An Offer I Passed On

Started by Jason Morningstar, March 30, 2009, 02:41:45 PM

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Jason Morningstar

So Alderac Entertainment Group just got in touch with me, to offer me a job.  Here are the specifics:

I'd sign an NDA and then they'd show me their new property.  Then, between now and 15 May, I'd write a game for them based on their property as a "trial assignment". 

The terms would be as follows:

I wouldn't retain any rights and I wouldn't get paid.  Several other people would be writing a game based on the same property simultaneously. 

The best would be published, and that person would be invited to produce more stuff for Alderac, with pay, if the initial roll-out was a success.

I politely declined.  Is this a common arrangement?

Eero Tuovinen

Does seem sort of typical. This does not mean that I approve. I've turned down similar offers. I'd now burst into a hateful rant about NDAs, work-for-hire and artistic freedom, except it wouldn't be productive, and AEG is doing nothing wrong from their own viewpoint.

Perhaps the point I find most curious is that when I've encountered similar set-ups, either the reward has been a staff position or the required trial has been a design concept sketch, not a full-blown game. So this seems somewhat stingy - maybe it's the economy? Seems screwy to me that they want people to put up with a major admission routine for what amounts to a freelance job. Seems to me that it wouldn't be that difficult to compare portfolios, choose a freelancer and make payment contingent on delivery of whatever they want. That's how freelancers work after all, you use them because you don't want to get married with a staff relationship.
Blogging at Game Design is about Structure.
Publishing Zombie Cinema and Solar System at Arkenstone Publishing.


Well this way they get a whole game for free, it looks like.

I'm appalled.


Jason Morningstar

The AEG guy was apologetic about the terms and recognized that they don't sound very good.  He promised me it would be a great foot in the door.

Adam Riemenschneider

Yikes. Compare this to any other industry for a sanity check.

Home builders, web designers, mechanics, bartenders... don't work 6 weeks without pay, as some kind of twisted job interview process! They get paid, dammit... and so should game designers!

Just because I like my job doesn't mean I'll do it for free!

And ugh! A great foot in the door? Really? Seems like it sets up a really terrible beginning to the employer-employee relationship to me.


Creator and Publisher of Other Court Games.

Christoph Boeckle

This reminds me of Ron's War Story, without the manipulation. I find it really disgusting that they can be so up-front about such disastrous conditions, it means people actually bite the bait.

Lance D. Allen

Now, I could see this being a reasonable offer to, say, Joe Schmoe Alderac fan. A guy with no idea how to get started in the industry, who's already a big fan of the games put out by the company, and no other options for becoming published. It's vaguely (though not nearly as sweet a deal) the same thing that happened with Eberron (FWIW, I was part of a RP community whose chief creative mind put the setting forth as a contender in that contest).

But to offer this to Jason Morningstar, published game designer with.. what? Two popular published games, and another upcoming that's been getting some buzz? Someone who's got option #2 of "How about I write a game about my own property, guarantee that I'll publish it AND get paid?"

I think there are some people in "the industry" who think this indie thing is just something to do until one of the big names recognizes you. Didn't Vincent get a similar offer a little while back?
~Lance Allen
Wolves Den Publishing
Eternally Incipient Publisher of Mage Blade, ReCoil and Rats in the Walls


Sounds like a pretty raw deal to me.

A foot in the door? A door leading to where? I don't mean much disrespect, but um, Alderac not so long ago laid off about 80% of its staff. Not exactly a prize "getting your foot in the door" with a place recently downsized and not necessarily showing any indications of major growth on the horizon.

I guess they expected you to act like a fanboy or something and be happy to work for free. lol.

Ryan S. Johnson
Guild of Blades Retail Group -
Guild of Blades Publishing Group -
1483 Online -

Ryan S. Johnson
Guild of Blades Publishing Group


Wow.  Yeah, that "foot in the door" comment is at best ignorant and at worst down right insulting.  You know, because The Shab-al-Hiri Roach and Grey Ranks aren't "real" or anything.



I did something similar at the radio station I work at right now: since I had no experience in radio, they had me perform two weeks of unpaid training, and for the last week, they filled a position they didn't need to pay for. But the promise there was also a guaranteed job at the end (assuming I wasn't a complete fuck-up). That was only two weeks, and even if I hadn't been hired, I would have had a new marketable skill set and job experience I could have taken elsewhere.

But imagine if they had forced me to sign a five-year non-compete clause before I started the training, and the training lasted six weeks? So if I didn't get the job I couldn't go to another station to find work based on their training? That would have been six weeks of free work for them from me, work from which their business would have earned literally thousands of dollars.

Let's say a stranger approaches you and asks you to paint their entire house for them, for free, for a home design contest with tens-of-thousands of dollars as the prize. They give you the colors they want, but you have to buy the materials: paint, brushes, dropcloths, etc. And if they like your paint job AND they win the prize money, they'll definitely hire you to paint another house sometime down the road and pay you this time. But you won't get any of the prize money or payment of any sort whatsoever. You supply the materials, and the time, and the sweat. If they DON'T like it, they ignore you and they take ownership of any materials left-over by the project because you signed a contract that all of that material became theirs. You did six weeks of hard work and have nothing to show for it nor anything you yourself can use from that six weeks of work.

Basically, this is a slimy way for someone to get work they need done for them done for free, and make money from it without spending any themselves. There should be laws against scams like this...and I note that in the fiction and literature fields there ARE.

This is what is casually referred to as a "rip-off". Anyone who approaches you and tells you they'll publish your book for you and your payment will be "a foot in the door" or "good exposure" is scamming you. It's a step down, though not much of one, from someone having you perform a service for them and you paying them for the privilege of your doing so.

What makes this a scam is that in this case IF you win, they make money off your work and you don't and you don't even retain rights to your work! If you lose, you can't take your work elsewhere to another publisher. That's six weeks of work you will likely get nothing out of, except what you would normally get from a query letter that took you an hour to write up. While they get a whole game designed and tested for them AND any money made out of it!

THAT is a load of fucking nonsense, and I can not believe people still fall for it out of a starry-eyed sense of working with someone soooo cool they're big fans of. No, the way it works in the actual business world is: "I do work for you that you pay me for."

So I don't agree with Eero's assessment that AEG isn't doing anything wrong from their perspective, or that this is a good offer even to just a fan. If AEG truly believes that, they lack basic business ethics. Legitimate, ethical publishers pay YOU for the work you do FOR them. They do not hold fake contests that the winner doesn't benefit from (no, "a foot in the door" and "exposure" are NOT benefits; really, honestly, truly they are not; "exposure" isn't a guarantee of anything, much less of any future money or work).
Rev. Ravenscrye Grey Daegmorgan
Wild Hunt Studio

C. Edwards

From my experiences over the last year I think I can safely say that yes, employers at every level, in every category, are using the current economic conditions to take full advantage of people. It's a buyer's market, all around.

Gregor Hutton

I can see two sides to this...

(1) A publisher is just making use of available resources: fanboys/girls wishing to get a foot in the door as published RPG writers (akin to "I'd do ANYTHING to be on TV") -- so it's probably a somewhat typical arrangement (though most commonly with scenarios or monsters). The problem for the publisher is that these are likely to be enthusiastic but unpolished designers and will need editorial work and guidance. So I'm not shocked that a publisher would offer this deal to people and see if they get bites, something they can publish and maybe find a diamond in the rough. Still, this goes beyond "fan" stuff as they're getting the book(s) for free, right, so I personally think it's morally bankrupt.

(2) To offer a deal like that to someone who won the Diana Jones Award this last year is, pardon my French, a fucking joke. I'm astounded that someone would do that. It's not like they can't read the Roach and Grey Ranks to "evaluate" Jason's writing and games design ability. Jason, I would surmise, was far too polite in his turning them down. His work is out there and he doesn't have to prove anything to anybody. This blows my mind. They approached you, right?

It's a timely post, though. I was at Conpulsion in Edinburgh this last weekend and we had a few seminars. Martin Dougherty (who has a real ability to hammer out stuff) made some really good points about working for hire in his talk on making a living as a writer. His first question when offered work is always"you are going to pay me, right?" and his sage advice was that an answer of "no" should make you walk away.

Jason Morningstar

Yeah, just to be clear, they approached me out of the blue, through BPG's generic email address, asking to contact me directly.  I'm never going to be rude but it clearly wasn't in my best interests and I found the whole approach a little surprising.

Gregor Hutton

Oh, and to be clear on my point of view: I have no problem with a publisher contacting someone out of the blue and saying "We like your published work and we have a position available. Would you like to be considered for the job? You would need to submit a writing and design test to see if you can do what we need with our properties." (after all, their style/IP may be different from what you can do). However, "Write me a book for free and we'll get back to you" is just too much for me.

Would they do the same to Wolfgang Baur? Or how about Greg Stafford, etc.?

Maybe they did?! You could be in good company.

Ron Edwards

This is an opportunity to discuss a point, among us here in this thread.

In our hobby culture, some companies are considered "the big ones." This phrasing implies a degree of solvency, genuine market presence (as opposed to mere shelf presence), and widespread adoption of the company's games. As you know, I frequently question whether those implications are valid.

I've seen these tactics directed toward a number of other people like Luke, Jared, and Clinton, from all the various "big ones." I used to receive less hammer-like feelers a while ago, but that stopped around 2005.

(Side point: They're also common tactics among what I like to think of as the "envious of nothing special" companies, who'd very much like to be AEG and constantly mine the independent scene for talent to squeeze dry. That's what happened to Ferry Bazelmans' Soap.

The question is what these tactics tell us about these companies, especially the ones with the "popular," "big" culture-label. I guess they could indicate one of two things. Either ...

1. These companies are big and solvent and gleaming, in which case the tactics are kind of a casual, secondary policy to see whether anything else might be snapped up during the ordinary, already-profitable course of the day. If you're a big fish feeding on big food, you can afford to pick off tasty tidbits if you feel like it, and why bother cutting a tidbit a fair deal when your goal is to eat it anyway?

2. These companies are smoke and mirrors, bankrupt of ideas, desperate to maintain their shelf-space driven illusion of "bigness," and all too aware of Ken Hite's point that "boutique" RPG publishing (i.e., you and me) may collectively outweigh the rest in both profit and and content by a fair margin. In which case, the tactics in question are no more than pathetic, except that they're dangerous when directed toward relative newcomers to the publishing scene who don't know any better than to laugh at them.

Hey, here's another thought. You know who I'd like to hear from in all this? The folks at Arc Dream Publishing. Because they put out some cool stuff lately (Monsters and Other Childish Things), and if I'm not mistaken, their business model is far closer to independent and, at the least, is directly oriented toward the success of the creative people involved (Ben Baugh, Greg Stolze). I respect Dennis Detwiller and Shane Ivey, and I can't imagine that they'd pull any such bullshit to recruit material or people. I mean, it's all very well for me and you, here, to snort and roll our eyes at AEG in this and (oh so many) other cases, but of course - we would, wouldn't we? That's why I'd like to see the perspective from a company which is somewhat closer to the traditional construction, yet totally does not screw anyone over, including creative participants.

Huh. I think I'll email Shane and see if he wants to hop in. I hope it's clear that this isn't a "call-out" but rather a chance to extend this incident into a more generally-useful discussion.

Best, Ron