I'm part of a 20 people team working on a game for free but we've got intentions of starting a company soon.

At the moment, not even the prototype is finished, but we've got 6 artists, half 2D and half 3D producing assets for us, what's happening is that the artists give feedback that it's hard to stick around since they're not paid (fair) and they can't really use the stuff they produce for their portfolio.

  • The 2D artists seem to be bothered by the fact that sketch work isn't good enough for their portfolio, and most concept art they're doing isn't fully explored because as soon as the directors are happy with it they're asked to move to another piece.
  • The 3D artists seem to be bothered by the fact that their 3d models can't be published on any store or market, as it would potentially harm the game in the long run.

Not having a lot of experience with artists, how can we go about and help them in this regard?

  • 18
    \$\begingroup\$ The root problem here is not that the work you're asking for is not ideal for portfolios. The root problem is that you're not paying your artists, forcing them to seek paying employment elsewhere. Pay your artists a living wage so the work they do for you isn't coming out of their "free time / volunteering and self improvement" budget. \$\endgroup\$
    – DMGregory
    Commented Oct 23, 2023 at 11:46
  • 9
    \$\begingroup\$ I understand and agree with your sentiment, the problem is that it's a group of 20 year olds most still in Uni, most of them know each other from uni. I just recently joined this project so that sentiment, although shared, is not something I can change atm. This is like a charity project, in theory nothing is being demanded from them, they've asked for help, I've redirected that request here. Your input is not helpful in this case. \$\endgroup\$
    – Vcoder
    Commented Oct 23, 2023 at 12:05
  • 6
    \$\begingroup\$ That's fine, but you just have to accept that you might not get or keep artists. They do not owe anyone free labour, no matter how cool or noble the project or how good friends you are. You may instead want to consider how you can scope the project so that it works with less dependence on unpaid labour, such as using free or low-cost pre-made asset packs, procedurally generated content, or adjusting your visual style to something less asset-intensive. The most impressive student games are not the ones that aim to mimic AAA, but those designed cleverly to work great within their constraints. \$\endgroup\$
    – DMGregory
    Commented Oct 23, 2023 at 12:10
  • 8
    \$\begingroup\$ To be fair, based on the opening line, it sounds like the entire team is working for free. \$\endgroup\$
    – Pikalek
    Commented Oct 23, 2023 at 14:54
  • 10
    \$\begingroup\$ Why is it bad for your game to have the 3D models online? \$\endgroup\$
    – minseong
    Commented Oct 24, 2023 at 14:59

4 Answers 4


Given that artists need time to improve the quality of their assets. And given that they cannot publish assets related to game, then they need time to work on assets that are not for the game. Which suggests that to actively help them improve their portfolio you could:

  • Give them random prompts on what to work on, so they are not linked to the game.
  • Set apart some limited time from the project for this.

For the prompts you could pick nouns at random. Or if you want to get them involved, you could have them submit possible prompts, and at the start of the allotted time pick prompts at random.

Whatever they do, let them add to their portfolios on their own discretion. Be aware that this might also result in new ideas, either for your game or other projects. Yet, in the spirit of helping them improve their portfolio, resist taking any of the resulting assets for the game (instead you can task them to use them as reference for something for the game, but it would be a different asset).

  • \$\begingroup\$ I really like your idea, we could use like a random prompt generator in a discord thread, like theme of the week and have all artists have a go at it using their full creativity, they could then use those pieces however they like. \$\endgroup\$
    – Vcoder
    Commented Oct 23, 2023 at 10:17
  • 26
    \$\begingroup\$ Artists can already find prompting services and communities elsewhere. Adding this to your project sounds like another source of unpaid work cutting into their time to do bill-paying work or develop portfolio pieces / marketplace assets at their own direction. What they need from you is not prompts, they need money for their time, or they need their time back. They're phrasing this to you as a complaint about portfoilio-applicability, but if you're unwilling to change the core project so they can benefit from their labour, you will not solve the root issue by layering on more unpaid work. \$\endgroup\$
    – DMGregory
    Commented Oct 23, 2023 at 11:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ That's a valid point, we could probably redirect them to prompting services and communities were their time is more valuable there, help them find alternatives to the project where they can improve their portfolio. Thanks for that one \$\endgroup\$
    – Vcoder
    Commented Oct 23, 2023 at 12:15

You got to find a way to pay your artists.

Currently they don't really get anything out of the work on your project. Even if your project would demand artwork on a level of polishing that's good enough to use as a portfolio piece, the 2d artists could just create those on their own without being connected to your project. Even if your project would allow 3d artists to sell their work on asset stores and keep the money, they could probably make more money if they created assets that are in demand for a general audience rather than creating the assets your project needs.

So there is really no good, objective reason why an artist would stay connected to your project at all.

So how could you pay them?

If you don't have any funds yet, then you can only pay them with the promise of funds in the future. For example:

  • By making a contract that you owe them $x per hour/artwork, but to be paid at a later date when funds are available.
  • By giving them equity in the soon-to-be founded company in exchange for their work.

Both of these arrangements are still a gamble for the artists, because there is a high chance that they won't ever get paid for their work. You might never be able to secure a source of funding that covers your outstanding artist fees. The company might be bankrupt before it made a dime. You might succumb to evil and run away with all the money you promised to pay to the artists. Not to mention that artists require food and housing, so future promises might be useless when it comes to covering their immediate financial needs. So if I would be one of your artists, I would ditch you as soon as I get an opportunity from someone who is able to pay me now instead of "maybe some time in the future". But at least it's better than nothing.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Funny enough that seems to be the sentiment here, but 1st it's not my call, I'm just a pawn on this, 2nd I agree with most of what you said and there's something like that in place already, everyone will get an equal rev share for the first couple years, 3rd if everyone had your mentality, nothing would ever get done. Risks need to be (assessed) and taken, or else everyone's just waiting for the golden opportunity that ever arrives. Everyone here is replying with emotional answers, I understand you all want money, and these kids do as well, but that's not the problem we're trying to solve here \$\endgroup\$
    – Vcoder
    Commented Oct 23, 2023 at 14:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ Funny enough, a community of professionals who are paid to work on video games thinks that work should be paid. Future profit sharing isn't really enough, because the majority of game projects never return a profit. This is not an emotional viewpoint, but a practical one. Folks have a fundamental need to be able to support themselves (rent, food, etc.) and even students whose needs are covered by parents/grants/loans need to prepare for a sustainable career. If your project is not set up in a way that folks can work on it sustainably, the project will hit a wall when their good will runs out. \$\endgroup\$
    – DMGregory
    Commented Oct 23, 2023 at 14:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ I absolutely agree with that. \$\endgroup\$
    – Vcoder
    Commented Oct 23, 2023 at 15:10
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    \$\begingroup\$ There's nothing wrong with people getting together to make stuff for free, providing that is what everyone got into for, and no-one is being given false expectations or being taken advantage of. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 24, 2023 at 7:52
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ As Philipp says, that's worth asking as its own standalone question. From a quick web search, I found this survey undertaken in 2014 that found only 32% of projects scored above "broke even". Unfortunately, the survey lumps both "project cancelled, complete loss" and "project ongoing, too soon to tell" as the same answer, so that 32% is a lower bound, with a 51% upper bound. This developer reports making 14 games before turning a profit. \$\endgroup\$
    – DMGregory
    Commented Oct 24, 2023 at 12:38

I'll skip the mandatory part talking about payment. I get it. I've worked on a game for free for years because it's a passion. I assume the same is true for these people as well, to an extent, but they want to have something to show for it, right?

With that said, there's three steps in my recommended approach here.

  1. Convince the directors to ease off of the concept artists. It sounds like the workflow instituted by the directors is not standard to the concept art industry, and fixing the first issue is simple enough. Just let the 2D artists explore their concepts in a way that's suitable for their portfolio. This will (maybe) reduce their output and maybe upset the directors, but it's better than losing the artists entirely. Plus, the explored concepts might be better than the directors even expected.

  2. Meet with the whole team and write up a basic agreement for how pay will be distributed once you have a company and have released the game. This is to cover the blue sky, flowers and butterflies ideal scenario. This should include minimum payment values for each contributor, like a usual agreement of this sort would. It's never fun to be 'that guy', but it would be important in this step to emphasize the highly likely possibility of the game never seeing the light of day or only ever making a couple bucks. It's very unlikely for any game made in this sort of environment (or almost any environment, really) to become a 'hit', if it is ever finished in the first place. This is important because it leads into Step 3.

  3. Now, down to the stuff you probably don't want to hear, but will solve your problem. In that agreement you just made, establish a deadline. It could be two years, or maybe even five years. The terms are simple: when the deadline expires, if the game is not released or not profitable enough to pay your artists, they're free to publish their assets to stores or marketplaces to cover their losses.

Hopefully it should be relatively easy to see how these three actions allow your artists to have some guaranteed amount of value gained by working on your project despite the lack of payment.

  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ Something to make sure you cover in step 2 is to make everyone aware that "zero profit" / "zero cashflow" is a possible, even likely outcome. A lot of students and juniors legitimately don't know how few games return a profit, or how hard publishing deals or crowdfunding campaigns are, and might think of the proposed future payment plan as more certain than it really is. You want to make sure everyone you're working with is fully informed to be able to make the decisions that are right for them, so they don't get caught off-guard if/when the money they thought was coming never arrives. \$\endgroup\$
    – DMGregory
    Commented Oct 24, 2023 at 15:00
  • \$\begingroup\$ @DMGregory Very true. I'll try to edit in something to that effect. \$\endgroup\$
    – Onyz
    Commented Oct 24, 2023 at 16:22

It sounds like your root problem is wanting to keep your team members on board.

As with all volunteer-based projects, it's important to be mindful of the fact that volunteers come and go. This is something that should be expected and planned around. It can be affected to some degree, but at the end of the day, volunteers are going to drop out whenever the push from external factors (e.g. other projects in their lives) exceed the pull from their interest in the project.

The goal therefore isn't necessarily to make the work better for your artists' portfolios, but rather to make the project more appealing to them. Play into their passion for the project. They will still leave eventually, but a hobby project will still around longer if it's fun than if it's work.

Making the project more appealing to your volunteers could be done in many ways:

  • Make the project less work-like by allowing artists to focus on the aspects they have passion for, instead of deciding their tasks for them. The artists are there because they want to, and if they are forced to do tasks they don't enjoy, - or end tasks before they reach the enjoyable parts - then they have little incentive to stick around.

  • Encourage your volunteers to explore their skillset. The tasks a project needs to progress often center around the same things - e.g. drawing in the same style, or modelling the same type of characters - and quickly become chores. If you can encourage varied tasks, either by changing the direction of the game or by giving your volunteers time, space and encouragement to play around, it will take far longer for your volunteers to grow tired of them.

  • Build a following, for example by developing in the open, having a noteworthy product and playing into social media. This can give volunteers motivation to continue working on the project, and can also provide a reasonable source of new volunteers when existing ones inevitably drop out.

  • As mentioned in other comments, pay your artists. Convert the project from a volunteer-based project to an employee-based project, and it'll no longer be competing with other free-time activities. Employees still come and go, but at a far slower rate than volunteers.

Regardless of how you approach it however, it is important to be mindful of the fact that people leaving is a fact of life for passion projects.


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