GDC 2002 Moderator's Report: The Freelancer's Roundtable
The second edition of the freelancers' roundtable, held at the 2002 Game Developers Conference, attracted a total of approximately 40 participants split over 3 sessions. (Last year, the roundtable was part of the IGDA track, was held only once, and attracted about 18 people.)
Unfortunately, over 60% of the participants came to the first day's session, which left the other two somewhat depleted; the second session, in particular, hosted only a couple of seasoned freelancers among several newbies, so that the conversation and the advice were not quite as diverse as I would have hoped for.
The State Of The Business
Participants agreed that freelancers have continued to grow in numbers and diversity in the last year. Many reasons explain the lifestyle's popularity:
- In this industry, the security of full-time employment is a myth anyway. The frequent layoffs and closures have caused many developers to loosen their emotional attachments with their employers.
- Studios shrink their permanent staff as they adopt a model somewhat similar to that of the film industry: keep a small core of people for pre-production, and bring in specialists on a per-project basis.
- While they were mostly the domain of amateurs in years past, virtual teams existing only on the internet are becoming more viable as commercial, professional ventures.
- Quality of life issues: freelancers don't have to relocate, can avoid oppressive work environments, and bill every hour of work performed.
- Ownership: a freelance contract may protect your rights to your work, should the employer go bankrupt or decide not to use it. As an employee, this type of protection is much harder to get.
Participants also reported the following trends:
- 9/11 had little impact, except for a few people who reported an increase in assignments shortly after the events, as publishers wanted to ship products quickly.
- There is a fair bit of freelance work to be had in Eastern Europe, Australia and South Africa. The relative lack of seasoned developers in these areas provides opportunities for freelancers, because startup companies are eager to bring in outside help to get their business rolling.
- Small and medium-sized studios provide most freelancing opportunities, because large companies prefer to outsource the entire project rather than bits and pieces.
- Collectives are beginning to appear: freelancers band together to handle larger assignments or facilitate marketing.
- However, competition has increased as quickly as opportunity.
The freelancer's most effective marketing tool is trust. Participants report that most of their clients are past employers, old partners or referrals from satisfied customers.
Thus, the smart freelancer never takes on more work than she can handle. One participant noted that, every time he told a client that he couldn't accept a new mandate given its deadlines, the client came back - and often even waited for him to become available, postponing the deadlines accordingly. And of course, it is much easier to obtain new assignments from clients who have already been satisfied with your performance in the past.
Other marketing techniques mentioned by the participants include:
- Getting samples of past work into people's hands.
- Talking to companies that look for full-time staff, demonstrating an undeniable expertise, and demanding freelance status. However, this "bait and switch" approach can be dangerous...
- Making friends with producers, since they are the ones on the front line - and the ones most likely to suggest names when an assignment becomes available. Producers who move around from company to company are especially valuable allies, as they get your name in the door in several places.
- Making yourself known, by speaking at conferences and writing in industry publications.
The web sites where contracts are auctioned should be avoided. No one in the roundtable reported a positive experience with them.
Pearls of Wisdom
Finally, some of the participants shared advice on the effective management of a freelance business.
- Enjoy downtime. If you have done your homework, the phone will ring again; you don't have to work all the time.
- Have 6 months covered. Set aside enough to live on for half a year, and you will have an easier time following the previous pearl's advice.
- Price yourself high enough. Ask for too little, and the client will assume that you are worthless. Besides, it is easier to get 1000 hours of work at $50 an hour than 2000 hours at $25 anyway.
- Apply the Rule of 800. When setting your rates, assume no more than 800 billable hours per year.
It seems clear that the freelance lifestyle is gaining in popularity. However, since the only freelancers who can afford to attend a conference like the GDC are by definition the most successful ones, it is likely that a sizable share of the roundtable's audience will remain comprised of full-time employees looking for information on how to make the switch to a freelance business.
Therefore, it might be beneficial to cut back the number of sessions from 3 to 2 for any future installments of the roundtable. This would help ensure a more useful discussion, as each session will contain a larger number of seasoned practitioners who can share their experiences.