Tithi Luadthong’s Famous Stock Cover & Its Five RPGs

One of the challenges for RPG publishers involves obtaining exciting artwork while sticking to a strict budget. For many, the solution is stock art. Stock art is non-exclusive art, a concept I define in more detail as part of another article (here). I’ve talked about stock art, RPG art in general, and how to customize stock art so it isn’t exactly the same as the original (here, here, and here). Looking at costs, contents, and what can be done with art in an RPG is an ongoing conversation. But what happens when a piece of stock artwork is so great, it’s used repeatedly and often?

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“It has been brought to our attention that this cover [for Wasteland Sagas illustrated by Tithi Luadthong] has been used in a published Skirmish game and a failed Kickstarter drive for Starfinder. This piece of art is from Shutterstock. This means anyone who pays the fee can use it for publication. The fee was paid by us. We like our cover and wondered what is your thoughts? Do we continue to use it? Or do we switch to another cover? Keep in mind this is currently active on Kickstarter right now for us.”

The Polyhedral Knights asked that question on Facebook on 2022-06-23 about the cover to their RPG, Wasteland Sagas, currently on Kickstarter. The cover mock up utilizes Tithi Luadthong’s stock image sci-fi concept of the man with robotic arm standing on ruined buildings looking at sunset sky with digital art style, illustration painting. I’ve covered the amazingly talented Tithi Luadthong in several write ups because his artwork is captivating, inspiring, and competitively priced. For a modest fee, you can add evocative Tithi artwork to your book, instantly elevating its production values. To give an idea of how many times that’s been done, check out the list of credits he has at DriveThruRPG. Here are some of the projects that used this specific image as their cover:
Beyond those RPGs, this image has been the cover for the sci-fi novel, Godly Evolution: I Can Fuse with the Genes of Every Living Creature by Lang Li Bai Piao. Beyond even print, Tithi’s work has been lightly animated and tied to a music video for Au5 & Last Heroes. This begs the question, does the repeated use of a single image by Tithe lessen its value as a distinct cover?

Wasteland Sagas Cover.jpg

I share these examples to illustrate the point that The Polyhedral Knights’ challenge isn’t a new one. During the UFO Press Kickstarter for Legacy: Life Among the Ruins 2nd Edition, the creator, Minerva McJanda, shared this thought on their cover:

“A good amount of Tithi’s art for Legacy we licensed under a non-exclusive agreement, and it looks like a lot of other people have started licensing their art too. That’s why we changed the cover to a piece of their art we had the full and exclusive rights to!”

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With so much reuse, what’s the upside of using stock art? I asked Mickey Barfield of The Polyhedral Knights for his thoughts on the subject.

“Our company is a small indie game company and like many, we work on a shoestring budget. We wish we could have the budget to hire out top illustrators to do exclusive art. Many consumers have no idea of the cost of production that goes into publishing a book. Between printer cost, art cost, shipping, and other various fees by the time the book is complete the producer is lucky to pay for a cheap meal. I got into doing this because I have a love for this industry and feel I have something to give to it. Sadly, I don’t have the budget that a big company has. Due to this, it forces small companies such as myself to get creative on how to cut corners and still produce a quality product. Let’s face it, the public judges by looks. As much as many do not admit it, you will see people pick up any product, such as a book, food, DVD, or whatever. If it doesn’t grab their eye, they will pass over it. To keep production costs at a reasonable level, stock art is chosen. [T]his will probably continue until a better solution is found.”

It’s a valid solution. Reusing artwork isn’t a problem. Renaissance art adorns products the world over. Marvel has licensed Todd McFarlane’s covers from Amazing Spider-Man #301 and #316 to every company with a printer. If I say, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, you know the photograph I’m thinking of (and the book, movie, song, and band). Just because a great picture is re-used doesn’t lessen a truth: Spellbinding artwork is spellbinding artwork. For that very reason, reusing this cover makes sense.

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Circling back to The Polyhedral Knights question about switching out the cover for Wasteland Sagas? On Facebook, the response was a resounding keep the cover from their fans and boosters. Their core of gamers are interested in Wasteland Sagas no matter what cover wraps it. They came to game and The Polyhedral Knights plan to deliver.

Turning to the broader question about whether stock art should be re-used in RPGs or not, what do you think? Does it lessen your interest in a project? Or is great art great art and you don’t mind the cover so long as the game is fun?

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Wasteland Sagas from The Polyhedral Knights
  • End Date: Thu, July 21 2022 10:02 AM EDT.
  • “Post Apocalypse tabletop roleplaying game”
Thanks to The Shop on the Borderlands for some of these images.

Godly Evolution- I Can Fuse with the Genes of Every Living Creature.png
Egg Embry participates in the OneBookShelf Affiliate Program, Noble Knight Games’ Affiliate Program, and is an Amazon Associate. These programs provide advertising fees by linking to DriveThruRPG, Noble Knight Games, and Amazon.
 

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Egg Embry

Egg Embry


This industry is different than most in that a lot of the producers are also customers. If someone would get burn out of seeing the same cover on different products, it would be them but they'd might also be more understanding.

I assume the wider audience wouldn't see as much exposure unless it was a favorite over at DMs Guild.
Absolutely fair call outs. This cover image is strong so I don't mind it. But there could come a point.
 

TSR was (in)famous for reusing artwork in multiple products. And that was a case of one company using an art asset over and over again in the same game. I would argue that's more egregious than different companies using an asset in different products.
 

Vicente

Explorer
FFG re-uses art assets constantly in their boardgame lines, and as a player I don't really have a problem with it.

Edit: other art assets you can see re-used in DriveThru and DM Guild are the free art packs from Sine Nomine Publishing (Kevin Crawford), some of the art from his games (particularly the covers) are awesome.
 

dragoner

solisrpg.com
I use some of their stuff in Andromeda Dragons, stock art is pretty good deal, I mean I have paid $150 for a cover and received nothing as well, so which is better?
 

I agree with many of these thoughts. Stock art is a valid form of artwork and important for small press. Recycling art isn't bad.
@Vicente, your example from the DMsGuild and other community content options is a good call out. I feel that the cover shown in this article isn't overused, but I have seen a great deal of recycling with community content. That's not a condemnation, just an observation. They have limited resources and using community content artwork enhances any project more than not having artwork at all. Given the choice of recycling or nothing, I'd use the community content artwork every time.
 



I think companies that sell stock art should list which projects already licensed said art, so that purchasers can know up front if the piece already has context.
I get where you're going with this, but most of the stock art comes with a boilerplate license that does not require the licensee to report its usage to the artist. Since there's no feedback, creating an accurate list would be difficult. I think what you're suggesting would be beneficial to publishers, artists, and fans, but the logistics make it difficult.
 

dragoner

solisrpg.com
Shutterstock tells in a general way if an image has been used a lot, some, or never. I saw the back cover of one of mine used by someone else, they posted it on twitter, I mean, I laughed what else is one going to do? Even though with the back, as well as the front, I manipulated them a bit. Most I chose for the cover had never been used.

AD Covers.jpg
 

Shutterstock tells in a general way if an image has been used a lot, some, or never. I saw the back cover of one of mine used by someone else, they posted it on twitter, I mean, I laughed what else is one going to do? Even though with the back, as well as the front, I manipulated them a bit. Most I chose for the cover had never been used.

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That looks very professional! I dig it. :)
 

dragoner

solisrpg.com
That looks very professional! I dig it. :)
Thanks! The feel is what I want in general for the setting, it stands apart, and that is all stock art, so I am not unhappy. Custom art would be two to three times the cost, and six months to a year to get completed. I'm jealous of RPG designers who are good artists themselves, or have a good relationship with and artist so they are on the same page.
 

Thanks! The feel is what I want in general for the setting, it stands apart, and that is all stock art, so I am not unhappy. Custom art would be two to three times the cost, and six months to a year to get completed. I'm jealous of RPG designers who are good artists themselves, or have a good relationship with and artist so they are on the same page.
I feel you. It would be amazing to have all of the skills some creators possess. That said, that cover rocks. It really pops. :)
 



gamerprinter

Mapper/Publisher
While my art might just barely be good enough for cover art, as a small publisher who is also a professional illustrator, I would never use stock art, even if my work isn't good enough, it's still cheaper than hiring out better art - I'm not so terrible at it, so that's something. At least you won't find my art on other publications than my own...

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I mean, a lot of RPG creators are hobbyists without a lot of money--it's not as if everyone can afford custom art. Just by chance, you'd expect to see some reuse. The fact that this one keeps getting reused is probably due to a lack of a dominant player in the post-apocalyptic sci-fi landscape it portrays (leading to lots of small companies doing their own thing), as well as of course Mr. Luadthong's artistic skill in (a) creating a mood and (b) having a picture that's reusable and could represent a wide variety of people (the figure's androgynous and could have dreads or those could be mechanical manipulators or something, so the race is ambiguous too).

As an aside, it's a nice riff on a classic image that's often the first thing that comes up when you search 'Romanticism':
(Remember, everything is a remix! The Ancient Greeks were inspired by Egyptian statues!)
 


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