Becoming a Game Design Pro (Part 2)
As I was discussing in my post last week, I walked away from a six-figure job to follow my dream of designing board games full-time.
I know what you’re thinking. It must be nice. Walking away from the job you’re no longer passionate about and following your dream. But when you make a decision like this, you also have to ask yourself “how am I going to pay the bills?”
In case you’re not aware of how a game designer gets paid, it’s typically based on the royalties for games sold, unless you’re working in-house with a publisher, in which case you’d be earning a salary, which is a rarity and only happens in some of the few really big publishing companies.
Getting paid in this manner can make it pretty tricky to plan ahead and keep yourself afloat. First, you are dependent on getting your games signed by publishers (while competing with a lot of other game designers). Secondly, it takes time to get these games out to the public (which can easily take a year or two or more after your game has been signed). And thirdly, you have to wait to receive any royalty cheques, which are generally paid quarterly, after games are sold. So, the dollars lag way behind the effort.
If you’re lucky, a publisher may pay you an advance against royalties, which means you’ll get some money upfront, even if they only sell 2 copies of your game. This is not common amongst all publishers, so this really is a bonus if and when it happens.
As you can see, there’s quite a gap from the time a publisher signs your game to when you’ll see any money at all, plus the royalty is only a small percentage of the price. So, you either have to have a lot of games published or one or two evergreen games that continue to sell extremely well year after year in order to even make a little bit of money.
This is one of the main reasons why there are so few full-time game designers. There may be a slightly higher number of full-time small publishers that design and publish only (or mostly only) their own games, but the vast majority of game designers do this part-time on the side while they have a full-time job that pays the bills.
So how the heck was I able to do this with no games published and only 2 signed early on? The short answer is this: Planning.
I had wanted to move toward designing games full-time for quite a while but couldn’t just quit my day job and start doing this overnight. I had to have a plan. So, my wife and I started saving. We’d always been very good with our money, saving what we could, paying down our mortgage quickly, and living within our means. We live a good life, taking vacations every single year, enjoying lots of time with friends and family, but we never spent foolishly. This habit of saving made it much easier to work towards my transition.
It also helped tremendously to have a partner who was so supportive of the huge life change I wanted to make.
So, we saved up as much as we could in the time leading up to my last days at work. This would act as a nice cushion in the potentially lean days (or years) ahead. We also looked at our expenses. Fortunately, I track all our spending and earnings meticulously, so I know exactly how much we need to get by. We paid off the mortgage on our house, trimmed spending on things we didn’t need, and determined that with a few minor changes we could get by my wife’s salary. Anything I could bring in on top of this would go into savings or unexpected expenses.
I also got lucky. A couple of months before what was to be my last day at work, a friend let me know about an opening for a university teaching position in game design and development that he thought I would be perfect for. It sounded like a great opportunity, so I applied. I was very fortunate to be offered the position, which I gladly accepted.
But it wasn’t like I was just handed the position. I had to express how I would handle certain situations, discuss my teaching style, and present a topic to a group of students and professors. All this helped to get me the job.
But I also had to have the right experience to get my foot in the door in the first place. I had written a book on board game design, which had become a best-seller. I was also a guest speaker and taught game design and playtesting at a summer camp the year prior. Plus, I had four and half years of game design experience under my belt. What I lacked in teaching experience, I hoped to make up for in many other ways.
Since then, I have written 3 more books on game design, developed and launched 3 of my own online game design courses, run 3 Board Game Design Virtual Summits, done some design work, and even started publishing my own games. Diversification has been a huge help. When one area is slow, I can put my time and attention into something else that will be helpful for other game designers or get my games closer to publication. It’s really helpful not to have to rely strictly on royalties for games you no longer have any control over.
So, here I am. Living the dream.
In my next and final part of this blog about going pro, I’ll talk more about what the change has meant for me. In the meantime…
What would it take for you to make a change and follow your dream? What can you do today to start working towards that dream, even if it is just one small step?