Alex Weldon is a freelance artist who has mostly worked on indie titles and who is now preparing to launch his own Flash games. Here’s a little insight on what he has to say about being a game artist. You can see his website here: www.benefactum.ca
Hello Alex, can you tell us more about your academic background?
I came to art later in life. My university degree is actually in
Astrophysics, of all things. It sounds weird, but it makes sense when
you look at my family. Both my grandfathers were scientists, but my
parents are both artists. My father did a degree in Mathematics
before becoming an animator at the National Film Board of Canada, so
there’s a neat parallel there.
After university, I taught English in South Korea for two years. I
got into writing while I was there. When I came back, I was trying to
figure out how to make a living at writing, and ended up taking some
journalism classes. I didn’t enjoy them very much, but I loved the
graphic design class I took as an elective. Oddly, the guy teaching
that class also had a physics degree, which probably helped.
I switched into a certificate program called Graphic Applications in
Desktop Publishing, and got into graphic design that way. From there,
it wasn’t much of a stretch to start working on my drawing skills as
How did you become interested in game art?
I’ve been an avid game player since childhood. I started creating and
modifying games quite early on, and have been doing so ever since.
Given that, once I started doing art and design for a living, it was
pretty much inevitable that I’d start getting interested in game art.
How did you score your first freelance gigs?
As a designer in general, or as a game artist?
As a designer, I got my first few freelance gigs both through words
of mouth – friends of friends and so on – and by simply walking
around town with my portfolio and a stack of business cards and
asking to talk to owners and managers of places. More recently, I did
a whole series of contracts for a board game publisher who, although
my games weren’t right for his company’s style, liked the art and
asked me who I’d hired to do it. When he found out that I was the
artist, he offered me some work on the spot.
As a computer game artist, I haven’t put much effort into looking for
work actively, since I’ve been busy enough with my own projects. The
contracts I’ve had have all come to me just by being an outspoken
and, I hope, helpful member of the IndieGamer forums. Once a month or
so, I’ll get a private message there from someone who appreciates the
advice I’ve been offering and wants to know what sort of work I do,
what I charge and so forth. Some of those turn into jobs, some don’t.
Here is a list of freelance expectations that Alex posted on the indiegamer.com forum
As a developer, if I was to hire an artist, I would expect the artist to:
Take constructive criticism without getting too defensive.
Work within the technical constraints of the project.
Indulge my preferences insofar as they do not conflict with their own aesthetic sensibilities.
Explain clearly and politely to me their reasons for disagreeing with my ideas, when they do.
Ask me before doing anything that goes against something specifically stated in the spec.
Be proactive about offering advice on stylistic decisions and suggestions for letting the art influence the gameplay.
Be able to make minor decisions on their own, but ask for clarification if there is a major choice to be made that I didn’t include in my spec.
Give me their honest best guess about how much the job will cost, and do everything they can to stay on budget.
Let me know if they think the current course of action is going to go over budget for reasons beyond their control, provide an estimate of how much more I should expect to pay, and suggestions for how we can get back on budget if I can’t afford it.
Fix their own mistakes on their own time.
Expect a certain amount of revision to be necessary.
Do small bits of follow-up work (e.g. fixing a mistake we both missed, or providing me a layered PSD if I discover I need it) and answer questions for free even after they’ve been paid.
Answer emails promptly.
Set their own reasonable deadlines, and meet them.
Be willing to sign a contract, and give me the exclusive rights to the work.
Link to the game if they use the work in their portfolio.
Be upfront about any references they might be using, so I can veto anything that seems to be bordering on copyright violation.
As an artist, I expect a client to:
Respect my experience and judgement.
Pay a rate that is in line with what other, non-artist freelancers of comparable education and experience can expect.
Be polite in their criticism.
Understand that only reasonable revisions are included in a quote.
Be clear about their expectations and the technical constraints of the project.
Not change their mind on important issues without good reason, and be apologetic and willing to pay more if they find they have to.
Understand that the result might not look exactly like what they had in their head, if they weren’t able to describe it precisely in their spec.
Give my advice serious consideration.
Not ask for my opinion on something if they don’t actually want to hear it.
Understand that I have a style, and that my work is still going to look like my work, regardless of the genre.
Allow a reasonable time for the job, taking into account possible unforeseen circumstances.
Answer emails promptly.
Pay immediately when the work is done, without being asked more than once – being proactive and saying “I think we’re done, how much do I owe you?” is even better, but not obligatory.
Give credit where credit is due. In game, preferably.
Allow me to use the work in my portfolio.
Give me a favourable reference and recommend me to others if they liked what I did for them.
These lists are rather thorough what do you think is the most important for a freelancer
looking to have return business?
Staying in touch and being a good communicator. The most common
compliment I get from clients is that they’re impressed with how
quickly I answer emails, and how clearly I answer questions and
communicate my own thoughts on the project.
Honestly, I don’t think that’s good advice only for artists, or even
freelancers in general. Communication skills are so important, and
they’re harder and harder to find in these days of Instant Messenger
programs and Blackberries. No matter who you are, if you’ve never
taken classes in business writing or public communication, you stand
to benefit from doing so.
Can you tell us more about the specific requirements of doing art
for video games as opposed to other uses (like, say, graphic design
or board games)?
Well, every type of design has technical limitations. If you’re doing
print design, you’re limited by the physical size of the document,
the kind of paper, the printing budget, and so on. If you’re doing
web design, you’re limited in your font choices, and you’re stuck
with the aspect ratio of a normal monitor, etc.
For computer games, the limitations have to do with the gameplay. I
was doing some pixel art the other day for a platformer, and wanted
to turn the character to face outward just a little bit, so you could
see more detail in the face. I realized, however, that to make the
perspective work, the feet would also have to be turned towards the
viewer, meaning that the toes would be lower than the heels. This
isn’t compatible with the very flat, 2D nature of traditional
platformer graphics – drawn that way, either his toes would be
sticking down into the floor, or his heels would be hovering in the
air… so I had to rework the pose to allow his feet to lie flat.
It’s really important for developers to be clear with their artists
about these sorts of technical constraints. Left to their own
devices, artists will just do whatever looks best, but the
aesthetically best choice won’t always be the best fit for the
gameplay. The trouble is that sometimes you only realize these things
later on, when you start trying to put the art into the game. That’s
where experience comes in – the mistake I made with that platform
character is the sort of blunder you’re only going to make once. Game
art is still something I’m learning as I go along; I’ve really come a
long way in a year.
What led you to start making your own games?
As I said, I’ve been inventing games – and modifications to existing
games – since I was very young. Until recently, though, I only made
them to play with friends and family, and had no real intention of
making any money off of them. For a long time, people have been
telling me that I’ve got a talent for games, and that I should try to
make a living at it, but it always seemed like a pipe dream to me.
I might be an idealist, but I’m not completely unrealistic; I know
that everyone and their cousin has “a great idea for a game,” and
that publishers must be bombarded constantly by people pitching their
ideas. Until I got into design, I didn’t see any obvious way to
differentiate my ideas from everyone else’s.
Becoming an artist changed everything, since now I could illustrate
my own games, and approach publishers with something much closer to a
finished product. Two of them, called Duck & Cover and Toil &
Trouble, are essentially ready for the presses – even the boxes and
rule booklets are designed, and I put together spec sheets to get
quotes from a printer. If a publisher’s interested in picking them
up, they could be on the shelves in a matter of a month or two, which
I imagine will make a big difference to them. I plan on going down to
GenCon this summer and demoing them for any publisher I can corner
for a few minutes.
Do you do art differently if it’s for your own game as opposed to
doing it for a client’s project?
Much more slowly! There’s a time limit when you’re working for
someone else; they have a budget, and you have to make sure that you
get the job done quickly enough that the money you’re earning is in
proportion to your time. You just can’t afford to be fussy and waste
hours fiddling with details that no one except you is going to notice
or care about.
It’s really hard to be disciplined and keep that kind of excessive
fussiness in check when you’re working for yourself. I’ve spent way
too much time on my first few games, considering that they’re free
Flash titles and will only make me a few grand each, if I’m lucky. I
justify it by reminding myself how much I’m learning in the process,
but really, if I’m going to do this for a living, I have to start
knowing when to leave well enough alone and get on with the more
important aspects of the project.
Thank you Alex and good luck with your games, be sure to let us know when you release them!
Thank you too, it’s been fun.