Updated: Aug 5, 2021
Cover art by our art director Christopher Balaskas.
There is a lot of thought and work that goes into a cover. We set out to answer three major questions with our Dark Veil cover:
How do we tell the story of the tabletop game in a single image?
How do we get the right audience to grab this off the shelf?
What will set us apart from the competition?
Telling a story and setting an epic scene for the tabletop RPG
How do you tell a really great story in a single image?
In the setting of Dark Veil, the Veil surrounds all known sectors in a dome like casing. It protects each sector, but also it imprisons each sector and those within it. Chris and I went back and forth quite a bit to determine how we wanted to depict the Veil itself. If you were standing in a sector and looking at the horizon, you should see distant views normally present in that sector’s timeline. As you grow closer to the Veil wall, however, the view would become obscured by the imposing presence of the Veil itself.
We knew the Veil would be something characters could interact with and ultimately walk through without restriction. This meant it needed to be some form of cloud of smoke, energy field, or portal that stretched across a massive area. The Veil acts as a superhighway to the infinite realms and traveling through the Veil requires intimate knowledge of your destination or else you could end up lost in a dangerous and unknown realm. We ended up choosing a smoke-like cloud to depict the Veil. It allows the Veil to feel bodiless and gives it an eerie and elusive presence when next to any other solid shape. It also allowed us to move other objects through it or around it and like smoke, it would just fall or surround those objects. Now that we determined the look we needed to choose a color.
Colorsets a brand emotional tone and initiates a specific response from your audience. Every color we use is specific and purposefully chosen. The Veil for the setting of Dark Veil needed a constant color that wouldn't change; we chose to depict the Veil with the color purple. Purple symbolizes royalty, magic, mystery, the subconscious, spirituality, and is considered the color of mourning. This choice to depict the Veil as the color purple meant we needed to then avoid using the color for anything that was NOT part of the Veil.
For Veil gems, devices that hold great power from the Veil, we knew we needed to make these close to the same hue as purple but that they needed to slightly be a different color to identify them against the background. The pink glow in the character's hand next to the gate represents a Veil gem. The character is holding up the gem and casting a Magi spell that opens the gate and allows the characters in the scene access to another sector.
Telling the story of Dark Veil in a cover meant getting to the base essence of the theme of the game. The universe experienced a cataclysmic event when the time dimension collapsed. This reformed sectors to coexist side by side with other sectors of other time periods. It also removed huge portions of time and locations from existence. Trying to tell this story in a cover meant we had to focus on the main theme, the Veil separating sectors of time and showing how gates were constructed to walk between them. In addition, we needed a representation of player characters that someone could identify with as their in game character.
The hero needed to highlight the different time periods through their gear and clothing. Chris did a great job capturing the different time periods with different devices and gear that would be prevalent in Victorian steam, fantasy kingdoms, and futuristic space settings. The smaller hero by the gate is opening the gate with a Veil gem, a key story element that makes up a large part of the player experience in the universe as players travel between sectors and through the Veil.
We go back and forth in a structured and purposeful way for each version of every art piece. This allows for creative direction and art direction to both play a part in the process. We let the artist put their personal touch and style into the piece but at the end of the day it's the creative director and art directors jobs to keep that style in line with the vision of the brand. Together we can provide each other ideas and fuel an even better version of each other's personal visions.
The cover needs to represent the tone and feeling of the brand at an extreme level compared to any other artwork in your game. It sets the precedent for all other artwork. Chris is the soul of our artistic fantasy story direction, and by having him create our covers, we establish the art director's vision of the universe. My job as creative director requires me to focus on storytelling and confirming the elements of the image have a purpose in the larger universe. I'm determining what the function of the Veil is but Chris is determining how to depict it.
With some great layout and strategy, we were off with a concept and began working the image. Just wait to see the back cover...oh did we forget to mention it will wrap around in the final version? It will.
Judging a TTRPG by it’s cover
Browsing for your next RPG purchase is just part of the consumer experience. We not only want to sell you our games... but need to. If we don't have money we can't make more games. It's sort of how the whole thing works. If I won the lottery tomorrow I'd find a way to give the game for free. Unfortunately, currency is a requirement since I haven't won the lottery yet. Resources, like funds, afford more quality content from talented artists, editors, creators, writers, and designers. We want to give you the best possible experience with our products and that means we need a large audience. That large audience generates enough demand for our products to allow us to keep the supply of content churning.
On a side note: Our preview quickplay and adventure are both free on our site for members. Member sign up is free and gets you in our mailing list for future tests, products, and announcements. There's over 35k words of free gaming content, six pre-made characters, hours of a starter adventure and hooks to continue it, rules to create your own enemies and monsters, and dozens of amazing images to inspire your players and you about the Dark Veil universe. You can start playing Dark Veil for free right now.
I can remember watching people walk by a stand at GenCon (many years ago) that had dozens of role playing games lined up with their covers all facing outward. 9/10 stopped to touch a book I'd created, They would pick it up and flip through the pages. Not all of them bought it, but I was impressed that the simple art style and clean colors was enough to draw them in. We all behave instinctively the same way when we see a really great looking cover of a book. I've bought many books simply based on the cover alone and I'm sure I'm not the only one. A good cover not only tells the story about what's inside but gets you excited about it. This moment made me realize there is a formula to the cover that is far more important than just looking really cool. It's all about the brand identity.
We strive for high quality artwork that not only fits our brand but also does the universe and story justice. We painstakingly spend hour after hour looking at the design and creative story behind our big and small pieces. We want to deliver value to the audience and that means taking the time to do it right. We may be a small Indy studio, but we aim for big goals and we have the talent and experience to deliver based on the budget. We only intend on delivering more quality attention to detail in our content the larger we grow.
So how do you get someone to stop and take a look at your book on the shelf or click on your link while scrolling through webpages and products? Here's the simple answer...spend the time delivering a story in the art that matches the interior contents of your book. Great art is great, but if it doesn't match the brand the person will feel cheated when they open the book. Storytelling in your art will set the right audience up for success when they open and keep reading. If you are trying to over-sell your book by art that doesn't match, you will over-sell the wrong audience into opening your book. If you can sell the same content story on the outside as the inside, you are targeting the correct audience to pick up and potentially buy your product.
Spend the time delivering story in the art that matches the interior contents of your book.
Our ideal goal as a game studio is not to get everyone to buy our games and play our games (though it would be awesome). We want an audience that truly enjoys the universe and style of our games, not just an audience that thought a cover looked cool. There are millions of gamers in the world and we want to cater to an audience that truly loves our universes. This allows us to make even better content specific for that audience. We'd love to make a game generic enough to please everyone but sadly that isn't often the reality. Some games will just not appeal to everyone. So our tip, don't try to. Make your game and don't listen to those who aren't excited by it. Find the gamers that are excited and give them an awesome experience.
Get the right audience to see your great cover by representing a universe and setting they are interested in; don't try to be something you are not; showcase the skills you have; and tell the best story that represents your product. But remember, your content inside better line up with what is advertised on the outside. Always deliver quality and stay on brand!
Setting yourself apart from other RPG’s
There are so many tabletop games, so how do we set ourselves apart as a new studio? How does the cover play into establishing a unique identity?
Setting yourself apart takes a lot of patience. You can have a great idea but if you force it on the audience they may feel uncomfortable about it or find the approach you take too aggressive and ultimately dismiss the product before they even see what it is. Don't rush your cover because you can't wait to share it. Wait till you are absolutely ready to reveal it to the world. Typically, you only get one opportunity to present a cover, take your time. We spent several months conceptualizing and going back and forth on our cover. It wasn't the only piece we were working on at the time but instead it was something we could continually critique the sketch direction on before we were ready to put it to a final version. We were still building a good deal of the world feel and tone and we knew we had a general direction we wanted to head but needed a few more weeks to really feel satisfied with that direction. Ultimately that patience allowed us to get to a really great end result.
There's also a lot of opinion in gaming. Especially when it comes to tabletop roleplaying games. What one person likes, another may absolutely dislike. When it comes to cover art you need to make sure you do something original and unique but also something that feels approachable and represents your brand. Not everyone will like our cover and that is ok. If they aren't interested in the story we want them to move along to another game. But, those that are interested, we hopefully set the tone for them to dive head first into a massive adventure experience in Dark Veil that feels new and fresh.
Overall, be calm and focused on your brand identity and don't try to be something you aren't just because you think it will get some heads to turn. You should be able to turn heads with your identity because it is uniquely yours.
How does an identity form?
The colors, tone, characterization, style, artist, and creative team will establish a truly unique brand as a team. It's the back and forth editing and re-working that tells the true story of your universe. If you are editing all the things out that are unimportant and revising things into the piece that are important, you will get to the heart of your true identity.
Let's be clear on something else very important, you need some skilled team members to get a really great product. If your team has a mismatched skill level or lacks the skills required to work together, you may need to find a more appropriate team that is closer in talent. It's ok to have a lower skilled team as long as the team is working together. The difficulty in mismatching skilled team members is some are not pulling the weight that others provide or some are controlling the direction of the vision too much and the others are relying on that top tier talent to drive without pushing back from their lane. Trust your team and be humble about the responsibilities of each team member and especially your own weaknesses. Teamwork truly does make awesome storytelling artwork.
So let's finish this out
If you are looking at making a cover for a game, focus on the story and work with your team to challenge each other to find the identity of the brand. This requires humility and teamwork along with some serious patience. In the end you'll make something uniquely your own and that uniqueness will drive the target audience your product deserves.
Oh, and go check out Dark Veil.