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June 25, 2019
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A Year as a UX/UI Freelancer

by Kylan Coats on 01/11/19 10:42:00 am

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.


Hi everyone! I'm Kylan, a UX/UI Consultant with over a decade of experience in games. Most of my career has been full-time work, mainly salaried. Right after Thanksgiving 2017 I was suddenly and unexpectedly laid off; after 4.5 years at the company. It was the middle of the holidays, I had no job prospects and my wedding was coming up in just a few months. I…was…petrified.

Then, in December of that year some contract work came. That work wrapped up and…then there was more! 2018 ended up being the first year I’ve exclusively done freelance work and it taught me a lot.

Here are my top takeaways from last year:

Freelancing Isn’t As Scary As It Seems

There’s some blame to share for this fear of freelancing. The first part is horror stories from other freelancers; don’t get me wrong, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. A second part is seeing former employers treat freelancers pretty terribly. Memories of looking for work during the 2009 Recession don’t help. And of course, I have an inherited paranoia from my family. All that added up to a real terror of not working full-time.

But once my first gig wrapped up...then my second...then a presentation I gave led to more work, freelancing started to be less intimidating. There has been some down time between gigs (personal project time!). And while I have to put in effort to line up my next client, it’s not an all-consuming issue. Turns out I vastly underestimated my own network.

To be fair, health insurance was intimidating. But it wasn’t the thousands-of-dollars-a-month horror stories I’d heard. Thankfully, I'm in pretty good health; and once I completed the relatively simple setup through my state program, there wasn't much to maintain.

Unemployment insurance was a pain to set up right after the layoff, but again, not nearly as scary as I expected. That extra little income definitely helped calm me between gigs until I decided to go full-force into freelancing.

Underpayment is Real

At my last salaried job, I thought I was paid reasonably well for the games industry. Since then, I’ve realized not only how much I was underpaid, but how often employees and freelancers in general are not paid what they’re worth.

Moving between projects and studios has let me talk more openly about pay. Some of those conversations with colleagues left me livid. Hearing the paltry salaries these talented, hardworking people were struggling to live on; sometimes barely above poverty-level income. These people deserve so much more.

Freelancing has helped build my confidence in the value of my work. Everyone wants AAA-quality in all aspects of their game. Without a AAA budget though, some choices have to be made. If my discipline isn’t a priority for a client’s project, that’s totally OK, but that doesn’t make my work any less valuable. The work I deliver is worth the rate I charge.

Finishing Things is Great

Generally I’ve worked on longer-term game projects (2-3+ years) or online titles that never really finish. My husband, on the other hand, is a software trainer in another industry. He helps customers transition to his company’s software over 2-3 months. Every few months he sees a client and their company become more streamlined and productive because of him. Every few months he’s done with a project and gets to move on.

I hadn’t thought much about the impact of never being “done” until working on so many short-term projects over a year. The fulfillment of finishing something multiple times a year has been so energizing. Even if the game itself wasn’t finished at the time, my contract with it was.

Big games still take a long time. I may work back up to those big, multi-year titles, but it’s been immensely rewarding to finish things so often.

Studio Cultures are REALLY Different

Sounds obvious, but I moved from knowing this intellectually to really understanding it.

Working with so many different studios gave me a perspective on the wide variety of cultures out there. Some studios were collections of high-performing, but disorganized chaos. Others had an almost palpable air of fear of the project going bust. And a rare couple were laid back with devs clocking in and out at reasonable times.

There are different culture fits for everyone. Seeing this variety helped put into perspective not only the environments of previous employers, but reinforced which cultures are the best fit for me.

Game Devs are Generally Good People

Out of all my clients in 2018, only one didn’t pay (which I anticipated). The vast majority of my clients paid on-time and didn’t (at least appear to) want to screw me out of work. They seemed to want to make a great game while still doing right by everyone involved.

At the couple of conferences I spoke at, other developers were open with advice, encouragement, and critical feedback. I found that in general, most devs want to see all games succeed since we know how rarely success comes around. It was pretty heartening to see this not only around Los Angeles, but in Prague, in Montreal, and all around the globe.


The Year Ahead, 2019

Professionally, 2018 was an unexpectedly good year (*knocks-on-copious-amounts-of-wooden-objects*). For 2019 I’m working on starting up a creative studio to do both UX/UI consulting work, as well as game development (talking to co-founders, if you’re interested!). Hopefully I’m able to take into account all of these takeaways with the new studio.

And if you need some UX/UI help, let me know!

Email: [email protected]


Twitter: @kcoats

P.S. YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary)

Please take this as one perspective out of many. Also, listen to Rami Ismail’s “All Advice is Bad” blurb from GDC 2017. YMMV

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