Don’t let art sidetrack you from designing your best game

Jessica Berlin Process 4 Comments

As a game designer, when is the right time to hire an artist in the development of your game? Do you need art to get people to playtest your game, or to get publishers to look at your game? We wondered this as well during the development of our first game, Micromanage. And our answer has evolved as we’ve begun development of additional games.

We hired a graphic designer too early in the process for our first game, Micromanage.

The simple answer: don’t hire an artist unless you are planning on publishing the game yourself, e.g., through Kickstarter. There is just no need for “real” art in a prototype game before it is ready to be published. If you are planning on strictly being a game designer and not publishing or Kickstarting your game as well, just don’t worry about art. Focus on designing your game, testing your game, and making it better. And don’t let art, graphic design, or other things sidetrack you from that purpose.

If you decide to go the route of pitching your game to publishers, they really only want to see how your game works, the mechanics of your game, if it’s fun, and if it fits into their portfolio of games. If they like it, they’ll take it from there to finalize the game, including artwork. From our experience, it seems that most publishers really prefer to handle the artwork themselves. They have artists they already know, trust, and prefer to work with. The publisher may also want to re-theme the game or make other changes, so it’s really not worth your time or money to find and hire an artist.

As a game designer, it’s best to try to do as little in the art and graphic design area on your game as possible.

Focus on the game mechanics and theme – those are the skills that you need to perfect to be a great game designer and that’s what you should spend your time on.

For our first game, Micromanage, we did hire a graphic designer friend to design our cards. She did an amazing job and we’ve gotten many compliments on how great the game looks. But, looking back now, we even did that way too early in the process. We’ve had to go back to her many times throughout the process to edit cards, add new cards, and make other changes along the way because the game really wasn’t at the point it needed to be to design it professionally yet. It looks amazing. But, we’ve spent too much time and money on graphic design for a game that honestly, still needed work.

Luckily, we decided that we did not need to hire an artist for that project, although we had thought about it and even wrote up specs for what we were looking for from an artist. We were new and didn’t really know what we were doing. Ultimately, we decided just to use free stock images for our cards. The stock images look great on the cards and help convey our vision for the game to playtesters or potential publishers, but we didn’t have to spend money on hiring an artist for art that probably won’t even be used in the game. If a publisher does decide to pick up the game, they can see what we were going for and then work with their own artist to create that image (or something else entirely!).

You can use stock images from the Internet as placeholders on your cards or board for free (or very cheap). We joined Dollar Photo Club for $10 a month and get very nice, high quality, royalty-free images we can use in our games (and our website too!). You can’t use those images for actually publishing the game, but it’s great to have something in your game to show the flavor and theme of what you’re going for.

For our second game, Prism, we decided to keep the design very basic and do it ourselves.

For our second game, Prism, we decided to keep the design very basic and do it ourselves.

For our subsequent game designs, like Prism, we’ve steered clear of hiring artists and graphic designers and just done everything we needed on our own. We used Word, Publisher, and Photoshop to do basic layouts and designs for boards and cards, and tried to keep everything very simple. We have included stock images on some of the pieces, like the hexes in Prism, to add some flavor to the game for our playtesters, and that’s seemed to worked very well. No one seems to mind that the pieces aren’t professionally designed or illustrated. They play the game, have fun, and can give us feedback on the mechanics of the game without focusing on the way it looks.

We have decided that Kickstarter and self-publishing isn’t for us, at least not for now. But, if you do decide to go the Kickstarter route and self-publish, then that’s another story. You’ll need to hire an artist and have at least some art done before you launch to show your potential backers what your game is going to look like. But, you still probably don’t want to do it until toward the end of your design process when most everything is finished, or close to it.

Artists and graphic designers can get pricey, so you need to be sure you’re ready for it (as in, a finished or very close to finished game) before you spend the money.

What are your experiences with art and graphic design in your games? Did you hire too early? Or, have you found other ways to make your game look nice without spending too much money up front? Let us know in the comments.





Comments 4

  1. Pingback: Ten major time sucks when designing a board game | Galvanized Studios

  2. Pingback: Getting gamers to play your prototype | Galvanized Studios

  3. I think that the fundamental premise behind your ideas is sound, the instruction is problematic.

    You state that the basic reason not to hire a graphic designer is due to cost and being prematurely committed to graphical assets, while comparing that to the benefits of having a product that looks polished for potential crowd-sourced fundraising.

    The benefit that you don’t touch on is that a skilled graphic designer can help you design the game. There are hundreds of art directors experienced in game design. These specialists can help you see your game in different ways and unlock new ways of expressing gameplay to the players. Beyond learnability, a deft design makes complex interactions simple, emphasizes relevant relationships within the game environment, and help prioritize considerations for players. Things are often revealed through graphic iterations that have substantial impact on the playing experience.

    If anything, I think the article might explain how engaging with an experienced visual communicator early in the process can have profound benefits on the game’s design.

    Thought-provoking article! Thank you!

  4. (Afterthought)

    An experienced visual communicator can also facilitate prototyping in a way that can highlight areas of interest for playtesters, for example, and may have techniques and resources for prototyping that can make things like iterative card-typesetting easy. (The more I think about enlisting a visual pro early in the process, the more reasons spring to mind.)

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