As I said in my previous article on applying for freelance pixel art jobs, the majority of your time and energy as an artist should be allocated towards the actual creation of the work. However, a crucial and seemingly often overlooked aspect of being a freelance pixel artist is how you work with clients. Even if you are a capable artist, if your interpersonal communication is lacking you may find the prospect quite difficult. Though it can't make the process of artistic creation any easier, being honest, thoughtful, tolerant, and discerning is equally as important as your artistic abilities as a professional freelance pixel artist.
An important thing to remember is that the client/contractor relationship functions in essentially the same way as any other interpersonal relationship. Although all humans are flawed and have their individual social choke points, given open and honest communication, any issue that may arise between two reasonable parties should, in theory, be able to be resolved somewhat amicably. However, there are certain individuals who are just not reasonable or rational and are not willing to play ball. These are "problem clients," and the best way to deal with problem clients is to not deal with them at all. It may be difficult at first, but with experience you will find you can spot the red flags more easily.
Avoid potential clients that try to cut corners in whatever way possible to save money. While many budgets are limited, most non-pixel artists do not have a good idea of what makes something cost less or more to produce, and these sorts of negotiations rarely lead to a successful transaction.
Steer clear of people that question your pricing in an insinuating way or compare your rates to other artists’. While it's totally fine and actually sometimes helpful for the client to understand what may be inflating an estimate, people who do not trust you from the start will probably not make for good clients. (Because relationships are built on mutual trust, be reasonable when adjusting your rates. While this article is mostly geared towards smaller jobs, you’d be surprised how casual and unsophisticated "big" clients can be, and you may find yourself being approached for these types of jobs. You should charge more to bigger clients, higher risk projects, or clients that stand to profit more from your work, but an experienced client will sense when you are trying to pull one over on them, and they will probably not hire you again or recommend you to others.)
Avoid potential clients who ask too much of you, outside of your actual work. While it's understandable for the developer of a game to want an artist who is as passionate about the project as they are, your normal rate does not account for your excessive emotional engagement. Of course it would be better to work on projects you feel good about and may enjoy doing, but some developers (especially first-time devs) are too myopic to see that no one is as interested in their project as they are. These types of people also tend to ask for the most revisions and re-dos, as they may not actually have a great idea of what they really want or what it takes to accomplish it. You will probably never be able to satisfy these people.
To avoid spending too much time on jobs that will never come to fruition due to price, it can be helpful to offer the potential client a quick estimate to give them a rough idea of the price range. Because you will probably not have an adequate amount of information at this point, be clear that this is only an estimate and is subject to change given new information. Before you actually accept a job and give a final quote, make sure you've asked enough questions to have a full picture of the job. Here are some questions you should always be able to answer, not including anything else specific to that project.
- What/how many deliverables are they asking you to create?
- What resolution are these assets?
- What style are they looking for? Do they have any references to show you?
- What is the context for these deliverables? What are they being used for? Are there any technical limitations you must work around?
- Is there a deadline or projected timeline for this project?
- How do they intend to compensate you (upfront, milestone payments, hourly, flat fee?)
- What will be their method of payment (paypal, check, bitcoin, wire transfer, etc.) and who will be responsible for payment processing fees?
Charging a fair rate and not underselling yourself and your time will help deter potential problem clients before you enter into a relationship with them. If you find yourself in the unfortunate circumstance of the client showing themselves to be a problem client somewhere in the middle of the process, it's best to cut your losses and remove yourself from the situation, given you are not contractually bound to complete the project. Even though they hired you, don't forget that you can and should fire the client if necessary. If you have to terminate the contract or return their money and take a loss for your time, do it. (In that situation, just make sure they do not ever use whatever work you had already done, assuming either you did not have a contract or you retain copyright of the work according to the stipulations of your contract.)
One of the main issues that may arise during a freelance pixel art gig is revisions. I suggest never offering free revisions, unless either you did do something objectively wrong (like making something the wrong resolution), or if you build a certain number of revision hours into your quote for the project when you charge a flat fee rather than billing hourly. Like problem clients, the best way to deal with revisions is to avoid them as much as possible. The best way to do this is by making sure you have a full and accurate understanding of the client's needs and desires. Do not make assumptions, and always err on the side of asking too many questions rather than not enough. Should the client contradict their initial asks later in the process and request free revisions or re-dos, you will know exactly what you agreed to in print and can reference those conversations if needed.
Sometimes the client may not know exactly what they need or want, and in that case it should be made clear that any extra experimentation time will require compensation. There is a difference between wishy-washy clients and those that are willing to work with you and compensate you to figure out what they want. Interactions with clients which begin with "I don't really know what I want" often end with "... but not that."
Often the client does know what they want, but are not aware of what information you need from them to complete your job, as they usually don't have any artistic experience of their own. You may need to push them a little to get the details you need, such as (but not limited to) color and style preferences, resolution, overall context, and other technical requirements. The process may take longer than necessary if the client takes a long time to respond to your messages. Either make sure you allow for some wiggle room in your projected timeline when working with slow responding clients, or try to avoid taking on those gigs.
Inaccurate time estimates and delays are also the source of many freelancing headaches. As you complete more projects, your ability to evaluate workload will improve, but, as any experienced contractor or project lead will tell you, estimates are frequently not accurate. Because of this, you should always make sure to give yourself more time than you think you will need. When appropriate, I also like to make it clear that this is what I believe will be the case, as well as providing a more general timeline rather than a specific date. Underpromising and overdelivering is always preferable to missing the mark. If the client requires a particularly tight deadline, you must be certain you are capable of delivering before taking the project on, and you should probably raise your rate. Often, a tight deadline is the result of a previous contractor's failing, and unfortunately you will be held responsible to an even greater level if you also fail to deliver on time.
In the event that you are experiencing difficulties which mean you will likely not hit your original project timeline, it is paramount that you communicate this to the client as soon as possible, and that you are being honest with both yourself and the client. You need not provide a specific explanation for the delay—in fact, these types of details typically come across as fabricated excuses. The client does not care why you are late, they only care that you are and that you will deliver the completed work soon. If you know the client has a particularly strict deadline and that other things hinge on your performance (i.e. the game is scheduled to launch at a certain date, etc.) you should be especially sure to contact them ASAP and allow them the opportunity to keep working with you or to find another artist who might be able to better satisfy their needs. Although you don't want to keep the client waiting even longer, be sure to be realistic in your revised timeline. Never tell the client it will be ready "tomorrow" when it surely will not, and avoid pushing the timeline further and further back with repeated false promises at all costs.
Most clients are relatively understanding and flexible, and will be receptive to you if you are open and honest. Although they don't enjoy waiting longer for things, the prospect of finding a replacement artist, especially on short notice, can be quite difficult, and most people will be happy as long as you fulfill their desires ultimately.
Even before any actual incident or disagreement occurs, there may be instances where a client or potential client communicates something in a manner that rubs you the wrong way. While you do deserve to be treated with respect, it is important to remember that everyone communicates differently and with different levels of proficiency. Especially over textual communication, some subtleties can be lost or confused and misunderstandings do occur. Some clients may not fluently speak the same language as you. Most of the time, people do not actually wish to do you harm (especially if they want you to do something for them,) and so it might be wise to give them the benefit of the doubt before reacting aggressively. Remember that many people have very little or no experience hiring or directing artists, and if they have attempted to hire artists before, the likelihood that their previous experiences were less than great is relatively high.
I suspect most of us, to some extent, match our tone to the tone of the other party. This is fine and can make things go more smoothly in general, but try to be cordial even when they are not. Only lay down the law when you are absolutely ready to sever the relationship entirely. For the record, I’ve fired several clients over the years and I don’t regret firing any of them.
You do not need to be friends with every client you encounter. In fact, you don't have to like them at all. If you are in a position to be more selective about the clients and projects you take on, you may decide to only work with people you like, but keep in mind that their role as the client is solely to compensate you for your work and to provide you with the information needed to complete the work. The most important question in deciding whether or not to continue with a potential or current client is "can I successfully, and with minimal emotional distress, complete this job?" Try not to give them any distress either. You're both working towards the same goal—to create beautiful and effective art.