For nine months I’ve been laboring on an adventure game called “Girl with a Heart of”. This child of mine is almost ready to see the world. It has been an interesting journey into becoming a fully-fledged indie game developer. I’ve paid for the game out of my own pocket, although I have started a Kickstarter campaign to help me pay the PR cost and other release-related expenses. I’ve designed the game completely on my own, did all the programming, and wrote all the dialog. I’ve hired artists, dialog editors, a musician, and several other people. I’ve managed the whole team and made the game happen, and it feels pretty awesome.
I will be writing up several postmortem articles, where I’ll discuss various things I learned from making this game. I hope you can learn something from these posts as well. This particular post is about finding, hiring, and working with freelance artists. Without further ado…
Stage 1: Pre-art
This is the beginning stage when you make and use your own programmer art and placeholders. The goal is to create a fun gameplay experience. Once you have good gameplay (or earlier if your gameplay is going to be driven by art), and you are ready for art, there are several things to think about:
- What type of art do you want? Realistic, semi-realistic, anime, 8-bit, highly stylized, some kind of mix? If you are not sure, then head over to any website where artists show off their work and look until you find something you like.
- Decide if you want to have any concept art. If you can afford it, it will be worth it. You can do general concept art: to establish the overall feeling for the game (the atmosphere), or more specific concept art: characters, places, events, etc… I did not do concept art for my game, but that meant that I had to find artists who could do a good job of designing the places and characters.
- Think about your budget. How much can you spend on art? How will it be divided between different art asset types? You might not have a good answer for this yet, especially if you don’t know how much artists normally charge for the kind of work you want them to do. That’s fine, you can figure it out later. Understanding your budget will help you with picking the right artists, and force you to cut down on content, which is almost always a good thing.
- Decide where you’ll get your inspiration from. I ended up writing dialog to fit the portraits that were drawn for the characters. I couldn’t help but do that once I saw the characters’ actual faces. This is not a bad thing, but if you have a very good idea of what a character is supposed to be, then make sure the art will conform to that, rather than you conforming to the art.
- Prepare to spend some time finding the right artist. Depending on your needs this can take anywhere from two weeks to two months. Be ready, and make sure you have something to do during that time.
Once you thought about all these issues and have clear answers, you can move on to the next stage.
Stage 2: Making a post
Once you know what kind of style you want; once you have bookmarked a lot of images that have that style; and, once you know what art assets you’ll want made, then you are ready to hire an artist.
- Find a website where you can find the kind of artists you are looking for. I needed a 2D background artist, and a character artist and animator. DeviantArt is probably the best place for that.
- Go to the website and make a post.* Make sure to post it in the right place. Some are for people who are offering payment, and others are for people who are just looking for a collaborator. In your post, outline everything you want the artist to do. Don’t assume things. Here are some things in particular that you should mention:
- What will the artist be doing for you? (Example: 12 or more backgrounds, each consisting of 2-5 images, each image is 1024×1024.) What kind of content will they draw? What style? What quality? Quantify everything you can: pixels, frames per second, vertices/polygons, etc…
- How much work will you expect them to do? When is the due date; when does all the art have to be done?
- How much will you pay the artist? How will the payment work? (More on this later.)
- Will the artist’s portfolio be enough for you to hire them, or will they have to try out? (More on this later.)
- How much freedom in creativity will they have? How many constraints will you put on the art they create?
- How many revisions will each art asset have? (“Several” is not a good answer.) This is an important point, both for you and the artist. Many artists will accept a lower payment per asset as long as there is a cap on the number of revisions they have to do. This will also force you to think about the asset before you order/change it, and will minimize the amount of wasted work for both parties. Many professional artists will expect some kind of cap.
- Who will have the copyright? If you, then can the artist use the art in their portfolio?
- What other expectations will you have from them? Should they be able to answer your email within a day? Should they be as excited about your game as you are? Should they have a resume or professional experience? Will they be working from existing concept art, your concept art, or just verbal descriptions? (By the way, there are no right answers here. It’s something you have to decide based on yourself and your game. Just be upfront about it.)
* You can also contact some of the artists directly, especially if they have exactly the kind of art style/experience you want. They’ll often be unavailable, but if this works, it could be really good.
One issue you might have in this step, is that you have no idea how much you should pay an artist. I certainly didn’t when I started looking. In this case, you can just say so in the post, “I am not sure what a good payment for this work is. Let me know what you expect to be paid for this.” I would recommend doing this even if you do know. You might find good artists that are willing to work for less than you predicted. Or you might find that to get the kind of quality you want, you have to pay more than you expected, in which case you’ll have to re-budget.
Another issue is: should you pay an artist per hour, per asset, or as a lump payment? Personally, I feel very nervous paying a freelancer by the hour, because I don’t know how efficient they are. Paying by an asset is very easy and convenient, and I see no reason not to do that. If you know exactly how much art you need, and you have experience, and you are working with a professional artist, then you can consider a lump payment.
Yet another issue is: when should you pay them? Upfront, after they finish, or somewhere in the middle? I reject the idea of paying upfront, even if the payment is per asset, because it’s too easy for the artist to take the money and leave, though I doubt that would happen if they got through your selection process (see below). For that same reason, I reject the idea of payment after they finish, because then its to easy for people to take advantage of artists by taking their work and not paying for it. There are many middle ways that I like, but this is the one I used: paying half after the sketch (or first draft) is done, and then paying the rest after the completion of the art asset. In this case you have the advantage, but it’s not huge. If you are working with a professional artist, then I would give them the advantage, and pay half of the payment upfront, and half after the art is completed. Once you’ve been working with an artist for several months, both of you will probably become more relaxed when it comes to the payment, so you won’t have to pay for each asset separately, and can instead pay for all assets done this week or something similar. However, if things become messy, just revert to your normal payment, which you would have specified in the contract (see below).
Once you made a post or two, sent several messages, and in general reached out to the artists, you can move on to the next stage.
Stage 3: Selecting an artist
I hope you’ve received many replies. If you haven’t, think:
- Are you not offering enough payment for this job? This is probably true if you got a lot of replies from amateur artists.
- Perhaps some expectations you’ve listed are too demanding.
- It’s possible there are only a few people who can do what you want. Either the art style is too specific, or – if, let’s say, you are looking for an animator – there aren’t a lot of animators looking at the forums where you posted.
So, if you want more replies, fix these issues, make another post, perhaps in a different forum/website, and see what happens.
Now that you do have a lot of replies, how do you pick the best artist?
- First, look at their portfolio. It should either demonstrate that they can do the kind of art you want them to do, or, at least, show that they are capable enough to do it. If after looking at their art, you don’t feel like they make a good candidate, simply tell them “no, thank you”, and let them know why you rejected them. This is a small courtesy that will allow them to grow in the right direction, if they want to do the kind of work you are offering.
- You can look at their resume and/or previous experience if they have it, though, I personally didn’t care one bit. If they can do the kind of art I want, then they are good enough for me.
- If you haven’t set the price, look at how much they are asking. This will help you get a good perspective on what’s normal for the kind of work you are offering. Realize that the variance in price can be pretty high, since its based on many factors: artist’s experience, location, and interest in the project.
- Email them back with any questions you have. If you have none, just ask them if they’ve read your post carefully and understand all of it. Do they have any questions? You’ll be surprised how many people (>40%) will never get back to you on this. This is an easy way to not waste your time on people who are not really interested or can’t commit to your project.
- I believe in “the one” feeling when it comes to finding the right artist. This is especially important if your art is specific or unique. You want to find an artist who make you go, “Wow, that’s what I was looking for and more!” It’s like falling in love.
This is a point of tension for some people, but it’s important: You can ask each artist to create a sample for you. Even if you can’t pay for it, you can still ask. Lots of artist will do it, but many in the art community frown upon this as free labor. Personally, I feel that if you are offering a sizable contract (>$5k), then you are entitled to a free sample, just like companies who hire individuals are entitled to give you a test. Here is the guideline to the whole process:
- Can you afford to ask each artist to create a sample and pay them for it? If yes, then do it: you’ll get much better artists applying, since they can see you are being very professional upfront.
- If no, then ask them to do it for free. (There is a third middle option, see below.) Ideally, you’ve mentioned this in your post. Don’t present this as a surprise. To minimize the amount of free work they’ll have to do, split the task into several steps for them.
- Send them the description/concept art to do. This should be the most complicated/difficult one. One that will let the good artists shine through. However, it should also by typical for your game. (Don’t ask an artist to draw a town, if most images they’ll actually draw are of a cave.)
- Ask the artist to draw a sketch based on the given description/concept art. It should include enough interesting detail so you can see what they have in mind. (A cube as a substitute for a house won’t do.)
- Once you have the sketch, if it’s not good enough, politely reject them (and tell them why). (The third method of paying for samples is to pay them right here, but only if the sketch is good enough.) If it’s good, ask them to paint some (or if you are paying them for the sample, then all) parts of the picture to show you what it will look like when it done. What I did is just draw several rectangles for them to paint inside. They should paint it as it would look in the final revision.
- If the final result is good enough, then this artist becomes a candidate. Make sure to let them know ahead of time, that just because they make it through the test, doesn’t mean they are automatically hired. You’ll still have to pick the best out of all the candidates you have. I think you’ll often find that there is that one artist that just sends shivers down your spine when you see how perfectly they’ve implemented your vision.
- This whole process gives a chance for good artists to show that they are talented, dedicated, and interested. Often, they’ll go above and beyond what you’ve expected. This process also gives you a chance to look at the artist’s communication style, their understanding of what you are trying to accomplish, their reaction to suggestions and criticism, etc…
When you found an artist that you feel is a very good match for the job, you can move on to the next stage.
Stage 4: Contract
Now you will send the official invitation to the artist. This should involve a contract. Not because it has any legal binding force in this case – especially since many artists are not even located in your country – but because this will let both parties set their respective boundaries and expectations. The artist gets a chance to review everything they are signing up for, to make sure they agree to all of it.
Here are the points you should definitely address in your contract:
- Pretty much everything you’ve included in your original forum post (or message).
- A clear schedule. At the very least mention how many assets per week you expect to receive.
- How will you handle a scenario where one party wants to make a change to the contract?
- How will you handle a scenario where one party wants to quit? (Realize that something might come up in your own life, where you no longer want to work on your game.)
- Consider other scenarios. What happens if you want to go over the maximum number of revisions for an art asset? What happens if the art quality starts to decline? What happens if the artist is lagging behind schedule? What happens if you want to them to do more/less work? Different work?
- Under what conditions can a party terminate the contract?
Make sure the artist reads and understands the contract. When they agree, you can move on to the next stage.
Stage 5: Working with the artist
Now you are ready to start churning out the art. If you found a good artist, this is pretty straight forward. You send them the requirements, they give you a sketch (the first draft), and then you iterate on it. Things to keep in mind:
- Number of revisions left for each art asset.
- Have a document to keep track of assets that need to be done, assets that are being worked on (I count an asset as being worked on as soon as I tell the artist I need it), assets that are done, and assets that are done and partially/fully paid for.
- When an artist sends you the first draft, plug it into your game immediately. Don’t look at it on its own. This will might reveal many things that need to be corrected, that you would have otherwise missed. (I’ve made the mistake of not doing this, and then once one of the backgrounds was done, I’ve realized it was completely not to scale.) Mistakes like this can be very costly to fix. If a mistake does occur, it’s your fault, and not the artist’s.
- When checking if an art asset is right, make sure to look over all the specifications you gave. You might not even remember all of them, so go check that email you wrote. Make sure all your comments/corrections have been implemented. Make sure the asset fits into the game well.
- Have the easiest possible pipeline from the artist to the game. Ideally, you have a repository that everyone uses. Basically, count all the steps you have to take to see a new art asset in the actual game, and see if you can simplify this process. (For example, I had to manually change the Texture Importer settings in Unity3D for every single texture I wanted to add to the project. This quickly became a very huge time sink, so I found a script that does this automatically, modified it to my liking, and saved myself hours of work.)
- Check your budget to make sure you are still on track. I’ve been checking my budget each month (and more frequently in the beginning) to make sure I am not going to spend more than I have.
Keep the communication going strong. If anything is wrong, acknowledge it and fix it. Minimize wasted effort. Once all the art assets are finished, you can move on to the next stage.
Stage 6: The end
The contract has been fulfilled, but it doesn’t mean that the relationship has to be over. Keep the artist (and the rest of the development team) informed about the game, if they are interested. And either way, keep in touch. You never know if you might work with them again, or they might help you find another artist for your next project.
This one is optional: send them an email of things that went well, and things that didn’t. Things that you did right/wrong, and things that they did right/wrong, or things that you just wish were different. Be honest, but polite. I think everyone appreciates a good feedback, even if they might not like it. This will allow good artists to develop and become better. And, of course, encourage them to send a similar feedback letter to you. It’s not like you did everything perfect either.
I hope this helps you in your future indie career. Leave a comment below to share your experience with hiring freelance artists, working as a freelance artist, link other similar posts, or pose a question. I want to hear from you!