Advice for women looking to get into game design: Part 1

[ETA: Part 2 is now up! You can find it here! Part 3 is here.]

Before we get started

Lately, the issue of women and minorities in game design and development has been a topic of conversation in indie tabletop circles. I recently wrote about the dustup that happened over the level of female representation on D&D’s core design team. Since then, several interesting data points have been added, such that I think it’s worth taking a look at here.

So I’m going to write a 2-part series here about getting started as a woman in indie publishing. Some of what appears here will be “recycled” content, in that it’s repurposed from a Google+ post that I made several months ago. Most of it, however, will be “original” content that has not previously been pulled from my brain meats.

Part 1 is going to handle what I’m calling “thinky stuff” – pros and cons of publishing your own content, as well as common cognitive pitfalls that women face in game publishing.

Part 2 is going to deal in more practical matters. I’ll talk about my experiences as a self-publisher: how I got started, what goes into making a finished game, and the many different avenues available to self-publishers.

So now that I’ve laid that out, let’s get started.

1) The pros and cons of self-publishing

Most of the time when people talk about “breaking into the industry as a game designer”, what they mean is “getting a freelancing gig for one of the ‘mainstream’ publishing companies[1]”. But if that is all that you think of when you think of “breaking in”, then let me tell you YOU ARE SELLING YOURSELF SHORT.

Not to get all “get off my lawn” on folks here, but it has never been easier to self-publish games than it is right now. There are so many tools now that allow people to self-publish exciting and polished games that just plain didn’t exist when I started dabbling in self-publishing nearly seven years ago. It is absolutely possible for a one-person operation (like yours truly) to make and publish games that people want to buy.

There’s also the issue of economics. Simon Rogers of Pelgrane Press wrote this fantastic look at the economics of publishing from the standpoint of one of the “big dogs”, and it’s a great look at why freelance writing is not well paid, and why it’s not ever going to be well paid in the current market. The fact of the matter is that very often, a tiny self-publisher with a tiny audience can shoestring a game of their own and still make more money than they’d make freelancing for one of the big companies.

As a new writer in the industry, you can expect to make between 2-3 cents per word. That’s it. But as a self-publisher? You get all the profit, minus only expenses related to distribution, which adds up much more quickly.

Real-world example:

The work that I did for V20: Dark Ages was at a contracted rate of 3 cents per word. 3 cents per word times several thousand words means that my final fee was several hundred dollars.

Contrast that with SexyTime Adventures: the RPG, my stupid satirical dungeon-running not-even-a-standalone-hack of Dungeon World that’s mostly an exercise in mocking bad fantasy cheesecake art. I shoe-stringed producing it and it wound up costing me $35 total. To date, it has earned me more money than the work I did on V20: Dark Ages[3].

More importantly, I own the rights to all of it. My work on V20: Dark Ages was done work-for-hire, which means I don’t own any of the work that I did on that project.

Now all of that said, there are some cons to self-publishing. I’m not going to pretend that it’s all giggles and unicorns! Because there are distinctly unfun parts to self-publishing too. So I’m going to do a good old-fashioned pro-con list here:

Self-publishing pros Self-publishing cons
You own 100% of your work Self-promotion and publishing are time-consuming
You don’t have to wait to get paid KickStarters are NOT for the faint of heart (or the weak of organizational skills)
You don’t have to worry about getting screwed out of a comp copy, or about an employer just not paying you for your work – all of which are very real risks Building an audience is something that takes hard work over time. There is no substitute for this. None.
The profit margins are much, MUCH larger Finishing a draft is just the beginning of the process
You are in control of the creative process You’ll need to find a trustworthy, competent editor. Getting your edits will never be fun, or your editor isn’t doing the job right.
There are no rules for what self-publishing HAS to look like. How much time and effort you put into publishing is up to you Organizing playtests sucks. Seriously, it’s just the worst. (Except KickStarters.)
There are many alternative funding models and storefront options for people not willing/able to get into the logistics of dead tree books

Personally, I would LOVE to see many more people start self-publishing their own stuff. Tell that voice in your head that’s blasting the litany of reasons why it wouldn’t work to STFU. (It’s lying, but we’re going to come back to that in part #2.) I’m obviously pretty biased, but as someone who has experience with both ends of this? Self-publishing is by far my preferred method of game-writing. BY. FAR.

In the end, you have to do the calculus of what makes sense for you. But don’t let the Myth of the Game Designer fool you into thinking that you’re not “good enough” or “popular enough” or “talented enough” to publish your own content. And don’t EVER let yourself fall into the trap of thinking that you have to do freelance writing for “exposure” or to “gain experience”. Because here’s the deal.

As a freelancer, YOU ARE PROVIDING A SERVICE THAT HAS WORTH, or else they wouldn’t be paying you for it! The game companies are NOT in this to help you, the lowly freelancer. They are in this to MAKE MONEY, pure and simple. Working for “exposure” is an endless, useless trap so DON’T DO IT.

2) Self-publishing: common cognitive pitfalls[2]

[This is directed pretty much exclusively at women (misandry!), and is all taken from things I have berated myself for at some point or another.]

You have imposter syndrome, and it is lying to you.

Granted, it’s true that I know lots of male designers and writers with imposter syndrome. But it’s worse for women, because we have the double whammy of starting out a new craft in a hobby that tells women we don’t belong here.

You will feel like you have nothing to contribute, that you have no business calling yourself a game designer. That’s bullshit. Tell your brain the shut the fuck up and keep designing. (You may not ever get rid of that voice, but I promise it gets easier to tell it to STFU with practice.)

Write the game that you want to write

Making games is work and you have to really be excited about a project to see it through from start to finish. Don’t discard a game idea because you think no one will be interested or want to play it. Make it anyway and put it out there. You may be surprised! Hell, I’m still surprised that ANYONE actually bought SexyTime Adventures, let alone played it. But it happened! And I almost didn’t publish it, because I thought no one would be interested but me.

This goes double if you want to write a game about something stereotypically “girly”. You want to write a game about saving kittens? DO IT. A game about teenage girl angst? ROCK. A game about shoujo magical girl anime? OMFG DOOO IIIITTTT.


You do you. It’s okay to design for a niche audience.

Only writing hacks doesn’t mean you’re not a “real” game designer

It took me years to call myself a game designer because I can’t write original systems for shit. But I’ve learned that I’m really good at taking a system that does 75% of what I want it to do and Frankensteining it into doing a particular thing it didn’t do before. That’s game design!

Did you make a game? Then you are, grammatically, a game designer. Own that label.

Not being able to get outside groups to run playtests does not mean that no one will want to play your game

Seriously. It doesn’t mean that you suck, or your game sucks. It means there are too many games and too little time to play them in. It’s okay. Find some friends to play your game with you. It’ll be okay.

Keep your eyes on your own work

I still sometimes beat myself up that I’m not as prolific as Designer X or I’m not as popular as Designer Y. And it’s stupid and pointless. Be the best designer YOU can be.

Perfect is the mortal enemy of good enough

There is a difference between perfect and polished. Your game will never be perfect. Is it good enough? Good. Shove it out the door and move on.

You do not need a middleman. REPEAT. YOU DO NOT NEED A MIDDLEMAN.

Self-publishing is a thing that you are allowed to do. Yes, you with your no previously published games. Yes you with your lack of budget for a professional illustrator. Polish your game to the best of your capacity and put it out there. You do NOT need to shop around for “established” publishers to publish your work before you can call yourself a “real” designer.

That said, self-publishing is work! And maybe you don’t want to do that extra work, and that’s okay. But be upfront with yourself about your reasons – if it’s about validation, then re-consider. Because the economics of freelancing means that even self-publishers with tiny audiences (like me) can often make more money by publishing their own work.

Find a community of designers who you can talk about design with

I’ve learned A LOT about game design from talking with other designers and watching their process. Similarly, I find that talking about my in-process design thoughts helps me refine my ideas. Google+ is a GREAT place for that, because Circles and robust blocking tools make it easy to aggressively curate a discussion space you find productive.

You do not require the validation of assholes

That’s so important I’m going to say that again.


It’s a sad reality of the gaming community that there are assholes, and as a woman you WILL encounter them. Sometimes, it may be someone you’ve heard about, someone who you think of as a Big Name. It can be really hard when that happens to remember that your worth as a designer is NOT contingent on their approval.

Say that the absolute worst case happens and they try to blacklist you. Remember that your audience is NOT 100% of gamers. Your audience is people who like and appreciate your games. And contrary to what they think, Big Name Assholes don’t really have as much power to affect your game sales as they think they do. People who would listen to a Big Name Asshole calling for a boycott of your work? Aren’t sales you should care about losing.


Remember to have fun

You’re making GAMES after all! Have fun! Even if I hadn’t sold a single copy of SexyTime Adventures, I would still consider it a success, because I giggled to myself the entire time I was writing it. Make games that you have fun making.

[1] Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Pelgrane Press, Evil Hat, Green Ronin, Onyx Path, etc etc

[2] This section was originally written as a Google+ post, which you can find here.

[3] Full disclosure: that’s not factoring in the 30% pay bump that was one of the KickStarter stretch goals. By that metric, it falls just short.

6 thoughts on “Advice for women looking to get into game design: Part 1

  1. Very awesome-sauce post, and excellent advice/insight for ANY would-be self-publisher, not just “the ladies.” I wish I could add something (as a self-publisher myself), but you really have covered anything I might have said.

  2. Thanks for writing this! I’ve been stressing about this a lot recently and you said it way better than I could.

    Something you mention, but I want to emphasize, is that _almost no one does this alone_. It’s totally okay to lean on other publishers for help organizing, playtesting, finding artists and editors, and so on. We help each other out. It’s what we do.

    I’ve seen women (men, too, but more women) feel like they could “really” be an independent designer because they couldn’t handle everything on their own. Nothing could be further from the truth. If you have questions, and you will, ask your community. If you don’t have a community, come borrow ours. (I’m Ben Lehman on G+ and taogames at gmail for e-mail.)


    • I’ve been stewing over it for a while, what with all the diversity all-calls out there, and I’ve been like. Man. I hope women know that this isn’t their ONLY option, right? Because jeez. Freelancing can be fun, sometimes. But it’s sure as hell not profitable.

      And yes! That is an awesome point about not going it alone, and one I will make sure to cover in Part 2 with all the practical, “here’s how the sausage gets made” stuff.

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