On Freelancers & Their Incentives

I read David Hill’s post about per-word rates for game creation, and I by and large agree with him. You’ll need to read his post to get my context, and I think that freelancers, publishers, and those who aspire to be in either category should read it anyhow.

I’m going to ramble about the problem I see: When you hire game people, understand that a non-trivial number of them treat life as a game, in the risk/effort/reward sense. This causes all sorts of issues the cascade into other problems.

Seriously, this is going to be me rambling (with typos I may correct as I catch them). You’ve been warned. :)

A tangent: James Ernest once told me that he can’t teach “normal” people (my word) how to play poker by betting M&Ms, because they don’t ascribe real value to them. But gamers can be taught poker with pretty much anything, because (to paraphrase) we have mindsets that involve ascribing temporary value to this. That’s become more common in the world, as gamification is used in things like pedometers and novel writing contests. But it’s important to keep this difference in mind when talking about game pros.

Hill outlines pretty well that by only rewarding one portion of a job—the one that’s measurable and concretely deliverable—you’re not incentivizing the other parts of the job. On the surface, that sounds like a shitty thing to say, right? Sure, it could be. Purely lazy fuckers might shirk duties, but truthfully there aren’t many purely lazy people in creative professions.

Those who are truly “lazy”—whatever that means—could make the same amount of money for far less effort elsewhere. Creatives are inherently incentivized to make quality stuff, for a variety of reasons like:

  • Personal fulfillment (challenge, boredom, even hate-writing)
  • Status and recognition (from peers, fans, award shows)
  • Sweet, sweet money (and the occasional material, non-monetary compensation)
  • Social interaction (working with other creatives, playtesting with friends)

Those are all incentives to do a quality job. There’s another axis of personal incentives: those to do a job quickly. Reason you might rush a job include:

  • Rent’s due (or my fav from last year, “paying for a wedding”)
  • Being overbooked with other creative commitments (because you couldn’t guarantee that all your clients would pay on-time)
  • Being overbooked with other life commitments (moving, wedding)
  • Mental health (from burnout fatigue to medicated condition to unmedicated illness)
  • Sudden life bullshit (kids fall ill, you get into a car accident)
  • Sudden good life stuff (getting a job when you’ve been looking for months, and now have freelance commitments alongside a new job)
  • Socialization (spending time with family and friends, doing something other than being trapped behind a keyboard)
  • Relaxation (anything to stave off burnout for another day)

Quality and speed are two ends of a metaphorical scale, and for many creative professionals, the quickly side gets heavier and heavier. Life is hard and harsh, and shit piles up. So getting something done with alacrity and moving onto the next thing is, while possibly guilt-inducing, what many need to do to survive another day, week, month as a freelancer.

Much of what Hill says in his post tracks with me. I’ve been all those people he talks about, and when I’ve been the shitty freelancer it’s been because I’ve been overwhelmed, trying to do one job quickly while another is overdue because I didn’t get started on it on-time, and then I’m trying to do that job quickly so I can get caught up to do a third job, etc.

What Does That Mean For Consumers?

People don’t playtest the stuff they write as often as they’d like, and sometimes not as often as they claim. People skim the required material because that’s unpaid work, and many of us don’t have all that much time for unpaid work when we can instead try to fake it and steal back those precious hours for paid work or other obligations.

These issues can either cause a delay in production, as a developer has to fix the problems created (or return the work to the writer for fixing), or it means the product is released with subpar material. This sucks for the developer, who is likely paid with a per-word rate just like their writers. This sucks for people who want the game, for obvious reasons.

So What Can Publishers Do?

It’s simple to say “let’s do away with per-word rates.” I don’t think that’s the whole of the answer, though. It’s part of the answer, to at least examine this model.

Hill says that few people have been paid to be a consultant on games, and I’m one of those rare people who has been paid to consult. I’ve given my time on a per-hour basis, and that’s worked out for me—I was treated as someone to be used only when it was worth the time, and I got to schedule when I was available rather than be treated as though I was on-call. The contract had a flat rate and cap: 20 hours at $25/hour, to be used over the course of the project’s development. Not that a lot of companies have a spare $500 floating around for someone who isn’t directly writing or editing material.

I’ve participated in royalty models, which can work out provided that (a) the work earns out the advance and (b) the publish holds up their end of the bargain rather than use “everyone gets a cut” as a Kickstarter feel-good thing they don’t intend to honor.[1]

There are flat-rate models, and most I’ve worked with are derived from projected word counts. They have many of the same problems as per-word payment does, from an incentive perspective.

There are a bunch of models we could look at, but unfortunately they all hinge on the same requirement: RPGs are a low-margin entertainment form, so anything that eats into the margin is a killer. For someone like me, who gives two shits about profitability now that I don’t have a day job in games and am just doing this for “fun,” that’s cool. But my mindset cannot at all be the mindset of people who keep the hobby going, like Green Ronin, Onyx Path, Evil Hat, Atlas Games, Pelgrane Press, etc. So what can we do that treats freelancers better that also doesn’t kill those companies?

Fuck if I know. But it’s a damn good question to mull over, because it could hold the key to making our culture of freelancing healthier. My gut says to split out some of the work as different jobs, like paying per-word for the writing plus a flat rate on top for meetings and such. Not that I could afford that—though I did end up paying Josh Roby more than just writing for being the person who saved Katanas & Trenchcoats as my stunt developer and problem solver.

The Other Problem

Let’s talk about another incentive: publishers have fewer incentives for treating freelancers well. Publishers hold the power. Some are notorious for not paying, or paying very late. Others can have problems with payment because of cash flow reasons—and since publishers are run by humans, miscommunications or anxiety can cause people to not even hear back from a publisher when inquiring about late payment.

Of course, if the publisher defines “payment on publication,” then there’s nothing holding the publisher to paying if the job gets terminated. (Incidentally, for Katanas & Trenchcoats, I defined a date in which I would pay people entirely independent of the projected publication date, though derived from when I expected that publication date to be. I almost cancelled the project, but would still be on the hook for payment by that date—a risk I accepted because I want to treat my freelancers like their time is valuable. Scandalous, I know.)

Then there’s royalty shares, that entirely depending on the publisher acting in good faith over the course of a product’s lifetime.

Yes, publishers do have incentives to pay freelancers, just they’re fewer than we’d like. We live in a culture where it’s just not done to call out deadbeat publishers (which is perhaps ironic given the shift to callout culture we’re otherwise starting to live in). The common thread is that freelancers and publishers handle their intertwined relationships with differing sets of incentives. Again, this is the cause of so many problems,and the reason you see full-time freelancers burn out hard, since they have to take on a lot of work so as to mitigate the risk on a publisher defaulting on them.

This Post

As is typical, I don’t edit these posts before publishing. Just as with the typical freelance churn of “accept job->write for job->turn in job so you can get to the next two jobs,” my blog posts are churn.

These posts are where I think, but they’re also a thing that I get money for, from my Patreon[2]. I don’t have an incentive to have them edited, because the money isn’t there for that. Or rather, I clearly have an incentive for that—not looking like a slack asshole—but not the resources for it. Hence why I stated the caveat of “seriously, I’m rambling,” to give me the out.

This is around 1600 words[3], and took me around 90 minutes to write. If I submitted this to a 5c/w publisher, I’d get around $80 for it. That would be around $53/hour, which is decent before taxes. If I spent an hour editing it, and assuming it was around the same word count, that becomes $32/hour—my time is started to get devalued. That’s even assuming I have the hour to do that, which I rarely have for blog posts.

Or I could decide that this was actually a lengthy outline rather than a publishable article, and I need to rewrite it from scratch. That’s maybe another hour, plus an hour of editing after that. Now I’m at $23/hour, and that’s under my goal of making at least $25/hour when freelancing for other people. If I’m making less than that, I prefer to work for myself, because then at least I might get long-tail payouts.


Heh, yeah right. The questions and concerns that freelancers and publishers have—those they share and those that differ—will continue to shape the professional side of the hobby. But there won’t be a conclusion. There’s not an endpoint, but a continuing journey toward trying to make things better for those who are just trying to make a living doing this thing.

Addendum Hours Later: It wasn’t until the busride home, where I was thinking about some comments reacting to this piece and Hill’s, that I have a way to summarize the question that pulls in the opening tangent:

What incentives can we create for freelancers to do the ancillary but important work needed on creative projects, but don’t at the same time cripple publishers? Forgo punitive incentives, and let’s hunt for positive ones—after all, most of us have game mindsets, so we’d find a way to navigate around negative incentives. And that brings us back to Hill’s initial essay on the problems with payment based on word count.

– Ryan

[1] I may still be a little bitter there.

[2] Which, if I estimate right, I currently earn around 2c/w, calculating roughly 7,500 words a month at $170 per month after fees. I do and get a little less than that, so really my break-even point should be $500 instead of $200, or I should do fewer and smaller posts. But I have no cause right now to go either of those directions. :)

[3] Over 1800 now that I’ve gone through and did some clean-up and decompressing, over a 10-minute coffee break. But let’s say I was only contracted for 1600, and any overage isn’t covered. That’s super common in RPG writing, and necessary, since you don’t want a writer to blow your budget and you may be constrained by other factors—art, layout, page count, etc.—that overwriting can fuck with.