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  • Essays
  • Dying of Exposure - When an Industry Expects Free Labor

Dying of Exposure - When an Industry Expects Free Labor

O Updated
(Photo by Hakan Aldrin on Unsplash)
There Will Be Games

When you're starting out as a freelancer, things can be tough. You haven't got any clients yet, you probably also have no prior work to show to prospective customers, at least no professional prior work and you're probably still working out a few things to make sure you can work effectively and efficiently. After all: time is money. At least that's how it should be. In reality though, as a new freelancer, you will probably charge less than other, more established people in your field. You might even consider doing some work for free, so you can prove yourself to a new customer and also build a portfolio of work that is your track record for future jobs. That's all fine, if that's what you want to do. The problem comes when an industry expects you to work for free or for only very little financial reward or maybe for compensation in kind.

I've seen quite often where a big company has put out job offers to illustrators, videographers, writers or others for no pay. The compensation was said to be "exposure". The idea is that it gives a newcomer the opportunity to prove themselves and it associates their work to a big name in the industry, thereby making it easier to get jobs in the future. It's exactly what I said above: sometimes it might be worth working for free, if that's really something you want to do or if it's a project you're really excited about.

However, there is a difference between a big company not offering payment for work and you offering your time for free.

If a company is successful in getting its work done for free, it sets a precedence for other companies. It can become a trend and will make it harder for others to get paid what they're due. After all, if company A got their project completed with zero budget, then company B and C should try that too. It'll reduce their costs, which allows them to either reduce the price of the final product, making it more affordable to the consumer and thus potentially increase the number of sales, or the companies keep the prices the same and increase their profit margin instead.

If a freelancer decides to work on a project for free, because they want to and not because they feel they have to, then that's not quite so bad. However, it's still an issue, because it also sets a precedent. It basically tells companies that they can get their work done for free, or at least for cheap, if they always hire people who are just starting out. I know the reality is that when you're new to something you start on a smaller salary than someone who is an expert at something and has many years of experience. Yet, even if you're an apprentice, you get paid something - a minimum wage of some sort - or at least that's what you should get paid.

Ultimately though, what really irks me about all of this is the idea that "exposure" is a form of remuneration. Being known for something is great, of course. You're more likely to be asked for more work, because people have seen another company trust you with their project. "Exposure" doesn't pay your bills though. It doesn't buy food. It's not something that you can use to invest in new tools or training or other things that would further your skills and move you further along the path you've chosen as a freelancer.

The expectation that there is no need to pay anything and that "exposure" is enough is just wrong. It sets a bad example and will only drive down prices overall and most likely lead to a below par result. Of course, I'm not saying that doing work for free will always be bad, but you're more likely to work harder if you get paid for the time you spend on something.

Now, I know what you're going to say next. I make this blog for free. I write a review and a topic discussion article every single week. I record each article for the podcast. I also film and edit the odd unboxing video. About every month I record a 1 1/2 hour podcast and edit that too. All without getting paid anything for it.

Well, first of all, I do get paid a little. My amazing Patreon supporters help me pay for web hosting and some other bits, for example. I've also been paid via Ko-Fi before. So, there is some payment, but I know what you mean. I don't get paid by the hour or by the word or anything like that.

However, I'm also not employed by anyone. I do all of this, because I enjoy it so much. It's a hobby, even though I do approach it very much professionally. It also means that my reviews are independent, because I don't get paid for them. Sure, I do get review copies sent to me for free, and I do say this on the review to clarify it, but that still leaves me independent. In fact, I do often send review copies onto someone else, so it's not like I end up with a game afterwards. Also, many review copies are often more like prototypes, and when I do get a production copy of a game, I never sell it on, so I don't profit from any of the games I receive.

Yes, you could argue that receiving review copies creates a certain level of dependence, because if I write a bad review, that company may not send me any more review copies. However, most of the games I review I paid for myself or are a friend's copy. So it's not like I'm reliant on companies sending me free copies of their games. I can, and still do, buy my own games to review.

Anyway, my point is that what I do for the blog is really just a hobby. Yes, I do have other commercial ventures outside of the blog and these I do approach with a commercial hat on, but when it comes to the blog, I'm happy to do the work for free. I'm not employed by anyone, not even by myself, so I don't expect to get paid.

However, if I was ever offered a commercial job and told that there was no financial reward, but that the "exposure" I get from it would make up for it, I'd tell them to... well... to take their offer somewhere else.

There Will Be Games
Oliver Kinne
Oliver Kinne (He/Him)
Associate Writer

Oliver Kinne aims to publish two new articles every week on his blog, Tabletop Games Blog, and also release both in podcast form. He reviews board games and writes about tabletop games related topics.

Oliver is also the co-host of the Tabletop Inquisition podcast, which releases a new episode every three to four weeks and tackles different issues facing board games, the people who play them and maybe their industry.

Articles by Oliver Kinne

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hotseatgames's Avatar
hotseatgames replied the topic: #324653 13 Jul 2021 14:29
Many years ago I was reading an article about the board game industry, and how it, as a rule, pays very poorly. There was a quote from a famous board game designer, and I wish I could remember who it was.

Anyway, they said "People can absolutely get rich in the board game industry. I've met both of them!"
jason10mm's Avatar
jason10mm replied the topic: #324654 13 Jul 2021 15:27
It is an interesting conundrum. This is called a "hobby" for a reason. How many board games, RPGs, etc are made by retired folks essentially for fun or as a passion project? This that the standard or the exception? Certainly there are spaces where this hobby can exist at a corporate level with HR departments, marketing budgets, art departments, etc but alot of the game companies I'm aware of (pre-asmodee acquisition madness perhaps) are solo or family ops with maybe a few semi-paid employees that do rely on contract or freelance work to get anything done.

This is a problem for paying ancillary folks like artists, editors, and even game designers. It's also a problem because the audience starts expecting ALL board game companies to act like the big ones in terms of production value, catering to critics and reviewers, and broad audience appeal when in fact a garage based game dev might be ecstatic over 500 game sales of a hand cut cardstock game and be happy with just a narrow appeal to just those couple hundred people because their motivation is the love of that project, not a plan for world domination driven by stockholders.

It's tough. One the one hand its probably pretty cool knowing your 500 words are read by SOMEONE, just a few years back that alone would have required printing services, an editor as gatekeeper, and limited distribution bandwidth. But of course the problem now is that there is always SOMEONE ELSE to write/blog/stream an opinion, thus the audience can just move on if they don't like what they see. There is a sort of supply glut due to the low bar to entry, not so much a demand problem.

Just know you'll drink for free should we cross paths at a game con :P
Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #324655 13 Jul 2021 15:28
Until recently this has been an industry where it was a relatively simple thing to get on a first-name basis with the people that publish games. I've developed a personal relationship with several designers and two publishers just from attending an occasional convention, one of which is quite small and near my house.

So at times I've edited materials, at no charge, because I didn't want the person I knew to put out B- material. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses after all. I didn't look at it as Exposure, just a favor to a friend.

And until recently, say 15 years ago, I think the industry was small and chummy enough that that kind of work happened all the time. Translations, rules reviews, playtesting, etc, were all something you did for the community.

With one publisher now dominant, how does one handle that? Your buddy Kevin is publishing his super-good worker placement title that's sure to change the industry through them. But he can't write a complete sentence to save his life. Do you leave it to Big Corp LLC to take care of it? Or do you help a buddy out?
Msample's Avatar
Msample replied the topic: #324658 13 Jul 2021 16:50
Its not just the industry, its the customers expecting free/cheap labor as well. Most customers have no idea how much part time/free work go into producing a game. Yet they'll bitch loud and long about prices or errors in games that are put together by poorly paid or free people working to put something out. Very few designers can afford to do it full time for a living, and for every one that does there are hordes that do it in their spare time. And unless you happen to design the next TWILIGHT STRUGGLE or MAGIC, the financial "rewards" for designing aren't that big. Even well known/respected designers are usually paid peanuts when you divide the pay by the hours put into a project. Developers ( when they are even utilized ) are even worse off - they usually get paid a flat fee vs any sort of royalty; if it paid closer to the worth a good developer is worth there might be more willing to what is largely an invisible and thankless job.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #324659 13 Jul 2021 17:25
I had no delusions about getting rich off my single published game, but my co-designer and I were still disappointed. We were offered the choice of a flat sum of $300 each or a royalty. We both took the flat sum, and that was the right decision because there was no second printing after the smallish first run sold out. And the retail price was only $14.99. We also got 3 free copies each of our game. I gave one to my parents, one to my girlfriend, and kept one for myself.
hotseatgames's Avatar
hotseatgames replied the topic: #324660 13 Jul 2021 17:46

Shellhead wrote: I had no delusions about getting rich off my single published game, but my co-designer and I were still disappointed. We were offered the choice of a flat sum of $300 each or a royalty. We both took the flat sum, and that was the right decision because there was no second printing after the smallish first run sold out. And the retail price was only $14.99. We also got 3 free copies each of our game. I gave one to my parents, one to my girlfriend, and kept one for myself.


The best part is seeing someone make a video about your game and get paid more than you did for making it.
Disgustipater's Avatar
Disgustipater replied the topic: #324661 13 Jul 2021 17:52
Not specific to gaming, but the r/ChoosingBeggars sub-reddit has tons of stories of people asking for free work (art, websites, etc.) in exchange for “exposure.” It’s crazy how many people think that is okay.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #324662 13 Jul 2021 18:00
I have no regrets. My co-designer and I did our game for fun and bragging rights. Just last month, I showed it off to a new friend who was looking at my game collection.
mtagge's Avatar
mtagge replied the topic: #324663 13 Jul 2021 18:42
Is it really the case that an artist (for example) would pick up new clients by getting their artwork on a MTG card? I don't get it. Certainly a portfolio would provide example of the quality of their artwork?

I'm skeptical that would make a difference in getting future work. The only thing you could demonstrate by working with someone is a volume of work, not a quality of work.
Robert Facepalmer's Avatar
Robert Facepalmer replied the topic: #324664 13 Jul 2021 19:19
You absolutely get another level of clients by being published on a Magic card. At that point it is essentially assumed that WoTC has vetted your portfolio and you can just put Magic: The Gathering 'whatever card/edition' as a reference.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #324672 14 Jul 2021 09:31
To paraphrase Hunter S. Thompson, “The board game business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side.”
Andi Lennon's Avatar
Andi Lennon replied the topic: #324723 16 Jul 2021 01:22

Shellhead wrote: I had no delusions about getting rich off my single published game, but my co-designer and I were still disappointed. We were offered the choice of a flat sum of $300 each or a royalty. We both took the flat sum, and that was the right decision because there was no second printing after the smallish first run sold out. And the retail price was only $14.99. We also got 3 free copies each of our game. I gave one to my parents, one to my girlfriend, and kept one for myself.


What was the name of your game man? I'd be keen to check it out.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #324725 16 Jul 2021 09:28

Andi Lennon wrote:

Shellhead wrote: I had no delusions about getting rich off my single published game, but my co-designer and I were still disappointed. We were offered the choice of a flat sum of $300 each or a royalty. We both took the flat sum, and that was the right decision because there was no second printing after the smallish first run sold out. And the retail price was only $14.99. We also got 3 free copies each of our game. I gave one to my parents, one to my girlfriend, and kept one for myself.


What was the name of your game man? I'd be keen to check it out.


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