Contracting Art for Your Game
by David Michael


This article is for those game developers who have decided to stop wishing for the fabled Truly Incredible Graphic Artist Who Works For Free. It's for those of you who have realized that the dream truly is only a dream, and that if your game is ever going to be completed you have to "bite the bullet" and pay for the artwork you need.

For the rest of you, if you don't have an artist on your team already, assume that you are not going to get any quality volunteers. Very few artists (or people in general, for that matter) like to work on a contribution basis. They don't know you and they know only the barest information about your project. So go ahead and accept that you are going to pay for what you want done. It's possible that you might find a competent artist who is willing to work for a percentage and no up-front payment, but it's best to push the thought from your mind.

Contracting your artwork involves a bit of work on your part. First, you have to create a full graphical specification for your game (you had one of these already, right?). Then, specification in hand, you solicit quotes from artists willing and able to do the work, selecting the best one for you. Finally you agree upon payment and delivery and sign a contract for the work.

Preparation for Outsourcing

It's possible you've never really considered how much artwork even a simple game requires. This is where you change that. Before you can intelligently select an artist for your game, you have to know what kind of artwork your game needs. What is the nature of the artwork you require? Have you worked out how you're going to use the artwork in the game? And so on.

You cannot simply tell an artist "I need artwork for my game." And saying "I need 2D artwork" or "I need 3D artwork" is not even a little bit better. The artist is going to need as complete a specification as you can provide.

A good place to start is by comparing the artwork you want to an existing game's artwork. Collect screen shots of those games that represent what you want. While not technically a part of your specification, they provide a handy reference. For instance, it's much simpler to say "I want the terrain to resemble the terrain in WarCraft 2" than to fully describe what you're looking for.

Along the same lines, if you're going to need unusual objects, it's a good idea to collect pictures or photographs of the objects, preferably from several angles. If you say "mangonel" to an artist, she is more likely to think "weird fruit" than "catapult." With a picture to refer to, all such confusion can be cleared up before it starts.

Do you need any characters or creatures, animated or otherwise? Character and creature design is incredibly important. You need to at least have an idea of what these should look like. Create "background" material for all of the important characters and creatures to provide a conceptual framework for the artist. If a particular character or creature is extremely important to the game, then you might want to do a separate contract with an artist to do concept sketches and fully design the character.

If you need animation (and I assume you do), describe each animation sequence fully. This includes the duration of the animation and possibly the exact number of frames. If the animations should move or "flow" from one to another, map them out. If various animations need to "fit together" in sequence, this is something that must be stated up front. Correcting for this after the fact is nearly impossible.

Decide on the style and "mood" of the artwork you want. Determine how realistic, or how cartoonish, you want the characters and scenery. If you want a particular form of lighting or shadows, make sure you have this written down.

Create a list of every tile (or texture) graphic you expect to need. Include their dimensions and maybe a rough estimate of the number of colors you want them to use. The same goes for 3D models. List every one you expect to need and give an estimate of the number of polygons it should use.

Just as important as exactly what graphic elements you need is the final format you expect the artwork to be delivered in. If you require BMP, TIFF, PCX, or whatever, make sure you include this. If the graphic files are supposed to be True Color, High Color, or use a 256-color palette this needs to be specified as well. If a picture will include transparency information, you need to decide on a color that will be used for marking "transparent" pixels. If it's important that all pictures use the same "transparent color" then specify the exact RGB combination you want used. For any animation sequences you need, specify whether you want the animation as a single piece (e.g., an AVI file) or in separate frames (and possibly separate files).

There is no such thing as a specification that is "too complete" or "too detailed." Besides having something you can hand over to an artist, you will also have a much better understanding of how much work needs to be done.

Example Art Spec

Terrains and Variations

Total Terrains: 9

Total Terrain Tiles: 233


  • Plains/Grasslands
  • Hills
  • Mountains/Rocks
  • Forests
  • Jungles/Tropical Forests
  • Swamps
  • Ocean/Open Water
  • Rivers*
  • Deserts

*The Rivers terrain is optional and may be replaced with the Ocean/Open Water tile.

Terrain Transitions

The transitional pieces will be overlays. Thus, a solid color should be used where the underlying terrain may show through. Variations are based on NSEW directional combinations. Additionally, there should be NW-NE-SE-SW "corner" directional combinations.

  • Grassland/Coastlines (32)
  • Desert (32)
  • Swamp (32)
  • Hill (32)
  • Mountain/Rock (32)
  • Forest (32)
  • Jungle (32)

At run-time, the different transitions may be "stacked" based on the terrain type of bordering cells. The terrain precedence for stacking is:

Jungles, Forest, Mountains/Rock, Hills, Swamps, Deserts, Grassland, Water.



Total Units: 8

Total Unit Tiles: (6*44)+(1*24)+(1*64) = 352


Infantry, scout, cavalry, settler and militia units should be rendered from a side view. Catapults and ships would look better with a perspective similar to the facilities (I think).

  • Settler: Peasant with Ax
  • Militia: Un-armored Soldier with Spear and Buckler
  • Infantry: Armored Soldier with Sword and Shield
  • Archer: Un-armored Soldier with Bow and Quiver
  • Scout: Un-armored Soldier on Horse with a Sword and Buckler
  • Cavalry: Armored Soldier on Horse with Sword and Shield
  • Catapult
  • Ship (sail-powered)

Unit Variations & Animation

  • Standing at Attention: 4 facings
  • Attacking Animation: 4 facings, 5 frames each
    • (Ship has no attack animation)
    • (Catapult only needs 3 frames)
  • Reloading Animation: 4 facings, 5 frames
    • (Catapult only, can combine attack animations in reverse)
  • Dying Animation: 4 facings, 5 frames each


Final Graphics Format

  • 48x48 pixels
  • ...
  • The images should be delivered as True Color BMPs, with the final 256-color palette to be determined when all artwork is completed.

Collecting Quotes

Now that you have your specification, it's time to venture forth and collect quotes. This is actually the easy part, though it is a bit daring since you are actually asking people how much they charge for the work you want done. Business people will recognize this as sending out RFPs (Requests for Proposals).

If you have a collection of artist email addresses you could bulk email the RFP to them. If you're still building that collection of email addresses, however, you'll probably be posting the RFP on a public newsgroup or web-based message board.

Keep this first post or email as short as possible while still providing the necessary information. You want to keep the post short so that the busy professional you're hoping to attract won't be put off by a long, rambling message. Try to include at least a quick overview of the kind of artwork you're looking for. This will, hopefully, prevent someone who does artwork similar to "Precious Moments" from asking about the contract for your "Quake" clone.

Here is an example RFP:

*** I am in charge of a computer game development project that requires contract artwork. The style of the graphics should be comparable to WarCraft 2 and Civilization 2. The pieces I require include terrains (grassland, hills, forest, etc.), buildings (lumber mill, farm, quarry, etc.), and military units (infantry, cavalry, etc.). Most are in the 48x48 pixel range and will involve simple animation. If you have the time to pick up this project in the next 4-6 weeks, email me at Please include your availability and your rates. Thank you for your time in reading this. I look forward to hearing from you. ***

As you receive inquiries, don't hesitate to ask for examples of the artist's work. You need to know what style of work they do and whether their body of work represents what you want. This includes both the style of the work and the overall quality. If it's not what you're looking for simply let them know. It's best to hold out for what you really want than to accept a "substitute" that you're not going to be happy with.

Also, don't be shy about asking how much the artist charges and by what measure. If the artist is outside of your price range, it's best to find that out as quickly as possible. This minimizes wasted time on both sides. As for how they charge, generally, you're better off with an artist who charges by the hour than one who charges by the "piece" or by the model.

A Word of Warning: Expect to be sticker shocked! If you've never priced out computer artwork before, you're in for an interesting education.

When communicating with the artist, keep your messages as short as possible. Also, keep your messages on a professional level. If you are refusing a quote from an artist, make sure you specify why you are refusing. If you are refusing because you cannot afford their price, let them know. It's possible they will reduce the bid. In any case, word the refusal professionally. They will appreciate the consideration and might be willing to work with you on some other project in the future.

You might be able to convince an artist to reduce her price for a few percentage points of ownership in the final game. Or you might get lucky and find somebody who is really excited about your game and will do the whole thing for a flat percentage of the game, no cash up front. But don't hold your breath. Good work never comes cheap.

Even if you do not decide to go with any of the quotes you received, you now have a very good idea of what the artwork for your game is worth. You will have received time estimates for the work as well as cost estimates. With this information you could formulate a timeframe and a price and go the route of finding someone who will do the work for you for the amount you have in mind.

Contract Rudiments

If you accept a quote from a professional artist, you get to move into the wonderful world of contract negotiations. Full contract negotiations are outside the scope of this article, but here are some common scenarios.

Payment Scenario 1. You agree to pay the quoted price in thirds. You pay 1/3 of the quoted price up front, 1/3 at the "mid-point" of the contract, and the final 1/3 upon final delivery of the artwork. It's important that the mid-point and final delivery dates be specified up front, and this includes what work is expected to be done on those dates.

Payment Scenario 2. You agree to pay a certain per hourly rate. You pay for some number of hours up front, often 40 or 80. After that, the payments will be made in predetermined "blocks" of hours, again this is usually 40 or 80. The agreement should include a certain "total hours" that the project will not exceed. It might also specify a minimum number of hours.

Besides payment structure, it's very important to have in the contract that the artwork meet your satisfaction. This may seem obvious, but it should be covered. You need to establish a procedure for corrections and modifications to delivered artwork. A certain amount of correction and modification can be considered included, but there has to be defined point where it impacts the bottom line. If you need too many modifications, then the artist should be allowed to adjust the price. If the work is not satisfactory or does not meet the agreed upon specification, then the artist needs to make amends or lower the price. Along the same line, if you change the specification it's likely to have an impact on the timeline and on the overall cost. The idea is that you take some time at the beginning of the relationship to determine how to treat each other in professional manner.

Since you are dealing with a professional artist, she has certainly worked on other contracts before yours. If you ask how she has handled these issues in past contracts, she will likely be more than happy to fill you in on the details. It's possible she has a pre-prepared contract for exactly this kind of work.

It's important that you always have a legally binding contract in place before work begins. If necessary, a lawyer should be able to prepare a contract that is agreeable to you both.

As I stated before, a full discussion of contracts and contract negotiation is outside the scope of this article. Hopefully, this points you in the direction you need to take.


Just because neither you nor any of your team is a talented "pixel pusher" doesn't mean you have to settle for bad art in your game. A good business relationship with a contract artist is almost as good as having one on your team.

David "RM" Michael is co-owner of Samu Games and has made several online multiplayer games including Artifact and Paintball Net.

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Date this article was posted to 1/10/2000
(Note that this date does not necessarily correspond to the date the article was written)

See Also:
Running your own Game Company

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