Idealist Game Designer

Last November, Neoncon introduced a series of presentations from tabletop gaming industry insiders called GamesU. Luminaries like Eric Mona, Ed Healy, and John Wick gave seminars during the convention for the series. I think Neoncon did a great job executing GamesU and I especially enjoyed being able to stream a couple of the presentations live.

Now, Neoncon is editing the presentations and placing them on their YouTube channel. The first video they released was the keynote by Eric Mona on the topic of Pen & Paper Games in the 21st Century. I obviously have a large interest in how roleplaying games will evolve in the next decade, but this article is to address the latest video released from GamesU, Marcelo Figueroa’s Live the Dream: Building a Career in the Games Industry, which is presented below:

If you’re not willing to watch the entire presentation, let me tell you what I took away from it. Marcelo basically argues a couple of points. First, people who are not willing to make games their career need to quit. Because the industry, the games, and the gamers do not want non-career people. The other point he tries to make is that idealist game designers are incapable of being savvy business people. So, according to Marcelo, if you want to be in games you need to make it your career and you need to be what he calls a realist.

I really don’t want to take the time to dismantle everything he said, and I do think viewers can take away some useful information (but more of a general, common sense type of useful). Interestingly, I’m going to use evidence he actually tried to use to support his own arguments.

Non-Career Orientated Need Not Apply

About 9 minutes and 20 seconds into his presentation, after unloading the salesman’s spiel about how it’s all about the mighty dollar (which he admits that you can’t find a lot of it in the industry), Marcelo makes this statement:

“Idealists. Honestly, truly… from a completely industry side of the perspective on this, Idealists should just go home.”

He also makes a statement about how only business people and professionals who want to improve the environment of the industry should stick around.

So let me break this down. There’s not a lot of money to be made in games, but the industry craves business people. So what kind of business people are going to risk investing their time and money in games? Well, I propose that there are two kinds: diehard fans (with minds for business, but unmalleable expectations about games) and shitty business people who can’t make it in better paying industries. Maybe that’s why the industry keeps shrinking…

Idealists Will Not Make It

Marcelo mentions Peter Adkison and Richard Garfield, who were both part-time game designers with “day jobs” before Magic: the Gathering exploded. According to Marcelo, during that idealist non-career time of their lives, they should have quit. Curse those idealists, Arneson and Gygax, for even launching the roleplaying games industry!

Idealists are going to be the ones to reinvent the industry with new games, new delivery methods, and new somethings we cannot anticipate. I feel like the “realists” he is touting are fools that contributed to the d20 glut (because that’s what was selling). The guys that will drive the industry into the ground because they’re only concerned about the bottom line and not innovation.

Have Realistic Expectations

Marcelo does backtrack near the end and says not leave your day job before you’re financially ready. Which for those of us with mortgages, families, and other bills means we’re most likely not going to ever be at that point. The one good point he does make is to be realistic. It’s rare that anyone in the industry is going to get rich. If you do start a business, be smart about it and make savvy business decisions.

Marcelo may have been exaggerating his argument to scare and intimidate the unwary, but I totally disagree that you need to be in the industry to make money. That sort of corporate bullshit irritates the hell out me. I think you need to be industry to make great games. The money will follow if you can do that (and market it decently).

Suggested Reading

I’ve been reading Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics and Reinventing Comics, which are comic books about comic books. He is, in my opinion, a freakin’ genius. I can see a lot of his approaches to the study of sequential art and his insights on that industry that could be applied to the tabletop gaming industry. Scott’s an idealist too…

Listening to: Black Label Society – Shot to Hell – Concrete Jungle

28 thoughts on “Idealist Game Designer

  1. Everyone in the game business has his or her idea of what you “should” or “should not” do. My thought is that if you have a game idea that “just won’t go away” then go for it. But to have a reasonable chance at success, any new game business should have two people involved. One who loves games and designing games, and one who loves all the mind numbing routine involved in running a business. If you *don’t* love doing that, you really need to have a partner who does. Otherwise you’ll be wasting a lot of your valuable and fun “game design” time dealing with the aftermath of paperwork that didn’t get done, etc. Best advice: don’t get into the business without doing a lot of research first. A good start is Steve Cole’s online description of how (not) to start a game business. Do a google search for “steve cole game business”.

  2. Translation: “Me and my pals are entitled to our careers and you moonlighters are screwing things up for us because the industry’s too small and goofy to accommodate you as competitors. We want our jobs, darn it!”

    Seriously? You can’t out compete a bunch of part-timers? Um, who’s doing it wrong and should go home, exactly?
    .-= Matt´s last blog ..Eric Mona talks RPGs, marketing and more =-.

  3. @Stuart & Snarls-at-Fleas: This line of think is definitely not specific to the tabletop gaming industry. I think the same underlying thoughts about status quo are also coming to a head in (like Snarls said) video games and also the book industry (just look at the varied opinions of self publishing, or vanity publishing). I also think there are some parallels from comic book industry… some a lot of people have yet to realize (for instance, it would be interesting to see Creator Rights through the lens of the gaming industry, but that’s another debate…).

    @JollyRB: Glad to share and thanks for commenting!

    @MattB & Walkerp: Marcelo is actually a well known personality in the greater tabletop gaming world. Primarily because his work with distribution and sales.

    @Rick Loomis & PlayingitCool: I totally agree with what you’re saying (and what Marcelo said about needing a business savvy person). There is definitely a role for the business-orientated to play and an important role at that (marketing & logistics are sort of fundamental).

    But I think innovation and creativity is stifled (which results in crappy or more-of-the-same games) when you approach design through the perspective of money being the most important thing. Which is what I take away from Marcelo’s talk; he says nothing of needing great games first in order to make that money. And financial success may not be the number one priority for many people… which is why doing it part time is appealing.

    @Stargazer: You echo my sentiments exactly. That corporate mindset really boils my blood.

    @Matt: I think you can definitely read that between the lines and I think a lot of industries don’t know how to respond with how modern technology has allowed those that exist outside of the industry to bypass their network and infrastructure. Reminds me of the Open Source vs. Proprietary and the Big Publisher vs Self-Publishing debates.

  4. Multiple-tier distribution will soon be a thing of the past, lest the remnants of an ancient autocracy attempt to hold on to the last decaying bits. The internet makes such a system superfluous. Let the hobby gamer produce a game and give it away or sell it at a pittance to everyone who can use the internet. Sell it on PoD sites. The times are changing, and some people can never accept it.
    .-= Orion Cooper´s last blog ..Gary Gygax =-.

  5. Dude, great video! Thanks for sharing… excellent primer to get focused before heading out to MEGACON this weekend.
    .-= PlayinitCool´s last blog ..Group Affiliation – #EliteArtists =-.

  6. Based on the quality and organization of the presentation, I think that you’re taking some of his individual statements too seriously. As you said, several times Marcelo returns to earlier topics and qualifies his previous statements.

    I took this presentation as a pep talk (or whatever’s the opposite of a pep talk). The basic message: “If you treat it like a hobby, you shouldn’t expect a successful business.” That means:

    – Know your personal goals. What is it you really want to accomplish?

    – Research the industry. It has it’s own peculiar standards, practices, traditions, and culture.

    – Be realistic in your expectations.

    – You may hit it big, but again, don’t expect it.

    – Game design gets all the attention, but there are a lot of other important jobs in the games industry.

    – Be willing to start at the bottom and work your way up.

    – As a hobby, you can do what you want. But as a business, it’s not about the games you want to design or sell, it’s about the games that customers want to buy.

    – True professional game inventors design games to order, rather than focusing on what they enjoy playing.

    All of this may be obvious to you and me, but it isn’t to everyone. He could probably give the same exact talk for 20 years, and every year there would be a new crop of idealistic young game inventors in need of a healthy dose of realism.
    .-= David´s last blog ..Heroscape Primer =-.

  7. HA! just got to reading your post around it, and your perspective on what was said.

    What I took away from it was this…
    Everything is about balance. All business needs people from both ends of the spectrum. The things he has to say need to be heard by idealists that want to be successful. Obviously they can’t just quit because the dude tells them to, but it helps prep them for reality. I look at this as more of a pep talk to get the creatives in gear to accomplish their goals.

    On the other hand, he would be nowhere without the idealist… we all have a different role to play, and it always helps to stop and listen to the other side for a minute.

    Again, thanks for the post!

    .-= PlayinitCool´s last blog ..Group Affiliation – #EliteArtists =-.

  8. @Joshua & Orion Cooper: Yeah, I think that the industry doesn’t really know how to take advantage of the way technology allows the game designer to reach his audience. Many are still thinking like it’s the 80s.

    @David: I wanted to take it as an “eye opener” (sort of not a pep talk), but some of his statements rub me the wrong way. As if his real sentiment is that he truly would just rather have everyone else gone, instead of honestly trying to give a realistic perspective to the idealistic game inventors who need a dose of realism. Either way, I think the presentation was not very useful. If it had been about expectations in the context of career orientation, instead of pro vs. amateur, it would have been far better.

  9. Of course some of the guys trying to make their living at it don’t want competition from folks who are willing to give it away, or make a pittance at it because it’s just a hobby for them. What they lack is any reason the amateurs and consumers ought to go along with them just so they don’t have to get a real job. If it were true that the gamers don’t want non-career people, he wouldn’t have to be telling anybody to give it up. The ones that honestly believe they’re providing a more desirable product than the amateurs don’t fear competition; it’s the hacks that have to sweat.
    .-= Joshua´s last blog ..Stonehell: the Joys of Megadungeons =-.

  10. You may be right about his true feelings. Perhaps I was looking for useful content.

    If I were giving a presentation with the goal of promoting realistic expectations and separating the truly dedicated from the idealistic and misinformed, I’d focus on all the real life details. Point out the differences between designers, inventors, developers, managers, marketers, salesmen, production managers, etc. I’d present some realistic numbers, such as the investment required to print a run of books. I’d explain distribution. I’d talk about the time and expense of attending conventions. I’d also talk about the prospects of working for others. Etc.

    This way, the idealistic people in the audience might come to realize themselves what they’re up against.
    .-= David´s last blog ..Heroscape Primer =-.

  11. Those of you wondering who Marcello is may want to look here.

    I also think we aren’t making the best of technology. Equally, yes you need to research and accept some lines of enquiry won’t make you the next Gary Gygax. Yet every time I hear someone making ‘idealists suck’ noises I also get the hackles rising. It’s not like we’ve ever seen disruptive innovation before is it? 🙂
    .-= satyre´s last blog ..recession-proof gaming VII – mission to game =-.

  12. @Satyre: Thanks for that link.

    @Louis Porter, Jr.: People who follow his mindset come off feeling exactly like a used car salesman. Sure, they’ll sell a ton of crap to the unweary, but then everyone finds out he’s scammer and he moves on to “work” over a new crowd. It’s not always about the money.

  13. @Greylond: Satyre, about 4 posts up, links to a site with more information. Here is also a list of works from the Pen & Paper DB. He has credits on the 7th Sea RPG.

    This discussion isn’t meant to be a personal attack, just a rebuttal of this specific presentation. So I don’t want to take anything away from his contributions to the world of gaming.

    As a side note, it appears this article spun off and generated some comments on the Kenzer Company forums if anyone wants to take a gander there.

  14. My point is that there are many, many, quality and Award Winning games writing by game designers who hold “Day Jobs”. I’d much rather have a slower production, yet very good game than a bunch of mediocre games being put out the door just so a company has product to sale.

  15. Great conversation and debate. It is good to see such passion about game design. As the creator of GamesU, it lets me know that we are accomplishing our goal of sparking conversation about the games industry. With that said, I think I can offer some perspective on Marcelo’s presentation.

    Before and after GamesU, Marcelo and I have had lots of conversations about the realities of balancing a passion for gaming and the desire to make a career within the hobby. Based on this experience, I can say with confidence that Marcelo is not anti-independent game design. The point of his presentation is not to bash the creative spirits who are innovating outside of the larger game companies. To the contrary, Marcelo is a strong advocate of the start-up game company.

    At GenCon 2009, I watched Marcelo walk around with two wet-behind-the-ears game designers and introduce them to people like Peter Adkison and other folks who would be important contacts for helping launch their games. He did this because he loves gaming and wants to see fresh new voices and ideas come into the industry.

    Some have characterized his GamesU presentation as a rant against the indie games movement and I know that he was concerned that it would be misunderstood in that way. That is not the case. Rather, it is a very strong statement that the game industry needs independent game designers and studios to be realistic and business-oriented so the entire industry needs good products and good business models to succeed. It is important for the ongoing health of the industry. That was his point … not pick up your tin soldiers and go home.

    So, he is not anti-dreamer … far from it. He just wants dreamers to put their feet on the ground so they can be successful. He is not against part-time, “garage” game studios either. He uses the sample of how Peter Adkison launched Wizards of the Coast to support the value of that sort of measured launch.

    Now, he certainly made that point with passion, but that is Marcelo. His passion for games is every bit as real as that of everyone posting here. Go back and listen to the story he told about his Dad throwing his games in the trash when he was a teen. His Dad threw down the gauntlet to him … “make your passion your career”. All he is doing is issuing that challenge to you as well.

    With that said, I’ll pass on this link to Marcelo and we’ll see if he jumps into the discussion.


    Doug Daulton
    Executive Director
    Neoncon & GamesU

    PS: If anyone is interested at presenting at GamesU 2010, shoot me an email at and let’s talk. Clearly, there are a lot of smart people here!
    .-= Doug Daulton´s last blog ..Building a Career in the Games Industry =-.

  16. @Doug Daulton: I appreciate that you took some time to comment here and appreciate the effort you put toward GamesU and Neoncon (need to find room in my budget/schedule to fly out there soon).

    I think I realize what he was trying to say, but it just didn’t get interpreted that way by me. Which may prove beneficial anyways as it generated conversation on the topic. If I was to speculate at the motivation behind some of what he said, I would propose he wanted to splash some cold water in the face of the dreamers who haven’t grounded their expectations in reality.

    That’s fine and needed.

    But I’m proposing that you don’t have to even have financial success or widespread adoption as a goal to begin with. I also propose that the being an idealist/dreamer and being a good business person does not have to be mutually exclusive (though this often appears to be the case in the creative industries).

    I think that maybe his passion for the financial success aspect of the industry (and I may have a more lose definition of industry than Marcelo), destroyed the intent of the presentation. That cold splash of reality. Unfortunately, it came off as a sort of misguided rant, and I can just imagine how all the non-living-in-parent’s-basement-roleplayers who bathe regularly would respond to his comment about the demographics of RPGs.

    It’s easy to get carried away about things you’re passionate about; I have been guilty of that too (and no doubt will be many times in the future).

  17. @MadBrew – First, thanks for the props about Neoncon & GamesU. We try to put together a fun AND useful show each year. We’ll always have a seat for you when you find the time to come in! 😀

    As for the rest of my response … it turned into something more detailed and elaborate than I planned. So, I decided to turn it into a blog post rather than clogging up your comment thread. For those interested, you can find it here:

    I am happy to continue the conversation here if you like, I simply did not want to hijack your thread here with a ginormous post.
    .-= Doug Daulton´s last blog ..Building a Career in the Games Industry =-.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.