Monday, March 25, 2013

Could You Make a Living from RPG's?

Obviously, people at Blizzard (World of Warcraft) and Wizards of the Coast (D&D) do. What I have been wondering is whether there are ways in which people outside of such firms could do it. 

The immediate inspiration for this post was an event on my campus where, after a day of academic talks by high-tech law types, the evening entertainment included D&D games run by hired DM's—for players most of whom, I would guess, had never played before. But the original source of the idea was my observation of quite a lot of people who devote levels of thought, effort, and talent to running dungeons or leading raids in WoW comparable to what other people spend making a living. 

Three possible models occur to me:

1. A professional DM. Lots of D&D games nowadays are played online, with software by which the DM can control what appears on his players' screens. Suppose a DM is good enough so that some players are willing to pay a modest fee, perhaps a few dollars an hour, to be in his game. That would not make him rich, but it might pay him ten or fifteen dollars an hour—enough to support a life style at least one step above couch surfing.

2. A professional raid leader. I know someone in WoW who is a skilled player, a good charismatic leader, and good at running raids—groups of ten or twenty-five players working together to accomplish difficult things. I can imagine people paying to be in the raids of someone like that—most obviously people who don't have a good enough social network, or enough skills in and out of game, to be invited into a competently run raid. A four hour raid with twenty-five players could plausibly earn the leader a hundred dollars or more.

3. A professional trainer. I am again thinking in the context of World of Warcraft. One of the two characters I currently play consistently underperforms, does less damage to enemy creatures than other players in the group he is with. I am pretty sure I am doing something wrong and I do not know what. If there was someone online with a reputation for doing a good job of coaching players in how best to play their characters, I might well pay for his services.

All three of these approaches face the same problem: A lot of people enjoy running D&D games, leading raids, or giving advice to friends or friends of friends on how to play their characters. It is hard to sell something when other people are giving it away for free. Possible solutions are either to provide something enough better so  that people are willing to pay for it, the approach by which private schools compete with public schools, or to sell the service to people who are unable to manage the non-monetary mechanisms by which others get the same service for free. The business model of the oldest profession.

Something along these lines, people making a living by doing for money what others do for free, already exists for some older games. The example I am most familiar with is bridge. Sufficiently good bridge players can, and some do, make a living as paid partners, providing players a little less good a mixture of entertainment, teaching, and status. 

I am not sure it would work for modern role playing games, whether D&D and its relatives or MMORPG's such as WoW. But it does seem as though there should be some way in which the level of skill and commitment shown by the best participants could provide them with at least a modest income.


Chris said...

People pay money to attend game cons and play RPGs. As far as I know GMs aren't directly paid but do often get compensation in the form of reduced or eliminated con attendance fees.

Of course, you know the traditional solution to this.... Impose government licensing requirements on GMs. After all, GMing is mentally stressful and we don't want players to be too stressed fighting too many orks at one time.

Anonymous said...

one word: HATS.

top TF2 asset makers make more than 100k a year, and all assets in TF2 are hats!!!

if you want to see how people are making money from MMOs look towards Valve not just Blizzard. in fact i think blizzard do not really want others to make money from WoW, certainly not from mining. valve on the other hand actually encourages it by designing their games from the ground up to have community involvement.


Anonymous said...

I know one guy in the SCA who, for a while, was actually making money by entering and winning Magic the Gathering Tournaments. He literally had tens of thousands of cards to build his decks from.

Tibor said...

Well, that is an interesting idea (and the comparison of a paid MD and a prostitute really made me laugh :) ).

I am not sure about raid leaders and coaches in WoW...I've never really played WoW (I only saw quite a bit of a little modified gameplay in one South Park episode), but I am sure that at least the coaching can be pretty much equally obtained through internet forums - there are forums for pretty much anything, surely there are plenty for WoW characters too.

But I have played DnD and similar pen and paper games a few times. I would gather with some friends and we never got above level 2 or so - only played a few games. The reason was that pretty much noone wanted to be a DM or the person who actually wanted to do DMing was not skilled enough/did not put enough effort in it to make it compelling and interesting. I think the possibilities of imagination still beat virtual reality of today (where the interactions with the surroundings are necessarily limited somehow and also you have to work with the imagination of the designer, not your own), so people still like pen and paper (well, some of them).

I can imagine a professional DM having an "office" at a back of a fantasy book store or something like that and groups of people coming to him to play - similar to the way groups of people learn languages. He would have a few "classes" (adventuring parties), keep track of them and devote time to make the story really interesting. I can imagine paying the same amount of money for that that I would pay for a (group) language lesson or a music instrument lesson.
Music is a good example, because very good music teachers charge really a lot, which I think could work for DMs too - perhaps in a lesser extent, while in launguages the price differences between average and superb teachers are not that great.

I think a typical party might be about 3-5 people, so that way the DM could actually make a decent living - provided that he lives in a big enough town to have enogh enough DnD players to fill the hours.

Kaj Sotala (Xuenay) said...

Now that's an interesting idea. I wonder how it would mesh together with copyright law, though - in today's climate, if you make money running someone else's copyrighted game product, that someone else might very well argue that you're guilty of copyright infringement. For the table-top versions, one could get around this by only running homebrew games or games with liberal licensing conditions.

lelnet said...

(Of course, the definition of "make a living" is different in the 3rd world than it is in the West, but nevertheless, this is essentially the same thing -- playing MMOs professionally, by getting paid to do the stuff that wealthier players find either too difficult or too boring.)

Would it be possible to earn enough money playing either MMOs or tabletop RPGs to even meaningfully alter (let alone sustain) a Western lifestyle? I don't know. The only cases I'm aware of either come down to good GMs finding a better couch to surf to (in one case, living rent-free as a full peer with paying roommates), or things like players subsidizing game-night consumables for the GM.

The major problem with offering one's gaming services professionally to the world is one of coordination, I suspect.

Unknown said...

The people who make a side income playing this games have a few options.

Most gold farmers that make serious amounts of money do so by violating the Terms of Service and have automated programs that farm resources for them (the term for this is "botting").

A completely above board way to make money is to livestream your play and make money of the ad revenue. People are willing to watch the best of the best as they attempt to take down new content for the first time, especially because they learn a trick or two that helps them with their play.

jdgalt said...

It can be done, but it's not easy. has articles on his site about how he did it.

@Xuenay: Who said anything about running someone else's copyrighted game product? There's so little original material in just about any RPG that writing another is easy. (I don't even give Gygax credit for the first RPG -- as I see it, any two-year old with a baby doll in her arms is playing an RPG even though she doesn't know it.)

Joe said...

Back when I raided 12+ hours a day, I always felt the next step up was founding a commune, where all 40 (or 25) of us would wake up and raid all day.

While I did quit and live a normal life instead, I think a group that dedicated would be quite marketable in various ways. It would depend a lot on how the particular game they play is designed.

Brian said...

I'm not sure that you're familiar with League of Legends, but apparently the pro players there make a good living from a combination of tournament winnings, sponsorships, ad revenue from streaming on, and giving private lessons to people.

Anonymous said...

The old actor sat down on the park bench, next to the old hooker. They looked at each other. In his rolling Shakespearean baritone, the actor spoke for both. "Madame, consider our professions. Each COULD achieve greatness, were it not for all those damned amateurs!"

Anonymous said...

Two yet unmentioned methods that are currently being used to monetize RPG playing are account selling and/or leveling.

Some people will quickly level an account to max level and then sell the account to people who want to jump straight into 'endgame'.

Alternatively, some people will pay others to play their account while they are offline in order to level, increase income, or grind for an achievement that requires a large time input.

Both of these methods are typically against the average TOS but can be hard to detect if done correctly.

Patri Friedman said...

I think part of the problem is that RPGs are so fun, that people will DM them for free. Same goes (demonstrably) for WoW raid leaders.

Keep speculating though, when you can find a way for someone to feed a family by playing WoW, I want to hear it.

Anonymous said...

For "tabletop" rpgs (actually the ones I run don't have a tabletop, as we don't use a battle board; they're more like reader's theater or radio drama), there's at least one limitation on this. I run games that are highly regarded by the players, and I have no trouble recruiting new players. But an important ingredient in the quality of those games is the quality of the players themselves! I'm not sure I could count on running games of high quality with randomly chosen players. It would be kind of like gaining a reputation for giving really good dinner parties, and then trying to cash in by holding dinner parties for random strangers of unknown conversational abilities and even unknown basic manners.

If there were a way to hold an rpg session for an audience, with the players as a trusted group of performers, that would be different. But it might need to work more like commeddia dell'arte or an old style jazz band.

Tibor said...

whswhs: That is a really good point. Some players have little sense of role-playing, they just play "for the XP and loot" and can spoil it for others who like it for the story telling and roleplaying (after all, there are computer games like Diablo for the sort of people who just like dungeon crawling and leveling up).
On the other hand, if you actually run a DMing business much like a music school (with more than one simultaneous students), you just make the game so that it fits the desires of that group of people. And in a way, you can also "educate" them by some in-game mechanisms to develop their characters better. So in a way it would also mean giving lessons - how to play "better".

I think a one time game thing would not work for the reasons you mention. You would be much more like an ancient greek Hetaera who is regularly visited by the same customers than a cheap harlot for one time use. You would get to know your players and they would get to know you after a few sessions (please forgive me the stupid comparison with the oldest profession, but I just liked it :) )

Lex Spoon said...

All of those sound plausible to me.

Patri's point is extremely good. There's a supply glut in this form of market! I got the impression that prices were very low on Diablo III, which does allow real-money sales.

Georgia Tech has an improv group that reminds me of the professional DMs idea. Most of the people in this group pay so that they get to work with someone who is much more experienced and skillful than themselves.

It is fun to think of a comic book store hiring a pet DM in the way a bar might hire a piano player....

Anonymous said...

Somebody already mentioned streaming and sponsorship in a game such as League of Legends, and that's not bad. As for comparisons to prostitution... sorry, but there just ain't a market when the product is generally for free!

David Friedman said...

"sorry, but there just ain't a market when the product is generally for free!"

Hence no private schools exist?

One solution to the problem is to provide a higher quality product. Another, as in the case of prostitution, is to sell the product to people for whom it is not available for free.

Yuri said...

Of course you can make a living from RPG's. I sell them all the time:

WarrenT said...

Refereeing a LARP event? The players will set up the event but might want to have an impartial observer and arbitrator.


Most game stores I've been to have few gaming tables but it's mostly retail oriented of course, so how about a store where it's business plan includes table renting? Of course this would mean having a store where the rent is cheap yet the population density is such that there will be enough players to use it.

So maybe a decrepit building in a rough area near a large metropolis. This could also be used as a LARP space if big enough and there could mini-cons every month.

Of course it would still have retail, used sales, and snacks.

If you have enough people you can encourage them to give their groups names and create flags and shields to hang on the wall which will create emotional equity in the space and get folks locked in.

Finally there is no reason to limit it the RPGers, reach out to community groups, schools, churches and have them come in for re-enacting/living history events, social board games, board game competitions, movie nights and so forth.

Having these other groups involved could make concept more attractive to investors and allow you to concentrate on your first love.


People still pay for Play by Mail and Play by E-mail so I don't see why there wouldn't pay for Play by Having Some Guy Show Up at Your House and Run a Game for Five Hours. Ten dollars a person times, say, a ten person group would get the guy $100 plus food.

Of course he has to be worth it...

How I would market it would be to hit the "Handcrafted Just for You" angle. No mass produced dungeons here, no adventures that thousands or millions of other people have gone through. In essence professional quality, artisanal, small batch game mastering.

For their money they get an always prepared GM, a campaign built to their specifications and high-level, thoroughly entertaining and engrossing experience that is, on a per-hour basis, cheaper than going to a movie.

Do it three to four times a week and you won't get rich but your hobby is keeping you alive. And you might GM for people that can afford more so maybe $200 or more a session is possible.

Joe said...

Had a conversation today about Diablo II, apparently people on pvp servers pay real life money to professional "bounty hunters" to kill people trying to kill them.

John Dougan said...

When I last looked (I recently stopped playing WoW), there are plenty of top end raid groups and leaders that sell their services for in-game gold, mainly to people who want a given achievement or piece of loot sooner rather than later. I imagine that some of these groups sell for other than ingame gold, but that probably skirts closer to violating the EULA.