Maybe I’m not an artist, after all

There’s a bit of a lead-in, here. A longish story. Stay with me.

So, for the last couple of weeks I’ve been working on a new game. A deck-building game. This isn’t the first one I’ve tried to create, but all the thinking I’ve been doing on the subject over the last year or so got me to the point where, combined with the new freedom of being on hiatus from working on new books, I was able to create a brand new, playable, engaging, and fun deck-building game in under two weeks. The mechanics are pretty solid. It has a fair amount of complexity, but is easy to pick up and play (especially if you’re already familiar with deck-building games). It also does a whole lot of other, layered things, which I won’t get into here; suffice it to say that it tackles narrative, theme, and teaches players subtle moral lessons, all through the gameplay mechanics. For the play-testing decks I’ve been printing (and cutting, and sleeving, myself), I did a relatively quick (but professional-looking; I’ve been doing graphic design for almost 15 years, now) layout and dropped in stock photos I stole from the Internet as the art for about a third of the cards. (The rest are blank; I wanted to get to playing, rather than spend hours and hours putting together art I knew I’d have to replace later.)

This brings us to the problem at hand. I’ve been polishing the text on the cards and the mechanics of the gameplay based on how it plays and how people have reacted to the game/cards; no problem. But now, if I want to move forward with this, even just to have a nice version printed up for my own use (to say nothing of the ridiculous challenges inherent in attempting to turn it into a commercial product), I need art for all the cards. Realistically (and, according to the law) I can’t use stolen images, even just for a single set of cards for my own personal use; no printer would (knowingly) print it, and technically what I’ve already done is a couple million dollars’ worth of copyright violation. So I need new art for all the cards.

On one hand, the use of stock photography works reasonably well with the game, as it exists now. In fact, I feel it adds a bit of light-heartedness the game certainly needs, considering its themes. The careful selection of stock photos could make this into a complete and very enjoyable game, and if the game is strictly for my personal use, I can legally license a set of images for under $100. Possibly for under $50, depending where I get them. For any sort of commercial use, the licenses for the stock photos would cost something upwards of $4k-$6k. (Interestingly, hiring another artist or artists to create illustrations for all the cards would also cost me at least that much, and possibly over $10k-$20k for high-quality/highly-detailed work.)

On the other hand, I could illustrate all the cards myself. Theoretically I’m an artist (though I’m definitely not an illustrator; I have almost no experience doing illustrations/drawings of any kind) and I could maybe just whip up five dozen images. It’s my game, right? Why not just do everything, like I’ve done with all my books? My biggest concern with this approach is that I haven’t spent the last ten to fifteen years practicing drawing and illustration, or even much of that time looking at drawn and illustrated works (no, I don’t read comics, generally). I’ve been painting mostly-abstract and generally-non-figurative works, and focusing on portraying emotional content, rather than literal content. So drawing, say, a person, or a building, or a room full of people, is not something I have any practice with.

And, sure, I could use this as an opportunity to begin working on my illustration skills. I’ve been putting off starting from scratch and teaching myself illustration for over three years, now. This is, actually, something I frequently think I want to do. That I don’t do. So a couple of days ago I decided, “Yeah, let’s try it! I’m going to try to illustrate my own cards.”

Except then I ran into the problem of the theme: The game basically describes everyday life. There are cards for going to work. There are cards for sleeping. Cards for going to school. (Online Classes. Night Classes. Summer School. MBA Program, et cetera. What do you draw for each one of those to differentiate them from one another at a glance?) There are cards for different sorts of work you might do, from fast-food all the way up to Manager/CEO, but again, how do you show, at a glance, the differences between these jobs? Heck, how do you illustrate someone working at any job less

specific than fast-food? Most of the cards are these sorts of everyday things, everyday activities. A few are specific locations or obvious activities (a church, a police station, a library, a karate tournament, et cetera) which would be relatively easy, at least to know whether the image was of the thing described, but most are really referring to abstractions. What does a promotion look like, when I also have to have a card for the job you’ve been promoted into, which you can easily differentiate? Or working overtime? Or all the things we do on computers? How does ‘Online Classes’ look different from ‘Database Hacking’, ‘Craigslisting Old Stuff’, or working on a ‘Personal Project’ (this last one also needing to look different from all those other ‘working’ cards)?

And on, and on, and on, and this, this, is what’s making me think maybe I’m not really an artist, after all. If I can’t come up with a few dozen ideas for images to illustrate the ideas of all these different cards, what sort of an artist am I? Heck, why do I think I could find enough different stock photographs for these ideas? If I don’t know how to illustrate everyday life … *sigh*

So then I go back and forth, and even further than before. Not just back to photography, which I do think I could find enough images from, but all the way back to whether I ought to spend any more time/effort on this project, at all. I created it, it was playable and fun, and maybe that’s enough. Maybe I don’t need to take it all the way through to a theoretically-finished ‘product’, professionally printed and all that. And then further forth, to the idea that I’ve been wanting to try to develop games of this sort, and games for sale/distribution, for about a year, already; that going through this process, even if I don’t ever intend to make this game commercially available, would be a good learning experience for me. To give me a first pass at trying to illustrate an entire deck-building game, and at working with a professional game printer & distributor, and at what it takes to bring a project of this scope not just to a playable Alpha version, but to a beautiful First Edition. And it’s a struggle.

Plus, my mind has already been dreaming up expansions for it. Ways to create a small set of cards (say, 70 to the existing game’s 250+) which by addition or substitution to the set I have now, significantly alter the nature of the game. Such as a ‘Supers’ expansion, which adds super powers and super villains to your attempts to navigate everyday life. Or a horror expansion. Or whatever, but generally of the sort where it would be difficult to continue to use stock photography to depict the new card ideas. Which is actually the sort of thoughts which led me to the above “let’s try it” exclamation; clearly, for the game and its expansions, some sort of illustration, and possibly some sort of cartoony, simplified illustration, to keep a certain level of lightness-of-tone, would be required.

So, this is my current struggle. Except for the hours of frustration spent staring at blank pages and/or terrible illustrations I’m trying to create on them, the last few weeks have been really nice. The simple act of following my muse, creating freely and without real concern for commercial possibilities, but just because it was what I felt like creating, had made me really happy. I’ve especially appreciated the idea that in order to successfully ‘Kickstart’ a proper commercial run of a game like this, I’d have to hit at least a $10k goal (easily $30k, if working with other artists), and that my fundraisers tend to raise $300 or $500, total, so in there being no hope of success, there has been no pressure to even try; I know I’m only making this for me and my friends, right now.

Maybe, maybe, if/when I finish all the art, I’ll also make it available as an expensive POD game from someplace like, or just put a print-and-play version up for free at But from what I know, my attempting to actually do anything commercially meaningful with this (or anything like it) would just be a stressful waste of everyone’s time and energy. (And I kinda like it that way.)

Anyway, I’m going to keep trying to work on the art for awhile, and either find success or give up on it and move on, and I think either one of those will be okay. If you know me personally, and are local, and you want to play, email/message me and I’ll invite you to one of our game nights. Your feedback on it would be welcomed, as well as your company.

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Author, artist, romantic, insomniac, exorcist, creative visionary, lover, and all-around-crazy-person.