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Some Advice for Starting as a Freelancer in the Games Industry

February 28, 2014

I’ve been a freelancer for a few years now. That means I do work for hire. I move from company to company like the littlest hobo of game developers doing whatever needs done here and there. It’s not a glamorous life, but it’s an exciting one.

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My motivation for becoming a freelancer was that I needed control over my workload, because I wanted the time and freedom to make my own games independently too, which is difficult when you’re working for a company full time.

It can be a tricky road, the whole freelancing thing, but for myself it’s been reasonably smooth sailing, and I think that’s largely down to the principles I set out for myself when I started. So I’d like to share them with you, along with some other stuff I’ve learned along the way.

1. Build your Confidence and Never Stop Learning

One of the main benefits of being a freelancer is being in control of your workload. Unlike a company employee, if someone approaches you with an unreasonable amount of work and wants it finished in a week, you can simply say ‘No thanks’ and not accept the contract.

This is also known as ‘Living the dream’

But, while it’s great to be able to say ‘no’, you should also put some thought into why you said it. Is it because it was unreasonable, or is it because you, personally, weren’t up to it?

There are a lot of freelancers out there, and most of them know more than one aspect of the game development process. It’s much harder to find freelance work in the games industry in a narrow field such as ‘Server Manager’ or ‘Logo Designer’, and they’re normally going to want someone with experience.

Most clients will want someone flexible who can cover more than one base. There are people out there who have a wide spread of knowledge and you need to be in that field too. For that reason, you should never stop the process of self improvement. Not only will you widen your contract options, you’ll enjoy the process, and contribute towards building your own confidence.

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Another reason for building up your skill set is that for freelancers, the consequences of failure can be more severe than for employees. You can be dropped in an instant if you’re not meeting the requirements. Not only will you not get paid, but your reputation may be damaged, and that might make it difficult for you to get work in the future.

When you take a contract, you need to be sure that you can fulfil it. So keep building up your confidence and your ability.

2. Remember why you’re freelancing

The thing that puts most people off freelancing is that there is a chance, in fact a certainty, that there will be periods where you’ve got no work. During these periods, it’s easy to panic and grab the first contract that comes along, one which you aren’t really interested in, and often for cheaper than you would normally charge.

My advice would be to hold fast and stick to your rates and principles. If you became a freelancer so you had the freedom to control your workload, then what’s the point of having that freedom if you’re not going to exercise it.

Contracts do come along. I’ve turned down far more than I’ve taken on. If it’s not the right one for you, you don’t need to take it on.

A second piece of advice I’d like to share about the reality of freelancing, is that you should try to draw a hardline between work which is yours, and work you’re doing for someone else, and try and avoid crossing it. This is, I think, more important than for full time employees.

It’s easy to feel pride of authorship for your work, especially if you’ve made something that a lot of people gain enjoyment from, but it’s important to remember that if you’re doing work for someone else, then you are there as a facilitator and it’s likely that your time with the project will eventually come to a sharp end. You have no control over the project, or it’s future, so you need to be prepared to sever that tie and move on.

3. You will lose in life, just don’t lose the lesson

One unfortunate reality of being a freelancer is that you may occasionally get taken advantage of. And just to put this into perspective, I don’t just know one developer who has been ripped off, I know TONS, and I could write a whole other blog post about this subject alone. For the purposes of this piece though, I’ll stick to the bottom line…

If something doesn’t smell right, walk away.

Talking costs nothing, so engage in as much dialogue as you can upfront and don’t start work until both you and your client are happy with arrangements. If you become uncomfortable, talk it out and don’t continue until you are both happy.

If a client fails to pay you, under no circumstances should you do any more work with the promise of being paid down the line. It almost certainly will never happen.

Although you’re technically protected by the law to some extent, getting into that whole legal quagmire can be stressful and will usually end up costing you more money than the contract was worth. Personally, I think it’s better to nip it in the bud early and move on. Spend the time working on another contract. You’ll feel like they’ve won, but it will be better for you in the long run if you just walk away.


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Oh… and beware of revenue shares.

The advantage of straight up work for hire is that you’ll definitely get paid, but if the project does well then you won’t see any extra cash, which can suck if you did a lot of work towards it. Sometimes, however, you may be offered a revenue share.

Revenue shares can be included in a contract to sweeten the deal. You might even consider dropping your rates a little if you’re getting a percentage of the profits. Just be aware that these things can be quite difficult to maintaining the long term.

If a client offers you a large revenue share but won’t be paying you for your work, you should be very cautious. Yes, if the project does well then it will be the gift that keeps on giving. But you’re under no guarantee that the project will do well, or that it will even be completed at all. Only do this if you can afford to take that risk, and you’re confident in the product and the client.

Incidentally, if anyone ever offers you something called a ‘Capped’ revenue share with no money upfront, you should consider it an insult. Make no mistake, this person knows exactly what they’re doing, and you’re being exploited. Capped revenue shares offer you neither of the advantages of work for hire or a standard revenue share. You’ll get nothing upfront and if it does well, they’re the only ones who will benefit long term.

My advice would be to hand them a list of charities that you donate to, and ask them to note that their name isn’t on it. 🙂

4. The Tax Man Cometh

A wee word about taxes.

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When you start as a freelancer, you’ll need to register as self employed, and every year you will get taxed on the money you’ve earned. So you need to squirrel a bit away (around 30% – 40% to be safe).

But you knew that anyway right?

What ends up taking a lot of people by surprise is what happens in the first year.

In the first year of self employment, the government will bill you immediately for the year you’ve just worked, and they’ll assume you’re going to earn about the same next year too and will bill you for that right there and then as well, and at least half of next years will need to be paid by the following January. This means that in the first year you’ll effectively get a ‘Double’ tax bill.

This will only happen in the first year, because after that you’ll have already paid part or all of the previous year anyway, and if you don’t earn as much the following year then you’ll get part of it back, but it’s worth mentioning here because it certainly shocked the hell out of me that first year!

If you’re starting as a freelancer, I hope this advice helps. Remember though, this is just my own opinion based on what I’ve learned and experienced. Yours is a different story, and your principles may be different. But I would definitely recommend that you do think about them, write them down, and stick to them.

Good luck!

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