The official term is ‘freelancer.’ By and large, I make my money by the cent. In terms of change. I’m told that in tech writing ten cents a word is the bare minimum for articles. That would be nice. I’m told the best paying sites can go upward of 25 cents a word, I’ve heard it, but I’ll likely never see it because I’m not a Name.
I’m not a celebrity, even in my small niche of gaming. I’m not a big name.
I don’t bring tens of thousands of eyes to a game or to an article, I’m no hotshot. I’m like Ed Norton in Rounders, just trying to get enough to eat, pay rent, and keep the kids in clean clothes. I’m never going to be that kind of Name, there will always be walls between me and that sort of attention. I don’t have a problem with not being famous, or ‘important,’ or influential, because that’s not why I started writing in gaming. But here’s the thing, the industry’s built up around games that make money or get a lot of attention. They pour all their money into the big titles, the big sites, the big names, and so there’s rounders like me who barely scrape by. I’m hardly alone.
I’m from a niche. I primarily write for analog games (board games, tabletop rpgs, party games, and so on). There’s an argument that there is a limited amount of money to be had in that part of the industry. Sure. I get that. I could get a ‘real’ job and do this as a hobby. I wish there were that many hours in a day. That would be great. I supplement this writing by the occasional article sent out to this and that site. Sometimes I make the ‘big’ cents: 5+ per word. Sometimes checks get lost in the mail. Or the magazine I was supposed to appear in is delayed, and with it, my payment. Sometimes the site just folds. Sometimes the site changes it’s mind and suggests I should give them my work ‘for the love.’ After all, this is all fun and games, right?
I remember, once at a convention, a guy who transitioned from tabletop gaming to video games spun me a tale. He smiled with lights in his eyes and said, ‘wait till you see the difference in the checks! Take whatever you make on a project right now and add two zeros to the end of it!’ And I believe him, because why wouldn’t I? I’m an American, of course, so making more money is the ethical and correct thing to do. So I chased video games. Some studios have freelancing work, and I’ve done some. It’s grueling and dull and you spend hours learning a new way of scripting stories to fit their language needs, and when it’s done, no one adds any zeros to the end of your check. It was more, but not by the leaps and bounds those who had crossed over promised.
I went back to analog, and will stay here, and take the Protestant Work Ethic grief so I can have some joy in my writing even if it’s shit money.
If I got another offer on a video games, I’d take it in a heartbeat. This is a thing you do. You take jobs that you know are going to suck, and maybe sending messages you don’t believe and using words you don’t mean so that you can keep getting hired. Or rather, you do it until you have a meltdown, become a big name, or walk away.
I write and research eight or more hours a day, seven days a week. I’d do more, but I’m both a freelance writer and the full time mom of three kids. If I wanted to really be a name, I’d have to work more like 16 hours a day. I’d have to be writing, editing, designing, begging for work.
If I wanted to be a name to make the money, I’d have to take all my spare cash and fly from one end of the country to the other, and not for the cons. You don’t go to the con if you want to make connections. You go to “Barcon” after hours, where you drink shitty screwdrivers and mediocre martinis in cigar bars because that’s where the connections are made. That’s where the pitches are thrown and caught. That’s where the magic happens. Or, at least, a major part of it. I’m outside of that culture, because I’m a mom. Because I don’t have a cushy tech job to fall back on. Because I’m lower middle class and that isn’t likely to be any different any time soon.
My niche of gaming doesn’t have endorsement deals or major commercial campaigns.
It’s largely word of mouth. Having a trusted Name say ‘oh, I playtested that game during development’ can mean life or death for an indie product. Producing your own small projects is vital to keeping your name in the game, see, and possibly propping up the money you make freelancing. If you can make a profit on them. Which is another big if. If you can take the time and have a little talent, there are small conventions entirely devoted to letting designers get attention while playtesting and fine tuning what they’ve got.
Unless, like me, you’re a mom and you can’t go to these things because they are actively hostile spaces to children. I hear myself, and some of my contemporaries, say how it’s our fault our games and our ability to work isn’t well known enough. Because we don’t ‘make the rounds.’ But making the rounds means hiring long term babysitting. Or doing the impossible: bringing your children along and hoping you can find some space and some people willing to play your game without sneering at your offspring too much. The looks you get when you say ‘well, I’ve got my kids with me,’ in a space that’s about playing games is mind blowing. I understand adults wanting adult space to think and work and create. I understand wanting con space to be about hooking up and smoking cigars and having drinks. I get that stuff. But it also means I will be on the outside of that for the next decade or more. Sometimes I dream about conventions for families, where designers with kids can commiserate, create, hire each other, advocate for each other, but to have that I’d have to make it, and I already have too many balls in the air. And so again, I can’t become a Name.
So I do this thing. Begging and designing and writing and broadcasting who I am and what I do and what I believe. That’s not cool either, self promotion in women is unattractive. I’m just doing it for attention! If I have the audacity to say, “No, this is a part of my job, and how I make money,” I’m a filthy mercenary. How dare I do this for money? How dare I demand people pay me for my work? After all, this thing we do is about fun and games! Shouldn’t I do it for love? There’s eight thousand guys waiting in line behind me who will do it for the love.
You can’t feed your children with love. You can’t pay your rent with enthusiasm.
Do I see it changing? No. Gaming, (big and small) isn’t growing up any time soon. It may never decide if it’s a real collection of industries with professional requirements. Because games are fun, those who make games can’t be taken seriously. Those who look at games critically will always be ‘ruining fun.’ Who wants to pay people to ruin fun?
Don’t take it seriously. It’s just fun! It’s for kids! But there’s no place for kids here! It’s just a hobby! Because the day you look at this as a job, a career, and a real legitimate thing to do with your time, the industry will have to get its shit together and pay people like me in something more than change.