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It's all about the money

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leafeater
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This is my first post and I apologize that it is related to money, but after reading
several posts on licensing, self-publishing and showing games to big time publishers
I can not help but wonder how much money do game designers make on games.

The board game industry seems to be a pretty tight market and then game specifics
will tighten that market even more.

Are their non "spiel des jahres" designers that make a living from board games?
What kind of a living is it?

Thanks
Jeremy

jwarrend
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My understanding is that

My understanding is that there are probably less than 10 full time designers. The ones that I'm aware of are Reiner Knizia, Alan Moon, and Kevin Wilson. There may be a couple of others that I'm not thinking of . It's interesting that they are pretty different in how they manage to stay afloat. Knizia has a lot of games in print, frequently rereleases older games under new titles/themes, and has become something of a go-to guy for a new company that wants to score an early success with a proven designer. Moon has designed quite a number of games but most of his income, I believe, comes from the overwhelming success of Ticket to Ride, which has now ballooned into a monster franchise. Wilson is a house designer at Fantasy Flight Games, and so he doesn't have to freelance like the others do. I think an article looking at the careers of these 3 would make for an interesting read for up and coming designers like us.

What I think you can certainly take away from these brief summaries is that these careers are not normative. Having many games in print is a considerable challenge; it's hard enough to get one game published! Knizia's ability to diversify so substantially is in part due to his considerable skill as a designer, and while there's no reason not to try to emulate his success, there is also nothing wrong with admitting that he is very successful for a reason. Moon was a successful designer in his own right before TTR hit, but duplicating a SdJ level success is a challenge for anyone, and TTR is unusually successful even for an SdJ. Certainly, all companies are trying for a hit that big but you just never know what the next big game is going to be. There's certainly an element of luck involved in that equation. And finally, Wilson's job at a big-name publisher like FFG is great, if you can get it. Another important benefit that all three of these designers have, as do all of the big name designers, is a stable full of eager, high quality playtesters. It can't be emphasized enough how important this is. Designing 10 games a year, say, is not the act of an extremely prolific designer, it is a reflection of good access to willing playtesters.

To answer your actual question in a roundabout way, then, the answer is pretty much, no, generally speaking, you can't make a living designing games. Let's throw in some toy numbers for perspective. Say a game retails for $50. A designer's royalty will be something like 5% (or less!) of wholesale, which is perhaps 50% of retail (to make the numbers easy). A game is a good success if it sells out its first print run, which we'll say is about 5000 games. So, multiply all those 5s together and you see that a designer stands to make a little over $6000 on a successful game if he's lucky. That's not bad but you can't live off of it. To do that, you either need to publish a dozen games a year, or have a game become a breakout success. But designing a single game that's good enough to publish is really the first and hardest step!

Hope this is helpful.

-Jeff

fecundity
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jwarrend wrote:My

jwarrend wrote:
My understanding is that there are probably less than 10 full time designers.

Depending on how you count, that number seems far too low. There are house designers for mass market companies, many of whom design decent games-- but of course they don't have tremendous creative freedom. There are also people like Andy Looney who run their own game companies-- but of course that involves lots of work besides just designing games.

jwarrend
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You're right, it does depend

You're right, it does depend on how you count. I wasn't counting designers who are also publishers, like Glenn Drover, Christian Peterson, etc. I also generally don't think of mass market companies because they are something of a black box to me -- I have no idea about their inner workings, and not very much interest in them since they aren't the sort of games I'm very interested in (though as you say, sometimes their games aren't half bad; Craig van Ness of Hasbro has designed some good games, for instance). I don't think they affect the overall point I was making that their careers, if they exist, aren't normative; it's very hard to get published by a hobby publisher, but it is pretty much impossible to get published by a mass market publisher. How much moreso, then, to get a job as a house designer with a mass market publisher?

So, change it to less than 10 full-time, hobby-market, non-self-publisher designers, and it might be accurate (probably, change it to "my guess" from "my understanding" and it's more likely to be correct!). I am certain that Knizia, Moon, and Wilson are full time. I suspect that Wolfgang Kramer, Bruno Faidutti, and Martin Wallace might be but I'm not sure either way. There must be others that I'm not thinking of.

At any rate, I do think the bottom line is that the path to being full time is very difficult and that explains why there are so few who manage to do it. Even hard work and raw talent are no guarantor of success; it's just a very small market overall. Still, if you can get a game or two published, you can make a modest amount of money, so it's well worth it, but only if you really enjoy the process of designing. The more likely result is you'll have something that you are happy with, that probably your friends and family think is great, but that publishers will decline to publish. This is by no means a bad outcome, but it does require adjusting one's expectations for someone who hopes to strike it rich in the game industry.

leafeater
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It makes the games more fun

Thank you so much for your comments.
That is enlightening to understand that most of these games at my local board shop are designed by guys that are just trying to make a really fun game that people will enjoy.

It adds another dimension to the games and makes reading the rule books a little more enjoyable as well.

If any one else has stories about other designers I would love to hear them.

Thanks,
Jeremy

dnjkirk
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Faidutti

Just a note to say that Faidutti could likely be a full-time game designer, but he loves teaching too much to quit.

SiddGames
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Don't Quit Your Day Job

I can't remember where, but I recall reading an interview with Alan R. Moon once where he mentioned that he was going to take a Christmas job for some extra income, right before Ticket to Ride really took off.

Some other professional designers stay afloat by also being publishers. I think Martin Wallace is an example of this.

guildofblades
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If you count house designers

If you count house designers or designer/owners, then there are probably about 20-30 such designers, which surely I can't name them all. But just a few would be.

Steve Jackson
James Earnest
Alan R Moon
Reiner Knizia
Klaus Teuber (Or at least I should hope so)
Larry Harris (of Axis & Allies fame)
Christen T Peterson
Jason C. Hill (Flying Frog..think they are full time now)
Ryan Johnson (myself)
Bruce Dowrie (my partner at GOB Publishing)
Kevin Wilson (at Fantasy Flight)

I'm quite sure there are a lot more that I can't think of at the moment. Also not too sure how many designers among the wargame companies like GMT, Avalanche Press. Columbia Games, etc do it as a full time gig as well. The list can grow further if we start tossing in card games.

And yeah, I too am disregarding the mass market. But I wouldn't be too surprised to find some full time designers at Mattel and Bandai (I think Hasbro offloads such to WOTC these days).

Ryan S. Johnson
Guild of Blades Retail Group - http://www.guildofblades.com/retailgroup.php
Guild of Blades Publishing Group - http://www.guildofblades.com
1483 Online - http://www.1483online.com

apeloverage
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an important, related question

is: what kind of games are the best bet for making money?

My guess would be cheap-to-produce games (card games?) which can be played with a variable number of players (again, this is often the case with card games) with a funny theme (because it's easier to appeal to the casual market with a theme than with game mechanics).

gameprinter
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Be careful!

Since the casual/party game market is dominated by large publishers who simply will not buy a design from an independent (and/or first time) designer, it is probably harder to sell designs into the casual mass market. That said, there are plenty of smaller publishers who produce casual games and will buy your designs, but it changes the math back to the 2500 to 10,000 game run range.

guildofblades
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Well, if you are self

Well, if you are self publishing, the math gets ever more complicated.

Traditionally with larger game companies (In the hobby game biz, that pretty much means any company with a full time staff of 1 or larger) you start to hear about production runs of 5,000 to 30,000 as being "necessary" to "Make the money". The reality is rather untrue and probability of achieving such as an independent rather unlikely. Or perhaps, its rather unlikely as an independent start up publisher you can print and market a game production run in that fashion and turn any sort of meaningful profit at the end.

As the print runs scale upwards the capital required to sell them through also scales upwards, and worse, without starting with an established distribution network, a goodly bit of that marketing mjst be targted at trying to establish a distribution network. Lacking said distribution network makes moving said larger number of games rather difficult. Further, it also means the majority of sales will be done via wholesale, meaning a smaller margin relative to indepdently selling it.

GOB Publishing has a staff of 5 these days (me not being one of them as I moved on over to do GOB Retail). I haven't seen the final numbers for 2008, so I'll talk about 2007. Our top selling game sold less than 1,000 copies. Mid 700's actually. And its retail was $34.95, so it doesn't add up as fast like a $50 or $60 monster game might. But 90% of its sales were from direct sales where no wholesale discounts had to be offered, so direct sales tallied up to around $23K. Wholesale just barely over $1,000 (with wholesale discount being at 60%). Had they all been sold via wholesale channels it would have only added up to about $10K in gross sales. In either case, there was about $4,500 in production costs. So gross profit between those two scenarios being something like $19,000 vs $5,500. Either way, might not seem like high sales or big bucks, but even accounting for deminishing numbers for smaller sales and a mix of less costly games, with you multiple them out by 40-60 games, it adds up. But clearly, its adds up almost 4 times faster one way as compared to the other.

The gist being, how you sell and how you produce a game makes a big difference.

Now, if you want to go with an all glitter, high end production game, plastics manufacturered out of China, lots of cards, huge box and the whole 9 yards. Let say you end up having to print 10,000 units to bring your production costs down to $10 a unit (which might be a bit low actually if you are talking custom molds for plastics), you'll have a sunk cost of $100,000 up front, and thats assuming the $10 also included shipping and importing costs. Lets assume a good case scenario and your family has a large barn with room enough to store these 10,000 large boxed games, so no major warehousing fees. What you going to sell this monster for? $60. If you need to move the majority via wholesale at a 60% discount, your wholesale is $24 per unit. To move that run, its a pretty decent bet 500 are going to demo teams/champions, convention support, reviewers, buy 5 get 1 for store demo promos, etc. So your total gross selling 9,500 might clock in at 228,000. How much for shipping orders? For big heavy board games, 10% of invoice is pretty typical. There goes $22,800. How much to advertise in the distributor mags, industry mags, print catalogs, fliers, promos and other things needed to first get distributors interested in soliciting the product and then retailers in pre ordering? $7,500 would be a pretty pinched budget to say the least and it could likely go upwards of $10,000. How much to attend trade shows like Origins, Essen, Gen Con and a handful of other shows? Well, assuming one overseas show (US publisher going to Essen) and maybe 5 other shows that year, counting travel, exhibit rentals, tradeshow booth equipment, tradeshow marketing and miscellenarious expenses, $4,000 a show is likely a conservative number. I've known folks "trying to make a name for themselves" in the biz to blow through 10 times those figures. So, 6 shows = $24,000. Unless you began with nearly $200K, then you likely finianced much of this. Given the cost of loans and the simple cost of lost opportunities with that money not safely making you money elsewhere, its fairly conservative to peg opportunity costs at 10% of the finianced capital. If half was finianced (ala, $100,000 finianced), then that's another $10K lost.

The final tally. That $166,800 sunk for a near maximum return of $228,000 or so. $166,800 invested to get $61,200 actual profit. But what happens if instead of selling through 9,500, you only sell 5,000 and your gross is just $114,000? Ouch. $52,000 in the hole.

Compared to a $4,000 to $5,000 investment to possibly get a $19,000 in profits (to be fair, minus a grand or two for associated marketing costs and that pesky opportunity cost on the invested capital).

Bigger is not always better if one wishes to turn a decent dime in publishing. Some things scale upwards nicely as the product size and MSRP scale. But all too often, so to can expenses.

Ryan S. Johnson
Guild of Blades Retail Group - http://www.guildofblades.com/retailgroup.php
Guild of Blades Publishing Group - http://www.guildofblades.com
1483 Online - http://www.1483online.com

jeffinberlin
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Then there's the time factor

Whether self-publishing or freelance designing, the time it takes to become successful is also much more than you might expect. I don't know much about the former because I know enough self-publishers and have no time (or money) to do what they do.

When designing a game for another publisher, however, you also need to spend lots of time. You need to playtest your game idea until you are so sick of it that you would almost rather NOT see it published! But in the end, it will benefit greatly from the time you invest in playing the game over and over, revising here, cutting out there, gathering information for different numbers of players, etc. And a publisher (at least a German one) will be able to recognize the "maturity" of your design. And then they will playtest it some more and you will have to work out problems that never came up in your original playtesting sessions.

It's crazy--on some of my games I was convinced that I'd playtested it to death and was sure it was "finished"--then, after signing a contract, the publisher playtested it some more and since then we've been overhauling the design and even playtesting it together intensively for several months. I've had no time to work on all the other ideas churning around in my head!

But I believe the final product, which will arrive in March this year, will show it. Just don't ask me play it with you:)

Seriously, I really enjoy the process of creating a game and working with other people to develop it and make it as fun and challenging as it can be. I enjoy it even more than playing games, these days. I have to--the small percentage that I get from each game sold would not make up for the time I've invested in designing each game and developing the contacts with publishers. But the process is fun for me, and anything else is a bonus.

Most people are on this site for that same reason--it's fun to design games and even more fun when you have a community giving you feedback and encouragement (and the design contests offer a nice opportunity for friendly competition as well). I wish I had more time to be a part of it more often!

InvisibleJon
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Going to the GAMA Trade Show?

jeffinberlin wrote:
But I believe the final product, which will arrive in March this year, will show it. Just don't ask me play it with you:)
Will the publisher be showing it at the GAMA Trade Show in April? Will you be at the show? I'd love to see your game, who's publishing it, and to meet you. I'm planning on being there to meet face-to-face with the folks at the company that licensed two of my games and to pimp my unsigned games to various publishers.

leafeater
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Multiple publishers

Do most authors deal with multiple publishers?

I always thought that once you find a publisher that likes your stuff
you stick with them.

Maybe you just give them first dibs and if they shoot it down it becomes
fair game for all the others.

Willi B
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that limits you

Each game you make might not be the type of game for that publisher... so try to choose the publisher that fits EACH game. You have to see that some publishers are trying to develop an identity with the games they put out and certain games do not fit that identity.

Multiple submissions are the norm, not the exception. However, if you want to build a relationship with a certain company, than maybe you do extra for them to build a little faith and trust.

InvisibleJon
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Playing nice-nice...

Willi B wrote:
Multiple submissions are the norm, not the exception. However, if you want to build a relationship with a certain company, than maybe you do extra for them to build a little faith and trust.
For example, I've shown some games to the publisher who has licensed my games and let them decline them before showing them to other publishers. Also, I allowed them to license the overarching system (so they can make games with other themes but use the same mechanical system) for the second game they licensed instead of just licensing the rights to the game. This gives them quite a bit more liberty to develop new products and shows that I'm interested in a long-term professional partnership with them.

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