Making a Living #1

This week I was contacted by an aspiring game designer. He had seen a comment of mine on twitter where I said that I made my living writing for role-playing games.

I could have answered his questions by email, but I thought it would possibly be more useful to do it publicly , in case other people are interested.

As far as I am concerned, I am not competing against another other publisher. People do not buy one game and stick with it forever, except D&D in which case they are of less interest to indie game designers anyway.

This attitude means that it doesn’t hurt me in any way to help other people be successful. Quite the contrary, the more happy and successful people in the world , the stronger the games market will be. Poor, sad people do not by many games! I want more rich happy wealthy people in the world.

Here are the first three questions I was asked. I am going to answer the first two today. The third one next time.

1- How do you build an audience among so many other creators? How do you keep yourself relevant enough as to have game design as your full-time job?

2- What’s your take on the different models of income, such as Patreon, itch, releasing free content, focusing on smaller projects or bigger ones?

3- How do you manage to keep productive and consistent on releasing new content? Do you set goals for yourself, or do you manage your time and production some other way?

Building An Audience

This depends on what you want to create. If you want to create a full game and build your career around selling hundreds of thousands of copies of that game and then supplements to that game, I am not the person to ask. If I want that sort of advice, I would ask Daniel D Fox. He has pretty much answered that question several times in his twitter threads.

We have a saying in the UK, if you want to become a millionaire, don’t ask an unemployed bloke in the pub.

Daniel has built up Zweihander and navigated these waters successfully, I haven’t.

What I have done is build up a business that creates game books and supplements mainly supporting other successful games; and then created the games I wanted to play purely for the joy of creating. When I have released a game there is no pressure for it to succeed or fail, it is what it is and every paid sale is a moment of joy. I don’t need them to be ‘successful’ by anyone else’s measure. If I get some positive feedback, a good review or a nice email, that makes my life a little bit happier. My full games, 3Deep, Devil’s Staircase: Wild West, Navigator RPG and the soon to be released Things Grown Ups Cannot See are vanity projects and made for the fun of making.

What I make my money from is supplements.

Firstly, I only write for games I play and like. If it isn’t fun then you could not do this. When I started I wrote all kinds of things just to find out what I enjoyed making, what I had the skills to make and what would sell. I tried to make each thing slightly bigger and better than the things that went before it.

There are two ways that work for building an audience if you are writing for other people’s games.

  1. If you write for a game with a Community Content Program, they gift you a ready made audience. This is the basic premise of the CCP. They have the audience and the materials you need to produce a decent looking supplement. You have to have the ideas and then write it up.

There are problems with CCPs. They tend to have a short life. We see a lot spring up, they get really good sales and gather lots of content and then the energy goes out of them. If you supplement is not one of the hottest ten titles then you are unlikely to get much in the way of sales or exposure.

The second problem is that people who buy your books from a CCP are not your customers. They are a customer of the CCP owner. What this means is that when they are offered the chance to receive emails from the publisher, that will not be you. That may sound like a small thing, but it is actually really important.

One way to building your audience is through your email list. When you work through CCP storefronts you are building up someone else’s email list.

CCPs give you an instance source of income because they have the audience, but it is harder to capitalise on the exposure you get from them.

There are many games that are friendly to Third Party Publishers, which is what I am. These games either have a compatibility licence, such as Mothership RPG, or are published under the Open Game License [OGL] or a Creative Commons License.

If you publish as a Third Party Publisher [3PP] you have to try and get your own audience. Your adventure is competing for attention against official adventures, and so on. The advantages are that you will get a bigger royalty via OneBookShelf, anyone who buys from you is your customer and you have more creative freedom.

The downside is that you are not competing in a small specialist storefront, you are in a much larger free for all of the general listings.


The most important thing is to build that email list.

DriveThruRPG is not set up to promote free content. They don’t make any money from it, but it costs them money in the form of hosting and bandwidth. Most of the hottest product lists use sales velocity as the ranking factor. If your title is not making any money, it will not rank.

A free product will appear in the new releases and the lastest new and PWYW for a few hours to a few days, depending on how busy the site is, and then disappear into oblivion.

You will get downloads of your product, but chances are that they will be people who don’t want to spend money, ie. not very useful customers.

One sale of a $4.99 booklet is worth more than ten thousand free downloads.

The DriveThruRPG homepage is the prime storefront. almost all of the carousels of products are ranked by the value of sales recently. That instantly filters out the free, and most PWYW titles. If you make a single sale, your booklet will hang about on that storefront for longer. The longer it is on the storefront the more chance of making that second sale.

It is possible to create a virtuous circle. I have three titles in the Most Popular under $5 and the same three titles in Hottest Small Press. Because I am getting double exposure on the home page, they are picking up sales. Every time I sell something there is about a 60% chance that that person will choose to accept emails from me.

This gives you two tools you can use.

If, before you publish your first thing, you have a plan and get several items in production and near completion, you can release items weekly or nearly weekly. This gives you near constant visibility.

As you start to make sales, you will build your email list. You can then use that to tell everyone who has agreed to be contacted about your new release. This will encourage them to buy more of your products, which will keep you on the home page longer, and that will encourage more people to buy. That is the virtuous circle.

It takes the acceptance that your first year’s worth of books could earn you very little.

But, you can maximise that.

If you sell your titles for $0.99, thinking that people will buy your books because they are cheap, you are training your customers to expect more cheap books in the future. If you want to offer a loyalty discount to existing customers, which I do, a 40% discount is just 40¢. This causes two problems. You are asking people to get their credit card out for a mere $0.59, which can seem a lot of trouble for a tiny sum, and a saving of 40¢ is hardly worth having.

You do not get all the money from a sale of a book. DriveThru take 30%-35%. I will assume 30% for this bit.

If you wanted to make $500 from a book at $0.99 per copy. You would need to sell 721 copies. That is 721 people who need to trust you as a new and unknown writer.

If you wanted to make $500 from a book at $4.99 per copy. You would need to sell 144 copies. That is 144 people who need to trust you as a new and unknown writer. It is much easier to find 144 people to take a chance, that it is to find 721.

You are not going to sell 700 or even 100 copies of your first book. About 50% of all books released on DriveThru never sell more than 50 copies.

But if you sold 50 and that gave you 30 emails to reach out to, the chances of your second title selling equally or better is slightly higher. Repeat that in week three and you have a slightly bigger list again and more chance of making a few more sales.

Keep putting that effort in for a year and you will have a chance of having a decent sized list and that list having a positive impact on your sales.

I have been doing this since 2016, the first year I made a lot of mistakes, just learning how to do this.

In June 2020, I sold 1200 books.

Part of the question was large projects or small projects. I am an advocate of the small project. It is impossible to finish a book a week if they are 500 page rulebooks.

A 50 page supplement, is 10 pages a day. That is easy to write, proof and edit. You can have a couple on the go at once, write it, put it away then look at it afresh later. I tend to hope around in different genres. My GURPS book was modern day, Maze Rat was fantasy, I have done Anime and sci fi in the past month. By changing it up, it keeps it fresh.

Right now I am thinking about 1950s Hollywood Pulp sci fi, Forbidden Lands which is classic fantasy and Pony Finder which is anthropomorphic horse adventures.

Another advantage of smaller projects is that you are more likely to finish them. All the time a book is sat on your computer and not published, it will earn you nothing.

Another advantage again, is back catalogue. If you have one book to sell, your customers can buy a total of one book. If you have three books to sell, if someone likes your work they could buy one and then come back and buy the other two. If you have 50 books to sell you could sell up to 50 books.

A friend who also writes supplements, Azukail Games, the other day made 140 sales in a day. Last week I took a break for my evening meal. When I looked at my computer, I had made 37 sales in a single order.

If your ultimate goal is to write your own games, having that mailing list of thousands of email addresses, my list after 4 years is 3,127 emails. You could write the best game in the world and if no one knows it exists, you will sell none of them.

Patreon & Itch

I know a few people with Patreons and none of them make much money from it. I think the best I have seen is something like $700/month. There are some fantastically talented people, such as Dyson Logos who can make it work for them, but they are few and far between.

I am on Itch, but I am just getting started. I am also too busy to give it the attention it requires. I am in the position of I cannot afford to put the effort in, so I am not getting much reward out.

If I were starting again, I would start with a non-exclusive DriveThruRPG account and put everything I can on DriveThru, Itch, Lulu and Amazon. That only scratches the surface of potential storefronts you could use.

If you have everything, everywhere you are much more resilient to one website being down for maintenance or if they have server problems.

Last year DriveThruRPG was horribly broken for nearly a week. It caused a lot of people a lot of problems.

You must be as diversified as you can be.

You will also notice that at the bottom of nearly every article on this blog, there is an option to join my contact list. The mailing list provided by DriveThru is a sealed box. You can email people, but you never get to see their addresses. You cannot take that list away with you.

To make me more independent, I am building my own list, that has nothing to do with DriveThru. To make it worth joining I offer my blog readers a 40% discount on all new releases. My regular DriveThru mailing list subscribers get a 25% discount. So there is a real benefit to being a member.

I think this is enough for today!

I will continue to answer these in follow on blogs.

If anyone else reads this and want to get involved in writing for RPGs, or art for games or whatever, just ak me questions and I will do my best to answer them!

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