AuthorTopic: The Ultimative Pixel Art Business Guide  (Read 43198 times)

Offline Cyangmou

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The Ultimative Pixel Art Business Guide

on: July 25, 2017, 01:56:57 pm

This guide is specifically aimed towards pixel game art.

Maybe you are an artist, game artist, gamedev, or businessman and want to get some information on game projects and the costs involved.

This guide will mainly focus on the freelance aspect for professional work.

I will talk about
pixel art / hobby & professional
game project costs
and animation costs

the old (and partially less complete) article can be found here:

What is a Pixel Artist?
First of all If you are looking for a pixel artist, you are not looking for any type of artist.
There are illustrators, who paint beautiful pictures and then there are concept artists who come up with amazing ideas and comic-artists who draw stories and animators who make stuff move. All of those however act only on canvas

Pixel artists mainly classify as game artists though, which means that they need to know how to draw stuff and they need to know how games work. And unlike painting "pretty pictures" on canvas, games come with their fair share of limitations of the art side of things. You just can't plug something which is beautifully drawn in a game and expect it to work within the gameplay, but beautiful pixel art drawing skills are of course the thing which sticks out the most.
However all the art produced for a game needs to fit together and work together and there is a whole bunch of different skills needed to make games work.

Common skills you are specifically and nearly exclusively looking for in pixel artists are:
-translating drawn concepts and sketches into working pixelart
-2D frame per frame animation (characters, environment and effects) with pixelart
-tileset creation
-background parallax painting
-icon creation
-pixel art fonts and logos

Can any Artist Create Pixelart?
Pretty much yes, all they need to do is to sit down and look up how pixel art works, but that being said a pure portrait artist would not have much experience with the specific game-related skills, even if it's an experienced artist.
So he would have to start in a few areas pretty much from scratch and a pixel artist who does his work for years most likely already has made crucial experiences regarding game related skills.
Just don't expect that someone who never did game-art will perform as well at it as someone with a ton of experience.

I am a Gamedev/Artist...
Here again this depends what kind of gamedev are you. Are you a professional with a signed-up business, or are you an aspiring gamedev who just started out with an engine and looks for an artist to team up with?

Usually artists and devs come in 2 kind of types - hobbyists and professionals.
And unlike the popular opinion the produced quality of work doesn't play in at all all.

it simply means this:

If you are a hobbyist you are someone who has a day-job which pays for taxes and you maybe do some work as "hobby" on the side to get some additional bucks, or you are working on your own project.
Maybe your hobby one day will turn into a profitable business.
Depending on the laws of your country you may earn a certain amount tax free. You should definitely talk to a tax consultant once you start getting/taking job offers to be sure that your income is law-conform.

What is a "Professional"
Professionals are people who do something as their job.
If you are working as waiter and the restaurant you are employed at is paying your taxes (or paying for your taxes), you are a professional waiter.
Usually if you are a freelancer you have to sign-up a company (note: depends also on the country)
The big differences here come with the costs of health insurance, taxes, vacation and ill-days, but more on that later.

If you are a professional you are also running your own business, you have to do your own bookkeeping, your own contracts etc.
Nobody will pay you for answering initial e-mails, those rates and dead-time between projects usually is included in the rate.

Regarding Copyright
Whether you are a dev and artist, also put some serious consideration into copyright law.
If you intend to become a professional, talk to a lawyer specialized into this topic to get familiar with all the little details for your coutnry.
If you are a hobbyist, at least make sure that you get a declaration of the artist you commissioned that you may use the work produced in your product.

Pixel Art Rates

Since game art is mostly project based, the freelance rates compared to other graphical jobs can be a bit lower, however, since jobs can go on easily for hundreds of hours, the risk is smaller than like e.g. for web design (where 150-200$/h was around 2012 quite common).
On the other hand being a pixel-artist often includes gamedesign skill or knowledge of how programming works, which also cassifies it more as a technical job, than many other art jobs.

Generally speaking professionally you always pay higher rates for little jobs, and smaller rates for bigger, longer ongoing contracts, because you can give the freelancer securities and keep the dead-time ibetween jobs the artists usually would have to deal with shorter.

executive field / Europe/US:

some values for other jobs:
craftsmen (plumbers, electricians, painters) 30-150$ per hour
graphicians 10-250$ an hour
coders can range from 10-250$ an hour
doctors and lawyers can cost about 200$ an hour, sometimes a lot more

those are broken down hourly rates you can expect for game artists:

hobby-sector - freelance
unprofessional field, which can work out for single commissions, but regarding the income tax laws not for bigger projects.
0-15$/h working for free, first gig, deviantart offers (unprofessional field)
15-20$/h beginners, art students without technical knowledge
20-35$/h experienced hobbyists

professional-sector - freelance
30-60% of that will be costs for taxes, health insurance, etc.
10-25$/h young, talented artists (artschool only, freshmans who are motivated but don't know yet exactly what they do)
25-50$/h junior artists, freelance (school experience, not much real world / industry experience, no to a few small completed projects)
50-100$/h senior artists, freelance (they have been through several projects and know what they do, usually many completed and released projects in their resume)
more: world's top class, freelance (open end, usually those artists make their own prices, have some kind of publicity, are known etc. - by hiring them you also hire advertisment and contacts, which also pays off differently than money)

game-project oriented art direction/art asset planning
40-250$/h (huge responsibility, one wrong decision in the art design process can lead to multiple thousand of dollars budget changes for a whole game project - usually you hire those guys to safe multiple thousands of dollars of wrong investment in a project down the road)

You can expect a 65$/h rate for a project-sized job which includes a week or longer of work,
single hours or less work usually is more expensive, which means the rate goes up.

Note that the rate in the link is not for freelance work, but rather from a company employment perspective.
Art direction rates USA:

Why Are There Massive Differences in Prices Which You Can Expect to Pay?

-quality/time (experienced artists produce better quality much faster than beginners, beginners will most likely need much more time and the result will be much worse in terms of quality than what an experienced artists produces in the matter of minutes)
If you pay artists hourly, maybe you even pay more for an inexperienced artist, than for a seasoned professional, despite they charge multiple times of the rate, but require less time and less edits.

-experienced artists will have established workflows which leads to less revisions, or better control over the end-product.

-some experienced artists even can emulate given style directions, because they are perfectly able to control what they make.

If you start out with inexperienced artists they easily could get overwhelmed by something you decided because the actual amount of work is in no relation to the amount of work they thought it would be.
If that happens during the project you possibly will have to look for another artist who can complete the half finished art in the style.
The completion of your project could be at stake in the worst case.
Or you maybe have to start over from scratch with a new artist and with his own style and you put in money in the art produced only to find yourself at a point where you have to put more money in to get the produced stuff to level that you still can use it with a new artist.

If you don't get your parameter decisions right your game project could get quickly impossible to craft and costs can sky rocket. A lot will then depend if you find artists willing to complete the project for the price / style you offer.
The more experienced an artist is and depending through how many projects they have been, the better they can answer your questions about how much work the whole project might be.
That being said like game-development art sometimes is nearly impossible to quantify beforehand.

In most cases it really pays off in the long run to hire an experienced artist, who knows exactly what he is doing, which means you are paying seemingly more money, but once you start quantifying your costs for edits and little changes, in most cases the cheaper artist in the end is the more expensive option down the line, or at least the one which also includes significantly more risks.

A Short Note on General Working Times and Compensation:

Note / US$ is about a 1:1 conversion rate - over the last years was a bit higher than the US$,
so you could say 100US$ roughly equal 85

Employed people/Hobbyists:
if you are employed in a company (Austria)
you get a christmas bonus and a vacation bonus (usually 13th and 14th monthly compensation)
you have 5 weeks of vacation a year
you should calculate 2 weeks of being ill per year
you additionally should calculate 3 weeks of public holidays per year

this means here I'd calculate with realistic 42 working weeks per year
those with an avg. of 40 hours: 1680 hours of work per year

For employees the average monthly compensation here with taxes around 1400/month for 140h of work (this includes christmas and vacation bonus) -
the average hourly rate is therefore
10/hour net (taxes deducted)
or 15/hour gross (what you could consider as freelancers)

this rate also is the average of all people, this means it includes all kind of assistance work. But this explains the 35US$ you would pay for experienced hobbyists.

Of the working time above you should furthermore subtract time to do your bookkeeping and writing invoices (2 weeks per year)
and you will effectively have some dead-time if you are a freelancer, where you are just looking for jobs, answering mails or chatting with clients, you will have to write contracts that the work plays out and you maybe will run into some legal trouble with some clients (let's say another 8 weeks per year just for that)
which reduces the working hours for another 10 weeks (400h) which means you can effectively only work 1280h / year.

the costs for self employed people are also higher in Austria (you would have to check the pecifics for your own country) - but generally you can say health insurance will be around 15% of and taxes will be around 30% of your yearly income - so 45% of the time you work will only be for necessary expenses.

to get to the average of 1400 after taxes, you need to earn 2550 gross a month as a freelance

you have 107 hours a month to work effectively (1280/12).
2550/107 = 23/h (~27US$/h)
also note that this is the amount you would have to pay for the complete average of people.

which explains those values:
10-25$/h young, talented artists
25-50$/h junior artists
50$/h-100$/h senior artists

All that being said, Austria and the US are differing in details, but the gist of it:
If you are living there cand can't make something close to 3000US$/month don't consider becoming a professional.
(of course the country/state you live in plays into it to a fairly big amount too)

You also should read this old article on gamasutra:
note that the article is old so inflation plays in to a certain amount.
It also wasn't written by someone who had years of experience in the artstyle.

If You Want to Freelance Professionally:

First compare your work made by other professionals.
Just gether sources from different places, but make sure that the work was made by people owning their own business.

a) how much do you need to make a living (with all costs included)
b) how much hours do you want to work
calculate hourly rate (and look if you are in your range)

do you get enough jobs?
does anyone pay your hourly rate?

if yes, great
if not, maybe you aren't working enough hours, your quality is to low compared to your concurrence, you lack something, you are working to slow... so maybe consider to stay a hobbyist to support yourself.

What Costs You Should Expect for Game Projects?

Take a look at this graph:

realistic costs for 16-bit games:
50 000 - 300 000 US$

Some big old SNES games you love, (namely the Square and Nintendo titles, which really made a buzz back in the day and are still popular today) sometimes had budgets up to
500 000 US$ + marketing costs

Modern gamedev of course provides already existing engines, but the costs for taxes and assets which have to be crafted from scratch stayed nearly the same, so these values are still valid to an extend.
These costs don't include marketing costs which come on top of it.
These costs do include taxes (you can calculate roughly 20-30% for taxes)

for further insight I really recommend reading this article:

Rule of Thumb
For a quick rule of thumb project cost calculation do the following:
ry to find out the development costs for a game (excluding marketing costs)

30% gamedesign costs,
25% programming costs,
25% art & animation costs
10% storywriting costs
10% sfx&ost costs

of course if you have a story focused rpg the storywriting will take proportionally more.
But gamedesign usually takes the lion-share of work, while art and programming are equally the same for most projects (unless you are making an ascii game or whatever)
Just try to figure out the proportions of work - it's usually better to do a quick pre calculation, before you are doing nothing at all like it.

How to Calculate Animation Costs:

Generally animation work does cost a lot because it's a lot of work.
Most people who never animated on a frame-pre frame basis won't gras t.
I this case just try to find animation livestreams or watch youtube timelapses to get a bit of an understanding.

The biggest variables you have to consider are:
reusability and
polish level

design is an amount of the job where pixel-specific considerations don't really play in. You will always need a specific time to design something or create concept art, or how something should look.
I mean some generic things like slimes or cats or whatever don't really need a lot of time to "design".
But once you get in the realm of interesting concepts which require creativity to pull off. Which is a valid amount of work necessary before even starting with animating.

e.g. Shovel Knight has tons of super interesting knight designs which certainly just "didn't happen" but had serious thoughts behind it, before they even drew the first frame of their animation.

Don't overlook that the first frame of a sprite can therefore take a lot longer, than just "animating" a given design.

spritesize most likely is a decision to make which will greatly affect the time needed to complete an animation

just look at the physics:
a 8x8 pixel sprite has 64 pixels to edit
a 16x16 sprite has 256 pixels to edit
a 32x32 sprite has 1024 pixels to edit
a 64x64 sprite has 4096 pixels to edit
and so forth.

it's increasing exponentially, which means the amount of work logically would increase too.
Just because of how pixelart works as a medium, something with exactly the same style will take longer to polish if it's bigger, because you have to go in and every pixel for every line etc.
Of course some styles aren't possible at smaller spritesizes, bc. you simply lack the pixels/space/resolution to get the point across.

(amount of shading, amount of details, outlines,)
this is a big one.

Generally you can say the more cartoony and simple something looks the easier it is to animate, and the more realistic it will look the harder it will be to animate.
The biggest difference here is amount of details and shading.
The more details you have the longer it takes to draw all of them in
The more shading steps you use, the longer it will take to draw them in
and it generally also takes time to make that stuff work in an animation
quickly said outlines can add additional work to animations as well, because in pixel art you have to polish them up.
But if and how to use outlines or not is a super deep topic on it's own.

fluidity is another big one.
The more frames you have the longer it will take to draw them.
"RPG-Maker" 3-Frame animations aren't real animations - basically just keyframes,
24 images per second disney movie like animation are real animations
anything inbetween can be an economical decision.
e.g. look at this 8 / 16 frame comparison:

and it's super hard to get the optimum of quality if you just later increase the amount of frames and don't plan it with a good framerate beforehand:

because you will loose out on weight and timing.
That being said the example here is generally on a high level of quality, but if you start with 2 frame walks, increase them then to 4 frames and maybe later to 8 this last step generally will look much worse than just starting to plan it out with 8 frames.

here again you limit the artist with to few frames, so that he has cut down on getting animations in and if you choose to high amounts of animation frames, you will end up with an obscene amount of work. If you don't get it right from the beginning your quality will suffer.


sometimes parts of animations or sprites can get reused to craft other frames. This can have a significant effect on the time per frame, but can't really can get calculated in from the get go.
Generally good animators have an established workflow to reuse frames or parts of them, but it's hard to get behind the design of this, without not being able to animate yourself.

Polish level
Sketches are fast
Polishing up final artwork to high levels of craftmanship costs additional time.
unpolished pixelart generally will look cheaper than polished one.
most company work is polished to high levels.


but it's completely up to you if you rather want to cut down on polish or on the more substantial decisions which safe crafting time.


if you don't know anything about animation hire a professional who can tell you project experience values, this might cost a bit, but will save you money in the long run.

You can get animations for a few bucks and animations for thousands of $.
A super simple 4x4 graphics game can't get compared to metal slug animation quality. And artists also vary differ in prices and experience.

So there is no straight answer to "how much does animation cost"
Generally if something which is animated looks professional and expensive it most likely was even more time intensive to craft than you imagine if you never did animate anything.
And therefore it also most likely  did cost a lot more than laymen expect.

Generally speaking big companies also have big project budgets, so you shouldn't expect to get the same quality level without paying a similar amount. Read the section about game projects above, if you are unsure.
If your project budget is small or you are inexperienced with commissioning, rather do something simple, smart and effective to gather a few experiences.

This is currently the end of the guide.
I hope you learned a thing or 2 and you are now much better prepared for gamedev stuff.
« Last Edit: July 25, 2017, 10:45:04 pm by Cyangmou »
"Because the beauty of the human body is that it hasn't a single muscle which doesn't serve its purpose; that there's not a line wasted; that every detail of it fits one idea, the idea of a man and the life of a man."


Offline Odovedesign

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Re: The Ultimative Pixel Art Business Guide

Reply #1 on: April 23, 2018, 04:05:16 pm
If I'm being honest, your rates are a bit off now, as the market has recently become far more competitive, and freelance pixel artists get pushed to one side when they set correct rates, because there are (and I am being truthful not racist) Asian based artists who produce content for $5 a pop, regardless of hourly rates, or anything else.

I just feel like perhaps this is not realistic nowadays, it is more of a rate that artists who blender skills and 3D character animation skills, with the likes of artstation professionals should look to instead, as that market is more elitist.

I don't know, just an observation after 3 months of hunting work, and losing multiple clients because of price discussions.

Offline eishiya

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Re: The Ultimative Pixel Art Business Guide

Reply #2 on: April 23, 2018, 05:44:32 pm
I think it's understandable, though not ideal, that clients pay minimal rates to artists who are essentially interchangeable. Artists who can make artwork that's merely functional are a dime a dozen, and are paid about as much because they have nothing to compete on but their price. Most beginners and some intermediate artists fall into this category, so I agree Cyangmou's suggested rates there are optimistic.

Once you get to the level where you can make art that's not just minimally functional but is unique-looking and can be a selling point for the project, it gets much easier to find fairly-paid work. Cyangmou's suggested rates are realistic at that point. Note that this isn't necessarily a particular pixelling skill level, it's more about your style and taste, though these do tend to develop along with (general art) skill.

On top of developing your art, I also find it pays to be selective with the jobs you apply to. Many clients don't know what they want, don't understand the the impact of art style on the project, and other fairly basic things. Chasing after such jobs and communicating with those clients is often a waste even if they pay decent rates, since you don't get paid for all the non-art time spent on them. If you only respond to those postings where the client seems to know what they're doing and the value of the work they need, you'll probably have a happier and better-paid time. Of course, this does require that you have the art to make that work, as such clients are also more discerning when it comes to style and quality.

Offline Maka

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Re: The Ultimative Pixel Art Business Guide

Reply #3 on: June 16, 2018, 09:20:04 am
Whenever I have clients that think I'm charging too much I explain the reason why I charge what I charge is due to my experience, speed, skill level, reliability and my communication skills.  Furthermore, I tell them that my rates are based on what I believe is worth it to me. This is completely to do with what I believe I deserve hourly. I like to break it down that way because that is what I am used to since I am a veteran from the game industry. Basically it comes down to how fast you are and the quality of your work.

I also explain to them that newer artists that undercut the market are putting themselves in a weird position because clients expect them to be professionals, have good communication skills and can take criticism and implement revisions without a fuss. Oh and above all else finish the job 100% When newer artists undercut they market they are severely hurting their own future prospects as well as the prospects for every other artist in the biz.

A lot of times I have clients tell me that they are hiring me because another artist bailed on them mid-way or had poor communication throughout which put a strain on the working relationship.

After explaining my position clients usually negotiate with me in a more fair manner. And they feel more secure in their investment after I assure them the reasons for my rates. However, I am still fairly lenient and understanding of various clients budgets. Especially indie devs, considering I am one myself. If they still don't negotiate fairly I politely decline the job and wish them well on all their future endeavors.

Don't be afraid to turn down jobs. If you take every little low paying job that starts to get around then it will typecast you and it will be VERY HARD to raise your rates without it seeming unfair.

Disclaimer: These are my experiences and your results may vary.