Rachel Presser is the founder of Sonic Toad Media. She's also a full-time hustler, part-time shitposter, and a constant traveler who feels that life is too short to wonder what could’ve been.
I’ve been in the video games industry in some capacity for eight years at the time of writing. To say that it’s been quite a journey is an understatement.
Indie game developers are frequently told by people in and outside of the industry alike, “Don’t quit your day job!” just as essayists, artists, and playwrights of yore were told the same thing. Given the vast amount of indie games produced these days, there’s definitely some validity to this statement.
But as someone who's never really had a day job work out, I’m not fond of this phrase. It screams “Don’t take any risk!” Which, oh yeah, making games is fraught with risk. Unlike other creative endeavors that can have a more immediate payoff, making games not only takes time (which means several months or even a few years of living expenses to account for) but also other expenses like paying other people to tackle the development aspects that you can’t, exhibiting, marketing—it’s a lot of cash and it blindsides you. It’s why people say not to quit your day job unless you’ve got a parent or spouse to support you.
Still, I don’t like this phrase and I do not like day jobs. My philosophy is “build the career and lifestyle that enables you to work on your own projects.” Because having both time and funding is so crucial for game developers, I knew I had to build an infrastructure that would give me the time I needed while not putting me into a position where I’m constantly fighting to get paid.
As the title surmises, I did that through building a small digital media business and focusing on web content! (Sonic Toad Media and Consulting, go check it out.)
Isn’t building a second business twice as much work (and risk)?
Maybe. But for a lot of us entrepreneurial types, especially those who don’t like being beholden to an investor or anyone who offers money with strings attached, we don’t know any other way.
Like “indie developer,” people tend to view “freelance writer” as a risky enterprise. It was something else I was told was impossible to pursue, let alone make good money from.
I proved them wrong.
Read How I Made $10,000 in a Month By Snarking on Furniture and McMansions. That right there is proof of my income, and it’s not the only source. It’s more than what any job ever paid me, and I did it in less time than a comparable job would demand. So if you’re in the video games industry and wondered how the hell I could afford all these conferences, paying a dev team without nickel-and-diming them, AND living in NYC plus at least one vacation a year: there’s your answer!
The abridged version of how I got to this point is that I lost my last salaried job in 2014, and freaked out like anyone would. I was supporting my game studio at the time with my salary, but I decided I didn't want to pursue another precarious day job in an industry I never even wanted to work in (finance, if you're curious). So, using my business experience from my accounting background and running Himalaya Studios, I started teaching business courses tailored for game developers. Then I began writing about these topics for Gamasutra and getting offers from universities to speak to students. I had stumbled into a career that was both fulfilling and paid well, but the precariousness persisted.
The longer version of this story is on a guest post I did for game marketing service Black Shell Media, where, to fast-forward things a bit: I realized after we got turned down by an investor that I didn’t want to grow a huge studio and head the next TellTale or Avalanche. I wanted to make my own totally out-there indie titles where I’d own my ideas and my labor, and I also needed a way to formalize the consulting work I was doing and the first few paid articles I picked up. Sonic Toad Media was born.
How I got well-paying clients to come to me
To market my consulting services, I wrote pieces for Gamasutra as often as I could. I’m not a fan of “working for exposure,” but when you’re in an industry as tiny as game development and you have an even tinier handful of authoritative publications, sometimes you have to do that kind of work to market yourself. By providing helpful content for free on Gamasutra, I got far more leads and paying clients than I could have by buying ads.
Gamasutra worked well for passively generating leads. But what about actively pursuing opportunities? Well—sometimes you have to get out there and start meeting people in person.
The ability to travel and attend conferences has given me some of the biggest boosts in my career. Even if not every single person I meet at a conference turns out to be a paying client or source for university gigs, in-person networking is an essential part of my business growth strategy. Yes, you need money to travel as often as I currently do, and not everyone can pull this off in the early stages of their career—which is why I kept my conference habit hyper-local when I was broke and my savings from my tax office job were dwindling. I only went to events where I could reasonably get there by subway, or perhaps a day trip out of Penn Station or Port Authority with free or cheap admission.
Having that regular presence at industry events, whether local or national, was crucial. I dove into this more in my Gamasutra feature about networking, and how people tend to view networking as this transactional one-time thing. Nope. Networking is a long game. Be patient unless the person you met at that event expressed an imminent need for someone with your talent. If you’re not able to afford to travel to the big conventions, head to Eventbrite or Meetup.com and look up free and cheap events close to you that meet regularly. Start one for your line of work if it doesn’t already exist!
But even networking can't always fix the precariousness of a contemporary career. What do you do when you’ve exhausted following up with every person you met but your long-acting digital methods like social and content aren’t working out?
Find a more consistent digital source of income.
Becoming a writer by accident (and a problem-solver on purpose)
One of my favorite creator origin stories is how best-selling Irish novelist Marian Keyes became a writer by accident. She was working at a law firm and someone accidentally came across her manuscript, thought it was great, and suddenly she’s sold millions of books.
I accidentally got into digital content in a similar way. A colleague at Playcrafting said I was a really good writer and should find ways to get paid for it. Then I realized how much money I could make with content writing and how easily it could fit into my life. When I managed to do an entire assignment on my iPad all the way from NYC to Raleigh for my first East Coast Game Developers’ conference, it hit me that I should take advantage of this flexible and portable income source to travel and make games.
If you’re adept enough with writing, you can make a nice living in way less time than it takes to work a day job. Some of my writing work even outpaces what I charge for consulting services nowadays.
Last year, I wrote a book for Freedom With Writing titled How to Earn a Living as a Content Writer. Here's one of the key takeaways: positioning is how I consistently secure good rates no matter what kind of work I do.
The first part of positioning entails a steady digital presence (social media, industry-specific clips, professional headshots, and a polished website) and proof of your accomplishments that’s easy to find. Having a high follower count on Twitter has helped me, even if my feed is full of political shitposting. Decked-out profiles on major content sites and lots of bylines help, as do all my past conference talks.
The other part of positioning involves learning how to solve other people's problems. For instance, in the content writing sphere, I found that games-related sites often had a difficult time getting editorial-quality writing with SEO-native writers—so I explained how I could provide both of those services simultaneously. Ditto for financial writing: most small accounting firms don’t always have good writers on board, and they’re too busy focusing on serving their clients to consistently create good content, but when they hire content writers they can’t find someone who knows tax law. That’s the pain point I focus on, when I go after those jobs.
If you want good clients who will pay you top dollar, it’s not enough to say “I did tech support for medium-sized businesses for six years.” Turn it around to “I’m a rockstar at dealing with middleware snags” or whatever other problem you’re good at solving.
Position yourself as a problem-solver and lean times will be far more infrequent.
How my freelance work helps me stay in the game
Many people don’t view me as a full-time game developer, and I suppose that I’m not. I do a lot of non-games work and games-adjacent projects to pay the bills. But I don't do "games on the side" like I would if I was holding down a day job. The games industry is still the primary focal point of my media company, whether I'm writing, consulting, or working on my own indie titles.
What I love about my freelance work is that I get the job done, I solve the client’s problem, then I go back to my life. I have enough money to pay my bills, save a little, enjoy some of the finer things in life, and pay my dev team. I get to travel! I attend conferences, punk festivals, game jams, you name it. I also take on-site teaching and speaker gigs at universities, with private game dev collectives, and with B2B clients who want to build or improve their relationship with the games industry, which just adds to the variety and excitement (not to mention my frequent flier miles and tax deductions).
Would I maybe have more time to work solely on the games if I sought outside funding for my projects? Perhaps, but then I’d have constraints.
For example: Instead of putting time, resources, and nonstop engagement into a Kickstarter campaign for my current title, I’m better off sticking with a client that pays more than what many full-time games industry and marketing jobs pay for about 25% of the time suck. (Throw in Kickstarter fulfillment, keeping up with backers, and taxes, and I’m definitely better off with my current revenue mix.)
Likewise, if I went the traditional publication route, I wouldn't get paid by the publisher until my game reached certain milestones, which is difficult when you have a chronic illness that randomly strikes and robs you even if you’ve gone over a month without a flare-up. While publishers can offer immense resources for both frameworks and marketing, I’m less stressed at the prospect of using my own money because I can do whatever I want with it. I can use a lo-fi engine like Ren’Py and make the game as long and twisty as I want, choose my own contractors, and be unafraid to take a stand with the game’s messaging without worrying what a higher-up might think of it.
And, while going the investor route is pretty much required if you want to grow a huge company, I don’t want a huge company. I want the freedom to do what I want with my time, own my labor, and think it’s only fair my contractors get a cut of the royalties as well which is something most investors wouldn’t like. I’m content to work on lo-fi engines and small teams with enough time to have a life, and the past few years have shown me this. I’m happy to have gotten my rates high enough to get rid of my lowest-paying content and consulting clients, and have flexible deadlines so I can devote 2-3 days at a time to game development while fitting my paid work around it, instead of the other way around.
When I read Lauren Bacall’s autobiography (when doing research some years back for a game I ultimately put on the backburner), she discussed how her film career subsidized her love of stage acting. Maybe I’m nowhere near the same level as her, but I read that book right around the time I lost my shitty financial job then changed careers for good and it gave me a similar idea I didn’t put into motion til a year later. Today, I’m open to whatever the universe brings next, and am full of gratitude that I get to do work I find fun and fulfilling and earn more than any day job ever paid me.