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The value of game designers

United Kingdom
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Original Post

As usual I start my morning with reading through various designer forums, looking for solutions to issues I'm having and offering them to other people where I can. Today an article by Noble regarding a video by Tom Vasel reminded me of something I've been hearing a lot about over the last few weeks: the various arguments about the value of game designers and whether game design should be a career or a hobby. I've been working as a full time game designer for a few months now so thought I'd share some thoughts on the subject.

I like stating opinions, but I should probably start with facts. Most of my interactions with other designers have been online, something which always distorts the truth of the situation in some way. One of the reasons I was so upset about my spine re-exploding (besides the pain) was that I was hoping to get a chance to have some conversations at the games expo. Ah well, there'll be other conventions.

So here's the situation as it appears to me: The majority of designers work on games as a hobby. They create and test the games in their spare time and once something is good enough show it to a publisher, the publisher takes it forward, obtaining all of the art assets, sorts out the production and makes it available for sale. Marketing forms a shared responsibility, with both the publisher and the designer making an effort to see that copies of the game sell. Typically the designers are paid by royalties and do not receive enough to approach making a living off game design. The question is whether this "traditional model" is a good one, what might replace it and how that might be made to happen.

There are other approaches in the works. Some game designers kickstart their designs and do all of the publishing work themselves, while a designer might compare these options in deciding how to live their life the models of compensation aren't really comparable. The question concerns how the profits from a game are divided between the designer and publisher - so individuals who are functioning as both a designer and a publisher do not contribute meaningful data. Many of the big publishers have in-house designers, who are paid a living wage and create games for them. I'd love to talk more about how this works. I don't work for a big publisher and haven't had any personal conversations with that sort of designer so I can't draw on that situation too heavily, except as a demonstration that it is clearly possible run a profitable publishing business on something other than the traditional model.

Then there's me, I still haven't found another person whose situation is like mine so it's not really a class of designer but if things work out, maybe one day it will be. I'm working for a small publisher, in theory I'm a full time designer but in practice I spend about half of my working hours on game publication related jobs. I think it's in the nature of a small company that everyone should be able to do a bit of everything.

I'm going to start with the obvious things that pretty much everyone agrees on. The traditional model is terrible for designers: the notion that the average designer doesn't make a living out of producing designs for average games that have undergone some testing is maybe okay. The idea that a designer can come up with a genuinely novel idea, test it to destruction, pass it to a publisher and have it made into a game that is being played decades later and not be able to live off the proceeds of that for at least a little bit is just plain wrong.

For publishers and consumers the picture is somewhat murkier. If designers were generally better paid, that money has to come from somewhere, either publishers will make less of a profit (and it is already a very difficult market in which to turn a decent profit) or consumers will need to fork out more of their money for games (and while games offer excellent value for money in terms of hours enjoyed per pound spent they are already perceived as expensive). On the other hand you'd also expect to see an increase in the quality of design work and greater synergy between the designer's and publisher's efforts. This leads to better games being published, which could lead to more people playing games, enjoying them more and collectively spending enough for the publisher and the designer to make a decent living. Honestly, it could go either way and I think you'd need a clairvoyant economist to predict how it would work.

There's another complexity in that game design doesn't necessarily make sense as a full time job. As I mentioned earlier, I wear a few hats and switch between designer and publisher jobs fairly often. I'm doing all of the design work and playtesting. Splitting the publishing job into art, manufacture, shipping and marketing: I'm heavily involved in organising manufacturing and shipping, contribute to marketing efforts and try to influence the art side as gently as possible. In all cases parts of those jobs are handled by other talented people in the building. The reason this is relevant is the following: Sometimes I run out of things to do.

Take a minute to digest that. I think it's difficult to express to a hobby designer who works a full time job and puts games together in the few free evenings they get just how much time there is to work on a game if it's a full time job. I'm finding all sorts of bottlenecks that never occurred to me when I did this sort of thing as a hobby. Previously I couldn't put games together fast enough for next week's gaming group, now I find I can implement a few different solutions to everything that comes up in playtest sessions, test them all against myself and some other people in the office (If I'm lucky), tweak them all and still have days before the next test session. There's no shortage of testers either, I can get ten hours of testing together on a bad week, but have hit as many as forty. Obviously I could fill the time developing more games, but that would just create an ever-growing backlog of untested games (and most of design is testing and improvement). Don't get me wrong, sometimes I'm so busy that I have no idea how I manage to fit everything that needs to be done into a day, but that's because I'm taking on other responsibilities concerning bringing the games to market, productively filling the hours with full time design and nothing else would be extremely challenging.

My point is that if we want to have a world where game designers can make a living just off designing games, it is reasonable to expect that they should work full time. Full time is a lot of time to put into game design, I'm not sure it's practical without significant supporting staff in the form of hiring playtesters. Even then, for a small publisher a fully supported full time designer could wind up creating and optimising designs more quickly than that publisher were able to produce, manufacture and sell them. The audience that the designer and publisher collectively have access to is only going to want to buy so many games, no matter how good they are. It seems to me that this puts a practical limit on the capacity of the industry to support pure game designers well enough for them to make a living from game design.

While the industry would perhaps be unable to support a number of full time designers, there are a great many designers who see less than a living wage when what they're paid is compared to the hours that they are able to put into designing and testing their games. It's hard to see how that might change, as a rule of thumb people won't pay more money for something than they'd have to. Publishers are unlikely to spontaneously pay designers more than they need to and most consumers aren't interested in seeing their games cost more to offer designers a fairer deal. Analogous situations have cropped up in the past and only two things jump to mind. The first would be some sort of union of game designers forming with enough members to drive up the cost to publishers of buying designs. The second would be a movement towards some sort of ethical consumerism, to try to influence people to buy games by companies that have treated their designers more fairly. I'm not an expert on either topic, but it would be interesting to hear from someone who was about how it might apply to this domain.

I'm guessing most of you recognise that logo and know what it stands for. The union thing would be hard to start, because each member taking part would essentially be removing themselves from the pool of people who might have their designs succeed until it got working. Trying to create an environment where consumers care about supporting designers might be more productive, since while it might not work it doesn't cost anyone anything if it fails. I like the idea of trying to come up with some sort of a logo for "The person who designed this game got a fair deal" and starting to print it on games where that's the case. As someone who buys games, I'd almost certainly buy whichever looked the most fun to play, but sometimes that's a close decision and I might let something like that sway me. Would you?
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