09 - Commissioning artwork

Submitted by ehanuise on Tue, 30/07/2013 - 00:25

09 - commissioning artwork

Over the last two decades, the overall graphic quality of boardgames has become better than ever. There are several reasons for that.

First during the nineties advances in personal computing and software, combined with the rise of internet made professional quality graphics and publishing tools more affordable than ever. This also had the side effect of making the production of printed material much cheaper and ubiquitous. Before that, producing a printed product was a complex, technical and expensive process.

Second, the quantity of new games released each year grew steadily as board games popularity and awareness rose with the general audience. This widened the market and made things like art and layout an important differentiation factor.

Third, and this is more recent, as the demand for good art in games raised, artists that were traditionally focusing on other media such as book covers, comics, computer games, ... started to get interested in board games.

Last, again with the rise of internet, it is now easier than ever to look for artists so boardgame publishers can cherry pick the best artist for their games instead of having to pick from a limited set.

Of course not all boardgame publishers give art the same importance, and there's an obvious difference in games produced by companies that give art a lot of importance like Fantasy Flight Games or other that will make games that are first and foremost functional such as Winsome Games. They each cater to a certain type of gamers, and adapt the art of their products accordingly.

Art in a boardgame is expensive, time consuming, complex to 'get right', and very subjective (no matter what you do some people will hate it). However I think nowadays you can't just deal with art as an afterthought and you must give it a sizeable chunk of your attention, and budget. As a customer, when there are several very good games on display at the retailer and you only can afford one, art will become a factor in your decision, plain and simple.

Artist selection

When you plan to publish a new game, the first step for the art is to pick your artist. This should be done quite early in the process, even if development is not completely done yet for the game.

You should build up a list of suitable artists, which will grow over time. Most artists have a portfolio, often viewable online, which will allow you to see what style or styles of art that artist produces and what genres he's done so far. You should have a general idea of the kind of art you're looking for, discuss it with the author to make sure he's comfortable with your vision, and then look for artists that are matching that kind of style and genre.

At this stage, anything is possible. However, keep in mind that some styles and genres are usually met together, and that going for something radically different might get a cold reception from the market. For instance, most science-fiction games have futuristic images or retro-futuristic, in a realistic 'oil paint' style, with cold colors (blue, gray, ...). If you decide that your science fiction game will have very coloured art rendered in an impressionist watercolour, chalk or pastel style, you sure will have something different than what usually is seen but will it sell better ? That might be a risk, with big financial consequences.

Once you've picked the artist you want to work with, you will pitch him your project, and see if he's available and what his rates are. If he's not available or interested, you'll go for the next one on your pick list, and so on.

Never do the art yourself. Never. Sure there are a few individuals that are an exception to that rule. But for your sake, your author's and his game's, face it, you are not one of them. And even if you are, as a publisher you have lots of other things to do so do yourself a favour and outsource art.

And don't ask your friend that draws very well / your wife / your kids / anyone near you unless they are a seasoned professional artist with years of experience in that market. Nothing makes a game become a mediocre product more than bad or even so-so art.

Last but not least, don't skimp on art. Budget it. You get what you pay for. Expect to have 5 to 15% of your total production budget committed to art for a big box game. And a higher percentage for smaller games. Also make sure to understand that you do not just pay for the finished pieces. Art often requires research, under the for of roughs and sketches, and you should pay for these as well.

Art direction and project management tips

First and foremost, you need to talk with your author and artist and take time to review the project before work starts. this will clear up questions and problems that might arise otherwise. Also, never assume. It's better to repeat something that seems obvious than to assume it was obvious and then notice that the information was misunderstood. Good communication is key. Even more so if you decide to hire several artists to produce different pieces for your game.

Define responsibilities : who is the 'art director' for the game ? It should be the publisher but on some projects it can be an art director, the artist, the author, or someone else. That is the person who will have the decision on all matters not specifically under someone else's authority. The author should have the final say on all questions that do affect the mechanics of the game : what elements should be displayed, what informations must be conveyed in the art. The publisher or art director should have the final say on everything that affects the ergonomics on the game. The artist should have the final say on the style and treatment of the art. Always make sure to periodically recheck these roles are respected. In doubt, ergonomics and gameplay should always prevail : art is very important but you're still publishing a game, not an art-book.

Also make sure to think about colour blind people! This affects only males, but it affects about 8% of that population, which is a significant number of people. If you plan for it from the start on, it's not more work or expensive.

Once you've picked the artist and defined responsibilities, you need to make a list of all the art that will be required. If development is not finished yet, you should take that into account. There are several possible strategies here : either finish development completely before you get any art produced (better), or have the artist make roughs and sketches that you will use in development and play-test and have him change as development progresses (riskier), or commission the finished pieces as development progresses as game components stabilize during playtesting (riskiest). Make sure you understand the cost impact of each strategy : no matter whether it's a sketch or rough or a finished piece, your artist will need to be paid for everything he produces. It's easier to understand if you see it this way : If he spends a week doing sketches and research so you can pick two characters out of forty sketches, you will pay him for a week of work, not two sketches. If you really think you should pay only for two sketches instead of a week of work, please do the art yourself and fail miserably - you'll save good artists a lot of useless trouble.

Then build up the graphical brief (see below), which will be the most important document in your collaboration with your artist : this will cover all required technical and subjective information pertaining to your game's art.

The graphical brief

The graphical brief or art brief is a document usually seen in advertising and marketing agencies, but it is useful in all situations where a business commissions art for a specific purpose. I guess it is also a common practice in video games production. The goal of the graphical brief is to gather all information about the art that needs to be produces in a single document.

That document will be the basis for the artist's quote, and the reference for the whole duration of the project. It will also be useful should any dispute arise about what exactly is commissioned.

You could of course just send an email with a rough description of your needs, but formalising your art brief has a purpose : it forces you to carefully consider all aspects of your project before you write your needs down. It also allows the artist to provide you an accurate quote for the commissioned art, and will serve as a baseline and mutual reference as work progresses. Of course it's work, but it also shows you actually care about your products and compels the artist to also really care about the art he will produce for you. Last but not least it's good communication and good business practice.

For a board games project, your art brief should have several sections each pertaining to a specific aspect of the project :

Game description

First start with a short description of the game. Just a short pitch about the kind of game it is, a short description of the theme, and the core mechanics.

Example : Dragon Rage is a fantasy wargame where Dragons and Mythical creatures attack a walled city. It is a simple hex and counter wargame for two players.

Target audience and markets

This part lists the target audience, and covers the various markets you intend to sell the game in. It also covers the initial print run and if reprints should be part of the commission. It will help the artist get a good understanding of what you'll be using the art for so he can make you a quote that matches your actual needs.

Example : Dragon Rage is for players aged 10 or more, mainly teens and adult males. The first print run will be 1.000 or 1.500 copies, with rules in French, English, German and Spanish. It will be sold worldwide, and reprinted as needed if it sells out.

Exhaustive list of commissioned pieces

This part has a complete list of all parts that need be produced by the artist. For each part you provide a description of the art/scene you require, with information about the style it should be done in. You also detail how that art will be used in the game materials, and the technical specifications (resolution, size in pixels, zones that must be low detail so you can add text or titles at the layout stage, ...)

Here's an example from the Rumble In The House art brief :

Room tiles

Technical information :

Use : game board (either 88x63mm cards or 87x49mm cardboard tiles)

Resolution : minimum 300 dpi

Format : bitmap png or jpeg file, or vector svg file.

Layout : rectangular format.

Style : Either comics/cartoon with lines defining the characters and elements shape, or similar to the detailed rendering style you used for Zombie in my pocket and zombie plague. If the more detailed rendering style is used, the characters will need to be more detailed than if a cartoon style is used so that the game as a whole looks consistent. (The prototype's rooms uses clipart from gliffy.com and should not be used as reference).

The rooms : We wish to have a mix of rooms that are normal in a family house, such as a bedroom, kitchen, living-room, bathroom, a piano room, a fitness room, ... and a few rooms that are more out of place such as a martial arts dojo, a library, a wizard's room with candles and a pentacle, a room with square black and white tiles and red curtains, a room with a hole in the ground, laboratory, ...

All tiles should be inside, there is no garden or exteriors in the game. An inner winter garden is no problem, however.

The rooms in the game prototype can be used for guidance but are by no means a must-have or must-follow set. Your input is welcome on this. The room tiles will be dual-sided, so each tile will require two illustrations. Gameplay-wise all rooms are identical, the illustrations are only there for pleasing the player's eyes.

The game will include 10 room tiles. We will also produce a special goodie with two extra rooms to give away at fairs and events, so 24 rooms (12x2) will be required in all.

Technical Constraints : All rooms will be bordered with 5mm square borders and have a 20mm 'door' in the middle of each side. (The prototype has no walls and black 'doors', the final version should have black walls and no 'doors', like the Zombie in my pocket tiles.)

Other uses than the boardgame : t shirts, merchandising, ...

Here you need to details any uses of the art other than the game board, rules and materials. Also detail quantities if possible. The artist will need that information for his quote, as what you 'buy' is not the art itself but a license to use it for different purposes. Each support (T Shirts, merchandising goodies such as mugs or bags, web/mobile versions of the game, ...) needs to be licensed. This won't cost you a lot more than just licensing the art for printing the game and rules, and it will ensure you and the artist base your collaboration on a fair ground.

Rough/sketches / colour rough / final art

You should never ask the artist to just read the art brief and provide a finished piece. You (or the art director) must take part in the process to make sure the finished art will fit your needs and vision for the game. If the final art that he provides doesn't 'work', you'll need to pay your artist for that work and then again for another version.

So this is approached iteratively : First the artist provides pencil sketches of the art for feedback. usually several variations so you can pick one or two. This something needs be repeated until each element is approved at the sketch level. After that is a second pass of colour roughs : low detail colour renderings, very rough, that allow you to approve the colour scheme, light and shadow treatment, overall style, and get a better idea of what the final piece will be like. Only then, once the roughs are approved will the artist work on the final art pieces, fully rendered and coloured with the final level of detail.

This very formal process can be shortened when you work with the same artist on several projects as you both will better know what the other expects, and on some pieces where you need less control and can afford the artist to have more leeway.

This might seem a bit pretentious especially to artists reading this, but a publisher needs to consider many aspects when commissioning a piece of art so he has to be really involved in the art direction. For a game cover, for instance, you of course need a good and striking picture but there are myriad of underlying marketing-related aspects : Is that half naked women in the background a problem for some markets ? Is the overall colour scheme suited to the target market ? Is the style and level of detail consistent with the game target demographics ? Are there unintended cultural or religious references that will be badly received in some parts of the world ? Does the overall cover bear too much resemblance to other existing game covers ? Does it fit your collection ? Are the title, author and artist name well legible ? Each of these aspects will require the artist to make some alterations to his vision and are requirements for the publisher.

Scheduling and delays

If you are on a schedule, it needs to be defined here : state the projected publication date for the game, and the whole retro-planning : when should production start, when should you have done all layout work for the printer, when should the artist provide the final pieces, when should the colour roughs be approved at the latest, and when should the sketches be done.

For some time sensitive projects you may want to tie delivery time and delays to the payments : have the artist discount part of the total price if he is late. Of course if the cause of the delays is on the publisher side because of a bad or incomplete art brief, bad communication of lack of feedback, this will not apply.

Changes will happen so when you set up your project schedule allow 10% of time overhead so you don't find yourself with your back on the wall when delays occur.

Deliverables definition

This information must be in the definition of the pieces commissioned, as in the above example : for each piece along with the name and description, you list the following information :

Technical aspects

This details what game-related information needs be present on the piece : titles, descriptions, icons , flavour text, ... Always make sure to state whether these must be rendered along with the art, put on a separate layer, of left out as they will be added at layout time.

If there are specific fonts, titles or logos to use, make sure you provide them to the artist. (And make sure you have the rights and licenses required to use them.)

Make sure to provide templates and accurate size information for all pieces required. Don't forget you will need bleeds (borders that won't be printed) around the art for pieces that will be die cut.

File types

Always state the kind of files you're expecting : png, jpeg, CMYK Tiff, vector art in epsf, svg, wmf, with or without colour profiles, ... Many artists work on apple computers and might use different file formats than you do. It is much better to agree on a suitable format beforehand than convert later and maybe lose information during conversion.

Resolution

Your art will be printed professionally so make sure it is at a suitable resolution. 300dpi is a minimum for bitmap art. Always commission art at a higher resolution than the final resolution so that if you need to resize or to use that art for other purposes you still have a good result. For instance that small icon on the player aid might need to be printed at a bigger size in the rules book, or you might later on decide to make a T-shirt out of it.

Changes management

As stated above the whole process of producing art for a board game is iterative, going back and forth between the publisher or art director and the artist. During this process, changes will happen. New pieces might be required, development and design decisions may require a piece to be redone, new uses for the art might be required, and so on.

From a design and development point of view, such changes are a good thing and should not be shunned. From a project management and budget point of view, changes are a spawn of the devil with a mission to shoot your whole project down. But you have a weapon to fend these off : change management. You must be careful to identify changes as they show up, and for each change check with the artist how this will affect the schedule and the budget. Even if it seems very formal, write up a small change request summary, have the artist provide a quote and schedule impact, and approve (or refuse) the change request and integrate it to your overall budget and schedule. The corollary is that you must budget and schedule some overhead for changes when you plan your project so you can make the required changes without too much adverse effects on the project.

Be open to changes, but only allow the changes that are absolutely necessary or that provide a great added value to your project and keep in mind each change has budget and schedule consequences.

Rights negotiation

As stated above, you don't buy finished art pieces, you license reproduction rights to the artist for your game. You need to make sure that license covers your actual needs : will your game only be available in an English version in the US or will it be available worldwide ? Will the same art be used for all languages/regions ? Will the art also be used for electronic versions of the game ? Merchandising ? Promotion ? Other uses ?

Some artists will license their art for 'any uses, worldwide', others will be much more specific and require separate licenses for different media an regions. Anything that fits your needs and budgets and the artist's demands can be negotiated here.

Single payment and/or royalties ?

As a publisher it is better to have a single payment deal, where you pay on art delivery and then can use it as described in the licensing contract ever after. Some artists prefer this as they get a guaranteed payment on their work, at delivery time. If the game should fail and never be reprinted, they are paid anyway.

Other artists prefer to have a lower or no payment at delivery time, and to get royalties on the game sales afterwards. They take a bigger risk here as stated above, but if the game is a runaway hit they will get more royalties over time than if they required a single initial payment.

I've also seen mixed agreements, with a small initial payment, or an advance payment on x sold copies for royalties, and then regular royalties payments, as for the game designer. Again everything is negotiable as long as both parties agree to it and the overall deal is fair.

The art contract

The art contract will be quite similar to the game author contract : identity of both parties, description of what is licensed (with lots of cut and paste from the art brief), description of the license scope, how the payments are arranged, and then an annex with all the variable elements. Some artists have a standard contract they use for all licensing customers.

Some sections you want to consider in such a contract are :

  • ASSIGNMENT DESCRIPTION

  • DELIVERY SCHEDULE

  • FEE PAYMENT SCHEDULE

  • ITEMIZED EXPENSES (phone calls, travel, shipping, research, ...)

  • RIGHTS TRANSFERRED

  • TERMS

I don't have a full contract I can post here, as most of the time it's just an email back-and-forth agreeing to the terms defined in the art brief itself, which can somehow double up as the licensing agreement.