On the viability of game design as a full-time job

Today, I’m cheating a bit, and reposting a discussion I’ve had with Asger Granerud of Sidekick Games (who you probably know from Flamme Rouge and 13 Days) last year for his own blog. I’m hoping to do two posts a week, Tuesdays and Fridays, and maybe the Friday post would be with a guest?

So to start this, here’s that discussion about what is a goal, a dream for so many of us: making game design a financially viable use of our time. It’s more business/finance oriented than I want things to be, but as this week is focused on manufacturer quotes and contracts and finances, it’s honestly hard to get my head into more of a design state for the post. Hopefully this is still useful to y’all!

JV: We had a discussion last week were you said that you are a full-time designer, and that it’s “viable to make a living designing games”, which I was surprised by: I feel like it goes against the zeitgeist of “don’t expect to make money from your games”.

AG: I know several people who have earned a living wage from game design in 2018, and none of them had games published prior to 2016. However, I also know people who have worked hard, and still haven’t gotten one of their designs signed. I don’t want to come off as insinuating it is easy, nor that a quick fix exists: I just want to say that it is doable.

JV: What do you think is the difference between those two groups? Is it just luck or timing, or is it something those designers could improve on?

AG: Luck and timing is a factor. It wasn’t a given that Flamme Rouge and its sports theme would find a publisher, nor that the publisher could make it a success.

I think the advice I would emphasize would be twofold:
– First and foremost, you have to look at your games as products. You could make the best children’s game in the world, but if it costs €1000 to produce it doesn’t matter. Effectively each game you are pitching is a business case for the publisher: if they don’t think they can make a profit, they are not going to publish it.
– Second, play the numbers and embrace rejection: don’t design 2 games, design 20; don’t pitch to 5 publishers, pitch to 25. These steps will hone your design skills, your pitching skills, and will build you a network.

JV: Why do you think the perception that there’s no money to be made in games is so prevalent in the industry?

AG: I think it is because a lot of people have that experience. They design a game, sell it to a publisher, and see a little money come into their account, but rarely enough to make a significant impact in their life, and sometimes even less than they had in expenses getting there.

Most games get 3-5K units printed, and then never get a reprint. On average you are probably earning 0.80 USD per unit (that number obviously varies wildly), so that won’t cut it unless you have a massive output. If you want to work on this full time, your ambition shouldn’t be to make a game that sells 3-5K: you need at least a zero after that. I haven’t tracked it precisely from the get go, but my guess is my games have sold around 200.000 copies in total so far, with Flamme Rouge as my breakaway leader.

JV: Speaking of games as products, what do you do to ensure that your games are viable products?

AG: At the end of the day, the question is if it has a place in the market, but none of us have a crystal ball. With 13 Days we knew that we wanted a game that could scratch our Twilight Struggle itch, but in 30 min. We guessed there were many other folks out there that perhaps didn’t have as much time as they wanted either. For other games, it can be spotting a similar niche, but it could also be a component, mechanic or other hook. Regardless of your hook though, you still have to make a good game.

JV: Do you ever need to work on games that don’t excite you as much, just because they’ll sell or make good products?

AG: I’m blessed to be an omni-gamer. I have my personal preferences, but generally I just really like playing games. I wish I would actually “know” which games would sell, but I don’t, therefore I try to make games that will make people happy. Sometimes that can be achieved by nuclear war, other times it will be jumping frogs, or shaking meeples around in a box.

The process of design is a creative outlet I enjoy immensely, in and of itself. Personally I don’t need additional motivation beyond that and the goal of spreading happiness!

On your personal experience:
JV: When were you able to go full-time?

AG: I went full time on February 1st, 2018. I had been designing games since 2012, and signed my first contract in 2014. By 2018, I had about 10 boxes on the market.

JV: How much (if at all) did your experience at Games Workshop help you?

AG: Personally, I think the Warhammer Community was much more influential in forming me as a game designer than my 2 year stint at Games Workshop HQ in Nottingham. I have been designing tournament systems, restrictions, campaigns, and scenarios for at least a decade before I started designing games, and I had been consuming other people’s work in similar veins.

JV: And in terms of contacts in the industry, did either of those experiences help?

AG: So far it has not made any difference. I have tried using some of them in the past, but nothing has come of it.

JV: What does an average week look like for you as a full-time designer?

AG: I co-design all my games with Daniel Skjold Pedersen, and have been doing so since 2014. From Monday to Wednesday, we meet and work from 9 to 16 (4PM). It is a mix of design, development of existing projects, prototype production, and publisher contact. Every other Friday we have a playtest session, the Superhero Meet-up, that runs from 16-22. Our time is generally scheduled around getting something ready for next Superhero Meet-up.

On top of that, we also have on average two or so impromptu playtest nights a month when we are in need or want to shorten the cycle. These are typically with other designers in the Copenhagen community. Some work also makes sense to do without Daniel and I having to sit together, so rulebooks, graphic design and other tasks may land outside the fixed hours. Conventions are also part of this, and often we end up working 16 hour days when there.

JV: How do you and Daniel share the design responsibilities?

AG: There are differences in what we do, but more from differences in ability: I can’t draw a stickman without being ridiculed, so Daniel does that. However, I can use the adobe suite, so I do that. This is often time consuming, so Daniel ends up writing slightly more rulebooks than I do. It just happened organically, we didn’t really plan it that way, and regardless of the task, we bounce almost everything up against each other.

JV: How many games are you working on at any one time, on average? Are they at the same point in their designs?

AG: On average, we have 3-5 active designs at any one time, in very different stages. At the highest, I know we have had meetings in the past where we covered issues on 10+ designs in one sitting.

JV: How many playtesters are in your regular Superhero group, and how did you build that group?

AG: Semi regular numbers probably reach 15-20, but on any given Superhero Meetup, we will have 4-8 of those attend. To start it, we bought a bunch of snacks, drinks, beer, and pizza and invited lots of our friends and network. Then we made a few one-time open invitations in board game groups in Copenhagen, and if people showed up they got invited to return.

JV: With that testing schedule, how long does it take you to get a game from first prototype to a pitchable state?

AG: There really is no formula. It can be days or years. Children’s games tend to be based on a single strong idea, and sometimes that is all you need to pitch a game. Generally the process stretches when complexity goes up, but even so bigger games can still be sold without being fully developed. Assuming it stands out and is already solid. No need to sink hundreds of hours into developing a cowboy game, if the publisher wants a space theme. If your core design is pliable enough, developing after the sale ensures you can merge the theme and mechanics.

JV: Convention-wise, what do you prioritize?

AG: Nuremberg Toyfair and Spiel Essen are the permanent fixtures in our calendar, though they are so close in the year that we might ditch Nuremberg going forward. Our ambition is to do a US-convention a year as well. Beyond that, we do attend others, but more as gamers than as professionals, though the blessing is that even that is considered work!

On the pitching process:
JV: How do you handle relationships with publishers? The pitching process is already very stressful, I can’t imagine what it would be like if I knew my next meal depended on those contracts!

AG: First, I don’t think they are stressful at all. Pitching games is the most stress-free sales I’ve ever done, simply because you aren’t actually selling anything. At best they are going to take a prototype, then they are going to take it home and test it multiple times, with people that weren’t even present at your pitch: the game has to sell itself. Now I’m not saying there is no skill involved in a pitch, but I just feel that knowing the game has to prove itself regardless of what I do and say reduces that stress.

Second, my next meal isn’t dependant on that contract at all. If I sign a game today, I’m not going to be paid for it for 2 or 3 years. Right now I’m living off the work I did the past 5 years, not the work I’m doing tomorrow. Moreover, it is a numbers game: lots of games, more meetings, and even more pitches. But what you get most of all is refusal: I think Daniel and I pitched ~120 times total, across 26 meetings, just at Spiel Essen 2018.

JV: How do you handle pitching multiple publishers, and the delay while they have prototypes?

AG: We pitch to lots of publishers at once, and we never do sell sheets. At most, about 10 different publishers have had the same prototype of one of our designs. That being said, we try to avoid that these days, not out of concern for the publishers, but because we don’t want to make that many prototypes!

If a publisher then offers to sign a game, we tell them they will have to wait 4-6 weeks. We immediately inform all other publishers with prototypes of the deadline, and then wait. This process is fully transparent and we have not received any pushback from publishers.

JV: And have your ever had to deal with simultaneous offers?

AG: Yes, twice. We asked both companies for draft contracts, and looked through those. Though the details of the contract matter, they still cover 95% the same concerns in slightly different ways. We are not looking for a bidding war, we are much more interested in the second thing we ask them for: their vision for the product.

Also, it is much more important if they have the right partners, if they answer emails, all the intangible stuff that doesn’t go in the contract. Each game you design is a tiny lottery ticket financially: so many factors go into its final success that are completely out of your control. Therefore, I think the most important part an established designer can start focusing on is developing relationships with the best publishers. They will possibly impact the success of your game more than you will.

JV: You said you design 30 games, of which you get 10 published, 1 of which is actually getting you long term money. Could you elaborate on that process?

AG: First off, that is just a rule of thumb: Daniel and I are trying to track our work, and even when we succeed, our numbers aren’t exactly massive enough to be statistically significant, but 30-10-1 sounds right over a two-year period. I’ll try and look into it later in the year, and see if there are any trends. I also suspect our hit rate is going up.

JV: You also talked about selling directly to customers: is that something you have experienced? Is that something you plan on doing?

AG: A fully different topic, where we’re moving away from game design, towards publishing. Right this minute there aren’t any plans to do so, but if there was a project too niche to fit into traditional publishing, I would consider it. I do believe designers have a possibility of reaching their audience directly, and when doing so you probably need to sell a 10th to make a living.

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