The Hustle of a Game Maker in Seattle

Ian is 24 and lives in Seattle, Wash.

How are you making a living right now?
I’m a server technician (“remote hands” is a more specific name for what I do). The company I work for is based in S.F. and they have a server farm in Seattle where I live, so when they have maintenance or something they need to be done physically, I do it. I’m technically a consultant so I build hours as I work them. I generally try to work about 20 hours a week, four hours Monday through Friday. But it’s in my control how much I work.

How did you get the job?
My brother-in-law works for the company in S.F., and he tipped me off about the job. I just graduated in June of 2013 — I’m fresh out of college. This job is paying my bills for now, but I’m kind of worried. The job pays $50 an hour, which is a lot, but that’s before freelancer taxes, and I’m not sure how it will balance out just yet. And part of the reason I’m able to work so many hours is because I’m working through a backlog, and I’m worried that once I finish, it’ll only be five or 10 hours a week.

Did you move to Seattle for the job?
I moved to Seattle because I wanted to go somewhere that had a big games industry, and the three big places for that are Southern California, which I was sick of (I went to college there for five years), Texas, and Seattle. So for me Seattle was pretty much the only option. And there is a tabletop games industry here. Wizards of the Coast, who makes Dungeons and Dragons is up here, as is Paizo, another big company. I went to school for a double degree in information and computer science and studio art. It’s really useful in Seattle because there’s a ton of tech companies, so I figured it would be easier to find full-time work to do as a day job while I looked for work in the games industry (especially the tabletop role playing game industry).

Did you have the job set up when you came?
No, I moved up here blind. I had no idea what I would do when I got up here, but graduation seemed a convenient break point to say goodbye to friends, say goodbye to California. I had some money saved, but my parents wanted to help support me and covered my move and my first several months here, and I moved here with two friends who graduated at the same time I did. We currently split an apartment and were able to share the moving costs.

It took us all like three or four months to find work, but we all did find it. One friend does quality assurance work fixing the Spanish translations of games written in English, and the other is a software developer. From what I’ve seen on Facebook, friends who had degrees in music and things like that have had a rougher time finding work. I don’t know if that’s related, or if it’s just where they’re living right now and the job markets there. It felt like it was pretty lucky for us to find entry-level work. A lot of these jobs, especially in the Seattle area where there’s so many tech and game workers, require three to five years of experience.

Tell me more about the game industry.
Breaking into the industry, a lot of it is freelancing. The publishing companies with very few exceptions are very small. A lot of people get started doing free work online (usually self-published on blogs or forums) or they get small jobs. They will write a single adventure or a chapter or they will edit a friend’s work. Or many people right now publish their own bigger works by writing it themselves and hiring artists, editors, and layout people to help finish putting it together.

I’ve been looking for jobs and I’ve been working on making my own game. I hope when I finish that, I will have some money saved up to buy some art and layout so I can publish that online through DriveThruRPG as print on demand, or possibly offset publish it (printing it like a traditional book, where the runs are generally in the hundreds to thousands of copies). In the latter case I’d probably sell it through my own website and at conventions. And I can hopefully have that as a portfolio piece to prove that I know what I’m doing, and use it to go looking for freelance work, or find other collaborators.

How does writing a game compare to, say, writing a screenplay, or writing a novel?
I can’t speak to writing screenplays, but I do write fiction, and I can say it’s really different, at least in my experience. You have to work with game mechanics, the underlying mathematical systems and rules that govern how the game plays out. A lot of these games are very number driven: You track attributes like strength, dexterity, charisma, etc., and have skill numbers to represent the characters’ abilities. And some break it down even further into things like individual weapon styles. And some games are more narrative, but even then there can be a lot of numbers underneath. So you have to build this huge mathematical number system to adjudicate how people play. It’s like a big board game with math under it and improv acting spread over the top. So if you’re designing a game and want spaceships in the world, you need to figure a lot more than “there are spaceships.” You need to make it so people can have spaceships (how much do they cost? how do you pilot them?) and how to go about interacting with them (how do you destroy spaceships? what weapons can you use? what skills do I use to hijack them or out-pilot an opponent? Etc.).

What’s your ultimate dream for your career?
Be able to do it full-time, because there are so few people who can. Most game designers don’t get rich and famous. The main designers for Magic (Richard Garfield) and D&D (the late Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson) are only famous in game circles. So just to be able to work on it full-time and not to have another job would be amazing. I think it would be especially cool to own my own company, to help other people who are getting started publish their own work. There are some issues in the games community; there aren’t a lot of people of color or LGBT people on tabletop development teams, and you can really tell sometimes that those perspectives are missing or underrepresented in published products, so I’d love to address those issues and hire those people at whatever company I was running.

How did you learn about game-making as a job?
I got into tabletop games when I started playing D&D in my first year of college. I think I started learning about it as a job after I got on Twitter. A lot of small press and game company people have a presence on Twitter, so between that and reading blogs about it, I’ve started to compile an idea of how it works.

My only metric for how these companies might work is maybe EA, a huge company.
If I worked somewhere like Wizards or Paizo, it’d probably be more like EA. They can be very marketing driven, and are big companies with all of the benefits and issues that can be inherent to those. The small companies are all over the place, and the money tends to be a lot smaller because the audience is a lot smaller since they just don’t have the reach. But I imagine a lot of the day-to-day, a lot of the work, is the same. I could see myself working for a larger company, to learn about everything, but I think I’d best like working for a smaller company where my individual contributions could mean a lot and I’d get the chance to take on few other roles outside my main job function from time to time.

Can you tell me a bit about how much you spend on playing these games?
I got into it for free actually; it can take as much or as little money as you want it to. There are a lot of games as PDF’s on the internet legitimately for free. I went to an RPG club, and I got into a game outside the club. There needs to be one person who is adjudicating the entire game, the dungeon master or the game master. And they will usually own a copy of whatever book you need. As a player you don’t need those, you can often look some of the rules up online or borrow your game master’s copy. As you play you only need it sporadically as a reference document.

If you start running games, then you’re usually expected to buy the books. A lot of the books are 8.5 by 11 hardbacks that are $30 — $50 if they are in full-color. But you can buy one full game, which is usually one or two books, a core rulebook that’s $30–50 and maybe a bestiary that is $40, so for $90 and a set of dice ($4-$12), you and a few friends can play a four-hour game session every week for 3 years. But at the same time, you can also buy every new release or thing that interests you and that can add up really fast.

How many books do you have?
An embarrassingly high number. Somewhere between 15 and 30. (I went and counted after the interview. It’s 41!) Some are out of print so I can buy them used, some are smaller paperback books, and those are cheaper.

You said a lot of stuff is available online. Is piracy frowned upon in the community?
The thing about RPGs, is that because the books are huge and heavy and you tend to end up carting them around to various houses and game stores to play with your group, there was huge pull for legitimate PDFs to be made. So a lot of small companies these days got their start publishing their games exclusively as PDFs, and the old companies are digitizing their back catalogs.

There is a lot of piracy in the RPG community. Despite the high return on investment if you play the same game for a while, a lot of RPG players still end up pirating the PDF. I’ve noticed this happens a lot when your game master wants to run a campaign of a new system that people haven’t played before. Also, sometimes certain free products are incomplete and can’t stand alone without a book you need to pay for. You can get an adventure for free, published for free, but it will reference a book you don’t own. And if you only want to play that one adventure in that RPG, it can be very tempting to just pirate the book for that one session, especially if the book is out of print, especially expensive, or hard to find.

A lot of companies will take the art assets out of their games and then give just the rules away for free as a bare-bones PDF. This gives players a way to try the game without paying the price for the full PDF or print book. It’s been really popular, especially with games where the base rules are freely redistributable anyway.

If you want to you can give money to the company really easily. I know I frown upon it when people pirate on a regular basis. It’s one thing if you’re on vacation if you need to look something up or the book is really obscure and hard to find, but it really annoys me when people pirate on a regular basis and feel like it’s okay to not compensate the people that worked really hard on the product. I think it’s definitely frowned upon by people that make games. However, in practice it’s pretty much accepted among players, just like music piracy at this point has become accepted by a lot of people.

How much time are you spending writing your game?
I split my time between writing fiction and working on my game. I write 1,000 words a day of fiction and I spend a window of between two and seven hours a week working on my game, but I want to do more game development. I have a bunch of short stories in a backlog I need to edit and I’ve written one novel that needs editing and am working on the first draft of the second. I would personally really love it if I could get a book published traditionally. But it sometimes it feels like writing fiction is an even longer road to financial solvency than writing games!