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How much should one charge for doing freelance, contract or paid 3D modeling? It's always a tricky question to answer or give an 'absolute' to when there aren't any as there doesn't appear to be any particular set standards available. There are obviously a lot of factors to take into account, all of which centre around what it is you've been requested to build; it goes without saying that that's what your eventual price is going to be relative to. Designing an environment for example; will you be using assets provided by the company you're doing the work for, or, are you going to have to create brand new assets yourself in order to complete the project? Do you then charge for each of those individually or as a whole job lot? Using pre-built assets saves the time and money, but what then to do in instances where those assets either have to be cleaned up before you can even use them? Especially when these ancillary items are largely 'unknown' factors until after an agreement has been made and you realise just how much 'extra' work is involved in modeling "just that building", work you didn't originally contract for but which is necessary in order to complete what you did.
So, what to do and where to start, where can you find the information on pricing up your 3D work?
The general consensus is to look at actual game industry job salaries; you won't get specifics on this per-say as development studios naturally tend to be a bit cagey on this point (for better or worse). What you can do however, is look to various industry surveys available online that investigate general salary and income levels of artists and coders working in the game industry as professionals to get an idea of the kind of costing's involved in what they do, and subsequently what rates you can charge for freelance work relative to that.
Ideally it's best to look at several sources and then average them out further than they already do, but, taking the game industry salary survey of 2007 from the Game Career Guide web site as an example (note: figures are used on the assumption that they're gross and not net amounts, i.e. before deductions. and rounded up or down to the nearest whole number); if you had less than three years experience in the field of 3D content creation, art and animation work then your averaged salary would have been $42,672 US. for approximately 260 working days in the year (assuming you don't take holidays, are not whip lashed into working on weekends, or super-glued to your seat on Friday night so you can't leave) which rounds up to approximately $164 a day or c.$20 per hour. If you had more than three, but less than six years experience and the hourly rate is around the $30 per hour mark; six years or above and that comes to around $35 per hour.
Those are potentially your base hourly rates, so something that took a week (five days, working 8 hours a day) to build and ship would cost around $800 to produce (at c.$20/hr, c.$160/day). You then need to assess whether you need to scale the costs up or down depending on what you were requested to do - $800+ 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 gives you solid ground from which to negotiate a fee or rate based on real world value. In other words, you're not simply pulling figures out of thin air, but instead basing them on what the market can bear and what the industry itself pays it's professionals to do what they do.
However, it's not always just a simple matter of working out man hours when doing something particularly complex or fiddly however, the danger here being that if you actually charged "by the hour" the piece would become so expensive your accountant would be able to light a fire rubbing his hands together in glee as opposed to his normally complaining that you stop paying him 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).
It goes without saying here that you have to be realistic in your forecasts, you need to subjectively look at your skill level and what you can do in direct comparison to someone who is working in a game development studio; would you be hired to work in one based on what you can do? If so, then you should be able to justify the $20 plus as your base hourly rate starting point. If not then your hourly rate needs to be appropriately adjusted - downwards usually.
It's always a good practice to get as much information as you can up front on what needs to be done, initial quotes are based upon this so the details matter in that regard. Obviously changing rates in retrospect at the end of a project will have a negative effect on the out come unless you make provision for that - "quote is subject to change". The opposite is also true, standing your ground when asked to do something not originally discussed or contracted for; as a freelance artist you work on your own without the back-up of a vast legal department that gives you the ability and authority to say 'no' without risking the job and your reputation, bad-mouthing not withstanding.
Something to watch out for. If you're being paid in US$ you'll need to adjust quotes to take into account local currency value and conversion rates, right now for instance, $42,000 US is worth approximately £26,266 GBP (Jan 2010 - in early 2009 that would have been £22,000). The problem to be mindful of here is something called "equivalent buying power", in the States $42,000 is the same as £42,000 UK, or $42,000 CA and so on, it's all to do with the relative standard of living, how much goods and services cost and the relative buying power 'locally' of the currency; a $100 US dollar microwave has the same inherent value as a £100 UK Pounds Sterling one, all you're doing is simply using different currency to buy the same item which has the same intrinsic value. For international freelance 3D work, this can be a bit of a sticking point to say the least, most of the time you just have to grin and bare it.
It has to be said here that you could also look at sites that sell 3D models to see what price structure they're using, however, it's very important to keep in mind that such content is typically priced the way it is because they use much broader licensing that means assets are being made available to anyone that buys them. As a freelance 3D artist, you're not, the content you make is nearly always tasked for a specific project so should be priced accordingly. The freelance artist should be mindful not to make the same and 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.
A final note to consider. Any amounts quoted for the freelance work you do should take into account tax and the various 'misc.' expenses one is likely to incur or be liable as a 'jobbing' artist, it's something that's often 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. However, '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 you send them, seeing a 50% hike for the sake of "tax and expenses" isn't going to go down too well unless you have legitimate claim over that, for instance, if you were a UK freelancer that was VAT registered. 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.
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+