money in Canada. Same situation. I studied graphic arts, about 20 years ago. I was the only graduate of my class that found a job in this field. Even then, my pay was close to minimum wage, with no benefits whatsoever. We're talking graphic arts here: the most commercial application of visual arts. Nowadays, anybody with a computer can download Adobe Creative Suite and play with it to create stuff. It won't be, generally, very well thought out. It won't exactly match what the client needs. But most clients simply do not care. It's all about costs and most just don't care or can't see the difference if the thing is "50% pretty vs 80% pretty". This has kept salaries and conditions fairly low (there are some exceptions and I did not put together a full study on it, so this conclusion contains my experiences and my biases). That is partly why I left that field.

I see direct parallels with RPG writing here. Actual authors with skills pushing products in a sea of other products pushed by authors or non-authors of various skills. Amateur authors able to do the work (lower quality but hey, will they see the difference?) bringing salaries down. When Monte Cook Games publishes a game with such high production value as Cypher System Revised and charges $60+ for it, people are shocked. Lots of lower price tags on the same shelf. Are we ready to pay for quality? I am. But in general... I'm unsure.

Other trades, such as plumbing or factory work, have seen a significant increase in salaries and work conditions. Why is that? Well, because in a capitalist society, usefulness - real or perceived - is key. At every turn, it seems like our world is more and more concerned with bottom dollars and profit. The school system has gone through several reforms to make kids - ultimately working adults - more adaptable, flexible and able to solve the complex problems of the modern world. Utilitarianism vs humanism. Increasing profit for shareholders in spite of everything else, ethics included. It should come as no surprise that arts, in general, are not considered very high on the scale of usefulness in such a system. Tell your dad you're gonna become a professional dancer; or tell him you're gonna become an electrician. Your mileage may vary, but I suspect that he might value one over the other. My dad did anyway...

How many singers, authors and actors struggle to make ends meet waiting for their breakthrough? It may never come. When it comes, the whole thing becomes a business. Facelifts, agents, promotion tours, contacts, Instagram... Gathering fans by the million to generate money for that big hungry machine. But for authors? RPG authors? Gee, the pool of interested people grows thinner. Do people still read nowadays? Some do, but in general, I feel books are not that popular anymore (cooking books excluded!). My kids would rather watch stupid Youtube videos as opposed to reading The Hobbit or even Tintin comics. I have to force them to do so... and they're very smart kids with superior reading skills.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that art, in general, has a lower value than other activities, in our society based on profits and reduced costs. Because of our proximity to our hobby, this issue hits close to home. But other trades and careers are in the same boat. I do not feel a person who plays hockey or baseball for a living should earn 100 times what a doctor who saves lives earns. I do not feel a person who entertains people for a living should be left out to die when illness comes. There is a real lack of human decency in our current society. I don't pretend to know what we need as a society, but I think we need to put back some ethics into it.
 
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Rhianni32

Explorer
RPGs suffer the same problem that a lot of industries have encountered with the rise of the internet. Low entry barrier. People will create content for free because to them its a fun passion or they are doing it for their own table and then can offer it up for others to use. Its not realistic to expect to do this as your single source of income.

However the internet also brings the power of leverage. Not only with the size of audience for Twitch, youtube, and patreon income but more importantly the tools available. Once you learn the tricks of the trade and some time saving steps, creating quality RPG content isn't that hard. Look at battlemap Patreons. The successful ones create 4-6 versions of a map. I imagine some 80% of their total time is creating the first basic map. Then the last 20% is toggling light setting, shadowing, and swapping out plant models (while leaving in walls and rocks) so that now you have day, night, summer, winter versions.
My own usage of GIMP photoediting software has a massive up front time cost to learn. Now though I can crank through a lot of great visual aids for my table in about 1/10th the time the first few times took.

This is where I think it is most realistic to see RPGs as a source of income. Get good at a quick process, work on it 1 hour a day after your day job or 6ish hours on the weekend and focus on supplemental income.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest
I don't think this is just a problem within the RPG hobby for the producers, but also the consumers. How many GoFundMe campaigns do you think are out there for the health care of gamers? I'll bet there are quite a few more than there are for the producers.

In some ways, that's just the effect of America's terrible health care distribution system. In other ways, it's the nature of a hobby that attracts and retains people who are seeking an escape from their normal day woes and/or prefer a more cerebral, table-top hobby because of their own physical health issues compared to more active hobbies.
 

Rhianni32

Explorer
There’s a popular meme in my woodworking circles: I’m not charging you for the 30 minutes of work, I’m charging you for the 30 years of time and effort I did to get to the point where I could do this job well in 30 minutes.
I'm an IT server and cybersecurity admin and I say something similar. Yes you can pay entry level people to cover most of the day to day support. However my 20+ years of experience means your equipment is built and maintained so that you don't have problems in the first place vs that entry level tech needing to google each and every error code they didn't know how to prevent in the first place.
 

Aebir-Toril

std::cout << "Hi" << '\n';
I'm an IT server and cybersecurity admin and I say something similar. Yes you can pay entry level people to cover most of the day to day support. However my 20+ years of experience means your equipment is built and maintained so that you don't have problems in the first place vs that entry level tech needing to google each and every error code they didn't know how to prevent in the first place.
A 302 error has occurred. Please re-type your post. :)
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
In addition, people tend to undervalue how much effort and time creative efforts cost. For example, if an attorney tells you that they charge $500/hr, that's the cost of doing business. However, if an artist tries to sell you a painting for $5,000.00 (a large one), do you consider how much time and effort went int the painting, let alone the cost of supplies?
Well, there's rather a difference between engaging legal assistance on an important matter, and buying an artwork - if I am engaging the lawyer, it is generally because I have something else that is, in some way, worth much more to me than the lawyer's costs that hangs in the balance. If I buy a painting... it is because I like the painting.

So, if a lawyer tells us they have fees that amount to $5000, we pay because we kind of have to for some larger reason. If an artists tells us the painting costs $5000... you know, in this audience, most of us probably sigh, shrug, and walk away, because we cannot afford that amount on a single luxury item*, regardless how how much it took to produce.

We talk about this in reference to artists, but it is by no means an issue of artists - art is a business, and this issue affects all small businesses - a bit of searching on statistics suggests to me that about 50% of all small businesses fail within the first five years of operation.

So, while we look at RPG creators, the issue really isn't one of RPGs, or artists. The same problems apply to any small businessperson - in general, going into business for yourself is financially very risky. Flip a coin as to whether you will be able to make it for five years, much less be well-financed for medical issues as you age.

So, if you are concerned about RPG producers... maybe you should also be concerned about your dog groomer, or the folks who opened that new bagel shop up the street, too.




*Or, that luxury item does not provide, for us, the bang for the buck - given that $5000 is also akin to a week's vacation for two.
 

Sacrosanct

Legend
I also don’t think the health care issue is limited to RPGs or other small niche jobs. Last year, when my son was on a band trip, he split his nose open when the bus storage door fell on his face. It was a band trip to another city, so out of network. Between the hospital bill and the doctors own separate bill, it was $6000 for fifteen minutes of stitches. After insurance because out of network. How many people, even with “regular” jobs, can afford that. And that was for something minor, god forbid if you have a serious medical emergency
 

Sacrosanct

Legend
So, while we look at RPG creators, the issue really isn't one of RPGs, or artists. The same problems apply to any small businessperson - in general, going into business for yourself is financially very risky. Flip a coin as to whether you will be able to make it for five years, much less be well-financed for medical issues as you age.

So, if you are concerned about RPG producers... maybe you should also be concerned about your dog groomer, or the folks who opened that new bagel shop up the street, too.




*Or, that luxury item does not provide, for us, the bang for the buck - given that $5000 is also akin to a week's vacation for two.
Absolutely agree with this. It really comes down to what is the market willing to pay a person for X. Love it or hate it, it’s capitalism.
 

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