Should You Ever Do "FREE" Game Audio Work?
I knew this day would come.
I knew one day I would have to address the topic of...
*cue horror stinger*
Opinions couldn't be more divided on this subject and debates over free work can get pretty heated.
As with many things in life, "black and white" is usually not where the true answers are found but rather in the shades of grey.
Should you ever do "free" game audio work?
Well.... it depends.
P.S. Stick around until the end for some advice you definitely won't hear every day!
Please sir, can I get paid for my work?
Always Something, Never Nothing
It's back to school time and we're revisiting the ABCs.
In the world of audio freelancing, the ABCs are what you should and MUST live by!
What are the ABCs?
Always. Be. Compensated.
It's Sesame Street easy, y'all.
In life and in business, value exchanges are what make the world go round.
Cold, hard dolla-dolla bills (or currency in general) have been a helpful abstraction of that concept for some time now, but that's not the final word on the subject.
Back in the day people exchanged products and services without the use of money.
And you can, too.
Now before anyone twists my words, let me clarify:
You should NEVER work for NOTHING.
BUUUUTTTT... (big 'but' here)
Money is NOT the only thing worth working for.
If what you are receiving in exchange for your work isn't coin, it doesn't mean a project is automatically a waste of your time, especially if you are just getting started in this industry.
Toss a coin to your game audio freelancer!
Facing the Facts
Let's get real for a minute, friends.
We work in a business where there is a lot of risk, especially for small indie teams or solo devs working perhaps with shoestring budgets on self-funded projects.
Many work for years on games that never make any money or sometimes never even get finished!
Surprise, surprise: such people often aren't going to be able to offer quality pay and might even be looking for volunteers.
And these are the kinds of projects most readily available to beginners with little to no experience in the game industry.
Is it fair?
Is it a total bummer?
Is it the way things are and there isn't much you or I can do about it?
Read it and weep, or get over it and do the best you can!
So what's a budding game audio pro to do?
Let's take a look at our options:
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What Can Compensation Look Like?
There are lots of ways working on a game can add value to your career that aren't cold, hard cash.
Of course, most of these solutions will likely only apply to students, beginners, or part-timers who have other safe forms of income and can live with a project or two not compensating them fully for their time.
If you are full-time (or trying to go full-time) and are having trouble getting proper-paying gigs, you might benefit more from my other advice related to communicating value to potential clients or getting quality referrals.
That being said, let's look at the ways a project might benefit you without a fat paycheck involved.
Delayed compensation means simply that, in the case that the game does turn a profit somewhere down the line, you will be compensated at that point at a rate determined by you and the devs beforehand.
Otherwise known as revenue share.
This is pretty common and, in my opinion totally fair for a project where no one is currently making money.
*See the next section for my opinion on situations where some are getting paid and others aren't.
This is something you'll have to work out with your team but seeing as the average development budget dedicates 5-15% to audio, it's more than fair to ask for at least that amount of the revenue.
If devs are hesitant to agree to pay you that amount in perpetuity, you can always cap that at a certain number, e.g. you get X% of the revenue until a total payment reflecting the amount of work you put in is reached.
In this case, due to the risk involved on your part, that cap amount should be more than your average rate.
Think 2x more than what you would've charged upfront. Maybe more.
People who can't pay should respect that you are going out on a limb for them.
Higher risk should mean higher rewards.
If the devs don't understand that, it might be a red flag that they either a) don't value your contribution or b) don't understand basic economics.
Because the risk for you is that this project goes nowhere and you make nothing.
Since the number of game projects with no budget that become hits and end up paying everyone out is so small, you can never assume you will actually make any money this way.
The revenue share agreement, at least in my opinion, is just a test to see if the devs offer fair conditions to the co-creators of their game.
If they're not interested in giving you a reasonable share of their profit while also not paying you anything upfront, that's a biiiggggg red flag and I'd get out of there quickly.
Boosting Your Brand
Another way to profit from unpaid work is to use the project and the music or sound effects you create for it to augment your own portfolio.
In fact, if you're not making any money or not enough money, I would make certain of two things:
You retain ALL rights to every piece of music or sound effect you create until you are compensated through rev share or a paycheck later on.
You have full rights to share your work during and after the development of the game.
Why these two points?
Because there is a real chance that a project with no budget will never get finished.
Let's face it; when push comes to shove and other problems arise in life, hobby or unpaid projects are often the first to get the ax.
If you agree to give away the rights to your work and accept a vow of secrecy for a game that suddenly stops production... you literally have nothing to show for your time.
This is in no way acceptable or reasonable for any project that isn't paying the people who are working on it.
The importance of retaining the rights to your work and having an agreement that you can share and showcase said work on your own channels is that, regardless of the outcome of the project itself, you will profit from expanding your portfolio, possibly leading to future jobs.
So if someone asks you to forgo either of those things, politely decline and keep looking.
How About a Trade?
The final way you might be able to come to an agreement that doesn't directly involve money in your bank account is to see if the devs can offer you anything else of value.
This is something I did once when producing an album for a friend.
In this case, I didn't want my friend's money but I also realized that what he was asking of me would be a lot of work and I needed to be compensated in some way for that commitment.
What was the solution?
Instead of asking for money, I asked my friend to pay the monthly costs of a pricey suite of plugins I'd been interested in trying.
My friend and I agreeing to the deal.
This was a win-win because, rather than paying me directly, my friend was paying for me to have better tools to mix his album with.
I, in return, had the chance to use some plugins of a higher quality than I owned at the time, gained experience during the mixing process, and had a better final product which reflected well on me and my portfolio.
Are there any trades you could imagine making with devs that might offer a similar win-win solution?
Perhaps the developer would be interested in paying for you to work with a new set of tools.
Or perhaps they have something else of value, such as an extra ticket to an expensive industry event you otherwise couldn't attend.
Maybe their parents own a cool vacation home on the beach and they let you and your friends stay their for free for a week!
Be creative and perhaps you will be able to find a compromise that both parties are happy with!
Give And You Should Receive
My final tip for free work actually has to do with money.
As the age-old saying goes, "time is money" and even if you're the most beginner of beginners, your time has intrinsic value!
This is why I'm a strong believer in the following statement:
If someone is making money, EVERYONE should be making money.
There is no excuse for game developers (or anyone) to pay some people properly and expect others to take home nothing, even if they have little to no experience.
The only time this might be even remotely acceptable is if the company has a well-structured apprenticeship program that pays a minimal living wage but offers extremely valuable experience, insights, and opportunities for growth that would be difficult to find elsewhere.
Unpaid internships where you fetch coffee or are given menial tasks that teach you nothing about your career belong in the past.
Since such an apprenticeship will likely only be available at larger, more professional studios, let's consider what to say if some random devs you found online try to offer you some kind of unpaid, no-value-exchange work:
This but politely. Don't burn bridges even if the other person is a total idiot.
Long story short, experience in and of itself is not an acceptable form of payment.
If you need experience, there are more than enough game jams taking place all the time where you can practice your craft without being taken advantage of.
And here's another piece of advice that you might not hear often:
"Money is neither good or bad.
It is simply a medium to exchange for something you believe has value."
At the end of the day if what you are receiving in exchange for the work you are doing provides you value and you are happy, don't let anyone tell you otherwise.
Just remember that value goes both ways, and if someone wants something of value from you, they should be ready to give you something of value in exchange.
Do you have any questions about so-called "free" work or are currently discussing working on a project that has no budget and need some advice?
Just drop your question or comment below and I'll be happy to help!
I created The Game Audio Pro with the goal of helping others understand the fundamental business skills that are often the difference between success and failure for freelancers.
If you're ready to take your game audio career to the next level, download my guide to The Most Important Mindset for Game Audio Success.