Publishers: Pay your artists!

When you’re just starting out in game design, you probably don’t have a lot of money to spare on game-related stuff. You’re going to be taking money out of your own pocket to cover the cost of paper and printer ink and card sleeves and meeples and such, just to get your game prototypes to the stage where you can test them out.

I sympathize. Really, I do.

Later on, perhaps you’ll get to the point that you have a great, playtested game that you’re ready to put on Kickstarter so that you can afford a big print run (or a small print run, as in the case of Otters). If you’re going to run a successful Kickstarter campaign, it’s going to have to look good. You’ll need some illustrations to show what your final game is going to look like. You’ll also need some great graphic design.

You don't want art like this. And I hereby release this into the public domain. Go nuts, guys!
You don’t want art like this. And I hereby release this into the public domain. Go nuts, guys!

You want backers to see you as a professional. And that’s going to cost money.

Now, you might be thinking, “Isn’t the whole point of a Kickstarter campaign to raise money that I obviously don’t have? How can I pay for art and graphic design before running a Kickstarter campaign?”

And here’s where you have to face a hard truth:

You’ll need to invest some of your own personal money into your game before you’re ready to take it to Kickstarter.

Lesson 1: Don’t ask professionals for free art

You might be tempted to ask talented people to work for free. Please don’t.

Palette icon by James Fenton
Palette icon by James Fenton

Now, if it’s a close friend or family member who just wants to help you, that’s fine. But please don’t work your network to find someone you’re vaguely connected to who has artistic ability and then ask them to donate their time and energy for nothing.

Lesson 2: Don’t ask professionals to work now for post-Kickstarter payment

This is the one that inspired this post. A game designer was asking for referrals to professional artists who would work now and get paid if the designer’s Kickstarter campaign is successful.

That’s a big if. What happens if the campaign does not succeed? The artist gets nothing.

Public domain money bag icon
Public domain money bag icon

Now, if you have an artist who wants an equity stake in your project, that’s open to negotiation. Maybe they are interested in getting, say, 10% of the Kickstarter gross or an actual share in your game publication business or something. That way they share on the potential upside, too.

But if you have an artist who would charge, say, $500 for the work you want done, it’s not cool to ask them to do the work now and pay them if (and only if) your Kickstarter succeeds. You’re the one taking the business risk here – don’t ask the artist to take that risk for no upside.

Lesson 3: Don’t steal art

I hope that this one doesn’t need to be reiterated, but we live in the era of the internet, and it’s easy to use creative works that you don’t have the rights to. Do a Google image search, and you’ll find tons of awesome artwork that’s ready for downloading and dropping into your game.

Burglar icon by Joab Penalva
Burglar icon by Joab Penalva

If you’re putting together a first draft prototype that will only ever be seen by your close personal friends and family, then this is okay. But if you plan to show your prototype online, let alone print it for money, you can only use art that you own the rights to.

This means that you either pay to commission or license art from a professional, or you find art that you’re legitimately allowed to use without paying for it (such as public domain or Creative Commons commercial-use art). Don’t just use an awesome image because it’s there if it’s not yours to use.

Why should I care?

One of the criticisms I faced when I called out a designer who was trying to get artists to work for potential post-Kickstarter payment was that the question of work terms was between the project creator and the artist. If the creator could find artists willing to work for the hope of payment, that’s between the creator and the artist, right? Why was I butting in?

Well, I think that all of us in the (relatively small) game design community have a duty to make it a better place. I want a community where artists feel welcomed and respected, not one where they feel like they’re going to get screwed over at any moment. I want to foster a feeling of respect all around, and standing quietly while a fellow designer engages in business practices that I find unethical doesn’t build the community that I want to see.

Community icon by Wilson Joseph
Community icon by Wilson Joseph

We’re all in this together – designers, artists, gamers and everyone else. Let’s make the gaming community a better place.

Pay your artists.

Michael Iachini – Clay Crucible Games

@ClayCrucible on Twitter

P.S. You may have noticed that the illustrations accompanying this post are icons. These are from the excellent Noun Project, which has tons and tons of icons that are available either in the public domain or in a Creative Commons commercial-use license (hence the attributions in the captions). And if you want to use the CC-licensed icons without attribution, you can buy the rights for $1.99 per icon (or $1 per icon if you buy 10 at a time or 50 at a time or whatever). Great site – go check it out!

4 thoughts on “Publishers: Pay your artists!

  1. Your article makes a point that I tell prospective clients all the time. You need to invest into the graphic design and presentation of your project. Whether it’s a new skin cream product or new video game, the same principles apply. You need to spend money to make money. If you go cheap or get someone to work for nothing, it will show in your presentation and kill your products future.

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