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How much do sprites cost?

Probably many of us pixel artists have been asked at one point or another for a commission. And if you’re like me, you never really know what to charge. What price would you quote to sell a sprite? Or for those on the other end, what price would you pay to buy one? Wouldn’t it help to know what the professional going rate is for 2D game art?

Well, people recently got a chance to find out. Skullgirls is a popular indie fighter that doesn’t use pixel art but is still hand-drawn, and the creators wanted to release additional DLC characters through a crowdfunding project at indiegogo. The cost? $150,000. Yes, for one game character (including fees for doing the crowdsource). Awe-inspiring as it is, they then got interesting and broke down the costs, giving we commoners a glimpse into what it takes to plan and put together one character for a high-profile game:

Skullgirls DLC character cost breakdown


$48,000: Staff Salaries – 8 people for 10 weeks
$30,000: Animation and Clean-up Contracting
$4,000: Voice recording
$2,000: Hit-box Contracting
$5,000: Audio Implementation Contracting
$20,000: QA Testing
$10,000: 1st Party Certification
$10,500: IndieGoGo and Payment Processing Fees
$20,500: Manufacturing and Shipping Physical Rewards

Seem pricey? Others thought so too, but then a GiantBomb article analyzed it and interviewed some industry people and discovered that not only was it within the typical range, it was even on the cheap side.

The article goes on to say that a character in pixel art would take a professional artist about two hours per frame (four frames per day), at a salary of $20-$30 per hour. So a character with 500 frames of animation could initially cost $20,000 – $30,000, but then the cost of fine-tuning and reworking the animations to balance gameplay can actually double the price by the end.

So now let’s have some fun and translate this in terms of MUGEN and homebrew games. How much should it cost a bunch of hobbyists to make a good character? There’s the issue of programming and testing it along with the art, but let’s just focus on the art aspect.

There’s an adage that says you can have your work done quickly, with high quality, or cheaply, but you can only pick two of those choices. And so it is here — you can hire someone to make a character by editing an existing character and have things done quickly with very little skill needed, you can get someone who’s decent and give them no deadline pressure for a reasonable cost (probably the number one formula for failure, though), or you can go out and officially hire someone skilled for a project with a deadline and expect to pay a bucketload. It rarely deviates from this. Guys, if you’ve ever been told ‘beware the women who know they’re beautiful’, you’ll know what I mean when I say ‘beware the artists who know they’re good.’

But that’s if you’re the one doing the shopping. If you’re on the receiving end of an offer, how do you price yourself? It’s the age-old freelancer’s question, and there are really only two practical answers (this, assuming you’re at the point in life where time and money have significant value). First, you could just plain decide how much you want to charge for a finished product, and try to rush through as fast as you can. But more likely you’ll want to figure out how many hours it takes you to make a single frame of pixel art, and then decide how much an hour of your time is worth (based on your skill level and thus how much value you’ll give to the client, but also how much money you could be making with that hour somewhere else, or how much income you need to maintain per week). To put things in perspective, the average rate of an entry level pixel artist tends to be $15 per hour, and if experienced professionals take two hours to build a solid sprite, you may want to allow for more, give or take for animations where not every part of the frame has to be redrawn (idle stances, etc.).

So.. short answer? Based on some general perceived value and the numbers we just looked at, here’s my own idea on what’s fair pricing for fighter size pixel art:

Artist’s skill level

Reasonable base cost per hour

Market value for a sprite commission

Cost for a 500-frame game character (including idle frames, etc)

Noob — only sprite editing or a very basic art style

$0.50 – 2

$1 – 5

$50 – 300

Average — still relies on existing sprites or tracings, inconsistent results

$3 – 5

$5 – 10

$100 – 1,000

Decent — able to create sprites from scratch, may occasionally use existing art or have inconsistencies

$4 – 8

$10 – 30

$1,000 – 5,000

Skilled — experienced, able to create all original artwork with solid results, just short of professional

$10 – 15

$30 – 50

$7,000 – 20,000

 

Is this set of prices going to be do-able in all cases? Probably not. I imagine a large portion of Mugen fans are poor college students and/or very negotiable artists hungry for some entertaining subject matter. But at the same time, Skullgirls is already up to twice their ‘obscene’ asking price, so the spirit of fighters still lives on. Keep persevering, you aspiring pixel artists. Don’t shortchange yourself on commissions. And if you don’t find any takers for the bigger jobs, well, there’s always crowdfunding..

Bonus! Have your say

Is my chart too generous? Too stingy? Let’s hear what you, the mass market, think are fair numbers. Type in below what you think is right, based on your own opinions or experiences. Click here to see the collected results.


Resources about hiring pixel artists in the professional world:
Adam Saltsman’s “Pixel Art Freelance: Best Practices & Guidelines”
And someone who would respecfully disagree with him, Radek Koncewicz’s “How I Got Art For My Game”

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  1. Dervilacus says:

    This is really interesting… So it seems i might have been selling my services Way too cheap XD , maybe lol ig that depends on what level of a Spriter i am. What does $20 for a RPG Maker 2003 Fully Custom Tileset Sound like? is that a good price for me, or did i sell myself short?

    • Kiwi says:

      That brings up another question: when dealing with different sprite sizes, how many pixels-per-dollar do you charge? You have to be brutal and resist the temptation to price emotionally. “It seems like I should only charge X”. When you do that and get challenged on your price, you have no reasons to support it with. Instead, offset the guesswork onto a reliable math system: 1) decide how good you are compared to the market (this is the hardest part). If you work fast and make art that people generally like, charge something like $15 per hour. If you’re slow but make stuff people like, charge less. Work it out from there. 2) Decide how many sprites you can make per hour on average. 3) Calculate accordingly. Now if someone tries to haggle, you’ve got a well thought out defense of why you charge what you do.

  2. Richard says:

    great post, so i must conclude that you need to ditch pixel art, it is too expensive!!

    no seriously, i enjoy my own spriting (i am at the noob level) just for the sake of imagining my prototype, but it looks like 3D is cheaper!

  3. Sujit says:

    Great post. I realized, I was unselling my art.

  4. T-gambler says:

    Not sure how long ago this thread was posted, but damn, it was good to know this info.

    I feel exploited. hahaha

  5. Mailmann006 says:

    Just found your site looking for a few tutorials. This is really nice. Love the metroids on the other page.

  6. Tsaori says:

    Wow i had no idea :D

    This is truly interesting stuff thanx for sharing some of your wisdom man, than a lot :D

  7. FeLo says:

    So,…I had been “hired” for a Juri Han comission(CvS style, etc) and I steem that the final cost of the thing would be like 350-400$…super cheap or well paid?

    • Kiwi says:

      Honestly, anyone able to make sprites from their own art instead of doing edits should get at the rock bottom minimum $1 per sprite when doing a MUGEN character. Ideally more, but even for a fun hobby you shouldn’t go lower than that. That can be expensive, but for an online community like MUGEN players where more than 1 person will be playing with your final product, multiple people should be chipping in.

      For 500 frames at $400, make sure it’s a character you enjoy creating, you get to use some shortcuts like tracing screencaptures, and that it doesn’t take you long to do each frame.

  8. Ernie Tank says:

    I’d like to see an update to this article with figures on a small team of spriters. Much like a comic book art team I think you could have an animation/linework specialist, a pixeler, and a colorist. I think for a group just under professional level you could achieve receiving the same results but pay slightly less per character since you’re not eating up as much time although you are paying 3 people…

    I really like this article and would like to see it discussed more!

  9. Carbon_KO says:

    So is this why we may never see another Capcom 2D fighting game?

    • Kiwi says:

      Very likely not on consoles that cost millions of dollars to develop for, and need to make all of it back in sales to keep from going bankrupt. Although there still are handheld systems and mobile phones out there, plus a lot of bored former professional pixel artists..

      • Darkzero779 says:

        i haven’t sprited for a while,and idk if i can due to the Us financial crisis..
        but still i think my skills are way off,and idk if they be worth anything,im merely a hobbyist anyway.

      • Kiwi says:

        It’s really a question of whether you’re doing it for fun yourself or if you’re doing work for someone else. Whenever you do any artwork for someone else, you absolutely have to be paid *something*, even if you think you’re the worst artist in the world. It’s a matter of common decency that a surprising number of non-professional artists feel guilty about and can’t wrap their heads around.