How much should I charge for freelance 3D modelling or Design? (rates)

Freelance 3D getting paid, rates and how much money to charge

One the more troublesome issues to deal with while working independently relates to how much the freelance designer (artist, programmer, etc.) should be charging a client or customer for contracted work. Irrespective as to whether the request is for a (short or mid term) contract position in-house, a one-off project found through a 'freelance job' web site or generic community forum advert, ruminating 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, ad infinitum until the restless wee-hours of the morning.

This need not be the case as calculating potential hourly, or project, rates may not be quite as arbitrary as it might first appear because, thankfully, a number sources exist online that can be used for this very purpose - working out freelance rates - it's just a matter of knowing where to look and how to use the data and information available.

Important Note: the information is provided 'as is' in this article should not be construed as 'legal' or 'tax' advice. Individuals engaged in a provision of service as Sole Traders or Self Employment are urged to seek professional (certified) legal, tax and/or employment help where necessary. Search "Freelance Tax Advisors", "Freelance Legal Advisors", "Freelance Contract Advisor" (or similar term) for local representatives. Or ask colleagues or friends who they use/if they know any one that can assist.

what is being asked to be made? ^

Before getting to the root of the problem, the money, a moment must to be taken to address some of the obvious and fundamental elements of any agreed-upon work; what exactly is the freelance individual being asked to produce. This 'stuff' matters because it is not wholly atypical to end up grudgingly producing more content than was originally requested, typically because the client abuses the business relationship to push for more than was agreed upon at time of project sign-off.

Note: it should be highlighted here that, as the saying goes, "verbal agreements are worth the paper they are written on", i.e. "nothing". So whilst the freelancing individual can 'agree' to the production of content verbally or casually, doing so does not necessarily mean, at the very least, a binding contract has been made. It's critically important to understand this point because the ramifications of 'verbal', 'casual', 'written', 'formal', and other forms of agreement, differ in the Real World™ - each can, and often do, imply differentiated interpretation of specific rights, responsibilities and obligations in law - this is why the suggestion to seek advice from a suitably qualified Legal, Tax and/or Employment professional specialising in freelance work is made, and why the individuals 'position' aught to be made explicitly clear from the start when carrying out work for other people.

With this in mind it's important then to clarify circumstances before quoting a price, for example some general points about production and the clients needs might be;

  • Whether the project is to include textures and materials or source files.
  • Is the product to be textured or maps provided for that purpose.
  • Are ancillary assets or 'street art' (the items used to decorate a level/environment) and so on to be included, if not, who is to provide these items.
  • Will additional assets be made available to aid production.
  • Does the client understand asset absence may cause issues later on (scale, size, optimisation issues etc.).
  • Do proprietary assets require clean up and/or optimisation for integration/use.

It's important to know the answer to these and other questions because they imply hidden productions costs, additional time, and increased expenses the client may be no be aware of.

Note: some additional questions to ask might be;

  • What game engine is the content for.
  • Are assets to be worked on by others.
  • Are source files to be included.
  • What software are they using/prefer to be used.
  • Are there any specialist export requirements (special format).
  • How do they want to handle asset updates, edits and corrections.
  • etc.

It's inevitable the client will forget something too, or unforeseen issues may crop up during production, so allowance should be made to accommodate changes in circumstance else there's a risk of being out of pocket or past due-date.

Note: generally speaking changes made after-the-fact, as are being described in this section, are not typically subject to "force majeure" (the 'acts of god' clause).

In the contract or agreement, include a statement that allows for a degree of change after-the-fact, to the affect that "any additional work requested or required after sign-off may be subject to further (re)negotiation and (re)quoting (at the [contractors] discretion.)". This signals to the client the freelancers awareness that 'things happen', and is prepared to accommodate that fact, the pre-positioned clause being there ready to appropriately deal with such events.

Note: the key in such situations is to be flexible and mindful of the potential for tension that might occur even if everything discussed and required was agreed in writing - no-one likes to be wrong (even when they are) so be especially mindful of legal threats where items not originally included in the agreement are raised. This is why it's vitally important to, at the very least, have an email outlining project requirements that are clearly stated, with clear indication the client responded to that specific communication with "yes, go ahead with the work".

Industry sector salary comparisons ^

Once the basic facts are known the next step is price the project up. Unfortunately for custom content creators, few readily available standard price-per-item lists or resources exist, largely because there are far too many variables involved wrangling a mutually beneficial agreement between parties.

Note: given the fact that "freelance" covers such a broad gamut of business related activities, it would be neigh on impossible to produce a 'catch-all' price list for any given type of freelance activity.

Having said this however, information to help set freelance rates is available indirectly looking at salary details within the industry sector the person might otherwise have been employed. For a 3D environment artist asked to make game assets for example, that would be the Games Industry. By looking at the 'job' and 'employment' pages of various game development sites figures and data can be gathered and collated to determine rates. Even better is to look through game industry salary survey data which cover a much broader pool of source data.

Important: industry salaries provide an earnings baseline, how much might be earned when employed to perform a given role. They do not expressly represent how much to charge for freelance work, but rather help determine a competitive comparison the freelancer might use to understand their position in the broader market space. In other words, knowing how much a 'mid-level environment artist' earns, the freelancer can set their rates appropriately (notwithstanding benefits lost/gained from being an employee vs self-employed, and/or costs to the employer for the employee etc.).

Note: this also helps realise rates subsequently quoted to the client because they are backed by industry available data and not necessarily pulled from thin air.

Working out hourly rates based on salary ^

When using information found in game salary surveys, the preference should be to average the data rather than necessarily relying on a single source. Having said this however, there is a fair amount of commonality across surveys, so where few data sets exist differences may be minor nonetheless.

Important: in lue of salary comparisons most Governments provide minimum wage guidelines that can be used as an absolute baseline alternative (calculated from a much broader averaged minimum income required to live).

Note: in the following, figures are rounded out to whole numbers for simplicity so may not strictly calculate absolutely. They are also assumed to be 'net' and not 'gross' amounts, i.e. after deductions/costs of employment/benefits etc. (see highlighted box-out above).

For example Develops UK salary survey for 2013 has 'artists' income averaged at £27,813 GBP, or approximately $46,973 USD[1]. Whereas (US) Game Career Guides Survey for 2013 has artists averaged at $48,400 USD, or approximately £28,657 GBP*. Combining the two averages this arrives at $47,686 USD or £28,234 GBP. As both are trusted sources however, either/or can be used as preferred.

Note: [1] conversion rate of £1/$1.68, May 2014

Taking the (US) Game Industry Salary Survey for 2013 as an example for the remainder of this article, accordingly an artist with three or less years experience averages approx. $48,000 for 260 working days[2] in the year, rounding out to approx. $185 a day or $23 per hour[3]. With this in mind, looking at a model estimated to take a (working) week to build and ship, i.e. five (5) days, eight hours (8 hrs) a day, using the figures previously determined, it would cost around $925 to produce ($185 * 5 = $925), a number that can be adjusted depending on project specifics and what the freelance artist/designer is bringing to the table[4].

Note: the figure above would be the cost of an employee producing a given model, contextually an individual, and circumstance, the freelancer is competing with.

Once done this at least puts the freelancers quote on equal(ish) footing with Real World value, making the project more likely to be signed-off by the prospective client because they can see the correlation.

Charging per hour or per project ^

However, even though the hourly rate may now be determined, a problem presents itself in terms of input not always equating to output. In other words whilst "charging by the hour" tends to favour relatively small, short duration projects, on larger, more complex or sustained tasks, the calculation could (and often does) result in work being cost prohibitive to produce. In such instances it may be better to price per project based on previous experience or using a sliding scale of appreciation/depreciation.

Note: for further ideas on quoting based on per-project rates refer to calculations outlined in the "some examples" section Note below.

Currency conversion & International freelance work ^

One particularly troublesome issue trying to work out freelance rates is currency conversion. The conversion itself is not the problem so much as the fact that currency values vary a great deal depending on the freelancers location relative to the client. This can be problematic due to equivalent buying power (technically called "purchasing power parity") and standard of living disparities. For example, if the exact same microwave is purchased by a group of individuals around the world its price would vary depending upon geographic location, corresponding standard of living costs, and the relative regional currency value. In other words although the oven has the same intrinsic value materially and as a finished usable object, the money used to buy it does not, leading to, in some instances, significant disparity.

Note: an individual in the UK purchasing an oven from the USA would be able to acquire a more expensive item for the same amount of GB Pounds because the currency rate (currently) provides more US Dollars in exchange for GB Pound (e.g. £100 GBP = $170). Or they could spend less to get the same original item intended because they don't need to spend as many GBP (e.g. £60) in doing so. Conversely, a person in the USA using their $100 to buy from the UK would find their purchasing power reduced to a cheaper model because they get fewer GB Pounds for their US Dollars (e.g. $100 USD = £60 GBP). Else they would need to spend more to acquire the same one ($160).

The implications of this are significant because it means, whilst attempting to determine hourly base rates, source data used for calculations may inadvertently sell either/or/both the freelancer and/or client short. In other words $48,000 USD is not mutually equivalent to £48,000 GBP, nor is $23hr USD mutually equivalent to £23hr GBP because of currency value and purchasing power inequality.

Note: incidentally $23hr USD equates to £13hr which is a little over the average wage of £12.62 for the UK (figures for 2011). The average hourly rate for the USA in 2013 was $23.86.

As a result of this variation individuals freelancing Internationally often face the unfortunate reality of dealing with varying amounts of income (or value) loss depending on the exchange direction to keep quotes reasonable attractive clients relative to their local economy, an aspect of providing freelance services for which little can be done to compensate.

Note: a UK based freelance artist/designer charging a UK client £925 GBP for a finished game character might be charging a USA client $1,560 due to exchange rates. Whereas to quote a USA equivalent price of $925 USD the same freelance individual is effectively earning approx. £548 GBP, a loss of £377 GBP.

In $42,000 USD converted to approximately;
- £22,000 Jan 2009
- £26,266 Jan 2010
- £26,791 Jan 2012
- £25,000 May 2014
- £31,000 Jan 2021

Note also that being located in a Country with a weak currency does not necessarily mean being able to make more money working Internationally because currency valuations, and the expectations that carries with the client, works against the jobbing freelancer - clients expect things to be cheap.

asset sites as a comparison ^

An alternative approach to determining the cost of freelance art/design is to look at web site's offering comparable assets for sale, services like TurboSquid for example. Bear in mind that such sites are generally geared towards derivative or repeat sales so both content and pricing structures tend to be more generic in nature to accommodate this fact - authors are not making custom content to meet specific demands and requirements, rather they are producing generalised content to appeal to a broader audience for multiple sales.

Note: using third-party asset sites can mean pricing structures being low-balled to compensate for losses through repeat purchase from numerous sources.

In using asset sites for rate determination however, be mindful that clients may use their low prices as leverage against any quote offered, the "I can get 'X' cheaper here" argument. Should this happen, clarify with the client that custom and unique content tailored to their specific needs is being purchased, for which only they will have use, thus reducing the likelihood of the same asset appearing in another game.

Note: this latter point, content appearing elsewhere, also negates accusation of 'theft' and/or incorrect or improper content licensing that could result in a 'DMCA Take Down Notice' or 'Cease and Desist' letter (which tend to be of immediate affect). Although generally the clients responsibility, the damage that can be caused by this may find it's way back to the freelancer for remedy. In such instances the original agreement between affect parties may need to contain "due-diligence", "to the best of my knowledge" or "indemnity" clauses, negating the impact of events occurring after-the-fact over which the freelancer has no control.

Taxes & personal liabilities ^

Important Note: the following section is provided 'as is' and should not be regarded as being 'legal' or 'tax' advice. The Reader is urged to seek professional (certified) legal and/or tax help where necessary.

Tax, and associated personal and business liabilities, is the most important aspect of providing freelance services because it carries with it a heavy burden of accountability others may not be cognisant of (they have no need to be). And this speaks to the biggest problem discussing this particular topic online as it's often had by those naive to, or wholly ignorant of, the realities attributed to the provision of a business service - freelancing is a business, an employment status, not a lifestyle choice or type or mode of working.

Note: the big problem discussing taxes and other liabilities with respect to freelancing is that it's often carried out by individuals who, intentionally or not, misappropriate the term "freelance", or misunderstand what it implies; it is not merely a word used to describe style or way of working. Rather it specifically describes, as mentioned above, a business related activity and employment status. What this means is that getting paid to make something "on the side" or "for a bit of extra cash" does not make that person 'freelance' (although such income must be declared), unless, they are duly registered with the appropriate Government Agency that recognises their status as being registered for the purposes of providing goods or services either as an self-employed individual (Sole-Trader) or an aspect or element of a business Entity they may own or be part of (not necessarily as an employee) - for example HMRC in the UK or the IRS in the USA. When providing freelance services these distinction matters because liabilities differ depending upon the Parties respective status's and under what capacity agreements have been made - private individuals do not carry the same weight of liabilities, obligations and protections under law generally afforded to registered Entities & Individuals (Sole-Traders/Self-Employed). In other words it's meaningful if a person calling themselves a "freelance artist" is actually registered as being in-business for the purpose of providing that service.

With that said there are two main reasons, each of which will be discussed below, why freelancers often get this wrong; 1) trying to pass the Tax burden off onto the client, and 2) not realising that in doing so it actually increases the tax burden due.

Income Tax is a Duty on Labour ^

So, what is Income Tax?. In essence Income Tax is a Duty levied on labour; "labour" being any action or activity a person engages in when providing services in return for remuneration. This means any income received in lieu of work outside employment is liable for Tax. As such tax is only supposed to be levied upon the person providing the service, not those in receipt of them; Income Tax, emphatically, has absolutely nothing to do with the client so the burden cannot be offset or passed on to them in any shape or form (#1 in the previous section).

Note: it can be argued, and often is by Revenue Services, that trying to recoup tax losses by passing the buck onto the clients bill amounts to fraud because they are being charged for something they never receive as part of the product or service purchased.

For the jobbing freelance artist then it's essential to keep all liabilities specifically relative to actual work done and income received.

Taxes & passing the buck ^

To put this into context, using the $925 USD project discussed earlier and an income tax rate of 20%, the amount due works out to be $185[5], leaving $740 'profit'[6]. This means at (tax) year end $185 goes to the Government as the duty on labour for this particular job, the freelancer keeping $740. These are the basic 'in' and 'out' liabilities of the job - $925 in, $185 out ($740 kept).

Note: for brevity costs are relayed in terms of 'income' and 'tax' liabilities only; other aspects of price determination, 'expenses', 'running costs' etc., are ignored.
[5] 20% of $925 = $185.
[6] $925 - $185 = $740 - profit refers to income remaining after Tax deduction.

Now, if the freelance designer were of the mistaken mind to 'recover' this $185 burden from the client, they would normally think to do so by simply adding it to the original quote itself. In other words they might reason it as follows;

"I'm going to charge $925 for this project, the tax due on that is $185, so I'll 'recover' that by adding it to the original quote to get a new total, now $1110 to bill the client. That'll keep me covered for my $185 tax and mean I get the whole $925 I was originally after[7]."

Note: [7] ($925 + $185 = $1110).

In doing this however, it changes the Tax liability from $925 as previous, to the new total of $1110 (the liability being the income received from work done/service provided). At 20% again that tax now due is $222, instead of $185, leaving $888[8]. A loss of $37 on the original £925.

Note: [8] 20% of $1110 = $222, and $1110 - $222 = $888.

In seeing increased loss the artist may conduct further calculations until a figure is reached wherein as much of the original value as possible is recouped (wanting the full $925) - in this instance adding a further $47 to the previous $1110 resulting in an amount billed to the client of $1157. Again however, this increases the Tax burden further; on $1157 that becomes $231, a further $9 on the previous tax due, but this does leave the full $925[9] the individual was originally trying to recoup.

Note: [9] 20% of $1157 = $231, and $231 - $1157 = $925.

The problems caused by these types of calculatory gymnastics should be self-evident, over time the additional tax burden mounts up, requiring ever-increasing offsets to accommodate the rise in tax due (notwithstanding tax/income tier levels).

Note: the one caveat to the above is the possible inclusion of VAT or Sales Tax - the difference being they are transparent service or sales charges everyone knows about, and can be paid and recouped legitimately as needed.

Of course in the final equation it should not go without saying that from the clients point of view, a project quoted at $925 is very different than one of $1157, the latter a price that's also gone well over the psychological $999 barrier (from three figures to four), and the client declining the job entirely.

Conclusion ^

The realities of working freelance mean it can at times be overly convoluted. It need not be. So long as a reasonable amount of transparency exists between parties, problems that do crop up can be fixed relatively quickly and painlessly. The freelancer has to be flexible in their negotiations, and honest with skills and experience, and being slightly conservative with their service offerings to ensure project completion. Additionally, make sure all the appropriate paperwork and forms are filed, and that the individual or business capacity under which freelance services are being offered duly recognised and noted officially. And finally, although most aspects of being a sole trader, self-employed or running a business are relatively straightforward, when issues do arise it is always best to consult a fully qualified professional.

Some examples ^

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

Note: figures are calculated as follows; the average 'artists' salary is taken as being $48,000 per year, in which time they may work on a single game producing varying amounts of content - a character artist might create twenty-four characters; a level designer six levels; an environment artist 250 props, and so on. The break down is then averaged dividing $48,000 by 24 = $2000 per character; by 6 = $8000 per level; by 250 = $192 per prop.

However, an important caveat and consideration is that the above does not take into account the fact that specific asset types typically have several people working on them at the same time; the production of a character for instance, might involve the addition of a texture artist, a rigger, an animator, and audio personnel. That's a combined salary for all of $240,000, or a cost of $10,000 per character, $40,000 per level, $960 per prop (and again are notwithstanding costs to employer for employing the employee, which in turn likely raises the actual costs associated with the production of a given assets).

Figures shown below then are very rough estimates based on the above and can, and should, be adjusted as appropriate and commensurate the individual freelance artists skill, experience etc., the number of tasks deployed (mesh, texture, audio?), and/or if other equally skilled individuals are to work on a particular project.

  • A barrel, box or crate, $50+.
  • An empty simple warehouse structure, $500+.
  • Series of map objects, pillars, arches, doorways, $750+.
  • Small empty 'industrial' level, no map objects, $2,500+.
  • Larger empty 'industrial' level, no map objects, $5,000+.
  • A 'city' scape level, no map objects, $5,000+.
  • Large level including terrain and buildings, no map objects, $10,000+.
  • Character less than 1000 triangles, rigged, no animation, $800+.
  • Character less than 2500 triangles, rigged, no animation, $1,500+.
  • Character less than 5000 triangles, rigged no animation, $2,500+.
  • Character less than 5000 triangles, rigged with animations, $5,000+.
  • Content for small virtual world, $2,500+.
  • Content for a large virtual world, $5,000+.

Last updated Jun 2021.

Originally published 2009.


Footnotes

[2] 260 days is derived from the working week being five days multiplied by weeks in a year (assuming no holidays, the artist not being whip-lashed to work on weekends, or super-glued to their seat on Friday night for crunch).

[3] Further figures from the same survey show an artist with more than three but less than six years experience (mid range '3-6' experience bracket) earns around $32 per hour ($67,000 / 260 = $258 day, / 8 = $32 hr); six years or above (upper range '6+' experience bracket) and that works out as $43 per hour ($90,000 / 260 = $346, / 8 = $43). Figures are round up/down to whole numbers for expedience rather than accuracy.

The figures for 2007, when this article was originally written, were 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.

[4] the total might be adjusted based on the difference between each salary level; a $9 increase from low to mid ($3 per experience year between the '0-3' & '3-6' experience brackets), or $11 increase mid to high ($4 per experience year between '3-6' & '6+' experience brackets). So for each year of experience lacking the freelancer might deduct $3 or $4 per hour depending upon which side the the category bracket divide they fall (above or below '0-3', '3-6' or '6+') - only having one year experience might mean deducting $6 from the hourly rate, reducing it to $17, $136 per day, $680 per working week.

Using figures for 2007, again when this article was originally published, an item that took one working week to complete would cost approx. $800 to produce (at c.$20/hr, c.$160/day).

 
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