ART FOR TABLETOP GAMES PART 1: Always seek feedback
Needy Cat Games recently attended the industry week for Confetti - a local, Nottingham based college who specialises in all thing digital, games design, game art etc. We had a fantastic time, got some great feedback on our latest game Ancient Grudges: Bonefields (you can download and give feedback on the Beta rules here) and I gave a series of talks on freelancing as an artist in the tabletop games industry.
But why did I talk about being an artist? I’m *not* a professional freelance artist, it’s true. But I worked for nearly three years as the Art Coordinator for Games Workshop, wrangling all of the freelance artists to produce art for their books and boxed games on time, to brief and to standard. It was a fantastic job but was akin to professional cat herding. I am confident that I can provide a comprehensive view of what a client is looking for in a freelance artist. Some of the things I talk about *may* be relevant to other kinds of freelancing too. I’ll be referring to ‘art’ throughout this series, but what constitutes ‘art’ is up to you to decide!
Feedback should be a natural part of the process of creating art and should be embraced.
The statement above in of itself is a difficult thing for many people to accept. Feedback can be painful. If you are super proud of something and you’re told it’s not up to standard – but feedback means you don’t waste hours of work on something that will be scrapped. Trust me when I say, scaping something after working on it for hours and hours is FAR more painful in the long run, than just accepting the feedback process.
It’s important to note at this point that creating art, to brief, for money is completely different to creating art for yourself. Although, if you’re looking to improve your skills, many of these comments are still relevant - art you make for *you* does not owe anyone, anything. Art you create for someone else should be a solution to a problem they’re looking to fix. Not the cause of more problems. At the end of the day, they are paying you to be a solution. Anyway, onwards!
The wonderful thing about art is that it is the quickest and most effective way of evoking emotion when looking at a game. No matter your preconceptions, you will immediately, emotionally respond to seeing art. This is why art is such a key part of games. The artwork should work *with* the game. It should give you a feeling of the setting, tone, pace, theme and style of the game. It should at the very least, make you *want* to try the game.
The emotional impact of art is a mixed blessing. Sometimes, that emotional response will be difficult to process or to communicate effectively. Some clients may hate your work. They may not have the tools to explain their reaction and why they have had it. They may simply respond with something deeply unhelpful such as “this isn’t good enough”, “this isn’t what I expected”, “The head is wrong” “The colours aren’t right”, “that leg is at the wrong angle” etc etc. This will, of course, be devastating. But it doesn’t mean their feedback is *wrong* or that you have done something *badly*. Simply that you need to dig for meaning (more on that in a minute).
It’s important to bear in mind that the person delivering the feedback is usually emotionally invested in the thing you’re creating too, and they may just not have the skills to be able to convey what they need, want or expect. This doesn’t excuse the rude behaviour of course, but try to repeat it as a mantra.
Bad quality feedback can be at best vague and at worst, offensive. Remember, it’s your responsibility to be clear. So ASK QUESTIONS to clarify how something can be fixed. It’s extremely rare that something can’t be fixed, but you need to know HOW.
Before throwing everything you’ve done in the bin and starting again – ask! What exactly about the head isn’t right? Have you got references for the colour palette you would prefer? What angle would you prefer for the leg? Have you got an example of the battle scene you want?
I can, however, guarantee you this – those issues will come up earlier and be less emotionally trying, more productive and easier to fix if you are sending initial sketches and regular updates than if you disappear for weeks at a time, are uncommunicative and pop up with a fully finished piece. It is near impossible to ‘fix’ a piece of art when it’s finished and it takes huge amounts of work to redraw entire sections – so don’t let it get to that stage!
Also, if you’re not drawing your digital art on layers, then you are making more work for yourself. You will inevitably be asked to move that main guy over by a centimetre and if you figure is not separate to the background, you’re in for a whole world or cutting, pasting and redrawing pain. Just FYI.
A quick point on good feedback, if someone LOVES your stuff and just says YES DO MORE all the time - great! But it might be worth asking them at some point why they like your stuff? What do you do well? How could you get better? Every piece of feedback is an opportunity to improve, so it’s not a bad thing to look for it, even when it’s not proactively given.
I’m not going to lie and tell you that receiving feedback is easy. But it DOES get easier with practice. I have known freelancers who always have a 24-hour rule where they don’t respond to feedback for 24 hours. It gives them time to think, avoids them acting on that inevitable emotional knee-jerk and lets them mull over the important parts of the feedback. It also gives them that opportunity to constructively identify where they might need to ask clarifying questions. That may not suit you, but think about how you’re going to overcome that kind of feedback when it comes in. I have known artists scrap a beautiful piece of art and start again multiple times because someone commented that the leg on one figure looks slightly awkward. Don’t be that person. As a freelancer, your time is the money you earn. Don’t spend hours and hours of fruitlessly redrawing something which is fine just because you had a crisis of faith. Take some time, assess what they’re actually saying to you, ask questions and move forward. You are worth more than that.
So, you’ve done your part and sent regular updates, amended the art according to feedback and got approval to move on at every step and then they still come back to you and want massive changes at late stages then know your value. You are completely within your rights to ask for more money or to delay the deadline (or both). Of course, that is a relationship management thing, which you have to make a call on – but you deserve to get paid for the work you’ve done. It’s also another argument for sending regular updates. If your client has approved every single step of the process, then it’s not your fault if something is wrong once they go to use it months later. That’s on them.
Feedback is the very best way to get better. Some people avoid it like the plague. I personally am TERRIBLE at taking feedback and I always initially respond badly. I have learnt that I need to take time, go away and let the feedback percolate through my stubborn outer layer and then come back to the table and look for more once I’ve accepted I could have done better. For you, the process may be different. But don’t run away from feedback. Endure it and you’ll make great art.