Professionalism in Gaming – Getting Paid

Greetings readers, this week I want to talk about some factors of working in the gaming industry—namely, getting fair compensation for your work. This is actually part of a panel I’m scheduled to give at Gen Con this year alongside my co-conspirators John Dunn and Jason Marker. The panel is titled “Professionalism in Gaming” and is going to cover quite a few subjects—amongst them contracts and payments and the like—but I’m taking this opportunity to give a sneak peek (as it were) at some of my own opinions on the subject of payments for freelance RPG writing.



All too common in this economy.

I always work with a contract. This is, for me, an ironclad rule. Even when I’ve done work with people I consider trusted friends, I’ve always insisted on a contract. I firmly believe that a contract is necessary for professional work – it provides a clear description of the expectations on both sides and gives both sides a form of recourse if anything unexpected happens. I would strongly encourage any new writers, artists, editors, or anyone doing any professional work in the industry to always… ALWAYS get a contract between you and the employer. In my opinion, it’s just that simple.



As in every aspect of business, communication is vital for a freelancer. Make sure you touch base with the developer in charge of your project every so often; there’s no need to ping every day or even every week, but regular contact is completely reasonable. During my time as a developer, I always e-mailed a pre-agreement to a freelancer that I was planning to contract for work. A pre-agreement was basically just a statement from me stating the pertinent facts of the assignment I wanted to offer him; this included the date the project was due to be turned in, the word count requirement, and the compensation he would be paid for his work. A quick e-mail like this takes hardly any time and helps clear up any misunderstandings before you get to the stage where contracts need to be amended.
I found the pre-agreement method to be a very useful tool, as it kept me from having to change any contracts once they were written and sent out by the accounting/legal department, and my freelancers appreciated the additional step of communication and clarity about what they were getting into.
In the business of being a freelancer, the contract for your work is one of the last places you want to get a surprise…


Getting Paid

I’ve worked in the game industry for over 13 years now, and I can tell you that I’ve been very fortunate throughout my career. One of the ways in which I’ve been very lucky is that I’ve always been paid for my work. I know several of my friends and colleagues who have, at various times, had great difficulty getting their just compensation for their work from different employers.
While getting the check in the mail is great, that’s actually only half the story. Getting paid ON TIME is the second half of the equation (and another reason why contracts are super-important; they spell out just how much time you can expect between turning in your work and getting paid).
I helped build the RPG department at Fantasy Flight Games up from a small team of two to a large and engaged group of six-plus designers. One of the early rules I wanted to make iron-bound was that OUR department always paid our freelancers, and we always paid on time. This was a professional goal of mine since I had began writing in the industry, and it was extremely important to me to make that happen. I’m still very proud to this day that the FFG RPG department has a sterling reputation in the industry for professionalism and dealing well with freelancers.
At the top of a good reputation for a company is whether it can be trusted, and trust starts with paying people for their work on time.


Royalties vs. Flat Rate

Let me be clear: I’ve never worked for royalties. I’ve been offered a chance to write for royalties more than once, but I’ve never taken the bait. Instead, I’ve always chosen to write on a for-hire basis, getting paid a flat rate for my work. Typically, the compensation for RPG writing involves three things; a fee (calculated on a per-word basis), a writing or development credit in the finished project, and a complimentary copy of said project when it is published.
If only it carried over into real life!

If you want to write for royalties, go ahead – just be aware that you’re selling your time and effort in return for a future payoff. And royalty payments are, in general, more problematic (as in, anything that can go wrong with mailing one check is now spread out over several checks).

In the end, I’ve often wondered “why not just publish it myself?” rather than accepting royalties as payments.
Now, in the era of the internet, royalties are becoming a lot more hassle-free. Publishing electronically (especially through reputable merchants like RPGNow/DriveThru) has made the royalty model a viable one for many creators.


Know your Worth: Writing Rates

A quick note about writing rates: the RPG industry pays an extremely low rate compared to other types of writing-for-hire. For example, writing for an established magazine or web-page like the Escapist is likely to pay far higher rates than the ones listed below. It is a sad truth of the industry that writers are generally undervalued and underpaid; often this is a symptom of small budgets and small print runs, a result of a niche market.
Since I’ve been working in the industry, the numbers have changed, but not much – here’s the word rates as I know them, at least as current as 2011 (when I was last a developer). So, YMMV – this is the information as best as I know it from my own experiences.


.01 per word

This level is generally only paid by very small companies or for very small projects. Often only beginner writers work for this rate. When I was just getting started in the industry, I took jobs for this rate.


.03 per word

This is the standard rate for a new writer in the RPG industry. Most of the larger and more successful RPG companies pay out this rate for a first-time writer doing work for them.


.04 per word

This is a standard rate for an established writer in the RPG industry. Once you’ve got a few published projects under your belt, this is the rate you can reasonably expect.


.05 per word

This is a top rate – and often the most that many publishers can reasonably afford. Top writers in their field, skilled authors, or those with tons of experience in the gaming industry command these rates. It generally takes steady work for a publisher (and remember that a professional writer turns in quality work ON TIME!) for roughly a year (or half-a-dozen individual projects, if basing it on number of books rather than time) before you can expect to get this kind of rate.


.06 per word or higher

This is a top rate; only extremely well-known designers and writers can command these rates. Alternatively, it means you’re writing for a extremely well-established or successful company. I would generally expect to see rates like these only from top-tier publishers like WOTC and Paizo.


Credits & Comp Copies

Sometimes the answer is “throw money at it.”

No one should ever write for RPGs with the goal of getting rich – but there are two other benefits that come with writing for the RPG industry. The first is your name in the credits (depending on your involvement) as a writer, designer, or developer. Credits are very important in this industry, as you will often find your expertise, abilities, and professionalism are going to be weighed due to your accomplishments. Therefore, it is very important to get your name spelled correctly and receive the correct attribution for your work in the credits of any project you work on. If you find out later that your name was misspelled, left out, or given the wrong attribution, it is important for you to contact the publisher and attempt to get the mistake corrected as soon as possible (hopefully to be present in a second printing, if there is one).

When it comes to complimentary copies of the project, there’s a good reason why these are important rewards for freelancers. Just having the physical copy of the project on your shelf can provide a great sense of accomplishment; having an extra copy to send to a family member only makes that sense greater. It’s just cool to have a copy of your own book as a reward for your work. Again, I feel this is an underrated feature of many work-for-hire contracts in the industry, and I’d like to encourage more publishers to take it more seriously.

8 responses to “Professionalism in Gaming – Getting Paid

  1. As well other neat tips for earning pay and perhaps obtaining more work is to offer a compromise on the job.
    Something I had done with a few freelance jobs in multimedia at least, was to offer a 50% discount IF they were able to get me another project to work on of at least equal value, or assign me a new project of their own.
    Generally you can sneak in a higher pay for this as they will work more towards getting that discount.
    If they can’t, you win either way! Option 1 nets you more work to continue on and get paid. Option 2 gets you a little more cash for the work.

    Over all definitely a nice read and helpful I’d say for those who are trying to get into the industry!

  2. Listen to Ross, he knows what he’s talking about 🙂

  3. Great blog – I know when I was answering the general mails for FFG, I got tons of ‘How do I get to be a game designer’ questions – getting paid is a pretty key aspect of this!

  4. thank you – rates dont seem to have risen much since late 80s? vague remembrances of dragon guidelines i got in late 80s

    ive met ppl who see as gateway to computer industry and other writing

  5. Well said, my friend, very well said.

  6. Hi Ross,
    A great blog. It echoed a lot of my thoughts but, more importantly, gave me new thoughts on my own approach. I run the RPG Brain Trust page on Facebook which is a page open only to designers, writers, artists, distributors, and anyone involved in the RPG industry and is where we can talk ‘shop’.

    I’d be honoured if you’d consider joining:
    It’s not really a place to plug your wares but it’s a great place to get thoughts on your plans and products. I’d also like to add your blog as a link.

    This invitation is also open to those who read this blog who are also involved in the industry.


    Steff. Worthington

    Owner at Stygian Fox Publishing.

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