10 Tips for Art Directing Your Crowd Funded Board Game
Guest Writer: Dusty Watkins (Communications Director at Imp House Game Company)
So, you want to make a board game? You’ve got a great idea, the mechanics are working, and your game group is raving about it to anyone who will listen. You’ve contacted a few publishers, but they are just too swamped to add anything new to their schedules until approximately 2032. Unacceptable; the world can’t wait that long for your genius! So, you decide to throw your hat in the crowd funding ring.
Crowd funding websites, such as Kickstarter, have blossomed into amazing resources for indie game designers over the past few years. However, there are quite a few things that must happen before a game can be successfully crowd funded. Yes, of course the game’s mechanics and balance are very important, but the truth is, you won’t get a lot of interest in your game if you don’t have a well-developed theme (story) and eye-catching artwork that brings the theme to life. Art and theme work hand-in-hand with mechanics to create a fully realized final product.
What follows is a list of 10 tips for bringing your board game to life through the often overlooked process of selecting art and working with an artist. Throughout, I will be using specific examples from our most recent theme-and-art heavy card game, Savage Planet: The Fate of Fantos.
All images and examples provided by Travis Watkins, owner and creative director of Imp House Game Company.
“Art is arrangement and selection. It cannot be everything for everyone.
It cannot encompass the world, it rephrases it from a single POV.”
Guillermo del Toro
- Start Now; Gather References
Create a few private Pinterest boards and continuously add anything that catches your eye as you go about your daily internet routine. And, not just from other games! ANYTHING that may help
an artist translate your vision. These boards will really come in handy when it comes time to collaborate with your chosen artist(s). Organize these boards in whatever way speaks to you regarding your game’s theme and style. For instance: influences from well-known pieces of art, body poses you like, illustration styles, lighting and shading effects, portraits, objects, and whatever else may be important to your game.
In preparation for crowd funding our game Savage Planet: The Fate of Fantos, we developed 6 distinct races of “Fantosians,” and each race needed its own unique look and style. Travis organized his Pinterest boards around these races. Here is an example of his inspirational style guide for “The Cult”:
- Research Artists
As you continue to clarify your vision for the game and its components, begin a more intense search for illustrators who capture the style and mood that correspond to your game’s theme. If you
are on a tight budget, you will want to look for artists who are actively seeking to build their portfolios. Good places to find these artists include: DeviantArt.com, Behance.com, HireAnIllustrator.com, Instagram, local pop culture conventions, other crowd funding projects (not just games!), and the indie comics scene. Travis found Michael LaRiccia, the amazing illustrator for our Savage Planet card game, when someone posted about his “Grayskull Grindhouse” web comic on Instagram!
Remember: while searching for artists, be sure to keep in mind the graphic design and layout of the game, as well. Most illustrators are not graphic designers, so they will not be able to help with the layout of the game and its components. Some illustrators can do this, but they may charge an additional fee for the service. In our case, Travis has a strong background in graphic design, so he was able to handle all the layout for the game himself. If this is not you, or someone on your team, you will also need to find (and art direct) a graphic designer, who will need to work very closely with your illustrator.
- Know Your Game
Before making first contact with artists about your game, be sure you can, at the very least, provide them with an approximate idea of sizes, quantities, and types of art you will need. This information will affect the artists’ price estimates. This means you will definitely want to play test extensively before reaching out to artists!
Here are some questions Travis considered while planning art for Savage Planet: Will the game feature portraits or full body illustrations for the characters, or both? Will the game need any object-only illustrations? Will it need any landscapes or maps? How many of each type of illustration? What will be the size for each? How many unique pieces of art will it require? What will be on the box cover? Will he need files that can be printed at large scale, for such things as posters and convention banners?
This is definitely not a definitive list; this process, and the questions that arise from it, is very game-specific. To help organize your personal art planning, make a note of all components and what you want on each. Most artists charge different prices dependent on the size, detail, and media of the illustrations requested.
- Keep Your First Contact Simple
Select a few of your favorite artists that fit your criteria, and send a quick email introducing yourself. Make sure to compliment their work first, before jumping in with your questions! Ask if they are interested in illustrating for a board game, and end with a call-to-action or question. Here is an example of Travis’ very first outreach to Michael:
In many cases you will either not hear back at all, or the answer will be no. In the first instance, give it one more try a few days later if you would like, or try a different contact method (through a social media account, for instance), but don’t become a nuisance. In the second case, if the artist is not interested, don’t beg. Just move on to your next option. If you have to beg, chances are high that, even if the artist ends up agreeing to do it, he or she will not put their heart and soul into the work, and it will show in the final product.
- Pitch Your Game
Once you have received one or more positive responses, it’s time to send more detailed information about your game to the artist(s) who expressed interest in learning more. Usually this will include a brief overview of the mechanics and theme, including components and what type of art you would like for each, as well as an idea of the project timeline and approximate deadline(s).
Ask for a price estimate based on these factors. There is some room for negotiation after the first estimates come in, so don’t be afraid to respond with a counter offer (including terms and schedule of payments), but please, please (please) DO NOT: lowball them or ask for free work in exchange for “exposure.” You want professional work done, so act like a professional!
- Propose and Complete a Trial Period
Once you have decided on an artist, ask if he or she will be willing to work with you to visualize 3-4 different pieces of art for the game over a specified time period. Write up a brief contract, including a non-disclosure agreement, detailing how you will use the sample art, how much you will pay, the dates, etc. Ideally, the artist should show you his or her work in a series of stages, so that any adjustments can be made *before* an illustration is complete. For instance: sketch, followed by inks, followed by color. During the Savage Planet trial period, Travis worked with Michael on conceptualizing box cover art that could also be used as a poster to help pitch the game:
Use the trial period wisely. This is when you will test the waters and form a dialogue with the artist to figure out if the relationship is going to be a good one. Test out: work styles, communication and response times, interpretation of your vision, quality of work, if you are on the same wavelength regarding references, if the delivery happens on time, etc. If something is not working, this is the time to nip it in the bud and move on to someone else.
NOTE: If we had to pick just one tip for art direction, this would be the one. Ability to work well with one another is *key* to building an amazing final product!
- Sign a Contract
Before continuing on to the meat of the project, work with your selected artist to put all of your terms down in a written contract, which each party will sign and date. Art contracts can include, but are not limited to: a non-disclosure agreement; size quantity, type, and media of illustrations; when, and how, payment(s) will be made; if, and how many times, a completed piece of art can be edited without incurring additional charges; who owns the rights to the artwork after payment has taken place, and which specific rights to reproduction and sales they own; a deadline, and what happens if the listed work is not complete by that time; and whether or not there will be any royalties paid to the artist in the future.
You or your artist may want to add more terms, such as how prominently the artist’s name will be featured (etc.), however it is best to keep the contract as simple as possible, unless you have a very complex project, or have a lot of plans for selling the artwork in other media. Have a lawyer look over it, if possible, and make sure everyone is agreeable to the terms before signing. You can find some samples of art contracts by searching Google for “Artist Contract Templates.” There are some good examples HERE.
- Collaborate and Give Valuable Critique
Try to avoid over-directing your artist. Collaborate, don’t dictate. It may go against your personality (especially if you are TypeA and tend to micro-manage projects), but please give your artist the freedom to create; if you have chosen well, they will run with it, and they will thank you for it! You hired them for a reason. Explain your vision, share your inspirations (this is when your Pinterest boards come in handy), work together to problem-solve, constantly communicate, and you will be surprised with what can happen. Good artists come up with amazing ideas you never even dreamed of.
When working with Michael on the Savage Planet art, Travis occasionally came across a character for which he had no real vision. In these instances, Michael took inspiration from what he had done so far, and blew our socks off. The idea and execution of “The Diver” (a pickpocketing member of The Hollow race) was all his:
That being said, don’t be afraid to give valuable critique. You want to help your artist do his or her best possible work, as you will share in the success that comes from it. Good communication is key. In design fields, there are some commonly agreed-upon ways to give valuable critique without hurting ego. Search Google for “How to give good design critique” for ideas, and use whatever works best with your communication style to form your own list of do’s and don’t’s.
Here’s an example of a character completely invented by Travis, called “The Bishop,” which Mike brought to life by accepting very specific direction:
And another character, called “The Sheriff,” that Michael had begun sketching based on some of his own ideas, only to have Travis jump in with some valuable critique to make it better before it got too far along in the process:
- Specify Final Art Sizes, File Types, and Deadline
The graphic design, layout, and intended use of the art will determine the sizes and aspect ratios you will need for the final game. When considering this, keep in mind any text or other icons that will need to be placed on each component. Your graphic designer needs to work very closely with the illustrator throughout the process in order to accomplish this.
If possible, it is best to request all final art to be delivered in layered Photoshop documents (.psd) to allow further adjustments by you or your graphic designer when working on the game component layout. Resolution of each piece of art should be a minimum of 300 dpi, which is the minimum resolution for high-quality print media. Finally, it is best to share final art through a file transfer service, such as WeTransfer.com or Dropbox, com, because the files will be VERY LARGE.
- Pay Your Artist!
We cannot stress this enough. Treat others how you want to be treated. Please, don’t ever flake out on paying for work you have received. Not only is it simply the wrong thing to do, it will also come back to hurt you in more ways than you realize. Even if things aren’t working out with your artist, pay for what you have received and move on. Don’t burn bridges; nothing good will ever come from it.
That said, we realize many game designers can’t or don’t (or forget to) factor in an up-front budget for art and graphic design when designing a board game. Our only advice is this: if you are truly serious about crowd funding your game, find a way to get your hands on the cash and complete most (if not all) of your art and graphic design *before* launching your campaign. Ideas for getting this cash: personal loans, bank loans, investors, selling some of your stuff, taking on a side gig, or finding One-Eyed Willy’s gold…in other words, do whatever you need to do. If you don’t launch with professional-looking art and presentation for your project, it will almost certainly be unsuccessful, no matter how fun your game is. Show your potential backers (most of whom will be total strangers) that you believe in your game…because if you don’t, why should they?
Learn more about Imp House Game Company at ImpHouse.com
Learn more about artist Michael LaRiccia at MikeLarricia.com