The Art of Commissioning Art

Commissioning art for games is no easy task. The visual appeal is an important aspect of the overall product. How do people react when they see the art? How does it tell the story of the game? Is the artwork consistent? Generic? Evocative? Does it properly convey the game’s theme? Here are 5 tips on Commissioning artwork.

For Polyversal, I’ve been extremely busy on the artwork side of things. I’ve commissioned over 35 pieces of science fiction artwork (and more to come) from 2 different artists- Bruno Werneck (Tron: Legacy concept artist) and James Masino (War. Co. Card Game, Student, and up-and-coming major talent). Commissioning is no easy task. When you’re creating a game that is set in the future like Polyversal, or any game for that matter, the visual appeal is an important aspect of the overall product. How do people react when they see the images you present? How does it tell the story of the game? Is the artwork consistent? Generic? Evocative? Does it properly convey the game’s theme?

In general, as a publisher or art director, you write narratives for each piece of commissioned work noting the specific size and details of the piece’s vision.

Here are a few tips and an example narrative for designers / publishers working with artists to create imagery for games. This post skips the contractual side of things, which is also important for you and the artist and assumes you have already come to terms for the particular work the artist will do. At the end of this post, you’ll read a Commissioning Narrative for 1 pieces of Polyversal artwork and see the actual final artwork from James Masino- along with his comments.

  • Tip 1: Be specific. When you write a narrative for a commissioned piece of art, the artist needs to know everything that you have in mind for the piece. If you don’t have a vision for the art, you cannot expect the artist to create their own for you- and if they do- what if it’s not what you had in mind? Be specific and write down every key aspect of the piece that’s important to you as the publisher / designer / art director. It’s helpful to brainstorm a list of points you want to convey in your narrative before you write it.
  • Tip 2: Be flexible. You’re hiring an artist for their skill in creating the image you want. Each artist will have a certain style and set of strengths that you’ve likely been drawn to when searching for an artist. Work to their strengths and let them shine through. Have some flexibility in the final image and confidence in the artist’s ability to fill in details for you if you don’t describe them. This can include things such as lighting, color, expressions of people, mood, or environmental details. In some narratives, I like to add “___ is up to you” (lighting, time of day, etc.) to specifically note a point of flexibility.
  • Tip 3: Be sure. Nothing will turn off the artists you pay- like changing something mid-course. Before you submit your narrative, read it over- three times- and submit it once. Make sure it makes sense and describes whatever vision you have in your head for the piece completely and that parts not described specifically will fall within the realm of your flexibility. If you aren’t sure you want the piece or aren’t sure on the details, or it isn’t complete, don’t send it. Most importantly, try not to add details or changes based on things not previously described once the piece is submitted for final review. For one, this can cost you money depending on the change policy of the artist, and two, it will cost you time.
  • Tip 4: Be prompt. This applies to answering the artist’s questions during the creation process, amending contracts as required if something is added or changes, reviewing anything submitted for feedback, and most importantly, paying the artist when it’s complete (within the terms and timeframe of the agreed upon contract).
  • Tip 5: Be appreciative. Support your artists. Pay them first. Share their work and your appreciation of it. If the art is for a game that is crowdfunded, share the completed pieces (or a selection of them) with backers. And always credit the artist. This helps show appreciation for the good work they’ve done to visually complete your game. It also helps keep them in business as an artist which helps you in the future and helps them now and in the future.

Each piece starts with a vision. Each vision is transcribed into a narrative. Each narrative becomes art.

Here is an example commissioning narrative sent to artist James Masino for one piece that will appear in the rules of Polyversal. This piece helps tell part of the story of the game and is not for an actual game piece. It is important to set a mood of mystery in the game, which I think James nailed here. I hope you’ll agree. Feel free to add your comments.

Narrative: ScanFab Facility, 8.5″x5″ landscape

This piece depicts a structure- the inner workings of a ScanFab facility- secretive and sterile. Mostly white with hints of UN Blue. Or even Orange highlighted stripes and features in the walls and floors similar to Tron: Legacy. It’s a fairly large facility inside with massive power requirements. It’s also fairly bright but there are no windows since it is likely underground. Think of a rather large Subway station with a utopian feel… but for a different kind of transportation…

Regular ‘selected’ citizens (i.e. strong, healthy, fairly young) are lined up and about to go through a ScanFab ‘sending unit’ which I picture as fairly large. Maybe just the entrance to the room is shown…. Again, think sterile. Perhaps all are all dressed the same in some sort of hospital gown like clothing. There are men and women in line, maybe a few are talking. But nothing is forced. They’re selected and eager to be here because of it. However, there are also armed guards similar to a checkpoint at the airport… but only a few. There is a mystery of what occurs on the other side. No one has any belongings with them. Citizens are lined up to be ‘scanned’ for evacuation. But what happens to their bodies here? We won’t reveal that in this piece. We may never reveal it…

The idea of scanfabbing in the storyline is that the UN controls all of the sending and receiving units built for the purpose of evacuation. The receivers are in distant colonies (set up by those pioneers). The scan portion is in the sending process. The person is scanned in full and ‘sent’ to the receiver- scan information transmitted at the speed of radio to the receivers (i.e. just under the speed of light). The receiver portion is the ‘fab’ portion where the scanned subject is ‘built’ or fabricated from the same raw materials found in all humans- 99% oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, and phosphorus. About 0.85% is composed of another five elements: potassium, sulfur, sodium, chlorine, and magnesium. We may depict a receiving unit on a colony in another piece. An exact copy of the person is created on the receiving end- including the brain and all memories of the scanned subject from the sending unit. It’s like teleportation… but almost plausible?

This is Operation Polyversal- the mass evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people ‘selected’ to continue the human race off-world. They are evacuated only from UN-controlled countries and selected using some criteria that’s top secret. Not everyone can go- there isn’t time to set up enough space and life support off-world, we haven’t found a substitute for Earth yet- and there are just too many people on Earth. Plus… would the UN want them all?

And of course- there is mild protest to this whole process 😉

Here’s the final piece, which was accepted without any changes:

ScanFab Facility - Rulebook Image #3.png

(UN ScanFab facility for Polyversal. Art by James Masino)

James had these comments about the piece:

This one was the most challenging. It’s the first time I’ve tried to depict a crowd of people before! Nonetheless, creating this one was an interesting debate. There were a lot of elements to work with in the description, and for the story’s sake, I emphasized some elements more than others. On one hand, we have people who have been selected to transport- and they’re excited in a more hospital atmosphere built to deceive the ScanFab’s true purpose. On the other hand, this is the mass evacuation of the planet in a militarized society, and there is reasonable mystery behind what the ScanFab facility really is. I wanted the atmosphere to echo that sort of mystery that exists in works like Tron or Star Trek, where the viewer, and both the characters within the painting are questioning the world they’re in. The mystery of what is on the other side is truly the pinnacle of the end result. 

Whenever working with mystery in artwork, it always reminds me of the Ted Talk JJ Abrams did about this box of magic tricks his grandfather gave him when he was a kid- and still hasn’t opened since the mystery is more exciting than what’s actually within. Always something to strive for!

Hopefully you’ll find these tips useful- or at least see a bit of the process I go through when working with external artists for my games. Feel free to comment / share.


4 Reasons Why Every Kickstarter Project is Art

This post talks about the perhaps overlooked concept that every Kickstarter Project itself is a work of art. This work of art will be judged, perceived differently by different people, and be spoken of in any number of ways from high regard to low regard to not at all. In this post, I explore 4 parallels of a Kickstarter Project to an actual work of art.

I can’t tell you all of the opinions people in general have about Kickstarter. I use Kickstarter as a tool, as many creators do, to present a new creative work to the masses and hopefully raise enough money to make it a reality. The creative works in my case are games. But, they can be anything. This post talks about the perhaps overlooked concept that every Kickstarter Project itself is a work of art. This work of art will be judged, perceived differently by different people, and be spoken of in any number of ways from high regard to low regard to not at all. In this post, I explore 4 parallels of a Kickstarter Project to an actual work of art.

Brush and Palette (Source:


My art background dates back to when I was 8 years old. I showed an interest in drawing as many do at that age, but, my parents offered that I could take art lessons from a local artist living in my hometown, Barbara Capps. From my first lesson at age 8, I progressed through 14 years of formal training from Barbara in multiple mediums. As a game publisher and designer, I routinely draw on that background to both commission and approve works of art from other artists, to do a bit of layout work and graphic design, and to explore through game design different ways incorporate those years of lessons. I’m mentioning this background to simply note that I have had formal training in the creation of artwork, and I’ll pull from that a bit as I make parallels between art and any Kickstarter project page.

We’ll cover 4 parallels of art to kickstarter projects: Art ignites emotion, “Good” art is well thought out, Any piece of art has a limited time to make an impression, and Every piece of art invites judgment. Keep in mind we’re just talking about the presentation of the project- not the product itself.

Art ignites emotion

I think a good piece of art doesn’t just have a good composition or is just visually pleasing, which are both important, but, it also triggers an emotional response- whatever that emotion may be. In art, the emotion the artist is trying to trigger could be anything- sadness, love, empathy, excitement, peace, wonder, etc. The point is- that piece of art causes an emotional response.

Any Kickstarter project page (not the product, again, just how it is presented) should try and do the same thing, but, with a focused goal for that emotional response. For creators, you should come across with passion in your project videos or write-ups, otherwise, who will back you if you’re glum and un-interested in what you’re presenting? For backers, can you think of a project that just made you feel the excitement shared by the creator?

Buying, or backing in the case of Kickstarter pledges, is quite often an emotional response by the backer wanting to support the creator whose interests line up with their own. This can be for a game, a movie, a photographic collection, or any creative work that meets some need of the backer. And the need may simply be to support the creator and his or her passion for what they are doing.

Present that project with passion and you’ve got a much better chance of garnering support.

“Good” art is well thought out

I’m more of a realist with respect to art but I appreciate many forms of it. I’d say most works of art that I’d call “good in my opinion” are pretty well thought out. Think of the old masters. Did Michelangelo tackle the Sistine Chapel without a plan or a set of sketches? Probably not. And neither should a project creator.

Inside the Sistine Chapel (Source: Public Domain)


Think hard about a well thought out project you’ve supported. How much of that motivation to click “Pledge” was because the page was well organized, covered every question you had before you thought of it, and generally seemed presented as if the creator had put a lot of time into the process?

Before I pledge, I expect creators to have taken their time to craft a well thought out plan, to cover the main points of crowdfunding anything- including why I should support it. It’s obvious when I view a project page whether or not it was rushed. Did the creator think everything through? Does the project make sense? Is it too good to be true? Does the creator have a plan for production and delivery?

Present these aspects well and you’ll grab my attention- because I know at that point you’ve done your homework as a creator.

Any piece of art has a limited time to make an impression

I’ve visited a lot of big name galleries- most recently The Met and The Guggenheim in NYC- and seen countless works of art by artists across many centuries in many different styles. But, I can honestly say I probably spent no more than 1 minute on each piece of art, if that. If you’ve ever walked around at any art gallery, think about how much time you spent looking at each work? Was it 1 minute? 5 minutes? Hours? Some of these artists spent years creating whatever you’re looking at for 1 minute. But, that’s the reality of how much time we give those works of art. In that limited time, did that work make an impression on you?

The same is true with any Kickstarter project. Someone who clicks a link to your project page has no idea how much time went into that presentation, that work of art, but, they know within 30 seconds if they are interested enough to read more or watch your video. The project image is likely the first thing they’ll see. Next, the pledge goal, amount pledged so far, and time remaining. Next, either they’ll watch the video and read more about the project or they’ll close their browser and move on. You have, like a piece of fine art in a gallery, 15-30 seconds to make an impression.

Every piece of art invites judgment

I participated in numerous art shows when I was younger. I’d enter a work in an event, sometimes paying a fee, show up at the event, and see the results of judgment by others. In general, all art is judged. At gallery events, prizes like Best in Show or 1st, 2nd, and 3rd places, sometimes corresponding with cash awards, are given by the judges based on their very subjective opinions. Artists have no problem competing for those prizes and presenting their works for judgment. With art, everyone has an opinion- and they’re all correct.

With Kickstarter, as a creator, you must understand that people will judge your project. Not just the product, but the project. Some will pick it apart- others will withhold a pledge because you may not have done it the way they wanted it done or maybe they thought your asking price was too high. Be prepared that others will judge your work of art, your project page, and they’ll most likely openly criticize anything they see fault in, hopefully in a constructive and non-toxic way. As a creator, listen to that judgment and learn from it, possibly even adjust what you’re doing while the project is active (if within reason to do so).

With Kickstarter, everyone has an opinion- and they’re all correct.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, if you are a project creator, treat your page as a blank canvas upon which you’ll paint your story and why that story should receive support from hundreds or thousands of people you may have never met. Understand that you have 15-30 seconds to make an impression and ignite emotion in potential backers to learn more about what you’re doing. Think out everything. Spend a lot of time on this so that you aren’t constantly answering questions or adjusting things when the project is live. Understand that your project will be judged. The prize is not best in show- but- perhaps successful funding and whatever that may bring for you and your backers.