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Working Remotely: Building an Indie Game Development Team

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It's difficult to work with employees you've never met face-to-face, but because the average indie startup doesn't have a base of operations, you'll often be reliant upon working with people who you can't keep tabs on, and using the Internet as both a source of finding potential candidates and as a communications hub. In this article, we'll examine the delicate process of hiring a new team member, including how to prepare for the process and potential traps to be aware of, and conclude with a list of (mostly) free resources you can use to find your next all-star team member.

Preview image: Team designed by Björn Andersson from The Noun Project.

Assessing Your Needs

One of the biggest mistakes a game development company can make is to hire employees without first assessing its needs. The problem with this approach is that most game devs grossly underestimate the scope of their own games, and subsequently the number of people and amount of money they need.

In order to counter this, make a point of creating a game design document. A good GDD will allow you to readily determine the type of assets you'll need to bring your vision to life.  It'll also provide you with a rough approximation of how many of each asset type will be necessary. Hint: it's probably going to be more than you think.

With your handy GDD by your side, the next step is to determine what areas you have covered. Already have an artist? Great, but before you reject the idea of hiring another, have a conversation with your hard-working artist, and together figure out how many assets that artist can complete in an allocated time-frame. If you have aspirations of creating a thousand unique 16-frame sprite animations, and your part-time artist only feels comfortable pumping out five a week, you might consider getting him some help.

What if your awesome sprite artist has little to no experience creating tile, or even 3D art? In this case, you'll most certainly need to hire one that does. Never settle for someone who lacks expertise in the job you role need to fill, especially if they're being paid a salary. Doing so will cause more headaches and delays than its worth, and could get expensive.

Taking the aforementioned steps will not only help you paint a clearer picture of your team's strengths and weaknesses, it will help you write more accurate job listings, and allow you to get a better idea of your budget—which is especially important if you're planning on running a Kickstarter campaign. But before you go out and start interviewing anyone who's ever doodled Sonic the Hedgehog in their notepad, register your game development team as a company. This will allow you to keep track of your finances, gives your team a bit more credibility, and will entitle your company to more tax breaks. Extra money is a good thing.

Writing a Job Listing

The key to writing a job listing is in the details. All of your hiring requirements should be spelled out in plain language, and the most common questions a potential hire would have should be addressed.

At a minimum, the following items should be easily located in the body of your post:

  • Company name: This is a given.
  • Name of the project: If you don't have one, either substitute with a working title or simply state, "To be determined at a later date."
  • Short description of the project: Important things to include here would be: genre, 2D or 3D, influences.
  • Team structure and how long you've been working together: Some teams choose not to mention this, but I feel it gives applicants a better sense of what they're getting involved in.
  • Name of position and description: Spell it out as much as possible. "Pixel artist responsible for the creation of 100 animated sprites based off of conceptual art." is far more telling than "Sprite artist." If the job description is extensive, use a bullet point or numbered list.
  • Compensation: If you have a particular number in mind, feel free to state it, but you're under no obligation. However, do confirm that the position is paid.
  • Contact information: Don't forget this. Most forums won't allow applicants to apply directly to job listings. It is recommended that you provide an email address and not your Skype (or other messenger) name. Save that for the later rounds.
A portion of an actual job listing for our game Hiro Fodder A Blue HopeA portion of an actual job listing for our game Hiro Fodder A Blue HopeA portion of an actual job listing for our game Hiro Fodder A Blue Hope

A portion of an actual job listing for our game, Hiro Fodder: A Blue Hope

For your header, the following format works:

[PAID/UNPAID] [Team name] seeks [job title] for upcoming [project name or genre]

You'll likely be posting the job listing on popular game development forums, freelancer websites, game artist and programming boards and your company website (you do have one, right?), as well as links to your listing on social media outlets. We'll take a peek at some specifics in a bit.

Tip: Some forums will require that you follow a stringent template. While the information listed above should suffice most of the time, a few moderators are finicky, and want things done exactly the way they specify. Job listing requirements are usually indicated by a sticky.

Reducing Your Candidate Pool

Fact: there are more programmers, artists and musicians than there are programming, art and music positions. With that said, in so long as you're paying something resembling a fair wage, expect to receive a ton of applications.

Your next task is to filter out spam and other unqualified candidates from the diamonds in the rough. When screening candidates, consider following a few basic guidelines:

  • Only entertain emails that are well-written, and that specifically address your needs. Unfortunately, about half of the emails you receive are going to be from content mills or artists who don't even read the job description. We call these guys Frequent Appliers, because they seem to apply for every job on the forum with the same generic reply.  Avoid Frequent Appliers like the plague. If they didn't take the time to read your post, why should you take the time to read theirs?
  • If a candidate lacks the necessary experience or specializes in a different area of expertise than the one you're looking for, you'll have to turn him down. Some applicants will try to convince you that they'll be able to learn new skills on the job. While that may very well be true, you're not paying them to learn a new trade.
  • Serious candidates will draw attention to their previous accomplishments, resumes and portfolios. The more information they provide you, the more easily you'll be able to determine if they're a good fit for the job. Take these candidates more seriously. If they've been part of a team that has released a commercial product, even better.
No no noNo no noNo no no

No, no, no!

I should note that if you're on a restricted budget, or if this is your first game, you might want to loosen your hiring requirements just a tad. There are plenty of competent programmers, musicians and artists who have never been given the opportunity to work on a game. If you're new to the field yourself, consider giving one of them a shot. Besides, would you really need to hire the lead artist for Skyrim to develop a small indie game? As long as they show you samples of their work and seem enthusiastic amount the project, don't immediately write them off.

The Interview Process

Ah, the dreaded interview process. You've probably gone on them before, but have rarely conducted one yourself. Empowering, isn't it? Before you get a swelled head, remember that the best candidates are almost always in demand, and might need you less than you need them. Sorry to deflate your ego.

Interviews don't have to follow set guidelines. If anything, they usually start out formal and end up quite casual. It's just as important to get a feel for the candidate than it is to assess their ability. With that in mind, here are a few questions I ask my applicants:

  • Their availability and time zone: If you post a job listing on the Internet, expect to receive applications from folks all over the world. If the applicant is only available during the hours you're asleep, your working relationship will probably suffer. The ideal candidate is flexible and will be available via Skype or email the same times that you are.
  • Their gaming interests: By the time you interview someone, you'll probably already have a fair idea of what they're capable of. Instead of rehashing the same information, spend at least a portion of the interview asking them questions about their preferred gaming genres, their favorite games and major  influences. First person shooter buffs aren't going to feel as passionately about a JRPG than someone who grew up playing Chrono Trigger. It's better to know these kinds of things up front.
  • Their prior experience working on games: Speak briefly about their roles on other development teams, if any.
  • Their salary requirements and time estimations: Even if a candidate seems perfect, don't hire them unless you know you can afford them. Also, try to determine how quickly they can produce assets by asking them a little about their methods and processes. And don't be afraid to negotiate.

There will be times when someone else on your team should also be involved in the interview process. For instance, if you're in need of a programmer but haven't written a line of code since that BASIC class in ninth grade, consider pulling in your Lead Programmer (if you have one) to handle the more technical questions.

I find that it doesn't really matter whether interviews are conducted via chat, voice or video, as long as both parties feel comfortable with the selected mode of communication.

Common Red Flags

Most indie game development teams have hired at least one person who either fabricated their abilities, didn't meet scheduled deadlines, or, even worse, scammed them out of money. The problem is, every time you hire an employee that turns out to be someone they're not, guess who suffers? I'll give you a hint; it's certainly not them.

To prevent becoming a victim of deceptive, misinformed, or inexperienced employees you should be on the lookout for red flags that either discredits an employee or puts you in a potentially uncomfortable position.

Be wary of:

  • Applicants who are willing to work for free: As insane as it might sound, hiring someone who is willing to work for an unknown game development company in exchange for no monetary compensation is a bad idea. Non-paid employees have no obligation to work for you. They're not under contract, and can bail the minute it suits them. To compound matters, non-paid employees are usually just looking for experience working on a game, and typically lack the skill sets of an experienced develop.
Caveat: If you're a known developer and want to hire an intern on a non-paid, trial basis before making the decision to bring them on as a full-timer, that's a different scenario. Otherwise, avoid hiring people who say they're fine with working with free, regardless of how tempting it might be. Skilled professionals are not going to sell themselves short, and will bring significantly more value to your team.
  • Applicants who are willing to work for a revenue share: This is a lose-lose scenario. Employees must bank on the fact that the game is going to make enough money to make their efforts worth it. If at any time they begin to lose their faith, they'll consider bailing. In addition, while they're working on the game, they'll probably have to do something else to earn a little thing called money. As a result, they'll spend less time working for you and more time focusing on paying the bills. For game developers, the only benefit is that they'll save upfront costs. But what if the game strikes gold? Admittedly, this isn't the worst problem to have, but making a habit of giving away huge sums of the company's money to someone you never worked with before isn't a good practice.
  • Scam artists: This one is fairly obvious, and can be easily avoided by conducting a thorough search on any prospective employee. Start by checking out their LinkedIn profile, and see whether their listed experience matches up with what was written in their emails or during the interview. Extra points for candidates with recommendations and/or endorsements. Next, run a Google search. If the candidates shows up on a Ripoff Report, or if there are any other accounts of suspicious behavior listed on the first few pages, discount the applicant immediately.
Ripoff Report Exposing fraudulent pixel artists since 1998Ripoff Report Exposing fraudulent pixel artists since 1998Ripoff Report Exposing fraudulent pixel artists since 1998
Ripoff Report: Exposing fraudulent pixel artists since 1998.
  • Content farms: The majority of applications you receive will likely be from companies that mass produce generic assets. Although they're significantly less expensive than, say, a professional living in New York City, content farms struggle with communication, overload themselves with work, and generally don't feel passionate about they do. They provide a service: hired labor. Nothing more, nothing less. There are exceptions, but not enough to warrant their consideration outside of the simplest assignments.
  • Big egos: I recall interviewing a certain fellow who claimed that he was working on an engine that was going to be better than Unreal, all by his lonesome. The interview ended shortly thereafter. It's for this reason that I emphasize verifying departmental timelines with a trusted professional before buying into an applicant's claim. Big egos can lead to delusions of grandeur; it's your job to differentiate between ambitious expectations and completely unrealistic ones.
  • The hourly employee: Hiring a new employee on an hourly basis may seem like a reasonable strategy, and it is—for the employee. Until you have a better feel of your employee's output, it's better to pay them by the milestone. It encourages the employee to work more efficiently and grants you the added security of knowing how much each task will cost. Otherwise, you will have to deal with a high level of budgeting variance. That, and some employees may charge you for more hours than they actually put in.
Caveat: Sites like Elance and Upwork feature tracking software that will take snapshots of an employee's computer screen and send them to you, but that only solves part of the issue. Besides, do you really want to babysit your employees? Some employees will not agree to a milestone system because they're reliant on receiving a steady paycheck. Counteroffer them by saying you will consider paying them an hourly rate after the first few milestones are complete.
  • The "payment upfront" employee: Under no circumstances should you pay an new employee up front. In regards to the hiring process, it's the single biggest rookie mistake you can make. Repeat employees who have proven their worth might warrant an upfront payment, but never the new guy.
  • Employees who refuse to sign a contract: Another way to leave yourself highly vulnerable is to hire someone before they sign an NDA and a contract. In the event that the employee disappears, loses interest, or cannot fulfill his obligations, a signed contract will allow you to hold them liable. NDAs protect game developers from their ideas being stolen. Their value is fairly obvious. You may want to consider seeking legal counsel before drafting a contract or NDA.

Hiring Resources

  • DeviantART: Features a large pool of artists, many of whom are game artists. You'll likely receive your fair share of spam, but you might get lucky. The big advantage of deviantART is that you can view an artist's portfolio on the spot. Feel free to private message artists you think might be a good fit.
DeviantART forums A great place to find your next artist Beware excessive use of animeDeviantART forums A great place to find your next artist Beware excessive use of animeDeviantART forums A great place to find your next artist Beware excessive use of anime
DeviantART forums: A great place to find your next artist. Beware excessive use of anime.
  • Pixel Joint and Pixelation: Only use these sites if you're in the market for a 2D sprite artist. If this is your first game, there's a good chance you will be. Both sites feature a job forum.
  • Elance, Upwork, Guru and Rent a coder: These sites act as a middleman between contractors and freelancers. The contractor posts a job listing and freelancers bid on it. The advantage of this is that all financial transactions are handled through the site, significantly reducing risk. Also, salary requirements are handled upfront, nullifying the often difficult negotiation process. On the flip side, the candidate pool tends to be a bit on the weaker side, and you'll have to pay a nominal amount for a premium subscription.
  • A premier instructional resource site, features a relatively active job forum. Independent game developers can pay $7.00 to have their ad featured on the site. Expect fewer, higher quality proposals than you would on other sites. This is probably one of the best sites on the web for finding programmers.
  • IDevGames: A Mac- and iOS-specific site, useful for finding team members for your next mobile application.
  • Twitter and Facebook: While you generally won't want to litter your social media threads with job openings, you can use them to link to your actual job listings on forums and freelance sites.
  • Reddit: Probably better for scouring available contractors than for listing an open position, reddit has a gamedev-specific classifieds section that's worth at least checking out.
  • Kickstarter: Believe it or not, Kickstarter isn't the worst place to find your next employee. Many of your backers will either be willing to help out directly, or might know someone. It's a bit of a crapshoot, as most backers won't be able to offer essential services, but do give them a listen. After all, they did give you money.


If there's one piece of advice I can offer game developers in the market to expand their team, it would be to always err on the side of caution. The smaller your game development team, the more important each new hire becomes. This is compounded by the fact that you'll have to invest a high degree of trust in anyone you hire. But with a proper assessment of both your needs and the candidate's skill set and personality, you should be able to find someone who will facilitate the creation of your title.

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