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Labor Pains

Sandy Antunes March 20, 2000

Today, we're going to take a look at actually working in the game industry. Not in the nuts-and-bolts sense, but as a career prospect. When you look at a job, there are three main factors to consider:

  1. Significance: Is the work itself significant?
  2. Environment: Is it a good work environment?
  3. Pay: Does it pay well?

If none of these are true, you'll leave the job. Bad pay, no fun, the job itself is pointless-- why stay?

On the other hand, if all three are true, it's a dream job. Good pay, fun to work, and what you do really counts! That's a rare find!

Most good jobs fit two of these. Internet startups, even if they're for "HamsterAdsNetwork.com" (Ads for Hamsters, beamed right to their wheels!), usually pay well and are fun to work at. Doctors, meanwhile, typically get paid very well for life-saving work, albeit in a driven and difficult work environment.

A lot of jobs just fit one criteria. Teachers, for example, are doing significant work (educating the future generations!), but often for lousy pay and under heavy administrative burdens. A lot of sys admins get paid well, but have lousy hours and a stressful workplace.

And freelance writers have a great work environment-- home-- counterbalanced by lousy pay and a hard time convincing themselves that their work has enduring significant for society. (But let's leave debate on artistic merit aside for now).

So this leads us to a useful law:

Rate your job!

  1. Rocking!: If your job has all 3 factors, it's a dream job.
  2. Cool: If you have any 2 factors, it's a good job and you'll stay.
  3. Sucks: If your job has only 1 of the above factors, you'll stay, but you won't be happy
  4. Quit: If none of the factors fit, you'll leave.

How does this apply to the game industry? Let's take the case of the archetypal roleplaying jobs-- the lone freelancer and the small publisher.


Well, we know the pay is lousy, so that's a No. The work is often significant, in the sense that you're creating worlds for others to enjoy, so I'd say "Significance" gets a Yes. Problem is, it's so hard to find good professional standards. You're often hassled trying to get an actual contract, getting paid, dealing with shifting deadlines... I'd say that's a No.


You wanted to make games. Now you're doing the taxes, figuring out marketing, budgeting expenses, arguing with the printer, planning conventions... heck, you're doing everything except actually creating. And the game industry ain't making you rich.

Let's give this a Yes on "significant" (you are a publisher, after all), but No for "good pay" and "work environment".

Tally So Far-- Not So Good

Both jobs as given come in the "it sucks, but you'll still work it" category. So what would it take to push it into the "cool job" range?


Professionalism can make a job better. Yeah, yeah. I know, that's like saying "manners reduces crime". It sounds so namby-pamby.

But let's look at our cases. First, the Freelancer. A freelancer's woes are often from:

  1. The bad rep that freelancing carries with most company ("they're all flakes!")
  2. The work required just to snag an assignment (hours of schmoozing)
  3. The difficulties in getting clear terms, and getting paid

Well, dang! Looks like a good dose of industry professionalism could fix that right up! If everyone were more professional, things like contracts and payment would flow smoothly, and there would be less conflict.

And by being more professional, there'd be more effective networking than just the Old Fans Network. With reliable industry communication (via the Academy or industry lists), and with more companies providing things such as Steve Jackson Games' excellent Freelancer Want List, it'd be easier to get assignments.

Ease of assignments and better network also means that freelancers could target better. Now, if you're an expert on SF Gaming, you'll still take that 20,000 word work on Gelding Dragons-- because it's the only work you were offered. But if the networking was more solid, less anecdotal and "who you know", why, you would know about SF settings, and that dragon expert writing for "Bob's SF System" could ditch that and get to work on Gelding.

So better professional outlets for communications greatly benefit the freelancer by reducing the non-creative work and ensuring assignments are more suited to them. And more professional behaviour by companies means less headaches for the freelancer.

In turn, the freelancers need to be more professional. Meeting deadlines is a biggie. Doing good work, nothing more need be said. With this, the image of freelancers as flakes will reduce. And that, in turn, will make companies more confident about using freelancers, and thus make them more willing to network (rather than avoiding freelancers save when absolutely necessary).

And Still More Professionalism

And meanwhile, the poor publisher struggling along in their one-factor job, well, professionalism has its direct benefits too. And one of the first rules of the professional is "You have a job you do very well. Other people have jobs they do very well. Make other people do the stuff that you don't do well."

Simple, eh? It means getting layout people to do your layouts, rather than sitting at your Mac until 5am. It means having an accountant. Having a receptionist to answer telephone and email. Letting a distributor carry your items, rather than dealing with retailers yourself.


Yes, this costs money. No, wait, I lied, it doesn't really cost money. It costs control. You have to give up control of some aspects of your company. But it really doesn't cost money, in the long run.

The money you lose from missing your print deadlines (which you promised everyone in those great KoDT ads three months ago) would have more than covered a tax accountant's fees. You would have just given him your box of bills and statements and...

Oh, wait, you say? You don't have all your financial paperwork in order yet? You didn't use proper bookkeeping techniques, so an accountant won't help?

If you're going to do something, you have to know what you're doing. That's a root of professionalism. If you didn't know accounting, why were you doing it? Because it had to be done? It certainly didn't have to be done poorly.

Startups Need Not Apply

Sorry, but these rules don't apply to startups. Startups can't always outsource. Half the time, they're learning the rules as they go. That's why they're startups.

Mind you, if you've gone for more than 2 years, you're no longer a startup. Either you can start hiring or outsourcing, or you're in the wrong niche.

You gotta get at least a second Factor to take your business to the next level, after all. It's like some twisted experience point system.

Start with one factor. Gain experience, get epiphany, you get one more factor and go up another level. Get all three factors and you win!

At least, until my column on Competition appears.

Until next month,
Sandy sandy@rpg.net

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