A form of this article appeared on gamecareerguide, January, 2009. You can click the post heading for the original.
Why design games?
“I’m going to make a lot of money designing games”. This is a common notion, but rarely true in practice. Even in the video game industry, few game designers “get rich”. They usually work for a game developer full time, work fairly long hours, and aren’t paid particularly well (there are exceptions), because so many people want to be game designers. In fact, on average they’re paid less than the programmers, and no more than the artists! They are not paid royalties, though they might get a bonus for a game that sells very well.
Moreover, in the video game industry, people are rarely hired off the street as game designers. Instead they must serve an apprenticeship of many years as testers or (if they’re lucky and good) as level designers, or in other non-designer positions. Is the money they might eventually make worth it?
In non-electronic games, most designers are freelancers (like novelists) and barely make a profit. A few of the most famous, such as Klaus Tauber and Reiner Kniza, can actually become millionaires as freelancers. A few work for big companies such as Hasbro (which owns Parker Brothers, Milton Bradley, Wizards of the Coast, and Avalon Hill amongst others). The typical boardgame, card game, RPG (role playing game), or CCG (collectible card game) does not bring in the revenues of video games, and royalties are low, so most freelance designers have a “day job” just as most novelists do. Amongst novelists, Glenn Cook, most well known for the “Black Company” fantasy novels, wrote while commuting to his day job at a General Motors assembly plant, a job he retired from. Alan R. Moon, a very well known boardgame designer who has won two of the very important German Game of the Year awards, has said he would have had to get a part-time job if not for his second win with Ticket to Ride.
One observer suggested you could spend the time you use to design games, and instead pick up cans and bottles for deposits and recycling fees, and make as much money.
In other words, don’t design games in order to make a lot of money, because you probably won’t. You may not make any money at all.
But please, if you're going to call yourself a "game designer", then design seriously. Don't be a dilettante, don't dabble in it rather than do it half-heartedly. Or design just for yourself, but don't call yourself a "game designer".
Game designers as a group suffer from people who call themselves game designers, but work on just one game, produce a weak (though possibly pretty) prototype, don't alpha test it, and then inflict it on volunteer playtesters who walk away with the opinion that so-called game designers are "amateurs", or that "heck, anyone could design a game that weak". If you can't play your game solo, why expect anyone else to play it? Get your game to a decently enjoyable state before you inflict it on others, or you'll give game design a bad name.
Recognize also that in the "outside world", you won't get much respect. People who don't play games, or who only play traditional games on holidays (as many older people who aren't into video games), tend to assume that game design is easy, that it's "kid's stuff" that any adult can manage to do. So why respect someone who designs games? Or worse, they may wonder why any adult would be "playing with games" instead of doing something productive with their lives! (My 80-year-old English mother-in-law cannot understand why I spend my time teaching young people how to design games--though I'm paid to do it. To her it's just not an adult occupation.)
Even if you do well, you won’t be famous (again with a few exceptions). Yes, we know who Sid Meier is, or CliffyB (but that’s because he blogs), but mostly we know designers by their works. How many know who Carmack and Romero, or Will Wright are? But mention their works (Doom and Quake, The Sims) and they're recognized. I’m lucky to have a very unusual name, but more people know me through games, especially Britannia, than through my name. A game designer may be the “least unfamous” person among his friends and acquaintances, but he’s not famous the way an athlete or actor may be famous.
So if it’s not money or fame, what is it? Why design games? There’s the thrill of making something out of nothing, as an artist does with pen and paper, a composer does with music, a painter does with canvas and brush, etc. It may not be quite like what a woman feels when she bears a child, but it can be something like it.
Perhaps you’re driven to do it, the way some people are driven to write novels even without an expectation of publication. Perhaps you enjoy being creative, and this is your chosen field. When I came back to designing boardgames as an older person, after being “away” for twenty years, it was the realization that this was the best way I had to touch a large number of lives, if only through entertainment. Or you may love the thrill of seeing your game on the shelves, or of being asked to sign a copy of your game. It can certainly be a rush.
At Origins Game Fair 2008, as I was sitting at a booth talking to a boardgame publisher, someone walked by, evidently saw my name tag, shook my hand, said something like "Britannia is an excellent game, thank you for getting it back into print", and walked off. There's no substitute for that, folks, or for hearing someone say “I love this game”, when they’re talking about one you designed, or to hear someone say they’ve played your 4-5 hour game more than five hundred times. Not many people get to experience that.
You can love game design for many reasons. For me, it is truly fascinating to play your brand new prototype for the first time, not because it will be all that much fun (at this point it probably won’t be), but fascinating to see how things work or don’t work the way you expected, to “see what happens”, to puzzle out how to improve it. It’s also fascinating to watch the first time other people play, and perhaps see how different the game works than when you played it solo. Design because you like to design games, and like the “incidents”. It’s rarely a living, but it’s cool.