Kickstarter Lesson #87: Custom Art

18 March 2014 | 45 Comments

patronage final2Over the course of the Viticulture, Euphoria, and Tuscany campaigns, I’ve learned a few things about custom art that I wanted to share with you. Before I get to the nitty gritty, let’s talk about why custom art is a good idea.

Within an hour of Tuscany launching, the 32 slots for custom art were sold out. They were priced at $149 each, and they included a “Prima” copy of Tuscany, valued at $59. I think this is pretty typically for a project with limited custom art. It’s a nice way for a project to have an early boost.

Also, custom art is a good way to separate your project from projects that feel like pre-orders. This is a direct way to involve backers in the game that they’re helping to fund.

Now, some people say they don’t like custom art because it looks…well, it looks like custom art. When you’re playing a game, you want the effect to be seamless. The thing is, for any art of a person, the illustrator is going to use a model of some sort. So as long as you have a good artist who is able to integrate the person into the flavor and feel of the game, it might as well be one of the backers who helped make the game a reality.

Here’s are some key points to consider:

  • Pricing: Please be fair when you price your custom art rewards. You need to factor in two variables: The perceived value of the custom art and the artist fee. What that means is that you should charge more for the custom art than what the artists charges you, but be reasonable. You need to pay for the art either way, even if backers aren’t on the cards. I would say that the very most you should charge for custom art (putting the game and other components aside) is twice the artist fee.
  • Gender Equality: For Euphoria, I had one level for 48 different recruit cards. Anyone could back it, man or woman. We ended up with about 37 men and 11 women. We didn’t like that it wasn’t more even–sure, there are probably more male gamers out there, but we want our games to reflect the real-world population, which is about 50/50. So for Tuscany, I created two reward levels–both $149, both with 16 slots available–one for men, one for women.
  • Stretch Goals: This is something I’ve learned during the Tuscany campaign. When we launched, there were only 20 visitor cards in the game. The other 12 cards were early stretch goals. I didn’t want to bog down the sidebar with more reward levels every time a stretch goal related to these cards was reached, so I put all of potential custom art slots in the original reward levels and put a note in the FAQ about it. As we reached those stretch goals, a lot of people asked me if I would be opening up more reward levels. It created confusion for those backers, which wasn’t my intention. In the future, I’ll have the original game contents reflect exactly what’s on the reward levels. UPDATE: In the comments, Greg pointed out that Kickstarter now lets you change the number of available options on a limited reward level while the campaign is live. Very cool!
  • Pre-Kickstarter Custom Art: In a way, limited custom art levels are early-bird levels, which I’m not a fan of at all. The first backers to arrive at the project claim those rewards. This is good for the project, but bad for backers who discover the project a few weeks into the campaign. However, if you open up more custom art reward levels during the campaign, you devalue the previous levels a little bit, you add unnecessary text to the reward sidebar, and the same thing happens with any backers who happen to be looking at the project page when you open those levels. So I tried to combat this before I launched Tuscany–months before. Back in November, I mentioned in our monthly e-newsletter that we would be selling custom art for Tuscany’s mama and papa cards. Anyone who was interested could fill out a Google Form, and we would randomly select a certain number of “winners” from that pool of people to be given the opportunity to buy custom art for a card. That way it was completely open to anyone. I don’t think you could do this during a Kickstarter campaign because Kickstarter looks down on any type of random selection.
  • Ask for Commitment: When we put a game on Kickstarter, the development and design for the game is about 95% done. For Tuscany it’s probably even higher than that. What that means is that when the art and graphic design are finished soon after the project ends, we’re ready to go to print. Thus I have my artist work on custom art during the campaign, before any money has changed hands. We did the same with Euphoria, and after we had created the custom art for a few backers, they decided to cancel their pledge. Thus we had to pay the artist for their art twice. So with Tuscany, I was very clear with the custom-art backers that once they send me a photo, that’s a commitment to stick with their pledge. We’ll do everything we can after that to make sure they’re happy with the art, of course, and we provided samples in advance so they knew the style of the art. An alternative would be to not have your artist work on any of the custom art until the project is over and you’ve received the pledge money, but even then you should emphasize the commitment involved in case a backer asks for a post-project refund.
  • Be Very Clear About the Photograph(s): First, ask your artist what type of photograph they want. I’ve worked with both Beth Sobel and Jacqui Davis on custom art, and they both requested the same thing: High-res photographs taken specifically for this project (not a random photo from 4 years ago you pick off of Facebook) where the person isn’t looking directly at the camera and the person isn’t smiling with teeth. It is weird to take a photo like this, but trust me, all of those factors add up to a much better piece of custom art than if the person is looking directly at the camera with a big goofy grin. That’s not going to integrate seamlessly with your game. Also, Beth mentioned to me that it helps her to have one photo with flash and one without.

That’s everything I know about custom art. What have you learned from backing/creating Kickstarter projects with custom art reward levels?

Also see a complete reversal on my stance about custom art here (Tuscany changed my mind).

Leave a Comment

45 Comments on “Kickstarter Lesson #87: Custom Art

  1. I started reading you 3 days ago and it is really interesting and now I have my first comment (question) to make. What is custom art is? What I understand is that it give the chance to anyone to create his own card in the game and everyone is going to get this card.
    I would like to know a little more.


  2. Hello all! I tried to chose the thread carefully here as to stay relevant to the topic so I hope this is adequate.

    Anyone have any experience kickstarting a game with a large quantity of miniatures? Something like say, the new Hellboy project or Massive Darkness… what I am hoping for guidance on specifically is just how heavy the risk is. I am currently paying a very well known artist to sculpt at 800 usd per sculpt. As you can imagine that is a ton of upfront expense. Is this just par for the course on a project with a lot of minis? Or is there a trick to keeping cost down? Further, should I be prepared to eat the expense to keep the core price low enough to get backed?

    Thanks in advance to anyone with advice. And Jamey, your book is phenomenal. Just finished it tonight. Thanks for all you do!

    1. John: I would say a miniature sculptor is going to charge between $400 and $1000 per miniature. As for eating the expense, while I budget for sunk costs like art, design, and moulds, I don’t factor them into the price of the product (I base that on a 5x multiplier on per-unit production costs).

      Here’s an article about miniatures:

  3. The reason your artists like pics with flash and without is that front lighting in photography increases the visibility of unique details (freckles, moles, eye color, hair color variations, etc.) but simultaneously reduces the depth on details, so details of brow depth, cheek roundedness, smile lines, lip contour, etc are harder to see. Flashless pics will do the opposite by casting more shadows revealing other details.

    With a pic of each variety (bright lighting and high shadow) your artist can see all features across both photos.
    Compare even the right vs. left halves of your Gravatar as a unique side-lighting example that illustrates both effects at once.

  4. Hi Jamey, yeah when we realised we had enough budget to give away two character cards for free we got really excited! We’re still going to offer opportunities to get involved as a higher pledge level, but it’ll be at cost for the artwork, we want our community involved, we’re not trying to profit from it.
    Yes that’s one of the reasons we’re thinking of choosing entries (rather than a random draw), it allows us to consider gender, racial and physical diversity. But there’s a whole other debate! We talked to a small group of people and brought up the consideration of including disabled characters and we found some (not a lot, but some) resistance to the idea! I find that shocking myself! We’re certainly including disabled characters in our game, whether that’s through custom artwork or a fictional character, there’s no reason (in my mind) why disabled people can’t be represented in a game.

    1. Gino: Awesome! Yeah, I don’t think you’ll have any problems taking the choice into your own hands. It’s shocking to me that anyone would protest the inclusion of a disabled person in your game–it seems like a no-brainer not to discriminate against anyone.

      1. Hi Jamey, this is how we decided to go forward:
        We’ve opened it up to everyone but made it clear that *we* will be deciding the winner, it’s not a random draw. I thought people may be put off by that but it seems like people are still happy to take part. In fact, some of the ways people have tried to ‘convince’ us to choose them have been quite comical!

  5. Hi Jamey, thanks for the lessons, they’re proving immensely useful but I have an issue I’d love your opinion on.

    We’re currently on the earliest stages of artwork with our artist for our game Ghostel. We’re going to have a kickstarter backer level which allows people to be turned into character cards in the game. We’re currently getting ourselves turned into 3 cards (you can see Bevan here: but we have the budget to have 5 cards illustrated before we launch the KS campaign so we’re going to offer up the two remaining pre-kickstarter spaces to anyone interested in being in a board game, absolutely free! It’ll be a good way for us to showcase how the process looks from photo-to-cartoon and getting other people involved will make it a bit more fun.

    But here’s my dilemma, we’ll be offering everyone the chance to get into our game for free just by emailing us a photo of their funniest scared face and we’re going to pick our two favourites, rather than it being a random draw. Do you think that there will be people who aren’t picked who may be disappointed and therefore have negative feelings about the project? Do you think people would then be LESS likely to support the game because they missed out on being in the game for free?

    1. Gino: I think that’s a really fun idea! In fact, I like it more than having people pay for their custom art (you’ve probably read about some of the complications that can arise when there’s money involved). I don’t think you’ll run into any issues with you picking your favorites. You might decide up front that you want to choose one man and one woman just so there’s a level of gender equality–it’s up to you, but if you do decide anything up front, you’ll want to clearly communicate that to people. Thanks for sharing!

  6. @Jamey: I appreciate your opinion on this. I think it really arises out of my own misunderstanding of the first few KSs I observed. Your point 3) is particularly pertinent now that KS is becoming the mainstream for producing indie games.

  7. Jamey, this all assumes that the commissioned custom art becomes a part of the standard game: what do you think would happen if you were to offer a micro printing run of say 10 cards, so that the backer and a group of friends were all able to add this custom card into their pack… If you had a reliable artist (or group of artists) and a secondary printing chain that could produce nearly identical card quality to your core manufacturer, do you think you could offer a higher volume of custom card backing? Or do you think that the majority expect custom art backing means their face necessarily goes into everyone’s box, and that to change this would turn people off?

    1. @Martin: Thanks for your question. There are multiple difficulties that could arrive with this solution (but it’s a good question):

      1. It’s going to be difficult to find the exact same card stock at a company that would produce a small print run (compared to the big manufacturer).

      2. A big part of the reason custom art is compelling to backers is they like the idea that they’re making in appearance in all copies of the game. It loses its novelty if only a handful of copies are getting those cards.

      3. I think the concept would be very difficult to explain–it would lead to people buying into it thinking that they’re getting the standard form of custom art, and when they discovered it was just part of a micro print run, they would likely be disappointed.

      4. You still run into a lot of the issues of custom art I discuss here (this goes for any form of custom art):

  8. I am soon launching my first kickstarter – a game with 50+ cards featuring 50+ people. I wanted to have some custom art but was also worried about diversity. It’s not just as simple as having men/women separated. For one thing – as mentioned above – it doesn’t account for racial diversity, body type, etc. Also, it doesn’t account for transgender people, or people who prefer not to associate themselves with either gender.

    My plan is to only allow for 50% of the humans to be ‘custom art’. That way, any inequality can be made up for after all the photos have come in.

    If they prove really popular and I get photos in early (during the campaign) and there’s enough diversity in the backers for that level, I might increase the quantity. But that’s my plan.

    1. Behrooz: Thank you for sharing that method–I like it a lot! I’m glad you’ve kept diversity in mind when planning the Kickstarter. I think that’s worth highlighting on your project.

  9. Hey Jamey,

    I’m considering doing something like this for a Kickstarter campaign, but one of my beta testers asked me this question (and I didn’t have an answer for her): How do you guarantee that the person who sends you a photograph has the rights to that photo? By that I mean, if someone sends in a picture of an ex (who is a very private person) and that ex is pissed off that they’re in your game, what are the legalities involved?

    1. That’s a great question. I think you could hold the person who sent you the photo liable for misrepresenting themselves, but you might want to put something like that in writing when you request the photo from backers. But you bring up a great point–perhaps that’s not a risk worth taking with custom art.

      1. To solve this, we asked for a photo for the game, and a photo of legal document with name: ie: Driver’s License. Welcoming them to blank out any sensitive info, but the pic and name must be visible. – But who pays a $100 premium to put someone they don’t like in a game.

  10. Jamey,

    I appreciate your candor. As I said, I wasn’t intending to criticize Jacqui’s work so much as to illustrate the contrast between the custom art and the rest of the game, with an eye towards the difficulties that custom art creates for the artist. The added constraints you cite certainly contribute there.

    I have seen the cards in person (my copy of Euphoria Deluxe has a place of pride in my games closet :)). I think we’ll have to agree to disagree on the final product; I’d give you around two thirds of the final recruits, with most of the problems on the other third stemming from the bodies being created before the faces, resulting in odd proportions/improbable necks.

    As a creator, I’m curious as to what you consider to be the added value of custom art levels. I’m having difficulty parsing out how many there were in Viticulture, but it looks like you cleared ~$3600 on Euphoria and ~$2800 on Tuscany, assuming that the custom art backers also wanted a copy of the game. In both cases that’s about 1% of the overall total (and falling with Tuscany still open for 16 days). Even if you attribute the benefit to an early boost, for Euphoria, you added 11% to a first day that saw you double the funding goal. Tuscany contributed even less, but you also had a massive first day from people who missed out on Viticulture, so I’d expect that’s more of an outlier.

    As a backer/fan, the only benefits I see to custom art in any context are:
    1: Rewarding early backers with limited rewards
    2: Creating a high level of engagement for that backer group.
    3: Generating a quick influx of pledges

    You’ve already dispensed with #1, both for custom art and in general (eliminating early bird rewards). #2 is an extremely small effect (less than 50 people, since everyone not in those tiers isn’t involved at all), and, frankly, I don’t think you have any problems engaging with backers anyway. So that leaves #3, and from the perspective of an end user, I don’t see an extra $3000-$4000 being worth the constraints it puts on the artist or the risk it adds to the final product. From that perspective, I’m curious about the additional benefits you see as a project creator.

    1. Joshua: It’s not about the money for me–as you can see, I don’t charge much for custom art compared to some other projects. It’s about bringing the people who make the game possible into the game itself. I’m not looking to use Kickstarter as a pre-order platform; rather, I see it as a way to engage people in a variety of ways so we can build something special together. I’d rather have their faces on the cards than random models who have no connection to the game.

  11. I hate to say it, but custom art is one of the things that will make me think long and hard about both backing a game and buying it at retail. I think you understate the problems with custom art by pointing out that the artist is going to use a model anyway. While true, in a non-custom-art context, the artist will generally seek out models who match the concept behind the character, and are thus certain to integrate well. With custom art, you have a very small pool, and you have to use all of it. A good artist can do only so much with those constraints.

    I think Euphoria is a good example of the problems. No disrespect intended towards Jacqui Davis, because the rest of the art for Euphoria is absolutely fantastic. But the recruit cards stick out like a sore thumb in contrast. Part of that is that the requirements for the photos were, as I recall, not terribly strict, which meant that you couldn’t say “no, your child can’t be a recruit.” But even beyond that, far too many of the cards suffer from “big head, tiny body” syndrome that makes them look like nothing so much as a picture of someone’s head that was pasted onto a stock body and drawn over. Even if that wasn’t the process, it’s what it LOOKS like, and it makes an otherwise aesthetically well-polished game look unprofessional. Ultimately, backers had the option to add-on sketched versions of those cards, but that A: doesn’t solve the problem for retail buyers and B: as a practical matter, didn’t solve the proportion/pose issues that existed.

    Another issue with custom art is, as you note, that it limits diversity. I think it’s great that you made two different tiers for male and female custom art in the Tuscany campaign, which solves the gender equity issue. But it doesn’t do anything to solve racial equity. You can argue that that’s not a big deal in Tuscany, which thematically probably will end up mostly being caucasians. But it’s really weird that, based on the recruits in Euphoria, it appears that the apocalypse wiped out almost all of the non-white people. Granted, this is a problem in games that don’t use custom art, but custom art eliminates the flexibility that a designer interested in a diverse cast might otherwise use.

    Ultimately, I ended up backing Tuscany, because the samples suggested that most of the problems that came up in Euphoria aren’t quite as evident in Viticulture, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t going to be nervous unwrapping the shrink in November, and I think the custom art is the last Kickstarter-ism that I really wish Stonemaier Games would eject from your campaigns(early bird levels having never existed and exclusive components being discarded post-Euphoria).

    1. Joshua: That’s an interesting perspective–thanks for sharing it. I don’t think the problem with Euphoria’s art was Jacqui’s fault, though–it was mine. I thought it would be a good idea to have the recruits (sans faces) created in advance of the campaign and then incorporate the faces later. Also, I should have been much stricter on the models that could be used for the game.

      That said, have you seen the final cards in person? I would say that 95% of the final recruit art is seamless and looks great.

      You make a great point about diversity. I can divide up custom art on a campaign by gender, but further breakdowns like race, age, etc are more difficult. If you don’t have custom art, you have full control over diversity.

      You won’t have to worry about custom art for our next two Kickstarters–there are no people in them. :)

  12. Just subscribed! I’ve been reading your post religiously ha ha. I’m looking to launch a Kickstarter project within the year and am taking this time to learn as much as possible. Thanks for all the VERY useful insight. I met you at the Board Game Designer meetup group and wasn’t aware of this blog or your games but am really glad I found it. I’ve been into board games for about 2 years and got way more into them since moving up here about a year ago. I really appreciate the work you do.

    1. Thanks Royce, I’m glad you found this blog to be helpful! Hopefully I’ll see you at more of those designer meetups in the future. Did you have the game with the band t-shirts or the Hanabi-like game of Chinese elements?

  13. First off-great work with the Euphoria KS (last yr) and the current Tuscany . Stonemaier is a force to be reckoned with
    I would be interested to know if any of the custom faces/art/vanity cards in Tuscany are the same as anyone who backed Viticulture–> If so, How did you marry the backers eagerness against the thematic constraints of having someone in your base game and expansion?
    Personally, I think more people should have a go, but there isnt a way to screen for that

    I assumed this has happened–>Afterall you have many many supporters–> based on pledges and very keen backers (though some conversation in the comments are very tangential)

    1. Thanks Bob. :) That’s definitely something I kept an eye on, but I don’t think anyone tried that. If they did, I would have sent them a message and thanked them for their generosity, but asked that they give someone else a chance.

      1. Thanks for the quick reply.

        Interestingly read your latest blog entry. I hope that was not instigated at my dig for why there are so many posts on what “other” games people are playing etc That was more of a casual observation rather than an outright criticism.
        Apologies for any offence to you and your ambassadors

        1. Bob: Sure! I wasn’t aware of your dig, so certainly no offense was felt by me or my ambassadors. As for conversations about non-Tuscany games, you’re right that it’s not exactly on topic for Tuscany, but I do enjoy the community-building aspect of such conversations.

  14. We’re struggling with whether or not to have custom art pledge levels for Copper Country, specifically because in 1800s Upper Michigan, 100% of the work underground was done by men of western European descent. Two of the most powerful cards in the game reflect the contributions that women made aboveground, but that doesn’t address the historical cultural homogeneity.

    1. David: That’s an interesting dilemma. I think it’s important that the art of a game works thematically, but I don’t think it would resonate with backers if you limited custom art to men of a certain race. So it might be best not to have custom art for your project.

      1. We were exited about the possibility of custom art until we realized the dilemma. It rather quickly changed our outlook on it from “that’ll be really fun” to “hmm… we probably shouldn’t do that.” It’s good to get others reactions as well, thanks!

  15. I wasn’t specifically trying to avoid the early bird effect, but I had a custom contribution (coded messages rather than art) level that developed more slots as stretch goals unlocked. I just wound up changing the number available while the campaign was live, that didn’t wind up filling the sidebar with extra levels and I don’t think that anyone who backed at that level early on felt like their reward was devalued (The new ones generally sold out pretty quickly and nobody adjusted pledge levels away from them).

    1. Greg: Interesting. So how did you change the number of available slots while the campaign was live? Oh, interesting, Kickstarter now lets you edit the number of available options for limited reward levels. Thank you for pointing that out!

  16. For Space Junk we had 2 custom options, “Create a Junk Card” and “Create a Character”. We had 20 (out of our 100 limit) back the Junk Card level ($59) which also included the game ($39) so their additional cost was $20. Some of the backers had general ideas of what they wanted (ie tv remote, velociraptor) and some actually sent photos of items to be replicated.

    For the create a character 9/10 spots were taken for $175, this level also included a copy of the game. All of these backers sent a photo reference, we did not specify what type of photo to send and some people sent multiples.

    The artist that we are working with is John Ariosa. I assume some of the items would have been more difficult than others but he did masterful work and never requested extra/different photos. We may have been on the fortunate side though as I have come to respect John’s ability at a new level.

    Over all the custom stuff is more work I will do it again if it works in the next game. It gives backers a chance to be a part of the game, expands your game, and can give the campaign a valuable boost at the onset.

  17. disappointed i didn’t sign up for this one, maybe for the next game i’ll get in the custom art, justified i could use that money for another game or two.

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