Game Design Occupations Explained: Writers

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Game Design Occupations Explained

Introduction

I’ve spent the last few years learning everything I can about the RPG design process. As a small press publisher, I know I need to wear a lot of design hats myself, but there are certain skills I just don’t possess. I can write, proofread, and do my own page layout, but every author needs a good editor and most authors don’t also do art (I am one of those “most authors”). The tricky thing is figuring out who does what, how much it costs to get that done, and—perhaps most importantly—what your fellow designers need from you so they can do their job.

One of the most important skills any designer needs to learn early on is how to communicate with freelancers. Whether you’re hiring authors to help write for you, hiring editors to make sure your manuscript isn’t littered with errors, or contracting artwork to make your ideas come to life, it’s important to know what you’re asking for when you go looking for help. This week, I’ll explain the basics of hiring writers. In the next few weeks, we’ll discuss other professions related to game design.

Writers

Every game that is published in book format needs to be written. If you’ve designed some cool mechanics for a game but don’t feel confident with your ability to put those mechanics into words, it might be a good idea to hire a writer. You may also hire a writer just to help you flesh out the setting or add flavor to your game. Of course, you may also choose to do all of the writing yourself.

What to Expect

When seeking writers, you need to know what your game’s scope, purpose, and genre are. It also helps to know whether you’ll be using a homebrew system or a widely available system (such as Pathfinder, Fate, or Savage Worlds). If you’re using a homebrew system, your writer is going to need to learn the mechanics before they can do anything with them. If you’re using a widely known setting, you can seek writers who have specific experience with that system.

Knowing your scope and genre are equally important. Are you hiring someone to write a 10,000 word horror-themed adventure for Pathfinder, or are you looking for someone to help you write a 200,000 word core sci-fi book?

Like anyone, writers have their own skill sets and comfort zones. Not everyone is equally adept at writing horror as they are sci-fi, espionage as they are fantasy, etc. Some writers are better at designing old-school dungeon crawls than writing setting gazateers, too. When interacting with potential writers, it’s important to let them know what the scope, style, and genre of the book will be.

What it’ll Cost You

As with all creative professions, there’s no standard for compensation. It’s hard to know what to pay someone for their creative work, and many people will ask different rates depending on the detail of the work and the time it will take them to produce it.

Common rates I’ve seen are between $0.015 and $0.02 USD per word (that’s 1.5 to 2 cents). For a 10,000 word adventure, that means $150 to $200. For a 200,000 word core book, that means $3,000 to $4,000 USD. That may seem like a lot of money when you’re starting out, and indeed it’s prohibitively expensive for most fledgling game designers, but that’s why it’s also common to do all of the writing yourself.

Update: I received feedback stating that someone has received rates as high as $0.06/word. I recently picked up a contract for $0.03, myself. I’ve also been paid as low as $0.015. The price largely depends on the size of the publisher, how much they’re willing and able to pay, and what quality of work they’re looking for.

That price doesn’t factor in any of the time it takes for the writer to learn your system or research rules. It’s a flat rate based solely on the final output.

Note: It may be tempting to offer someone a pricing model sometimes called a “percentage of sales.” Don’t. The truth is, most RPG products won’t sell enough copies to make an adequate amount of money to compensate someone for their time. As the publisher, it’s your sole responsibility to take that risk; asking anyone else to work for you without guaranteed payment is bad form.

How Many Words Do You Need?

So how do you determine your book’s final word count before you’ve even begun? To some degree, it’s a factor of your page count target. That’s another article in and of itself, but the basic principle is to divide your word count by 500 to determine the number of pages your book will be. Alternatively, you can multiply your page count goal by 500 to decide how many words you’ll need.

For example, a 16-page adventure module would be: 16*500 = 8,000 words. A core book of 200,000 words might be: 200,000 / 500 = 400 pages.

As one specific example, the Psi-punk core book clocks in at just under 90,000 words and the 8.5″x11″ book clocks in at just under 192 pages. You’ll note that 90,000 / 500 = 180; the rest of that space was filled with non-game content such as title and cover pages, table of contents pages, appendices, character sheets, an index, and art.

Note: The 500 number isn’t a golden rule. Truth is, the number of words on a page varies based on dozens of factors, not the least of which is font size. A 500-word page allows for generously-sized text with plenty of white space, while a denser book with smaller text might consist of 800 words per page. Of course, a book’s trim size (page size) is also a factor. If you know these things ahead of time, you can estimate your own book’s needs with finer detail. If you simply don’t know what format your book will wind up being, I recommend shooting for the word count that will allow for the most wiggle room – 500 words per page.

What Do I Say?

If you’re trying to recruit writers, here’s an example of one way you might phrase your message. We’ll assume a 10,000 word high fantasy Pathfinder adventure module and we’re trying to keep costs down, so we’re offering $0.015 USD / word.

“I am seeking a writer for a fantasy adventure module using the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game system. This adventure is going to be a classic dungeon crawl with a few puzzles and traps to keep the adventurers on their toes.

Pay is $0.015 USD per word, and the estimated word count is around 10,000. If you’re interested, please send an email to me@mycompany.com with the subject ‘Pathfinder Adventure Writing,’ along with links to any sample work you would like to show us.”

It’s pretty short and sweet, but it hits all of the key points. If the prospective writer wishes to know more, they can always ask in their follow-up e-mail. But at least you’ve covered enough of the basics to weed out anyone who’s not comfortable writing high fantasy adventure modules with traps and puzzles using the Pathfinder system.

Final Thoughts

Now you know a bit more about what it looks like to hire someone to write for you. If you’re not comfortable doing that work yourself, it’s not a bad idea to consider outsourcing to someone who is. Unfortunately, it’s a cost that is up-front and may be difficult to recoup. If you’re just starting out, it may be necessary to try doing the work yourself first and hiring an extra awesome editor in the future.

Tune in next time for a look at hiring an editor.

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About Jacob Wood

Jacob founded Accessible Games because he wants to spread the joy of gaming to everyone, including people with disabilities. He is visually impaired and knows what it's like to need to adapt, and he brings two decades of gaming experience to the table.
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