How to Accelerate Your Boardgame Career and Ruin Your Life

Adapted from my Twitter thread.

Recently, I announced that I was leaving my job as a User Experience designer and User Researcher at Apple to freelance in the boardgame industry and spend more time with my family. While I’ve loved working for Apple, I’m looking forward to having lower pressure and a less rigid schedule – and a little more focus on taking care of my mental health. A big thanks to all the people in the boardgame industry that are willing to pay me money to make people happy.

– John

Foreword

Name badge with the Apple Logo and the words "John Brieger"
Before I gave notice at Apple, I saved so that I could pay my rent and buy health insurance, even if freelancing was really slow my first year. There’s a lot of people who aren’t in a position to do that.

This is privilege in action. I’m extremely fortunate to be coming from a high-paying job where I could save money to give myself a safety net. I also don’t have a spouse or kids. While all the hard work I’ll talk about below was absolutely critical in getting where I am today, I think it is disingenuous to not point out that part of the reason I was able meet people and make connections is that I live an extraordinarily privileged life. Not having to worry about money meant I could afford to travel to shows without earning significant income from them.

It’s not just about money, but about hours. I could put in what were frankly ridiculous hours over the last two years partly because I wasn’t also being a parent, or working two lower-paying jobs, or dealing with any of a number of disabilities or chronic health conditions (other than depression, which I’ll touch on below). Maybe if I had less advantages, making the jump to full time could have taken six years, or a decade. Maybe I wouldn’t have been able to do it at all.

Matt Knaack asked me this question following my announcement:

I replied with a long twitter-essay that I’ve re-written and updated below.

How to go full time making games:

Move to a new city. Meet people. Go to lots of designer and local boardgame meetups. Make games. Take those games places. Meet more people. Make art. Make weird designs.

Start writing about game design or some kind of game thing.

Write about your games. Or not your games. Meet people who make games through that writing. Talk to them. Play their games. Learn. Make connections. Make friends. Move again. Tell those friends you’ll stay in touch. Stay in touch.

Figure out what special skill or angle you can offer to potential clients.

Start positioning yourself to be able to speak on that topic. Go on some small podcasts to practice. Meet more people. Get someone to work with you at a low rate (but get paid). Get that person paying you to recommend you to other people. Meet more people. Go to larger conventions. Sound like Batman when your voice runs out from talking 18 hours a day.

Ask people who know more than you for advice.

Maybe even pay someone to give advice, like a lawyer or accountant or more senior consultant. Keep working. Take it more seriously. Maybe too seriously? Let your hobby consume your life. Start thinking about it as work.

When you say you’re working on the weekend, your family will ask you “Game work or real work?”

That’ll hurt. Keep working.

Get stressed out and stop seeing your friends who don’t play boardgames as often. Wonder frequently if this is the right decision. Convince yourself it is. Do something amazing that people really like. Ride that high. Crash. Meet more people.

Ask some of those people you’ve met if they’d like to pay you money to do work. Be excited when they say yes. Be courteous when they say no. Hand out a lot of business cards with a smile and a “stay in touch”. Stay in touch. Get to the point where when you say “I’m working”, your family and friends just ask how work is going.

It’s work.

Get back to playtesting. Keep writing. Keep using that writing to meet people. Think carefully about your audience and reputation. Turn down some work because it doesn’t fit with your brand. Feel guilty for turning down work.

If you have mental health issues, they get worse.

A lot worse. Have trouble answering when people ask “How are you?” Ignore warning signs that your last therapist told you to watch for. Work every day of the week. Stop wanting to have sex. Eat poorly. Keep going out to playtest four times a week when you should be working on your relationship. Call your family less. Feel guilty. Stop sleeping regular hours. Suffer devastating loss of a family member. Break up with your girlfriend and fly to a funeral. Fly from that funeral to GenCon. Pretend to be happy while delaying your grieving. Meet people. Fly back from GenCon.

Spiral into a depressive hole. Things get so bad you need to take time off from your main job. Feel guilty. Have trouble leaving your house. Or showering. Or doing anything at all. Wonder how much it’s your depression and anxiety affecting your life and how much it’s your “hobby” that’s grown a bit out of control. Do game work less. Go back to work at your full-time job.

Keep meeting people.

Keep playtesting. Keep seeing your therapist. Keep getting advice and mentorship from others in the community. Stay in touch with the people you’ve met. Lie to yourself that everything is ok. Accept that it isn’t ok.

Eventually, you’ll get enough work that you’re too busy to do other things, but you can’t quite leave your job. Start staying up late. Watch your job performance suffer at both jobs. Gain weight. Spiral into depression again. Take a break. See a new therapist. Consider making a life change. Keep working. Pull out of it. Keep staying up late.

Keep working seven days a week, since boardgame events are on weekends and you need to put in 50+ hours a week in your normal job.

Invite your friends to a party and realize you haven’t seen the attendees who aren’t boardgamers in nearly a year. Freak out. Decide you definitely need a life change. Keep working. Keep going to shows.

Work on a larger Kickstarter campaign that does well. Lose sleep. Lose another family member. Fly to GenCon again. Use the success of that campaign as a good intro when meeting people. Ask them about future work. Get soft commitments and few hard commitments. Be prepared to lose some money if this doesn’t work out. Give notice at your employer. Freak out more.

Congratulations: you’re full time in the boardgame industry and may have ruined your life.

Have fun!

Afterword

business card with John Brieger, Game Designer and Let's Make Games written on it
I’m pretty lucky that I’ve been able to make it this far, and I owe a lot of that to the support and mentorship from the wonderful design communities in London and the Bay Area of California. Don’t think that being full-time is the only path to success within the industry, or that making games as a hobby isn’t success. You can decide what success looks like for you.

If you do want to go full time, don’t think that my path is the only path, because it certainly isn’t. For example, I never was interested in publishing, which is its own path with its own challenges. I suggest reading Jamey Stegmaier or James Mathe‘s blogs for more advice on that.

I welcome your comments below, or tweet me @DasBrieger.

PS: A few people asked if I was going full time because I’d had success with my game design. I also design games, but while I’ve had some small successes as a designer, my primary income will be from freelance development and consulting work, not from design royalties. I don’t expect that to change soon, though I’ll definitely keep working on my own designs as well.

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