Game Design Occupations Explained: Art Director

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Game Design Occupations Explained

Introduction

It has been a while since we’ve updated the Game Design Occupations Explained series, but we’re back with another informative article. This week we have a guest post from John Arcadian. John is a freelance Art Director who has worked on multiple books through various companies including Cubicle 7, Engine Publishing, Silvervine Games, and Encoded Designs. John is happy to share some of the ins and outs of art direction and shed a little light on why everyone wants to do it themselves once they get a taste for it.

 

Your manuscript is in your hands, your words are polished and edited, but if you want to get premium shelf space or sales on Drive Thru RPG, you know your book needs to look good. That’s what makes people pick it up and consider the purchase that lets you keep doing making books and gaming products. What makes the product look good  is layout, design, and art, binding all of the written content together with visual elements that create a readable, eye-catching publication. The element underlying all of the visual elements is art direction, deciding how the entire product will look and what the non-alphabetic elements convey to the reader. This article will provide a brief overview of what being an art director entails and how to fold art direction/art acquisition into your current process.

What to Expect

The art director is an octopus who will have their hands all over your project in a variety of different roles and responsibilities. They will constantly be looking for places to apply their expertise without getting in the way of the overall project, working towards the team’s vision of the product while also pushing on certain areas to make sure the final project is of sufficient quality.

Depending on the size and nature of your project, an art director may be responsible for overseeing the general vision and look of the entire product line, or bringing a unique style to a particular product. In some cases, the art director may pull double duty doing the actual layout or work as the graphic designer creating the actual art assets that fill the product. The foundational and most important work they do will be working with you to determine the look and style of the art and graphic design assets and acquiring the art that will fill the pages.

During the early phase of a project, an art director will be involved during the higher end meetings with the design and development teams, often taking notes and determining what visual message the product should convey. If the product is a setting book with particular themes or the genre of the book has style constraints, they will dive into similar products and media within the field for research and look for areas to make the art and design unique but complimentary. As a clearer vision of the product emerges, the art director will create mockups of various styles and options. Sometimes they will draw these out themselves, but many times they will grab images that already exist and make note of what elements in the image convey the style being developed. These mockups will later be used as a style guide to keep the artists on track.

Once a general style is decided upon, the art director will begin searching out art assets and building an art plan. Part of this will be taking your budget and determining how much art can be acquired and at what rates. Part of this will be figuring out deadlines and how many artists will be needed to complete the # of pieces required. Part of this will be determining the general placement in a book  – how much art per spread or section. By the end of this planning process, multiple spreadsheets will be filled with plans for the project, few of which will survive the process.

Once a general plan is in place, the art director will begin negotiations between the artists and the publisher. Many art directors have a network of artists whom they have worked with and are trusted by, and they may approach these known artists. If the plan calls for art that is not in the current stable of known artists, the art director will cold contact artists whose style matches their ideas to gauge their availability and rates, modifying the plan as needed if a well desired artist is willing but their rates are higher than the budget and plan accommodate for.

After talking with the artists and building a group that is capable of creating the artistic vision, the art director  begins parceling out art descriptions and reviewing sketches before final pieces are made. This process will continue for a few months to a year, depending on the amount of art required and size of the project. Once all the art is acquired, the art director hands it to the designer so it can be incorporated into the layout and move the project one step closer to completion.

Budgets, Budgets, Budgets

Acquiring art is often one of the most expensive parts of creating role-playing products. Artists toil and work to create those awesome pieces of art that adorn the pages of our gaming tomes, even the simplest ones taking multiple hours. The art director’s fiduciary duty is to keep the project under budget while also making sure the artists are compensated adequately. A good art director fights for both the artists AND the publisher, trying to make sure the artists are making a living wage while also ensuring the book looks good and doesn’t cost an exorbitant amount.

As an example, if an artist is paid $50 for a Black and White piece with 3 characters in it and no background,  each character costs roughly $16.65 to create. If the piece takes 3 hours, that is $16.65 per hour, before taxes. If there is greater complexity in each character and it takes 5 hours to complete the piece,  the artist is making a wage of $10 an hour, comparable to working at a fast food restaurant in most states.

In the case above, the art director may try to design the piece so that the artist has to take less time on it, or if the complexity is required in the piece, they will talk to the publisher about raising the price higher to compensate the artist if the budget allows. Written into most contracts are also a set number of revisions to a piece and a scope for revisions, so that if the piece does not fit the vision for some reason, the art director can ask for it to be fixed. Sketches are essential to quickly determine the general layout of the piece so that fewer revisions are needed and artist’s time is not used inadequately.

There are many ways to determine the price that is paid for art. Often times the budget is worked out beforehand and the art director will negotiate with the artists to meet the price per piece for the project – meaning that each piece in the project is paid at a set rate or within a set range. More likely though, the price for each piece of art will be determined by complexity of the individual piece, number of characters in it, color or b&w, backgrounds or not, how large it is on the page (larger pieces require more detail to stand out), and how detailed the artist’s style is. Some artists may get a higher rate than other artists, depending on the complexity and look of their pieces. Many times the artist has their own rate that they charge. This is possibly subject to respectful negotiation based on modifications to the art request and a guaranteed number of pieces, but in order to get the right artists for your project, the decision to pay a higher rate for better art may be what sets your project apart from others on the shelf. Negotiation about rates is always possible, and the key to good negotiations is mutual respect  and equal attempts to advantage all parties involved as much as viably possible.

The art director will of course need compensated as well, and that can be done multiple ways. Sometimes an art director will get a royalty on the project of a negotiated percentage paid out over a course of x negotiated years. Sometimes the art director may get a % of the art budget. In this scenario, if the art budget is $2,000, the artist gets 20% or $400, so your art budget is actually $2,400 or $1,600 if you can’t go any higher. Sometimes the art director will be paid hourly or a set amount, depending on your negotiations and the scope of the project. Most art directors at companies that make multiple large projects get paid hourly. While the actual job is incredibly fun and fulfilling, a good art director’s impact on your final project is incredible. It turns it from a good product that people will enjoy after they have read it into one that they will actually pick up and become invested in with their first gaze.

 

Working With The Art Director

As stated earlier, an art director will be engaged in work throughout the entire project. When working with the art director, you will have to convey the entire concept of your game, setting, or product so that they can figure out how to best represent it visually. It is important to have the art director involved early in the process so that they can pinpoint what images and design choices will make your product look stunning and unique.

Let’s take the idea of a standard fantasy heart-breaker with a unique element of magic powered robots that characters pilot. There are many ways this could be conveyed. What makes the robots unique? Why magic? What kinds of unique things exist in the setting? How much are you willing to modify the product to convey a unique visual style? The art director may suggest an organic feeling to the robots (the most unique element of the pitch so far) and see if there is room to modify the base concept, attempting to create something apart from giant suits of armor. The means of piloting the robot is also a visual element that might be interesting to convey. Do the pilots have glowing tattoos that allow them to interface with the mechamagical, bone-white armor? Does the armor and weaponry vary incredibly in style or does it all hew to a single archetype, depicting a particular origin that colors the creation of all giant robots? Is it necessary to convey the magical glowing stones on the robots that are power sources, pulling in energy from lay lines spreading throughout the world but also a weak point so non-pilot combatants can attack the armor? How does that information come out in the art? Does the art director plan a piece that shows a beefy, monstrous attacker jumping through the air and slashing the glowing stone with a giant axe, sparks and kirby dots flying everywhere? These are the kinds of questions an art director is going to ask to make your product unique and memorable from the get go.  At times this might feel like they are picking apart a prized possesion, but the purpose of picking at it is looking for ways to make the art stand out and ensure your vision comes to life on the page.

Once the process of acquiring art is underway, the art director will provide updates and check in with artists every week or so. They will convey progress and updates back to the team and make course corrections where necessary, talking with artists and the production team and keeping a big picture of how everything is coming together and how it is impacting the budget and deadlines. You should always consider any issues an art director brings up and see if there is a way to work through them to the benefit of all parties involved, but also be willing to pull your art director on course if the style they are working for is not meshing with the overall product vision. An art director’s main job is to craft that overall vision and ensure that the product conveys a certain mood and feel. Sometimes this means pushing on the boundaries to ensure that the product is the best possible, but sometimes the boundaries are there for a reason and an art director’s interesting idea just doesn’t mesh with what the product should convey.

Working With The Artists Through The Art Director

Being an art director can sometimes feel like being a bottleneck in a project. Many times the issues or questions that come to an art director from the artists need to be verified with the project manager or other team members. Determining the amount of autonomy the art director has with artists up front is a good step and ensures you can keep the art director’s authority in tact as well as your authority. Part of their role is to do the negotiations and handle the day to day questions from each artist and your art director should be your mouthpiece to the artists. If you have something you need to convey to the artist or are unsure if a sketch will look like you imagine it in the final piece, send the info through the art director, even if it takes a couple of extra minutes for them to copy and paste your thoughts into their own email.

Art directors build relationships with each artist and determine how to work each artist’s work flow into the overall project. One particular artist may work best by being left alone to turn in a ton of work all at once, while another artist might need that daily email checkup to see how the pieces are going and provide a sounding board for thoughts. The art director tries to get a read of each artist and will often outright ask how best they can incorporate themselves into the artist’s flow. It’s not a bad idea to ask the art director how the relationships with the artists are going and see if a friendly word from someone “higher up” in the project would encourage an artist that their work is being noticed.

Diversity And Inclusion In Art

One small note I’d like to include about doing art direction is the importance that art plays in getting people into our hobby, but only when we give enough thought to diversity and inclusion in the art. On many projects that I have done art direction for, I’ve been fortunate to have team members that allow me to include an incredible amount of diversity in the art. In the tabletop role-playing game field especially, we have tended to be fairly homogenous when it comes to our art, especially when conveying medieval based settings. Taking steps to include people of color, characters and players with disabilities, strong images of female gamers, and other areas where representation has been traditionally absent can help include more people in the gaming field overall. It can also help combat many of the trends of the past that kept groups of people from feeling comfortable with gaming. If you pick up a role-playing game book and see no one that looks like you in its pages, or depictions of people who look like you in predominately uncomfortable or stereotyped situations, you are less likely to want to engage in that activity, let alone purchase that product. Some art directors will push to have more diversity in the pages, even if there is no definable connection to the source material. If an art director doesn’t think of this when putting together their art plan, it is perfectly acceptable to ask them to include diversity in particular ways or ensure a certain percentage of representation for various groups of people. This may not feel entirely organic to creating the art, but it is a step that will help include more people in the hobby and set your product apart from others that are following older styles.

Final Thoughts

One thing I’ve noticed about working with artists is that everyone, generally, enjoys doing it once they’ve got a taste of it. It can be incredibly fun to talk to artists and see your idea become a drawing on the page, more alive than you could ever convey with language alone. This makes people generally want to do the art direction for a project themselves, but it is important to have someone skilled at it and capable of doing the detailed work alongside their other duties. A good art director spends a lot of time delving into the concept and matching it up to per-existing styles and looks while also trying to push genre boundaries and create something unique and new. Working with a good art director might also be frustrating at times. They may push on a  budget constraint to get a little bit more for each artist or make suggestions that modify the project’s vision to create a look that plays better on the page and is more unique. Just remember that the first, last, and only desire of a good art director is to create an incredible visual style that shows off your product in the best possible way.  A good art director will push your project in new directions and make sure that from the very first impression it is something that grabs attention, leading to a potential sale.

About the Author

John Arcadian is a freelance author, blogger, and art director in the tabletop gaming industry with many awards under his belt. John writes gaming advice at the multiple ENnie award winning site http://gnomestew.com as well as books and gaming content for companies like Engine Publishing, Encoded Designs, Cubicle 7, Silvervine Games, Savage Insider, Open Game Table, and many others. When not gaming or writing about gaming, John creates websites, many of which are in the gaming industry, makes videos, paints miniatures, builds custom sonic screwdrivers, hikes in the woods, and generally causes havoc in his kilt. You can find a complete list of publications and his personal blog at http://www.johnarcadian.com.

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About Jacob Wood

Jacob founded Accessible Games because he wants to spread the joy of gaming to everyone, including people with disabilities. He is visually impaired and knows what it's like to need to adapt, and he brings two decades of gaming experience to the table.
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