So there I was, sitting on the fire escape of my apartment on a chilly Seattle winter morning before everyone else in the building woke up, explaining to a client why the final payment of a project needs to be processed before the game can be released.
Cold air and hot discussions don't mix well, I realized, and the discussion lasted longer than the time it took for the cold to turn my phone-holding fingers blue.
“Gloves, a scarf, and definitely not PJ's next time.” I thought to myself. I got off the phone an hour later, and by the end of the day we got paid.
My love-hate relationship with client work started when we ran out of money for a project that was way too ambitious (a big lesson on scoping—a topic for another article). With very little cash left in the bank, we had to start generating some income to keep the studio going, and making games for others was one option.
In this article, I'll share with you some of the major things I've come to understand about getting freelance client game development work. These are lessons that I've learned over the last three years—mainly through trial and error! I hope you'll find it useful in making your own decision as to whether client work is worth your while.
Freelance vs Studio Work
There is a difference between being a freelancer and being a company that takes on client projects, although in both cases, you mainly trade time for money. As a freelancer, you communicate directly with the client, compete directly with other freelancers, and usually have less admin (and little management) to do. As a production company, more people are involved in the project, since clients often come to you for a full-service job, you might require more effort in sales, since projects will be bigger, and doing estimates and figuring out the right people for each project will also take longer.
In addition, when a client is dealing with a company as opposed to an individual, there's a bit of flexibility if a person from the team on the project doesn't turn out to be the best fit: you have the ability to switch out team members, if you handle it correctly. On the other hand, the company takes on additional responsibility with communication, project management, talent management, client relations (on behalf of everyone in the team), and reporting.
I've also found that working as a studio requires you to really put effort into branding, as your costs will often be higher. Having said that, if you don't have a strong personal brand, teaming up with other developers under one brand could boost your credibility tremendously, as your combined experience will be more impressive than just your own.
Determining Your Rate
I've seen rates going from $15 per hour to $200+ per hour for Unity developers. Determining your rate is not an easy task, but is one of the most important things you need to work out.
In general, if you've shipped games, worked with clients and brands that people know of, or had senior positions at previous jobs, you'll be able to command a higher rate. Essentially, you are charging for what your portfolio can show. If you don't have an impressive portfolio yet, you can either:
- charge a lower rate and build up your portfolio from client work, or
- work on your own projects that can demonstrate your abilities.
The first option brings in immediate cash (at a lower rate), while the second gives you the freedom to really show off what you've got. In either case, make sure you ship games that look good: visuals are very important for a first impression. Oh, and make sure they do ship.
On the same note, getting credited for the work is important. We usually charge a higher rate if the work is "white-labeled", meaning that we are not credited for the work and cannot talk about it publicly. When you work on client projects, you are not building your own intellectual properties, but you can still build on top of what you have worked on by building your portfolio—and that should always be a priority if you are planning to work with clients in the long run. (We will talk about building up the client work business in the next article)
One mistake we made early on was to propose rates that were way too low. I found out that a client had posted the same project on Elance and was getting really low bids, so we lowered our rate in order to get the project. We won the project, but it became a challenge when the project was prolonged due to design changes, and a portion of the team lost motivation to work on it due to the low rate, especially when our new projects began paying twice the amount.
Placing a rate that you are happy with is not only important to your financial goals, it's important for your motivation. It's also important for the client to ensure that the project gets the attention it needs. Charge what you're worth and everyone wins.
Marketing for a consulting practice is a whole topic on its own, but I'll touch on some of the things we found useful, and some that we experimented with.
Push Marketing vs Pull Marketing
Before we start, let's talk about the different between push marketing and pull marketing.
Push marketing is when you push a promotional message in front of potential customers. Search ads, display ads, sponsored posts or tweets, and paid advertising in general are all examples of push marketing.
Pull marketing is a strategy where you focus on activities that will draw potential customers in: blog posts, giving talks, answering questions on Quora, creating free art assets, contributing or producing open-source code, blogging, community work and so on. In general, anything that results in people reaching out to you can be considered pull marketing.
Push marketing is more direct and results can be quicker. A paid click to your site is one potential customer to buy your service. Pull marketing takes time; you need to put in the time and effort to build up a reputation, and it could takes months or years before anyone notices you.
We lean towards a pull strategy, mainly because it's my personal preference. I enjoy talking to people, and sharing what we are working on and things we've learned. All of our customers so far have come from either contacts or people contacting us directly from our website.
On the other hand, I know other successful studios who use Google Ads extensively to great success. There is no right or wrong approach, but you must be prepared to spend a lot of effort on marketing, especially if you are working in a studio environment. It will be hard work, so make sure your marketing is something you can enjoy doing consistently.
Online vs Offline
Finding work online: there are quite a few places you can find work posted online, like the Unity forum, GameDev.net, IndieGamer, Reddit, Elance/Guru/Upwork, Craigslist, TIGSource, and Envato Studio. Responding to postings online is easier and quick, but it's also very competitive. We once posted a project looking for a level designer for a mobile game and received over 100 responses in two days; sorting through the applicants was not an easy task, and there were multiple very capable candidates that we might have been very happy with.
Finding work offline: this requires going to events, talking to people, and networking in general. (See Networking at GDC for more advice here.) It's often uncomfortable and not particularly straightforward—people you meet at events don't walk around with a sign saying “we're hiring game developers” around their necks. A quick tip: make friends, and practice ways to let people know you do client work, but don't try too hard to sell; it's a lot easier to smell the desperation in person, and that which lowers your chances of getting projects.
Using your personal network: Let everyone you know and trust know that you are taking on client projects. Some of my best clients come from friends of friends: you have existing trust with the potential customer. Trust is the most valuable asset you can have when it comes to client work (and I'd argue in business in general); it makes communication before, during, and after the project much smoother from both ends. Clients from your personal network will likely be one of your most important source of customers.
Freelance Gamedev Jobs Await!
Running a successful game development studio is no small matter, and we've only just scratched the surface in this article. Once you get started with client work, you'll also want to start focusing on longer-term plans to sustain your client work practice, and learn to manage multiple projects effectively. Juggling client work and personal gamedev is also a skill worth examining in more detail. If you have additional business wisdom along these lines, please share them in a comment. Best of luck finding your next client gig!