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How to hire an artist

For more than 5 years my team and I have been working with artists and gamedevs. Some of our artists have over 12 years of experience. So I took an opportunity to talk with our guys and highlight our recommendations on the best approaches on how to hire an artist, based on our experience and the experience of our colleagues. Hopefully, someone here can find these insights beneficial for their own projects and partnerships.

Understand your needs

Preferably, when contacting an artist, you should already have at least a vague idea about the story/setting of your game and game mechanics. If you want to help the artist to quote you on time and costs, and ensure that they can create something that suits your game the best, there are a couple of things that can help you achieve this:

  • 1. Have a list of the assets you need produced (Doesn’t have to be a full list featuring everything. Something just to get the ball rolling for a first milestone will suffice, especially when you’re not sure about the scope of the content for your game)

  • 2. References. You need something that will help the artist to understand how you imagine your game world or any important visual nuances that you want to implement. The setting could be described verbally, by showing some images, visuals of which you like, referencing other games or even by sending music that has that vibe that you want. And don’t worry if you’re really not sure what art style you want to go for. You can hire a concept artist who will help you to create a concept image of your world, so that it can be used for all further game assets production.

  • 3. Prototypes with placeholder graphics. It’s not something obligatory but can greatly help to understand the mechanics and/or any specific needs. Especially if the game has unique mechanics, or it’s hard to show a similar game.

Have options

Don’t contact just one artist/studio and go all-in with them. Contact a few that you preliminarily like, have interviews with them (by text, voice, video, pigeons. Whatever your kink is). This way, you can compare them to each other so you’re making sure that you’re picking the best of the best. It’s not only their skills that count. How fast do they reply? Do they leave you hanging for days or weeks without any signs of life? How is their customer service? Do you feel confident that they can deliver? What are their policies for revisions? Do they have a proven track record of happy customers that you can take a look at (reviews)? What are their business processes like? For reference about how everything may be handled with care, here is an outline about processes in our own studio:

Is it their full-time job or is it just a hobby? All those inputs will affect what you get.

Start small

It’s generally a good approach for a lot of situations when you’re hiring a new to you contractor in any field. Do an initial, “test run” milestone, where you’ll order, for example, only one concept art piece or one character model or anything else that would not require a lot of time to do and a lot of money to invest into. Once this test milestone is done, you’ll have good data if you want to continue working with this vendor. You’ll get an idea on their communication, business ethics, work processes and actual work quality that they will produce for you. If your budget allows, you can request a test task from a few vendors to secure your chances of getting the best final output.

You get what you pay

Want to get great quality, service, and reliability? Expect to invest market prices.

There are also those weirdos who offer “exposure” as a payment method. Unfortunately, in most cases, they are not Disney. And even when Disney or similar giants do this nowadays — they are criticized by the community. Last time I checked, neither landlords nor supermarkets accept exposure points.

Rev-share? Might work, If you already have a proven track record of shipped, commercially successful projects. Or if you’re doing it for fun with friends.

In other cases, professional artists won’t accept rev-share, because, well, being honest, most of those projects fail. And again, people need to earn money to have a decent living.

Alternatively, you can offer a rev-share as an extra part of your monetary payment. If you can negotiate this with the artist, this might be able to help you lower the required monetary investment.

Contract

Crucial. You can use your own contract or use the contract from the artist (the good ones always have a contract). Don’t be afraid to negotiate terms and conditions if you don’t like something there. Make sure that you’re getting full IP ownership of the produced artworks (if you don’t want the opposite, of course) and that the contract describes the process, the scope of the work, and the final result. As well as how things are gonna be handled if any disputes arise.

Do your own due diligence

Received an artwork? Use Google image and Tineye image search engines to research if you haven’t got a copy of someone’s work or a publicly available sprite. Note: this measure doesn’t save you 100% from being scammed as some folks are reversing or slightly altering the image, so additionally, your best strategy would be to go with the artist/studio who has some reputation/whom you can trust.

Unfortunately, this scam is rather popular lately, mostly among cheap artists. But don’t be discouraged! Most of the artists and studios are all awesome and creative people. It’s just this small fraction of individuals who are poop.

And finally, a few general tips for a better experience:

1. Have deadlines? Tell the artist an earlier date of the release of the required assets than you will really need. This way, if anything takes longer than expected, you still have some time to fix the timing, hiring extra power, etc.

2. If your contract allows the artists to showcase the produced works in their portfolios and ads, you may want to add a clause that every such exposure should have your project’s name and link to your website. The extra audience never hurts and it’s not a bad thing for an artist as well.

3. If you’re on a tight budget — consider asking your artists if they have some personal works from their portfolio, that they can sell you as assets for your game. This way you can get some content cheaper, since they won’t need to draw it from scratch.

4. Don’t be afraid to ask about different options. If you’re tight on time/money/resources or just not sure about something — ask your artist’s opinion. Different games require different approaches. It’s often that the artists with whom you’ll work might have had a client/project with similar challenges and they have successfully solved them. For example, if you have a lot of 2D characters with similar anatomy that would require a lot of identical animations, your artist/animator might suggest animating characters with the bone-based animation software like Spine. This way, you can save a lot of money and tons of time because you won’t need to animate each character separately from scratch as you would do with the hand animation approach in this case. Bone-based animation has its own limitations of course, but this is just an idea that there are alternative options and you might not be aware of some of them.

5. Enjoy.

You’re on a fun ride and getting stunning visuals will bring so much benefit for increasing your game’s potential success in sales and your motivation to continue working on it! I often hear from gamedevs that once they get rid of placeholder art they get a second breath of motivation, now seeing that their game actually looks so cool. So yes, while being serious, keep it enjoyable!