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?
It turns out we had a chance to find out. Skullgirls is a well-known 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:
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 let’s 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 work done well, done fast or done cheap, but never all three. 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.
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 got over 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 a counterpoint, Radek Koncewicz’s “How I Got Art For My Game”