Ronin Round Table: Breaking into the Game Industry

In 1982 I was given a subscription to Dragon Magazine as a gift. I had started playing Dungeons & Dragons a few years earlier when I was 10 years old and it was my favorite game. Getting a new issue of Dragon every month was a huge treat for me because I didn’t have much money to buy game stuff, as I wasn’t old enough to work yet. I would read each issue cover to cover, often more than once. Seeing all those different articles by all those different writers made an impression on me. When I was 13, my big aspiration was to one day have an article in Dragon Magazine. It was the first time I considered writing and game design as something I could do.

When I was in college, I started pursuing this seriously. I tried to become a line reviewer for White Wolf Magazine. A friend and I submitted some material to White Dwarf. I got some articles published in an Ars Magica fanzine called Redcap. I wanted to break into the industry but other than blind submissions I didn’t really know how to do it. When I did get my first professional work in 1993, on Mayfair’s Underground RPG, I was lucky in two ways. First, another freelancer had flaked out and they needed people who could take on a job right away. Second, my friend Aaron knew the developer and talked him into giving us the job. That was the foot in the door I needed.

People often ask me how they can get started in in the game industry and I used to have a standard patter about it. In the 90s I would tell writers to start with magazine articles. Dragon and Dungeon were always on the lookout, and there used to be options like Shadis, Valkyrie, and Arcane. So sell a few articles, I’d say, and then go to GenCon. The whole industry is at GenCon, so it can be a cost effective trip to meet publishers and developers and try to get freelance work. You could also meet other freelancers and get to know your peers. Many stories, tips, and leads were shared in Milwaukee bars at GenCon I can assure you.

Times have changed though. Gaming magazines, always a tough business, have largely gone by the wayside. It’s more than that though. The internet, electronic publishing, print on demand technology, the rise of crowdfunding—all these things and more have changed the landscape. Answering the question is a more complicated endeavor now and that’s what I’m going to discuss in this Ronin Round Table.

One caveat before I go on. I’ve written this from the point of view of a game designer and publisher because that is my experience. Some of this will apply to other things like art and editing, but those are not my areas of expertise. Artists and art directors have plenty of opinions on such topics, so do seek those out if you want something from that point of view.

Tell Me the Options

So what are your options for breaking into the game industry? Let’s take a look.

1) Blogger

One easy way to get started is to create a blog and write about games. This costs virtually nothing and even if you don’t have a lot of readers at first, writing regularly is good practice. If you want to parlay this into something more, I suggest writing actual game content. I mean sure, it can be fun to rail about company X and their money grubbing ways but that’s not going to make anyone look at your blog and think you can do game design. So pick a game or two that you like and start writing material for it. These don’t need to be lengthy articles either. Design some monsters or magic items. Write a short adventure. Make some NPCs with adventure hooks. If you start creating useful content, you can develop a good reputation in the game’s community. This may eventually lead to freelance work. At the very least you are developing a body of work that is easy to show off. If a developer asks you for a writing sample, you’ll have ready material for that. Writing reviews can also be useful. It can show that you can think critically about games. Checking out a wide variety of game material is never wasted time either.

2) Demo Person

Game companies, and particularly roleplaying game companies, are always in need of good demo people. There is a constant demand for demos at stores and conventions all over the world and the staff of most companies is small. Demos are important but finding volunteers for this sort of work is difficult at best. For these reasons reliable demo people who show up on time and do a good job are really valuable to publishers. If you can do those things, it’s a great way to make yourself known. There are usually perks to joining a demo team, like free badges at cons and free or discounted game material, but there’s more to gain if you are diligent. You may be asked to write demo adventures, for example. If you do a good job at that, it can lead to freelance work. In some cases, you may be able to turn your volunteer work into an actual job.

3) Freelancer

The path of the freelancer is the one I followed. I’ve mentioned a couple of ways to break into freelancing already but there are others. Some companies do open calls from time to time. You will end up in a big slush pile but it’s a chance at least. You’ll also find game design competitions out there. You may not win—you probably won’t, in fact—but good work can get you noticed and may result in freelance opportunities. Once you get a gig, the most important thing to do is hit your deadline. If your developer asks for revisions, do them in a timeline fashion. It is better to do solid work on time than produce something of sheer genius months late. Understand that the game industry is small and developers talk to each other. The more good work you do, the easier it will be to get more work. The converse is also true.

An important thing to realize about freelance work is that much of it is what’s called work for hire. That means the publisher pays you a fee and buys all the rights to the work. This is common because companies want to own all the pieces of their intellectual properties.

If owning the rights to your work is important to you, you need to either find the right publisher or become one yourself. And speaking of that…

4) Publisher

If none of this sounds appealing, you can always just start your own damn publishing company. As an old punk rocker, the DIY ethic is near and dear to my heart. There was an Austin band in the 80s called the Big Boys, and they’d end their shows by exhorting the audience to go out and start their own bands. If you are a stubborn SOB like me who tires quickly of other people’s idiocy, being a publisher may be for you! This will almost certainly start as a part time venture but can turn into a full time job in the long run.

The good news is that it’s never been easier to publish roleplaying games. When I got into the industry, you had to do print runs of at least a thousand copies of a book. That meant having the money up front to pay for the printing, and somewhere to warehouse those books. Electronic publishing barely existed at that point. You had Hero Games selling books on 3.5 disks but that was pretty much it. Now things have changed entirely. E-publishing is a standard practice and there are plenty of places to sell your PDFs. Even better, electronic books require no warehousing. If you do want to make hard copies available, print on demand technology has advanced by leaps and bounds. Customers can order your books and the printer will ship directly to them. Again, no warehousing required. And you can do small print runs before you attend conventions if you want to sell there. All of this means it’s possible to start a company with little money and run it with just a few people or even just you.

The main downside of this method is that there are hundreds of small press companies out there now, so competition is fierce. It’s also harder to get your stuff into distribution and thus game stores if you are primarily a PDF/POD shop. Not impossible, however. There are a few companies that work with small publishers to get them into distribution. The biggest game changer though is crowdfunding. Now I can and indeed have talked at length about that topic but I’ll just note here that sites like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo make it possible for game companies to overcome the biggest hurdle most of them face: funding. One successful campaign can take your company to the next level. Just do your homework before trying your first crowdfunding campaign. There is much to absorb about the process and the best practices of crowdfunding, and you can learn a lot from the successes and failures of other companies.

5) Staffer

Finally, you may be able to get a staff job at an existing company. I put this one last for two reasons. First, there are not all that many staff jobs available in the game industry. Second, you are unlikely to get your start in the business with one of those jobs. It’s most likely that you’ll start as a demo person or freelancer and then get hired on once you’ve proven yourself. At the larger companies it is possible to work your way up the ladder though. When I worked at Wizards of the Coast, for example, it was common to see aspiring game designers take jobs as customer service people.

The logic is that once you are inside a company, it’s easier to hear about opportunities and get yourself noticed. And that is true. A bunch of people who went on to write for D&D got their start in customer service. Breaking into the business with a staff job is a rare occurrence though.

So those are the primary suggestions I have for breaking into the game industry. However you approach it, you’ll find it useful to maintain an active social media presence. If you can avoid the pitfalls, it’s a powerful tool. I also still recommend going to GenCon if you can because it’s a great place to meet industry folks and to see the sheer breadth of hobby gaming. It has gotten a lot more expensive to attend though, so it’s not practical for everyone. One freelancer I know slept in his car this last GenCon, which is either dedication or craziness depending on how you look at it. There are conventions all over though and there’s value to attending any good con.

No matter what route you take, realize you have to be your own advocate. There are no game design gods who will come down from Olympus and bless you with a career. That’s something you have to make yourself.

Now go out there and design your own games!

Note: This was original written as a speech I delivered at the Great Falls Gaming Rendezvous in Montana earlier this year. Thanks to GFGR for having me up!