Last week, Slate.com published an article focused on our game, Wingspan. It is, in a way, a love letter from the article’s author (Dan Kois) to the game, birds in general, and designer Elizabeth Hargrave. I’m always happy to see our designers (and artists like Natalia and Ana) given the spotlight in articles like this. Plus, it’s a joyful article about the game, and that’s the whole point of why we make games here at Stonemaier.

There’s one paragraph in the article that made me pause and dwell on over the last few days. Part of it is that there are some factually inaccurate statements in the paragraph. The other part was a realization that we can do better to serve our designers via our approach to advances at Stonemaier Games.

Inaccuracies and Corrections

The paragraph in question is about halfway through the article. It talks about Elizabeth struggling at first (in 2016) to find a publisher for a game–then called Bring in the Birds–that involved feeding a variety of birds and playing them as fast as possible in front of you. It was a cards-only game, there was no engine-building or sense of progression, and it was a race to play a certain number of birds.

To fit alongside Stonemaier’s catalog of games, the core gameplay needed some work. But I knew from designing Viticulture, Euphoria, and Scythe just how hard it is to design a few dozen unique cards where the theme directly inspired the mechanisms, and Elizabeth had done that for nearly 100 cards in the early version of the game.

Just based on those cards, I knew there was potential for a great game to emerge from what Elizabeth had created. So I offered to help Elizabeth expand the scope of the game and completely redesign the core mechanisms to add a strong sense of progression. There was no guarantee that Elizabeth would even select Stonemaier Games as the publisher during that time–it was my hope she would, especially after time I spent playtesting and offering feedback on the early prototypes, but I didn’t know. I just wanted Elizabeth to have the best possible version of the game, and she seemed open to the collaboration.

This is where Slate’s accounting of the story veers from reality, or at least the entire reality of what unfolded:

“That meant another half-year of unpaid work before Stegmaier accepted her revision and agreed to manufacture the game.”

It’s true that no one paid Elizabeth to design her game, but at the time it was very much her game. I have the contract right in front of me–we didn’t sign Wingspan (which still had the working title “Bring in the Birds”) until February 2017. The article provides the odd and misleading implication that publishers should pay designers before either party has agreed to officially work with the other.

The paragraph ends with the following sentence that is even more misleading:

“Hargrave, as a first-time designer, received no advance, so until the game sold, she wouldn’t see a dime.”

Elizabeth’s status (in 2017) as a first-time designer had absolutely nothing to do with her not getting an advance. Rather, it simply isn’t standard practice in the game industry to pay advances. I’m not against the concept, and we have paid advances whenever designers (or even artists) have asked, but it simply never came up as something Elizabeth wanted.

As for the second part of the sentence, it’s also not accurate. There is, though, something to be said about people/companies not seeing a dime until products have sold–that’s how business works. Stonemaier Games spent $150,000 on the art, graphic design, manufacturing costs, and freight shipping on Wingspan, and we didn’t earn anything from the English-language version of the game until we sold the first copy in January 2019.

Also, though, Stonemaier Games pays royalties to designers on revenue received every single month when we receive any revenue, regardless of whether or not the game has sold any copies (I think most publishers pay designers quarterly). As a result, Elizabeth actually received her first royalty payment in October 2018, well before anyone bought the game on our webstore in January 2019 or from a retailer in March 2019. Why? Because we and our designers are fortunate to have the support of dozens of localization partners from whom we start to receive revenue when their games enter production.

That one paragraph doesn’t detract from a lovely article about Wingspan and Elizabeth. I just think that an article that could inspire dozens of diverse game designers should also paint an accurate portrayal of how the designer-publisher relationship works. I strive for that relationship to be supportive, caring, and compassionate (and I think the vast majority of publishers do the same), not exploitive.

Advances and Stonemaier Games

Despite the paragraph’s errors, I did learn something from processing it: It isn’t good enough for Stonemaier Games to simply offer an open door for our designers to request an advance if desired. As unintended as it is, it creates the awkwardness of putting the impetus on the designer.

So effective immediately for all new games published by Stonemaier Games (at least those that aren’t designed by me, as I don’t receive a royalty for my games), I’ve added a paragraph to the contract that says the following:

“Upon signing this contract, Publisher agrees to send a one-time advance on royalties of $10,000 to the Designer. This is the Designer’s money to keep even if (a) the game isn’t published, (b) the Designer decides to stop working on the design, or (c) the game’s royalties never cover the advance.”

Perhaps there are other contingencies this doesn’t cover, but I tried to consider any possibilities of “friction” in regards to paying a designer before we actually start to receive revenue for the product:

the game isn’t published: There are various circumstances that could lead to this situation, and almost all of them are our responsibility.
the designer decides to stop working on the design: Zappos famously once had the practice of offering new employees $2,000 to quit. They figured if someone is so unhappy working at Zappos that they’d rather have $2,000 now instead of a long-term salary with benefits and perks, it’s worth the expense to spend their invaluable time, energy, and resources on those who want to work there. I figured this philosophy can apply to advances too.
the game’s royalties never cover the advance: The $10,000 amount isn’t entirely set in stone, as a small expansion might not ever receive enough revenue to cover such royalties. But $10,000 is the target, one that I think is reasonable for us to attain for most products.

What do you think of this approach? While my impression is that most publishers don’t offer advances on royalties in their standard contracts, I’m curious to learn about other approaches and philosophies. Also, importantly, I hope that any designer who reads about this new Stonemaier Game policy is understanding if their publisher of choice handles advances differently (as long as you’re heard and treated with respect).

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