The Hardest Part of Being a Game Designer

What I’m about to say isn’t intended to be negative. I’m not trying to disparage anyone. My intention is to help people that are suffering through the same thing, so they know they’re not alone. I’d like to warn any aspiring game designers and writers so they know what to expect. The truth is that the hardest part of being a game designer is not being taken seriously.

My wife and I have lived exclusively on what I earn from DXP since June of 2016. This is my full-time job. I have no other side hustle. We receive no assistance from the government or anyone else. What my wife makes goes directly into savings, or toward things that aren’t rent, groceries, and recurring monthly expenses. I would like to think that this is evidence enough that being a game designer/lo-fi publisher can be a viable career.

There are still relatives who wonder when I’m going to get a “real job”. People that have never run a business want to give me advice on how to run my company. Folks that have never had a word published try to tell me what to write and how to write it. Writers and designers that haven’t found a way to earn a living in this field throw their hands up and say that it’s impossible, implying that I’m lying.

If you’re one of those nay-sayers, I’m not talking to you right now. Come back tomorrow, when I’ll be posting a designer journal entry about something else. Right now, I want to talk to the people that are making a living, or are on track to doing this full-time, or are hungry enough to succeed in the near future.

The Hardest Part of Being a Game Designer

Learn when to listen to people, and when to ignore them.

You need to trust that you know what you’re doing. Trust that you’re making the best decision for yourself both creatively and financially. If you don’t feel you know what you’re doing, find a vetted expert to ask. Never crowdsource opinions from random strangers.

This is why I don’t do open playtests. It’s why I never read reviews. I will listen to feedback or course, and politely thank people for their input. Doing so does not oblige me to follow it. That way lies madness.

Years ago, I sold ebooks through a website that I don’t currently do business with. A particular book sold extraordinarily well and got many positive reviews. One customer, to put it bluntly, wanted me to rewrite a section of the book to suit him. I thanked him for his feedback. Not satisfied, he wrote to the site owner, who wrote to me. Shouldn’t I do something to appease this customer?

Um, no. What about all of the other customers who like the book exactly the way it was? Consider the precedent set by changing things every time on customer felt something should be different? How can you appease everyone? Think also of the value of my time, and the book I’m currently working on. If there’s an egregious error, I will absolutely take the time to fix it. Stopping work to indulge one person’s preference? That’s not how this works.

You, creator, don’t have to do that.

Art, Commerce, and Tradition

In my experience, not being taken seriously is a mood that comes from one of three places. The first originates with the “art for art’s sake” crowd. You can define art in a number of different ways, but because I have a profit motive, I’m not doing it right. I have compromised my artistic integrity but choosing to do things in a way that helps pay the bills.

The whole “make art affordable for both creator and customer” seems to go right over their head. See resource limitations as a creative challenge. Figure out less expensive ways to solve problems. Redirect your energy from managing logistics to expressing your imagination.

The second has to do with how I run my business. More than one industry professional has told me that the only way to be profitable is to churn out full-color hardcovers. Those are all customers want. Other pros have told me that I have to be running several Kickstarter campaigns per year. I’ve been told that if I’m not creating with the intention to win awards, no one will be interested in my books.

Not to name names, but I know for a fact that what I spent relocating from Finland to Delaware was more than a certain famous, award-winning game designer makes in a year. That doesn’t mean I’m rich; it means he’s poorer than I am. He’s taken seriously, yet I am not.

Do What Makes Sense

The final reason people refuse to take me seriously is tradition. Things have to be done a certain way because that’s how they’ve always been done. They never investigate why things were done that way in the first place. There’s no consideration that there might be a better way. It’s not to say that they won’t embrace new ideas. They’ll happily jump on fads and trends when a lot of other people are doing it.

I don’t genuflect to tradition. If something doesn’t make sense to me, either creatively or financially, I’ll look for another way. I’ve been playing tabletop roleplaying games for longer than some of these people have been alive. I graduated from business school summa cum laude. So again, there’s a distinct possibility that I know what I’m doing, and why I’m doing it.

Herein lies my point: do what makes the most sense for you. Create the way you’re able to create. Publish in the way that you’re able to publish. Control costs and increase profits by whatever means are at your disposal. Do not rule out ideas because people think they’re stupid, especially when you know what you’re doing and they don’t. Never bow to the pressure of that one guy that insists he knows more about your creative drives and business plans than you do.

As long as you take yourself seriously, you’ll do okay.