Freelancing in the games industry: a day in the life

Over the years we’ve used this blog to talk to a number of MAFters, from the Talented Ladies Club to Star Wars entrepreneurs. One area we’ve never investigated, however, is the gaming industry. So we were delighted to sit down this week with Aaron Donaghey, a freelance games producer based in Northern Ireland, to find out just how many downsides there are to a job where you’re able to wake up “around noon”…

Can you explain what it is that you do, how long you’ve been doing it and how you got into it?

I work as a sort of “freelance producer” within the games industry. I worked in gaming for about 7 years on traditional-style projects before switching to this model. I got into this by chance – I had acquired quite a high number of contacts throughout various projects I had worked on, and sort of found myself in a place where, if I couldn’t do a task I would know how to get hold of someone that could help.

In essence, I became a sort of switch board for problems, and a person who could use his skills to fill out the gaps a project might have, either by myself or by commissioning others. I started out working in quality assurance, and the key thing that I learned from that was how to talk to all types of departments – artists, programmers, producers. Quality Assurance would identify and help with bugs and other problems. This, over time, taught me the broad strokes of most processes.

What’s a typical day like for you?

I tend to work very late, perhaps waking up around noon. The current project I’m working on requires quite a bit of overlap and communication with people on the East coast of the United States. It’s more scattered and much less regimented. You do tend to find, as a freelancer, that you will be contacted at random times of the day, and you just won’t know what topic someone will request your input or advice on.

I enjoy the freedom to do whatever I like at any point during the day – go for a walk, go to the cinema, visit a family member. It allows quite a bit of freedom.

What benefits do you see in working in your industry as a freelancer rather than on a full-time contract?

People working in the game industry can be quite ideologically driven, and the difference between a good game and a bad game can be huge. Freelancing makes it easy to choose exciting projects to work on. It happens quite often in the games industry that you might be assigned to work three years on something you aren’t excited about, but with freelancing you are in control of that.

I worked in the gaming industry myself about five years ago, and freelancing wasn’t so common then. Is it becoming a more common thing?

It’s become a very effective tool for indie developers to hire each other to work on products. I know of many teams where, after the core project is complete, the various team members end up utilizing each other again. You kind of end up with a loose freelancer collective. “Hey you need music? I know just the guy!” With the rise of indie games, freelancing absolutely became more possible. Especially with the new distribution platforms like Steam, etc.

How long do you usually find yourself without work between jobs, or is it fairly fluid?

Game industry contracts tend to be at least a few months at a time, so actually it does allow for quite a bit of planning. The high demands of working in the games industry can often mean you are forced to take breaks between them. I know of many artists in particular that tend be backed up on work.

Are there certain cities that offer more work for freelancers in the gaming industry?

It comes down to your cost vs local availability spectrum. Places like London, you will have much higher living costs and, thus, will have to price yourself with that in mind. Perhaps the client will want someone who can come and do a face to face?

The choice I made is to work somewhere with a low cost of living (Northern Ireland, in my case) as it allows you to undercut the competition and provide better value for money. Guildford and Bristol in England both tend to be big hotspots, along with, of course, Dublin and London.

What do you tend to say to other people coming to the games industry as a freelancer? Is it something you encourage or not?

It can be a huge challenge to do it fresh from university – perhaps only possible if you are an artist. Until you have built some credentials people are unlikely to trust a freelancer. I would not recommend it to someone who is just starting out fresh. It’s also hard to find longterm projects, or sometimes you will get contracts which prevent you from being named in the games production.

What have been the benefits have you found in working through My Accountant Friend

Lee, my personal account manager, has actually worked in the gaming industry for quite some time. Its extremely helpful that your accountant knows the lingo and also has a firm understanding of how the games industry works. You would be surprised at how many accountants are confused at the concept of something like a digital item or digital sale.

They’ll often say something like, “my son/daughter knows a lot more about these things than me!” This is not a thing you want to hear your accountant say! Gaming industry folk tend to detect very fast when knowledge is being faked. I have got none of that falseness with Lee or anyone from MAF to date, nor do I expect to ever.

For more information on how My Accountant Friend can help you as a freelancer in the gaming industry, drop us a line and we’ll be happy to chat to you about how we can help. 

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