Monday, April 1, 2013

ModelsForTheMasses post mortem

As some may know, I ran my own little freelance operation for the source community for almost two years. The goal starting out on this was to see if anyone thought my models were good enough to pay for, but that changed over the course of the project. I ended up using the service to get news about as many mods as I could, to get my art out amongst the community, to build a portfolio and mostly to provide fresh content to the stale source modding scene.

I consider this my first scrape with monetizing my hobby, and I learned a bit about freelancing and dealing with people over models in general. So I'll chat about it a bit here.


I never really set a precedence for my work (pricing, time scale or otherwise) and so people would come to me with vastly different expectations. Some assumed I freelanced full time and would be able to smash out their models in a matter of hours. Others were relaxed and had no time constraints. Some people were willing to fork out whatever I asked for and others expected... let's say an unbalanced work to pay ratio.

The thing is every model is different and every time I embark on a new model I gauge it differently. My pricing was based on four things: How complex the model was, how many features the client wanted, how much I thought I would enjoy making the model and how much I thought I would learn from making the model. In filling out this criteria, prices would vary greatly, since really the guiding rules were the last two.

If I was offered two different requests, one being an already concepted, well designed NPC model that needed animations and full baked textures, and one being a set of thirty light fittings and furniture pieces, I would probably charge half as much for the character model. A great concept is hard to come by and I don't do enough organic modelling. There is a whole lot more work involved in the character model (character models took me on average 3 months) but there is so much more to be learned and in the end I'll likely have a great portfolio piece, as opposed to a bunch of clutter props that any upcoming modeller would be able to make.

I don't think I lost too much work due to an ambiguous pricing structure, and charging less for models I liked generally attracted more enjoyable work, and repelled work I would have despised. After the first year I started setting base prices for certain models. Characters and vehicles would attract a $100 flagfall and then I could add pricing on top of that depending on the model and feature requirements.

Anyone who has been a freelance modeller probably just shot coffee through their nose when I said $100. Yes I was cheap. I had no idea what the value of my work was, and I still don't, plus I was catering to the largely broke modding community, so I shot low in order to secure work. Considering I would have done it for free if it wasn't for the site, I didn't mind making it dirt cheap. The most expensive model I ever made was somewhere in the range of $250, and it would have easily gone for $2000 if I was adhering to a proper pricing structure.


Part of getting work as a freelancer is getting your name out there, making sure your target demographic knows you exist. I hate advertising and I think it's a surefire way for a smalltime freelancer to fail either through attracting too much work, the wrong kind of work, or no work at all. I chose to pursue a word of mouth advertising plan.

Instead of paying for advertising, I would offer discounts to clients who talked about me in the community. This usually came in the form of a few dollars off for a post on a few different sites (usually interlopers, facepunch, FPSbanana, facebook, moddb or the like) but more often than not I had clients conceiving better ideas. I ended up getting a big thread on interlopers, a blog post on PlanetPhillip and even podcast17 mentioned the service. These may seem like small things but for me they were big victories.

I never really pursued much advertising, as I could only really deal with the work I had coming in. I always had large scale projects on, and intermittently I would have small ones that I could do in between characters or vehicles. If I had have continued the project I would have started a page on modDB, posted more on facepunch (they don't seem like a community that would accept me very easily) and got my name in a few more mods. But as it stood, the workload was enough without those endeavors.

Getting help

I had quite a bit of work on at one point and was considering asking for a modeller from the community to help me manage it all when Livewire added me on steam. He wanted to see how the service was going and either start his own or tag on to mine. It was perfect and I don't think he expected me to be as excited as I was to bring him into the project.

Rather than try to manage the situation and get a cut out of each sale, I decided it would be better if we discussed each request as it came in, and whoever wanted to do it more would get it. If we both needed to work on the same model (for instance if I modeled and he textured or something) then the payment would be split arbitrarily depending on the perceived workload. This worked since we were both pretty relaxed in our approach and we never got into any disputes.

When I told friends what I was doing with M4M (by the way, look up they were all so confused that I wasn't going to get a 'cut' of what livewire would make. We weren't talking triple figures here, and taking a 'cut' from a $50 model would not only be pointless, but it would be an asshole move. I never even thought of it until it was suggested, and I quickly dismissed it. Perhaps if we were talking big ticket prices and ongoing contracts, but this was never going to be enough income to declare on tax.


Towards the middle of the project I started to realise that I had a powerful tool to get news on upcoming mods through making models for the creators. I also started to fill my steam friends list and email address book up with members of some prominent and some underground but promising mod teams and indies.

I started giving discounts to people who I wanted to come back or that I thought I would like to work with in the future. This resulted in getting some good contacts in the mod community and a few indies that I keep in contact with still. Part of the modding scene is that you need to find creative minds that not only compliment yours, but that are productive and committed. In a community full of young teens with all ideas and no skill, it takes a while to filter out the wheat from the chaff (actually a rage quit from a stale mod team was the reason for the creation of M4M). When you find a good modder you want to keep them on speed dial. Not only for the possibility of future collaboration, but to bounce ideas off and talk to.

I started to get job offers (kinda) from modders and indies. People wanted to recruit me into their teams and I had to continually decline. I wanted to follow the freelance rabbit hole as far as I could before jumping ship and when I jumped ship it wasn't going to be to commit to another possibly stagnant mod team. I'll have to do another post about my pathological hate for unproductive mod teams.

The Death

M4M didn't die because of some internal dispute or existential crisis. It simply dropped on my priority list. For a while I had been dabbling in making apps and websites and I got an intriguing response from a company that I showed a prototype program to, so I decided to drop everything and pursue that. Everything unfortunately was primarily, so I unceremoniously closed the site down one day. I kept it hosted so I could use it as a portfolio and maybe one day I'll open it back up but for now I have enough contacts and model requests coming in that keep me busy around my primary project, programming.

If I had any final lessons to teach from this experience they would be: know your audience and be as open and friendly as you can. The best thing I got out of M4M is a fat address book and my fingerprint on a lot of different projects.

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