How to become a freelance game developer (Portfolio secrets revealed)

Freelance Game Development is the modern gold rush to the everyday person. Once jobs that were completely out of reach to many, whether because of geographical position or education, are now within grasping distance. The man, from Middle America, can be earning Silicon Valley wages. The woman from Poland can be winning jobs ahead of London development houses. Freelancing has opened the world of game development up to everybody. But how do you open the door to this new world of endless possibility?

How do I become a freelance game developer? First, you must educate yourself. Once you have the skills to develop basic games, build a portfolio. Finally, get on freelance websites such as Upwork and People Per Hour to start earning money.

According to the above, becoming a freelance game developer seems pretty straightforward… Or is it?

There are many nuances to this new and exciting career path. Read on and join me as I guide you through each crucial step on your journey to becoming the ultimate freelance game developer.

Learn game development

The first and most important action you must take when chasing the dream of a freelance life is to learn how to develop games.

This probably sounds obvious to you. Of course, you’ll need some kind of skill to build games.

However, freelance game development is a different beast from sitting in a dev environment with seasoned pros to call on whenever something goes wrong.

And stuff always goes wrong.

When you’re sat alone, with a keyboard, mouse, and monitor your only company, you’ll want the confidence in yourself to fix any programming problem that could arise.

Because in the freelance world you have nobody to turn too.

Businesses will be handing over hard earned cash in the hope that you produce the product of their dreams.

So, you better know what you are doing. And I don’t just mean a ‘rough’ understanding of programming. You can’t start freelance game development in if your experience in game programming is summed up on a napkin as, “A week or two using Unreal engine.” That’s not good enough. You’ll falter at your first job. And you’ll quickly find your reputation collapsing before it’s even built.

If you want the best start to your career as a freelance game developer. You’ve got to start learning right now. Just like building a skyscraper, you’ve got to start by digging out a foundation and replace the excavated dirt with the concrete of knowledge.

Your early education is the foundation on which you start building your game development career.

How do you start to develop your programming know how?

You take a few courses…

Introducing Udemy

Udemy is the premier online course hot spot that offers you the chance to educate yourself far beyond what a university can offer you. And at a tiny fraction of the cost.

Bold statement.

But can an online education website really be better than a university education?

Yes, it absolutely can.

But how?

The answer is simple: Udemy educates you in actionable skills.

An actionable skill is something that you can use as soon as you have learned it. Think of somebody showing you how to hammer a nail. You can mimic the job immediately after being shown how to do it.

University differs because you waste all your time learning theory.

We’ve had the ‘unquestionable’ power of a theory based education drilled into us by self-serving universities for decades. The same universities that charge their students tens of thousands of dollars a year, then pay deans and lectures hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in salaries. And that’s without bonuses! Universities are self-serving. They are Lecturer focused not Student focused.

But slowly, as the movement to more actionable skills grows, the university-based education system is dying. And internet businesses such as Udemy will rise from the ashes.

Fancy an example to drill home the idea of how flawed theory based education is? Well, I’ve got just the example for you…

There are two identical twins, we’ll call them Bob and Ben, that want to race each other on peddle bikes. The problem is neither of them can ride a bike. To remedy this, they are going to attempt to learn to cycle, but each will do so in a radically different way. Bob has access to books and lectures on how to learn how to ride a bike. Ben has access to an actual bike but no books or lectures.

After one month, Bob and Ben meet at the local bike track. Both slip on a helmet and grab their respective bikes. Ben grasps the handlebar leading his bike confidently to the starting line. Bob, on the other hand, has never been on a bike, he’s read theory on how they work, how to peddle one, how to change gears, and so on, But he’s never actually ridden one. However, he’s confident that all his theory will pay off when the race starts.

Both boys get on their bikes and wait on the starting line. As the race starts, Ben pulls off, confident and strong. But poor old Bob riggles forward, bending and swerving like a drunken snake, before finally falling over. He gets back up, but falls over again, and again. For all his theoretical knowledge, Bob can’t ride the bike.

Yes, Bob’s theory would eventually come in handy. But Bob’s is playing catch up. Ben’s flying around the course, yet he knows nothing of how the wheels or gears work. He has no understanding of why the rubber pads bring him to a halt or why the correct air pressure in the tires is important. No, ben just got on the bike and learned to ride, to take action. He can learn the theory later. Or not at all.

You do not want to end up like Bob. If you want to succeed you need to learn real-world skills that you can put into practice immediately.

And Udemy can deliver those skills.

Can udemy be trusted to deliver high quality content?

Udemy, though a relatively young website, provides some of the largest companies in the world with high-quality educational material.

Just take a look at some of the companies that use Udemy below.

That’s not a bad collection of businesses, is it! So if companies like Adidas, Survey Monkey, and can trust Udemy, I think you can too.

The perfect Udemy courses to kick start your freelance game development career

Ok, so we’ve arrived at the conclusion that your freelance career is going nowhere unless you educate yourself. What Udemy courses are going to give you the best start in your freelance game development career?

There are two courses that I would recommend you start off with. Both are very in depth and each covers a different game engine and programming language. The first touches on the Unity game engine, while the second works with the Epic’s Unreal engine.

Here’s both of them:

  • Complete C# Unity Developer 2D: Learn to Code Making Games
  • Unreal Engine C++ Developer: Learn C++ and Make Video Games

Let’s take a look at each one.

Complete C# Unity Developer 2D: Learn to Code Making Games

This course from Ben Tristem has to be one of the most in-depth and impressive courses on Udemy. This juggernaut sized tome of Unity development knowledge covers everything you’d ever need to know about coding in C# (C-Sharp) to create 2D games.

This 35-hour long course will have you slaloming and sliding in delight while on your journey to Unity development mastery. Nearly 300,000 students have taken this course, and nearly 60,000 students think it’s worthy of nearly 5 stars out of 5. And I agree with them!

Check out the course now here.

Usually, Complete C# Unity Developer retails for a wallet denting £194.99. However, the savvy among you will wait until Udemy has one of their sales. Then, all 35 hours can be had for a paltry £9.99. A staggering amount of value for a staggeringly low price.

Unreal Engine C++ Developer: Learn C++ and Make Video Games

Next up we have another course from Ben Tristem. But instead of using Unity as the base game engine, he’s using Unreal engine. Using the Unreal engine gives you the opportunity to learn how to develop a game using C++ instead of C#.

And if you think the Unity curse was huge at 35 hours long, wait until you see how long this one is.

The Unreal Engine C++ Developer course tips the scale at a whopping 63.5 hours. That’s nearly double the length of the Unity course.

But what exactly fills those 63 hours? First, you’ll learn basic to advanced C++ programming skills. Then you’ll press right on and create a number of games ranging from a 2D tank battle game to a First person shooter.

By the end, you won’t just have the skills to develop games using the Unreal engine, you’ll have a portfolio to show off to clients too.

Just like the Unity course, the Unreal course usually sells for a rather hefty 195 of the Queen’s pounds. However, as before, stick around for a Udemy sale and this massive course can be had for a tiny £10. Just ten puny pounds to change your life.*

Head on over to Udemy now to check it out.  

*Seriously it can, and will.

Build your portfolio

Ok, I’m going to lay it on the line for you. University would have you believe otherwise, but, no business on the planet cares about Uni certificates.

I’m sorry, I know that hurts, but it’s true.

I used to have a mate of mine who worked at a local store after leaving school at 16, and by 21, he was the store manager. He has no qualifications, and definitely no business degree.

At the same time, another of my friends got conned into the traditional education system. He went through school and then through uni. He left university with 2:1 in business.

Now, he’s working in the same shop as the other friend. Except he’s on the tills while the other lad, with no qualifications, is his manager. They are both the same age. Except, the lad who started work at 16, now owns his own home. And the lad who went university has £30,000 of debt. Thanks a lot, UK education system!

So that friend who went to university, though he had a piece of paper that said he had knowledge for business, couldn’t beat out the lad with real-world experience.

Degrees are meaningless without actionable skills. There, I said it! And I’ve got a degree myself!

All they do is show that you were able to sit down and write a dissertation. Nothing more.

What is crucial to your success as a freelance game developer is your portfolio. Your portfolio is your record of all the experience you‘ve gained up to this point. A collection of evidence that shows you can do what you say you can do.

Think about it logically. If you were looking to hire a freelance procedurally generated level programmer, who would you employ out of these two people:

  1. A person who has a large portfolio of procedurally generated work written in multiple programming languages. He can demonstrate his work, and walk you through how all the programming works, showing in real time how changing variables affect the game.
  2. A fresh out of college student who has a degree in computer programing who did his dissertation in Procedural generation. But has no portfolio, or a very basic one.

I know who I would pick!

If you apply for a game job and show a really strong portfolio, you’ll be leagues ahead of University graduates.

Your portfolio is a beacon that’ll lure in potential clients. So the first thing you should do is build your portfolio.

If you want to make FPS games when freelancing, fill your portfolio with FPS games with experimental features. Spend some time, say 6 months, working on adding as much to your portfolio as you possibly can.

You’ll be earning high wages from your very first day as a freelance game developer if you have a strong portfolio.

Fortunately, the courses I’ve mentioned above will help you build a solid portfolio. So concentrate on them first.

Find your clients and Build your network

Once you’ve built a portfolio it’s time to find clients

The best way to do this is to join websites like Upwork and People Per Hour. Both offer skilled freelancers massive opportunities to find well paying consistent work.

As your new, I would start out by joining Upwork. It’s the lowest entry point for freelancing on the internet.

Some jobs are unfairly low paying. However, you can make great money on there. I myself have done work on Upwork and have been paid $20-$30 per hour. So it’s a great place to start.

Once you’ve gained a year or two of experience, you can level up your freelancing experience and join People Per Hour. People Per Hour tends to offer a higher class of client compared to Upwork. And with higher class clients comes higher pay.

However, if you are new to freelance game development, care should be taken not to rush into joining People Per Hour. High-class clients will inevitably come with higher expectations. And if you fail to meet these expectations, your reputation could be eroded.  Only join when you’re sure your skills are honed to a sharp edge.

The final step, after you’ve spent a bit of time on people per hour, is to either network yourself on places like LinkedIn and your own website or to join elite freelance websites like TopTal.

TopTal has very strict entry requirements for freelancers, so give it a few years before you try to join. But once your on Toptal you should be commanding wages $100 an hour easily. But expectations will go through the roof, so be patient, Learn you skills, get experience. Toptalk will be there ready for you when you are ready for it.

Oh, and one more word of advice: Don’t join Fiverr. You’ll work for a pittance and devalue your and the industry’s skills. Avoid it like you’d want to avoid leprosy.

Specialisation = Extinction

Do you know why a lot of animals become extinct? Because they specialize. Creatures such as coral specialize in a very narrow type of seawater. The water can’t be too cold or too warm. The water can’t be too acidic or alkali. If there is even a minute change in temperature or acidity, the coral dies.

Specialization can often mean the death of you.

Yes, at the very top of industries you can afford to specialize. Just look at surgeons; they’ll specialize in a certain part of the body. However, in the low and medium end of industries, it pays to be flexible. It’s better to be good at multiple skills than superb at just one.

Why? Because you can quickly change direction if one skill suddenly suffers from low demand.

You should apply this to your freelance game development career.

Don’t specialize: Diversify.

Learn as many skills as you can. Get good at them all. Then, if/when you change direction, you can turn quickly without a problem. As time flies by, you’ll naturally develop some skills more than others. But never stop trying to broaden your skills.

Learn different programming languages. Learn to draw, learn to coach, learn photoshop and illustrator. Learn game design and level design. Learn to be good at all the disciplines within your industry. Yes, you should still concentrate on core skill, programming, but you should still stretch yourself in other areas.

That way you stay flexible and have the opportunity to take on more types of work.

Provide what the market demands

This one’s really simple: there’s no point learning a skill if it’s not in demand.

This is especially important for freelancing.

When you join a site such as Upwork or People Per Hour, you’re effectively putting yourself up for sale on a marketplace. Think of Freelance sites like eBay: You’re the product up for auction!.

And just like eBay, the freelance websites are slaves to the toing and froing of supply and demand.

So how does supply and demand work? Well, basically, supply and demand means that if there is an overabundance of a skill, businesses will generally pay less for it. And vice versa.

However, supply and demand works another way too; the less demand there is for a skill, the fewer businesses are willing to pay for it.

Less demand means you could be in a position of over supply. This is called a buyers market. A buyers market is when a business needs a particular skill but there is a lot of people available with that skill to hire. For example, think of somebody who can stack shelves in a shop. Any able-bodied person can do this job so the pay is low.

You want to be on the other side of the supply and demand graph. You want to be in a seller’s market.

This means that the skill you have is in demand, but there are very few people who possess that skill. For example, think of the skills a veterinary surgeon possesses. There are millions of pets around the world that need surgery. But there are only a fraction of Vet surgeons. Therefore, a vet can charge more money because their skills are sort after and rare.

So what’s the point of this story? Well, the point is, when learning a skill, don’t shy away from the hard stuff. It’s the hard skills that everybody shies away from. But it’s these hard skills in game programing that are massively in demand.

For example, if you can write a program that can procedurally generate game levels, you’ll be massively in demand. You’ll be able to name your price, as so few programmers possess the skills to write code for procedurally generated levels.

How much should you charge?.

First, you want to grab a quick sample of what everybody charges on the website you are going to freelance on.

Check the top listings of freelancers who have the same skills as you. Be specific about these skills.

Now, go through the list. Write down how much each freelancer charges per hour. Only write down freelancer’s details if they are from a similar country to you. For example, if you live in the UK, you should look at countries like the USA and the rest of Europe.

In this example, ignore people from countries such as Asia. They will likely charge far less than you.  

Write down the details of a minimum of 100 freelancers.

Be sure you are searching for specific skills. Don’t just compare the prices of general programmers. If you are an Unreal developer, compare Unreal developer hourly costs.

Once you have this list, find the average, the highest and the lowest wage.

For example:

  • Average = $30
  • Lowest = $15
  • Highest = $100

You want to start at the low end of the payment spectrum until you have gained some experience.

But that experience can come quickly. After you have about five Upwork or people per hour reviews hanging from your belt, you’ll be able to charge more.

However, please keep this in mind:

Many websites will state you should think about how much you’d like to earn per hour. Then start from there. Charge what you think you’re worth, they say.

This is wrong. Any website who tells you this doesn’t understand the basics of economics.

The market determines the freelancer’s wage. Not the other way around. If you overprice yourself, businesses will look elsewhere. The same goes if you underprice yourself.

There are rare occasions where this ‘market determines the price’ rule is broken. But, it’s not often, so don’t depend on it.

If you want to earn more, learn a programming skill that the market pays more for.


Freelancing can open up exciting new avenues for your career to advance down. You’re no longer locked tight into the 9-to-5 and left wishing there was something better.

With freelancing, you can ease yourself out of bed every morning knowing you work in your dream job. Also, you can start work anytime, and anywhere you like. Be it an office, a coffee shop, or a Caribbean beach, becoming a freelance game developer can give you it all.

Nick Sinclair

Nick Sinclair, a gaming aficionado since the Commodore 64 era, studied Creative Computer Games Design in university before founding his own gaming company. Discovering a passion for content creation, Nick now helps gamers squeeze every drop of fun out of their favorite gaming hardware

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