The self-employed have played a key part in building the £7 billion UK video game industry from the very start. From teenagers coding Spectrum and Commodore games in their 1980s bedrooms to current opportunities to work on the biggest franchises or succeed in the vibrant indie development scene, find out how to become a freelance game developer.
As gaming has exploded in popularity, around 73,000 people are supported by the UK games industry, with around 21,000 in direct developing and publishing roles. Many of the biggest developers and most successful titles are from the UK, with examples including Grand Theft Auto, Total War, Football Manager, Little Big Planet and the LEGO franchise.
And while you may take on freelance contracts with major studios working on the biggest (triple-A) games, there’s also been a huge boom in indie development and the opportunities in creating mods (altering or adding to existing titles) for games over recent years. For example, the award-winning Dear Esther or the huge number of assets created by developers for games like Counter-Strike or Minecraft.
From self-published mobile games to developing the latest virtual reality titles, find out how to become a freelance game developer and you could be creating work played by millions of people around the world.
- Why become a freelance game developer?
- What qualifications and skills do freelance game developers need?
- How much can you earn as a freelance game developer?
- Finding projects as a freelance game developer
- More resources and support to become a freelance game developer
Why become a freelance game developer?
As we’ve mentioned, there are a huge variety of different ways to become self-employed in the games industry. Broadly speaking, freelancing allows you more choice and control over whether you want to focus on contracting roles for clients, or developing your own projects and IP.
Many freelance game developers have previously worked for larger studios, and want more autonomy and control over their careers. This may be down to the long hours and business practices associated with some companies, the need to work remotely or around other commitments, or a desire for more variety in the type of projects being taken on.
Development teams are often distributed around the world, with an increasing need for specialists in particular areas. You may wish to focus on supporting animation and rendering, online functionality, or the artificial intelligence (AI) of computer-controlled opponents in games.
But many self-employed developers may want to create their own games or assets, either working alone or building their own team around themselves. A growing number of tools to make development easier, along with the popularity of mobile and indie games, means that it’s possible for some individuals to achieve huge success, and more to enjoy a sustainable career working on their own ideas and creations.
What qualifications and skills do freelance game developers need?
You don’t necessarily need an academic qualification to become a freelance game developer, but a passion for coding and programming often leads to a degree in a relevant subject covering games, computer science, mathematics, physics or software engineering.
Having a degree or postgraduate qualification will definitely help if you want to build your experience working for an established employer before switching to freelancing. It’s also possible to enter into the industry through apprenticeships, as an intern, or through other roles such as quality assurance and testing.
Gaming is a popular industry, and therefore competition can be tough. But you can stand out by gaining relevant qualifications and experience, including volunteering. Just ensure that you’re taking courses which are recognised by the industry and clients (for example, The Independent Games Developers’ Association (TIGA) accredits some undergraduate and postgraduate courses). And that you’re not being exploited if you’re working on projects for no financial reward.
Whether you choose to follow academic qualifications to become a game developer, you’ll definitely need at least some of the following skills.
- Knowledge of the gaming industry
- Motivation and ability to work on your own
- Technical ability and knowledge of the appropriate programming languages, game engines and software packages
- Communication and team working skills, whether you’re working in the same office or remotely
- Attention to detail
- Good project management and time-keeping to meet deadlines and client requirements
- Ability to balance work and life to avoid burnout
- Research and problem-solving skills
- Networking and negotiating with clients
- Remaining open to feedback and constructive criticism from clients, colleagues, reviewers and gamers
How much can you earn as a freelance game developer?
The amount you could potentially earn as a freelance game developer will vary a lot depending on your skills, experience, and clients. And other factors that could influence your income will include location, availability, and suitability for projects, so any suggested figures are offered as general guidance.
The average for UK freelance game developer salaries is offered as £36,894 (Glassdoor). This compares with figures across the industry averaging at £32,676 (Indeed), £48,281 (Check-a-Salary) or £50,000 (Talent.com).
This doesn’t necessarily include bonuses, profit-sharing or other incentives, and many jobs may be based in London and the South East, and other major UK cities. Freelancing remotely opens the opportunity to live somewhere with lower costs, and reduce your required income, or to work part-time if you prefer.
When you’re calculating freelance rates, you need to ensure you’re budgeting for the costs of working for yourself, including equipment, travel, and business expenses such as insurance. You’ll also need to account for periods when you’re not working because you’re between projects, on holiday, or may need time off due to illness. The Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed (IPSE) has a range of useful guides on the financial side of freelancing, along with member discounts on many business costs.
Obviously if you’re a self-employed game developer producing your own independent titles or mods, then your income will depend on the number of players you can attract. Along with famous successes and failures, there are a growing number of indie studios making a sustainable living from their work, distributed mainly via the mobile app stores, and the Steam and Epic Games Store for PC players.
Finding projects as a freelance game developer
If you’ve worked in a significant role at a major gaming studio, it’s going to be slightly easier to find clients when you become a freelancer. Not only will you have relevant experience on high profile brands, but you’re also more likely to have built industry contacts willing to offer you work and referrals.
But if you’re starting out with little or no experience, then securing your first projects is likely to be tougher. There are a number of specialist job boards and recruitment agencies for the video game industry, but you’ll also need to build up your CV and portfolio.
One option is to work on your own projects and technical demos, which you can share via your own website, social media, and portfolio sites. Or to volunteer with community projects, whether that’s updating old games which have been released to the public domain, creating mods for titles which allow them, or taking part in hackathons and other events.
You’ll often find details for mods and their builders within communities and forums for specific games, or for a particular genre (e.g. sim racing, or first person shooters). You can also find the details of modders through their listings on resources like the Steam Workshop for a particular title.
More resources and support to become a freelance game developer
- The Independent Games Developer’s Association (TIGA)
- UK Interactive Entertainment (Ukie)
- Game Developer
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And you can get support and help if you’re starting out with self-employment, or still in the early stages of building your career, with the IPSE Incubator. The 12-month programme is currently free with IPSE membership, and includes advice, events, webinars, networking and more, tailored to anyone just beginning their freelance business.