How I Got My Job In Gaming

A panel at PaizoCon 2018, with developer Ron Lundeen on the left, senior designer Stephen Radney-MacFarland on the right, and the guy literally no one came to see in the middle. 
About six months ago, my life sort of blew up. With the support of my family and my friends, I recovered. As part of that recovery, I needed a new job. This is the story of how I got one. Since March 12, 2018 I've been an editor at Paizo Inc, publishers of the Pathfinder and Starfinder RPGs.

Gamers often ask, "How do you get a job in gaming?" I can't speak for everyone. I can only share my own experiences. Maybe you'll find them useful.

There were three things that got me this job.

#1: Publish in the gaming industry. Getting published in the gaming industry has never been easy, but now it is easier than it's ever been. Well, okay, no. The easiest it's ever been was in the years right after Wizards of the Coast released the Open Gaming License, the "d20 boom." The demand was higher than ever, and the bar to entry was very, very low. Things are a little different now, but my point is still valid: there is nothing stopping you from publishing your own RPG material through RPGNow. You can even create a print-on-demand option for your project, so you can have at least two actual physical copies: one to send to your mom, and another to flip through in the bathroom. RPG publishers, like any other employer, want people with experience doing the job. Simply being a gamer, even a career GM, is simply not enough. Are you, in the immortal words of the Mob, "an earner?" Can you physically do the work? The best way to prove that is to actually do the work: writing, editing, developing, illustrating, or handling art direction or crowd sourcing for your own or other RPG products. I don't even think it matters how many copies you sell, because I'm lucky if something I publish sells a couple hundred copies. What matters is that you have experience in the field, and your work does not suck.

Now, I did not say this was easy. I said it was easier than it's been in the past. When I was sending unsolicited proposals to Hero Games, Iron Crown, and Steve Jackson back in the 90s, that seemed like the only way to get a gig. I suppose I could have formed my own company, but how would I handle printing costs? Where would I store the physical books? But the online, on-demand economy solves those problems. You don't need to go to another publisher any more—though you can if you want to, and there are many, many small press publishers out there. I am absolutely in debt to Mike Lafferty, who has been a reliable publisher and friend to me for over a decade. And to Chuck Rice, who gave me a huge lift when he agreed to publish the first edition of Arthur Lives. But if I'd had to, if you have to, you can absolutely form your own imprint and get the experience publishers want to see before you'll be considered.

We pause here for an answer to another question, "What's the best writing advice you ever got?" The best writing advice I ever got came from the late, great, Aaron Allston, the one and only time I met him, at a Hero Games party at GenCon, the only GenCon I have ever been to. (Having the right game connections is not on this list, a fact we will address later.) He asked me what I had, and when I told him I had a few projects in progress (that is to say, not finished), he said, "Until you've got a manuscript, you've got nothing." Or, as screenwriter and UCLA film professor Lew Hunter put it, "You've got ideas, I've got ideas. Everyone has ideas. My dog probably has ideas." You've got to produce, because producing is effing hard, and it is the mark of the professional.

#2: Move to Seattle. No, I'm serious. I was talking with another recent hire at Paizo, my friend and colleague Mike Sayer, who moved here from Idaho to develop adventures for Paizo's robust organized play operations, and who still commutes 3 hours (!!!) to come to work every day. Seattle is one of the few places in the world where you can make a living making roleplaying games. Lots of businesses have a locus like this. Everyone knows if you want to break into movies, you go to Hollywood. If you want to be a stage actor, you move to New York. Now, I'm not saying its impossible to get a job in gaming if you live in another city—obviously some people do it—but everything is a hundred times harder.

Seattle is filled with RPG companies. Wizards of the Coast of course, just down the street from me here in Renton, is the biggie. But it's also responsible for a half dozen other companies, most of which were founded and are currently staffed by people Wizards has fired over the last twenty years: Green Ronin, Privateer Press, Catalyst, Paizo, and many others. (The fact that Wizards has a lot of churn is bad for Wizards, but is really good for the gaming community, because it is that fact that has led to all these companies existing.) All of these companies have permanent, full-time staff, which makes them the jewels of the RPG business, and Seattle is the crown. This city is the RPG capital of the United States and, I suppose, the world. Now, many of you are thinking: "This is the 21st century. If the online age is so great for self-publishing (and it is), why can't you do the job remotely as well?"

Much of what I do as an editor can easily be done remotely: marking up manuscripts and making changes, for example. Some of it could be done remotely, but not as well: consulting with developers when I have a question about a book or adventure I am reading, or actively participating in our weekly Monday meeting. But other things cannot be done well online at all; for example, the brainstorm meetings, when two dozen creative staff get into one room and we just throw out ideas for new alien species, faster than Rob McCreary can write them down on the whiteboard. But ultimately the question, "Could you do this remotely?" is an academic one.

Because the publishers don't have to. They can demand you move, and if you really want the job, you will. Sure, there are a couple of exceptions. At Paizo, out of a creative team of maybe three dozen people, counting all the designers, creative directors, art team members, developers, and editors, we have two contractors who work from out of the country or out of the state. But those people are universally admired for the quality of their work, they're incredibly reliable, they are masters of the particular Paizo skill set, and if they weren't working for us, they'd be hired by someone else who does what we do. Most people aren't like that. I certainly am not. Every job Paizo posts expects you to move to Seattle, where rent is insane and it rains most of the year (but this summer has been gorgeous). Take consolation in the fact that the game stores are gonna blow your mind, and you can always find a group to game with.

My job at Paizo was originally offered to someone else. I was told, very nicely, that I did not get the job. Then that person couldn't move to Seattle. I could. A week later, I got the job.

#3: Distinguishing Feature. I'm a middle aged straight white dude. The RPG business needs another one of me like I need a hole in the head. When Wizards went looking for a new developer, who did they hire? An incredibly skilled and hard working woman with experience on Twitch and live-streaming. Because that is the future of our industry. That's the new market. So how did I get an interview, when I was just another white dude? Well, my forty published credits was part of it (see #1), but, now that I'm hired, I can tell you I'm the only PhD in the company. I'm not telling you to get a PhD; student loans are a mortgage on your brain and you don't want that kind of burden. But now that I am here, my education is the thing that differentiates me from everyone else in the room. It doesn't make me better, it's just kind of my party trick. My job as a professor was also directly relevant to the position of editor because, as a professor, much of my job consisted of helping new writers (ie: freshmen) complete a series of manuscripts (ie: papers) on deadline (ie: final grades). My previous job would not have been much use to, say, a designer or part of the organized play team. But it was relevant to editing and, to a lesser extent, development. It wasn't the most important thing, but it was a thing, and I think it was mostly a way to separate myself from everyone else in the pile. Maybe my published credits did that, I don't know, but few of my old projects are even from well known companies, and certainly none of them were big sellers.

Let's talk about what's not required, what I did not need to get this job. Maybe we can dismiss some common misconceptions.

Knowing Somebody: I didn't know anyone at Paizo before I got this job. Not even on social media. I don't go to cons. A few people, I could trace a second degree to: Owen Stephens is friends with Jacob Blackmon, who I worked with on Super Villain Handbook and who is a frequent guest on the BAMF podcast; my senior editor Chris Carey is part of the whole Wold Newton community, so we know a lot of the same people (Hi Jess! Hey Pete!). I've never spoken to Lisa Stevens, but if I ever have to, you can bet I'm going to mention I publish an Ars Magica magazine. But honestly, I had zero connections to getting this job. I could not call someone and say, "Put my resume on the top of the stack." I wish I could. I had to rely on other things to get looked at.

Experience with the Game: I have played Pathfinder precisely twice, and one of those times was after I got hired, when Mark Seifter sat a half dozen of us down over lunch to show us how 2nd edition worked. I knew Pathfinder because I knew 3e, and I'd self-published a couple 3e products, but no one seemed to mind that I had almost no direct experience with the game. That's because I had decades of publishing credits with many, many other game systems, and people in the industry pride themselves on a wide knowledge of the field. There are few one-trick ponies in this industry. They don't need me to master one game, they need to be able to master any game. (Caveat: there's one job that absolutely requires you to have deep mastery of the game, and that's dealing with organized play. Paizo was also hiring one of those when I applied for the editor job. I didn't bother applying. Mike got that job, and he's brilliant. But he also knows the fricking game.)

So, that's the story of how I got a job in gaming. There were other things—a 48-hour editorial test, for example, and the fact that Paizo is in an incredible growth period. (The announcement for Pathfinder 2nd edition came out between the day I accepted the job and the day I showed up.) But the three things that seem to me, in hindsight, to be key to getting me this job were the fact I had written, edited, or published dozens of RPG products; that I was willing to move 2,300 miles for 2/3rds the salary; and that I had a top notch education that was directly applicable to my new job.

Good luck. I'm happy to answer questions, here or by mail ( or on twitter (@doctorcomics). And if you're going to be at GenCon, come by the Paizo booth. I'll be in a blue shirt.

Jason Tondro is an editor at Paizo Inc., publishers of the Pathfinder and Starfinder RPGs. He is the author of Arthur Lives!, an urban fantasy RPG for the Fate system, the publisher of Peripheral Code: Writing in the Margins of Ars Magica, the author of the Deluxe Super Villain Handbook by Fainting Goat Games, and has contributed to many other RPG products.
How I Got My Job In Gaming How I Got My Job In Gaming Reviewed by Jason Tondro on Monday, July 23, 2018 Rating: 5
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