If you haven’t read Part 1 of this mini-trilogy, take a moment to read about the benefits of using stock art when you’re pocketfunding a game (and also to see what in Hades I mean by “pocketfunding”).
Yep, stock art is a real lifesaver when you’re in the small scale independent tabletop game development like me. But it has its drawbacks too and it can all be encapsulated by Ironbound‘s cover.
Aside from those of you who have seen this cover repeatedly due to my promotional efforts, does this image look familiar to you? It should because here are two examples direct from DriveThruRPG’s current catalogue as of this posted date.
This piece is by Eric Lofgren, whose work can also be found in or on numerous Oone Games’ products, Numenera, and other games published over the last couple of years. I found it listed online for $100 on RPGNow several months ago and added it to my wishlist as a way to flag it for possible consideration. Two or three months ago, it went on sale for $35 and that made it a no-brainer. Unfortunately, it was also a no-brainer for other publishers but that itself is a no-brainer. A meta no-brainer, if you will. Of course other publishers will use it. Look at how awesome it is!
There was only one issue with this piece as an Ironbound cover. These holy warriors are forbidden from practising magick (spelled with a “k” so you know it’s serious), even though they study it extensively for ways to counter spells and rituals. In the bottom corner of this piece, there is clearly a character using a magic staff and when I showed off this piece to playtesters for a reaction, they instantly replied, “Hey, why is one of them using a magick staff?” Busted.
The trick to stock art is making it fit the subject of your game or supplement. Not only the individual page, but the product as a whole. For example, stock art of modern day soldiers locking and loading to go into battle wouldn’t fit with a historical RPG on agrarian land disputes nor do you want to use art focused on equipment in the spells chapter. This actually makes stock art harder to use than commissioned art because the latter is customized to suit your product, your chapter, your page, everything. In this particular case, everything about this piece fit the product… except for that magic staff.
Thinking Outside The Box While Pressing Right Up Against It
That’s when the idea struck like a bolt of lightning. Ironbound is a ScreenPlay preview/treatment focused on a group of Writers sitting around creating the first draft of a story. What if the cover highlighted the storytelling aspect of the game by inserting text boxes of descriptions highlighting the action as if from one round of play? This would allow me to explain why this particular member of the witch-hunting Ironbound was using the staff; despite damning herself and forcing her expulsion from the group, she uses the artefact to protect her comrades. What a sacrifice, am I right? Plus it has the added benefit of making this version of Eric’s work stand out from the others.
It’s a minor detail in two ways. First, the main focus of the cover remains the artwork. Second, the text boxes are barely noticeable in thumbnails, which is exactly how people first experience them on sites like DriveThruRPG and RPGNow. Still, it was a workable solution that was quite fun to do.
The effect has already been unfortunately expected. I’ve discovered two comments on other G+ threads not posted by me asking why that cover looks familiar or if the publisher possibly “borrowed” it from someone else. Even my publisher (because I’m no longer a publisher, I’m a development studio working with Mystical Throne Entertainment) wanted to make sure I was aware of current duplicates. And while I considered a back-up plan, nothing else in my radar came even close to Eric’s piece.
Mine is not the only case out there, nor will it be the last. There are definite benefits for little publishers/studios like mine in that they provide a cheap alternative for those small, indie projects not worth the trouble of kickstarting. Not everyone operates with the ability to hire original artists and it’s not always because of financial restrictions. That first product is a risky undertaking, especially when you’re learning the ropes about RPG publishing. Some people have the resources to take those risks; I am not one of them.
The big thing about cover art is that its primary job is to grab someone’s attention, force them to lock their eyes on your thumbnail version online or on the store shelf and take that next important step: clicking the link or flipping through pages. Then the layout takes over, then the content. It’s possible a fancy title on a generic backdrop can accomplish the same task and there are some very simple covers out there capable of doing exactly that and it was a consideration going into this project. But when I commissioned an original piece for ScreenPlay’s cover, that left the door jammed open for everything else to have cover art as well. And since Ironbound is basically a free giveaway (that’s how you have to look at selling a Pay What You Want product), I needed to keep my costs very reasonable.
Are there some who will look at this cover and say, “Oh, that one again?” Yep. But for every one of those reactions, there have been two enthusiastic thumbs up. And with over 120 downloads in the first week alone, the initial results are positive. Only time will tell the long term effects.