How much should I charge for freelance 3D modeling work?

Freelance 3D getting paid, rates and how much money to chargeWhen embarking on the path of being or taking on work as a freelance 3D artist, one the most troublesome issues to deal with relates to how much one should charge clients for the 3D modelling work they ask for or enquire about. Irrespective as to whether the request is for a contract position (short or mid term in-house) or just a one-off job had through a website or forum advert, rhuminating over this and getting it right can be the source of a lot of stress and sleepless nights; is the quote too big, too small; was the time-frame over-estimated, and so on ad-infinitum until the wee-hours of the morning. Thankfully calculating potential rates isn't quite as arbitrary as it may at first appear because there are sources of information available that can be used for this very purpose; the freelancing artist just has to know where to look and how to use it.

Important Note: the following article is provided 'as is' and should not be regarded as being either 'legal' or 'tax' advice. The Reader is urged to seek out, through the approrpriate channels, professional (certified) legal and/or tax help where necessary. Search "Freelance Tax Advisors", "Freelance Legal Advisors" (or similar term) to find a local representative. Or ask collegues or friends who they use/if they know any.

What have you been asked to make

Before getting to the source, a moment needs to be taken to address some of the obvious and fundamental elements of any contracted work, and that's pretty much a question or questions that revolves around what exactly is it that's being asked of the project. This 'stuff' matters because when someone is asking, for example, that a game level or environment to be built, the artist envariably ends up making more than was originally requested and/or quoted for - does the project include the production of textures and materials, ancillary assets and/or 'street art' (the items used to decorate a level/environment). If it doesn't, who is to provide those. If they've not available does the client understand that their absense may cause issues later on (scale, size, optimation issues etc.). If they're not available now, when. And will they require cleaning up and/or optimisation for use. All of this is time that's difficult to account for in a quote and just how much that may be won't be apparently until after they're received, by which time it may be too late, or too far into the project to make reasonable adjustments.

It's worth stating the obvious then that it's important be bear all this in mind before taking or agreeing to any work, no matter how lucrative the work or desperate the client or freelancer is. Make sure as many of the 'unknowns' are known and even then try to put something in place that's able to accommodate any changes that may (and likely, will) happen after-the-fact. Write or state something for instance, even informally in an email, that provides a mechanism through which an amicable compromise can be had if necessary.

Industry sector salary comparisons ^

Once the basics of the project are known, now what? And where to start?. Where can the information be had that would help price up the freelance 3D job that's just come in? The first place to start would be to take a look at the industry sector to which the freelance work might otherwise belong. As this is freelance 3D gig ("game artist" specifically, but it could apply equally to any 'game' related position) this would be the Games Industry. Unfortunately development studios are generally not inclined to publisize this type of information, for good or bad, except perhaps on their own websites or job boards. This makes what primary data can be found, difficult to assess in a broader context, which is not so useful to the freelancing artist.

There are alternatives to this, and thankfully due to the way the industry is widely covered by a 'press' that's dedicated to the sector, there are many website specifically dedicated enough to producing their own surveys and reports on this very subject. Using various game industry salary surveys it's possible to get a broader understanding of the business and what employee salary expectations are, numbers that can then be used by the freelance artist to calculate a more acceptable range of rates backed by 'real world' data.

Working out hourly rates ^

Although it's better to average a number of sources, the likelihood is they will each have comparable results which may not be of any great significane on the averaged outcome. For example Develops salary survey for 2012 has the typical artists income as £26,707 or approximately $42,025*. Whereas Game Career Guides survey for 2011 has the average as $45,714 or approximately £29,051*. (*conversion rate from Jan 2012). If one source is more trusted, has a better standing or is known to both freelancer and client then it's perfectly acceptable to use a single source as the basis upon which to work out rates.

Using the (US) Game Industry Salary Survey for 2011 as an example then (note: figures are rounded and assumed to be 'net' and not 'gross' amounts, i.e. after deductions). According to their numbers an artist with three years or less experience in the field would average $45,714 for approximately 260 working days in the year (assuming no holidays, the artist is not whip-lashed into working on weekends or super-glued to their seat on Friday night for crunch), which rounds up to approximately $176 a day or $22 per hour. An artist with more than three but less than six years experience earns around $29 per hour. Six years or above and that comes to around $44 per hour.

Note: the figures for 2007 when this article was originally written, are as follows, based on the Game Career Guide survey for that year (figures are approximate);
$42,672 averaged salary
$164 per day
$20 per hour
$30 per hour for more than 3+ but 6- years
$35 per hour for 6+ years

Using the lower of the above as an hourly base rate, something that took a week to build and ship (five days, eight hours a day), would cost around $880 to produce ($22/hr or $176/day * 5 = $880). From this it needs to be determine whether the total should be adjusted depending on the jobs requirements; because time taken doesn't always equate to output, $880 makes for a rather expensive oil drum or box crate, or a cheap (in terms of money) rigged and animated character model.

Although there are a lot of variables at play here, approaching a project in this way does at least provide a solid basis from which to adjust internally or negotiate externally an appropriate fee or rate based on a real world valuation. In other words, the freelance artist should not simply be pulling figures out of thin air, but instead basing them on what the market can bear and what the industry pays salaried professionals to do.

Note: figures for 2007, again based on the Game Career Guide survey for that year (figures are approximate), for an item that took one working week to complete are;
$800 to produce (at c.$20/hr, c.$160/day)

Charging per hour or per project ^

However, it's not always simply a matter of calculating time by hourly rate because, as was briefly mentioned above, input doesn't always equal output, there is a very real 'danger' that charging "by the hour" makes a project so expensive the artists accountant would be able to light a fire rubbing his/her hands together in glee at the amount charged to the client, versus their usual complaints about being paid with lumps of coal. The opposite is also true (of hourly rates, not your account rubbing lumps of coal and complaining about you starting fires, something that shouldn't be encouraged), so the example of the expensive oil drum or cheap character is very real.

To be objective in this it helps to compair skills with the marketplace and what employees are paid to do in comparison (what quality level is associated with the pay-grade); would a game development studio hire the freelancer based on the worked just done for a client? If so then it should be perfectly acceptable to justify that $22/hr. If not then the hourly rate needs to be appropriately adjusted - usually downwards.

Retrospective costings ^

As was mentioned above, it's always a good practice to get as much information as possible up front on what needs to be done because initial quotes are invariably based upon this. Details matter in this regard. Obviously changing rates in retrospect at the end of a project always tend to have a negative effect on the outcome unless provision is made to take this into account from the get-go; "quote is subject to change" or somesuch should be used and emphasised.

The opposite is also true, standing-with-fists when asked to do something not originally discussed or contracted for is not a good idea because freelance artists typically don't have access to specialist legal advise or the army of lawyers that affords Corporations the ability to say "no" without risking a job or reputations, bad-mouthing not withstanding.

The key is to be flexible and reasonable. Talk to the client about the issues being raised, explain that, if they do want additional work to be done that's not a direct result of the original task, there may be additional costs involved. Be it clear that you can certainly do the work requested but it will cost "X".

Currency conversion & International remote work ^

One particularly troublesome issue working freelance is currency conversions. Delivering quotes in $US, they may need to be adjusted to take into account local currency value and conversion rates. For example, as of January 2012 the average sallery figure mentioned above, $45,714 US, is currently worth approximately £29,160 GBP, there's a particular problem with this which relates to something called equivalent buying power (EBP). This generally means that $46,000 is the equivilant to £46,000 UK, or $46,000 CA and so on because the relative standard of living, how much goods and services cost and the relative buying power 'locally' of the currency, are approximately the same. In other words a $100 US dollar microwave has the same inherent value as a £100 UK Pounds Sterling one, the difference is simply the use of a different currency to buy the same item (bear in mind that in countries where the currency is relatively 'weak' - for example China, where a yearly salary might equate to just a few thousand US Dollars - the difference can be rather more stark and make EBP comparisons more complicated). For international freelance 3D work, this can be a bit of a sticking point to say the least, especially when a stronger currency is working for a weeker one, it means money is potentially lost in the conversion. In most instances where this happens the freelancer just has to grin and bare it.

Note: In Jan 2010 $42,000 US converted to approx. £26,266 GBP. In early 2009 approx. £22,000. For comparison $42,000 in Jan 2012 converts to approx. £26,791.

3D asset sites as a comparison ^

An alternative approach to costing out a quote for a particular freelanced 3D asset is to look to websites which sell 3D models. It's very important to keep in mind however, that such content is typically priced the way it is because they use much broader licensing system which means assets are being made available to anyone that buys them; typically the freelance 3D artist is not, content is usually specifically tasted for the job requested and not usually being resold as assets in their own right. Freelancing means being mindful of this, of not making the same, and unfortunately all too common mistake, of wondering why a 3D barrel can be purchased for $5 from an asset site and yet cost $50 or $100 (for the sake of argument) directly from a freelancer - an asset artist can sell ten units at $5 to match the freelancers cost, but unlike the freelancer, they can go on to sell hundreds of the same item, potentially earning far more income per project/asset, the freelancer can't do this. This is why asset site prices are relatively low and should be treated with a grain of salt if being used as the basis of a job quote.

Taxes & personal liabilities ^

Important Note: the following article is provided 'as is' and should not be regarded as being either 'legal' or 'tax' advice. The Reader is urged to seek out, through the approrpriate channels, professional (certified) legal and/or tax help where necessary. Search "Freelance Tax Advisors", "Freelance Legal Advisors" (or similar term) to find a local representative. Or ask collegues or friends who they use/if they know any.

Although this is last on the list, it is one of the most important aspects of being a freelance artist. It's also the one that gets the most chatter online, chatter that is nearly always incorrect because it's told by those who are nieva to, or ignorant of (in the dictionary sense of 'not knowing'), the realities of freelancing. There are two main reason why people get this wrong. 1) tax should not be passed on to the client, and 2) doing so increases the tax burden due. Here's how.

1) Income Tax is essentially a duty levied upon labour, 'labour' being the actions undertaken by a 'person' (in this context) to provide a given service in return for renumeration (payment). As a 'duty' on said labour it's levied upon (taken from) income earned by the person providing the services, not those reciveing them - it has absolutely nothing to do with the client themselves so the burden cannot, technically, be offset or passed on to them.

The main point about Income Tax here then is that it's an individuals burden on their labour and not the clients. With an understanding of what Income Tax is, the second point can be discussed.

2) Because Income Tax is levied against labour and the income that results from those activities, it means any payment made, in-lue of work done, is (potentially) taxable.

For the jobbing freelance artist this means it's essential to keep all liabilities specifically relative to actual income. This singluar point is of vital importance to understand because, in trying to be clever and "recover the costs of tax" from the client, the freelance artist actually increases their burden and looses money in the process.

Taxes & passing the buck ^

If the reader is to take but one aspect of this entire article away after reading this far, it should be the following paragraphs because this is how "passing the buck" works against them and directly affects their personal liabilities. And it bears repeating, it's also why many new, nieve or plain ignorant to the realities of being self-employed get this wrong and incorrectly advise others in the process, especially on forums where so-called freelance artists aren't technilcally that, but moon-lighting under the table for extra undeclared cash-in-hand.

Note: For the sake of simplifying the discussion the following uses 'income' and 'tax' libilities only, 'expenses' and other 'running costs' are ignored.

Using the $880 job mentioned above, and for the sake of the discussion, setting the Income Tax Rate at 20%, of the $880 quoted to the client, the tax liability works out to be $176 (20% of $880 = $176), leaving $704 'profit' ($880 - $176 = $704). So at year end, $176 would go to the Government as the tax liability for this particular job (the duty on labour), the freelancer keeps $704. These are the basic 'in' and 'out' costs of the job - $880 in, $176 out ($704 kept).

Now, if Joe Freelancer were of the mind to 'recover' the $176 burden from the client, they would normally do so by simply adding the liability of the initial quote to the initial quote, in other words, Joe reasons;

"I'm going to charge $880 for this project, the tax due on that is $176, so I'll 'recover' that by adding it to the original quote to get my new total of $1056 to bill the client, that'll keep me covered for tax an mean I get the whole amout I as originally after." ($880 + $176 = $1056).

It's not a good idea to do this because, whilst Joe Freelancer knows the cost of labour was only $880, the client, and more importantly the Tax Office don't, they both regards the full, as billed amount of $1056 as liable. because to them this is the amount of 'income' earned from the job undertaken .

- Joe reasons that the additional $176 is not really 'income', rather just the recovery of the tax lost on that amount -

Because an individuals tax burden cannot be passed to another (it is the individuals burden to carry), and as it's based directly on income, in trying to be clever and 'compensate' for that burden the freelancer actually increases their liability by $35.20 reducing what they were compensating for in the first place down to $844.80.

What then typically happens is the freelancer, seeing this discrepency, then starts to add what are now, arbitary values to the total amount to 'protect' the original $880, first they will add the $35.20 to the $1056 which produces a liability of $218.24, leaving $845.76 profit. They might then start to use other numbers but the problem here is the value needed is often an awkward amount; to fix this example for instance needs the addition of approximately $43.9889 to the $1056 which produces a liability of $219.99778, leaving $879.99112 profit. To get that 880 require a decimanl placement that's not available in currency so, on paper, the valuation will alway be out slightly.

This is another incedental reason why freelancers should avoid getting into the habit of trying to compensate for tax as it has a tendancy to get 'messy'. Adding liabilities in this way is a 'false economy', whilst it may at first appear income has been gained, it's actually been lost at which point the books are being cooked with the client technically paying for nothing (the 'nothing' being arbitary amounts added to the onvioce to recover the tax hit).

The one caveat to this is VAT or Sales Tax, which is added on to a bill or invoice, the difference being it's a transparent service charge that everyone knows about and pays (within a given jurisdiction). This is not covered here for the aforementioned reasons.

Conclusion ^

There is one final note to keep in mind which relates to "taxes ans expenses"

A final note to keep in mind is that amount you quote for any freelance work should take into account any and all taxes and/or 'misc.' expenses likely to incur or be liable for as a 'jobbing' artist, it's something that's often, and mistakenly, commented on by those naive to the real world workings of freelance work that you can simply work out the production cost of something and then tag on tax and expenses; "in the real world", to use that derogatory phrase, it doesn't work like that, especially when the client wants to see a break down of what's what on the invoice sent to them; seeing a 50% hike for the sake of "tax and expenses" isn't going to go down too well, even though you may have legitimate claim over that, for instance, if you were a VAT registered UK freelancer - clients do not want to know they paying for something they're not expressly getting from you. So don't think that you can earn more by tagging on 'expenses', it doesn't work like that and will cost you more jobs than it's worth wrestling over.

Some examples ^

The following are just some examples to get the ball rolling, naturally the actual rate you charge is going to depend on what needs to be done and your skill level/competence/quality/speed; are you making models that will include normal maps, if so does that mean having to model any additional high polygon meshes from which to 'bake' textures and so on. Or are you providing content for mobile media or iPhone's; low polygon, small texture size, diffuse only asset sets?

  • A barrel, box or crate, $10+

  • An empty simple warehouse structure, $200+

  • A series of map objects, pillars, arches, doorways, $500+

  • A small empty 'industrial' level, no map objects, $500+

  • A larger empty 'industrial' level, no map objects, $2000+

  • A 'city' scape level, no map objects, $5000+

  • A large level including terrain and buildings, no map objects, $5000+

  • A character model 1000 triangles or less, rigged, no animation, $500+

  • A character model 2500 triangles or less, rigged, no animation, $1000+

  • A character model 5000 triangles or less, rigged no animation, $2500+

  • A character model 5000 triangles or less, rigged with animations (walk, run, jump, etc.), $5000+

  • Content for small virtual world, $5,000+

  • Content for a large virtual world, $10,000+

This is an updated version of an article written in 2009, here.

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