My 2014 as a Freelance Game Designer

In 2013, I had what I was thinking of as a rebuilding year. I was fresh off some major projects (that didn’t quite end to my satisfaction) and so I had to figure out just what I wanted to be doing as a freelance game designer. My previous projects definitely weren’t providing anything resembling a steady paycheck, and fortunately, I have a good day job for that. However, I did want to work with a number of different companies. My thinking was that having a lot of irons in the fires would meant that if one particular publisher was slower (in production, in paying, etc.) it wouldn’t be as big a deal to sit and work on something else.

Did my plan work out? Would unexpected curveballs throw everything off? The answers are kind of and yes, but read on for details.

Virgin Unpubing

I’ve been attending game design conventions and gatherings for years now, ever since college when I was making truly terrible games. Some of the ones I used to attend have vanished, and I had been hearing good things about Unpub, an organization that both put on smaller game design events around the US and also had a big show every year. I managed to grab one of the final slots as a designer for Unpub 4.

Part of the run-up was deciding just what games I was going to bring. I had attended Metatopia with Heat and a game I was then calling “Spell Dice” and both polled pretty well. I had other games that were more formed (and a few that were much less formed). Those two seemed to hit the sweet spot between “wouldn’t be embarrassed to show them off in public” and “needed more outside testing for feedback.”

In the two months leading up to Unpub, I inflicted the two games on my Thursday night game group nearly every week. Heat was much newer, so it got the most playtesting, and since the game is “micro-gameish” making even a small tweak on how one card worked could have a ripple effect through an entire playtest.

Meanwhile, “Spell Dice” just wasn’t working with that theme, and so I decided to go what I described as “full Euro,” changing the resources to ones like Wheat and Brick and from objects like “Magic Shoes” (yet another reason the original theme needed changing) into buildings like Lighthouses and Markets. I also improved the prototype production quality, which helped the play of the game.

Unpub was an interesting experience. I got to meet a bunch of fellow game designers I knew only from Twitter, and a few publishers who knew of me stopped by to chat and/or try a few of my games. However, for many of the actual playtesters, I was a nobody. I tried my typical game designer cred pickup line “have you seen the filler games Tabletop episode?” and some of them hadn’t even heard of Tabletop. The games had to stand on their own.

Heat got the most demo time, as it was a quicker game, and with all the tables in Unpub filled with games to play, many had their time at a premium. Reactions were mixed- which doesn’t surprise me for a lighter filler game- but enough people reacted to it that I knew it was worth working on. Actual concrete usable feedback was sparse, though.

Village Dice, meanwhile, attracted a few games worth of players. It’s a longer, more involved strategy game that involves managing resources based on dice and using a specific drafting system that is simple yet occasionally brain-burning. Those dice, and the more colorful prototype, lead to a lot more players assuming that it would be a lighter game than it was, which showed on the ratings. One direct piece of feedback that kept coming back: the downtime was too much. That’s a fuzzy problem, but at least it’s a problem that I can look at and try to address. Months later, I would make a number of tweaks to the buildings in the game to do more interesting effects while also speeding the game up a bit, and I think that went a long way. After another Unpub mini event months later, it would be picked up by an interested publisher.

Heat Gets Hot

Photo by W. Eric MartinHeat, meanwhile, found a publisher at Unpub, and was signed to a contract right there. Then a few weeks later, it would no longer be with that publisher. So I was on the hunt again. Fortunately, that lead me to Asmadi Games and my friend Chris. I sent him the files, and it clicked there. Together, we worked on developing it (which was a lot more tweak one card, see how it affects the entire game) and his input made it a much stronger game. After a successful showing at PAX East and the Gathering of Friends, we Kickstarted the game in June, aiming for a Gen Con rollout.

For a variety of strange reasons that I won’t go into (partly involving the World Cup) we didn’t hit that target. The game was sent to backers in December, and I’m very happy with how it turned out. The art is exactly what I wanted: when I said “I want it to look like Saul Bass made it,” designer/artist Cara Judd was more than happy to comply. The price point is cheap too, reflecting the original “microgame-ish” feel I had in mind when I first conceptualized the game.

If you weren’t a Kickstarter backer, you can order the game from Asmadi’s webstore, and it should be in distribution to game stores in the next month.

Splitting the Party

While some of my tabletop (board/card) game designs were churning in the background, I was once again looking for RPG work. As an aside, I’m one of the few people I know who works regularly on new tabletop game designs and as a freelance RPG designer. Most people focus more on one area or the other, since it tends to be easier to get more work that way. (I also joke that it’s a good way to get anyone who asks you “So what are you working on?” to not care about half of anything you say.)

Tabletop games have a much slower burn process: much of the real progress happens at max once a week during playtesting nights, with some prep beforehand, and then the process of finding a publisher then actually getting the game manufactured is long, and in many cases, out of your hands. Then when it comes out, you eventually get an unpredictable amount of money back based on how much it sells. A lot of it happens on your schedule, or on someone else’s time.

RPG writing feels much more like a job. You have to complete X words by Y date, and you will get paid (hopefully) $Z. You then follow that work as it goes through an editing/development process, do more work on it, and so on until it’s published by somebody else. In every case I’ve worked on, you’ve gotten paid your $Z, and it doesn’t matter how many sell to your bottom line. That doesn’t mean I’m not invested in what comes out (and indeed, it has to be good to get more work later) but the timeline is all different.

So all that said, what happened was in the early part of 2014, when I wasn’t working on a bunch of tabletop games, I applied for two relatively big RPG writing assignments, one of which was offered to me, and the other as part of an open call. Both of which were with established companies. And in both cases, when I first applied, I didn’t know the deadlines involved. I took on both, and in a move that shouldn’t have surprised me, both deadlines overlapped.

That wouldn’t have been a problem, since there was time built into both. Except, that aforementioned curveball.

The Year of the Injured Writer

In the midst of that day job I alluded to earlier that actually pays my bills, occasionally they expect me to do work. In 2014, there was a lot of that work as part of launching a brand new website. A lot of typing. A lot of clicking. A lot of repetitive stress on my wrist.

Before I wisened up about my work habits, I developed a persistent tendinitis in my right wrist. I saw a doctor about it, whose half-assed advice was essentially “don’t use it as much.” Considering my day job AND my life as a game designer involves typing and clicking things (not to mention blogging like this), that was not good news.

I ended up blowing both of my RPG deadlines, though I’d eventually work it out. My pace on everything slowed considerably. Months later, when the pain got worse, I got more serious and finally my day job got involved. Near the end of the year, I started physical therapy, and upgraded my work area with equipment to help alleviate the stresses on my wrist. I’m wearing a wrist brace as I write this, which I’ll be using for the foreseeable future. I do know I’ll have to be careful going forward how much I take on at once so I don’t strain my wrist, or make it even worse.

I did discover that an injury wouldn’t stop me from wanting to design, though. It would just manifest itself in unexpected ways.

Cynthia FogbankingtonStickering My Commons With Cube: Legacy

Magic: the Gathering, one of my favorite games of all time and consistent money sink, would become a big part of it during that time, since it turned out that the motion to flip through cards didn’t strain my wrist. I spent a while working on different decks, doing more sorting and online trading of cards, and figuring out new ways to use the cards I had.

One of those shook out from a tournament I hosted using my Cube (a set of cards used to play interesting drafts without the need to buy new packs each time). A few of us started discussing how cool it would be to make a Cube based around Risk: Legacy, where the rules changed over time and you put stickers on cards to give them new abilities.

Well, I had my project. I went through my old cards to put together a set, and developed rules to go along with it. I even took some old envelopes to make “packets” that could be opened by different events happening in the games.

It would take months after I put it together to actually try it out, and after one game, I knew I had a hit. I pitched an article about the cube to Gathering Magic, and after a few more plays, the article went up and Cube: Legacy was in the world. We’re now four games into it, with over 20 different players trying it, and I really hope we play it enough to open all the packets I’ve prepared.

Strange New Worlds: Unofficial Apocalypse Trekking

As part of taking it easy and being at home more often, I caught up on some shows on Netflix, mainly Star Trek. In order to complete my Trek experience, I caught up on all the Trek I hadn’t seen, starting with Voyager, and then Enterprise. (I’d eventually watch all of Deep Space 9 through again too, but that was probably 4th or 5th time doing that.)

Meanwhile, I was a player in two campaigns: a Dungeon World game and a Monster of the Week game, both games “Powered by the Apocalypse.” Thus, those two ideas combined in my brain, and I started hammering out a Star Trek RPG using the Apocalypse World engine. As I watched more episodes, I put more ideas for playbooks and abilities down. (Yes, I’m bad at taking it easy, especially when I’ve got a hot idea.)

As much as I enjoyed them, I was never entirely happy with how a lot of the older Star Trek RPGs handled certain situations. They were fine RPGs, but didn’t feel like the kind of Trek I wanted to be a part of. My game, Strange New Worlds, addresses those complaints. I won’t say it’s anywhere close to the best Trek RPG ever made. Five playtests later, I just know it’s the kind of Trek game that I want to play.

I’ve released as much as I’ve built on the game into the open via a Google Doc, which you can check out in full right now, and also my blank playbook sheet that I’ve been using for demos. The most common question I get is if I’d consider publishing it, possibly by taking the Trek RPG out. My feeling is that I went into it wanting to create my definitive Star Trek RPG, and stripping anything out compromises that idea. However, if there was interest from a publisher who wanted to take what I did and go that direction, I’d sign on and think we could make something pretty cool. In the meantime, even if it won’t raise any money for me, I’m happy to have Strange New Worlds available for anyone else to try.

Gen Con AKA Meeting Con

Gen Con is not a convention where I playtest. It’s where I catch up with friends who I only get to see there, demo a few of my games at booths, and arrange more work. This year, the last one took up a lot of my time. I certainly won’t complain about being a game designer that people want to work with. It did lead to a lot of this conversation though:

“How’s your Gen Con going? See anything cool?”
“Well, I spent most of it in secret meetings.”
“…Oh.”
“I, uh, got to play Magic once and D&D a few times.” 

Fortunately, this year, I wasn’t “cold pitching” anything like I was the year before, which is a terrifying process and also not particularly effective at walking up to booths in the hall and giving publishers prototypes. All the meetings I had were arranged before the convention, which is much better for you as a designer and much better for the publishers.

As for what those meetings were about? Unfortunately, I have to be a tease and say “you’ll find out soon, I hope.” For good or bad, part of the industry is keeping quiet about stuff you really want to talk about. It doesn’t make for the most compelling of articles, it’s just always better to err on the side of secrecy as a designer then reveal something that the party with the money doesn’t want revealed. Let’s just say I’m very happy with how all of my meetings went, and have high hopes for this next year.

Timewatch Parallel RealitiesMetatopia, Fate, and Parallel Realities

Metatopia was my last game convention of the year, and my last big playtesting sprint. Metatopia is the only convention I attend that focuses on all areas of game design, which means it’s a chance for me to do both tabletop and RPG testing. With tabletop, I was mostly focusing on refining the games I already had and showing them to a wider audience (and one game from there will be one of the games I show off at Unpub in 2015.) RPGs were where more work was needed, and honestly, I find the RPG testing experience at Metatopia much stronger. The RPG sessions tended to be better staffed with game designers and other experienced testers, whereas the board and card games had more people who just wanted to play a finished, entertaining game. (Not all though, many thanks to those of you who had feedback for my games.)

In addition to another very constructive playthrough of Strange New Worlds, I also ran a session of House of Bards, my big Fate writing project. It demonstrated one of my firm principles of game design: get something to the table as soon as you possibly can. Just one short session was very instructive, and while I had hit some roadblocks in game design, just a few hours of people’s time and I had lots of information about what kind of play emerged and what to write about. My first draft is in the pipeline now, and if all goes well, should show up as part of the Fate: Adventures & Worlds Patreon.

Metatopia also brought me a pretty exciting first. The other RPG project from earlier in the year was writing a piece for the Timewatch RPG, changing the setting from being about time travellers to alternate reality-hoppers, specifically mixing together my dad’s G.O.D. Inc. series and the Sliders TV show as the primary influence. Kevin Kulp, the creator of Timewatch, put together an adventure for it and ran it at Metatopia. I was able to pop in for the last half of the game, and see one of my favorite game masters run a table in a setting I created. The importance of playtesting showed its hand here too. While the system was pretty solid (95% of it just used the existing Timewatch rules), questions about the world that neither of us had thought up came up during the game, and gave us what we needed to fill in the gaps before the final text goes to print. Timewatch is in the works now, currently projecting a May delivery date.

Metatopia may have been the last con of 2014 for me, and yet, the work continues. Deadlines are ongoing, and right at the end of the year, I have to start thinking about Unpub. One game I’m taking carries over from Metatopia, and the other is much newer, which means more work to get it into that sweet spot of playable with room for improvement.

2014 Take Aways

  • Take care of yourself while working. Seriously, don’t be like me and push yourself to the extent that you’ll feel it and it’ll affect your work. I’m no expert by any means, just pay attention to how hard you’re working.
  • Playtesting is the lifeblood of game design. It’s not just a way to make sure your game works, it’s a way to reveal questions that you can answer, even after you think the game is totally done.
  • Everything game-related can take time. For instance, I playtested a game by a friend in 2008, who had a publisher almost immediately. It just came out at the end of 2014. As a freelance designer, your schedule is often the least important one.
  • I still believe in the plan of working with a number of different companies. Just be aware it takes a lot more time and energy to keep up with, and that means you might spend a lot of convention time in meetings, then not be able to tell anybody what you’re talking about (or with who.)
  • Inspiration and creative drive can arrive in weird ways if you’re like me. One minute you might be binge-watching on Netflix, and the next, you’re hammering out character creation rules.
  • Make sure you have a plan for the conventions you’re attending, and ramp up appropriately.
  • Sometimes as a game designer you find yourself doing searches for “Law & Order font” (Friz Quadrata, incidentally.)

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About Dave

Dave "The Game" Chalker is the Editor-in-Chief and Co-Founder of Critical Hits. Since 2005, he has been bringing readers game news and advice, as well as editing nearly everything published here. He is the designer of the Origins Award-winning Get Bit!, a freelance designer and developer, son of a science fiction author, and a Master of Arts. He lives in MD with e, their three dogs, and two cats.

Comments

  1. Dixon Trimline says:

    There was a lot to process here, so I figured I’d read through the article and make notes as they occurred to me. It’s a surprisingly intimate glimpse into person’s life, and never not wonderful. So here we go:

    I honestly can’t imagine how you can manage all of this AND work a day job. I think your big problem is that you’re just not lazy! And whooooooa, what a story about Heat! I love the ups and downs you document (first it has a publisher, then it doesn’t… then it does!), and the picture is gorgeous.

    “Doctor, it hurts when I do this…” “Well, don’t do that.” That’s not remotely frustrating.

    You design games you want to play, and not necessarily ones that’ll publish. It’s an innovative, and, may I say, courageous approach. I suppose it’s easy to say, “Hey, you made a Star Trek game, now keep it a Star Trek game, warp 9!”

    Secret meetings, marketing and promotion, constant interviews and bloodhounding for work, these are just some of the reasons that I would make a terrible game designer. Others are that I’m hopelessly introverted and dumb and funny-looking and uncreative and lazy, but those probably aren’t as important.

    I am quite intrigued by the Timewatch/Sliders game. I’ll have to keep my eyes open for that in local conventions. The very notion of the game creator running a setting that you made, well, that’s just about, “I can die now,” material. However, you probably have some more work to do first.

    • Glad you enjoyed it. They definitely won’t let me die while there’s still words to write on my contracts.

  2. Jason Washburn says:

    Dave, I understand much of what you talk about. I signed my first game in 2010 and it is still not out yet. I too Work a full time job and spend much of my time designing and playing. And persistence is so very important. I have had ups and downs but always staying positive and pushing yourself is tough.

    I am also an artist and do the art for my games as well as others folks. I think you are an amazing designer and wonderfully creative person. I too am excited to see what this year has in store. I hope I get the chance to meet you at Unpub as I will be there as well, with a few games at my own table.

    Thanks for the blog it is nice to see others share in the burdens of design.

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