Most Indie Developers Do Freelance Contracts for Stable Income

Jan 31, 2015

I mentioned this briefly back in October, in Crowded Blue Oceans: Swarms of Peer Competition, but it’s terribly important and really needs its own detailed post.

Whether it’s an IGF-winning developer, a profitable small game studio of salaried industry professionals, or a two person team living in a rented mobile home (that was my situation when I started this blog nearly six years ago), most indie developers do freelance contract work for stable income. Developers and small companies, even ones that have made games you’ve heard of and probably played, have almost all taken on years of paid contract work in the background that you probably haven’t heard of.

You’re normally not really supposed to hear about that contract work.

That’s partly because the company that hired the indies often doesn’t want that indie getting credit for the contracted development. The other half of the time that’s because the indie doesn’t want their reputation tainted by having done months or years of work for Big Money Global Corp. Between the contractor and the contractee this secrecy is desirable, and usually works out just fine. The big company gets to maintain the illusion of having its skills and talents under its own roof. The indie gets to maintain the illusion of not selling out, or, you know, being a human being that has to sometimes eat and pay for gas.

But there’s a big problem in that the secrecy of that arrangement doesn’t work out well for a third group of people: aspiring indie developers who expect their original games to promptly recoup their expenses and turn a significant profit. People making the jump from intermediate (recreational) to the advanced (professional) level of development who aren’t in on this fact are working at a tremendous disadvantage. Worse, they’re set up to flame out early from thinking they just weren’t up to the job, not understanding quite what the job really usually looks like and involves.

A great Salon piece has been making the rounds recently titled “Sponsored” by my husband: Why it’s a problem that writers never talk about where their money comes from. It’s a great article and it’s what inspired this post, but the TL;DR is right there in the title. Until and unless their work really takes off, most writers stay afloat for a long time on money from another source (lucrative prior job, part-time day job, spouse, or parents) or, that just in another form, living partly supported by someone else’s care and housing costs.

Much as with writing words for a living, writing game code for a living is a hit-driven industry with a small fraction of people who are doing extraordinarily well (at least every now and then) and otherwise a great horde of others who are alternating between barely scraping by or periodically juggling outside work to build up a buffer.

For anyone unfamiliar with contract work, the way this typically goes down is that some established company which has an existing customer base, powerful brand recognition, privileged connections to favorable treatment in distribution channels runs into a problem which they feel doesn’t fit the current skills of their current full-time employees. By “favorable treatment in distribution channels” I mean things like getting featured, getting shelf space, getting bought in bulk annually by educational institutions or corporate training groups, having passed approvals and paid costs for console dev kit hardware, etc. What’s fastest and cheapest for them, especially in the near-term for a task that isn’t their usual challenge, is outsourcing that task to a consultant who’s paid to help make the problem go away. That consultant is often an indie developer with bills to pay and their own release date far away.

Pay structures vary from per milestone to hourly part-time. The types of problems run the full spectrum of game development tasks, from design to technical to animation to any skilled discipline. Basically they’ve got a lot of money to be made if they can get just through this road block. They’re sitting on a small mountain of the company’s past earnings to be able to afford to pay an outside developer some chunk of money to help them past that blocker as promptly and professionally as can be done for the price. Meanwhile the indie, who by comparison typically has far less consistency in their earnings, weaker direct customer reach, outsider’s distribution challenges, and smaller savings in the bank, sees the zeros to the right of the dollar sign and gives up a quarter to a half or even temporarily all of their working hours to help fix that company’s problem for the next few months or longer.

Sometimes those contract projects fall apart or don’t ship for whatever reason. Maybe it’s due to other contractors failing to deliver, maybe a change in market trends, or maybe the paying company was sort of just fooling around in the first place with an experiment to see how it came out. As long as you did what you agreed to you generally still get paid anyway. When it comes to knowing where your rent is coming from that works a lot better than crossing your fingers and hoping for a bump in sales of a side project or destroying your health trying to rush another game out in time, banking on it working.

Contract work usually isn’t glamorous, creative, inspiring, or innovative. Even if it was, all the rights to it would generally belong to the paying company, not to the person who got paid a fixed fee to make it happen. Often the whole project isn’t very glamorous, creative, inspiring, or innovative, but it’s filling some known market demand for some franchise on some platform, sometimes for some reason other than entertainment (education, training, communication, documentation, blah blah blah). It’s like a farmer needing a part to fix their tractor so a business pops up to manufacture that part, even if no one involved is particularly stoked about doing it. So these aren’t talking points that wind up being presented on stage at GDC or in popular talks on YouTube, but they’re frequently the oxygen that keeps indies going financially until or between their original projects can do well enough to even take a break from the treadmill of outside contract work.

Over the years, alongside and after (not just leading up to when) I made a few iPhone and iPad games that did well or spent time in AAA working on console games, I’ve been paid to help different companies make a geography trivia game, an ecosystem simulation, a match-3 knockoff, a photo wallpapers app, a pile of small mini-games, an advertising game, a moderated forum for pre-teen game developers, and a game to be played within a 3D chat room service.

I’m not especially proud of those projects. All but one of them don’t even include me in the credits – as much by my preference as theirs. When I give talks about game development at schools and conferences nobody’s lining up interested in hearing about those side jobs.

However I am of course grateful to have found that work to stay alive between making my own weird stuff, writing new help materials for this blog for years, and occasionally lucking into a tough gamble of a side project or two of my own at least temporarily paying off. For those projects which involved figuring out something that I hadn’t done before, these were even opportunities to learn something new on someone else’s dime. None of the games that I’ve made since would have been possible without all that. Yet those contract projects aren’t really a part of my public identity as a videogame developer, because they’re not really “my” games, or necessarily what I want people to think of in connection to me and types of game projects.

I hadn’t really considered until seeing that Salon article what danger that inadvertently might lead aspiring developers into.

And I’m definitely not alone in this.

Let me again stress that individual developers, small team developers, even medium-sized development studios almost all do this. While there are of course some developers who have had so much financial success or such massive backing that the need to take on contract work can diminish or disappear for years at a time, those are a small fraction among the already small fraction of developers that players have actually heard of. That happens, but it’s rare. Generally even the games that were runaway hits may yield only a few years burn rate after making up for the costs incurred from years of salaried team development that went into taking a big chance on it in the first place.

I’m not saying this to bum anyone out or to discourage anyone from doing it. I’m saying this because I want to see more people giving themselves a fair, real chance, not feeling like they’re selling out or a poseur for accepting or seeking outside part-time work to cover costs between bringing their own imaginative ideas and innovative contributions to market. Trying to cover development costs from day one purely by the creation of selling original games is like trying to win a swim meet without realizing that all the other swimmers are breathing between strokes. Most people trying to do that are setting themselves up to fail, and if someone does manage to do it (a.) that’s quite impressive but (b.) a generally unnecessary level of stress of endure, more likely to come across as foolish, naive, and lucky than extraordinarily talented, brave, or expert.

If you can program computers, design software, and get tangible results when working with a machine, those are skills for which businesses will pay. You don’t have to give up making your own games entirely in order to seek and earn some money. It’s absolutely not either/or, it’s not black or white. Being a completely “starving artist” with those kinds of marketable skills doesn’t come across to fans or peers as passionate or committed, it just looks dangerous, or worse, like lacking the discipline to set up and maintain a balance between enough work to cover costs (perhaps while keeping costs low to minimize that pressure) while also making continual forward progress on practicing your skills and shipping your side projects.

I know that can sound harsh to someone who is making conscious sacrifices or working within very challenging circumstances, and I don’t mean to imply that it’s trivial or easy, but that’s surviving. All I’m talking about here is making sure that you’re finding ways to give yourself a fair chance to continue working on your own game projects, giving them the time they need to succeed and the buffer you need for at least minimum day-to-day security, instead of feeling like you’ve got to ship immediately or starve. If you’re an indie every move is a gamble, and the wise bet is to mix that work time with some outside work that’s guaranteed to pay.

Taking some contract work to make your own work possible is nothing to be ashamed of. It doesn’t amount to giving up. Virtually all other indies and small studios are doing it, or did it for many years before getting to the point where they no longer need to. Fit your game making into the time you can afford to consistently spare, find ways to grow that time if possible, but if your development journey goes down in flames because one game you were counting on to be profitable didn’t pan out as expected that definitely isn’t the best outcome for you or your players, anyway.

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