Breaking freelance: Top tips for contracting in game development

Breaking freelance: Top tips for contracting in game development
Will Freeman

By Will Freeman

March 3rd 2014 at 2:30PM

Whether you’re considering going freelance for the first time, or are employed at a studio that tackles contracting work, Develop has expert advice you can’t afford to miss

For almost as long as there have been video games, there has been talk of the day they would collide with films. What many failed to predict, however, was that the collision would begin with the games industry increasingly aping studio models established in Hollywood.

Today, more development outfits than ever before have embraced working with increasing numbers of contractors and freelancers, scaling team sizes up and down just as their contemporaries at film studios globally have done for decades. It’s not an entirely new trend in the games industry, but the number of companies adopting the model today is higher than ever.

As a result, opportunities abound for freelancers and studios that take on contracting work. But learning the fine art of working for clients takes some doing and there are many pitfalls, from securing new work to dealing with erratic clients. For that very reason, Develop has spoken to dozens of experienced freelancers, and here they share with you the lessons they’ve learned, to help you better your chances in the competitive world of freelance and contracting.

SECTION 1: NEW TO FREELANCE OR CONTRACTING?

For those about to embark on a freelance career or take on contract work for the first time, there is much to learn about how you can set up shop. Fortunately, we’ve got the most important first lessons right here.

“Companies aren’t looking to hire freelancers who will learn on the job – they are paying you to arrive with the skills and knowledge they need. If you’re new to the industry or to your particular field, make sure you get experience by either working in a professional team or on individual projects before you try to do serious freelance work.” Cat Burton, Unity Developer

“You don’t get to be an artist until you’ve been a salesperson. So, if you don’t honestly enjoy pitching, you’ll find freelancing very uncomfortable. It’s sensible to study the process of a sale and apply it in your conversations with potential clients. It’s easy to meander and forget to close the deal." Rob Yescombe, Writer and Creative Director

“If you’re starting out without a lot of experience, look for bedroom coders or microstudios to work for in order to gain experience. It’s not where the money is, but if these studios are successful there’s a good chance you’ll be able to keep working with them. If they’re not, these people will most likely end up working in other studios and contacts count for a lot when you’re out chasing work later in your career.” Nick Scurfield, Illustrator

“Find a studio you would love to work for, and really research the artwork/artists that they use. Practice until you are producing work as good as – or even better – than they have already. Then form a small showreel or mini portfolio with the work in it and send it to the person highest up the food chain in the studio as possible. This should really impress as they may think ‘why the heck haven’t we hired this person yet?’” Woody Stables, Illustrator and Artist

SECTION 2: FINDING WORK

Once you’ve set up your business, you need to find work. There are opportunities out there, but with so much competition, a few tricks of the trade will help you go far.

”Don’t rely on recruiters or agencies. Writers, in particular, need to find work – as the CEO of one games development studio said to me, ‘You only eat what you kill’.” David Varela, Games Writer

“People can find you at the touch of a button and read about you, what you’ve been saying and what you’ve been doing. You need to remember this when looking for work. It’s not as simple as putting demos online and waiting for the call. You have to be prepared to put in the legwork and get your face out there, both physically and digitally.” Sam Hughes, Sound Designer, The Sound Architect

“Becoming known as an expert in your field is better than all the advertising in the world. Blog, speak, tweet – getting your name out there and attached to high-quality content is a brilliant way of setting yourself apart from the competition and making sure people come to you with their problems.” Luke Dicken, Artificial Intelligence Specialist

“Build up a network. I have talked about this at length with other freelancers and the rule seems to be that around 90 per cent of the work we land comes from people we have worked with previously or have struck up friendships with online. When someone needs work doing, their natural response is to ask for recommendations from the friends and colleagues.” Jake Gumbleton, Concept Artist and Illustrator



“Create an interesting portfolio that shows off your skills but also how you are as a person. A game company views many portfolios a day, so ask yourself what distinguishes you from everybody else.” Johan Olsson, Sound Designer, Extreme Audio Recording

"Your reel or portfolio defines you so make it bloody good. Cut out the crap and tailor it to your strengths, make it honest – as you should be." Steven Huckle, Artist and Developer, Shark Infested Custard

“You will be judged by the standard of your work and your ability to deliver on time and within budget. Do a great job and your name will spread by word of mouth. However, if you are still looking for your first contract then you must make sure you have an impressive, commercial quality demo.” Nick Thompson, Founder, TuTecNix

“Find your speciality and work hard to be not just very good at it, but the best you can be. Freelancers have a lot of competition from fellow freelancers and the best jobs will attract a lot of attention so you have to be very good at what you do in order to secure the best jobs.” Cat Burton, Freelance Unity Developer

SECTION 3: WORKING PRACTICE

If you’re to keep working, you need to deliver the learned art of professional service. Our experts offer advice to improve the way you satisfy clients.

”Don’t be obtrusive or uncommunicative. You need to be easy to work with, and someone that the client can rely on to get things done, with the minimum amount of fuss. That means making sure you’re doing the right work, and doing it well; it also means that you have to be responsive to the client’s changing needs; and they will change.” Chris Chapman, Software Specialist, Black Company Studios

“Be that freelancer who never delivers late or substandard work. Be flexible and responsive, and answer directly to the brief. Always be professional, and be prepared to accept criticism. Let your creativity show in your work, and your professionalism showcase your business skills.” Jonathan Baker, Animator, Skellybobbly

“Never close your mind to new ideas and ways of working – no matter how experienced you are, you’ll never stop learning. Also, make sure that you take a break from work. It’s so easy these days to be constantly working, since we carry our emails and so on with us at all time. Try and switch off from time to time – otherwise you’ll burn out.” Gavin Harrison, Musician and Sound Designer, Gavin Harrison Sounds



“Freelancers are expensive for a reason. When studios hire us they’re paying for expertise, patience and viable solutions. When you work in-house, you can have a slow day, or moan about your conditions, or be a bit late with your delivery. We don’t do that. A freelancer must be rigid in their excellence, or they’ll simply fall off the map.” Rob Yescombe, Writer and Creative Director

“Do not work for free, it lowers the standard for the entire industry and your services are always worth something. Always ask for a contract and read it carefully.” Johan Olsson, Sound Designer, Extreme Audio Recording

"Don’t be indifferent to the business or perfunctory in your work; nobody likes a freeloading mercenary." Kevin Corti, Principle, SpiderShed Media

“Keep in good favour and never burn bridges. With studios collapsing and starting up in a seemingly endless cycle, the games industry is a hugely incestuous entity and with people passing through dozens of studios in their career. Word can spread rapidly. If you let someone down they won’t keep it to themselves, so follow the brief to the letter and go above and beyond the call of duty whenever possible. Nick Scurfield, Illustrator

SECTION 4: PAY, RATES AND CONTRACTS

Passion fuels many games careers but there’s still food to put on the table, which means understanding contracts, paying tax and negotiating rates. Here’s how it’s done.

“Don’t make a quote on a case-by-case basis. Use a fixed price schedule – a daily, weekly or monthly rate. Clients will not take you seriously if they get the feeling you are just making it up to get as much money from them as possible.” Pascal Luban, Game Designer and Creative Director

“Expenses should be monitored very carefully. Keep track of all your expenses, keep receipts, and try to keep a journal of your day-to-day adventures. The biggest mistake you can make is to lose track of where, when and who. It’s a lot easier putting an invoice together if you have a record of where you were, how long you were there for and how you got there. Write it all down.” Sion Lenton, Team Lead, Cugat Productions

“Make sure you get paid. Companies sometimes treat freelancers as the last people to get paid when cash flow is tight, but remember you are running a business; being easy to work with isn’t the same as being a push-over. Never let a client build up a debt to you without some leverage to ensure that you get paid” Chris Chapman,  Software Specialist, Black Company Studios



“Especially within an industry based on fun, it can be tempting to just get stuck in, but make sure you sign off your contract before doing any work – this is your safety net if anything goes wrong. Signing a contract means you won’t have any worries over what your clients might do with the work you’ve already sent, or having wasted valuable time if there turns out to be difficulties with the contract.” Hugh Holton, Music Composer

“As a freelancer, you are a small company, so don’t forget about important the tax implications that brings. There are free business start-up courses which give info on tax but as a minimum make sure you put ‘tax money’ into a separate savings account each time you get paid and never touch it until the Inland Revenue want it.

“It’s also important to know that half way through your second year – and subsequent years – you’ll have to make tax payment on accounts (an advance on next year’s tax bill). Make sure you’ve saved up enough or it can be quite a shock.” James Trubridge, Gameplay Programmer

SECTION 5: CLIENT MANAGEMENT

For the lucky, clients are typically a pleasure to work for. But every now and then, a freelancer is faced with a tricky customer. Either way, careful communication is vital.

”Don’t tell your client what he wants to hear. State your honest opinion. Most clients are looking for just that. Of course, once you have expressed your opinion, follow his decisions, even if you disagree.” Pascal Luban, Game Designer and Creative Director

“You must never act unprofessionally. If you find yourself annoyed by a situation, do not react negatively. Go and grab a cup of tea and distance yourself from the situation.” Jake Gumbleton, Concept Artist and Illustrator

“[Be careful about] not asking enough questions and presuming. If you’re unsure about anything at all, ask, confirm and double check.” Steven Huckle, Artist and Developer, Shark Infested Custard



“Don’t promise more than you are capable of in order to secure a contract and don’t overestimate your progress to keep the client happy. Honesty is always the best policy.” Nick Thompson, Founder, TuTecNix

“Never let anyone down: never be late, and always finish a job. If you can’t for whatever reason, give them plenty of notice, and recommend someone you know that will be able to complete the job. If you screw up, don’t charge them – it’s all about trust, and your good name and reputation is invaluable.” Shaun McClure, Artist

"Don’t underwhelm. There’s nothing worse than somebody who doesn’t seem to care or just wants the money. Show that you’re genuinely passionate about the work you do." Antony Bowler, Co-founder, Razor Sharp Studios

SECTION 6: NETWORKING

Everybody knows the clichés about freelancers never leaving the house, but the reality is that you need to
get out there to secure the best jobs.

“Go to the networking events. Go to events that interest you within the field that you love. Join forums. Use social media, Twitter is a fantastic way to reach other people in the industry and engage with them. Research others who are in your position or even better, those who are where you want to be.” Sam Hughes, Sound Designer, The Sound Architect

“Go to as many events as possible – I can’t stress this enough. Whilst we can do so much online these days, nothing compares to actually meeting people, shaking their hand and having a conversation over a beer/coffee/tea. Not only will you establish better working relationships with people in the industry, you’ll most likely also build up strong friendships." Gavin Harrison, Musician and Sound Designer, Gavin Harrison Sounds



“Networking may make you feel like you’re in sales, but it’s really important. Pick and choose a conference or two. Make sure you say hello to absolutely everyone: people on the booths, anyone you sit next, and chuck in a few you randomly make eye contact with. It’s easy, it’s fun and it’s amazing who you meet.” Antony Bowler, Co-founder, Razor Sharp Studios

“Get out there. There are many freelancers working in the games business but it’s all to easy to ignore that and go ‘lone wolf’. Find opportunities to meet your peers at networking events, trade shows and conferences. Talk to them about the market and their experiences – you’ll find you have just as much to contribute.” Sion Lenton, Team Lead, Cugat Productions

SECTION 7: SPECIALISING

Do you tailor your offering or offer a broad range of services? It’s a dilemma as old as freelancing itself, but ultimately, each has its pros and cons.

“Don’t claim to be a generalist. Way too many people freelance in ‘Unity 3D’ or something – that’s great, but what makes you special from the hundreds of other people who also specialise in that? Find a niche and become known for it.” Luke Dicken, Artificial Intelligence Specialist

“Be flexible. Being a character artist is great, but you’re limiting your audience. A character artist who can also create level of detail models, rig and also animate, for example, is more valuable to the client as they will get more for their money. In the long run, having those extra skills will also open up more work options should character work go through a dry spell.” Antony Ward, Artist, Illustrator and Animator


THE STUDIO PERSPECTIVE

Fireproof Games explains why hiring contractors works, and how studios embracing freelance can foster the best results for their games.

Increasing number of games developers are using freelance talent, but what are the perks?

“The obvious one is not having to take on permanent staff, but it’s also to hire experts: people who are really good at what they do,” says Barry Meade, director at Fireproof Games. “Hiring a freelancer can add a quality and class to your work that would be hard to find even if you could afford to take on a permanent hire. So freelance has advantages in adaptability as well as ability.”

But picking the right talent can be as tricky for a studio as finding work for a freelancer. Fortunately, Meade has some insights to share on what to prioritise when looking to find the most suitable contracted talent.

“We wanted people who could ‘get’ us, and our work: someone we didn’t have to over-explain things to. For instance on The Room we hired a fab composer and we had only one conversation with him, gave him music to be inspired by, and that was pretty much it. He came back with the perfect piece, bang on the money. He was experienced enough that we could bypass talking about technical requirements and get straight to the content.”

In the end, the art of picking a freelancer isn’t so different from recruiting new staff. It might be remarkably tough, but when you find somebody that clicks with your studio culture, they could be just the person you need.