2012-03-13 : Indie POV pt 2: Does It Pay?

Yes, it does.

Freelancers make 1-10¢ per word for their work. I make 20 times that for mine. Dogs in the Vineyard has paid me something truly insane, over a buck and a quarter per word. After publication costs, after paying Ed for his illustrations, after con expenses. Apocalypse World, less than 2 years old, has paid me maybe 80ยข per word. I expect it to reach $2.00 before it's done.

My least successful games have still paid me back 50¢ a word or more.

Down here, Jim Crocker says:

On the question of 'profit', there's a big difference between having a day job and being a game publisher and being a full-time creator and being a game publisher. if a creator is working on a self-published game instead of doing freelance work, he needs to count those hours in his costs; the time he's budgeted for the project needs to be assigned a value and cred against revenue.

Wait! How come I need to count my time in my costs as a self-publisher, but freelancers don't? I think that's nonsense.

But it doesn't matter; if you want me to count my time as a cost, I can. Here's what you're up against: if I'd written 30,000 words at 6&cent per, freelance, instead of writing Dogs in the Vineyard, today I'd be out forty thousand dollars.

1. On 2012-03-13, Vincent said:

Here's my "sunk time" calculation.

In order to make up that $40,000 at 6¢ per word, in the same 7-year time period, I'd have to have written ... 666,667 more words.

In the time available to me, could I have done that?

If I were trying to make a reasonable chunk of my living from the industry, would that have been the better choice?


2. On 2012-03-13, Simon R said:

For you? It's clear. You and a few others earn more than the entire COP RPG hobby publishers combined, by a long way.

So, I think it's a little misleading to hold yourself out as a point of comparison - you are the pinacle of success, the astronaut, the X Factor winner of COPs.

Even so, by your calculations, you would have had to have written 8000 words a month for 7 years to match what you earned. Most RPG freelancers could do that in 4 days a month, including time for research, rewriting and polishing*. Look at it this way, a typical freelancer could match this word count in a year, then have six years to spare, to do more work-for-hire freelancing.

That's a respectable time commitment, but how many days of work did you have to do, publishing, designing and writing and shipping? Fewer I expect, but nontheless I don't think it's as clear cut a difference as you make out.

I'd contend that most COPs earn less for their time (if you want to measure it that way) than work-for-hire writers.

I am sticking within the narrow terms you mention here, and putting aside the other benefits of being a COP. Personally, I can't even imagine what writing 60K words a month would be like, and I don't think it's accurate to look at your effort and time in terms of word count.

[Aside: That said, IndieGoGo and Kickstarter may have thrown everything out of whack and changed the rules. If you specified a game and crowdfunded it, I'd be surprised if it wasn't in five figures within 24hrs.]


3. On 2012-03-13, Alan said:

As a self-publisher or a freelancer, counting your time as a cost doesn't make sense.  In neither case are you receiving wages-for-time.  The "cost" for your time varies based on how quickly you can produce the content and what you are paid for it.

Perhaps Crocker just means that you should estimate your expected income relative to the estimated time it will take and ensure that you're okay with the resulting effective hourly rate.  If that's the case, I agree.  But like Vincent, I don't see why freelancing is different from self-publishing when it comes for accounting for your time.


4. On 2012-03-13, Simon R said:

Determining an hourly rate is a reasonable way of comparing COPs with work-for-hire writers. That's all Jim is saying (I think).

So for your freelancer, you work out your total earnings, (words * word rate) how long it takes you to write and reasearch your words, any con attendance and other expenses and divide A by B. Likewise, for a COP, you add up your net margin after publishing costs and other expenses and divide by the time you take.


5. On 2012-03-13, Vincent said:

Simon: Look out! I'm fighty about this.

You said: "Look at it this way, a typical freelancer could match this word count [666,667 words] in a year, then have six years to spare, to do more work-for-hire freelancing."

I wrote Dogs in the Vineyard in a year too, and had 6 years to spare too, to do more creator publishing.

I have to take exception to this X-factor astronaut talk. Look who you're comparing me with. Is a freelancer who has the discipline to write and the good fortune to get paid 6¢ per word for 700,000 words in one year really more typical for freelancers than I am for creator-publishers?


6. On 2012-03-13, Vincent said:

I can tell you about my time too, if you want. Creating and publishing is, no doubt, slower per word than writing for hire is.

But, like, Dogs in the Vineyard took me 200 hours to make, generously, plus maybe 25 hours a year ongoing to support it. Call it 375 hours total so far, for something like 80 words an hour. (Yep! Much slower than just writing.)

Still, at 6&cent per word, a freelancer has to write and be paid for 1800 words an hour to match it. And that's hour after hour for 375 hours, not the best hour of a good day.


7. On 2012-03-13, Simon R said:

@Vincent My astronaut talk was also intended as a complement in addition marking you as a rarity, or I might have compared you to hen's teeth. But still, locked and loaded!

I accept that you did better than a well paid freelancer - just not astromically $2.00 a word versus 6c a word better. I think an answer to this is a matter of fact rather than opinion, so I will have to dig out more data, though Pelgrane alone makes use of three such freelancers. I can't imagine we are untypical, though I accept that may be lack of imagination.  As I said, I think it's likely that you personally better paid than most top freelancers on an hourly basis.

My central though contention was this, "that most COPs earn less for their time (if you want to measure it that way) than work-for-hire freelance writers."

Is this something you dispute?


8. On 2012-03-13, Simon R said:

@Vincent "Still, at 6? per word, a freelancer has to write and be paid for 1800 words an hour to match it. And that's hour after hour for 375 hours, not the best hour of a good day."

Yes, I can't imagine how mind numbing it is, and how much discipline it must take to write like that, hour after hour.

I was discussing the narrow point of money per hour which you addressed in your initial point.

However, I know writers who are completely disinterested in doing anything other than sitting down, writing, and being paid for it. Not for them the joys of graphic design, art direction, taking financial risk, printing, reprinting, arranging layout, customer service, submitting products to third parties, wrangling freelancers, creating websites and shopping carts, marketing, sales, suppliers and selling at convention after convention. Now you and I enjoy that. They, categorically, do not.


9. On 2012-03-13, Vincent said:

Like you say, it's a matter of fact, not opinion, whether freelancers typically earn more or less for their work than creator-publishers. I don't know for a fact. I bet creator-publishers do, but I'll accept numbers that show otherwise.

But that's not what drives me crazy and gets me fighting. What drives me crazy is the idea that if you're serious about making a living in roleplaying, you'd better freelance, but if you're just trying to make a little on the side, you have the luxury to self-publish.

I just plain don't see it.


10. On 2012-03-13, Simon R said:

As a result of this fruitful discussion I'm gathering data on work-for-hire freelancers - this will make an interesting article. So far I've about fiteen or so work-for-hire writers who hit the word rate or more, but I don't know if they'll hit the words per month. WotC for example employed writers on $45K on starting salary, and pay 7-8c a words to freelancers. They have at least seven.

@Vincent "But that's not what drives me crazy and gets me fighting. What drives me crazy is the idea that if you're serious about making a living in roleplaying, you'd better freelance, but if you're just trying to make a little on the side, you have the luxury to self-publish."

I am not saying that at all - I'd like to know who is. I think it's very hard to make a living in the RPG industry at all, and those that do generally end up moving on to work in computer games or online projects. But there are more full time RPG work-for-hire writers then there are full time COPs.

If a person comes to me with a new game, I always suggest that they self-publish, or if I absolutely love the game at least point them at the option and resources and suggest it as a better option. The barriers to entry are very low. However, more often I get someone who wants to write stuff for our games, and self-publishing is not something they want. Rarely, I'll publish what they've written.

And of course, freelancing and COPping are not mutually exclusive. Doing one can really help the other, particularly when building rep without taking risk or doing non-writing publishing activities.

I'll get back to you when I have more data. On the other side, do you know which COPs make a full time living from roleplaying?

I'll have to leave it here for the mo, but I will be back.


11. On 2012-03-13, shreyas said:

You're also not factoring in the time of playesting, and the cost (which for you is 0, because you don't pay playtesters, but that isn't true of all designers.)

Obviously measuring by pennies-per-word doesn't really produce sensible-sounding results when you're comparing writing for hire (sit down and write some words) as compared to designing independently (design and build a system, write, playtest, rewrite q.s.) and setting all the additional costs of that second process to 0.


12. On 2012-03-13, shreyas said:

This calculation also disregards the difference between raking in money from evergreen product that continues bringing in money over time vs. one-time payments for contract work, and the sunken time and work from abandoned and unpaying projects.

It also disregards that your position in the market is that of a producer with connections, experience, dedicated fans, and name recognition. It also disregards the fact that, as a designer, you are better than average. None of these factors are reproducible.

Vincent, it is pretty transparent that you are marketing your point of view here. A balanced analysis is not present in this post. I don't know what the conclusions of a balanced analysis might be, but presenting your experience and resources as typical is unhelpful to all other persons besides yourself.


13. On 2012-03-13, Meserach said:

Here's how I see it breaking down.

The equation for a freelancer:

$ per hour = $ per word (e.g. $0.06) * accepted words per hour

The equation for the self-publishing-creator-owner:

$ per hour = (game sales - unit costs - overheads) / total hours worked on games

Now to do this fairly, you have to make sure you're accounting for the fact that "hours worked on game" includes everything from the writing itself to editing and layout to marketing and time spent on product support. It also includes time lost on making games that don't work out. You also musn't forget overheads and unit costs sunk on projects that don't ever become profitable.


14. On 2012-03-13, Meserach said:

Oh yes, and time spent playtesting counts as "hours worked on game" too.


15. On 2012-03-13, Meserach said:

The other major factor is uncertainty. Difficulties getting paid aside, a freelancer is guaranteed a return on their investment of written words.

A creator-publisher is writing everything on spec, and they won't know how much their time investment will end up paying out until potentially years down the line. Now, that's great if you crunch the numbers later and you made out like a bandit; but what if you crunch the numbers in ten years time and it turns out you WOULD have been better off just working freelance? Too late to change it now, of course....


16. On 2012-03-13, Simon R said:

If you want to make a living from RPG writing and design but don't want to publish yourself because of all the dull commerce involved, what's the best option?


17. On 2012-03-13, Moreno said:

Talking about differences.. we are really talking about two different "professions" here.

Someone who want to publish his own game, is creating a game. Something with movable parts that has to work.

If a typical Freelance "rpg writer" write, as Simon said, 700,000 words every year... how much of that is "writing games" and how much is "writing setting supplements" "writing adventures for established systems" "writing magazine articles about a game system created by somebody else" or something like that ?

It's not only about money, or about being hard-line about independence: if "what you want to do for that money" too.


18. On 2012-03-13, CoreyHaim8myDog said:

This is really a great discussion. I am a bit confused though as my previous research indicated it was nigh impossible to make a living as a freelancer. Has that changed? Thus far I have only one paid credit in this industry with Mongoose.

Any advice would be welcome.


19. On 2012-03-13, Vincent said:

Shreyas: You're right! How has self-publishing worked for you? I'd love to hear from other creator-publishers than me.

Not just Shreyas! I'm not typical. Can we get a better picture of what typical is?


20. On 2012-03-14, Graham said:

Simon: Like Vincent, I get paid more for self-published stuff than anything I write for hire. This applies however I sell it.


21. On 2012-03-14, Graham said:

So! In case that wasn't clear. The idea that...

"I'd contend that most COPs earn less for their time (if you want to measure it that way) than work-for-hire writers.", for me, wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong.

I also have the advantage that I can write as many words as are required to make it good, rather than churning out stuff to meet a target.


22. On 2012-03-14, Jason N said:

I'm still confused why anyone would think of this "industry" as a viable profession.  At the prices mentioned in the recent threads, it's clearly not except perhaps for a few exceptional folks who prove the rule (and probably live in very inexpensive locations).

A few tens of thousands of US dollars per year—if that?  Are you kidding me?  We're talking about values that are below the poverty line.

So, my question is: who cares?  Why are we even talking about this?  It seems like this is just hobbyist work and hobbyist income, not anything you'd build a life and career around.


23. On 2012-03-14, 'Crocker' said:

So this is me apologizing for not making myself clear enough.

I just wanted to know how part-time self-publishers account for their sunk time. My assumption was that freelancers were doing this as a matter of course to evaluate which projects it made sense to take on or not, and never that they weren't doing it! So again, sorry I wasnt clearer.

The previous post that talked about trying to figure out what the hourly return broke out to was what I meant. As a guy who has to spend a lot of time running numbers and balancing labor costs, how other people make these calls for different business models is really interesting to me.

Mostly, because some of the terms being tossed around, most particularly 'profit' mean something very specific to me (because it means something very specific to my sharehders and the IRS) I'm just trying to figure out if we're talking about the same thing.

I guess the other thing I wonder about is the extent to which being a self-publisher is a whole series of jobs: art buyer, graphic designer, print buyer, online retailer and relentless self-promoter may just be viewed by some folks not cut iut for it asextra work they just don't want to (or feel competent to) do?

So, yeah, not trying to start a fight, just trying to understand the process!


24. On 2012-03-14, Simon R said:

@Graham "wrong, wrong, wrong" for you, or for everyone? This is a matter of fact not opinion, so data is what we need. Which COPs you know make a full time living from RPG writing and design, or an equivalent hourly rate?

My view on the quality of work-for-hire writers paid 6c a word vs non-work-for-hire writers is that the method by which the work is produced does not determine the quality. There are plenty of appalling painstakingly created COP games, and many terrible, turgid work-for-hire word-rate tomes. Likewise, the GUMSHOE system was created as a work for hire project, as was the marginalia in your Stealing Cthulhu. Is that turgid? Was it worth the money?

Finally, I think a word rate doesn't make sense for most potential COP designers in any case because of the vast amount of time it take per word - they tend to be compact games.

Anyway, to answer my own question:

"If you want to make a living from RPG writing and designer but don't want to publish yourself because of all the dull commerce involved, what's the best option?"

It seems to me that a license arrangement is the only way to go to fill these criteria. This does entail taking a risk, though - it depends on your sales. You may well be able to negotiate a minimum and an advance, though. I'm reasonably sure if Vincent approached say Peter Adkison and suggested an idea, he'd get such an advance. Not that he would.

@Jason N Very few people create RPGs full time, partly because it's not very lucrative, partly because it's such hard work, and partly because they very soon move on to other jobs for which RPG design is a springboard. The best paid are those who work for WotC. They are called RPG Designers, and their salary ranges from $45K to $70K as of when Rob Heinsoo worked for them. Where they are designing modules, they are expected to produce 32K words a month. I would not do their job, though they love it.

I solicited and am collating data from freelancers who earn 5c or more per word and publishers who pay that much.

Is anyone willing to solicit COPs, or should I do that, too?


25. On 2012-03-14, Simon R said:

I am frankly astounded by the amount of writing some freelancers are getting done.

One excellent freelancer works part time evenings and weekends and manages 40,000 a month in addition to a 40hr a week job. Pay - 6c a word.

Another one, paid an average of 6.5c a word produces 30K with a full time job. I can't vouch for quality.

Another, 20-40K a month, with a full time job.


26. On 2012-03-14, Graham said:

Simon: do you think, perhaps, that's because you pay them per word?


27. On 2012-03-14, Simon R said:

@Graham They aren't freelancers who have worked for me.

But if you are suggesting there is a incentive to write faster at the possible expense of if you are paid by the word, then yes. This has had a detrimental effect on some people's work, particularly if the quality control is not good enough, naming no company names. This is true of any piece work, including art.

If it goes back with useful commentary when it's not up to scratch, that problem diminishes. And also, some experienced writers write very well, very fast and I'd hold up Ken, Robin or Lenny's work for example against anyone's.

I'm surprised to find that comparing those word rates to many fiction writers, they aren't even exceptional.


28. On 2012-03-14, CoreyHaim8myDog said:

I'm a bit confused. Who and how many are earning a living by rpgs?

How does RPG design lead to video games? I see how the concepts are connected but not the industries.


29. On 2012-03-14, Vincent said:

Yeah, that's a lot of writing! Holy crap.


30. On 2012-03-14, John Mc said:


I'm not an expert, but I've seen the RPG-to-video-game transfer happen.  I'd say that the basic reason it works is because the video game industry needs loads of talent, but has trouble discovering it.  This has diminished recently with the rise of video game academia, but still exists.  Most video game designers last less than 5 years in the industry, and yet it is a big industry that needs designers.  Tons of people want to become video game designers, but companies need some way of filtering out the thousands of worthless applicants.

RPG design experience differentiates an applicant from the pack.  It establishes a certain amount of creativity, writing proficiency, and dedication.

Plus there are a ton of roleplayers in the video game industry, and they love to bring more of them into the fraternity.


31. On 2012-03-14, timfire said:

There aren't any full-time COPs that I know of because the indie crowd dropped the expectation of working full-time at RPG publishing a long time ago. The old Forge crowd even actively discourages it.

That said, I think many designers could develop a full-time business if they so desired, though it would take some time.

IME, a moderately successful indie RPG will make around $20-30k (net profit) over the course of 5-ish years. I'll guess that translates to about $1.00 a word. So if someone decided to dedicate 40 hours a week to their RPG endeavors, and pumped out a game every 6 months or so, in 5 years they would be making $40-60k year.

And that would be for a moderately successful designer, not a superstar like Vincent.


32. On 2012-03-14, Simon R said:

@CoreyHaim8myDog I don't know exactly how it works, and my experience is anecdotal - I know of approximately half a dozen RPG writers who have moved from RPG design into other games design for third parties. I've even proseltyised to non-RPG game designers holding up Dogs in the Vineyard as a model for future games with better AI.


33. On 2012-03-14, Luke said:

Since Vincent asked: BWHQ has consistently grossed between $80,000-$100,000 a year for the past five or six years. After expenses (and taxes), I net a few thousand dollars. Expenses include: printing, shipping, conventions, wages for a bookkeeper and a fulfillment troll, research, travel, etc. I do not pay myself a wage. I do not get dividends or draws.

From past conversations we've had, I think I've sold more units than Vincent and my games are generally priced higher. Even so, I've never been able to do more than pay for a month or two of my own personal expenses with money from publishing. BW does pay for my electronic hardware (since I only use it for work/research), so that's a nice perk. Sometimes it buys me lunch.

An RPG usually takes me about 8 months of full time development. My games (and supplementary books) are 100,000 to 200,000 words. My games are solid directly, through hobby channels and through national and international distribution.

I've published my own work and worked under contract. I've licensed popular properties and I've also published the work of others.

If I quit publishing and worked at MacDonalds as a cashier, I'd be making more. I could probably work my way up to manager inside of a year and have benefits. I could post free RPGs to my blog at night instead of watching TV. Unfortunately, I'm an idealistic (and foolish) artist and I prefer poverty to security.

I think that publishing has some basic truisms: if you get lucky and produce a hit, you can live off of your success for a while. Otherwise, it's a side gig. For example, it's my understanding that VIncent holds down a day job in addition to publishing games. His side gig is profitable because Vincent is a smart publisher (keeping expenses down) and a gifted designer. Vincent is also a natural with social media, which helps him stand out in a crowded field.


PS And John Mc/Corey, having worked in electronic games, I've found that tabletop RPG credits are a dead limb at best, a blight at worst. If you want to work in electronic games at this point, you should get started working in electronic games via QA, art or coding.


34. On 2012-03-15, David Berg said:

Luke, does the yearly net of "a few thousand" mean more like 2-4, or more like 8-10?  I've lived off $10k/yr, but on $4k I don't think I'd be merely poor, I think I'd be homeless.

Tim, would you specify which "moderately successful indie RPGs" you're talking about?  Your $20-30k profit per 5 years sounds like a similar annual rate to what Luke's described, and I wouldn't equate the entire Burning Wheel line with "a moderately successful indie RPG".


35. On 2012-03-15, David said:

I don't know if Solipsist would count as an average sort of game in the context of Vincent being exceptional, but I can tell you it's not paid me, over the years, much more than if I'd freelanced the content, if we are going by a per word rate. I think it comes to about 10 cents a word overall (bearing in mind I never got some of the Italian-language version money). At that rate, considering the time spent supporting the game, I'd have been far far better off in financial terms just writing something for some other company.

In creative terms I'd have been worse off though, which is what matters to me.


36. On 2012-03-15, Frank T said:

I'm with Jason N here, at least for writing in German. The people who write RPG stuff usually have an academic background and just about anything they could do instead pays better. Same goes for good illustrators. It's a hobby and in my experience people do it for love. Still it's nice to get a fair share of the profits, of course, but for me it pays much better to work in my professional job than ship books and figure out publishing stuff, which I'd find equally annoying. So I leave that stuff to others and let them have most of the profits, what matters is that my books get out there (and look shiny, too). Naturally I can only speak for myself.


37. On 2012-03-15, Meserach said:

Luke, thanks particularly for sharing your experience. Yours was especially interesting, since I've always perceived that Burning Wheel was a hit in indie RPGs on roughly a similar scale to Vincent, so it is interesting to see that they payoff for you is apparently so different.

Why do we think this is? Are your expenses just a lot higher than Vincent's, as you seem to suggest? I imagine that BW is a lot more expensive to print per unit; you've said you think you sell more than Vincent and your prices are higher, but your per-unit margin is presumably a lot lower? Also I imagine Vincent does more PDF fulfilment than you, where unit costs are very low (next to zero) and margins correspondingly higher, even with lower prices for PDFs. Is this accurate? I don't know how much PDF fulfilment (if any) happens for Burning Wheel products.

Outside of per-unit expense concerns, what about your overheads? It seems like they might be higher than Vincent's? You appear to hire more staff than he does (I'm surprised to learn you retain a book-keeper and a fulfilment troll: Vincent, do you do anything similar?). I imagine you've also paid out a lot more to pay artists to decorate your (generally much longer) books? Do you attend more conventions than Vincent does?

Sorry for all the questions but I do find this apparent difference fascinating, and if there is some particular science to Vincent's relative financial success it would be useful to be able to capture it.


38. On 2012-03-15, timfire said:

@David Berg: My numbers come from my experience selling The Mountain Witch plus numerous conversations with different people. I would name games except for fear that I'll misremember who said what. Here's a thread from story-games from a couple years ago where some people discuss sales numbers, myself included. If you search around the Forge I'm pretty sure you can find a few more on the subject.

Anyway, my numbers are assuming about 1500 (mostly direct) sales—-1000 over the first three-ish years and then 500 over the remaining two. If the book nets the designer $15/copy, you get $22k, the low end of my estimate. If the book sells better (2000 copies) and/or if the designer can manage a higher net profit ($20/copy), you get the high end of my estimate, $30k.

(Hmm, now that I think about it, $30k might be a bit high for a "moderate success", but $20-25k is still pretty reasonable.)

And just to be clear, I'm not suggesting that every person that designs and publishes a game should expect that level of success. But if you look at that story-games thread, you'll see that there are more than a few people who have reached those numbers. My suggestion was that—-in theory—-if someone could pump out 7-10 games that all sold on that scale, they would make enough money to quit their day job and support themselves solely on their RPG endeavors.


39. On 2012-03-16, Troy_Costisick said:

@Meserach: Luke makes way more money at his games than Vincent.  It's just that his costs are also way higher.  If you re-read the end of Luke's post, you'll see where he explains the discrepancy between his bottom line and Vincent's.

"@ Vincent:I'd love to hear from other creator-publishers than me."

When I did DL Quarterly back in 2005, I net $1012 (that's after taxes, website, printing, shipping, etc).  Total, there were about 25,000 words in all four books, so that works out to $.04 per word.  On average what a freelancer gets.

BUT, I put very little time into those games.  Much to my shame, I regretfully playtested these games only a little.  Maybe two sessions each.  Holmes had 4.  The layout was super fast and simple on my Adobe Pagemaker.  It probably took me two hours to do each game.  Three of the games were part of the Ronnies competition and so the rough draft was written in less than 24 hours.  I probably put 6 full hours into each of those.  Holmes was an Iron Chef game, so I probably put 20 hours into it at most.  I'm not bragging.  I hate myself for the careless way I published these things.  But I think my experience is worth contributing.

So all told, I probably put in a pitiful 150 hours total into into writing, testing, revising, and publishing my games.  That's about nineteen 8 hour working days.  So that figures into about $53.26 per day NET seven years ago. That would be approaching $60 per day in 2012 dollars.

I am a very unskilled and hapless game designer, so put me on the opposite end of the spectrum of Vincent.  Almost every person associated with the indie RPG movement is a better designer and publisher than I am.  So, I figure I'm a decent minimum baseline for comparison while Vincent or Luke would be near the top.




40. On 2012-03-16, David Berg said:

Tim, thanks for the clarifications and the link.  My takeaway from the responses in that thread is that selling 1000 copies of an indie RPG counts as very successful, and that you only sell that many by doing other stuff that eats into your profits (e.g. going to GenCon).

I actually can't name a single creator-published game from 2006-2009 that sold 1500+ copies.  Can you?

I don't disagree that it might be possible to quit one's day job off 7-10 games, but I think those games would probably qualify as big hits, not moderate successes.


41. On 2012-03-16, Troy_Costisick said:

David, does Fred Hicks count?


42. On 2012-03-16, Meserach said:

Troy, I respectfully disagree that Luke has explained why his costs are higher, And I'd still be interested in hearing a more detailed breakdown from him in the manner I was talking about.


43. On 2012-03-16, Rabalias said:

This is all really interesting. I'd love to see a breakdown of different costs for creator-publishers, and get a better idea of what's causing Vincent to seemingly make tens of thousands of dollars more than Luke. For that matter, I was going to ask the question (to Vincent, Luke or anyone else who thinks they know) why freelancers make so little. Is it because they are being ripped off, or what? Because, you'd think the larger the outfit the more you'd be able to reap economies of scale and the benefits of being, well, big - and therefore be able to pay at least parity with indie publishers.


44. On 2012-03-16, Brand Robins said:

So back in 2004(ish) I took a year and wrote freelance for RPGs for the the whole time.

In that year I wrote about 1.2 million words, sold about 1 million of them, and made just over $50,000.00. Of those words less than half of them actually made it into publication—the rest were lost to publishers going under, projects changing, etc. For a real professional that may not have mattered, for me it did.

Around the same time I self-published an adventure for Mutants and Masterminds, then in its first edition. The artist (Leo Lingas) and I split profits on the book—which were well under the $5k mark. In the end we both laughed at the idea of making money on it, but it did help us both open up other doors.

At the end of that year I was a little burnt out—not from writing volume, but from not actually getting my stuff published and played. I also had little interest in doing more self publication. So I started doing freelance writing and editing outside the RPG world. For a year I made about the same amount of money as inside the RPG world. Then I made more. Eventually I got an office job being a corporate writing stooge with benefits and shit and sold out like it was going out of style.

In a theoretical world where I didn't do that, I could have made about $300,000.00 on writing for RPGs.

But that's just theoretical for several reasons:

1) When I was writing there were far more "big" publishers putting out far more work—this meant that there was always enough work to keep me hammering the keys. I could work for White Wolf or Wizards or Dream Pod 9 or Red Brick or Green Ronin or Steve Jackson or Guardians or... well you get the point right?

At this point so many of the places I used to write for are gone that I can't give an accurate picture of what the market is like. Some folks still publish, after all! However, my sense of it is that there are fewer publishers who pay 6 cents, more who churn and burn, and less prime opportunity all around. The very best still get their got, but a mid-tier player like I was then would have a hard time surviving.

2) It assumes I could keep doing it. I did it for a year and could have kept going if I really was driven to it. But fuck, who knows what would have happened at year 4?

3) If I had kept in it going through the transitions noted above, chances are good that I would have started working out a different situations for myself. Maybe I wouldn't have published my own games fully, but a semi-independent publishing arrangement like those Vincent talked about up above would have been something I'd have been looking into.

So yea, it was fun for a year, but I lacked the stuff to make it a long term go.


45. On 2012-03-16, Ben Lehman said:

David Berg—
Shock sold well north of 1500 copies. Don't Rest Your Head probably did. Panty Explosion sells well, well north of 1500 copies. Lacuna did okay for itself, not sure what that constitutes. Burning Empires has done well, not sure what the constitutes. 1001 Nights has done pretty okay, too, though again not sure how many sales that is. That's 2006 alone.

The rest of the time has more: Beast Hunters, Reign, Bliss Stage I believe is near 1500 but I didn't keep good track: and that's with being eBook only for half a decade, House of the Blooded, 3:16, Mouse Guard, In a Wicked Age, Poison'd, Diaspora (hard to measure), Penny for your Thoughts, Fiasco, Lady Blackbird, and Action Castle.



46. On 2012-03-17, Leftahead said:

So it looks Iike self-publishing is a great decision for some people, a sometimes-grat notion for others, and not the right approach for the rest.

It sure seems like work-for-hire can be a good way to learn your chops, develop skills, and decide if the process works for you. One thing I shoud mention is that I have actually done some RPG writing in the old freelance model and gotten paid for it; that process helped me decide that working on developing that as a skill set wasn't for me. (Maybe I should have mentioned that earlier in the the discussion, it hadn't occurred to me it was necessarily germane given that it was like over a dozen years ago...)

I certainly think that a strong local culture reinforces a lot of the upsides: having you around a a mentor makes a lot of what you say MORE true for local designer because you're right there to help them, and they in turn all reinforce each other. I've been thinking a lot about how important that community is over the last week because I am here at a trade show with a bunch of my peers; we have a really good shop in Hamp, but it's partly because Seth is there in Greenfield and I am right around the corner from a bunch of great stores in Boston and NY to compare myself to and talk shop with about what we're trying to do. The Internet is great, but it's a pale substitute for one of Eppy's Coffee and Game Design summits.

Do you think of your mentoring and help of other game designers as time spent on our own work? Or is it just part of the fun/job satisfaction? I know I learn neary a such about retailing from helping other stores sort out their problems as I do working the counter, so I have a hunch I know the answer, but was curious what your take was.

-Jim C.


47. On 2012-03-18, David Berg said:

It seems there's another arrangement, in addition to (a) creator-published, (b) creator-owned, publisher-published, and (c) publisher-owned.

There's also (d) creator-owned, publisher-published, where the publisher is partially owned by the creator.  (Prime example: Bully Pulpit.)

Was Fred acting as Fred or acting as Evil Hat when he "hired" himself to do layout on Don't Rest Your Head?

The "does it pay?" question about creator-owned work may come down less to whether the creator is the publisher, and more to simply single-creator DIY.  In other words, Apocalypse World is supremely profitable for Vincent because he didn't have to pay for art and layout and because he didn't have to share profits with a partner-in-publishing (regardless of whether we're talking Steve Segedy, ndp, or Pelgrane).


48. On 2012-03-18, David Berg said:

Ben, thanks for the data.  I didn't realize Reign and Blooded were creator-published.

3:16 is by Cubicle 7, though.  Diaspora's credited to "VSCA"; as best I can tell, their operation is similar to Bully Pulpit.

I wouldn't include Lady Blackbird (free), Action Castle (tiny margin per unit), or any game that sold a ton of cheap PDFs in the profitability discussion.


49. On 2012-03-18, Moreno said:

I don't think free games should not be included.  If the creator retain the copyrights, it's only a particular case of Creator-published.

It doesn't even mean that the creator doesn't get money from the game: people buy printed copies of games that are free in pdf, and some creator give the core system away for free but sell additional material.

Even if a game is given away totally for free, it could be sold for money in following edition (see Inspectres for example)


50. On 2012-03-18, Gregor Hutton said:

David, 3:16 sold far north of 1500 copies before it went into distro with C7.

Cold City and Hot War did the same: sold very well before C7.


51. On 2012-03-19, David Berg said:

Oh, C7's not the publisher?  Oops!  My mistake.  That's good news on those titles, thanks.


52. On 2012-03-19, Paolo Guccione said:

I think there is a point no one has highlighte yet. You cannot really compare self-publishing with freelancing for a flat per-word rate, because you cannot really know when you must stop counting the revenue that comes from self-publishing. In the age of Print-on-Demand and electronic fulfillment, it might never stop earning you money. The point is not just that Vincent or Luke made the big bucks (heck, if THEY did not, who else?) from DITV or BW, it is that they will still be making money from them in 20 years' time. It is like life insurance, or a private pension fund, rather than a salary.

This also means that the actual question about profitability is not how much it makes in the first year (the "peak" in sales), but how much does it cost you per year to keep it available after years, when it makes just a few hundred bucks per year. This is one reason why I am way (waaaay) more eager to make PDFs than physical books, despite my customers' preference for deforestation.


53. On 2012-03-19, Simon R said:

@Paolo We hit Zeno's paradox here. Yes, you have to factor in what they call the long tail, but it's not infinite. There are certain books I've published that will never make the money back I've paid for them, at least not in this century. That's equally true of some COP books, too.


54. On 2012-03-19, Paolo Guccione said:

If Pelgrane Press speaks, who am I to say otherwise? :)

However, there seems to be a discrepancy in the "perceived lifespan of books" among publishers. This already happened when we discussed - with Chad - the time after which one should stop paying royalties and "buy out" the rights. He says 18 months, my experience says... well, longer, much longer.

Also, there are RPGs that can continue to sell for 20 years or so, probably more. Call of Cthulhu has just turned 30, and it is essentially the same game as First Edition. And it still sells a lot. A couple refinements here and there, and "Dogs in the Vineyard" will still be a best seller in 2024 or even 2034, I suspect.


55. On 2012-03-19, Vincent said:

I've gotten only a few replies to my enquiries about how indie publishing pays. I'll compile them and post them in a couple of days.

I suspect that most of us just don't notice, think about, or care how much time we're spending. I mean, even if it turned out to be unprofitable, it's not like I'd stop designing games. As though I could!

Anyway, the next thing to talk about is probably how to make as sure as possible that it is profitable. Maybe we can do that soon.

Thanks everybody!


56. On 2012-03-19, Leftahead said:

This whole equation changes when the technology to do reasonably-priced (by which I man affordable to an independent bookstore owner with financing) on-site print in demand finally makes its way to the mainstream.

I know that my store will look and feel very different indeed when we finally have a machine that can crank out finished books to sell to folks instead of needing that work to be done in China or whatever. Especially if it then allows me to do reasonably-cost small print runs for creators themselves. The business of printing is something that I really hope gets democratized to the same extent that the business of design has!


57. On 2012-03-20, Simon R said:

@Paolo It's the ever-green games we aim for - Call of Cthulhu; for us Trail of Cthulhu; Munchkin, and the top COP games.

@Vincent I suspect that most of us just don't notice, think about, or care how much time we're spending. I mean, even if it turned out to be unprofitable, it's not like I'd stop designing games. As though I could!

And this is a real thing. I was just engaging with you in the terms of your intial post. The very fact that considering pay per hour or effort is simply not an issue for COPs (or me) when producing games is the essence of this.

I look forward to the next thread.


58. On 2012-03-29, human said:

I published Anima Prime almost exactly a year ago. I've sold a little over 200 copies so far, resulting in about $2,000 in profit. I'm doing near-zero marketing for it (the only exception being a banner on rpgnow because I accumulated a bunch of free publisher points over the years). I just don't like feeling like a shill. When I do run demos, I always sell copies. But I'm fine just selling a few and enjoying myself the rest of the time. I don't have it on IPR or in stores except for Gamma Ray Games, because they specifically contacted me. Having it up on Celstyle has been a big plus. Oh, it's also available completely for free, but that seems to lead to more sales rather than fewer from what customers tell me.

I could probably do more with marketing, shilling, online presence, etc. Heck, the game doesn't have a single review that I'm aware of, whereas with Beast Hunters I got several by sending out copies to reviewers. But I just don't want to spend that time and energy doing stuff I don't like doing. My day job is just fine, and to compete with that, an hour of marketing (which is no-fun work for me) would have to net me several sales on Amazon, so I'd rather have free time.

That's just me, though. As a data point. :)


59. On 2012-03-29, Christian said:

Oops, that was me. Your site is not too mobile-friendly, Vx. :)


60. On 2012-03-30, Jay Loomis said:

So,um, I know it's not an RPG, Vincent, but I was just out on Kickstarter to secure my copy of Mobile Frame Zero, and there's over $45,000 in backing! Do you have anything to say about that? To me it seems like crazy-awesome evidence that, yes, indie publishing can pay.


61. On 2012-03-30, Vincent said:

I think that maybe Kickstarter changes everything. I say "self publishing, does it pay?" and I'm saying it from my place in a world that's past and gone gone gone.


62. On 2012-03-30, Brand Robins said:


Flight of fancy time.

If you could take a year sabbatical from your job, how much would you need to Kickstart to make it worth doing RPGs full time for one year?

I don't know about any other peoples, but I'd toss a grand into a "Vincent does RPGs full time for a year and makes them all public domain" kickstarter. Or a grand into "Vincent will do 5 games in a year and if you do more than 100 bucks you get a hard copy of all of them, and PS this will be his full job for a year" kickstarter.

At that point, where does the pay and tracking expenses element kick in? What is involved in the cost benefit?

I mean, 65k, that's a whole new world. What can we do with it?


63. On 2012-03-31, Ben Lehman said:

Vincent has a job, with a pension. Kickstarter drives need to fund him and his family not only for a year, but for the rest of his life.

Other people, less attached, could do that sort of thing. But none of us have the caché.



64. On 2012-03-31, Evan said:

Plus Joshua and Vincent get all the joy of figuring out how to scale-up and scale-down the printing of all that Mobile Frame Zero material.

I mean, it's a good problem to have, but being a manager of that level of shipping can get troublesome.


65. On 2012-03-31, Ben Lehman said:

I totally mis-spelled cachet. Oops.


66. On 2012-03-31, Jay Loomis said:

Obviously there's a big gap between can pay and will likely pay. I don't mean to suggest that someone without some name recognition and track record can get the same results on Kickstarter as Joshua and Vincent can, but it's a heartening thing to see. And it opens up possibilities for indie designers that just flat didn't exist a few short years ago.

I would be interested to hear, some time down the road, if Joshua and Vincent are willing to share, whether the game has legs beyond the kickstarter, or whether the vast bulk of the audience for the game was onboard from the start for this one (due to popularity of the game in its existing form, word of mouth from existing players, etc.)


67. On 2012-03-31, Michael S. Miller said:

You've also got to consider that, like many of the games that Vincent is involved in, Mobile Frame Zero has marketing concerns baked into its core. It has appeals to numerous audiences: LEGO enthusiasts, wargamers, giant robot fans, plus the existing Mechaton fanbase and role-playing converts drawn by Vincent's and Joshua's cachet. Most of those barriers to entry that Vincent's been talking about in the other threads, MF0 has leapt over them. It's no easy feat!


68. On 2012-03-31, Evan said:

Especially if you're pushing yourself and other boundaries of play along with it, as Vincent said in his recent thread.


69. On 2012-03-31, ndp said:

A related data point: Matt Forbeck is doing his 12 for '12 project this year, where he's using Kickstarter to fund writing 12 novels, one trilogy at a time. His site talks about it here:

Of course, Matt is already a full-time freelancer, essentially (i.e. he's not giving up benefits or something from a day job), and he has an existing audience. Between his first two Kickstarters, he's raised about 26,000, so if the last two match that that's 52,000 for the year. This all entails him committing to writing a novel a month on top of other obligations/contracts.

I'm super interested to see how it all comes out, but it's not something that I would want to do!


70. On 2012-04-02, Elizabeth said:

Hey Luke,

That PS about digital games is really surprising to me. I have been working successfully in digital games on nothing but my indie RPG pedigree for about a year now. Every industry person I know now, and every panel I went to about "breaking into the industry" or person whose ear I bent about wanting to move into videogames told me that tabletop designers are solid choices for game balance (both XP progression and economy balance), their ability to abstract systems in easy to understand ways, and their writing.

I can't name the games I am currently on the design teams for (although one is going to be announced early next week), but I can say that my duties have been to flesh out new IP, assisting in mapping the overall progression of missions, writing over 600 quests for one game (and most of the quests in another), fine-tuning tutorial experiences and doing a first balance pass on economy and level progression for the lead designer to fine tune.

Between that and my personal RPG projects? which are specifically allowed by my contract? I'm grossing well over BWHQ annually.


71. On 2012-04-02, Vincent said:

Jay: "I would be interested to hear, some time down the road, if Joshua and Vincent are willing to share, whether the game has legs beyond the kickstarter..."

I'm very interested in the same.

My gut tells me that massively frontloading your sales is bad for your game's long-term success, and indeed low-key initial releases have served me well, but that might be the dead-and-gone past talking. I'll be interested to see what happens.


72. On 2012-04-02, Devon O said:

Hey Vincent,

Short answer: [b]thus far I have made hugely more money as a freelancer than as a COP[/b], although hopefully over time those numbers (BOTH of which are pitifully small) will change. Also it's not really a fair comparison for reasons described below.

Long long:

As one of those rare someones who seriously does both, thus far I've made (assuming they eventually pay me for all current contracts) ~$2900.00 freelancing a reasonably solid amount at pro-rates for a major publisher and made approximately -$1247.20 [note the negative sign] from publishing my own book (assuming, generously, that the amount of books I just sold covered hotel costs and gas to get to the con, and counting only those and art and printing costs, and not food, as expenses). The games (and there are dozens of them) that I created, wrote (and even occasionally released for free) during the previous ten years have paid nothing, not even in dividends of generated interest. But that's fine. I'm just getting started, and I wasn't expecting any overnight miracles.

Of course I'll be the first to admit those numbers are hardly fair for comparison: and not just because I didn't have enough grassroots support to use kickstarter to fund my game; I've been freelancing for a hair over a year and have close to ten professional credits , and my own delicious game just launched at ICON (as in like the day before yesterday) with a tiny print run and doesn't even have online distribution yet. Especially without a Kickstarter, selling games is a Marathon, not a sprint. But the outlay for things likes simply BEING at Gencon, even if you don't have a booth, can make it feel like one steps forward, two steps back.

I think the point about you being Astronaut X (or whatever) is actually a fair one, as long as you're not being compared to "7000 words a minute hypothetical freelancer man".

Saying that "it's a bad idea to try and make a living from being a writer" isn't invalidated by saying "hey look at Stephen King"; the same goes for making RPGs. The Stephen Kings and Vincent D. Baker's of the world are one-in-a-million, except statistically speaking that may be an understatement. Sadly, the novelists I met at WorldCon a few years back with literally 27 published novels who were still clinging fervently to their day-jobs in order not to starve and advised aspiring writers to do the same are more the norm.

For the most part, for even 99% of the most talented and dedicated 1% who try, the answer to the question "how do you be creative for a living?" is "You can't". The odds of doing it are worse than winning the lottery; like if the lottery had talent, dedication, and perseverance as minimum bars to entry and approximately the same odds. Depressing, but in my (limited and biased) experience, almost an inarguable truth. Then again I've always been a pessimist. About everything.

I'll be the first to say there's no money in freelancing either, which is problematic for me: all of my meager income right now, all of it, miserable as it is, comes from creating content for games whether my own or those owned by others. Thankfully, I'm fortunate in my personal situation in some ways, i.e. not currently freezing/starving in a gutter.


73. On 2012-04-02, Ben Lehman said:

Devon: Vincent's success isn't one in a million. It's one in—I dunno—twenty?



74. On 2012-04-03, Michael S. Miller said:

Twenty, Ben? How are you defining your pool? I can list fifty people I know who have published their own games over the past decade off the top of my head, without consulting my bookshelf or the roster of the Ashcan Front or the Forge booth or those who have IPR accounts.

If you're just limiting it just to people who have published with some undefined measure of success than it sounds to me like you're saying something along the lines of "One out of every twenty multi-millionaires is a billionaire." While there may be truth in it, I'm not sure what your point is.


75. On 2012-04-03, Ben Lehman said:

Michael: I'm figuring the size of the indie publishing pool as, I dunno, 50-100 people? Vincent, Luke, Ron, Jake, Jason and Fred* are all pretty major successes, there. Success follows a pretty even distribution from there: There's a number of folks like me, Emily, Meg, Joshua, Paul, Eppy, who have fairly middling success but can't support ourselves solely on game income.



76. On 2012-04-04, Troy_Costisick said:

And just to add to Ben's list of major successes: Jared S. and John Wick.  I mean, they made a movie out of one Jarred's games.  That's pretty cool, IMHO.


77. On 2012-04-06, Devon O said:

Ben, I think your definition of the indie publishing pool might be too narrow, possibly because your definition of "indie" is too narrow.

I don't have any numbers to back me up, and I don't even have the time to do the research: just a gut feeling based on some empirical observation that there are a whole lot more than a hundred people over the past ten or more years with RPGs out there not backed by major publishers, most of them, well, failing. At least commercially speaking.


78. On 2012-04-08, Ben Lehman said:

Devon: Your guy feeling is wrong.

Or rather, 90% of all RPGs fail commercially. Like all art.

But let's not exaggerate. Is an artistic career a roll of the dice, to a certain degree? Yes. It depends on, among other things, luck and talent, neither of which you can do much about. But it's not a lottery ticket. We're not talking "roll 7 20s in a row," odds wise. We're talking "roll a match on two dice" sort of odds.



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