There was recently an article published on Kotaku.com, a video game website, written by Nathan Peters. It was a description of his experience as a contract employee in the video game industry; specifically in the QA department of Certain Affinity, a studio that worked on multiplayer aspects of Halo 4. The summary of the article is that if you’re looking to be involved in the video game industry you should never be a contract employee. In fact, it goes so far as state that “It’s time for gaming’s contractors to strike.” Never mind that this statement is immediately preceded by a sentence that starts with “I freelanced…” Yeah. In any case, you can read the entire article here.
So here’s another viewpoint.
I’ve been a freelancer in the video game industry for over ten years, primarily in special events and experience marketing. In that time, I have worked alongside some of the most talented and influential people in the industry, helped produce some of the most amazing shows the industry has ever seen, and launched some of the products and brands that have reshaped the modern video game experience. I don’t think I need to go into crazy detail here. (You can jump over to the Work section of this site and take a look if you’re interested.) In nearly all of these instances I was the same kind of contract worker described by Nathan. I have experienced a lot of the same frustrations that he describes, a lot of the same situations, the difficulties, the contributions, the promises, and so on. I believe there are a few fundamental differences in our attitudes towards those experiences, but these are attitudes that only develop over time.
I have been a freelancer nearly my entire professional life. That is on purpose. It’s work that suits my personality and strengths. I adapt quickly, enjoy being challenged, I like to work, and I have a fierce “do what it takes” mentality. “9 to 5″ doesn’t make sense to me if the work is going to require “5 to 9″ or, in a lot of cases, “24/7″. In my younger days, my work ethic was exploited much in the same way that Nathan describes. I crunched hard to make the best possible impression with my clients. I went way above and beyond what I was contracted for and that became expected from me. I did this partially because I was new on the scene and had something to prove and because I wanted to impress the hell out of the video game companies I was working for. I grew up with video games, I love them, and so I took all the work very seriously (not to say that I don’t now) and very personally.
I was disappointed, a lot. I was doing work I felt was instrumental in the greater strategy of what my clients were trying to do but there was very little recognition of my contributions, I was never offered a full time gig, and I was barely making enough money to survive. “I am a key player!” I’d rant. “These events and shows hinged on my expertise!” “I saved the day 100 times over!” “My value deserves recognition!” The lesson you have to learn is: You are being recognized. It’s called “a paycheck” and sometimes “more work”. You’re on the wrong career path if you’re looking to be a superstar, this is especially true in the video game industry, and then doubly so if your work is in events () or QA (). I’ve written other posts on this subject (see here for an example).
This leads to two critically important philosophies that will save you a lot of dissatisfaction down the road: Don’t Seek Glory and Manage Your Expectations. You don’t sign a contract to be the waterboy and expect to be promoted to quarterback next season just because you know how to throw a football. You can give 110% every single day and if more opportunity arises because of it, awesome! If it doesn’t, that’s par for the course. All you’re owed is what you signed on for.
Something a lot of freelancers deal with, especially early on, is the very uncomfortable “5th wheel” feeling. That even though you are playing key roles in the projects you’re working on, you are really an outsider, always feeling like you’ve been invited to the party, but you’re not really part of it. Nathan describes this same feeling. Interactions feel insincere, you don’t feel accepted. Nathan refers to this feeling as “Jon Snow under the Stark roof.” (A Game of Thrones reference), but here’s thing, regardless of House, Jon Snow is pretty awesome. He did a lot of his best work while not under the Stark roof. The trick is to be happy about being Jon Snow instead of bad because you feel like a stranger in House Stark. There are more Houses than just Stark. You start to realize that this feeling of non-acceptance is all on you, not the people or office around you. They are just going about their business, dealing with all the difficulties and politics that come from being in that environment full time. Feeling left out is a choice you can make.
Once you’ve been doing it long enough, the focus of your viewpoint starts to shift from “I feel like I don’t belong.” to “I don’t feel limited.“
This mentality only comes with experience. Once you’ve been doing it long enough, the focus of your viewpoint starts to shift from “I feel like I don’t belong.” to “I don’t feel limited.” Every new contract is a chance to expand your skill set, to learn something new, to produce better work, and gain more experience that you can take with you to your next gig. This is the great freedom of freelance work. That it doesn’t matter if you don’t feel like you are a “real part of the team” because in 30/60/90 days you won’t be any part of the team. You can walk out the door with everything you learned, a paycheck in your pocket, and say “Ok, what do I want to do next?“
That “next” is on you. That “next” is looking at a contract and saying “This looks awesome; I want to be a part of this.” while understanding that it’s only temporary, just a gig, but still ready to give it 110% because that’s what professional freelancers do. Nathan mentions that freelancers should unionize. He’s a little late on that, The Freelancers Union has been going strong for a long time (Full disclosure: I’ve been a member since nearly the beginning) and every feeling Nathan describes in his article is not new to nearly all of us who have been in the game for a while now. Yes, we are a huge workforce of extraordinarily talented people who produce a lot of the amazing work you see every day though are rarely recognized for it. Recognition is awesome, it feels great, and reinforces the sense of satisfaction you get from a job well done, but it is not an essential element of producing great work. We have a lot of power as a group, but we are also responsible, professional, and understand that we are still outsiders in a culture that idealizes the “9 to 5″. Is there an element of “not disturbing the water” because we all still need work? Sure there is, but make no mistake; there is always someone willing to undercut you, always someone who will take the work you won’t. We are a malleable, disposable, workforce by design. We understand the rules of the game and still choose to play it. That has to be understood before you go tossing out the word “strike”.
Being a freelancer isn’t for everyone and that’s totally ok, it’s rough waters out here. I’ll be honest though, landing a great contract with a company whose product or brand you enjoy, in an industry you love, doing work you feel great about, can’t be beat. With hard work and a little luck, you’ll get to do it over and over again. That’s why I chose the path I walk and why I encourage everyone to give it a try, at least once. How else will you know if it’s for you? Even if it’s not, no one will ever be able to take that experience away from you.
So go ahead, put yourself out there, make the deal, and sign that contract (read it first!). Work for the sake of the work and take all the good and the bad that comes with it in stride. Who knows where you might end up…