Time Cost of Game Design

Some recent conversations online have me thinking about the time cost of game design. Most designers do not make a living with game design. It is sometimes a secondary income and many times a hobby that costs money. These are all perfectly valid ways to go about game design. But I started wondering what it would take to make a reasonable wage just designing games. 

Keep in mind I don’t have detailed knowledge of board game sales figures and this is all based on very rough estimates.

As an example let’s look at the work I’ve done on Plutocracy. Which is reaching white whale status and from a financial perspective should probably be abandoned.

I had 3 play tests a month at 90 minutes each for 2 years = 108 hours.

Say a conservative estimate of 3 hours a week of design and prototype work = 312 hours.

That’s 420 hours of work. At a part time pay of $15/hr = $6,300.

At a 5% royalty I would need $126,000 worth of the game to sell wholesale. Say it wholesales for $25. That’s 5,040 copies sold. From what I’ve heard that is a pretty successful game.

This doesn’t factor in additional costs of materials, travel, lodging, conventions, etc. And $15/hr isn’t nearly what I make from my full time job.

So this model clearly doesn’t work. Something about this would have to change to make financial sense. The royalty and sale prices are unlikely to be changed by an individual. Selling more copies is largely the luck of getting a big hit or evergreen title. So the thing that needs to change is the investment of time and money.

Let’s work backwards. If we estimate 3,000 sales at $25, we get $75,000 in sales. That brings our 5% royalty to $3,750. Let’s estimate $1000 for materials, travel, conventions, etc. We have $2,750 left. Living in Massachusetts is expensive, so lets take $25/hr. That gives us 110 hours we can invest in the game design. Working 4 hours a week gives us 27.5 weeks. Or roughly 6 months. So I need to design and successfully pitch 2 mid-weight games a year that sell moderately well. Now that’s just to make a decent hourly wage spending 4 hours a week.

If I want to go full time I’ll need to do 40 hours a week. So 10 times what we calculated, which means I need to design and successfully pitch 20 mid-weight games a year that sell moderately well. I might be able to save some money on travel and convention expenses by working on multiple games at each, but the games would probably compete against each other in the market to negate any of those gains anyway.

I guess this is why there are so few full-time game designers.

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