After my previous career-related post, various people have reached out to me with further questions about how this all works. In a bit of an experiment in transparency, I thought I’d write a bit about how I price projects when someone comes to me for a quote.
A couple of disclaimers: I also sometimes do work on retainer or do on-going research consulting. Those raise other considerations and are not what I’m describing here. This post is about work on finite client projects, typically including some creative input. Second, I can only describe how things work for me, not how they’ll work for everyone.
With that in mind, here’s Rule 1: Quote a number where I will be equally happy if the client agrees to hire me at that price or if they say no.
This is just another way of saying “ask for what the project is worth to you,” but I think it’s useful to spell out the “to you” part. A lot of people get hung up on trying to determine the value of a project on supposedly objective terms, which is hard to do, especially with creative projects for which there’s not an obvious market set point. Or people try to price based on how they relate their ego to the market, which is prone to lots of problems as well (impostor syndrome, delusions of grandeur).
The other thing about this approach is that it increases overall peace of mind. I’ve had some jobs where in retrospect I probably could have gotten more if I’d asked, and other pitches that got turned down because I was asking more than the client had in their budget. But the knowledge that I set those prices according to my own needs means I can live with those outcomes without too much second-guessing. (I do also negotiate and re-scope projects with clients who have small budgets, but that’s a matter of redefining the project until it becomes worth it to me at the price they have to spend.)
That still leaves a lot of questions about how to figure out what something is worth to me.
Scope. How big is the project likely to be? For projects involving creating a full interactive story for someone who usually doesn’t work in this arena, my clients very often don’t know how to answer this question, so I break it down into others that they might be able to answer instead. How long do you want the player to spend with this piece? Should they have a different experience when they replay it? Should the piece be parser-based, choice-based, or something else? Is it meant to present puzzles and challenges, or should basically everyone be able to get to the end without trouble?
Note that even if I’m quoting per hour rather than a flat project fee, I still have to scope. For one thing, most clients don’t really have an unlimited budget, so they’ll want some idea of what the maximum cost is going to be. For another, scheduling is a huge part of making freelance projects work, so I need to make sure I’m staggering deliverable dates in a vaguely plausible fashion.
Urgency. Does the client have a hard deadline? Is it soon? I can sometimes cut deals for people if they’re willing to have their project delivered when I have time to get to it, rather than at a specific date. Conversely, the higher-stakes the deadline, the more stressful the project is going to be. I admittedly thrive on a certain baseline stress level, but if projects look like they can only be completed under crunch conditions, that has knock-on effects that need to be factored into the price. At various points I’ve found myself spending more on faster transportation and ready-made food in order to buy enough time to finish something.
Technical requirements. Does the client want me to deliver text? Code? A working game file? Do they want me to be using their own in-house tools? Am I going to need to learn at least the rudiments of a new programming or scripting language? Am I going to need supplies or equipment I don’t already have?
Work for hire, or copyright retained? Is the client going to own the work, or am I? Usually the answer is that the client will own it, and for the majority of projects, that’s actually what I prefer: it creates a certain kind of mental clarity about how this project belongs to them, not to me. On the other hand, in those rare cases where a project is going to yield something that I will continue to own and that I myself find useful, that’s something worth considering in the pricing.
Collaborative? Highly supervised? Does the client see this as a joint creative work in which they will have substantial input? If so, expect that to take more time. It can be fun and novel, it can be stressful, it can involve a lot of time in meetings trying to explain why something that sounds cool to the client is actually a serious technical risk — but it’s in my experience never faster than doing the job oneself.
Likewise, highly supervised projects. Work that is designed for advertising another product is especially prone to this: the client is very interested in making sure that the wording is exactly right for the rest of what they are doing, and therefore they are likely to need more rounds of draft and feedback. It’s worth adding in a margin for the extra Skype calls or email that are likely to result.
Illustrated? I’m not an artist, but some of the projects I work on involve artists. This is fun, but it requires communication time too — though usually not as much as collaborative or highly supervised projects do.
QA sources? Does the client have their own QA staff and/or editors they’re planning to use, or should I hire my own? If the latter, the cost of hiring beta-testers has to go into the overall quote, and I also have to confirm tester availability and find out whether the testers will also need to sign an NDA for the client. It also means I need to build more time into the deliverable schedule if I’m doing in-house testing before handing something over.
Support during or after launch? Does the client expect to need someone to give hints to players after launch? To provide technical support? If so, it’s worth talking about that and building in appropriate time as well.
Signed or white label? Does the client want to put my name on it and have me help with publicity, or are we launching it as a white label project?
This is only partly about how much I’m going to charge, and mostly about whether I want the project at all. Projects fall into three categories for me:
Decline: “this is sufficiently alien or offensive to my worldview that I’m not willing to work on it at all” (e.g., something that espoused hateful politics); or “this requires skills I just don’t have and can’t learn in a reasonable timeframe, so I need to turn this down or recommend another creator” (e.g., something that required me to compose music).
White label: “this is not really something I would write myself, but I’m fine with crafting it for a client if that’s what they want” (e.g., a story about the zombie apocalypse).
Sign: “this is something that I identify with enough to be willing to put my name on it.” Sometimes that’s because the client has given me a very open brief (First Draft of the Revolution comes to mind) or because we were able to work together to find something that I found creatively compelling even if parts of the story were also client-dictated (Ultimate Quest).
If we’re doing a signed project, then I need to factor in time I might spend promoting it or answering questions about it long-term. Then, too, work I’m going to sign sometimes takes a little more time to write. This isn’t because I don’t do my best on work that’s unsigned; it’s more that a signed piece is more likely to be at least in part an expression of what I think, not my best-crafted rendition of what the client wants. And that means more time drinking coffee and staring into space and stabbing my notebook with my pen until I’ve reached enough creative clarity to know what that is.
Intangibles. You might think that list of factors was enough, but no! Here are other things that I think about:
Have I worked with this client before, and did it go well?
Does the project sound like fun? Is it giving me access to resources I wouldn’t otherwise have, or collaborators I’m excited to work with? Am I likely to learn new skills, and, if so, are those new skills something I want to learn?
How convinced am I that the client knows what they’re doing and is going to be able to perform their parts of the project successfully?
Is it for a worthy cause (e.g., a non-profit/educational purpose)? Not that this is necessarily a free pass. People write to me hoping that I will help with their non-profit project for free, and in practice it’s fairly rare that I can actually do that.
How much other work do I have going on right now? How well does this project balance with the other work? For instance, if I’ve otherwise got a code-heavy project on, then something that’s pure writing can sometimes be a nice change of pace.
There’s a lot else to talk about in terms of career management here — networking, conferences, speaking, research projects, retainers, the value or non-value of having your own toolsets that you can bring to bear, what happens once the client’s agreed to your price and you actually start the project, keeping up with current work, trying to improve your recall of the names of people you met at GDC two years ago… But in the spirit of transparency, perhaps this will be of use to someone.