Breaking Into the Gaming Biz

This is a question I get asked from time to time: “I’m a writer/artist/editor; how can I break into the gaming industry?”

The first piece of advice I give ANYONE looking for work in the gaming industry is this: Don’t quit your day job. With your day job you have (one assumes) guaranteed income as long as you show up and do the work, right? Working freelance is a feast or famine existence, and the famine times tend to be longer and more frequent that the feasts. Then there are times when you don’t get paid at all.

If you’re a writer, the easiest thing to do is watch for open calls. They are infrequent, but invariably most gaming companies seek out new blood from time to time, and this usually involves creating a new monster — or writing a brief scenario — using their rules. This proves to them that A) you know the game system and how to make it work properly, and B) you can string two intelligible sentences together.

Another thing writers can do is go to conventions and talk to the gaming guests. Many gaming companies DON’T advertise the need for writers; frankly, writing for tabletop RPGs is a crowded field already, and plenty of experienced folks are looking for work. Gaming guests at conventions are usually willing to talk about companies they’ve heard of that are looking for writers. This is called networking, and it’s the way Ive gotten 80% of my work in gaming. Important tip: Don’t be a mooch: offer to buy the person you’re talking to lunch, or a drink, or something. It makes a better impression, and good impressions are important.

If you’re an artist, decide which companies would be a good fit. If you specialize in sci-fi art, you don’t want to pitch to a company that only does fantasy stuff, right? Find out which conventions that company will be at, but ALSO which one will have their art director in attendance. Make an appointment to show that person or persons your portfolio. Don’t have a portfolio? GET ONE. Your portfolio is a selection of your best work, published or not. Have a variety of work to show: scenery, maps, profile pieces, character studies, and tableaus. It can be displayed on an online site, or it can be an oversized art briefcase with printed copies that you lug around with you. The web site is the more efficient way to go, but handing someone your card doesn’t guarantee they’ll bother to look, so that’s kind of a conundrum. Until you get a few paid gigs under your belt, I recommend going the more hassle route of lugging a print portfolio to shows with you. Once you’ve got some work published, people in the industry will start to hear about you: then you can gradually transition away from the suitcase to the business card.

Editors have a tougher time, because it’s harder to prove you’re good at what you do. Probably best to break in as a writer, and offer to edit other’s work if the need arises. You will need an especially good grasp of written English to be an editor, so don’t try to fake that; you’ll get found out eventually, and word will spread that you’re trying to pull a fast one.

Getting paid is an entire other issue, and I discuss some of the important points in a previous blog post, titled Freelance Income: To Spend Or Not To Spend?”

There are several important benchmarks to hit no matter what type of job you’re looking for in gaming. First, turn in your work on time. If it looks like you might be late, tell your editor/developer that as soon as you know. They’ll appreciate the heads up, and they’ll cut you some slack if you’re honest with them. NOT telling someone you’ll be late, then being late — or not finishing the work at all — is the BEST way to not get work in the industry ever again.

Second, pay attention. If the publisher asks you to use a certain font, or certain specific paragraph style in your document, do what they ask. In other words, give them what they want, and be prepared to make a few changes if needed.

ALWAYS get a contract. It spells out clearly what each party is responsible for, and when. It protects both the author/artist AND the publisher.

Don’t work for free. EVER. Companies that beg for free work have no intention of “making it up to you” or paying you down the road for other projects; they are scam artists: avoid them. At the same time, some companies will want a sample of your work as a show of good faith when you’re just starting out. That’s kind of the gray area of “working for free.” If they decide to use it, they should pay you, and most reputable companies will do so. If they decide not to use it, you can always try to sell it elsewhere, and it adds to your portfolio. You may have to “file the serial numbers off,” that is, take out any specific world or rules references pertaining to the other game before you can sell it elsewhere. In the end, it may just be easier to write something else.

Don’t be a special snowflake. Everybody needs an editor: editors exist to make writing better. Take the editor’s advice and make the changes they suggest. You CAN edit your own work, but you will miss things, no matter how careful you are.

Getting into the gaming biz as a writer or artist isn’t really all that hard; the tough part comes when you try to make a living at it. I can count on one hand the number of people I know who make a legitimate living at just writing for tabletop RPGs, and let me tell you, bunky, even I’m not one of them. So once again, I reiterate: keep your day job!

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