A world of experience: the truth behind freelancing

The industry of online trade is a funny old thing.

Theoretically, it provides an immediate point of connection between platforms and potential employees, allowing anyone with a computer the opportunity to get paid for their particular skillset.

This level of access proves to be a double-edged sword, of course, creating an oversaturated, bloated ocean of content struggling to be seen. The resultant business models are predicated on the number of clicks, clicks, clicks, to pull in that sweet advertising revenue and keep the domain afloat for a few more months.

The public perception is that there’s a lot of money in this gig, where the harsh reality is that the cavernous void between a living wage and getting paid next to nothing, is one that the majority of freelancers will never cross.

“All video game journalists are corrupt, and getting paid by publishers to write good reviews,” the commenters crow, citing what they perceive to be inflated Metacritic scores as evidence that critics cannot be trusted.

To that, I ask simply, whether you could point me in the direction of those publishers, that I may sing their praises and lick their boots with gusto. Lord knows I’m long overdue for a bribe to help me pay the rent.

Why is this the HumbleBundle quote this sounds so mean

The majority of freelancers are little more than frightened mercenaries, desperately hawking our wares in an attempt to make ends meet. We look to the veterans, the established creators who have somehow eked out a career, and often hear back the same advice: “know your worth”.

Stoic words, to be sure, but it ignores the simple truth that, for many of us, our worth isn’t something that we can easily dictate.

“I’ve been doing some freelance design work and I have no idea how much to charge,” one freelancer told me. “I’m trying to convert my hobby to a job and I’m at the stage where I feel like I’m so unskilled that I can’t charge by time because I’m so inefficient.

“But then how do I charge? I end up picking a number which I think is low but I can’t justify to myself to charge a higher amount. I justify it by saying I’m still building out my portfolio but I’m hoping at some point I’ll get the confidence to start charging at a more appropriate rate.”

It’s a buyer’s market, with freelancers competing tooth-and-nail to build some kind of tangible workload that they can use as a reflection of the aforementioned worth. True as it is in any career, we’re left in a position of, ‘you need experience for this role’, without being given the opportunity to gain said experience.

So what do we do? We undercut ourselves, sometimes ruthlessly. We sacrifice our creative freedom to dictate our workflow, accepting the jobs that will sustain our income for a little while longer.

David Fagan, a digital artist who takes on commissions in his free time, said of this dilemma, “I’d love to make $1000, but… how long will it take? How often will jobs come in? Will the client be difficult? Am I worth X amount, and should I be charging more or less? Do I take a job that will pay for my bills, and not end up doing as much freelancing as I’d like?”

She’s got muscles in places I don’t even have places | TurnBasedDave

The most obvious solution is to pay freelance contributors a rate that is proportionate to their efforts. On the surface, this is the ideal situation, and yet it comes with its own caveats. Fiscally, many smaller outlets simply do not have the budget to accomodate this. Mandating any kind of minimum wage would invariably force many of them to bow out, coincidentally taking their current employees down with them.

I don’t have the raw data in front of me, but I can assure you, the majority of these hobbyist ventures are not turning a sizeable profit. There is oppression, for sure, but this much is also true of full-time positions in newsrooms. Many aspiring creatives give up on their dreams when, after years of just barely scraping by, they have morphed into nightmares.

As pessimistic as this all sounds, some freelancers are able to navigate their way through the minefield and make real, tangible progress. Forget the perceived glitz and the glamour, many of us are happy to even have a career at all.

“…I spent far too long writing for clicks,” another freelancer journalist described. “But some some years in, I’m now making enough to have quit my day job (but earning less than I did there).

“I’m currently on $20 US for a guide, $30 for a feature or something longer. News is a little trickier, some sites it almost feels not worth covering at say $10 a pop, when I could write a guide in that time.

“IGN pays $30 for a news article now though, basically in response to that backlash a while back, so hopefully that will have a rising tide effect on other sites.”

I mean I’d call that more of a guide than news, IGN, but you do you, boo

At a glance, one may say to themselves that this sounds like something they could handle. With enough output, you could even make a tidy little packet. It isn’t quite so cut-and-dry as that, however.

Feature writing, theoretically the most lucrative option, is a timely endeavour. From the pitch itself to the research that goes into it, compiling quotes or interviews where necessary, writing and editing, we’re talking about hours of effort. Sometimes days, sometimes weeks. It depends on what the end product is supposed to be.

News and guide writing proves to be the smarter option, however it does not have the luxury of time that feature pieces might. If you aren’t breaking stories the moment they happen, someone else is. For a major outlet such as IGN, this is truer still, and in many ways you could consider your contemporaries to be your rivals.

Beyond this, there is, another layer that most people wouldn’t even consider ⁠— the element of risk and uncertainty that comes with an income not set in stone. I’m not referring to the lack of reasonably paid opportunities, but the trail of projects along the way that never even make it that far.

One freelance writer and game designer in particular, who we will refer to as Steven, told me a story that made me shudder.

“I was a member of a now defunct group of student game developers at a local university,” Steven said. “Nearing its end, we had a new arrival. He was a programmer who just quit his job at a larger indie studio and, as many industry stories go, he was looking to work on his own game.

“The majority of my group were engineers still working on their social skills, where as I was an artist and writer, fairly open to talking to new people. The new arrival took a liking to me (or at least I thought), and invited me and some others out for drinks, where he then got down to business about his real motivations; he wanted to hire people to work on his game idea.”

Steven explained that, in a prior discussion with a AAA employee, he learnt that many applicants fell short due to lacking a finished product. To have even just a little bit of industry experiment would place an applicant within the top 1%.

Pictured: either a AAA studio, or a pleasant family portrait | That’s No Moon

“Thus, when the indie dev asked me to sign a contract that would have me making nothing more than a percentage upon release and sales, I jumped at the opportunity, regardless of the red flags,” Steven continued.

“In the year that followed, our team of eight or so, would meet at a local pub once a week for updates. There were many bumps in the road and butting heads as well. One instance, my going out of my way to design a whole new background for the level I was tasked with, which earned plenty of praise from our lead at the time and a promise of a higher percentage come release, but was ultimately thrown out when it came to rolling out how much each member would make for said contributions.

“This caused a bit of a rift between myself and our lead, but we pressed on and buried the hatchet before we parted ways some time later. In the interim, we held a launch party, which had a fair number of people, but led to little success for the game itself. We attempted to boost sales through attending various conventions, and I even took it upon myself to attend E3, in the hopes that I might inspire further interest.”

Eventually, Steven would reconvene with the team lead, the one who had set this whole process into motion, to learn the miserable news: he had already given up on the project, returning to his old job to recoup his lost savings.

“This also meant that none of us would see a cent for our work as well,” Steven concluded.

At the end of the day, freelancers have to ask themselves whether to engage with openings that may not pan out, or apply for gigs that will reward them with little more than a credit in their portfolio.

Many would decline, thumbing through the listings for more suitable renumeration, and I cannot blame them for that. For me personally, I keep circling back to this notion of ‘knowing one’s worth’.

Straight cash, homey | AMC

Over the years, I’ve written for approximately 20 unique publications. Among those, I was paid by six of them. Truth be told, the best opportunity I’ve ever received came as the byproduct of a failed bid for a social media management role.

My portfolio was attached to my CV, and seeing this, they offered me a position writing for their blog — something I was much better suited to. Without possessing the wealth of material I had available, this would not have happened.

How did I build this portfolio? By knowing that my worth, in those early days, was approximately nothing. The true worth laid in those bylines I had accumulated, showcasing exactly what I offered as a writer.

Because of this, I am now in a position where I can charge what I believe myself to be worth. Am I an example of success? No, not at all, I still have a long way to go yet. But I’m not clamouring for exposure anymore, and that’s a nice feeling.

Should you take away anything at all from this article, let it be a newfound appreciation for freelancers. We’re all just doing our level best here, and ultimately it is the consumer who holds our fate in their hands. If you like something, share it. Spread it. You never know when it could lead to a connection that wouldn’t have otherwise been possible.

At the very least, it means that I can continue to plague mankind with pieces that list games that are similar to Milfy City.

One response to “A world of experience: the truth behind freelancing”

  1. […] may sound exaggerated or even disingenuous — and as a longtime freelancer, I can attest that I’m not paying any bills with goddamn exposure — but all it takes is a […]

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