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The Life and Times of a Freelance Game Designer

Mike Mearls
January 10, 2001

A lot of gamers may not really know what it's like to write material for gaming companies on a professional basis. I know that before I jumped into the freelance writing pool I really had no idea how things worked. I had a vague idea that a writer needed to have good ideas and a basic mastery of grammar. Beyond that, things were very unclear. Most famous writers lead a life completely unlike anything that well over 90% of the paid writers out there live. I read somewhere that the median income for a freelance writer is somewhere in the $5000 dollar range.

Per year.

Think about that for a moment. On one end of the spectrum, you have authors pulling in millions. One the other end, you have people cashing a $50 check for that joke they wrote for Reader's Digest. Most people fall somewhere in the middle, making a portion of their income from their writing but not enough to survive. Of course, a writer can always marry rich (I do have a friend in medical school with lots of cute female doctor-to-be friends) but it's more than likely that the average writer does something other than writing to pay the rent.

So how does writing change someone's life? What is freelancing in the gaming industry really like?

Let me tell you:

It's 6:47 on a Friday night here in Manhattan, NY, USA. The typical New Yorker in my shoes, a single, twenty-something college graduate, is probably out there dining in some appropriately hip restaurant. In fact, I know of at least one group that's doing just that as I type this at work: my friends. You see, rather than join them for dinner, I've elected to stay roughly two or three hours late at the office, writing about supernatural beasties.

I'm not just any dot.commie. By day, I'm a mild mannered techie. By night, I become:

Mike Mearls, freelance writer for hire!

I've got a deadline Monday, and let me tell you one thing, dead is quite the perfect term to use when talking about my social life around the time any writing of mine is due. Of course, if I had half a brain, I wouldn't have pushed my workload back to the point that I'm stuck writing on a Friday night.

Or could I?

One of the most surprising things to me, and one of the things that I knew so little about game writing but of which I am now painfully aware, is the twonky deadline schedules you run into in gaming. A company dealing with an established game line and a single, very highly charted out release schedule probably hands out freelance assignments roughly nine to twelve months in advance of the first draft's due date. In theory, I should be able to break up the research and writing over that time and leave myself a nice big cushion between the time I'm done with my writing and when the first draft is due.

I'm sorry, but after reading over that last sentence I just have to talk a few moments to burst out laughing.

You see, very few writers work on only one game line. Often, especially if a writer is working hard to muster up work, he's got a bunch of deadlines sprinkled throughout his calendar year. On top of that, not every company has the luxury of planning its releases a year out in advance.

Here's an example of the recent timetable of a project I'm working on:

November 4: Propose project via e-mail, receive enthusiastic response, hash out details over conference call that night.

November 6: Create guidelines for other writers on the project.

November 10: Turn in 7000 word draft of first piece of project proposal.

November 20: Receive edits, begin outline of second project segment.

December 10: Turn in both drafts for next round of editing.

Early January: Final drafts in.

I expect to see roughly 10,000 words of mine in the finished manuscript of this book, all of which have to be written within a month or so of the project's creation. I'm the lucky one. The other freelancers have about two fewer weeks to get to work on their stuff. It may sound like a ton of work, and it is, but this is a highly respected company that consistently turns out high quality material. I, at least, am honored to work with them largely because I have a very high degree of creative control over the work I do with them. On the other hand, larger companies tend to have a very strong vision about what they want out of a project. You don't have as much creative control, but you do have a much easier writing schedule. Taking directions with a varying degree of detail from a line developer and creating a manuscript that fits his vision of the game lifts some of the creative burden off of your shoulders and lets you concentrate more on the bits of the project that interest you. Writing under such conditions doesn't mean that you're reduced to a mindless drone filling in the blanks of an outline, but it does mean that your Very Cool Idea can be axed by the line developer because he doesn't think it fits in with the rest of the line.

In my humble opinion, that's what makes a pro game designer a pro, the ability to write on demand, the bulldog mentality it takes to hunker down and write that damn game or supplement. That's the critical trait that any writer needs to have. When I first started to write, I looked high and low for advice on how to break into the field. Did I need to cultivate friends amongst the in-crowd, those who were already getting published? Did I need an agent, someone who knew the ropes of the industry?

Sure, both of those things will help, just like having a CD player and an air conditioner in a car help make driving to work easier and more enjoyable. But the little engine that drives your career is YOU. The one piece of advice that popped up time after time, in interview upon interview was this: write.

Every day.



Not just when you feel like it, not just when the mood strikes you. If you want to write, write. It really is that simple. The muse is much kinder to the maniac pounding away on his keyboard with frantic abandon than the wistful dreamer playing Nintendo. Remember that the next time you dream about writing a book. If you write a thousand words a day, at the end of a month, you've written a 64 page gaming supplement. At the end of four months, you've written a novel. Maybe not a good novel or a publishable supplement, but in the course of writing those works you'll gain a lot of experience in the discipline needed to write. And, if you're anything like me, you'll end up with a lot more cool ideas than you had when you started as you force yourself to think over your topic and flesh it out to fill your target word quota.

It's now Saturday afternoon. I'm still wrestling with the project that's due Monday, but at the least I was able to go out last night and catch a movie. That'll probably be it for my socializing this weekend, since the writing is a little bit behind schedule. But it's worth the sacrifice, because this is what I want to do.

And that's a slice from the life of a writer. It's not glamorous and it's by no means exciting. But it is fun

Next time, we'll talk about what it takes to put together a gaming book and how huge projects don't look all that intimidating when you smash them up into a hundred little pieces. I'll also discuss why magazines are a would-be adventure game designer's best friends.

The Good Stuff


Why Didn't I Think of That?

As part of this column, I'd like to call attention to any cool new products that catch my eye. At its worst, the game industry produces stuff that leaves me angry that I just plunked down cash for a product that doesn't measure up to what I can do myself. At its best, the industry produces books that that become indispensable references no matter what game I play.

The Hills Rise Wild!
By Jesper Myfors and John Tynes
Published by Pagan Publishing (
Tactical Board game

After playing The Hills Rise Wild! I can honestly say that it's impossible to imagine how empty my life was before I was introduced to the joys of hillbilly miniatures combat. This is easily the best miniatures/board game I bought in 2000, and this is the year that I finally picked up a copy of Junta, so it's not for a lack of competition. Play works essentially like a miniatures game. Movement and weapon ranges are described in inches and there's no movement grid on the game tiles (the board is actually a set of card pieces with terrain printed on them that the players arrange before the game, making the board set-up different for every game.) But, rather than spend hours painting figures and sinking thousands of dollars into an army, the game comes with all the playing pieces that you need. Each of up to four players gets six cardboard stand-ups that represent the members of a hillbilly clan. The object of the game is to grab the Necronomicon out of the Old Whately Mansion, hustle it back to your home base, and summon the alien blasphemy of your choice, all while riddling your enemies with buckshot and mystic bolts of magic. The action is fast, fun, and furious. The rules force you to carefully consider your hillbillies' placement and encourage tactical thinking. They also play very fast and add to the freewheeling feel of the game. I can't recommend this game highly enough.

Hero Builder's Guidebook
By Ryan Dancey, David Noon, and John D. Rateliff
Published by Wizards of the Coast (
RPG Supplement

I'll admit it: I'm a complete sucker for table-based generation of stuff, like dungeons, demons, cities, or in this case character backgrounds. The Hero Builder's Guidebook has more than its fair share of tables. Twenty four are presented here to help flesh out your D&D character's background. What makes this book great is that these babies aren't lame hair color and height generators. Instead, they focus on fleshing out such traits as a character's home region and family members, two areas that are easily overlooked in a heroic style game like D&D. Were ma and pa hated by the neighbors? Did the other kids pick on you for praying to a weird god? Find out all that and more. In addition, this book describes all of the different class and race combinations possible in D&D, with some interesting variations on the standard archetypes presented for each. I highly recommend this book to any D&D player and especially to Dungeon Masters. DMs, don't let the title fool you. This product is perfect for creating fully fleshed out and interesting NPCs to spice up any campaign.

Once Upon a Time
By Richard Lambert, Andrew Rilstone, and James Wallis
Published by Atlas Games (
Card Game

I finally got around to playing this game two weeks ago, and I'm hooked. In this game, players try to tell a story that incorporates elements depicted on the cards they have in their hand. If you have a card that says A Fight and you describe a duel between two swashbucklers during the course of your story, you can play that card. The first player to play all of his cards, including his ending card (described below) wins. The trick is that many cards serve as interrupts. If you mention an item listed on an opponent's interrupt card, your opponent may play the card and seize control of the story, giving her a chance to play her cards. Ending cards also complicate matters. These cards bear a single sentence with which you must use to end the story and finish off your hand. This rule can lead to some very amusing verbal acrobatics as players try to wrestle the story's ending to fit it in with the cards they hold. Half the fun in this game is watching the story progress as each player takes her turn with it. The other half is in trying to do the same with everyone's eyes on you. A great party game, definitely suitable for use with non-gamer friends. TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg

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