Publishers: STOP HIRING ARTISTS WHO CAN’T FOLLOW DIRECTIONS

So before I start, two things:

  1. I’ll cop to the fact that this post is inspired by the series I just completed on Pathfinder – but it’s not about Pathfinder, if you catch my meaning. The problem that I’m writing about is a problem for the entire industry, not just for one or two companies.
  2. While I use particular examples, this isn’t me saying we need to run certain specific people out of the industry, although I’m pretty certain some people will hear just that. I can use someone’s work as an example of what not to do and still not say they should be run out of the industry with torches and pitchforks.
  3. I am NOT saying get rid of all sexy art in games ever, okay? FFS.

Now that that’s been said, let’s move on to the matter at hand:

When addressing the issue of “how does bad art get past a strong art director”, the thing that comes up again and again is the short timelines to produce a finished product, and not having the luxury of sending a piece back to an artist time, and time, and time again until they get it right. The number of times I’ve heard publishers say things like “sometimes you ask for a strong armored black woman in plate armor and you get porn”, and just shrug it off like there’s nothing to be done about it because that’s just the way things are… It’s kind of astonishing.

Take, for example, this comment by Erik Mona on a long-ago post about Pathfinder:

…we generally give our artists a loose rein to draw what pleases them, and the fact of the matter is that lots of artists, especially the younger male ones who like to draw stuff for comics and gaming companies, are fucking perverts. It must have something to do with all of those life drawing classes they take, or their focus on the human form, or whatever. As a class of people, artists are generally pretty filthy. The number of times over my 10-year career in this industry that I’ve had to send back an image with a note like “um, thanks, but can I get this without hard nipples showing through the leather armor, please?” would shock just about everyone… (full comment can be viewed here)

And trust me, this mirrors pretty precisely what other highly-placed publishers both at large “mainstream” companies and mid-to-large indie outfits have told me[1]. This is a problem that isn’t just widespread – it’s endemic. This results in the sort of cheesecake where the artist was obviously not following the spec, like these images:

NotSpec
LEFT and MIDDLE: art by Wayne Reynolds; RIGHT: art by Eric Belisle

(You’ll note that two of the three example images I’ve picked are by Wayne Reynolds. I’ve even joked in the past about calling this Wayne Reynolds syndrome because he’s particularly bad for depicting women as sexual that were obviously meant to be depicted as powerful.) Check out these examples. In the first, we have a pirate that is meant to be sword-fighting some kind of were-shark, but instead she is contorting into the most spine-breaking boobs-and-butt pose imaginable so that we can see her incredibly unrealistic cleavage AND her panties. In the second, we have a female orc who is meant to be seen as a powerful warrior, shown in medium armor and bristling with weapons, with boobs that are perfect spheres, and are about 30 seconds from popping out of her chainmail top. And in the third, we have a character that is clearly meant to be shown as a capable mage, with a collection of scrolls and a magic wand, but instead she is being shown as baring midriff and sideboob in one of the most gravity-defying fantasy outfits I have yet seen.

AND IT’S A REAL PROBLEM.

It’s a problem for the intended audience of the product, because of how the product is perceived – in this case as being sexist. A few isolated examples here and there are one thing, but in the aggregate – given the large scale of this problem – it signals that certain game products are not safe for or welcoming to consumption by women. Some women will buy the product anyway, but a significant number will choose to invest their money in products they feel are more respectful in their depictions of women.

It’s also a problem for the publishers, because the potential loss in sales and long-term damage to the brand’s image of inclusivity isn’t the only factor being weighed. Whenever a publisher gets a sexualized image that is counter to what they asked for, it puts them in a situation where all of the available options suck. Do they throw their timeline out the window by sending the art back – something they might have to do multiple times, depending on how truculent the artist is being? (And trust me, some artists will flat out refuse not to sexualize their images of women.) Or do they roll their eyes and stick to the time line? Both choices are bad! PLUS, the artist is putting them in a situation where they have to spend extra time and energy to evaluating “how much of a problem is this”.

Faced with such a situation, most publishers tend to opt for rolling their eyes and moving on. (They might send it back once, if they have “lots” of time, but then go with whatever they get.) And as much as I rail against the glacial pace of change in tabletop game art, I can’t say that I entirely fault the publishers on that front. Publishing is a tough business! Gamers expect huge value at bargain basement prices! The margins are incredibly narrow, and all it takes is a small mistake for you to end up eating your shirt on a game. (Hell, even if you do everything “perfectly” as a publisher, it’s possible that circumstances entirely beyond your control can still entirely fuck your profit margins.) Breaking a committed timeline can be hugely expensive! So mostly, the people who can afford to be principled and “get it right” are the indies[2] – most of whom have day jobs and aren’t relying on publishing as a primary income.

That said, much as I understand the short-term decision to accept the individual piece of art in the name of getting a product out the door, the fact that the industry as a whole has put up with this incredibly widespread phenomenon as being a thing for so very long is baffling! Publishers will say things like “well what can you do” and “we have no choice” – as if there’s nothing that can be done about a problem that MOST publishers say they want to change, and which has persisted for decades. And then even after an artist gives them art that does not meet the spec that was requested, publishers will continue hiring the same artists over and over again! And that is BONKERS, because that kind of blatant disregard wouldn’t fly for creative work in any other industry. It’s unprofessional, and counter to the interest of the publishers who hire them.

For example, if I hired someone to design a logo for my furniture business and I got back a cleavagey woman humping a couch, I wouldn’t pay for that – it would be a violation of what I asked for. And I definitely wouldn’t say “I should give them more business” once that transaction was complete!

The helplessness with which publishers discuss the phenomenon of rogue artists is doubly frustrating given that ARTISTS ARE NOT UNICORNS; they aren’t some rare, incredibly precious commodity that must be guarded and protected at all costs. In the recent artists all-call that Ryan and I did for Katanas & Trenchcoats, we had eighty-five portfolio submissions. We’re STILL working on narrowing down who we want to work with, because the level of skill among the submissions is incredible! (Seriously, this is a good problem to have.) And yet, because we made such a focus on emphasizing that we wanted diverse applicants, a good many of them are people whose portfolios are deep and impressive, but their illustration experience lies outside the games industry.

Now it’s important to be clear. Sometimes there is miscommunication between publishers and artists that leads to delays that isn’t the artist’s fault, and publishers should ABSOLUTELY not throw their artists under the bus when that happens. Trust me, as someone who has done freelance game illustration, I feel that very keenly. Sometimes publishers ask for a draft, then flat out change their mind. Sometimes what is needed isn’t clear and it takes some back and forth to discover what that is. And that’s fine! I’m talking only about bad-faith approaches to art specs, because the people I’m talking about are repeat offenders. They do this shit over, and over, and over, and over again – and it shows quite clearly in their body of work.

Admittedly, finding new artists does take work. As you might imagine, going through 85 portfolios, narrowing down which artists would be a fit for your project, and deciding from there is something that takes a lot of time! And a lot of publishers have a stable of artists that they like to work with – artists that they know and have worked with in the past. Given the volumes of art required for a typical game book, which can have hundreds of full-color illustrations, going back to the same artists you’ve worked with in the past is just one less decision that needs to be made.

But in the long run, getting rid of artists who can’t follow the instructions you give them for what you are looking for in an illustration will pay off. You’ll get art that matches your creative vision, that doesn’t tarnish your brand by association, and that doesn’t force you to choose between satisfying your morals and honoring business commitments. (Because the thing is, every publisher I’ve talked to will say this is a problem, and that they would like to see it change.) As long as everyone’s response is to throw their hands in the air and claim that NOTHING CAN BE DONE, no substantial change will ever be made!

As publishers, we can make things SO much better by simply insisting on the absolute minimum standards of professionalism when dealing with artists; if your artists can’t be bothered to give you, THE CLIENT, what you are asking for, tell them that you need them to pay attention to the specs as written. And if they still don’t follow it? Fire them and hire a different artist.

[1] This tends to be less of a problem for micro-publishers like myself, because micro-publishers tend to either 1) do the art themselves 2) use stock art 3) work out a trade arrangement with a friend who won’t fuck them over. There are exceptions, sure, but any time you have a shoe-string budget, you end up doing more yourself, which means you keep more CONTROL to yourself.

[2] There are exceptions, of course – Evil Hat, Pelgrane Press, and Magpie Games being the most notable.

38 thoughts on “Publishers: STOP HIRING ARTISTS WHO CAN’T FOLLOW DIRECTIONS

  1. Having a strong art director who is already familiar with your artists work can be a godsend. Between Fred Hicks, Marissa Kelly, and Brian Patterson, we’ve been crazy lucky to have a large network of artists to draw from, who we have previous examples of their work already being close the to spec we’re looking for. Building those networks takes time and sometimes means we have to push back a project to get on an artist’s schedule, but it is so worth it.

  2. I don’t even understand how this ends up being a problem. I mean, I know it is… I have eyes. I just don’t understand how it gets there.

    If I hire someone to replace my carpet with wood flooring at my house, and they come in and install tile I don’t say “well crap, I don’t have time for you to redo it, I guess here’s your money.” I tell them “this isn’t what I asked for” and don’t pay them. And, following on from that, I sure as hell don’t hire them to re-floor my next room!

    As you noted, there’s a lot of artists out there who could do at least an adequate job. And when someone is talking about accepting art that doesn’t meet their specs because they don’t have time to get it redone, adequate is sufficient.

    The only take-away I have from this, as an end product consumer, is that the “strong art directors” aren’t actually strong art directors, and they are blowing smoke up my *** when they claim that there is nothing they could do, the artist [who they have extensive dealings with] just won’t follow their instructions.

    ./endrant

    • I’d advise anyone who is working with artists to request to see thumbnails and sketches before approving anything final to nip this in the bud. Also, if you have any lines you want drawn, say so up front.

      Ironically, my latest project has a variant cover by an artist know primarily known for adult content and I did not have this problem. (The commission was not NSFW).

    • @ thedoctor:

      I think that for large companies, there are a couple things at work, perhaps specific to game publishing. Such companies make money by selling product; once the product is sold, they make money by selling more product (supplements, adventures, campaigns, etc.). Enthusiasts of a system want product support…and in a timely fashion…or they take their money elsewhere. And if they start playing and enjoying a different (better supported) system, then that’s (potentially) a lost client who won’t return to buy new product.

      For small publishers who have day jobs, it’s not an issue. For large companies that employ bunches of people and who need to keep writing paychecks, it IS. No product sold means no revenue. New releases are cash infusions used to make payroll.

      It thus becomes a matter of expedience. Here is artwork that has the acceptable quality of craft and that stylistically fits the customers’ expectations. And we know the client is already invested in the game AND has purchased the product in the past. Do we get the product out the door on time to meet the needs of the customer? Or do we delay the production and risk customers jumping ship or failing to pay (and thus losing) the people who work for us? Of having our business fall apart?

      To use your analogy: if you asked a contractor to update the kitchen of a property you owned because you needed to sell it (because that’s what you did for a living and it wouldn’t sell without a kitchen), and the contractor finished it in a way that you found tasteless or unacceptable, but was GOOD ENOUGH FOR THE BUYER (and you needed to move the property in order to pay yourself and the other folks working for you), THEN what would you do? Hell, it’s not like YOU have to live in the house…it’s just a way to make a living.

      Until such time as people stop voting with their wallets (i.e. giving money to the company), it’ll be a persistent problem for large companies of the “don’t fix what ain’t broke” mentality, even if some members of the company find it PERSONALLY objectionable. Which is shitty for all the reasons Wunder outlines above…but there’s a lot of shitty-ness in capitalism.

      • I think with Pathfinder in particular, it doesn’t help that they’re catering to (and cultivating) an unhealthy fanbase. After you’ve got enough racist fluff, sexist artwork, and overcomplicated rules, there’s like a critical mass of people who love it that way, and can’t even stand the thought that maybe we shouldn’t punish people for wanting to play certain character types.

        Pathfinder is built with percent backwards compatibility in mind. Even when that means holding onto the worst parts of historical D&D’s audience, and the rules and cultural conventions that attract them. For better or worse, they’re now where you go when you don’t want people of different genders, ethnicities, or preferred “classes” to interfere, when you want to get your wizard on. And the people who make it largely seem comfortable with that.

        Every now and then they do something like introduce a token trans character, or associate opposition to abortion with a Lawful Evil deity, and the forums explode with indignation. An indignation that’s absent when they stereotype different ethnicities as monsters or exotic others, write rapey fluff, or focus on (largely white) humans, to the point of shaming people who want to play something sufficiently different.

  3. You lost all credibility with me right about here “This results in the sort of cheesecake where the artist was obviously not following the spec, like these images:”. This is the exact spot where the wheels came completely off your argument. You completely failed to provide teh spec that the artists were given for those images. For all any of us reading your rant know those pieces follow spec to a T and may even have been sent back repeatedly to bring them closer in line to what was desired.

    I am sorry, but I have trouble taking you seriously when you say ‘Stop hiring artist who can’t follow directions” and then fail to provide the direction that teh artists of the art show allegedly couldn’t follow.

    It makes you come off as the poster boy for “somewhere on teh internet someone is offended by something”.

    A real pity, as I would tend to agree with you otherwise.

    • Speaking as someone who’s been on the production end of this (or rather, the development end, and had to watch helplessly as an AD took your art notes, gave them to an artist, got back stupid cheesecake, and went, “eh, tits sell” and slapped in a book) – her argument holds water, believe me.

      • Speaking as an artist who has had more than one AD tell him to explicitly make a piece “more cheesecake” (an exact quote on at least one occasion) I think it’s a fair point to make. What it really comes down to is the tastes of the art director in question and at the end of the day anything they let through the gates is on them. Sure time lines can be tough but none of the pieces posted above would take more than a few hours to fix at most.

        More realistically what happens is an art director will get bogged down juggling various artists and let things slide because they want to keep things moving but at the end of the day that’s still their call.

        • AT NO POINT am I saying that what you describe doesn’t happen. There are a lot of shitty art directors out there. I am addressing a completely separate phenomenon that is not that, so saying “but wait! some art directors tell you to put in more cheesecake!” is missing the point.

      • This sort of goes back to the ‘not actually strong art directors’ bit.

        It’s like, either Paizo does not, in fact, have strong art directors or they actually really do like art with giant boobs. Can’t be have it both ways.

    • I’m sorry, “lost all credibility”? So, please do enlighten me what experience you bring to bear in this situation? Because I’m writing this as someone who 1) has published games of my own 2) has done freelance writing for games where writing art notes for our content was part of the assignment and 3) has done freelance illustration for games, and have had to interpret art notes myself. In other words – I have experience of ALL PARTS OF THIS PROCESS. What experience do you have? Someone who likes to tell women they don’t know what they’re talking about on the internet in the guise of “constructive criticism”?

      The reason I don’t name names is because I still have to operate as a publisher in this industry, and naming names would result in burning A LOT of bridges, but I can tell you that I’ve heard this from people at all levels of the industry – and that some of the people I’ve heard this from are Big Fucking Deals – names that everyone who follows TRPGs would know.

      Whether you believe me or not isn’t my problem – that’s YOURS. If you want me to jump through some arbitrary hoops set by you with regards to “proof”, I’m not going to play. And if you think being the “poster boy” (NOT a boy, btw) for “someone on the internet is offended” is something that seriously bothers me, try again. With the things that have been said to me because I am a woman who expresses opinions on the internet about games, the idea that there are people who think I’m easily offended isn’t exactly a new one.

      So why don’t you take your condescending attitude and express your doubts about credentials and credibility to a woman who actually gives a shit what you think. (Spoiler alert: not me)

    • The art which drew so strongly on anime and superhero comics (gigantic thick weapons, oversized shoulderpads, postures which don’t work for athletic motion) was one of the things which told a younger self that 3.5 and later editions of D&D were not for me. I don’t figure I am part of a large enough demographic that anyone cared about losing my business, but it seems like the half of roleplayers who are female probably are …

  4. A title like “Art directors stop publishing cheesecake and soft porn” would have been much more on point.

    You are absolutely right that publishers will continue to get submissions that match what they have published in the past. And teh current standard of published images, especially of women is pretty low.

    Please understand that I offered my criticism above as constructive critique. The headline and article that followed seem like a bait&switch. I expected to see “this is what was asked for, this is what was delivered”.

    • I think that she is taking it as a given that publishers don’t ask for it, because they repeatedly say as much. Like in the quote that she gave, by someone who works on the game that the artwork was featured in.

      Your comments read like you have poor reading comprehension, and are (ironically) looking for things to be offended by.

      • Some art directors DO ask for cheesecake. That’s a thing that happens, as many artists will affirm.

        HOWEVER, Jewelfox is also correct in that I’ve talked to a lot of people associated with the publishing end of things who will tell off-the-record horror stories about the unasked-for cheesecake nightmares that get turned in. THAT’s the bit I’m talking about.

        As for your beef with the title, I’m not sure what your expectations were when literally the entire post was supporting the reasoning behind saying publishers need to stop hiring artists who can’t follow spec.

    • Because art directors and other RPG employees have told us repeatedly that the cheesecake is not what they wanted, but they had to publish it anyway because of tight deadlines. And those same artists still somehow get hired.

      • I’ve not done any work outside of indie stuff where I’ve been my own art director and editor; is it standard practice for larger publishers to skip the steps where thumbnails and sketches have to be approved by the art director before committing to a full illustration?

        • My understanding (or what I’ve been told by some art directors) is that they still get those thumbnails and sketches but that they tend to be looking for things like line movement and overall composition and rarely for how low the shirt is cut.

          • So art directors okay stuff they don’t want early in the process and later complain that artists keep giving them stuff that’s ‘problematic’? Are any of these publishers hiring, because this seems like a quick and easy fix assuming it’s something they actually want fixed – otherwise it strikes me as far more plausible that a lot of them actually like having tits out art but will make up excuses to cover for themselves later, because really this is not that hard.

            • If you look at Paizo’s subscription model, they’ve kind of set things up where they “need” to have X number of words by Y day, every month. This makes them, as a publisher, a very reliable engine for producing word salad, with a garnish of racist fluff and with cheesecake art for dessert.

              What I’m getting at is, I think they’d have to fundamentally change who they are in order to not have crap art. And given that their flagship product was based on the premise of neither publisher nor player having to change, I unfortunately don’t see that happening. Until someone puts enough pressure on them, from without or within.

              • Paizo sounds awful. Other than their half-assed resurrection of “Planet Stories”, they don’t really put out anything that sparks my interest. I wonder, though, if, at least in Paizo/Pathfinder’s case, this art is actually what they want/what they’re looking for and not “well the artists drew boobs and we forgot to tell them not to.” If those art directors are actually in the situation described in this post AND they don’t actually want this in their art but put it there anyway, they’re either bad at what they do or they’re lying about their artists.

              • I don’t actually agree with that assessment. The content model isn’t the problem, the people they contract to provide content are. There are lots of entirely wonderful artists out there who do professional quality work that manages to not be racist and/or sexist. What Paizo should be doing is getting rid of repeat offenders and replacing them with artists who do exciting AND respectful work.

                They wouldn’t be able to do it overnight, obvs. Their content production schedule is grueling, and finding new artists takes A LOT of time and is a process involving trial and error. But I don’t think there’s a problem with the episodic content model, per se. It’s a problem of using that model IN CONJUCTION WITH a pool of freelancers that has already proven to be tainted.

                I want to emphasize that there are actually some GREAT people who work at Paizo, so I DON’T want to universally castigate Paizo as an organization. Jessica Price and Wes Schneider are both people who have done great work, and who have been vocal advocates for diversity in the industry, both of products and of people producing games.

              • Well, yeah >_>; I appreciate Jessica Price’s doing so especially. I guess what I was trying to get at is that so far, they’ve put their release schedule ahead of this? But you’re right that the two aren’t necessarily exclusive.

                … I was also a bit frustrated with Pathfinder as a game, and expressing that frustration in a very non-diplomatic way. I’m sorry for doing so.

              • Also, I’ll be the first to admit that their stuff isn’t to my tastes. But LEAVING ASIDE PROBLEMATIC CONTENT LIKE SEXIST/RACIST FLUFF (I know, I know, that’s a big thing to leave aside), the design of their stuff is solid and I can understand why there are people who enjoy Pathfinder as a system.

              • I guess I disagree about the design of their stuff being solid. Almost to the point of classifying it as a system of oppression. ^^; Or at least “very inhumane design.”

                But I say this as someone who was extremely frustrated trying to make a Pathfinder Society legal character that appealed to me, and then faced a ton of victim-blaming and even “we don’t want your kind here” on their forums.

                http://paizo.com/threads/rzs2r8b9

              • Both that and Pathfinder society sound awful; looking at that, and I’m all “I can’t even…” At that point, in my game, I’d just be all “Here, have some werefox racial attributes stapled onto an Elf or MU class build” and you wouldn’t need to buy anything. Yay for B/X.

  5. On a tangential note, in that ancient comment you linked to Erik Mona reveals the fundamental misunderstanding of the Charisma mechanic that’s so prevalent so many games. Charisma has nothing to do with appearance (so saying “she’s wearing revealing clothing because it’s a high charisma build” is asinine) but with leadership. Gary split that shit out with a Comeliness Stat (which no one uses anymore) for a reason, yo – you can be ugly as sin and still command respect and attention or ridiculously hot and can’t get someone to do a simple task for you.

  6. I am with you on your comment Cirsova. A number of RPGs make the distinction. For example MERP & Rolemaster and other systems separate Appearance from “Presence” (Charisma). In every version of D&D (and sub-variants) since it was added in AD&D1, I add the COM (Comeliness) stat to all my group’s character sheets, because there is such a clear distinction between appearance and charisma. House rules example for 5th Edition D&D “5e”: http://www.spokanerpg.com/Members/hawke/files/d-d-5th-edition-house-rules-by-hawke-web-page-version-20141005a

    • Yeah, the entire purpose of the Charisma stat comes from D&D’s origins as a wargame for purposes of affecting morale and reflecting leadership. As it evolved into the roleplaying game as we know it now, it was used both for troop morale AND for adjusting reaction (eg Paladins’ CHR prerequisite means any party with a paladin will never encounter intelligent enemies who will attack on sight; wary and unfriendly, maybe, but the paladin will give them pause and a chance to negotiate.)

      Ironically, I feel like the Comeliness stat would’ve been more use in a skillpoint driven system like 3e, as it would certainly modify different things than Charisma. But it would also be a highly situational stat, and many of those situations either aren’t going to come up often or could tread too closely to creepy stuff that a lot of DMs aren’t going to want to deal with.

      • I’m heavily reminded here about the old 3e campaign of “The Temple of Elemental Evil” because in it there was a Goblin npc that you had to speak to. The NPC was detailed (and drawn) as being amongst the most disgusting and disfigured creatures that would be imagined but it was listed as having a Charisma of 18. As the DM I ended up deciding that this meant the Goblin had a charming persona and probably some posh accent so I made him say Sir and Ma’am a lot and made him speak like a British butler. It was that campaign that made me reconsider how I see Charisma and because of it I never have since seen it as being a sense of appearance. I’ll admit that I used to when I was younger and first started playing. Because of that a house rule that I usually end up using is to change the stat’s name from Charisma to Manipulation or Influence (depending on the group’s majority rule). It seems more fitting to say for example that a Sorcerer uses his powers by manipulating energies or influencing the natural magical forces rather than to say he can do it because he’s pretty.

        • Basically the Butler Fly from Courage the Cowardly Dog.

          And given the Vancian influence on D&D, charismatic sorcery makes a lot of sense, especially the later Dying Earth stuff in which magicians control magic through manipulating and coercing bound magical beings – you had to either be charismatic and commanding enough to dominate them or you had to be able to outsmart them at every turn.

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