Professionalism in Gaming: Managing Freelancers


Greetings, readers – this week’s blog is all about another topic I feel strongly about; managing freelancers. I’ve been very lucky in my career to have worked with dozens of different freelance writers, editors, artists and proofreaders on various projects from D20 to the Warhammer 40K Roleplay system.
It is important to note that for the rest of this post I’m going to be talking about freelance writers.
Working with freelancers is something I feel like I have gained a lot of skill with over the years; many of my freelancers have gone on to work full-time in the gaming industry, from writing novels to working directly at a game company. I’ve even hired freelancers to work directly with my development team!
However, especially in recent years, I’ve learned that there are several game companies out there in the industry that just don’t understand the finer points of dealing with freelancers. These people are not just a tool in the toolbox; they’re not just something you talk to only when you have to. They’re not just an expendable resource, and you can’t treat them as if there’s an inexhaustible supply.
This is an awesome PC game, and inspired quite a bit of Rogue Trader.
I’m not saying that freelancers need to be treated like kings, but I am here to tell you how I’ve found success in the industry with freelance writers.

Building Your Crew

Sometimes you don’t come into a situation with an existing pool of freelance writers that you can count on. So the question is, where can you find freelancers to write for your game?

At the Beginning

When you first get started as a developer and you need to build your stable of freelancers, here are some methods that you can use:

Open Calls

Post an open call for writers on RPG.net, your own game company’s forums, and the like. Open Calls are my least preferred method, since there is a risk of generating ill will in the community if you don’t accept a potential writer and he happens to be active in the community you advertised in. Secondly, open calls are, in my opinion, the least effective and least professional method of acquiring new freelancers. All that having been said, sometimes it is the only way.
An alternate method that I vastly prefer is one that requires you to have an established game company and a game that is already out there in the market.

Contest!

Start up a contest with a prize for the winner – the contest can be anything that requires a demonstration of writing skills; adventures, new monsters, magic items, and so forth. The prize can and should be something you can easily deliver, such as a free PDF of one of your products, or even just featuring the winner’s creation on your website as part of the official setting.
Contests are a great way to evaluate some potential freelancers for your game. It’s really a trifecta; you build goodwill with your gamer community, the competition means that people will be turning in their best work, and the winner is rewarded with some free product right away.
I found a writer for the 40K RPG from a Dark Heresy adventure contest that turned out to be one of our best and brightest; Andrea Gausman. Not only did she turn in a great adventure, she ended up writing tons of monsters and an entire adventure book on her own for the Deathwatch RPG.

Networking

My preferred method to find freelancers to work on a game is networking; I find out who knows someone or has a friend-of-a-friend. I happen to have a pretty extensive network that I’ve built up over 13+ years of working in the game industry, and it’s been a godsend to me multiple times in the past. Networking can be as simple as finding a game book you particularly liked and looking at the credits page, then contacting those writers and asking them if they’d be willing to do some writing for you. Even if they say no, there’s a good chance they might know someone else who is actively looking for work.

Once You’re On the Road

Now, once you’ve got your game published and a company website and some forums – all of which you should probably have if you don’t already – there are other approaches you can take to find freelancers for your pool.

Playtesters

No idea who Lone Canuck is, but I like their poster.
If you’ve got a robust playtester program for your game (I’ll cover managing playtesting in a future blog), you’ll be able to identify some people with a deeper understanding of your game than the typical man on the street. Some playtesters are just waiting for a chance to show you how much they love your game. One advantage this approach has is that playtesters are generally far more knowledgable about the ins and outs of your game. The disadvantage is that figuring out which playtesters have promise doesn’t happen quickly – it requires one or two complete playtesting cycles to really identify the standouts.

Reviewers

Much like playtesters, anyone who takes the time to review your game knows a lot about it. Also like playtesters, by checking out a reviewer’s work, you can get a good idea of their basic writing skills and understanding of what makes your game work (or even how other RPGs work in general).

Forums

This option is the most questionable on the list; forums can be hives of scum and villainy and are as likely to present you with a toxic waste of your time as with a hero who can come in and write some great text for your game. However, I have to admit I’ve had some success with this approach. I find that the best way to go is to find some promising writers on your forums and then turn them into playtesters – if they do well with that, then you move them up to the next step as new writers.

Organize your Crew

Ok, so once you’ve got some freelancers to manage, it’s time to start getting things organized.

Test their skills

For a prospective writer, you should come up with a skills test. This can be as simple as asking for a 500-word writing sample or as elaborate as a constructed IP-quiz. In the end, you should have some way to evaluate your writer before you put him on an assignment – you’re looking for his facility with basic writing skills, rules knowledge, and understanding of your game’s setting and IP.

Set Your Teams

I like to split up my freelancers into three groups; my A-team, B-team, and C-team.
The A-team are the top writers, able to turn in quality work on-time. The A-team is my first choice for any assignment. Most writers get into the A-team after showing steady improvement over a year to two years of assignments.
From Link’s RPG forums.
The B-team are solid, skilled writers who are still working on turning things in on time or have some minor quality issues. Most new writers get into the B-team after three-to-six assignments. B-team writers are the ones I use when my A-team is on another book or if I need something written to fill in the holes.
The C-team is where new writers go at the beginning or those I’m still not sure are able to perform up to standard. C-team writers are ones I turn to on low-priority assignments (such as free PDF content for the website) or the ones I use when my A-team and B-team are all busy (it’s happened!).
Make sure to check out the rest of the article, because below I’ll be discussing how to build and grow your freelancers over time – eventually, you want to get everyone working up the ladder and turning in A-team grade work.

Come up with a Freelancer Database

I find it to be very useful to have a database (usually done in Excel or Numbers) listing each freelancer, detailing their skills (this can be as simple as a yes/no box for Adventures, Lore, Rules, IP) and a notes section for adding any future information – if you have a superstar, you can note it there. If you have a guy who is always good but always late, make a note. If you’re seeing a disturbing trend, make a note. I’m the kind of person who forgets over time if I don’t write it down. Another good note is to put down the last book they worked on. Don’t forget to note payment information; some freelancers (especially those overseas) prefer paypal, whilst others prefer checks. Lastly, I always put in a column listing the freelancer’s current pay rate and which team he’s on.

Manage your Crew

Now you’ve got a crew of freelancers, you’ve figured out what they’re good at, and you’ve got everything organized. What’s next?

Don’t Burn Them Out, Build Them Up

As you work with freelancers on projects, it will soon become clear that certain people are skilled in certain areas – many freelancers are good at writing lore (I would say it is the most common skill), whilst others are better at writing rules (IMHO, the second most common). Some freelancers have a talent for writing adventures, and a rare cherished few can actually perform some development duties as well as finishing their own assignments.
Writing adventures is a completely different skillset from writing lore. Writing clear, innovative, and balanced rules is a different skillset than the first two categories.
I know some people who can do all three excellently, but most freelancers are good at only one or two different categories.
However, it is very easy for a developer to assign all his adventures to the writers who excel at adventures. It is common to assign all your lore to your best lore guy, or your rules to your best rules guy. This is often a good practice, but there is a danger that no developer should overlook: burnout.
Doing the same thing over and over again can be fatiguing for a writer – even if you love writing the subject. Even if you’re really good at it.
What I like to do is try and grow my freelancers in other skillsets over time. Most of the time I would give a writer no more than three assignments in a row for any given skill and then try him out on something different. Owen Barnes is a great example of this; Owen is fantastic at writing adventures, and I soon found myself relying on him time after time to write adventures for the 40K RPG line. It wasn’t fair to Owen to keep him as “the adventure guy,” and I soon started giving him other assignments – and he really appreciated the change of pace! Owen became one of those multi-talented freelancers I mentioned above, and I’m glad I didn’t burn him out on just writing adventures.
Not exactly my favorite approach.

Climbing the Ladder

My goal as a developer is to have the best set of freelancers I can. Having better freelancers means having a higher quality of writing in my books, so it’s a win-win situation.
As Neil Gaiman once said, when it comes to writing you can get it fast, good, or cheap: pick any two.
Using that yardstick, what I look for in new writers is for them to be fast and cheap.
To get to the B-team, I’m looking for good and cheap.
To get to the A-team, I’m looking for good and fast.
This is why the A-team guys get the highest per-word writing rate. This is also why different rates are important – it gives the new writers a yardstick to measure their progress!
I’ve noticed that some other companies in the industry play a flat per-word rate that never, ever changes – and I think that’s highly dangerous. A writer that is still making the same rate after two years (unless that rate is the absolute highest it will go – and unfortunately, our industry has a narrow range) is likely feeling frustrated at a lack of progress.
This means that I use my freelancer database to keep track of a writer’s progression and try to keep in mind how long it has been since their last increase in pay and what I can do to try and help them get to that next level.
However, top-notch rates demands top-notch quality. What I want is for all my writers to end up turning in A-team level work, so I try to give them a lot of feedback on the assignments they turn in.

Communication!

A distinct lack of good communication is the downfall of many RPG companies in the market today – I’ve heard stories from other writers in the industry and I’ve experienced it myself.
But if there’s anything I’ve learned in 13 years, it is that communication is essential.
Your freelancers won’t ever get better if you don’t give them feedback about their assignment – a developer should always try to make some kind of comment to the freelancer about his work. This can be as simple as a short message saying “good going,” or as extensive as a highlighted and annotated return of the assignment. I’ve done both when it is required.
When I’m turning in a freelance writing assignment, it always concerns me when there’s no communication from the developer afterwards – unfortunately this is more common than you think.
The short version is this: feedback helps the freelancer get better and helps him understand what you want out of the assignment.

Sanity Checks and Review Steps

Working with a freelancer is like working with a babysitter – you’re giving them something precious and trusting them to do the right thing with it. The right thing to do with a freelancer is like the old saying; “trust, but verify.”
I like to build in review steps to every assignment. A review step is a point at where the freelancer turns in something to the developer so the developer gets an idea of where the freelancer is going with it. Review steps exist as “sanity checks.” If a freelancer is heading in the wrong direction or if the nature of the assignment hasn’t been clearly communicated to the freelancer, the review step is the right time to take a breath and get back on track.
Absolutely the worst thing that can happen with a writing assignment is for the freelancer to write the entire thing and turn it in, only for the end result to be completely unsuitable for the book. Review steps help avoid this unpleasant outcome.
As you get more comfortable with your freelancers and you understand where the A-team writers are coming from, you can relax a little on the review steps. Typically, with a new writer or a C-team writer, I would have three review steps: an outline, a first half turn-in, and a final turn-in. With an A-team writer, there’s generally only an outline and the final turn-in, since I know and trust my A-team to let me know if there’s any problems.
And that brings me to the last point about communication; as a developer, your door needs to be always open.
I always let my freelancers know that they can ask me questions any time, and that if there’s ever a concern or an issue coming up, they shouldn’t hesitate to let me know. I never get angry if a freelancer tells me he’s going to be late turning in his assignment – just the fact that he’s letting me know as soon as he can is a good sign.

Manage Assignments

When I give a freelancer an assignment, it is a two-step process. First, I personally contact the freelancer in an e-mail and explain what I’m looking for. This is the “pre-agreement,” where I spell out the word count I’m looking for, the nature of the assignment, and the due date. The intent is for the freelancer and the developer to be on the same page about all professional expectations before a contract is sent out. One place you don’t want to see any surprises is in a professional work-for-hire contract. As I always say, clear communication is the key to keeping things going well between developer and freelancers.

Follow up!

Freelancers thrive on structure, professionalism, and growth – all things I’ve mentioned above. In addition, I want to build that personal communication with my freelancers and understand how things are going from them. One thing I worked on when I was with Fantasy Flight Games was checking up with the freelancers about every 6 months to a year. This was fairly simple – just a quick questionnaire asking about pay rates, comp copies, and assignments, inviting them to give me any feedback they had. I discovered that some freelancers weren’t getting their comp copies on time. I found out that others were looking for some more variety in their assignments. This is important information to know if you’re looking to build a stable of freelancers who are going to stick with you and keep providing quality content. A developer needs to keep in mind that freelancers are professionals and people… and sometimes friends… that deserve some respect.

How Not to Do It

Having worked for a lot of different companies, let me tell you about some practices you should never, ever do.

Cattle Calls

Some companies simply have a freelancer mailing list and post an assignment opportunity rather than making individual assignments. This is not only unprofessional, it’s a bit insulting – you’re expecting freelancers to monitor a chatter-filled channel for the chance to electronically wave their hand frantically in the air for a shot at writing something. It’s unfair to freelancers living in overseas time zones. As my friend Jason Marker would put it, this approach is “clown shoes.”

No Feedback

As mentioned above, silence is never a good sign from the developer. It could mean your assignment was fine. It could mean you’ve been fired and will never hear from the developer again! Keeping your freelancers in the dark is the same as a mushroom – it’s just sitting in the shit.

Late or Missing Compensations

Proper credit in the book, comp copies of your work, and above all – payment on time. If you can’t manage to provide these to your freelancers, you don’t deserve to call yourself a developer.

3 responses to “Professionalism in Gaming: Managing Freelancers

  1. Great Blog post. Thanks for the very enlightening information. -Andrew

  2. Speaking both as a former editor and as a present freelancer, kudos on a great post.

  3. Thank you. This is really good to hear the inner workings. I’ve always admired your professionalism from both sides of the coin.

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