How to Manage Artists on a Board Game Project

Posted on Posted in Start to Finish

Board game development is a very individual process. Every single developer has different methods for creating their games. This article is the seventeenth of a 19-part suite on board game design and development.

Artists are some of the most important people you will work with when you’re creating a game. Making sure they are happy and understand the needs of your project is critical to your game’s success. To help understand this subject, I’ve brought in both Sean Fallon of Smunchy Games and James Masino, who did the art for War Co. and Highways & Byways.

Artwork by James Masino for my first game, War Co.

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This guide comes in six parts:

  • Law & Contracts
  • Setting Timelines
  • Lines of Communication
  • Establishing a Workflow
  • When Things Go Wrong
  • Parting Advice

Below is a transcript of our conversation over Discord DMs. It has been lightly edited for clarity and flow.

Law & Contracts

Brandon: Before you start working on a project, what do you need to do to define the legal relationship between clients and artists?

James: Hey you two! It really comes down to the working relationship: how well you get along with the client, understanding what they’re looking for, the project, their story, and the contract. The contract is a rulebook for what can and cannot be done as well as a guide for what to expect and when. My contract’s template can fit virtually any client, so my legal relationship generally will always protect me and the client’s paid-for work. That way I can focus on the actual project without communication obstacles.

Sean: Hey guys! Typically, what I will do to define a legal relationship between an artist and myself is I will initially use a contract template and then alter it to fit the needs required. In some very specific cases, I will pass the contract written along to a lawyer and have them read through some of the clauses, or add clauses that will protect both myself and the artist from getting hit with any type of legal action.

Brandon: James, what you said was interesting: before you even start the project and get a contract going, you make sure you’re comfortable with the client and the work itself. That helps protect you from getting into an ironclad contract on a nightmare project.

Both of you use contract templates, so that’s an interesting similarity. You’ve got 90% of the contract ready before you get started, swapping out a few clauses as needed – names, payment schedules, the project timeline.

Brandon: Where did you find your templates?

James: Yeah, I personally believe in trying my best to work on projects that I can put my heart into, but ultimately, the working relationship is so important because I need it to correctly interpret the client’s vision. I want to see how they’re seeing their own project, and from that I can help synthesize it through that artistic lens. Thanks to that, I rarely have ever had a miscommunication or a problem, it comes down to just being on the same page.

As for my contract template, I wrote it myself as I do with all contracts that I need. To develop specifically my art contract, for example, it took my own experiences, and huge amount of research on freelance contracts, common procedures, and industry horror stories to make sure I was covering all the points!

Sean: For most of my templates I will pull them from something like Legalzoom as I know they’ve been looked over by a lawyer, but there have been times where I will find templates online, alter them, and then get them approved.

As a publisher and a game designer, I always want to make sure my bases are covered, and I feel like that’s really the best way to do it. However, there have been times where a contract has been completely redone and altered, so that it’s really no longer recognizable with lawyer jargon because of the agreement between myself and the artist.

James, that’s great too, as we’ve all had some of those industry horror stories, and I think that’s why I do what I do too.

James: Absolutely, I haven’t gone as far as getting them reviewed by a third party, but I make sure to use generally accepted procedures and extremely clear language. I’ve done the same for signing members of my production crew and actors for the short film work I’ve done. A contract is almost a reiteration of the non-spoken portion of all agreements along with that general defining rule set. Honestly, they’re kind of fun to put together since you can fully explain every part of it if the other party has specific questions.

I always have said if I started working with multiple artists on larger contracts, then I’d have things looked over since so much more could go wrong.

Setting Timelines

Brandon: Because art is complicated to create, how can you set realistic timelines?

James: This is actually a funny one. My contract actually states that the client is responsible for creating a schedule that works with mine, but not once has anybody had a strict enough schedule to justify really enforcing a weekly turn around. I always try to make sure that there still is a weekly turnaround, but sometimes I’ve found myself waiting for information to get started. So then I just kind of default to the general rule of making sure that the art is delivered within the contract’s timeframe and consistently throughout, and only extend it if the artwork needs it for additional quality control purposes, or we literally have had a breakthrough in art style that works much better. Brandon, you do a great job of sticking to time frames, but in both of the games we’ve worked on, I’ve figured out something that’s worked better later down the line and we’ve had to go in and make those corrections.

Brandon: And those corrections have always been worth it.

Sean: Yeah, and honestly, I never set a weekly schedule for the artists that work with me. I feel like it’s unnecessary and can actually add a lot of pointless stress. I always do 2 – 4 week deadlines for any artist I work with.

“Everyone is human.” I operate on that very simple rule. What I mean by that is I make sure the deadline is realistic, but I also want to take into consideration that some things in life happen, and time is needed to make sure those things get sorted out. Now if that goes beyond four weeks, I start giving grace periods but expect more communication with the artist than usual.

Brandon: I know that James and I have just set general checkpoints with flexibility. Neither of us are deeply concerned with meeting these checkpoints, as long as the final deadlines are met – and they are. The checkpoints are just for estimating. In Sean’s case, with artists you don’t know as well, 2-4 week deadlines seem like a better system – frequent deliverables but with the flexibility to help deal with unexpectedly difficult work, emergencies, and just life in general.

Once you start pushing deadlines – either getting really close to them or exceeding them – frequent communication becomes key.

Lines of Communication

Brandon: Speaking of which, what is the best way to keep in touch with your artist or team of artists?

Sean: That’s a great question. I use two forms of communication: email and then some form of instant messaging. For instant messaging, I prefer tools such as Discord or Skype, and I will only use Discord or Skype for quick communication and going back and forth with the artist. Emails, however, are primarily used for transactions and descriptions. This makes it easier for both parties to keep track of what is happening 🙂

James: I think what Sean said above about 2-4 week deadlines is really efficient, because I know a lot of freelance artists might have a day job, are in school, or are juggling multiple projects. That’s a really good system that I haven’t had outlined by an employer just yet. As somebody who is being trained in animation as well, I expected more of that one week or less turnaround when I started doing work like this and was actually surprised. The whole animation industry, in general, is very high velocity with deadlines.

Sean and I have the exact same system for communication. Email works the best for business communication overall, quick messaging for everything else.

Brandon: So you both tend to use IM tools like Discord, Slack, or Skype for basic conversation and email for stuff like financial transactions. That makes a lot of sense to me.

Though I will point out that we’re three millennial men in our 20s. Many others may prefer different communication methods. The basic throughline here is that you use fast tools of communication for day-to-day stuff and slower tools for formal information like contracts and payments.

Establishing a Workflow

Brandon: On that same note, how do artists and their clients establish a workflow?

Sean: This one’s interesting because every artist and client is different. I personally like to get a feel for their process first and will ask a lot of questions that revolve around their workflow. Then I dissect my workflow and see if we can meet in the middle.

More often than not though, my flow is typically very similar to most artists. I will loosely outline something in the contract, if either party feels this is necessary or put in key pieces. Sometimes, though, that workflow has been known to change because we found a better way to do it, so being open and flexible is pretty important too.

Brandon: I’m sure it also depends on the client’s level of technical expertise and willingness to tweak files, too. I personally like everything in layers so I can get art earlier in the development process than most people.

James: Strangely, in most of the contracts I’ve had, workflow boils down to just sending complete files. Brandon, our last project was the first time I started organizing PSDs substantially so my client could continue working and testing the end product, which I thought was a great system for collaboration. Otherwise, it just relies on me hitting a bullseye for the client. That can be fun, but I’m hoarding all that fun. Sean is correct, though, in that everybody is different and has their unique workflows, I know my workflow is very different than a lot of other artists that I know in coming up with concepts, for example, and trying different methods I haven’t touched before just to help brainstorm.

When Things Go Wrong

Brandon: What do you do if something goes wrong – such as a breach of contract, missed deadlines, an MIA artist, or low quality work?

Sean: Thankfully, I’ve never had an artist truly breach a contract and I haven’t had an artist miss any massive deadlines, but I have definitely had an artist go MIA.

In situations like that, it really depends upon the agreement. If they were meant to fulfill the life of the project, and have gone MIA in the middle of it, then yes, I would pursue some kind of action if they were found. However, usually when an artist goes MIA, doing that isn’t my number one priority. My number one priority is finding a replacement with the same art style.

If I hear nothing from that artist after 6 months, I will either write an email to them stating that the contract is terminated, but if they so happen to be found again, they will be made aware of the situation by leaving me hanging with no communication whatsoever. That could lead to consequences, depending on the situation. I don’t like doing that, but again, it really depends on how large of an issue them going MIA was.

Regardless, the hunt to find a replacement artist would be underway.

Sean: Now, low quality artwork, that is a very big deal and can be a very big issue. If I don’t receive consistency which will set the level of quality, then I will discuss the issue with the artist and I will either ask the artist to recreate the art piece or I will ask for a refund.

This sounds a little intense, but the truth of the matter is, is that, yes, there were hours invested in the art piece, but the outcome promised was not delivered. Therefore, the artist will either add more time to fix the situation or eat the wasted time and deliver the refund.

I’ve only had to ever deal with this once, which is great, and by golly, it was a very tough situation. Artists provide a service, just like anyone else, and the quality promised must be the quality delivered. Otherwise, their prices need to change.

Overall, though, most of the artists I’ve worked with are very professional and I rarely run into this issue.

James: I’ve had experiences where a client doesn’t send payment once the artwork is complete, but I’ve never really worried in those situations because they were with clients that I have worked with for a long time, so there was no question on whether or not they would. Any client that is new always gets artwork previews with watermarks until payment happens. But, honestly, if a client did stiff me as an artist, especially if they were a larger entity, it’s really hard for me to do anything. I have the contract that keeps me safe, but there’s legal work, and potential fees associated with that. It’s better to just avoid any scenario like it by working with people you just have good chemistry with right from the start.

As for a missed deadline, I know I’ve had schoolwork set me back behind deadlines multiple times. Luckily, since I usually do have a solid turnaround, it doesn’t impact the project. So far I’ve never missed a deadline for an actual printing date, or something very serious either. They’ve all been based on my own word of mouth schedule.

Parting Advice

Brandon: Any last words of wisdom from either of you?

Sean: As far as the parting piece of advice, the client needs to build a relationship with the artist, and the artist needs to build a relationship with the client. You need precise and clear communication as well as a prominent vision moving forward in that business relationship. If you can establish that, the end result will be pretty incredible.

And incredibly it really will be. This is some of the art from Sean’s game, Paths: World of Adia.

James: Advice for working past hurdles in general and preventing things that could destroy the project and get everybody hurt in the end? It all boils down to solid communication. Your client or your artist needs to be your teammate all the way through, and that’s the only way you’re going to achieve quality work and an outstanding product.

Brandon: Very good answers. Thank you both very much – I’m excited to share this on the blog!

Managing artists can be a complex affair at times. Artwork is highly subjective and difficult to describe, so communication between the client and the artist is absolutely critical. There are a few things you can do to make sure you get great art, though. Look for an excellent artist with whom you get along, communicate back and forth frequently about what you’re looking for, establish timelines and workflow, protect everybody involved with a contract, and be ready in case something goes wrong.

Do you have any questions about commissioning artwork or managing artists? Let me know in the comments 😀

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