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From Full-Time to Freelance: The Nine Commandments of Contracting (speech!)

Hi all! Back in December I gave a speech at the IGDA MicroTalks on the subject of transitioning from full-time employment to freelance art. It’s an expanded version of an earlier article of mine. Here’s the video:

Here are the slides of the speech:

From Full-Time to Freelance: The Ten Commandments of Contracting slides

Here’s the text of the speech:

Hi everybody! I’m Jon Jones and I run smArtist, a contract art production agency. I’m a freelance art outsourcing manager, and I deal with art studios and freelance artists on a daily basis. I’m going to go into some detail on what you need to know if you’re transitioning from fulltime employment into a career as a freelance artist. There are a few things you need to know that I’ve learned over the years.

I’m going to be speaking primarily to people that are taking the leap into freelance art fulltime, and not people that moonlight or only want to contract until they find another job. Some of my advice will still apply to people in those situations, sure. But I prefer not working with moonlighters or people that only want to contract temporarily, because the second they enter crunch or get a job, I become the lowest priority, I miss deadlines, and it affects my clients’ projects.

Without further ado, here’s my background: I’ve been dealing with contract art for nearly fifteen years, and have been a full-time professional for over ten. I’ve been a freelance artist and worked at an art studio, worked inhouse at developers as an artist and as a manager, and now I manage art teams as a freelancer. I’ve been on all sides of the contract art game, and that’s where I’m coming from.

A quick but important note I’d like to make: Always keep your resume and portfolio up to date. Pay attention to what’s happening at your studio. If you’re getting close to shipping, get ALL of that up to date, because that’s prime time for layoffs. Do you think the game is going to succeed or suck? Is your team unreasonably large? Is your contract up for renewal? Prepare NOW. Starting a contract or a job will take at least a month and a half on average, and that’s optimistic. Be ready. If you get laid off, you have a resume and portfolio ready and they should already be in the hands of AT LEAST ten companies by the end of the day. Period.

THE ZEROTH COMMANDMENT

Set up your own dedicated workspace. Do nothing but work there. Fundamentally, just don’t work where you play. You’ll feel like you’re always at work and will begin to really resent it and feel trapped. Trust me, it sucks.
Also, don’t play where you work. Just don’t mix it. You’ll never get any work done when there’s chores around the house to do, a TV show to watch, more Skyrim, pets to play with, or the promise of Hot Local Teens In Your Area That Want To Chat. (not true.) Do that somewhere else, on your own time. Set aside your own sacred workspace and keep that discipline. It’ll keep you sane.
What I did was turn my only bedroom into my office and put my bed in my living room. I’ll admit that it’s extreme, but that’s my personality and this works well for me.

THE FIRST COMMANDMENT

Thou shalt know the day and the hour.

Amateur: “I’ll have it done in two hours!” Delivers it in eight hours.

Professional: “I’ll have it done in eight hours.” Delivers it in six hours.

Manager Insight: If an artist blows his time estimates consistently, it erodes my trust in his ability to deliver at all. I always notice and remember. I don’t want to have to figure out “Amateur Artist Math” and do the conversions in my head: 2h = 8h, 4h = 12h, one day = two days. I am neither nanny nor mathematician. I have deadlines to hit!

I’ve been in a position where I’ve been stuck with an artist that won’t correct his behavior and that I can’t replace, so I actually have to lie about when it’s due just because I know he’ll be late if I give him the real due date. And obviously I can’t tell him I do that, because he’ll be onto me and will find another way to weasel out of it, once again leaving me in the dark on delivery dates. If you make me treat you like a child, no allowance for you. Sometimes that has been the only way to get the artist to deliver it on time, and this puts me in an odd and almost parental position. What does it say about him, his competence and his skills as an artist if he consistently fails to understand how long a task takes? Is that someone you’d work with again?

I understand that sometimes you run into problems. That’s fine. But if you’re going to be late,tell me. Trust me, I know how awkward it can be to approach someone pre-emptively and tell them something unpleasant. But I’d rather know so I can plan for it being late than simply not hear from the artist and get a late delivery. I have a boss, too. I report to my boss, and telling my boss it’ll be done on a certain day and getting it later makes me look like I can’t manage my artists or stick to a schedule. No one wants to feel that way, and that affects you directly, too!

I appreciate honesty and giving advance notice that you will be late. I do not like being surprised by a late delivery with no warning. In fact, that always irritates me. If you make me look like an idiot to my boss because I trusted you, do you think I would ever trust you or want to work with you again? Of course not. I’d cut you loose without a second thought because it is in my direct, immediate interest to replace you. No matter how cool a person you are, this is still business. Be a Professional.

THE SECOND COMMANDMENT

Thou Shalt Heed the Words of the Technical Guidelines Tablet.

Amateur: “Here’s the delivery!” File’s a technical MESS I’ll spend hours fixing. Textures assigned wrong, files named wrong, directories assigned wrong, total chaos. Bonus points for weird or profane filenames. (note: Not actual bonus points.)

Professional: “Here’s the delivery!” Files are properly named, textures are properly assigned, technical guidelines were met and I don’t have to fix anything because he paid attention to my instructions.

Manager’s Insight: I don’t know if the Amateur just didn’t read the doc, or if he simply didn’t understand it. If I explained it badly, I’ll cop to it. But please, try your best and ask questions.
My three options in order from most desirable to least desirable are as follows:

a) Repeat myself. Tell him to reread the doc and hope he suddenly gets it. However, this could be another blown deliverable if he doesn’t. High risk, very little time spent.
b) Explain myself. Write up a detailed changelist and tell him exactly how to fix it. Medium risk, lots of time spent.
c) Do it myself. Low risk, excessive time spent.

Ideally, this will never happen. Practically speaking, it totally will.

Don’t make me do your job. I respect attention to detail and people that think of ways to do their job well, understand my bottom line, and try to save me time. It’s good customer service, good business and the Professional way to act. It’s the mint on the pillow.

Honestly, no one’s perfect. Sometimes I’ll have to rename a file here, tweak some verts there. That happens. If it’s just one or two issues small enough that it would be faster for me to fix them myself rather than telling you, I may just do that. It’s likely that a client may not even mention it. But if there are a lot of issues like this and it happens consistently, that’s more work for me, and it’s going to really irritate me over time. This is Amateur hour nonsense. It makes us both look bad, and will make me rethink working with you again. Your mom doesn’t work here. Clean up your own mess.

Be thorough, check your own work, pay attention to the directions I give you, and be a Professional. A manager may not mention this as being one of the reasons he continues to send you contract work, but trust me, it is a major factor.

THE THIRD COMMANDMENT

Thou shalt heed thy client’s word to the letter.

Amateur: “Sure, I’ll incorporate that feedback!” Misses half of what I asked for and acts like nothing’s wrong. Did he not read it, not understand it or just ignore it?

Professional: “Sure, I’ll incorporate that feedback!” Nails every single point spot-on and (as a bonus!) verifies point-by-point what was fixed.

Manager’s Insight: This comes down to two points: 1) The Professional is showing me he pays attention to what I say, and 2) he’s focused on details and doing a good job.

Plan for this. I need time to review the assets and generate feedback. If my workday ends at 7pm and I get it long after I’ve gone home, that doesn’t do me a lot of good, does it? Especially if I have an imminent deadline.

This all comes down to this timeless adage: Under-promise and over-deliver. The earlier in the day I get a delivery you’ve promised, the happier I am. But if you dramatically overestimate when I’ll get the asset and I get it uselessly late, what good is that to me? I can either stay late at work — guess how much I like that? — or put it off until tomorrow morning.

Remember: You are not the end of the pipeline. You’re an important part of the process, yes. However, other people are lined up after you take your finished product to the next stage of production and finalize it. This takes time, and issues like this pile up and affect a lot of other people down the chain. Do not be the cholesterol in the artery of my project.
It’s easy for an Amateur to slack off, misread something, not double-check, or just let things slide and hope he’s not called on it because he doesn’t want to do the extra work. Maybe he doesn’t get called on it and it’s handled in-house. But just because a client may not bring it up doesn’t mean it wasn’t noticed and remembered. It absolutely should be brought up, but they may not have the time or desire to confront you.

Personally, I have no problem with confrontation, and I will be a jerk if I have to because I have a job to do. I don’t like doing that, and you don’t like being on the receiving end. Save us both the time and drama. Strive to be the Professional that makes a client think “Wow, he nailed it!” instead of the Amateur that makes the client think “Well, he completed items A, C and E but forgot B and D. Again. And now I have to either write it up or fix it myself when I have a mountain of other work to do. Splendid!”

One important point, however, that you may not realize: Sometimes — emphasis on sometimes — the sign of a job well done is the quiet, peaceful absence of problems. Everything flows smoothly, is exactly as expected, people are happy and there is no cause for complaint. Doing the job right simply may not bring open acknowledgement or kudos, but doing the job wrong is going to set off alarms that everyone notices. It took me many years to realize that, sometimes, lack of acknowledgement is something to take pride in. It’s not ideal and I try extremely hard to acknowledge and appreciate everything I can, but I have a lot to do and may not always be able to afford the time. Remembering this can keep you sane.

THE FOURTH COMMANDMENT

Thou Shalt Honor Thy Customer and Thy Reputation.

Amateur: “I’m just this guy that makes art. What’s customer service? If I make good art, that’s all that matters because that’s all they really want.”

Professional: “I’m a service provider and I take customer service seriously. I am an artist, but my success in that depends on creating art to my client’s exact specifications.”

Manager’s Insight: You are in the customer service business. Be responsive and make the client happy and maintain it.
A lot of artists coming from a studio environment don’t really have to worry about doing much else besides showing up and doing what’s asked of them. It’s usually hard for people to get fired for unsatisfactory performance, so a lot of annoying little habits and behaviors can get glossed over. (note: Everyone notices even if they don’t bring it up.)

It’s a lot like dating. You work out, dress well and try to get in “dating shape” so you can look as attractive as possible for potential mates. [Insert charming romantic comedy “how they met” story here, possibly starring Gerard Butler and Jennifer Lopez.] Then when you’re in a relationship, you let a few things slide because you’re safe. Contractors do this. Contractors should not do this.

This is the difference between being a contractor versus being employed full-time at a studio. As a contractor, you are ALWAYS dating. You are ALWAYS selling. You ALWAYS have to keep that standard of careful attention to detail, composure, and will to go the extra mile to make your client happy so you’ll keep working with them long-term. And even clients like flowers from time to time. (note: Please do not actually send clients flowers.)

THE FIFTH COMMANDMENT.

Thou Shalt Not Mock the Client with Feeble Protestations.

Amateur: “My dog ate my stylus!”

Professional: “I dropped the ball on this, and I will do my best to correct it.”

Manager’s Insight: I don’t want excuses, I want results. If you screwed up, be honest and let me know so I can plan for that. I’ve heard EVERY excuse. I know the difference between a reason and an excuse.

I’ve seen weird technical issues that are magically resolved when I try to step in to help.

Oh, you never got that email you had actually already replied to?

Wow, your wife\girlfriend DEMANDED that you nap through this deadline (true story!)

The list goes on. For my part, when I make a mistake, I own up to it. It sucks, it’s awkward, and I feel bad. But making lame excuses makes me look irresponsible, sloppy, and insults my client’s intelligence.

There is definitely a difference between an excuse and a valid reason. Sometimes it can be hard to tell the difference. But if enough of those stack up, that’s a red flag. It’s easy to think to yourself “These are all perfectly valid reasons! If they’re reasonable, they’ll totally understand and forgive me.” Sure, but the more mistakes there are the less I’ll ultimately trust you, valid or not. If I hear one more “It was an Act of God!” story…

Don’t be a mistake factory. But if you make one, just fix it. I don’t always really need to know the details of why, just that a mistake was made and that you’re on top of it now. Honestly, I just want results and honesty so I can understand the situation, troubleshoot as needed, adjust the schedule and allocate resources to keep production moving.

THE SIXTH COMMANDMENT.

Thou Shalt Start a Website and Find a Good Domain.

  1. you@yourname.com email is professional. If you use webmail, Gmail only. Hotmail, Yahoo, MSN, etc look amateur.
  2. Get a dot com. Second best is dot net.
  3. Avoid weird TLDs (top level domains) if you can. Also avoid subdomains.
  4. Bad example: “ieatpaper.iamaprofessionalartist.co.xxx.nz.abc.123.omg”
  5. If you don’t use your real name, be simple. If you say the name aloud, can people find it on the first try?
  6. Bad example: “Superdeliciousartistboythatmakesart.com/portfolio/lookatmeIamcreative!!11/”
  7. Avoid internet slang.
  8. Bad example: “lolwutplsbesrs.net”
  9. Avoid bad spelling.
  10. Bad example: “imaektehthreedeemodelz.net”
  11. If you must hyphenate, use only one.
  12. Bad example: “c-o-n-c-e-p-t-artist.com”
  13. Avoid complicated words.
  14. Bad example: “www.archaeologicalartisan.com”
  15. Avoid unintentional words.
  16. Bad example: www.FerrethAndJobs.com (yes, this is real, it’s a law firm)
  17. If it takes longer than three seconds to speak aloud or explain, it’s too long.
  18. Bad example: “It’s incompatenceingameduhvelopment.com, but ‘incompetence’ is spelled ‘i-n-c-o-m-p-a to be funny blah blah blah”
  19. Don’t pick something offensive. If it has to do with drugs, sex, poop, communicable diseases or Nickelback, reconsider your life.
  20. Bad example: “snotinmyhair.com”
  21. Short and simple is best.
  22. Good examples: “chrisholden.net,” “autodestruct.com,” and “twotongraphics.com”

THE SEVENTH COMMANDMENT.

Thou Shalt Know and Love Thy Web Tools.

(but not the Biblical “know.”)

Manage leads and deals.
Resource: www.zoho.com/crm/
Manage time tracking, billing, invoicing, profit and loss.
Resource: www.freshbooks.com
Shareable online documentation, spreadsheets, etc.
Resource: docs.google.com

THE EIGHTH COMM—oh, I’m done.

Thanks everybody!

Free agency is the future of video games!

Man, I really suck at posting notices about events where I’m speaking. Last night there was an event called Infinite Resolution Zero LatencyI at the University of Texas in Austin. They had several game developers taking two minutes each to describe their vision of the future of video games. After that, they adjourned to check out video games on the world’s largest HD screen.

Well, I got a chance to speak there on my vision of the future of games, and I wanted to repost the text of it here. Here it is:

Hi, I’m Jon Jones and I run smArtist, an art production management agency where I specialize in art outsourcing.

“What do I see as the future for video games?”

I’ll take this in a different direction: From a production standpoint, I see the future bringing more freelancing, free agency and freedom. As long as expensive AAAA blockbusters exist, dumb money will follow. Mistakes will be made. Studios will crumble, and layoffs will abound. Behold the system.

I see the rise of contract studios, of mercenaries, hired out on a project-by-project basis. They move nimbly from one client to the next, work with several in parallel and stay afloat to grow and prosper. This, rather than bowing to one master and hoping to see forbearance and returned loyalty where, in fact, that is often a non-reciprocal transaction.

This is a tough industry. And I see a lot more boutique contract art, production, and perhaps design and engineering houses opening and prospering. It’s a safer way to hedge your bets against studio closures, cutbacks and layoffs outside of your control and to take care of yourself and exist outside the system. It’s not for everyone, but I see it coming and I believe it’s a truly viable option for more people than you’d think. Working with people in this capacity is absolutely energizing, and I think it’s the future.

I did an “Ask Me Anything” reddit post about getting into games!

Hi everybody! For those not familiar with reddit, it’s [essentially] a website where people post links, create discussions and comment on them. There are tens of thousands of small communities there, one of which is called “AMA” — short for “Ask Me Anything.” Sometimes they’ll have celebrities, or politicians, or people in interesting lines of work. People submit questions and the person answering them does their best to answer all they can. More often than not, it’s really interesting.

Well, I did one recently on what it takes to break into the game industry. I spent about 12 hours answering almost every single one of the 250+ questions asked. I’m going to take all that content and turn it into a big long Q&A or series of articles for my blog here, but I wanted to link to the original thread:

I AmA 10yr video game industry vet that likes helping people break into the industry. AMA!

Warning: The language can get very salty, which is wholly unsurprising to anyone that knows me. :)

Hope you guys enjoy!

User interface artist tip: Three tips for a better portfolio

Hello, UI artists! I’ve been going over a lot of UI artists’ portfolios — particularly contractors, hint hint — and I’ve noticed three things in particular that I love to see in a good UI artist portfolio.

  1. Wireframes. It helps me get a sense of your talent, planning and user experience sensibilities when I can see different treatment of UI layouts. Bonus points for explaining briefly and succinctly the requirements and constraints you were following when you created the wireframes.
  2. Multiple treatments on one idea. This helps me see your creative and overall user interface design process to see all the different angles from which you develop ideas. The closer to final these seem, the better. Coupling this with showing wireframes also shows how you weed out less effective ideas and know which ones to develop into a stage that’s closer to final.
  3. Who-did-what breakdowns. I usually see user interface artists skew in one of two directions. a) Someone that focuses on the UI design from the ground up and develops the wireframes then hands that off to a 2D artist to finish, or b) Someone who’s more of an illustrator that takes wireframes and beautifies them and takes them to final. There are certainly people that do both, but it’s not always obvious which is which when I’m looking at a portfolio. If you can clarify this simply and briefly, it makes it easier for me to understand what you did and what you do.

That’s a brief breakdown of what can turn a below-average or average user interface artist’s portfolio into one that’s much easier to view and understand. On a final note, presenting this information cleanly and efficiently is, in and of itself, an opportunity to demonstrate your ability. :)

What do you guys think?

The Six Commandments of Contracting

I’ve been dealing with contract art for nearly fifteen years, and have been a full-time professional for over ten years. I’ve worked both as an artist and as a manager in a variety of settings. As an artist I’ve freelanced from home, in-house at an art studio, and in-house at a developer. As a manager, I’ve outsourced art at an art studio with internal and external artists, outsourced and managed entire art teams in-house at a developer, and now I’m a freelance art producer managing teams all across the world. And boy are my arms tired!

Suffice it to say, I’ve been through just about every contract art management position and relationship you can imagine. I’ve come to identify several habits and character traits that make me love working with certain contractors, and on the other side of that coin, I’ve identified a few that drive me up the wall thus ensuring that I will never work with them again. I feel the term “Dos and Don’ts” is cliched, and “Commit these acts at your own peril” is too Temple of Doom, so instead I’ll present Professional vs Amateur with relevant Manager Insights many may not realize.

This also applies directly to the way I approach freelancing now. I still have much to learn and I am far from perfect. In the past, I’ve made pretty much every mistake I list below. In a way, bringing them out in the open like this is a way to hold myself more accountable. I’m writing this just as much for my own benefit as I am for contractors. Everything I list here is something that I strive for daily so I can improve myself and be a better contractor for my own clients. Welcome to my catharsis!

The First Commandment: Thou shalt know the day and the hour.

Amateur: “I’ll have it done in two hours!” Delivers it in eight hours.

Professional: “I’ll have it done in eight hours.” Delivers it in six hours.

Manager Insight: If an artist blows his time estimates consistently, it erodes my trust in his ability to deliver at all. I always notice and remember. I don’t want to have to figure out “Amateur Artist Math” and do the conversions in my head: 2h = 8h, 4h = 12h, one day = two days. I am neither nanny nor mathematician. I have dates to hit!

I’ve been in a position where I’ve been stuck with an artist that won’t correct his behavior and that I can’t replace, so I actually have to lie about when it’s due just because I know he’ll be late if I give him the real due date. And obviously I can’t tell him I do that, because he’ll be onto me and will find another way to weasel out of it, once again leaving me in the dark on delivery dates. If you make me treat you like a child, no allowance for you. Sometimes that has been the only way to get the artist to deliver it on time, and this puts me in an odd and almost parental position.

What does it say about him, his competence and his skills as an artist if he consistently fails to understand how long a task takes? Is that someone you’d work with again?

I understand that sometimes you run into problems. That’s fine. But if you’re going to be late, tell me. Trust me, I know how awkward it can be to approach someone pre-emptively and tell them something unpleasant. But I’d rather know so I can plan for it being late than simply not hear from the artist and get a late delivery. I have a boss, too. I report to my boss, and telling my boss it’ll be done on a certain day and getting it later makes me look like I can’t manage my artists or stick to a schedule. No one wants to feel that way, and that affects you directly, too!

I appreciate honesty and giving advance notice that you will be late. I do not like being surprised by a late delivery with no warning. In fact, that always irritates me. If you make me look like an idiot to my boss because I trusted you, do you think I would ever trust you or want to work with you again? Of course not. I’d cut you loose without a second thought because it is in my direct, immediate interest to replace you. No matter how cool a person you are, this is still business. Be a Professional.

The Second Commandment: Thou shalt heed the teachings of the technical guidelines tablet.

Amateur: “Here’s the delivery!” File is a mess, textures are named incorrectly, texture file associations are aimed to random files and directories on his hard drive. Bonus points for weird or profane filenames. (note: Not actual bonus points.) Obviously, the directions and technical documentation I sent were either ignored or misunderstood.

Professional: “Here’s the delivery!” Files are properly named, textures are properly assigned, technical guidelines were met and I don’t have to fix anything because he paid attention to my instructions.

Manager’s Insight: I don’t know if the Amateur just didn’t read the doc, or if he simply didn’t understand it. My three options in order from most desirable to least desirable are as follows:

  • a) Repeat myself. Tell him to reread the doc and hope he suddenly gets it. However, this could be another blown deliverable if he doesn’t. High risk, very little time spent.
  • b) Explain myself. Write up a detailed changelist and tell him exactly how to fix it. Medium risk, lots of time spent.
  • c) Do it myself. Low risk, excessive time spent.

Ideally, this will never happen. Practically speaking, it totally will.

When this sort of issue comes up, my ideal option is option A. I do NOT want option B because there is a 50/50 chance that the amount of time I’d spend re-explaining the task and what to do about it would take longer than doing it myself. That’s a slippery slope toward option C, which is the LAST thing I want. In option C, now I’m doing your work for you, and why should I have to? It’s obvious to my boss at this point that I’m wasting time and money, and that makes me look like a chump. This will ultimately affect you as well, because it’s not hard tracing the problem back to its source. (I’d like to point out that option C is a sign that I’m doing my job badly.)

Don’t make me do your job. I respect attention to detail and people that think of ways to do their job well, understand my bottom line, and try to save me time. It’s good customer service, good business and the Professional way to act. It’s the mint on the pillow.

Honestly, no one’s perfect. Sometimes I’ll have to rename a file here, tweak some verts there. That happens. If it’s just one or two issues small enough that it would be faster for me to fix them myself rather than telling you, I may just do that. It’s likely that a client may not even mention it. But if there are a lot of issues like this and it happens consistently, that’s more work for me, and it’s going to really irritate me over time. This is Amateur hour nonsense. It makes us both look bad, and will make me rethink working with you again. Your mom doesn’t work here. Clean up your own mess.

Be thorough, check your own work, pay attention to the directions I give you, and be a Professional. A manager may not mention this as being one of the reasons he continues to send you contract work, but trust me, it is a major factor.

The Third Commandment: Thou shalt heed thy client’s word to the letter.

Amateur: “Sure, I’ll incorporate that feedback!” Misses half of what I asked for and acts like nothing’s wrong. Clearly, he either didn’t read the feedback again, tried to remember all of it and failed, or just ignored half of it. All of this sucks equally.

Professional: “Sure, I’ll incorporate that feedback!” Nails every single point spot-on and (as a bonus!) verifies point-by-point what was fixed.

Manager’s Insight: This comes down to two points: 1) The Professional is showing me he pays attention to what I say, and 2) he’s focused on details and doing a good job. It’s easy for an Amateur to slack off, misread something, not double-check, or just let things slide and hope he’s not called on it because he doesn’t want to do the extra work. Maybe he doesn’t get called on it and it’s handled in-house. But just because a client may not bring it up doesn’t mean it wasn’t noticed and remembered. It absolutely should be brought up, but they may not have the time or desire to confront you.

Personally, I have no problem with confrontation, and I will be a bastard if I have to because I have a job to do. I don’t like doing that, and you don’t like being on the receiving end. Save us both the time and drama. Strive to be the Professional that makes a client think “Wow, he nailed it!” instead of the Amateur that makes the client think “Well, he completed items A, C and E but forgot B and D. Again. And now I have to either write it up or fix it myself when I have a mountain of other work to do. Splendid!”

One important point, however, that you may not realize: Sometimes — emphasis on sometimes — the sign of a job well done is the quiet, peaceful absence of problems. Everything flows smoothly, is exactly as expected, people are happy and there is no cause for complaint. Doing the job right simply may not bring open acknowledgement or kudos, but doing the job wrong is going to set off alarms that everyone notices. It took me many years to realize that, sometimes, lack of acknowledgement is something to take pride in. It’s not ideal and I try extremely hard to acknowledge and appreciate everything I can, but I have a lot to do and may not always be able to afford the time. Remembering this can keep you sane.

The Fourth Commandment: Thou shalt be mindful, for the End of Day is nigh.

Amateur: “I’ll have it ready for you by the end of the day!” Submits the deliverable at 3am, which is the end of HIS working day but is eight hours after I’ve left work and gone home.

Professional: “I’ll have it ready for you by the end of the day!” Submits the deliverable at 3pm, so I have another four hours to review it and write feedback.

Manager’s Insight: End of Day means the end of MY day, not the end of YOUR day, night owl. Plan for this. I need time to review the assets and generate feedback. If my workday ends at 7pm and I get it long after I’ve gone home, that doesn’t do me a lot of good, does it? Especially if I have an imminent deadline.

This all comes down to this timeless adage: Under-promise and over-deliver. The earlier in the day I get a delivery you’ve promised, the happier I am. But if you dramatically overestimate when I’ll get the asset and I get it uselessly late, what good is that to me? I can either stay late at work — guess how much I like that? — or put it off until tomorrow morning.

Remember: You are not the end of the pipeline. You’re an important part of the process, yes. However, other people are lined up after you take your finished product to the next stage of production and finalize it. This takes time, and issues like this pile up and affect a lot of other people down the chain. Do not be the cholesterol in the artery of my project.

The Fifth Commandment: Honor thy customer and thy reputation.

Amateur: “I’m just this guy that makes art. What’s customer service? If I make good art, that’s all that matters because that’s all they really want.”

Professional: “I’m a service provider and I take customer service seriously. I am an artist, but my success in that depends on creating art to my client’s exact specifications.”

Manager’s Insight: You are in the customer service business. A lot of artists coming from a studio environment don’t really have to worry about doing much else besides showing up and doing what’s asked of them. It’s usually hard for people to get fired for unsatisfactory performance, so a lot of annoying little habits and behaviors can get glossed over. (note: Everyone notices even if they don’t bring it up.)

It’s a lot like dating. You work out, dress well and try to get in “dating shape” so you can look as attractive as possible for potential mates. [Insert charming romantic comedy “how they met” story here, possibly starring Gerard Butler and Jennifer Lopez.] Then when you’re in a relationship, you let a few things slide because you’re safe. Contractors do this. Contractors should not do this.

This is the difference between being a contractor versus being employed full-time at a studio. As a contractor, you are ALWAYS dating. You are ALWAYS selling. You ALWAYS have to keep that standard of careful attention to detail, composure, and will to go the extra mile to make your client happy so you’ll keep working with them long-term. And even clients like flowers from time to time. (note: Please do not actually send clients flowers.)

The Sixth Commandment: Thou shalt not mock the client with feeble protestations.

Amateur: “My dog ate my stylus!”

Professional: “I dropped the ball on this, and I will do my best to correct it.”

Manager’s Insight: I’ve heard every excuse in the book. Weird technical issues that are magically resolved when I try to step in to help, you never got that email you had actually already replied to, your wife\girlfriend DEMANDED that you nap through this deadline (true story!), and the list goes on. For my part, when I make a mistake, I own up to it. It sucks, it’s awkward, and I feel bad. But making lame excuses makes me look irresponsible, sloppy, and insults my client’s intelligence.

There is definitely a difference between an excuse and a valid reason. Sometimes it can be hard to tell the difference. But if enough of those stack up, that’s a red flag. It’s easy to think to yourself “These are all perfectly valid reasons! If they’re reasonable, they’ll totally understand and forgive me.” Sure, but the more mistakes there are the less I’ll ultimately trust you, valid or not. If I hear one more “It was an Act of God!” story…

Don’t be a mistake factory. But if you make one, just fix it. I don’t always really need to know the details of why, just that a mistake was made and that you’re on top of it now. Honestly, I just want results and honesty so I can understand the situation, troubleshoot as needed, adjust the schedule and allocate resources to keep production moving.

Conclusion

Overall, these are pretty basic guidelines that may seem obvious at first glance, but so much more thought than you realize goes into dealing with issues stemming from not heeding them. I hope that this list and the Manager’s Insights prove to be useful to contractors that really care about being a Professional and want to be at the top of their game!

Artists, managers and clients: Is there anything you’d add to this list? I’d love to hear from you!

How NOT to hire an artist

[edit] WOW! Absolutely unbelievable level of response to this. Thanks SO much everybody. BTW, I’m @jonjones on Twitter. :) [/edit]

I was browsing Reddit earlier today, as is my morning routine, and I came across an article called How to hire an artist. This article has been widely panned and criticized by artists and people with the capacity to think, and rightly so. The more I read it, the more it irks me, and I wanted to issue a point-by-point response.

Original article link.

How to find an artist:

I recommend looking through art sites such as Deviantart for an artist which suits your taste, or any other site that has a decent art community such as Newgrounds. There’s a few reasons you want to find an artist this way. First of all, they’re cheaper. These guys aren’t used to making a lot of money for their work so they will be more appreciative of the chance even if they are being payed slightly less than what professionals are payed.

That’s a bit misleading. I know many extremely high-rent, talented and quite expensive professionals that host their work on DeviantArt and these other sites. Just because they’re on this site doesn’t mean that they’re automatically cheaper. There’s going to be a wide spread of artists at all skill levels and price points.

Second, stating openly that going cheap is the top priority when looking for an artist is dumb. Art is NOT a commodity. Matching the artist to the task is important. If I’m contracting out creation of the game’s main character, I pay more for a better artist to do it because more eyes will be on that asset for longer, and it’ll be scrutinized very closely by players.

But if I’m looking for basic background props like crates and barrels, I tend to look for lower-cost volume vendors. At the end of the day, you get what you pay for, and learning how best to allocate your resources to achieve your project’s development goals is important.

Sometimes budgets are limited and you need to hire inexpensive artists. Nothing wrong with that. But in my experience, the world isn’t divided into “cheap, inexperienced artist” vs “expensive, talented artist.” Every contract is different and every artist is different. People are motivated by different things, and if your financial means are limited, you can still do a lot if you can find what it is they actually care about that you can offer them. I’ve gotten to work with extremely top-shelf artists on low budgets because:

  1. I can offer a steady volume of work over time that I can commit to contractually,
  2. We negotiate a specific number of revisions in the contract, and pay for all revisions above that number. This is SHOCKINGLY uncommon, and I’ve gotten unbelievable price breaks on this because it essentially removes the bulk of the risk to the artist. Getting stuck in infinite revisions and never being paid sucks, and showing up-front that YOU understand THEIR concern and THEIR risks and genuinely want to be fair goes a long way.
    This also forces you to assign a specific dollar cost to changing your mind on anything later, and will encourage you to get better at planning and making good decisions.
  3. I can negotiate their name in the credits. Sadly, this is also very uncommon. This isn’t a straw man, either — I genuinely do have to fight with my own company\client to negotiate for this.
  4. I can offer them an opportunity to work on a type of game or with an art style they like but never get a chance to work with. I’ve gotten some awesome results from this. A lot of successful high-end artists sometimes get stuck on projects they don’t like and long for something different and fun, and being able to let them go totally nuts on something they can be passionate about and feel ownership over is enormously compelling.

Honestly, a predatory sort of tone comes through in the article that I really don’t like. I understand what he’s intending to say, but for god’s sake, you have to learn how to talk about it carefully. I’ve fallen into this same trap before with an old article of mine. You should be more mindful.

Second of all, they’re better. The quality of art you can find through this method is pretty amazing, and the vast amount of artists guarantee you will find something that suits your tastes and needs. Unless you have a specific price you want to pay in mind, ask THEM what they are willing to charge for the project. This usually causes people to give offers that are lower than what you normally pay, and will make them happy.

I don’t know why he thinks that cheaper, apparently inexperienced artists are going to be inherently better than seasoned professionals. I do agree that you can find diamonds in the rough and great talent rather easily on sites like that around which artists congregate, however.

The last half is actually a common negotiation technique: Whoever gives the first number loses. If you intentionally seek out inexperienced artists not familiar with negotiation and lead them into that trap, then sure, you’ll probably get lower prices. That doesn’t make it any less of a dick thing to do!

If I’m working with young and inexperienced artists, I prefer to be fair, be open, and try to teach them the ropes (within reason) as we go. If I’m in a position to help educate them on the job to become better and more effective artists, that benefits both of us and, in a broader sense, the industry as a whole.

I like working with smart, experienced people, and if I can do my small part to help people learn to be more effective professionals, I’ll gladly do it. Every young artist I shepherd along is going to be a better artist for his next client, and so on. We’re all in this together… and I’m not a fan of milking the informational advantage I have over the artists just to save a few bucks.

The obvious downside of this, though, is what if that artist figures out you’re screwing him? All he has to do is talk to another artist. Losing an artist in the middle of a contract or a project sucks! If you approach the beginning of the contract with openness and mutual respect, you’re more likely to retain that artist for the long term, which benefits you and your project enormously.

Think long-term and don’t get caught in the trappings of short-term sacrificial gains… it always pays off to play it straight and honest.

How NOT to find an artist:

Do not look for either professional artists, or an artist that has done a lot of game design work in the past.

This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever read. Don’t hire experienced professionals? This guy must not value his time at ALL.

I think of it this way: I’d rather pay 20% more for a professional that’ll deliver exactly what I want the way I want it THE FIRST TIME because he knows how to make game-ready assets, than to spend VAST amounts of my time managing and tweaking an inexperienced artist’s work because he doesn’t know how to develop usable game art and I have to teach them as I go. I’ve been caught in this trap before and I hate it. This piece of advice is bad for artists AND managers.

The problem with artists who do this as their full time job is that they’re usually expensive. Compared to what you can find through art sites, these guys tend to cost an arm and a leg.

Did it occur to you that they might be expensive for a reason? (hint: It’s because they know what they’re doing and will save you time on endless revisions and novice mistakes. Everything costs.)

Artists who have done a lot of game design work are also bad for a similar reason, they know how much flash games can earn so they expect a decent percentage of the profit.

I’ve been involved in managing dozens of projects of all kinds, including Flash-based games, and I’ve never had a single artist ever ask me for percentage of the game’s profit. Nor would I ever consider offering it.

Most intelligent artists see “I’ll pay you a percentage!” as code for “I am cheap, this game will never launch and I will waste your time but act as though you are my slave because of Massive Future Profits!”

This is another side effect of working only with inexperienced artists: They’re naive enough to think that’s actually a good deal! Most smart, professional, effective artists are strictly work-for-hire because they’ve made that mistake in the past.

There are certainly exceptions to this. I’ll be the first to admit that my experience is PC and console-heavy, and less Flash-based games. But the general principle here still holds true.

Artist payment:

Make it clear to whomever you hire that they will not be payed until ALL the work is completed, unless it is completed by a predefined date, and unless it matches or exceeds expectations.

There are no hard-and-fast rules about artist payment. In general, yes, payment is received when the work is completed. Specifying a due date for the work is a given. Meeting or exceeding expectations is also, naturally, expected and specced out clearly in the contract beforehand. However, for example, what if it’s a multi-month project?

In my experience, artists going longer than three weeks without some money or payment will disappear and never speak to you again. If you’re asking an artist to do an enormous amount of work for which he’ll be paid only at the end, he’ll likely never start or be slow at it.

My favorite way to structure a contract is to divide all the work up into discrete work units that the artist can invoice for every two weeks as long as the work comes in on time and is approved. That way, it’s essentially a steady bi-weekly paycheck. I’ve experimented with all kinds of different contract lengths and payment schedules, and two weeks is the sweet spot. It keeps motivation up tremendously, and I always push hard for that payment schedule.

Finally, don’t forget that, as a manager, the artist is taking a risk by working with you if you’re a new client. Artists get screwed all the time. If you can understand that and meet them in the middle and show that you’re honest, trustworthy and understand their concerns, they’ll be easier to work with and you won’t have to worry nearly as much about artist turnover.

The assumption that an artist should be grateful to be so honored as to be paid to work in the presence of your magnificence is insulting and demeaning. I’d like artists to want to work with me on my project. I’m not special just because I have money.

We’re all people, here. Fair pay for fair labor. One of my cardinal rules is NEVER to enter a deal that isn’t equitable for both parties. If I only have $X to spend and the artist wants $X + 20%, I try to find a way to streamline, simplify or otherwise adjust the scope of the work to make the cost make sense.

If we still can’t come to an agreement, I thank them for the time, and move on to try to find another artist. Often I’ll ask for a referral from the artist to someone that may be better-suited for the work. See, I want to establish long-term positive working relationships, and entering a deal where one side has vastly more upside than another is not kosher to me.

I’m not out to get as much as I can out of somebody, I’m out for each of us to feel we’re getting a fair deal and to have a long-term, positive working relationship. This benefits everybody. Artists get stability, I get great art at the right price and on schedule, and neither of us have to deal with the drama of replacing each other. Nobody likes churn.

Paying prior to the completion of the project is a bad idea for several reasons. Only paying for the finished work encourages the artist to finish their job faster, if you pay up front the artist has no motivation to finish quickly. Similarly, if you pay up front the artist could disappear and you may never get what you payed for!

This is HYSTERICAL to me. Have you considered that you have problems with artist turnover because 1) You hire only inexperienced, naive people you disrespect and underpay, and 2) You’re a really crappy manager that they want to escape from as quickly as they can?

This is a self-created problem. I have never had problems with artist turnover because I don’t treat them like ignorant slaves. There is a lesson to be learned here!

Keep them in the dark:

This relates back to what I talked about earlier. If an artist knows how much their artwork will increase the value of the game they will then feel they deserve that amount of money. This is not how a market economy works, you hire whoever is able to do the best job for the lowest amount of money, anything else is a loss of money on your end.

This is so deeply misinformed and ignorant that I’m actually offended by it.

One of the biggest driving forces behind an artist’s passion and motivation is the amount of pride and ownership he feels in his work. I remember that, having started in games as an artist, and I try to give that to the artists I work with.

Whenever possible, I explain to them the context of how important their work is to the game. I send them screenshots and news articles. I tell them what other parts of the game it’s influenced, I tell them how much the rest of the team loves their work, and I try to give them as much of a sense of ownership as I’m able to with the parts of the game they touch.

I’ve seen artists’ work transformed from merely average to truly excellent because they finally see the results of their hard work and the context in which it will be seen by players.

I’m passionate about the projects I’m working on and I try my ASS off to sell that and show other people why I’m so into it and why they could be, too, but I have to give them legitimate reasons for feeling that way. I go out of my way to try to foster a sense of them being on a team and being an important part of the project because THEY ARE!

Contract artists do not feel entitled to share in the profits on the games they work on. It is widely understood to be a simple work-for-hire arrangement. They get paid for their work, and then they move on when their part is done. Only an inexperienced amateur would even be irked about sharing profits and trying to seek it out later. Once again, this is another self-created problem from this article’s author. This is truly dumb and painful to read.

Timelines:

Give strict dates about when you need the art done (even if you don’t) and give consequences by deduction in pay if the art is not completed by the date. Unless the person you’ve hired happens to be very punctual, you will need strong motivation to make sure they finish the art in a timely manner. Try to only hire people ages 18+ (I may sound a little hypocritical here), kids are generally less reliable and have more IRL things come up that they can’t control. I’ve had several bad experiences with this.

Setting due dates is, of course, a given. Deducting pay, however, is a completely dickbag move, and I would never consider doing that to an artist. What if it’s YOUR fault as a manager that the art is late?

No intelligent artist would willingly choose to put his earnings at risk because you’re clearly incompetent and may change your mind or create more work for him on a whim. I’d never do that myself and I’d never ask someone to do it. Just because you’re in a stronger negotiation position by being the man with the money doesn’t mean you need to be such a dick to people.

If an artist completely blows a date, use the termination clause in the contract to end the contract and pay him for the work completed up to the date of termination, and then don’t issue any further contracts. Then find a new artist.

Artists either succeed or don’t, and I’ve NEVER successfully motivated an artist to be awesome through the use of threats. Even if it worked, I wouldn’t want to.

And hell, man, if you’re concerned about giving them motivation to finish in a timely manner, see my notes above on how to encourage an artist to care about your project and make him feel involved. Not all artists are motivated solely by money, or by threats of withholding pay.

You, sir, are a terrible client and encourage everything I despise. I hope you change your ways and start treating artists better. However, now that your article has been this well-publicized, I’d be surprised if you can find a competent artist willing to work with you. And rightly so.

For shame.