How much does a Narrative Designer for video games earn?

  • Edwin McRae

Can pay the bills as a freelance narrative designer?

YES, although it very much depends on what your bills are. No, you won’t be living a Kardashian lifestyle on the proceeds from narrative design (ND) freelancing, but you can certainly make ends meet.

Since the games industry is still young and a bit ‘Wild West’, there are currently no internationally recognized standard rates for narrative designers. That was the consensus we came to over at Narrative House, my Discord narrative designers group.

Back in 2011, I started out on NZD$30 per hour with Path of Exile and NZD$40 per hour for shorter, one-off gigs with other clients. I was a regular contractor for Grinding Gear Games, so pretty much an off-site staff writer. I had a Masters in Scriptwriting and four years of TV writing experience under my belt. I was honestly making a lot more per hour in TV (NZD$70 per hour), but the culture was toxic and the work was soul-crushing. I needed a change!

Over the subsequent years in the games industry, I was able to push my freelancing rate up to where it is as of publishing this post (October 2020). NZD$100 per hour is my standard rate although I still give kiwi developers and international indies a 10% to 20% local discount. Narrative design is pretty intense work, so I can only really handle about 25 hours of it per week. My brain is utterly fried after the 30 hour mark leaving me unable to even string a sentence together. The rest of my productive time I devote to writing my books and blog posts. So you can do the maths on all that and see if it’s financially viable for you.

I improve my overall situation by running my little operation (Narrative Limited) as an LLC (Limited Liability Company). This means I can deduct expenses from my revenue and therefore only pay tax on what’s left over. You’ll need a book keeper and an accountant to help you run even a small LLC like I do, but my rule of thumb is this. If your book keeper and accountant (combined) save you more in tax than you pay them in fees then you’re on the winning side of the equation. When you’re just starting out, you may just want to keep things simple and be a sole trader. If you do this, please remember to put at least 20% of your revenue aside for tax. Throw it into a savings account and DO NOT TOUCH IT until the Sheriff of Nottingham comes a-calling.

If you’re just starting out as a narrative designer, DO NOT ACCEPT any pay rate that is under NZD$25 per hour. That’s the minimum rate established by Creative New Zealand for a junior creative in any creative industry.

And don’t give your work away for free. I fundamentally disagree with this whole ‘internship’ bullshit. Writing tests are understandable (if annoying), but they should never take you more than two hours to do. Any studio that expects more than that is a studio you should avoid like the plague. If they’re going to squeeze you like that at the beginning then they’re going to squeeze you every step of the way.

Okay, that’s the financial side of things sorted for now, Lorekeeper. In my next post I’ll dive into how best to promote yourself as a professional narrative designer.

Until then, if you want to know more about narrative design as a career, maybe take a look at Narrative Design for Writers




About Edwin McRae

Edwin is a narrative consultant and mentor for the games industry.

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