Play for Pay: The life and times of a freelance games journalist

I love being able to pick my own office for the day. In a city as changing and expansive as Manchester, it’s possible to work out of scores of different “offices” – or coffee shops, as regular folk call them – and having worked freelance within games journalism for the best part of the last decade, it’s all I’ve ever known.

It’s not that I wouldn’t take a full time position somewhere – I’ve certainly applied. However, the games press has very little presence in Manchester and, somewhat addicted to the lighter sides of my transient lifestyle within the city’s walls , it’s hard to contemplate attaching myself to one base, one publication somewhere far away.

What I love about freelance writing is the ability to wear different hats. In the morning I can pen something for the industry press, while in the afternoon I’m putting something together for a magazine aimed at enthusiastic but rightly cynical teenage boys. I like to think I’m able to switch tone fairly easily, and it certainly brings an added spice to my work, knowing I’ve got to find different voices for different audiences. It’s a challenge, and one that constantly pushes me to be a better writer.

Freelance life, however, does wear you down. All too often over the course of the last eight to nine years, clients who have been very vocal in the early days – contacting me for work off their own back, pushing to ensure I meet my deadline and getting the most out of me that they can for their money – suddenly go quiet when it comes to being paid. As a freelancer, you’re not on staff, and paying you within an agreed time frame can sometimes become less of a priority once they have your copy.

To some, paying a freelancer is akin to a pesky electricity bill that you put off and off until they’re about to cut the power. The only difference is, in this analogy, you’ve already handed them the electricity well in advance.

It shouldn’t be the case, but I have encountered plenty of otherwise good clients who, perhaps not intentionally, I suspect wouldn’t have ever paid me unless I’d pushed and prodded them over email over and again. Constantly sending emails rightly asking for something you’re entitled to never feels good. I don’t like being that guy.

freelancelife

In fact, I hate emails full stop. There’s nothing worse as a freelancer than an opening an inbox with no new entries whatsoever, but at the same time, every email you do receive could well be laced with bad news. Finding the right balance between being forceful but not unfriendly when it comes to getting paid is a tricky art if, as you hope, you intend to get further work from the client in question. All too often friends have encouraged me to get tough, some even advocating involving lawyers when it comes to getting paid, yet few understand that to do so would risk isolating yourself not only from the client in question, but anyone they know too. Word travels fast. You have to play the long game, even if that means sitting in your overdraft for longer than you’re comfortable.

There’s nothing worse than silence from clients. It’s deadly. You may have served up a piece that was well received by your editors and appears to perform well with readers, but there’s no guarantee that they’ll be back in touch any time soon for further work. Their budget may have run dry. The editor who likes you may have left. The site’s owners have simply switched priorities. You pitch, you pitch, you pitch, but you never know if any of it is going to pick up. And then, all of sudden, three or four gigs turn up at once, you instinctively say yes to everything and, before you know it, you’re working through until 4am in order to get everything done.

This is a cycle that it’s especially easy to get trapped in. While you have work, you have neither the time nor inclination to look for more. Life is fine, but your days are short, and the concept of taking on additional gigs – back up work, if you will – is as scary as it is infeasible. Then, when a regular gig comes to an end (usually with very little warning, often because of issues completely out of your hands), suddenly all you have is time, and you find yourself desperately poking everyone you’ve ever worked for for some work to fill the void. Are your ideas any good? Do you really think that huge article you’ve just pitched is in any way achievable? Can you actually do this? Seriously, can you?

I’ve had weeks in the last couple of years full of absolute highs and deep, dark lows, all at the same time. I’ve found myself on the other side of the world doing genuinely rewarding work and feeling entirely privileged to be visiting cities I never thought I’d see, but at the same time knowing that things are looking a bit bleak, a bit barren back home. I’ve had articles published openly praised by the powers at the very same time as fighting to prove myself with another, somewhat less keen client. It’s never black and white. Life is always a shade of grey.

And all this takes place within an online world where others doing the same job as you rightly highlight their achievements across social media. Hell, I do the exact same thing – I pimp my work for all that its worth, openly celebrating when I’ve had something published on a portal I’m proud of. It’s very hard in quiet moments not to feel like you’re falling behind the pack, however, even though you know that almost every other writer you’ve ever encountered in this business is feeling the exact same thing. This is not a job where money is easy to come by, and the victories of others always appear so, so much bigger than your own.

None of this news to me, either. The only thing that has changed since I started out is that I’ve gone from a 25 year old still working out of his bedroom, just happy to be paid anything at all to a near 34 year old with rent and bills up to his ears and more aware of his worth to those he works for. The highs may be far higher, but the hurdles you need to clear in order to reach them are so much bigger.

Yet, I still find myself ploughing the very same field all these years later. I still want to write. I still want to see my words read.

My main quandary now is, who exactly do I bill for this blog post, and how long should I give them before I send a friendly yet threatening email chasing up the cash? I’ve got bills to pay, ya know.

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