One Year In

So, it’s been a bit over a year since I left Fantasy Flight Games to become a freelance game designer. Now, I was going to continue my adventures at Ropecon this blog, but I think instead I’m going to talk about my year in review, and next time I’ll write up part 2 of Ropecon.
When I first left FFG, I was pretty nervous. I had some savings, but I knew they wouldn’t go as far as I was hoping, and that I’d have to get some paying projects as soon as possible. As it turned out, my best friend, Eric Lang, was able to extend a helping hand to me. Eric had a contract being offered that he was too busy to do by himself, so he offered to collaborate with me, and even gave me the up-front half of the advance, taking the back-end half for himself so I’d get paid sooner. Honestly, that extra bit of financial buffer has actually made all the difference. But beyond that, he gave me a ton of good advice, having been a freelancer for many years. So, thanks for all that, Eric, it’s been a huge help.
One of the things a freelancer has to do is attend conventions. This is when they talk to clients face-to-face, make new contacts, pitch games, and otherwise stay on top of the state of the industry. This year, I went to the GAMA Trade Show, the Gathering of Friends, Ropecon, and Gencon. Had I the time and money, I would’ve probably also tried to attend Essen Spiel and BGG.con, as well as maybe one of the PAX conventions. I’m not sure if I’ll attend the GAMA Trade Show again next year – it might be a semi-annual trip for me at best. It wasn’t a bad show, but a lot of game companies didn’t attend this year, so its utility for me was kind of iffy. Gathering of Friends was great for me, as I had a number of games to playtest and try to sell there. Ropecon was a terrific convention that I was invited to as a Guest of Honor, which not only let me see some of Finland, but I even came back from it with some unexpected work (which I’ll probably talk about next time). Gencon, of course, is simply the most essential convention for anyone in the game industry in North America. Every game company is there, big announcements are being made all over, and it’s an enormous chance to network as well as see old friends. If you’re not at Gencon, you’re not in the North American game industry.
While I’ve never actually sold a game outright at a convention so far, the seeds of pretty much every deal I’ve made this year have been planted at various shows. My friend Eric goes to a lot more conventions than I do, although he’s more of a travel fan than I am. I think 6 cons is the absolute most I could handle a year and still get any work done, personally, and 3-5 is much more in my comfort zone. But, if you’re thinking about ever becoming a game designer, travel to conventions is definitely something you’ll need to take into account.
One thing I wasn’t completely prepared for is the feast and famine cycle that the game industry seems to go through. You can go several months without hearing a peep out of anyone, and then get six or seven project offers all in the same week. I’m reasonably sure this has to do with the two “big event” conventions in our industry – Gencon and Essen Spiel. Every company wants a big release at each of those conventions, so they all get hungry around the same times of year, which seems to be from around early October to early January. This might also have to do with game companies preparing their release schedules for the upcoming year. Whatever the reason, smaller companies take note – if you’re looking for a game from me, April to June is probably my least busy time of year. As a result of this cycle, I found that I had to dip into my retirement fund some to get through a few dead spots this year, so prospective freelancers be warned, cash flow is going to be an issue for you at some point. Hopefully, once some of my games make it to market and start generating royalties for me, that won’t be as big a deal any more, but it’s good to be aware of going in.
Overall, this year has been an incredible adventure for me. I’ve worked on a wide variety of games covering a breadth of themes I didn’t think possible a year or two ago. I’ve collaborated with my best friend, travelled to Finland and eaten cloudberries, black blood sausage, and reindeer, and have even started to look into some really experimental game designs that I hope will push my skills to the next level. But it hasn’t been easy. I’ve had moments of doubt and fear. I’ve dropped the ball a few times as I’ve learned new skills and struggled to hone my organizational talents. Last month, I also lost my Grandma Barnwell, a wonderful woman who I loved – and still love – dearly. As a result, much of October is just a blur. But I know she was extremely proud of me for setting out on my own after 15 years in the game industry, and I know she’ll continue to guide me for the rest of my life.
They say in business that the first three years are the hardest. Here’s to year two. Some of my post-FFG games are going to start hitting the market this year, so it’s going to be an exciting time for me. Until next month, take care.