Thriving as a Freelance Game Developer: How to Get Started

Conversations around various career issues for game developers regarding crunch issues and concerns about pay equity and toxic work environments have gone mainstream. Because of these issues, some developers have chosen to work for themselves instead.

Game development can be an exciting and fulfilling career path. You have the chance to contribute your creative and technical prowess to projects that bring joy into the lives of potentially millions of people. Though, that’s not to say that there aren’t challenges. The industry is fraught with toxic practices and environments, not the least of which is a crunch culture that puts workers at serious risk of burnout.


As such, talented development contributors are increasingly looking toward building freelance careers. Particularly in recent years, remote working in the sector has become increasingly practical. This has created a landscape that can empower you to be your own boss and apply your skills to projects without the oppressive atmosphere that can be so disruptive and destructive. 


So, how can you best go about forging a freelance career in which you’re able to thrive? We’re going to run down a few of the primary points you should be focusing on to get off to a positive start. 

Build Your Portfolio

If you want to get into game development as a freelancer, the route is really not a lot different from most other independent contractor careers. You need to be able to demonstrate to clients that you are capable of pulling off the volume and quality of work that they need on the time scale they need it. While having a resume packed with in-house experience is good, the main tool you need to make your case is a solid portfolio. 


Obviously, if you’ve been involved with projects over many years this is slightly easier. Review your body of work and make a selection that best represents what you can do. Go for quality over quantity; if you only have a couple of projects that reflect your best work, don’t be afraid to limit your selection to those. It’s smart to also make your portfolio agile. If you are pitching to work for a studio that favors a certain artistic style or gameplay approach, shift the focus of your portfolio to include work that reflects this.   


However, just because you don’t have any professional studio experience, that doesn’t mean to say that you’re locked out of freelance opportunities. Having a portfolio filled with your projects is not a drawback. Make sure to include not just the end product through tech demos, but also examples of your planning and design process. This helps to give potential clients useful insights into how you think when you work. Keep it simple, though.

Keep Connected

One of your top priorities in starting your freelance career is to focus on building and maintaining good communications practices. This starts with making certain that you have adequate, uninterrupted internet access. If this isn’t possible at home, it might be worth considering becoming a member of the growing number of coworking spaces. 


Beyond that, if you intend to be fully involved in your projects, you need to make sure that you have the communication tools in place to be an active contributor throughout the strategic planning stages. Talk to your clients about utilizing collaborative tools like virtual whiteboards that empower all remote workers to become more engaged in brainstorming and planning. These kinds of apps mean that you can discuss the project live, with each attendee making color-coded additions in a way that keeps a shared strategic document both accessible and organized.   


However, your communications efforts need to go beyond official meetings. While there is a sense of freelancing being a more independent way of life, it’s still important to make meaningful connections with your colleagues and clients. Most companies will have their remote platform preference, but you should utilize tools like Microsoft Teams and Slack to build your relationships with the developers you’re working with. Check in regularly to discuss thoughts and progress on the project, but also make use of appropriate channels for more casual conversations. Building bonds with colleagues doesn’t just help stave off loneliness, it can also help you build a positive reputation that can see you employed on other projects. 

Stay Organized

It’s important to remember that while you are an independent freelancer in game development, you have certain administrative responsibilities. Think of it this way: you aren’t just an employee anymore, you started your own small business. As such, make sure that you can be productive and innovative, you need to become an organizational ninja. It’s not everyone’s strong suit, but it is essential. These practices will also come in handy if you intend to start a games studio in the future.  


Firstly, make yourself a schedule. You have deadlines to stick to, and this might be simple enough to handle in your head if you just have one client, but as your business grows they will become increasingly unwieldy. Take the time to break down the tasks you’ll need to undertake, and how long you can expect to spend on them — and make time for the inevitable mistakes and disruptions. Use a scheduling app or even a physical calendar to set out what you’ll be working on and when as you lead up to your deadline. Using this framework keeps your work organized, and also takes some stress off of your shoulders. 


Invoicing can also be difficult in this regard. Yes, everyone likes to get paid, but compiling and issuing invoices is no fun, and can occasionally be quite complex. You can simplify this process by utilizing platforms that produce invoice templates that are personalized with your details and logo, but you can just fill in the individual charges each period. It’s also worth noting that invoicing regularly and on time not just helps you get paid more swiftly, it also helps to build your reputation as an organized professional. If you can use tools where clients can pay through the application you’re issuing the invoice through, this also highlights you as someone easy to work with.


There are more opportunities than ever to engage with game development as a freelancer. Taking time to build a quality project-focused portfolio can help connect you with the right clients, and prioritizing communications ensures you build positive relationships. However, be sure not to neglect how vital solid organization is to your productivity and your growing reputation. 

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