10 Elements of Good Game Design

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When I was a neophyte game developer, I found an excellent article by Wizards of the Coast, creators of Magic: the Gathering, called Ten Things Every Game Needs. It was written almost five years ago, but the wisdom within the article is still very relevant. This two-part article was so influential in my initial design of War Co. that I actually quoted it in my business plan. No matter what type of game you’re making, these 10 elements are critical to making a good game.

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I have taken and slightly modified the ten success factors listed in their article and made them into one easy-to-read list. I’ve added my own commentary so I can give concrete, personal examples of why this framework worked for me when developing War Co. and then eventually Tasty Humans.

1. A clear objective

If there is one thing every game needs, it’s a clear objective. Survive to the end. Cure the disease. Get the most victory points. The objective of any good game must be clear, concise, intuitive, and memorable. It should also be at the top of the rulebook in paragraph number one.

In War Co., the objective is “run your opponent out of cards.” Last person standing, basically. In Tasty Humans, the objective is “win the most points” because it is a victory point-driven game.

2. Constraints

Without constraints, the pursuit of an objective is not a game, but rather freeform play. Objectives and constraints together comprise the core framework of a game.

In War Co., the primary limits are the number of cards you can play and energy use. Energy use keeps you from playing all the strongest, best cards at one time. In Tasty Humans, points are earned by monsters for eating people and arranging their body part tiles in certain ways in the monster’s stomach. There are limits to exactly how you can place tiles, and you don’t always get what you want.

3. Interactivity

There’s a few forms of interactivity that you can find in a great game.

  • Constraints, expressed both through directly through rules and indirectly through strategy and tactics, must interact with the objective.
  • Game elements must interact with one another in ways that are both unique and understandable throughout the course of the game. The pieces in a game of chess have seemingly infinite ways to maneuver. The cards in Netrunner can be combined in complex ways.
  • In all games that are not solitaire games, there is some element of social interaction, even if it’s not a “party game.”

In War Co., interactions come from every one of the cards being unique and having a different effect. Socially, most of the interaction is friendly sparring in response to the “take that” nature of the game. Well, at least I think it’s friendly sparring. Tasty Humans, on the other hand, is much closer to being a solitaire game, but there is still a common pool of cards that all players interact with and change.

4. Runaway leader killer

Games, being intrinsically competitive, need to keep tension to the last move. While you want skilled players to have an advantage, players who are losing early on need a way to catch up. If you don’t have this, you may wind up players disengaging halfway through when they realize they have no chance. A modest amount of luck and chance, even in games of skill, can go a long way to achieving this.

In War Co., the number of cards you have left is effectively your life. Even if you fall behind, there’s a lot of ways to slow your discard rate, redraw old cards, and drag your opponent down with you.

Tasty Humans tallies up points at the end, so this issue is largely sidestepped.

5. Inertia

Games need to keep a steady pace of interesting events to keep players engaged. Interactions need to feel meaningful and important. You don’t want players to ever feel like they’re “grinding” and you want to leave players wanting more when the game is done.

In War Co., there was no magic trick to nailing down the pacing. I just play tested it hundreds of times until it “felt” right and the game didn’t lag. In the worst case scenario, I have the rarely used “stalemate rule” which threatens players with heavy discarding if they don’t make a move. The mere threat is usually enough to keep the game going.

On the other hand, playing Tasty Humans has short turns, which helps the game stay snappy even though it’s a brain-burny puzzle game.

6. Surprise

Predictability is the bane of games. Use chance and unique interactions to prevent games from having one path to victory. You don’t want your game to feel predictable. If you can use an algorithm to solve your game like a Rubik’s cube, you need more surprise.

my-trap-card

In War Co., one place I’ve encouraged surprise is the facedown card mechanic. Players can play cards facedown and turn them face-up at any time – including their opponents’ turns – making their effects take place right at that moment. This creates a game of espionage and counterespionage, with a lot of bluffing thrown in, too.

In Tasty Humans, you never know exactly which adventurer your opponents will eat. Their choice of adventurer will affect the adventurers available to you, sometimes in profound ways. You can plan your whole turn ahead of time, but that doesn’t mean you will get what you expect!

7. Strategy

To make your game worth playing for the first, second, and third times, you need to nail down interactivity, inertia, and surprise. However, if you want your game to be built to last, people need the sense that they can get better at it, refining their play style over time. Games need to encourage people to master them over time.

Strategy is where War Co. excels, sometimes even to the detriment of the first and second games. Each starter deck takes a few plays to completely understand since there’s so many secrets and combinations. As soon as you get used to that, then you’ll be compelled to create your own deck – a whole new kind of strategic challenge.

Tasty Humans is similarly strategic. Throughout the entire game, you must place tiles in your monster’s stomach in such a way that you will earn the most points from scoring tiles.

8. Fun

This seems obvious, but never lose sight of it. If you hate the game you’re playtesting, do something different.

War Co. was garbage in its first ten iterations. It stalled out for the next four. It was only around version 15 that it started being really, really fun. Tasty Humans is about monsters fighting humans instead of the other way around, which gets a sick laugh out of everybody who sees the game.

9. Flavor

If you want your game to be great, it can’t simply be a technical masterpiece. Don’t just playtest it and refine the mechanics. Make it feel unique.

This is the art for Spectrum in War Co., drawn by James Masino.
This is the art for Spectrum in War Co., drawn by James Masino.

The best example of flavor of War Co. can be found in the artwork drawn by James Masino. Instead of being a generic sci-fi apocalypse defined in gritty, gray tones, he turned up the color and turned what could have been a by-the-numbers apocalypse into an operatic, psychedelic technicolor horror show.

On the other hand, with Tasty Humans, we kept the game by being dark by using really bright and pretty pastel colors.

10. A hook.

Lastly, once you make it technically clever and unique, there’s one last thing you need: a simple takeaway. Clever marketing messages are succinct: the soundbite, the earworm, or the logo. If you want your game to sell, it needs to be “the one where you X”. This is how you get people in the door to see all the rest of the work you’ve done. You can’t get people to appreciate nuances unless you get them in the door.

According to the Kickstarter feedback I’ve gotten, the biggest draw for War Co. is the art. Everything else after they see bright, beautiful apocalyptic spaceships is a pleasant surprise. For Tasty Humans, it’s all about the monsters!

BONUS: A narrative.

This eleventh element is something I came up with completely on my own. Nothing connects with people quite like a story. If you can give your game a story, you build a whole world of context that draws patterns in the mechanics and the theme. I’m very glad I wrote a novel’s worth of lore for War Co. It made game development, artwork, and promotion all a lot easier.


I encourage you to read the original article I’ve paraphrased and responded to above. By using my own work as an example, I hope you can read their original write-up with a concrete context and use their lessons to make an incredible game of your own.





How Board Game Fulfillment Works at Fulfillrite

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Fulfillment is one of the most intricate and complex parts of the board game business. In fact, I’ve written about a few times: a crash course on the concepts, how to prepare for the costs, and a personal story of how hard it was to fulfill War Co. on my own.

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Then I got Twitter DM from Charlie at Fulfillrite saying they’d like to do a guest post on this blog. I’d already been researching Fulfillrite and was probably going to use their services in the future. I said yes, provided they make a really good educational post. They delivered! In fact, I learned a lot just by reading this before posting it.

In the interest of full disclosure, let’s cover something real quick: they offered me a small discount on future campaign fulfillment. Just telling you that ahead of time so you don’t think I’m hiding secret subliminal marketer messages.

I sent some questions to Charlie Brieger, which are in bold below. What follows are his responses to my questions, edited only for grammar and spelling.


Tell me a little about yourself and about Fulfillrite.

Fulfillrite has a lot in common with its clients, which is why it serves them so exceptionally well.

E-commerce is an industry populated by entrepreneurs. Individuals who value their independence.  Individuals willing to take the risks, experience the frustrations, the highs and lows. They’re committed to never quitting. They’re going to see it through to the end until they achieve success.

My brother Joe and I share that entrepreneurial spirit.  We always wanted to work for ourselves. I guess it’s in our family DNA to have that entrepreneurial character. Having previous experience with shipping and warehousing, we were disappointed in the level of service we saw in the fulfillment industry. There were many facets of the service we felt could be improved upon. So we established our company, Fulfillrite.

We empathize with the vision and goals of our clients.  Our Mission Statement is to help our clients achieve their dream of building a successful e-commerce company.  To us, it meant taking apart every part of the business. Breaking it down into its components to see where we can make improvements. We’re always challenging ourselves how we can further help our clients. By being so demanding of ourselves, we have innovated services and developed software that has become the benchmark of the industry. We’ve helped reduce our client’s costs in many ways. We’ve enabled them to enjoy a smooth error-free operation.

All I can say is that the hundreds of testimonials on the web tell our story best. They attest to the fact that we are succeeding in living up to our Mission Statement to help our clients achieve success.  To us, it’s the true way of measuring our success.

Generally speaking, what happens between inventory arriving at the warehouse and the customer receiving their goods? What processes are involved in shipping to customers?

You know e-commerce is a business that lives or dies by its customer service. Customer satisfaction is everything. In a way, even though you never see your customer, and most likely never speak to him, the fact is he is looking at you squarely in the eye. That’s because, from his perspective, he’s dealing directly with the company owner. There is no retail middleman.  So all of his gripes and complaints fall squarely in the owner’s  lap.

It’s no secret that a primary cause for customer dissatisfaction is late delivery.  The customer expects it to be there when promised. It may sound simple, but the fact is there are steps that occur between the arrival of the products at the fulfillment warehouse and arrival at the customer’s door.  A mishap at any step will often lead to delays in shipping.

I can’t speak for other fulfillment companies. I don’t spend time investigating them. My knowledge comes from when our clients write or call to share their appreciation, and in doing so compare our shipping to other companies in a very exemplary fashion.

The fact is that from the moment we opened our doors we made it a priority that there should be no delay from the time the product arrives at our door until it is shipped to the customer.

Speed and error-free are often contradictory terms. Yet, with fulfillment, they are two equal necessities. To achieve both Fulfillrite has a proprietary computerized pick and pack system. To enable the system to operate properly, a scannable SKU or Barcode is required for logging the product into our system, shelving, packing, labeling, and shipping. With our pick and pack system, orders are ready for shipping almost immediately after arriving at our door. If we receive the shipment before 2 pm, orders can go out the very same day, which is unheard of in the industry.

A simple UPC Barcode goes a long way.

We provide the client with very clear guidelines for inbound receiving. As long as the client follows those guidelines correctly we can have an order ready in and out the door within 2 hours. And, we actually incentivize our clients to follow the guidelines; by doing them so we do not charge any receiving fees, as other fulfillment services do.

A concern for every E-commerce owner is shipping to the wrong address. Often, the first time the owner finds out about the problem is when he hears from an irate customer about not receiving his order. By then the opportunity for a positive image and relationship is almost certainly ruined. At Fulfillrite we prevent delivery to the wrong address by verifying every single address before shipping to assure that its deliverable.

Orders can come in at any time, and customers expect the product to arrive on schedule as promised. So we push the envelope on on-time delivery and have Fulfillrite operational 6 days a week.

The point is we’re constantly looking for ways to enhance our service and live up to our promise to help our clients live up to their promise to build a successful company. There are so many small details that make a difference between success and failure. We’re constantly monitoring our service seeking ways to improve. We’re not afraid to invest money in developing proprietary software, in training our shipping specialists. We work hard on behalf of our clients to negotiate rates from national and local carriers.

Let me be frank. People think all fulfillment requires is to open a warehouse, stock up on packaging materials, connect with a few carriers and you are in business. It doesn’t work that way. To provide clients with maximum advantages and benefits requires a true commitment. The investment in terms of time, effort, hard work, and funds is considerable. There’s no shortcut to becoming the best.

Let me add that another strong reason for our on-time shipping is the professionalism of our shipping specialists.  It’s not simply a matter of scotch taping a package and slapping on a label and postage. Our specialists go through a rigorous training process until they are thoroughly familiar with our phase of our fulfillment system. Our proprietary software is the heart of the system, but our staff is the key to making sure every single package is shipped out on schedule. Our specialists are rewarded well with salary and bonuses. They take pride in being the best in the business.

Why is fulfillment through a third party a good idea?

Every businessman is looking to save money, to cut overhead, and save on expenses. E-commerce business owners naturally look at fulfillment as a place to contain costs. The question they ask themselves is why pay an outside service when they can do it themselves?

This is a legitimate question that deserves an answer. Our answer is that there is no one answer for everyone. Each e-commerce owner needs to take a close look at cost of an outside service and his alternative to handle it himself.

All I can do is give your readers the big picture of what is required for fulfillment.

Take product storage as an example. You need to warehouse inventory. One option is to rent space. Right away you have an overhead expense. The other option is to store the inventory on the premises. Very likely this will interfere with other aspects of the business. Let’s face it, having boxes piled here, there and everywhere is not conducive to a smooth running operation.

The next issue is: who is handling the fulfillment? Does the owner have time to spare from all his responsibilities to pack and ship? Probably not. So an employee has to be delegated, quite possibly more than one. That’s another expense. How much training will the employee receive? Warehouse employees are typically at the low end of the wages scale. Odds are they won’t be too professional and motivated.  Poor handling of orders can have major repercussions on customer satisfaction. It could even lead to bad online reviews which can be very damaging to a business.

Expenses aren’t the sole criteria. They may not even be the most important criteria. Fulfillment, like any business, requires professional expertise. Negotiating for lower rates with major carriers is no simple matter. It requires an understanding of how carriers evaluate the value of a client. Obviously, a fulfillment service that generates a large volume of business is in an equipped to negotiate lower rates. But there’s more to it than that.  Carriers are competitive, fighting each other for business. That too has an effect on rates. Knowing the business from the inside, knowing the high and low range of a carriers pricing structure, allows us to negotiate even lower rates.

And, then there is the power of long-established relationships which transcend the purely business end of the business. Carrier representatives deal more favorably with people they know well and trust on both a professional and personal level. Over the course of many years, Fulfillrite has established very favorable relationships with the major carriers, and Indeed Fulfillrite’s rates are among the very lowest in the industry.

In addition, we provide free padded mailers, which adds up to handsome savings over time depending on volume.

In which cases is fulfillment through a third party not appropriate?

I’d say there are a limited number of situations that preclude working through a fulfillment company. Obviously, I can’t speak for other companies. All I can mention are a few factors that relate to our company. What makes our company so successful, and our clients so satisfied is the insight we bring to the business. We don’t make casual, quick decisions. Everything is carefully thought out as to how we can be more efficient, more cost-effective.

Based on our thinking and experience, Fulfillrite has specific parameters that decide a new client’s acceptability.  By the way, that is for their benefit, as well. Companies that don’t meet our parameters won’t benefit from our service. As an example, clients that have fewer than 50 orders a month. Or, clients that have expensive products which require special handling and packaging.  Companies that have high SKU counts are difficult to integrate into our system. Same for clients who require custom packaging.

Our focus is on small, lightweight products, typically under 5 pounds, with a minimum volume of 50 orders a month. Our system is designed around this. Everything we do, all the proprietary software we develop, all the unique benefits we provide are built around this clear and very defined understanding of what our core business is. That’s why we’re so effective. Also, high SKU counts, as well as clients that require custom packaging will not meet the parameters.  In such situations, in-house fulfillment may serve the client’s need best.

How do you successfully choose a fulfillment service for crowdfunding projects?

For crowdfunding companies, fulfillment is the tail end of their planning.  For obvious reasons they are focusing on the product idea, having it manufactured, creating the website. Usually, it’s when all the other aspects are in place do they think about how they are going to get it to the customer.

The best advice we can give crowdfunding companies is do your research. Don’t leap into the business simply because you have an idea for a product. The first question should be is there another product similar to it? The other product doesn’t have to be exactly the same. If there is a product that essentially provides the same benefit in a similar manner, you’re developing a commodity. A commodity is a product or service that is non-distinguishable from other similar products. This means there are other options for the customer to choose from. Usually, when that happens the typical response is to lower prices to be more competitive. So you end up in a price war. It’s a no-brainer that no one ever wins a price war.

Three good places to begin researching whether there is a competitive product are  Google, Amazon and Ali Baba.  A patent search could prove helpful. A patent attorney can easily charge thousands of dollars. But patent search may prevent serious problems arising in the future that could have serious consequences.  Consider this real-life occurrence.

That famous yellow smiley face that you see all over was created at the behest of a large insurance corporation to elevate the spirit of the employees that had suffered through a merger. A graphics designer was hired to come up with a visual concept that would have people smile and feel good. The smiley face was his graphics solution. It caught on and became very popular. Two gentlemen, realizing the concept had never been trademarked, made some slight modifications and trademarked the image.  As we’ve  seen, the image appears on everything from coffee mugs to t-shirts to posters and school supplies, bedding, stationary you name it. Over the years the two men have earned millions in royalties. The graphic designer who created the concept and image was paid by the insurance company sixty dollars. He never earned a penny more.

Assuming the product concept is fresh and original, the next step is to have a prototype made by a tooling company.  The cost of a mold depends on complexity, size, and the raw materials required. There are many factors guiding where the initial prototype should be created, local in the US or overseas. Once the prototype is created, the individual has to find a factory, here or overseas.

He has to decide “is a well-designed package required?” It depends on the product and the retail cost. It should be kept in mind that product packaging is a key branding instrument for e-commerce, since the product typically isn’t seen in stores, or in offline advertising, such as magazines.  Packaging could play an important role in the branding positioning and imagery created through the website.

With product manufacturing in hand, the next vital step is to select a fulfillment service. Here too the owner should undertake careful, deep research. Fulfillment plays a critical role in operations. More importantly, fulfillment can be a deciding factor in retaining or losing customers and in profitability.  Fulfillment fees and shipping costs do affect the bottom line. On the simplest level, the right fulfillment service will mean a smooth frustration- free integration with his platforms. Knowing that he can rely on his fulfillment partner to provide on-time, error-free shipping allows him to fully focus his energy on building his business without the nightmarish worry of delayed, or lost shipments, and unsatisfied customers.

Here are key factors that should be researched:

  • Fulfillment costs
  • Shipping costs: how competitive are the shipping rates negotiated with major carriers, such as FedEx, UPS, USPS, and others. Do they offer truly discounted shipping rates?
  • Beyond shipping costs, does the service provide very useful information about the arrival time, even the arrival time of day, so the e-commerce owner can make a more comprehensive, in-depth decision.
  • Does the service system integrate with the e-commerce platforms he is using? How well? Does it integrate with more than one system?
  • How computerized, and hence simplified, is the order processing? Is there integrated computerized inventory data so the owner knows exactly where the order is in the shipping process?
  • How are returns handled? Do they go back into inventory, and if so how quickly? And, how quickly is the owner notified so he can make internal inventory adjustments, including placing or not placing future orders from this manufacturer?
  • How quickly is shipping expedited? Customer satisfaction hinges on as promised arrival.
  • How professional is the customer service? Does the customer communicate with a personal rep who knows his business inside out, someone he knows he can rely on in all circumstances? Or, is he handed off to the first person who answers the phone, and who is not familiar with, let alone up to date with his business needs and circumstances.

Google should be used to see if there are any reviews regarding the fulfillment service from e-commerce industry sources, as well as current and previous clients.

What sort of fees can be expected?

A fulfillment service’s fees are generally broken down into these 4 main categories:

  • Inventory Receiving Fees – free for all Fulfillrite accounts when inbound guidelines are followed.
  • Inventory Storage Fees – first month is free for all crowdfunding campaigns, thereafter the pallet storage cost will vary by the amount of pallets spaces used.
  • Fulfillment Fees or “Pick and Pack” – we offer tiered pricing on our calculator online and offer discounts based on the monthly order volume.
  • Shipping Costs – based on the product weight, dimensions, and the destination – we always offer our discounted, highly competitive, negotiated shipping discount rates.

Then you can also account for the possibility for one-time costs, for example, Special Projects, barcode labeling, shipping boxes if needed, container loading, and other such services, will incur one time fees.

How do custom taxes and VAT work?

The customer receiving the product is responsible to pay for any duties or taxes due upon receipt in the destination country. We are currently looking into the possibility to offer an option that is duties and taxes fully paid before leaving the country

Can you integrate with shopping websites?

Once a client is approved, he is given login access for account set up on the wizard screen where he fills in the details about his account. Once this is completed he can connect to our software via API or supported apps, and be seamlessly connected with his shopping platforms. He can be connected to multiple shopping carts.

We integrate seamlessly with Shopify, WooCommerce, Skubana, Backerkit, eBay, ShipStation, Etsy, Amazon, Magento, and others.

What makes your customer service so exceptional?

As I mentioned at the very beginning, customer satisfaction is the backbone of Fulfillrite, it guides all we do.  We pride ourselves on treating each and every customer with the respect and dignity they deserve. Every customer has a personal rep who knows their business who responds to their scheduled calls. The rep knows the details and particulars of their business and so can answer the questions correctly and handle any issue that arises without delay. Plus, on our site customers will find guides and FAQ’s that will answer most of their questions.

To us, customer service means more than being responsive to a customer’s call. It means constantly looking for ways to improve our service. The driving force behind every proprietary software, every innovation is how we serve our customers better.

The testimonials we receive show we’re doing an excellent job. But that won’t stop us from looking how to improve it even more.





How to Find an Artist for Your Board Game

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It’s no secret that one of the most critical parts of making a board game that will sell is making it gorgeous. Box art alone has the ability to multiply sales of an otherwise unassuming board game. Finding an artist is something that many first-time board game designers find very difficult to do. Finding and taking care of an artist involves multiple expensive business transactions and a product whose quality can never be anything but subjective, so it’s very sensible to be worried.

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You don’t have to be worried, though, since I’ve got strong feelings about this subject and I’m here to share everything I’ve learned over the last two years 😉

In this article, I will cover five subjects:

  1. Making your project attractive to artists
  2. Looking for artists
  3. Reaching out to artists
  4. Sealing the deal
  5. Getting the best work out of your artist

Step 1: Make Your Project Attractive to Artists

First things first, 80% of the battle is fought here. If you want to find an artist and get a good deal on money, you need to make your project an attractive prospect. Consider the incentives which artists respond to: pay, exposure, autonomy, and meaning. Pay attention to these things. You want to be a great client.

Pay: Artists make art for a living! That means that when you hire an artist as a freelancer, you need to pay them for their time and effort. For many projects, this will involve shelling out thousands of dollars. Unless you have a personal connection to an artist OR you hire someone very wet behind the ears, you cannot avoid this. By all means, negotiate on price, but don’t be a cheapskate. Since every project is different, you’ll probably want to make an art budget and set aside some cash and get a variety of quotes from different artists. If all the artists’ quotes are not even remotely close to your budget, you’ll have to scale down your art needs or set your sights lower on quality.

Exposure: If you don’t have a lot of money on your hands, you may be able to offer some intangible benefits. For example, if you have a large social media network and you commit to publicizing your artist as much as possible to improve their career prospects, you might be able to pay them less. In fact, this is how I got James Masino to do 300 unique pieces of art for War Co. for a price that I’m frankly embarrassed to disclose. Exposure is not “teehee, I’m on your portfolio which you can put on your website.” Exposure is “I’m swinging the full weight of a network that touches tens of thousands of people to get your name out there.” I did this until he was eventually offered a job for 10 times the pay by someone who was following me on Twitter.

Autonomy: Artists often work alone, especially the sort of freelancers who you might expect to get involved with board game projects. They like to set their own schedules, do work their own way, and be self-directed. Don’t micromanage. Don’t set unrealistic deadlines. Give them a chance to grow their careers as they create your work.

Meaning: People need to feel like their actions mean something. People especially need to feel like the toil they put into their labor is worthwhile and building something great. Look, we make board games. We don’t cure cancer. Yet if you can consistently provide your artist with context that tells them how their work fits into the larger picture and what it means to you personally, they will pick up on that and it will make their work sweeter. That’s so important and so often neglected.

Step 2: Start Looking for Artists

Compared to the above, this is simple. There are three fantastic places I know of where you can find no shortage of talented individuals. They are DeviantArt, Instagram, and Twitter. This is one of the many reasons I think social media is very important for game developers, but to take advantage of these websites to find artists, you don’t even have to be all that active. You can use the search features on all of these websites and start scrolling through work. Start clicking on bios and seeing who is active, available, and looking for work. Make a list of everyone you’re interested in. You’ll probably want about 20 people on that list. Ten won’t get back to you, five won’t be interested, and only one or two of the remaining five will end up being good once you start talking brass tacks.

Finding an artist is the simplest part of getting art on your project, but there are still some pitfalls. Consider whether you want a newbie artist or a veteran artist. Newbie artists are not hard to find and the market has a greater supply than demand, so if you have a good deal of money, you have the upper hand. If you’re looking for a veteran artist, it costs a lot, lot more. That’s the price of consistency, reliability, and a proven track record. If you’re working on a big budget game, by all means, go for a veteran artist. All things equal, I’d personally go with the newbie because their work can parallel veterans with the right instruction. Just be aware that choosing a newbie might save you some cash, but it could lead to low quality art and project delays. I’ve never had to deal with that, but it’s not uncommon and it’s a risk you have to bear.

When you’re looking for artists, make sure you pay attention to the sort of work they’ve done before. If you’re doing a sci-fi game, and all they’ve done is fantasy art, they might not be a good match. It’s still okay to ask, and I recommend that you do, but don’t get your hopes up. Likewise, if all the artist’s work is scenery and machinery, don’t expect them to paint decent looking people. If you have a variety of art styles in your game, you may even consider hiring multiple artists and divvying up the work according to specialty.

Step 3: Reach out to Artists

Once you have a list of artists who you believe would be appropriate for your project, it’s time to start shaking hands. By shaking hands, of course, I mean sending emails. Even though you’re likely finding the artists through social media or DeviantArt, I still strongly suggest you get their email and send them a message that way. If their email is not on their profile or they don’t respond to emails, that’s a red flag. Freelancers should be checking their emails pretty often. Remember what I said above: about half of who you email won’t get back to you, so you can just cross them right off your list.

Paint Handshake
This is why I email artists to shake hands instead of literally shaking hands.

Let’s say you’ve got your email client up and you’ve got their address in the To box. Oh, but what do you say? Well, I’ll copy and paste my first email to James Masino, the artist for War Co., and we’ll break it down sentence by sentence – all the rights and wrongs. Then I’ll give you a template.

Hi James,

I am working on a trading card game called War Co. It has a sci-fi post-apocalypse theme. I’ve been looking for an artist for a while, and our mutual friend Alex said you might be the right guy to talk to.

I checked out your site and it’s pretty cool! You have an impressive set of skills with a variety of tools that I’ve only played around with for a few hours. I would like to work with you in the future on creating the artwork for my game.

Just to be clear, I’ve never taken on a project of this scale before. I’ve never needed to work with an artist, so I don’t know what the process involves. I’ve got an overall method to my madness as well as a written plan, but there’s a lot of things I’m still working out.

Thank you and looking forward to your reply,

Brandon Rollins
[My Personal Email]
[My Personal Phone Number]

[War Co. Website]

I am working on a trading card game called War Co. I immediately explain the nature of my project. (I changed the genre to “expandable card game” later on, but that didn’t affect art.)

It has a sci-fi post-apocalypse theme. This lets him know what to expect as far as art style.

I’ve been looking for an artist for a while, and our mutual friend Alex said you might be the right guy to talk to. I explain what I’m looking for from him and how I found him.

I checked out your site and it’s pretty cool! You have an impressive set of skills with a variety of tools that I’ve only played around with for a few hours. I explain why I’m reaching out specifically to him and not someone else.

I would like to work with you in the future on creating the artwork for my game. I state again specifically what I’m looking for.

Just to be clear, I’ve never taken on a project of this scale before. I’ve never needed to work with an artist, so I don’t know what the process involves. I’ve got an overall method to my madness as well as a written plan, but there’s a lot of things I’m still working out. I’m torn on how I handled this. I might have tipped my hand a bit too much with what I don’t know. However, if you need the artist to take the lead on setting realistic deadlines, make sure you make that clear.

[Contact Information] I made sure to give him two ways to contact me, as well as a link to the website so he could read more. By then, I already had an enormous amount of information online about the game so he could know what he’s getting into.

You’ll notice that price did not come up at all the first time around. Before you even discuss price, let the artist get back to you and tell you whether or not they’re available and whether or not they’re interested. Very few will get past this stage, and at that point, it is fair to ask about price.

Here’s a template you can use for that first email.

Hi [First Name],

[Describe your project.] [Describe desired art style.] [Say you’re looking for an artist.]

[Say how you found the artist.] [Explain why you like the artist and reached out to them.] [Reiterate that you’re looking for game art.]

[Give a rough overview of your game as a project.]

Thank you and looking forward to your reply,

[Your First and Last Name]
[Your Email]
[Your Phone Number]

[Your Website]

Step 4: Seal the Deal with the Artists

At this point, you’ll soon find yourself in a discussion about payment amounts and schedules, contracts, and royalties. I cannot give you templates to get through this phase. You’ll have to rely on your own good judgment. However, there are some tips which I strongly suggest you follow.

  • Make sure you get a contract. Make sure it’s clear and make sure you both sign and date it. Notarize it if you feel the need.
  • When it comes to price, you have some negotiation room. However, if it’s way out of your budget, you’ll simply have to walk.
  • Make sure the art is made on a “work for hire” basis. That means upon payment, you become the copyright holder – not the artist. This is so, so important!
  • If you offer a royalty, I’d suggest between 2-5% split between all artists involved in the game. I’d also suggest making the royalty apply only to sales after Kickstarter and pre-orders. Applying a royalty fee to the tender early state of your fundraising could really hurt you in terms of cash flow. Offering more than 5% could also really hurt you in the long-run because there are so many factors that go into getting a game published.
  • Set schedules and milestones for when certain parts of the art will be done. Adjust them as necessary if they turn out to be unrealistic, but have a spine if you find out you’re being played by a procrastinator.

This is hard to do right. Make sure you communicate very clearly and stay focused on the needs of everyone involved.

Step 5: Get the Best Work out of Your Artist

Once you start discussing money and contracts, you’ve already succeeded. Yet if you really want to take your art up to the next level, you don’t just have to depend on your artist. You have a pretty solid amount of influence as the game developer. Indeed, you can push a good artist to make great art by doing three things:

  • Be completely straightforward about your business needs and intentions.
  • Be as specific as possible when providing art directions.
  • Provide instructions that are consistent with good marketing practices.

You want your artist’s trust. Game development is a long, winding journey and a single game will almost certainly not make you rich. You want to focus on developing good relationships, so you need to be really straightforward and honest with your artist about where your business is, where you expect to go with it, and how much you can afford. It takes time to develop an instinct for this, but if you keep this all in mind and keep trying, you will figure it out. You want long-term contacts. Artists know other artists.

Regarding art directions: the more detailed you can be, the better. You want to strike a balance between giving your artist freedom and giving them direction. You want rework to be minimal, because that is absolutely exhausting for an artist. When you provide those directions, make sure you provide directions that make art pop on the shelf. This is hard to explain, but I’ll just show you what I said to James.

Narrative Themes:
 
This game’s story is about corruption, bureaucracy, conflicts of interest, group psychology, war, trauma, resilience, hope, and pyrrhic victories. Sometimes it’s about the mundane application of high-flying technology, sometimes it’s about disappointment, sometimes it’s about miscommunication. There’s a ton of themes, and I made no effort to stick to one. I picked slices of a complicated world to throw on the floor with no rhyme or reason. Every person will make their own narrative. I’d argue traditional media like novels and films work the same way. I’m just being more blunt about it. Each card has its own theme, basically.
 
 
Visual Themes:
From a business and game perspective, there’s one thing I’m trying to ensure in this game that I don’t see anywhere else: simplicity. Trading card games are nerd territory because they’re complicated. Superheroes used to be in the same boat before the turn of the century. When drawing pictures, be conservative about your level of detail. I’d like it to be sharp, snappy, and to leave an immediate impression. That doesn’t mean you can’t make large hulking ships with baroque levels of detail…it just means pay very close attention to how the viewer’s eye will be directed. Whether this translates into photorealism or simplified/smoothed-out reality, I leave to your better judgement. User-friendliness is how I plan on playing alongside the big kids like Magic, Yu-Gi-Oh!, and Pokemon TCG.
 

I’m trying really hard to avoid the stereotypical annoying client “make it pop” speech, so I’ll use a visual example.

I’ll use Mad Max: Fury Road. That movie was fantastic! Here’s some things I like about the picture below:

  • It’s clearly violent and post-apocalyptic, but it’s also bright and colorful. Too many people associate “apocalypse” and “gray/desaturated.” I think that trope is cliché.
  • The most important details are up-front, immediate, visible, and I’d even say “right up in your face.” Once you process the immediate part, then you can say “oh wow, there’s actually a lot going on here. Who’s behind him? What’s with the fire? Look at his gross neck sweat!” and so on.

We had some further conversation in next few emails and he said that he really appreciated these instructions. What you don’t see is that I had about a 200-300 word story for each piece of art, but otherwise left it up to interpretation. James’ response to these instructions was to create art like the following, which has been praised as a strong point of the game by nearly every review of War Co.

Key Takeways for Game Devs

  • The most important part is making your project attractive to artists.
  • Pay your artists as well as you can.
  • If you have a large online following, do everything you can to promote your artist – especially if your pay is low.
  • Respect your artist’s need for self-direction.
  • Give your artist context to know how their work fits into the larger picture.
  • Find artists on DeviantArt, Instagram, and Twitter.
  • Make a list of 20 artists who you like.
  • Think about whether to hire a newbie or a veteran artist – both have advantages and disadvantages.
  • Make sure you find an artist who is experienced and interested in the themes and styles you’ll need for your game.
  • Send a polite email to all the artists on your list. See my template in section 3.
  • Use good judgment when you’re committing to an artist.
    • Get a contract.
    • Negotiate some, but don’t be a cheapskate.
    • MAKE SURE THE ART IS DONE ON A WORK FOR HIRE BASIS!
    • Offer a royalty that is no greater than 5% split between all artists.
    • Set schedules and milestones for when parts of the art will be done. Adjust as needed.
  • Communicate very clearly and stay focused on the needs of everyone involved.
  • Give specific art directions that have marketing in mind.
  • Be good to your artist. You need long-term contacts. Artists know artists.