For many people who work in the games industry, games are not just a job, they are a passion. Because of this many employees like to spend time outside of work continuing to home their craft and make themselves even better. This can be driven by a want to personally improve, to work towards earning that next promotion, or simply because it’s what they enjoy and they want to spend their free time working on personal projects. A logical step for people making games in their free time is wondering if they can sell what they are working on, be it a full game, assets, tools, or any number of things you can create.
The answer is unfortunately, you’ll have to check you contract, whether already in a job or signing up to one. But as a rule of thumb, most companies have a clause in their contracts that state that anything that you produce while employed at that company is property of the company. This will most often include things that you make in your free time as well as during office hours.
Seems unreasonable, right? Arguably it is, but as it’s something that you agreed to on signing up for the job it is something they can enforce. You shouldn’t worry about producing things such as art assets to put into a portfolio. I’m unaware of any instance where a company has taken a non-commercial asset from an employee for them to sell, even companies with terrible reputations, but if it’s in your contract then it’s not impossible.
Will a company enforce these rules or are they just to cover them legally? Generally, that will come down to the individual company. As long as you aren’t making anything in direct competition with your company, using company assets in your own projects, or spending more time on it than your actual job, then most small employers with which you have a good working relationship with senior management probably will not have an issue with it. On the other hand, a big corporation may view it as an infringement and punish everyone according to their rules.
What Does It Apply To?
So now that we’re aware of some of the restrictions that game companies put on staff working in their free time, it’s time to look at exactly what they have ownership of. As usual, it will vary from company to company based on the contract that you have signed, but there are some general rules of thumb to follow.
The most universal and probably the most asked about rule will most likely be ‘can I make and sell my own games’. The answer almost certainly will be no. Some smaller or more progressive companies may allow this, but it is generally seen as being against the company’s best interest to allow this to happen.
Some of the less obvious and more varied rules are on selling individual components, such as artists selling pre-made assets on an asset store or programmers sharing tools that they have made. As this is a more niche thing to attempt to do there are not always hard rules set out in the contract and will often come down to employer discretion. Some will see it as supporting competition, others may see it as harmless. The best thing to do would be to discuss the topic with the relevant people.
What Happens If I Do It Anyway?
It may be that you have made a game in your spare time without realizing the rules, or maybe you are a bit of a rebel and want to do it anyway. What are the consequences of working on your own IPs? As usual, as the employer writes the contract it can vary, but some assumptions can be made.
Generally, when you sign your contract there will be a clause stating that anything you make while employed at the company belongs to them. Whilst I’ve never heard of a case where someone’s side project game, or even individual assets, were seized and sold as the companies, it would be within their legal right to block you from selling them as they are the rightful owners in the eyes of the law.
Going against this and selling it anyway could invite lawsuits and possibly get you fired. While that may be an extreme example the company could do so very easily given the circumstances. Realistically though you are more likely to get told to pull it down.
Why Do They Do This?
At first, this can seem incredibly unreasonable, having something you made in your free time belonging to the company by default. However, the games industry is not the only industry to have this as a common occurrence. The Engineering industry, for example, will often have a similar clause. Still, how can they justify it?
One argument for it would the rules around competition. The company will not want to invest money and train you to be a great and highly sought after Graphics Programmer so that you can work on a ground-breaking lighting system, just for you to go and create a very similar tool in your own time and sell it to the company that their greatest competitor for sales.
Does This Mean You Can’t Work On Any Personal Projects?
All of this sounds quite scary. Legal issues, losing ownership of your work, and losing your job. But don’t be scared away from doing any personal projects at all. Unless under extreme circumstances this is unlikely to happen and working on your own work will not cause you any issues, in fact, most games companies will encourage you to continue to hone your skills in your free time.
The chances of this actually causing an issue are slim as long as you keep your personal projects in-house and only use them for practice or portfolio pieces. Beyond that, you have the possibility of getting into trouble for releasing something for free, depending on the impact it could have on competition, and you are fairly likely to run into issues if you are selling your work. If you would like to do this then always talk to your company first to be sure.