Designer’s Den is a game design blog by Derek Conrad covering a wide spectrum of gaming including mechanics, art and graphic design, world building, and more!
I hate to admit it, but I was worried when I debuted Rise of the Gods to a large audience at its first convention this last August. Not only because the thought of tough criticism directed at the game I’d been working on for nearly two years put my stomach in knots, but because I was insecure about its art.
Okay, let’s take a step back for a moment. When I say I was insecure, that doesn’t mean I was embarrassed by or disappointed in my artists. No, far from it. I’m immensely proud of the artists whom I’ve partnered with during the game’s development. What I really mean to say is I was worried the art wouldn’t look cohesive, that it wouldn’t reinforce the world and mystique surrounding the game’s story, and that it wouldn’t add that level of flavor to the cards that so many tabletop gamers have come to expect from card games. To my utter surprise, the art turned out to be one of the most praised aspects of the entire game.
So then why was my anxiety taking me out for a spin? Well, there are a few reasons.
First, as the only source of funding for this enterprise, I’ve spent thousands of dollars since late 2017 accumulating illustrations to use in the game. That alone would make just about anybody nervous.
Second, not only am I the game’s designer, I’m it’s everything else, including art director. You know those indie movies where the same guy directed, wrote, and starred in his own movie? Yeah, that’s me right now. I had zero experience “directing art” before this, and I’m still not even sure what a good art director should even look like.
Third, a lot about the game has changed since I purchased a good chunk of its art. That’s on me for being hasty and wanting commissioned pieces while I was still prototyping. A really big lesson learned, but one without a terrible resolution to make me have to have learned it.
Now, with that backstory out of the way, let’s focus on the topic of how I filled the art in the first place by tracking all the places where I hired the artists. Believe it or not, it all started on a competitive Pokemon battling website.
I’ve been a member of the website Smogon.com since 2009, where I even served for a few years as one of the site’s super moderators. During my time there, I had the pleasure of meeting a lot of interesting, talented people, including quite a few artists.
While Smogon is probably best known for its competitive moveset analyses and strategy guides, it also maintains a healthy and growing library of articles within the aptly named Flying Press e-zine. So, where do the artists fit in? Well, pages of articles with just text alone would be boring. Thus, artists are “hired” (payment comes in the form of earning badges) to create illustrations and infographics to fit the articles.
Three artists who’ve contributed to my game were found on Smogon. Count the names appearing at the bottom of all the cards in Rise of the Gods and you’ll climb well past three. Then where did I find the rest?
My next avenue to explore was the world of gig service websites. You’ve probably heard of some of them, like Fiverr. They don’t carry a lot of prestige, but I think they get a bad rap for unfair reasons, money being prime among them. Still, you often get what you pay for, so if you need a half-decent illustration for something, expect to shell out at least $50, whereas the more polished pieces often start at $100 (as opposed to the cool $5 the site gets its name from).
Gig websites account for five more artists, but we still have more to go.
From there, I poked around on the more professional websites that allow artists a space to post their portfolios. ArtStation is a big one, but my next crop of artists actually came from Hire an Illustrator. Here, it’s a little less obvious on how to get art commissioned (than, say, on a gig site), but after messaging a few artists via the contacts on their profiles, I started to get the swing of cold commissioning. Because the illustrators I hired are often making art semi-pro or professionally, I paid in the $150 – $300 range for a single piece, but I also got a lot more collaboration and attention from the artists than those on Fiverr.
Hire an Illustrator adds three more artists (including a concept artist whose name is only in the credits). All told, we’re only about halfway through the list. To finish it, we’ll have to venture down a darker, twistier rabbit hole: Online asset stores.
I mentioned I self-funded this whole project, right? Sometimes I need to repeat it a few times so I can rest a little easier knowing what I’ve done.
Let’s get real here. Buying pre-made, licensable illustrations en masse is not glamorous, but it was necessary — or at least, I thought it was. Because I was under the impression that I had to do this all myself, I set out to acquire large volumes of illustrations from asset stores, such as the one for Unity.
Buying art this way is incredibly cheap compared to commissioning new pieces, even on a gig service site. For instance, you can purchase a license for dozens of icons for around $10 on an asset store versus having a single icon made for that price on Fiverr. The largest and most obvious drawback, however, is that the art isn’t original, and there’s a decent chance it already exists in another game somewhere else.
And yet, when I calculated the costs of buying brand new pieces for my game, even at a bargain of $50 a pop, for 150~ cards (plus supplementary designs to go on playmats, boxes, etc), I was staring at a minimum $7,500 price tag. Big yikes. So I swallowed my pride and did the best I could with my budget, which included having to buy pre-made assets.
These marketplaces fill in the remainder of the artists you’ll see on the game’s cards, and about 30% of the total illustrations used. Unfortunately, I ended up buying a lot more than I actually needed or that made the final cut. Namely, after I changed the design of the card frames (for the umpteenth time), some of the illustrations were now too narrow and unusable. But the story has a happy ending: I contacted one of the artists from these asset stores directly and hired him to fill in the gaps for the missing pieces at a very reasonable price!
Going back to the anecdote about my insecurity, maybe now you can see the picture of doubt in my mind a little clearer. After all was said and done, I had amassed a collection of hundreds of illustrations over the course of almost two years and had to assemble them in such a way so as to produce some inkling of a coherent theme while still making sure each card could stand on its own as a single flavorful, comprehensible unit. Commence the pounding of round pegs through square holes!
Fortunately, even in the early stages of development, I knew how important it was for each of the game’s factions to have a cohesive look, whether they be united by colors, class types (e.g. Warrior, Beast, Monster, etc.), backgrounds, and other visual cues. So when it came time to sort through the collection and fill remaining cards, I had fairly distinct pools to draw from and I could adapt certain cards to fit better with what I had on hand.
The biggest success, however, came whenever one or two artists dominated a specific faction, which strengthened the look of that faction by virtue of it having been designed by the same hands.
The similarity in art style is perhaps the finest adhesive one could hope for, as it holds the identity of the faction together with aplomb. This, to me, is most evident within the game’s Wind order, which is dominated by two artists, one of which is seen here.
The process of filling art for Rise of the Gods was long and always evolving. If I could go back, I would have waited until the game had cemented itself before starting to order commissions, and I also would have limited my spending in the online asset stores.
However, considering the feedback I received at the conventions I attended this year, the culmination of my and my artists’ efforts were not in vain. Rather than being a sore spot in the game’s development, it now stands as something of an achievement. Perhaps it’s even proof that building a repertoire of illustrations on a budget is nothing to be ashamed of, but rather celebrated as a hallmark of the game instead.
Thank you for reading, and until next time!