Hi I'm Steffen, ceo, co-founder and game director at BetaDwarf
Not long ago Polygon made an article about our current company situation, which is that we had to fire everybody, or more precisely that we could not guarantee people had a salary from christmas and forward.
Even with that information our whole team said that they would try to work a few months without pay, if that’s what it took to finish our current game.
We have ended in this situation since we heavily fail estimated the costs of porting our first game FORCED to Ps4 and Xbox 1, additionally some semi advanced vacation money rules in Denmark meant that we needed to set aside $100k as insurance for our employees.
In combination this meant that we lost around half a year of development time, which is basically what we need to finalize the game.
A lot of people liked the Polygon article and our transparent company culture, but I noticed a blog criticizing it. The critique was mainly that it isn’t okay to have people working for free, that the overall situation we are in should be stopped and that it’s not okay to write about it, since it’s celebrating a “Disaster”, where people are working without a promising future and that we don’t really know what we’re doing. At least that’s how I interpreted it.
To be clear, I think it’s totally okay to employ someone for no pay, if you are completely honest about it and aren’t overselling anything. What’s not okay is manipulating a person into it, which might be what the critical source believes we are doing.
It’s very clear that parts of the games industry has a problem since there are far more people graduating towards it each year - than there are jobs created, at least that’s the case in Denmark and many other countries. Furthermore the vast majority of jobs require several years of experience - and I can’t find any solutions to that in the critique we got, other than giving up, which is an anti-climatic thing to do after 3-5 years of education.
Inspired by that, I have decided to share some thoughts that may help both employers and employees who are going through a rough period that e.g. involves working for a limited -or no salary, and I hope it will shed light on it so that we can have a more constructive debate about it.
In Denmark we don’t have a lot of job openings in the games industry, I’m quite sure less than 15 people are offered a decently paid job per year. Most of those offered a job have several years of experience. However we do have a lot educations graduating 100+ new developers each year. That’s an obvious problem for the graduates, leaving them with these options:
Apply for a job without prior experience.
Apply for a job in another country.
Start a company.
Work for free to acquire experience.
Try to fit their education into another industry.
Our company is basically founded based on the above knowledge. As students we knew very well that our chances of getting a job would be very slim. So while being students my partner and I worked our asses off, initially striving towards option 1, getting a job. But we realised that option 1 and 3 could be combined during the education. Meaning that during our master which took 2 years, we could try to make a game and a company, and if it failed the big companies may consider the attempt actual studio experience - making it a win, win scenario.
Consequently we started BetaDwarf and we’ve so far made one game - “FORCED”, which has sold more than 500k units (excluding bundles) and became a small success story. More than 50 people have contributed to our company the last 5 years. Many have helped out for less than a year, and many have done so either free, as interns or with very little pay, simply to get experience. Many got a bonus when it became a success, but that wasn’t guaranteed money since it required the game to do well.
We’ve always been very transparent towards people joining our team and never promised anything we couldn’t keep. We’ve been straightforward from the start saying, that no one should be part of our company for the money, but primarily to get experience.
In the beginning it was mostly people helping out while being students, but several people who had finished educations also joined us. We’ve only ever had a single veteran among us for those 5 years, who helped us for 6 months and got a very small salary (fortunately also some bonus after our game turned out a success).
As mentioned we recently ended in a situation where we might not be able to pay a salary all the way till release of our current game, so I have experience with two cases of working for free.
I have decided to make a list of tips for both the employee and the employer, feel free to read both.
1# Don’t promise something if it isn’t guaranteed
A lot of free work is often in a combination with the potential of future bonuses, like a rev-share, profit-share or recouped salary or something else. It’s very important never to promise something that’s not certain to be fulfilled. Sales are naturally hard to estimate, so do not manipulate the potential. Only state facts, if you are an employer estimating anything to convince an employee of promising results in the future, use data and allow the employee to draw their own conclusions. An example would be to show the employee what the revenue was from last release/steam sale etc. and mention parameters that has changed since then.
State very clearly to the employee that there might be a realistic chance that they will never see any money - if that’s the case, which it often is. Obviously the more honest the foundation of the agreement is, the better the relationship will be.
2# Don’t hire someone, just because you can
Hiring someone even if they require very little salary is not as obvious a decision as one may think. On average we get 3 applications per month from people willing to work for free for several months, even with that in mind we still have long periods now and then with empty desks and computers that no one uses. When we started our company that wasn’t the case, we thought anyone interested in being part of our team for free, was an obvious decision, but that is a huge mistake and often ends in a lose - lose scenario.
Why is that? Well it’s because making a game is often a very creatively challenging task, and most of the development tasks requires a ton of sparring. Additionally, development is also often very challenging, it’s not easy to make great assets, code or design, in fact it often takes years of practice. Because of that we’ve had many situations with people being part of our team for a limited time, where we have spend a lot more effort sparring and training them than we’ve gained in return. Or sometimes we’ve had too little time to help them improve and spare with them, resulting in miss aimed attempts to add value to our game. Such mistakes are super expensive for a small indie team with limited funds.
Ergo, you must be sure the employee is motivated and can contribute to your project in a realistic future and that you have time to help them do so.
3# Flexible bonuses
It’s natural to offer a bonus incentive for a period of work with limited salary. If you do offer a bonus contract, then don’t require the employee to stay in the company for extensive periods for it to work. Instead make it so the bonus can be built up over time, and allow the employee to leave the company after a minimum period of a few months while keeping whatever bonus agreement you’ve established until the project releases and generates income. This allows the employee to be flexible and avoid stressful situations where they are required to stay for months to get a return on their investment. This is especially relevant if the employee isn’t mainly doing it for the experience.
At BetaDwarf we have complete transparency, people can check our company bank accounts and see what each other get in salary. Almost everyone gets the same salary and our costs are described in a document that anyone can get access to. I would say this is very effective in establishing a trustworthy relation, especially when it comes to promised bonuses. We share 50% of our profit with our team (not including interns and contractors), so it’s ideal for their trust that they can follow our cash flow, and nothing is hidden.
5# Help the employee into another job - if their goal is experience
This might sound counter intuitive, but it’s part of the win - win scenario. If you as an employer has little money and isn’t interested in growing, you should help people onwards. If you can help someone working for free into a paid job opportunity somewhere else, it means that what you’re doing is actually working. At that point the employee should have acquired a period of experience that has probably resulted in value for you. The employee has gotten a paid job and is probably happy, which will also make the you more trustworthy for future employees offering their hands in return for experience.
When an employee wants to try their luck at a paid position after working at our team, we actively try to help them, by e.g. sending direct recommendations to people in the industry we know. We’ve already had several people working here who got jobs elsewhere, which would have been harder if they weren’t able to say they had been part developing “Forced”.
6# Avoid surprises
If you’re running out of money or there’s a risk that you might, tell people as soon as you know. This builds trust and allows the employee to make a decision on whether they might be willing to work for free a long time before it happens. We recently came into this situation and because of our transparency it wasn’t that much of a surprise, but even so, they still had around 3 months of salary before the chests were empty. Hence it provided them an informed decision where they have time to look for a job if that made most sense to them.
7# Agree on a minimum period
You are investing in the employee even though their salary might be next to nothing. It costs a lot to get the employee into the production. Asset creators are often much better at producing value shortly after being hired, whereas coders or designers needs to know a ton about the game systems. Consequently it’s good to establish a minimum period for the hire. During this period it should be totally okay for the employee to apply for other jobs, as long as it’s not conflicting with the agreed period.
8# Treat the employee as if it was a normal job
No one wants to offer their work for free at some place others don’t take serious, that’s just a waste of time for everybody involved. If the employee is looking for experience, it doesn’t help them if they aren’t getting real work experience. Take them seriously and challenge them with responsibility.
1# Figure out if it makes sense to work for free first
I would recommend starting by getting an overview of your options. First of all, if you look at a job you’re interested in, can you then say you have the qualifications required except for the years of experience often stated?
If the answer is no, you probably have a very low or no chance of getting a decently paid job, and you should figure out how to get experienced enough to meet those criteria.
If the answer is yes, then you should apply for all such jobs, and make a serious effort of all such applications. If you don’t get a job, pay attention to any feedback you might get in the process, but overall it’s more than likely that your job was taken by someone more experienced than you. The solution to that would be to get more experience.
After doing the above, you either got a job or you know you might need to do something to get experience which involves very little chance of getting paid in the process. So ask yourself, do you want to do that or not? And if the answer is yes, it makes sense to do so as determined and effective as possible, to avoid many years of financial struggling because you aren’t reaching your experience fast enough.
2# Offer your free development to a team that can offer you experience fast
Start by making a prioritized list of teams you might get the most experience from in the shortest amount of time, basically your wish-list. Search for places that might offer you a tutor, has a track record/experience and might offer you responsibility, so that you actually get challenged and learn something.
Then write an application to each team on the list to see what options you’ve got afterwards.
When writing to someone that you’re willing to work for free, be serious about it. Say that you are willing to work for free or a low salary for at least X amount of months, and that your goal is to gain as much experience as possible in that period. Most employers will probably not be interested in unexperienced help lasting less than 3 months, but it doesn’t hurt to ask if you can’t offer more, and maybe they can compensate you a little. Make it clear that you goal is to get a paid job either at their company or that you would like them to help you find something afterwards.
3# If in doubt - ask
If you are working for free and you’ve e.g. agreed to just start and see how it goes without a contract, be sure to ask for feedback during that. It doesn’t help blaming the employer after two months for anything you haven’t agreed upon. If you are uncertain what will happen in the future, ask, and if you don’t like the answer, either negotiate or leave if you don’t feel you are getting experience or bonus increases as you should. Anything else can easily end in frustration and you can proactively avoid having different expectations than your employer.
4# Get it in writing
Make sure you get any agreements in writing, especially digitally so you don’t throw it away and it’s great if it’s part of a mail conversation with your employer since that works well as proof and as a reminder. Verbal agreement's details tend to be forgotten. An easy way to do it is to write your agreement to your employer on a mail and ask them to confirm it. If this seems to be a problem in anyway, I think you should consider forgetting about that company.
5# Show your best, working for free may not be enough
Even when offering your talent for free, there’s competition. We get several of such requests on a monthly basis, and some of them are very talented. So you need to make an impression, try to stand out. I.e. we had an artist applying who drew himself as one of the characters in our game, and it got shared in our office - instantly creating an interest in that guy. Even though we weren’t really looking for his skill set, we ended up trying it and it resulted in success.
6# Read the tips I made for employers, so you can dodge shady types
You may have already read the list for employers above, but it’s also useful for you. If an employer e.g. requires you to stay for a year before you get any pay, or if they refuse to show you any earnings, that might not be an ideal place. If they seem to follow ethical guidelines as I would say that list points towards, it’s more promising.
7# Background check
If you have found a place you think is interesting and that is are offering you to be part of their team for a bonus or to get experience, make a background check. You can probably find people who know them at a game jam, at local game events or on the internet, ask around if someone knows about them and whether it seems like a right place for you.
Working for free isn’t ideal, we can easily agree on that. However I think that doing it in the right way, by making sure everyone is treated fairly through being as transparent as possible, will give both low-budget employers and inexperienced developers a greater chance of success.
It’s happening all the time, you go to some forum where somebody has an idea of a great game but there’s no pay other than a bonus, that’s mainly interesting for people who needs experience. The only problem I see in that, is if it’s not done in a transparent and honest way. Like any other deal, it has to be honest, so the person considering it isn’t manipulated. It’s no crime to ask people to work for free for you, but it’s getting there - if you are manipulating them into it.
Whether we like it or not, free work is going to happen, and it’s probably increasing, because there are far more people wanting to get into the industry than there are seats for them. Additionally since it’s a very passion driven industry, people will give it a try even if it takes a risk. So the most constructive way to approach that would be to make that filtering process as honest and comfortable as possible.
Criticizing people working for free or those who employ them makes no sense to me, unless it’s manipulation, but constructive suggestions as to what they should do instead or how it should be done, does.
I hope we can have a constructive debate about this and I would love feedback and maybe even further tips for the list, also feel free to catch me on twitter - @baboonlord
Also feel free to look at our current kickstarter.