Welcome to “How I Became,” a new Lifehacker series where I ask real people about how they really got their jobs. This week I had the pleasure of chatting with Devon Lara Lucas, freelance board game content developer. I met Lucas in 2016 when I was an intern at Hasbro; I was learning the ropes on the Monopoly team, while she was the writer in charge for more adult-leaning party games (ever play Midnight Taboo?).
The job title “freelance board game content developer” means that, broadly speaking, Lucas writes words for games—funny phrases, interesting trivia, you name it. The job also involves tons of research, and for some clients, she writes the game rules and package copy. Here’s my interview with Lucas about how this games writer came to be, and how you might be able to follow her footsteps.
What does the typical career path look like for a board game writer?
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Most game writers get a B.A. in writing, journalism, English, or something similar. It’s also a good idea to get an internship at a toy/games company (like Hasbro or Mattel) that you can then turn into a full-time or freelance gig.
And how did you personally get into this line of work?
I have a B.A. in creative writing (and lighting design for theater). After working over 20 jobs in various industries post-graduation, I worked as a freelance copywriter for a handful companies, and then worked for a major toy company for five years as the Content Developer for Party Games. I wasn’t previously aware of the company or even knew that you could get a job writing content, rules, and package copy and get paid to play games in meetings!
I left the company and pursued freelance work and am fortunate to be in an industry where people move around a lot, so everyone knows each other. Word of mouth has been huge for my business. I also utilize industry events like Toy Fair, where I pound the pavement introducing myself to everyone who makes content games. I’m also a member of the Women in Toy Association, a good place for making contacts.
What are some of the best parts of your work?
I love getting into a groove and being lost in the writing and then realizing something is going to make the game that much more fun, or how much it will make someone laugh. I have a reputation for writing weird stuff that’s completely out of the box. Just bananas, “wait, what?” things. I’ve worked on some very adult party games—definitely a favorite—but I love the silly stuff for kids just as much. I appreciate how the projects vary from each other. Trivia is a completely different beast than funny phrases on an action card or challenges for a physical game. If it were the same thing over and over again, I would be so bored. And the culmination of it all is that I can walk into a store and see it on shelf. Such a gratifying moment.
What’s not so great about it?
In the freelance world, it’s feast or famine. I might have multiple companies and projects at the same time forcing me to switch brains as I juggle the different concepts. But then I might spend a few weeks drifting in a sea of kitten videos, checking my email every two seconds.
What’s changing in the sector?
Games were especially hot during the pandemic, even more so than before it, so now that we’re dealing with a new “normal,” the industry is suffering a bit. People want to be out of their houses rather than locked in it. As a freelance person, I can’t call someone up and say, “Just make the game anyway and pay me money to help!” They have their own staff to worry about. But it feels like it might be in an upturn. That’s why those emails make a difference, reminding people that you’re out there, ready to write.
What kinds of people do well in this industry?
Weirdos who can write well. But you must be willing to do a ton of research and be good at extracting the correct knowledge from it. You have to know your audience—research helps here, too! And if you can come up with concepts that will enhance the game, you become even more valuable. You also need to be willing to put yourself out there and knock on doors and introduce yourself.
What are the different salary ranges?
Honestly, I’m not even sure. It’s freelance. I have hourly rates and project rates. Budgets are all over the place.
How many hours do you actually work?
Every week is different. It’s definitely not a full-time job. If it’s a busy week, I’ll do anywhere from 20-25 hours. An average week is around 10-15 hours. Some are lost to the void.
What does a typical workday look like?
Depending on the game, I might be researching and writing trivia; I might be creating lists of words or phrases that fit within a specific criteria; I might be reading articles and deep-diving research to make sure I’m nailing the desired audience or slang or tone; I might be creating the voice of the game as well as the content; I might be watching a show that a game is based off of to understand the characters better, or writing trivia about it; I might be writing a script for an electronic toy or writing lyrics to a popular song with words that relate to a character; I might be recording lines that I’ve written; I might be utilizing an apparatus that’s used to play the game; I might be writing and doing physical challenges to see what works and what doesn’t; I might be writing for kids or adults and have to change language and comprehension depending on that; I might be proofreading and editing art work; I might be Americanizing a British game to make sure it works in this country and writing content to replace what doesn’t; I might be reviewing previous versions of a game to ensure content freshness; I might be looking at competitor games to see what they’ve done and avoid plagiarism; I might be doing rounds with the clients based on what I’ve provided them; I might be meeting with them on Zoom.
Those hours are all billable straight out. But a lot of the work is in my head brainstorming, so I have to bill those hours accordingly. Pen to paper might be considered “actual” work, but there’s a lot swirling in my mind at all times and I have to be creative and fair in making sure that I’m compensated for those hours as well.
What didn’t you know before you got into this industry that you wish someone had told you?
I wish I had known about [the industry] earlier. I wish I’d known that you could get paid to make weird stuff up and play games with people. I’m happy with where I am, and I can even say that I’m happy I worked all those jobs—minus delivering pizzas for a week. That sucked—but I do wonder what it would have been like if I’d pursued writing right from the beginning after graduation.
What job search advice would you give to someone interested in this role?
Look for jobs in the toy industry. I wouldn’t be able to be doing this on my own if I’d never had those years in a brick and mortar. It doesn’t have to be a giant one, there are a ton of grass roots companies out there. They have emails; just write them a lil’ note. Put yourself out there!