*Excerpt from 2000 Artist’s & Graphic Designer’s Market
Inside Report by Tricia Waddell
Down-to-earth advice on entering the other-wordly market of roleplaying games
He can transport you to exotic planets, magical kingdoms and distant realms. Enter the many worlds of Jon Schindehette, senior art director for the book division of Wizards of the Coast and subsidiary TSR, Inc., publishers of roleplaying games and related fantasy and science fiction novels and products. From legendary heroes to strange alien species, it’s Schindehette’s job to make fantastic characters and epic worlds come to life and leap off the book cover into the imagination of millions of readers.
Roleplaying games took the world by storm in the mid-1970s, becoming popular with TSR’s Dungeons & Dragons® game. The basis of the game is for players to take on the identities of imaginary characters and act out an adventure, writing the script as they go along. Now a billion-dollar industry, roleplaying games have created many spinoff products based on the characters and worlds created in the game genre, including bestselling fantasy and science fiction novels, magazines, computer games and merchandize. With a strong emphasis on visual design, the illustration and graphics featured on these products have showcased the top creative talent working in the science fiction and fantasy genre.
One of the largest roleplaying and hobby game companies in the world, Wizards of the Coast and its subsidiary companies TSR, Inc. and Five Rings Publishing Group, publish an average of 40 books and 45-50 game products a year. Schindehette works with a sizable in-house art department and dozens of freelance artists to maintain the unique visual look of several book lines. “We call ourselves ‘Spine Design’ and have approximately 45 in-house visual staff. We have on staff Rich Kaalaas, our creative director, 12 art directors, 17 graphic designers, 8 illustrators, 3 cartographers and 1 sculptor. We’re bigger than most advertising firms.”
Roleplaying games have a very loyal fan base and fans expect the integrity of the game settings and characters to be maintained when they are translated into novels. “Because of our loyal fan base, we have very defined worlds and very defined intellectual properties and brand lines,” Schindehette says. “One of the challenges I enjoy is working with recurring characters and worlds. This provides a definite sense of history with our product lines. It helps freelancers, because they have a huge scope of back material to pull for references and content issues.”
Schindehette works with several book series based on successful game lines that each maintain a distinctive look and feel. Book lines based on the medieval fantasy setting of TSR’s Advanced Dungeons & Dragons® game include the Dragonlance novel series, Forgotten Realms series, Planescape series, Greyhawk series and Ravenloft series. Newer book lines include a science fiction book line based on the science fiction games Alternity and Stardrive, in addition to fiction and nonfiction books based on Wizards of the Coast’s popular trading card game, Magic: The Gathering. ® “Certain lines have very defines characters,” explains Schindehette. “Our Dragonlance line, which is probably one of our most well-known book lines, has very defined characters which were generated through the game genre. We’re looking for interesting ways to reinterpret how they look, the way they interact with each other, the setting, all that fun stuff. Some of our other lines, such as Alternity and Stardrive, are built around a world and don’t have established characters per se. So a lot of the characters in the books are brand new. We flesh them out. It’s a collaberation between myself, the illustrators and the authors that gets the who process jiving to make the vision that will be detailed in the book come to life on the cover.”
Schindehette uses freelancers for illustration and graphic design and looks for a broad range of skills and styles. “I look for different things in different lines. Our Dragonlance line, for instance, tends to be very tight, very detail oriented. For some of our other lines, we’re looking for a looser, more fun look. Some of our stuff can be dark and moody, abstract and conceptual. I want to have a really broad range to choose from and have filing cabinets full of illustrators’ stuff just for that purpose.”
Fortunately for Schindehette, there is no shortage of freelance artists wanting to work with him. On average, he gets 10-15 submissions a day. “I sort through the pile once a week and determine whose skills meet our standards. Then I sort them by three criteria. First, does the work fit a particular brand line or product line we’re using right now? If it doesn’t, since we know what we’re doing several years ahead, is it something we can use a year or two from now? If so, we hold those guys. And third, if it’s technically correct but not something we use often, we might use the artist on an occasional basis for an editorial piece in one of the magazines or for a spot illustration in a corporate catalog. Then I make the art directors of the different lines aware that we found an artist to consider for future use.”
Game conventions also provide an opportunity for freelance artists to show their portfolio to Schindehette and other art directors from game companies. Held in cities around the country, the big national conventions, GenCon in Milwaukee and origins International Game Expo & Fair in Columbus, Ohio, draw tens of thousands of fans. “At some conventions I’ll look at 20-30 portfolios a day, and at others I’ll see over 150 a day. I like to be there for the more aspiring guys who want critiques. They’re looking for real feedback instead of just a nice little form letter that says, ‘Sorry we’re no using your type of work at the moment.’”
In addition to artistic talent, Schindehette looks for freelancers with strong communication skills and the ability to meet deadlines. “Because we use a lot of freelancers, we communicate a lot by phone. I need to be able to discuss exactly what I’m looking for, what the tone is, what the look is, who the characters are, what they’re wearing. And I need them to be able to communicate and questions back to me. I like illustrators who are very conceptual. I’m an art director, not an art dictator. I want them to take the characters I want, take the tone, the look, the feel, and give me three or four sketches back and offer me several different interpretations.”
Schindehette recommends that freelancers interested in breaking into this market have a familiarity with the genre and do their homework. “A third of the submissions I get everyday are so completely inappropriate for my company that I can’t use them. Whether it’s my company or anyone else’s, research who it is. Get on the Web, find out what they do, look at their product lines, go to the stores, look at what they’ve done and where they’re going. Then call before you send to them, that way you can tailor your portfolio better and I get a better idea of what you can do in my genre, what you can actually offer me. If you can get your foot in the door, your style may end up defining a line. You may develop a valuable relationship here.”