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Going Commando
by Adam Saltsman on 05/08/09 05:00:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


what? its a bona fide profession

Before helping to found the iPhone games company I work at now, I was a freelance artist and programmer for about three years.  By the end of that period I pretty much had it all figured out, after doing everything every possible wrong way.  Friends and acquaintances sometimes send over an email asking for advice, so I started transcribing my "lessons learned" list from the whiteboard over to a text document, and from the text document to here...

NOTE: I will not be talking about stuff like having access to a lawyer and doing your taxes and crap like that.  If you need a gamasutra blog's help to do that, you are NOT cut out for freelancing!  Sorry.


The Fundamentals

Freelance game artists (2D or 3D) at the very top of their field are going to peak out at around $50/hr.  A freelance coder might be able to make closer to $80/hr, possibly more with the right experience and specialties.

It is hard/impossible to make a living off of anything under $20/hr because of the overhead of tracking down and organizing jobs and dealing with unpredictable clients.  If you have to take jobs at less than that be prepared to borrow money or dip into savings.

Having a good portfolio and resume is important.  Build a simple, clean website that shows off your work and clearly communicates your ability to work with or without direction in a time-efficient manner.  I definitely don't have room to go into this part in as much details as i'd like, maybe that will be a future article!

Networking is far, far more important, however.  You need both, but...the easiest way to put it is this I think.  Freelance work is kind of like an exclusive nightclub.  You can only get in if you know the bouncer.  Yeah you need a driver's license, but lots of people have a license.  You only get in if you remembered your ID and got to know the bouncer in your spare time.  This could also be a post all on its own, suffice to say that I was friends with nearly all my clients (or connections) before they materialized into actual work.

Do not be afraid to look outside the games industry itself for work.  I made anywhere from 5-20x as much money creating games for advertising campaigns than I ever did creating assets for the game industry proper, and I had a lot more fun doing it too.


Day-To-Day Operations

Never do spec work or a test piece for a job that pays less than $5000.  That time is better spent beefing up your portfolio.

Use timelines instead of "completion percentages" or other such ethereal standards in your contracts.

Get a down payment of at least 25% on any job that pays over $500.  This is absolutely standard, and any client that says otherwise is full of shit.

Contracts are not money in the bank.  Money in the bank is money in the bank.  Contracts are very important, but they are not money.

Only schedule up to 20 hours each week.  This is possibly the single most important thing you can do.  This means if it is an estimated 80 hour project you schedule it to take a full month, not two weeks. This is super hard to convince yourself of when you are basically poor and starving.  However, this is very important for a lot of reasons, including: built-in accomodations for messing up, having the flexibility to take on an important rush job at any time, having time to beef up your portfolio, and most creatives/problem-solvers burn out after about 4-6 hours anyways.

When you do your first phone call with a client, or get your first email, sometimes way deep down in your gut you get a bad feeling.  And it doesn't really make any sense; the pay is good, the project fits your job skills, all that good stuff.  In this situation, your brain is wrong, and your gut is right.  They are, in all likelihood, a slimey douchebag that you should avoid at all costs.  This is the most important skill you can develop as a freelancer!  This is the only reliable way to avoid taking on jobs you will regret.  Avoiding these jobs is important because: the job will turn out so poorly that you will not be able to use it in your portfolio, you're spending time on art you can't show when you could be working on your portfolio or courting better clients, AND these projects have a way of making you into a bitter bitch that no one wants to be around.


Getting The Job Done

You'll quickly find that you become a little obsessed with planning and trying to line up clients.  This is very natural!  However, you'll also find that as long as you do acceptable (not even excellent) work, and you turn it in on time, you will eventually be in extremely high demand, as this is apparently a very rare skill set.  Nearly every client I had was a repeat client, that is I had done at least two jobs for them.  This means that freelancing, as long as you are competent, is not necessarily about getting a lot of clients, or constantly finding new work, but about finding the right clients.

Finally, you need to know your limits as an artist and as a freelancer.  Challenging yourself is an important way to both find your limits and break through them, but we all have boundaries.  When clients came to me with an animation job, I would find somebody in my network who had the real animation chops, and pass the gig off to them.  This runs a little counter to a lot of advice that I got when I was starting out.  Conventional business wisdom recommends that you take on that job as a middleman, and find an animator to work under you so that you keep the client and get a cut.

However, this is a much less efficient arrangement for your client and for your animator connection, and you are now spending your time managing rather than producing art or code.  Balls to that!  Pass the gig on; your client will be happier, and if your animator friend wants to keep his karma and stay in your network, they will pass gigs back to you from time to time, when they fall outside their jurisdiciton as it were.  Again, this is a hard thing to practice when you are just starting out; you're eager to find new clients and make new connections.  But after a few years of this stuff I have to say that just passing it on is both the best and the easiest policy.

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Caleb Garner
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Hi there, thanks for sharing this. I must say that it really confirmed where my partner and I are at. I'm seeing that some of your pricing / buffering ideas are very true and close to what i was utilizing. The fine line that i'm working on getting more confident with is to not outprice our services and at the same time no sell ourselves short. I'm seeing that starting out we (often) were selling ourselves short.. it seems great to make that first dollar.

I would say also as slight addition to the advice above is that when he refers to working on your portfolio.. consider in that portfolio to be actual games you can make/sell. This might not resonate as well with artists, but programmers at least might want to see what kind of smaller short-term projects they could create and sell. Flash, XNA, UNity and other similar technologies offer paths to generate actual money. It might not be enough to live off of exclusively, but every bit counts.

Passing on the gig is true. In hindsight i did a gig simliar to this. The idea was that i'd work on the audio and help be the middle man for the overall flash animation project. Even though there was a little money in the project, I really just wasted a lot of time being the middle person. The emails, the chats and so forth all turned into many unaccounted for time. It would have been better for the animator to work with the client directly and then have her come to ME when she needed sound effects.

An Dang
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For a game designer aspirant, what can I put into my portfolio? Game Designs in pdf files? That doesn't sound particularly interesting.

Adam Saltsman
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Haha, no that does NOT sound interesting. Some thoughts:

1 - At big studios, usually you get a gig as a designer after being promoted from scripter or tester (I think), so if you want a design job at a big company I would tailor your portfolio to one of those categories and work on your Excel skillz.

2 - Paper designs are, with likely some few exceptions, completely worthless. If you are a game designer, I would recommend MAKING GAMES. Then, you can fill your portfolio with GAMES. They don't have to be pretty, and they don't even have to be done! They just need to be actual games that you can play, and see if you have the chops to work out genuine, implemented design issues. Game design as a profession is a lot more like building a car than writing a book (despite the wonderful game design advice to be gleaned from On Writing). You can design it on paper as much as you want but until you can ride it to the grocery store without it breaking or killing you you really don't have much.

3 - Putting up finished games is a double bonus, as merely being able to finish a competently constructed project is an extremely rare skill in any discipline

Caleb Garner
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Spot on Adam, if your a game designer you should make games you design.. if you don't know how too.. might be good to start learning or find someone to team up with..

as a game designer you really want to know all aspects of how to make games. I know there are those some who just design games and can't write a line of code or draw or whatever... but if you want to stand out, become a one man shop...

if you've read anything on being an "idea" person, you know that there are no shortages of games or great game ideas. If you think making your own games all by yourself is hard, it is, but it's also what separates a sea of wannabe's who think they are going to make the next Final Fantasy killer... and folks who are willing to go the extra mile to do whatever it takes to see their designs become a reality.

An Dang
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I was trying to get a QA Tester job for a while after starting my "break" from law school, but the recession's timing wasn't the greatest. I ended up working in retail, as a substitute teacher, and now I'm security guard.

I also tried to learn programming on my own (reading a book) but I feel like every book I pick up treats you like you already know how to program. Then I tried going to the local community college, but there are no beginning programming courses this quarter (so I'm relearning trigonometry and physics, and taking some foreign languages).

Now I'm resorting to Game Maker to fool around with--and maybe I'll try my hand at RPG Maker again.

I'll probably finish up law school before trying to get into the industry again. In the mean time I'll try to get into some programming classes in addition to law school. Hopefully the economy is a bit healthier then, yeah?

Timothy Ryan
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As a game design contractor, I can say that the advice you gave for an aspiring (non-published) game designer is probably accurate, but a published designer with an established resume and contacts in the industry can find work using his published games as his portfolio.

Design documents in a portfolio tend to risk litigation. Whether the game was released or not, they contain trade secrets and confidential information owned by the publisher/developer. If they're your own ideas, you're risking giving your ideas away. What's more, while companies are eager to see your capability, they don't want to risk exposing themselves to lawsuits. In my portfolio, I usually stick to screen-shots of the game (in progress and final) and descriptions of what I designed.

Adam Saltsman
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Yeap, I definitely agree Timothy - my current portfolio is just a list of released projects at this point. I actually hadn't considered that angle, most guys I talk to who are getting ready to try and freelance don't have that kind of record, so it didn't even occur to me! Thanks :)

Oleg Akimov
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Thanks, nice article.

Aleksey Arkhipov
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thanks a lot for very useful article for beginner