Tales from the Loneliest Frontier:
I haven't quite managed to wipe the smile off my face yet.
On Friday, March 23rd, I hosted the first installment of what will hopefully become an annual GDC tradition: a roundtable gathering freelancers from all corners of the game industry. To be honest, my expectations for the session were pretty low: I had asked for an early-morning time slot (so I wouldn't fall asleep midway through), I had no idea how many freelancers were actually in the field, some roundtables have been known to degenerate into shouting matches or self-indulgent monologues, and the roundtable rooms are located about as far away from the conference's main concourse as you can get without taking a boat, so I would have been tickled pink if 7 people showed up. Especially if at least a couple of them were willing to talk once in a while.
Boy, was I in for a surprise.
When all was said and done, about 18 people attended, most of them contributed valuable insights, and they were so well-behaved that my meager skills were quite sufficient to handle the moderation process. The participants included artists, programmers, writers, designers, producers, at least one musician and even a few people who actually hire freelancers for their own projects. (They were quite popular.) Most of the participants were active professionals, including a few 10+ year veterans of the business; there were also a handful of people looking at entering the business or moving from traditional employment to a freelance lifestyle. Overall, a very interesting mix of people.
Major topics of discussion included the following:
The Freelance Lifestyle
Some of the participants have become freelancers by choice. Being able to control one's working hours, doing away with the mandatory unpaid overtime endemic in the games business, or plainly being able to live and work in a pleasant environment were all mentioned as reasons to forego the (all too relative) safety of a regular paycheck. Other freelancers, specifically writers, have adopted the lifestyle more or less by force, because there are few full-time jobs to be had in their area of expertise. Still, few would consider giving it up and returning to full-time employment.
Game development freelancers tend to spend most of their time working at home or in their own offices, with more or less frequent visits to the client's premises. (Somewhat surprisingly, there seemed to be little correlation between the length of an assignment and the probability that a client would require in-house work.) Location is sometimes, but not always, an issue; while some participants get most of their work from nearby companies, others report working with (and subcontracting to) people all over the Western world.
Finally, participants with families reported unanimous, unconditional support for their choice of work arrangements from their loved ones. This is a necessity: given the financial risks involved, it would be almost impossible to run a freelance business over the objections of a spouse.
Securing Freelance Assignments
Attendees spent a good deal of time sharing marketing tips. Common ways to obtain freelance assignments include:
- Word of mouth. Still the most effective way to go. Former coworkers, former clients who move from company to company and people you meet at conferences and trade shows are likely prospects for future assignments. (Personally, about 75% of my business has come this way.) Contacts at local schools and papers may also be quite valuable, as people outside of the mainstream game industry may ask them for referrals when they have a one-time game project to produce.
- Direct mailings. One attendee said that he maintained a database of hundreds of companies and contacts, and sent them information about himself regularly. Cold calling is most efficient when done while the freelancer does not require immediate work; companies are more likely to get openings months down the road than at the exact moment you contact them.
- Self-promotion. Make yourself visible: write articles, talk at GDC, attend local IGDA chapter meetings, open a web site, etc. This, however, is a long-haul effort.
Convincing a potential client to go with a freelancer instead of a full-time employee may require some doing. One attendee said that he uses improved communication as a selling point: when a freelancer is involved (especially a remote one), a team must be better organized and information must flow in a more formal, explicit way, or else the freelancer's talents will go to waste. Furthermore, in some areas, office space is so expensive that hiring a remote freelancer becomes far cheaper than brining someone in. Convincing the client that you provide more value for his money, whether through unique expertise or lower cost, is key.
An important topic for any freelancer is how to select an effective hourly rate. On the one hand, no one wants to price themselves out of the market; on the other hand, this is a business, and most of us would like to make good money at it.
A safe rule of thumb in any freelance business is to assume no more than 1,000 billable hours a year when setting your price. Marketing, bookkeeping, research, contract negotiations and a million other activities that can't be billed to client will nibble away at your productive time.
Other contract-related tips discussed at the roundtable include:
- When dealing with a new client, keep the first assignment small (i.e., $1,000 or less) and don't do anything else for them until they pay. This way, you can weed out the crooks at limited expense; for an individual, suing a corporation is usually too expensive to be worth the trouble, and some people will feel little incentive to pay you once they have nothing else to ask for.
- Make sure that the contract includes a clause protecting you from unreasonable demands for revisions. One attendee reported such demands coming several months after initial acceptance of the work.
- Try to avoid flat fees, especially for ill-defined assignments. If you charge them by the hour, clients will think twice before abusing your time.
- Try to avoid linking your payments to other people's milestones. I have had to live with this in two different occasions. In one case, a portion of my payment was due when the game went gold, and so it slipped by several months when the game did; everyone was in good faith, and I love these guys to death, so it's no big deal, but it could have caused a cash-flow problem. In the other case, I am still waiting for a large chunk of a game design payment almost two years after delivery; not a chance of good faith in that one.
- Know your local tax code. And if you have to make quarterly advance payments, err on the side of caution and make the checks bigger rather than smaller, because the penalties and interest charged by governments can put you in the hole for a long, long time.
Overall, the roundtable provided for a most stimulating discussion. Thanks to Dan, Eric, Allen, JFW and everyone else who showed up, thanks to Jason and the IGDA for giving me this opportunity, and I hope to see you next year!