Working with freelancers

29 01 2009

One of the best incentives for players/customers to visit your website is releasing new games. Games take time to develop, especially if you try to develop games on your own (my advice: don’t do that). If you want to increase your chances of releasing games quickly and with better quality you need someone to work with you on your game. It can be a friend, an employee… or freelancer.

It seems that finding good freelancers is as hard as finding good employees (not to mention friends). Indie Gamer Forums had a nice thread about working with freelancers and we could hear opinions from both sides. There are two posts that are worth repeating.

Alex Weldon created a wish list for both developers and freelancers.

As a developer, if I was to hire an artist, I would expect the artist to:

  • Take constructive criticism without getting too defensive.
  • Work within the technical constraints of the project.
  • Indulge my preferences insofar as they do not conflict with their own aesthetic sensibilities.
  • Explain clearly and politely to me their reasons for disagreeing with my ideas, when they do.
  • Ask me before doing anything that goes against something specifically stated in the spec.
  • Be proactive about offering advice on stylistic decisions and suggestions for letting the art influence the gameplay.
  • Be able to make minor decisions on their own, but ask for clarification if there is a major choice to be made that I didn’t include in my spec.
  • Give me their honest best guess about how much the job will cost, and do everything they can to stay on budget.
  • Let me know if they think the current course of action is going to go over budget for reasons beyond their control, provide an estimate of how much more I should expect to pay, and suggestions for how we can get back on budget if I can’t afford it.
  • Fix their own mistakes on their own time.
  • Expect a certain amount of revision to be necessary.
  • Do small bits of follow-up work (e.g. fixing a mistake we both missed, or providing me a layered PSD if I discover I need it) and answer questions for free even after they’ve been paid.
  • Answer emails promptly.
  • Set their own reasonable deadlines, and meet them.
  • Be willing to sign a contract, and give me the exclusive rights to the work.
  • Link to the game if they use the work in their portfolio.
  • Be upfront about any references they might be using, so I can veto anything that seems to be bordering on copyright violation.

As an artist, I expect a client to:

  • Respect my experience and judgement.
  • Pay a rate that is in line with what other, non-artist freelancers of comparable education and experience can expect.
  • Be polite in their criticism.
  • Understand that only reasonable revisions are included in a quote.
  • Be clear about their expectations and the technical constraints of the project.
  • Not change their mind on important issues without good reason, and be apologetic and willing to pay more if they find they have to.
  • Understand that the result might not look exactly like what they had in their head, if they weren’t able to describe it precisely in their spec.
  • Give my advice serious consideration.
  • Not ask for my opinion on something if they don’t actually want to hear it.
  • Understand that I have a style, and that my work is still going to look like my work, regardless of the genre.
  • Allow a reasonable time for the job, taking into account possible unforeseen circumstances.
  • Answer emails promptly.
  • Pay immediately when the work is done, without being asked more than once – being proactive and saying “I think we’re done, how much do I owe you?” is even better, but not obligatory.
  • Give credit where credit is due. In game, preferably.
  • Allow me to use the work in my portfolio.
  • Give me a favourable reference and recommend me to others if they liked what I did for them.

I can’t agree more as a developer and I fully understand the artist point of view. As always, budget is probably the key issue for both sides. Developers want to get art cheaply and artists want to get paid well. Very often we, developers, can’t provide detailed work list, but still require cost estimation. We know you might be more experienced than we are when it comes to art creation. You may see things that have to be done that we don’t see. Don’t be afraid to tell us about them. Don’t be afraid to say this is just estimation. I usually need to know a rough figure to find out if I can afford your work or not. If the budget will change because there’s more work than expected then it’s fine.

Hippocoder made a great post from a full time freelancer point of view:

How to get a reliable freelancer

1. When you contact them, they reply within ONE working day. If its later than a day, move on. Trust me. This is the number one sign someone isn’t a “true” freelancer. A true freelancer who does it as a job, who will see your project through, is ALWAYS OBTAINABLE, and if he won’t be – he makes it clear ie sat and sun.

2. when negotiating, he knows how much stuff costs, and how long it will take. If he is an amateur after beer money he will not have a clue what to charge nor will he have any idea how much it’ll cost. An amateur won’t know how long it will take him. Avoid people who don’t know their own business. When I used to freelance I knew from experience how long it’d take me then I’d add one working day to the total to be safe. That extra working day isn’t charged for, as I used to do work based on a milestone fee each time a bit of work was handed over.

3. Say you negotiate x work for y money. The final test for you is setting “milestones”. If the work isn’t done by that time, tell him he won’t get paid. You are the customer, you set the rules (within reason). Always ask if they will be available for the full duration of the project. Ask, ask ask. It is a typically male thing to do to wink, nudge and say awight mate, its cool.. its not cool. It means your game won’t be finished and he’s happy and you’re not. You pay for this, business is business.

4. Contract to sign over the work, and be liable for copyright infringements is necessary when you’re making a published game. This cannot be skipped. If you are selling your game and you do not have a contract YOU are liable for damages, not the artist who is having a beer. So word a contract out saying that the artist is liable for any copyright infringements should the artwork not be original. Any freelancer who does his own work will not be worried by this. Back when I did work for the games creators, I had to sign such a document. A lot of people who contracted me didn’t though. I didn’t push them to give me a contract simply because its easier for me not to sign. I would always agree to a contract if I had to though.

I paint freelancers here as the bad guys, because they often are. There is a gulf between amateur who realises he can bang a few pixels out and a pro who wants to build a good solid rep up for repeat work. In the guide above, I lived by those guidelines. Often a customer would not ask for a contract though. That was fine by me because I’m not in any way liable. The onus is on *you* not the freelancer to get it in writing and signed over when the works done before final payment.

This means you can have peace of mind knowing you own the work outright and you likewise won’t be sued if he actually ripped the textures from another game or non royalty free source.

As the indie market becomes more competitive, higher quality work is required, with a higher standard of professional conduct. If you want to compete then do it right. A TRUE freelancer will *always* expect these questions from you. Yes they will be a bit more expensive but you get what you pay for – and not just in pixels.

I would also add that you should always require sample work and freelancers should not mind doing sample work. Why? I’ve dozens of great portfolios, but when I asked 12 artists to make a barn for Simon the Farmer game (light color, game for kids) only one made what I needed (and another one was close). I had the same situation with my newest game – even if artist is great it doesn’t mean that one will do the art you envisioned.

Few seconds later after I published this post I received a great comment from Alex Weldon regarding sample work.

creative freelancers are, for the most part, strongly opposed to working on spec. A few reasons are:

A) That you’d then have to raise your hourly rate for the jobs you do get in order to cover the hours lost when you do spec work for a client who then ends up choosing another artist, and

B) That it isn’t really such a great way of finding the best artist for the job – the best artists probably have so much paid work coming in that they can’t afford to spend too long on a piece they won’t necessarily get paid for, while the less professional ones might spend longer on the piece to get the job than they will on the actual work. Thus, the quality of the spec pieces might not reflect the artists’ true abilities.

C) Just through experience, people asking you to do any work for free even (especially!) if they say they’ll probably have paid work for you later is a big red flag. These guys are often bad clients in other ways, and the promised paid work rarely comes to pass.

D) If they’re not paying for the sample, there’s no reason they shouldn’t be asking 20 other artists for a free sample, which means they probably are, which means you’re investing your time for what’s probably a very small chance of actually getting the job. The worst case of this is the “Design the New Smarties Box and Win $100,000″ type of promotion that big companies sometimes get up to… first of all, $100,000 is probably less than a company of that size would be paying for a new package design from a major design firm. Secondly, if 10,000 people enter, you’re statistically only making $10 for a piece of work that you’d have to spend dozens of hours on to have a chance of winning. Thirdly, the contest itself serves as an advertising gimmick (and the $100,000 is less than the millions they give away in a normal lift-the-lid-and-win contest). It’s a win on all fronts for them, and really not a great deal for the artists.

So, if you like the work in an artist’s portfolio, but none of it is really close to what you want, and they claim they can do what you need but you want to be sure, then you should offer to pay them to do one small piece of the job – a sprite, a few tiles, a menu button, whatever – and assuming that works for you, hire them to do the rest. It’ll only cost you maybe $25, and it’ll gain the artist’s trust, and show him that you’re actually interested in his work, and not just asking every artist they can find for a freebie.

The problem is that we sometimes can’t make a decision based on portfolio. We like it, it looks like what we need, but if you have to chose one of ten then you either have to draw one or… ask for a sample. If you have so much paid work then simply say so to me: “I can’t make a sample work for you for free”. Then if I had to pay $25 for each sample it adds up to $250. Someone has to take the risk… it’s either you or me.

Experienced freelancer can be a blessing for your game. Not only you’ll get assets for your game done, but also a fresh point of view. And testing the game is crucial to it’s success.

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2 responses to “Working with freelancers”

29 01 2009
Alex Weldon (16:51:57) :

I do understand the developer’s point of view, of course, but surely you can narrow it down from 10 to, say, 2 or 3 based on their portfolios and quotes… and then get just those guys to do a paid sample? You could even get them to do it one at a time… pick the most likely-looking candidate and get him to do something first. If it looks good, go with him, if not, move on to the next guy.

Let me go back to my point #1 and show you how asking all 10 guys to do a free piece of spec work hurts everyone:

Developers already complain that artists charge too much by the hour. I get people telling me that $40/hr. sounds high. Well, it would be high if I was working on staff at a company, but aside from the fact that I pay for my own workspace/equipment ($450 computer repair bill just this month), there are a whole lot of non-billable hours a freelancer has to put in. My posts to IndieGamer are not pure recreation – being helpful to people attracts attention, like this blog of yours, which helps get work. I have to spend time on portfolio pieces. I probably spend an average of an hour or two a day writing emails to contacts and potential clients, and communicating with clients about current jobs (which I don’t bill for). At some point, I’ll have to build my website, since it’s a shambles at the moment. Sometimes there are dry spells when no work comes in. These are all hours that I’d be paid for working at a company. All that downtime means that $40/hr. for the paid hours actually comes out to more like $10-15/hr. overall. I’m certainly not getting fat off what I charge.

Let’s say an average job is 20-30 hours. Maybe the spec work you ask for only takes an hour… but what if every potential client did as you suggest, and asked 10 different freelancers for a free sample? That’s 10 extra unpaid hours for a 20-30 hour job (whether you want to look at it as 10 different people doing 1 hour for 1 job, or the fact that each freelancer has to do 10 free samples to get one job, on average). That means that they’d have to charge 33-50% more per hour! If I accepted such requests, I’d have to ask $55-60/hr., and would probably get no work at all.

If you ask for spec, you’re going to drive away most of the more professional artists, or get little more than a quick sketch from them. Only the hobbyists can afford to put in the time to do a proper job on something they only stand a 10% chance of getting paid for.

On the other hand, what you can do, that will help everyone, instead of hurting them, is if you see a portfolio that looks nice, but doesn’t contain anything close to what you want, email the artist and ask him if he’s done anything of the sort.

Chances are he has… most artists try to keep their portfolios trim, rather than piling in everything they’ve ever done. They also tend to use their personal work more than stuff for clients, since it doesn’t have anyone else’s fingerprints on it and shows their own style better (though obviously they put some of the latter in, to show that they have clients!). It’s entirely possible that he’s done something similar to what you want, but just didn’t put it on his website.

If he hasn’t done anything of the sort, he might tell you that it’s just not his bag. On the other hand, your question might draw his attention to the fact that he has a “hole” in his portfolio, and he might want to plug that hole. In that case, he might ask you to give him a week, and whip up a portfolio piece to serve as an example.

That’s different from you asking him for spec work, because it’s voluntary, and more useful to the artist, since he can make whatever piece he feels will be best for his portfolio, not for getting this specific job.

Even if he doesn’t have time to do it now, and you have to pass on him for the current job, you’ve done him a service by letting him know there’s a demand for something not in his current portfolio, and if he’s filled the hole by the time you’re working on your next project, maybe you’ll hire him then.

3 02 2009
Jake Birkett (00:23:13) :

This was a great post (missed it on Indiegamer for some reason), thanks all.