Tales from the Loneliest Frontier:
I havenít 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 wouldnít 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 conferenceís 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 oneís 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 clientís 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.
Securing Freelance Assignments
Attendees spent a good deal of time sharing marketing tips. Common ways to obtain freelance assignments include:
Convincing a potential client to go with a freelancer instead of a full-time employee may require some doing. One attendee said that he uses improved communication as a selling point: when a freelancer is involved (especially a remote one), a team must be better organized and information must flow in a more formal, explicit way, or else the freelancerís talents will go to waste. Furthermore, in some areas, office space is so expensive that hiring a remote freelancer becomes far cheaper than brining someone in. Convincing the client that you provide more value for his money, whether through unique expertise or lower cost, is key.
An important topic for any freelancer is how to select an effective hourly rate. On the one hand, no one wants to price themselves out of the market; on the other hand, this is a business, and most of us would like to make good money at it.
A safe rule of thumb in any freelance business is to assume no more than 1,000 billable hours a year when setting your price. Marketing, bookkeeping, research, contract negotiations and a million other activities that canít be billed to client will nibble away at your productive time.
Other contract-related tips discussed at the roundtable include:
Overall, the roundtable provided for a most stimulating discussion. Thanks to Dan, Eric, Allen, JFW and everyone else who showed up, thanks to Jason and the IGDA for giving me this opportunity, and I hope to see you next year!