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Tales from the Loneliest Frontier: GDC 2001 Freelancers’ Roundtable Moderator’s Report

I haven’t quite managed to wipe the smile off my face yet.

On Friday, March 23rd, I hosted the first installment of what will hopefully become an annual GDC tradition: a roundtable gathering freelancers from all corners of the game industry. To be honest, my expectations for the session were pretty low: I had asked for an early-morning time slot (so I wouldn’t fall asleep midway through), I had no idea how many freelancers were actually in the field, some roundtables have been known to degenerate into shouting matches or self-indulgent monologues, and the roundtable rooms are located about as far away from the conference’s main concourse as you can get without taking a boat, so I would have been tickled pink if 7 people showed up. Especially if at least a couple of them were willing to talk once in a while.

Boy, was I in for a surprise.

When all was said and done, about 18 people attended, most of them contributed valuable insights, and they were so well-behaved that my meager skills were quite sufficient to handle the moderation process. The participants included artists, programmers, writers, designers, producers, at least one musician and even a few people who actually hire freelancers for their own projects. (They were quite popular.) Most of the participants were active professionals, including a few 10+ year veterans of the business; there were also a handful of people looking at entering the business or moving from traditional employment to a freelance lifestyle. Overall, a very interesting mix of people.

Major topics of discussion included the following:

The Freelance Lifestyle

Some of the participants have become freelancers by choice. Being able to control one’s working hours, doing away with the mandatory unpaid overtime endemic in the games business, or plainly being able to live and work in a pleasant environment were all mentioned as reasons to forego the (all too relative) safety of a regular paycheck. Other freelancers, specifically writers, have adopted the lifestyle more or less by force, because there are few full-time jobs to be had in their area of expertise. Still, few would consider giving it up and returning to full-time employment.

Game development freelancers tend to spend most of their time working at home or in their own offices, with more or less frequent visits to the client’s premises. (Somewhat surprisingly, there seemed to be little correlation between the length of an assignment and the probability that a client would require in-house work.) Location is sometimes, but not always, an issue; while some participants get most of their work from nearby companies, others report working with (and subcontracting to) people all over the Western world.

Finally, participants with families reported unanimous, unconditional support for their choice of work arrangements from their loved ones. This is a necessity: given the financial risks involved, it would be almost impossible to run a freelance business over the objections of a spouse.

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