The problems with artist pay on Magic

Working on Magic:The Gathering is a life goal for a lot of artists. It’s a goal for many that signifies “making it” as a fantasy artist. The sad truth, is that it’s not as good of a deal as most people think. For some, it’s worthwhile for them to work on the project anyways. Fantasy art is a tough business and Magic is a relevant breaking in point for a great deal of artists worldwide. It’s too bad that it ultimately doesn’t provided a sustainable income for most of artists that work on it. In fact, it’s probably paying a small fraction of what it should be.

This is not a condemnation of the people I’ve worked with. The creative team treated me better than I deserved. They are a sharp crew with a deep passion for creating great things. Everyone I worked with was deeply capable and empathetic to the needs of the artists they worked with. That’s not in question. The problem here is the way that the corporate decision makers at Wizards of the Coast and the Hasbro executives above them choose to compensate artists for the value they bring to the Magic brand.

There are three main problems and they are all pretty bad, but I don’t want to confuse them. These are issues that need to be addressed separately and with different departments within WotC. It’s not a change that could happen overnight but it’s a change that should happen.

1. The base rates didn’t keep up with the times

Back in 1999, WotC switched over from a primarily royalty based payment system to an upfront payment system. Artists hated it, but there wasn’t getting around it. Magic had the opportunity to grow fast and paying royalties was potentially a huge barrier to doing so. The amount they ended up paying at the time was substantial decrease, but it might be argued that for the time it was a fair re-adjustment.

The really problem is that those rates were frozen in time between 1999 and 2014. At which point they bumped the average rate up by around 20%. In that same time, Magic has grown from a hobby shop hit, into a worldwide cultural phenomenon. When the product grows somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000%, the people who helped get it there should get to share some of that success. If WotC were to set aside a tiny portion, even as small as .1% of the net profit to split up amongst all the creatives that helped it succeed, they could make the pay from Magic a long term sustainable part of artist’s lives.

Magic is still the highest paying gig in gaming, but that’s not exactly a fair comparison. Tabletop gaming is tiny industry and most products are selling units measured in thousands as opposed to the hundreds of millions of units that Magic has sold. When most card games pay $125, they are actually paying a far larger portion of the project’s gross income back to the people who helped make it. The slice of the Magic pie that gets side aside for paying artists and writers is insignificant. This extends to the small staff of creatives that work in-house at WotC as well as the hundreds of contractors that they hire to make all the art in the game.

2. Licensing is big business and we're left out

The real dirty laundry in my opinion is the licensing deals. As a Magic artist, I can’t print my art on to anything other than a piece of paper. This means that playmats, deck boxes, t-shirts, card sleeves, etc, are all verboten. Meanwhile WotC has made all of those out of my work and also included it in products like video games and action figures. The non-negotiable contracts that come with all employment at WotC make this totally standard and legel.

Not being allowed to print rubber mats with fantasy characters on them might seem like a small issue but the truth is that it’s actually a life changing disparity. When Ultrapro printed playmats of the 3 god cards I illustrated, they paid WotC a sizable fee for the permission. If I had received that fee instead, the amount of pay I got for creating that illustration would potentially be 50 times greater than the amount I was paid. That’s just for the playmats. Looking at all the work of mine they sold the rights to, I’m pretty sure I missed out on enough licensing money to provide a comfortable life for my family for the next 10 years.

When the upfront pay rate was established, WotC was essentially paying artists for their time to create the art. Many of these licensing opportunities simply didn’t exist. As they have become increasingly common, the pay for these "work for hire" jobs has not increased with it. So while WotC has made millions off the merchandise and licensing surrounding Magic, they haven't be liable to pay anything back to the people who created the art they sell. In fact, they have grown accustomed to requesting that the card art be created in ways that make it easier for them to re-use and license in multiple different ways.

3. Ownership of the Intellectual Property

When you create a popular comic book character, setting or story for Marvel or DC, they pay you royalties to reuse them. When Killer Croc appeared the Batman animated series, Don Newton got paid. When Erebos appeared in Magic: Gathering commercials, I don’t.

The conflict within the comic book industry is often about how many people and how much royalty money should get paid. Currently, that just a fanciful daydream for Magic artists. No creative person who has helped to define the IP for Magic is getting paid for royalties at all. Which is especially astounding considering that Magic is becoming noticeably more rigid about the imagery that appears in the game. As the product has matured, the “everything goes” attitude that defined the early expansions has been replaced by a carefully crafted set of unique worlds and characters. Hundreds of unique characters, locations and story elements are being created for a billion dollar entertainment juggernaut without paying a dime in royalties. It’s enough for Walt Disney to pop out of his grave to give everyone at Hasbro a high five.

When fans support Magic, they think they are also supporting the people behind the game and it sad to see that it’s not the case. I believe that there are a lot of people who want to see this change. Fans, artists and team members at WotC are certainly behind the idea. Even though I probably won’t work for them ever again, I thus won’t benefit from any shift in policy, I would still like to see a change that improves the quality of life for my peers.


-Pete Mohrbacher

Post Script: 

The worst part about writing my recent article is that no matter how hard I try to explain that my complaints are not the fault of the WotC Art Directors, I can't seem to avoid harming them. These critiques are related to policies that are set by executives that dictate the terms that the ADs must work within and exist in themselves.  Regardless, there seems to be no way of firing shots at the faceless corporate juggernaut that is Hasbro without causing them to land in the chests of the few people over there that I actually care about. 

 The ADs at WotC have been allies to the artists there and have been their strongest advocates for compensation over the past 20 years. Jeremy Jarvis in specific has personally done more for me than any other AD I've worked with and has arguably enacted more positive change for artists than any other person from within WotC since Hasbro acquired them. Which makes me especially sorry that I've continued to cause him and the rest of the creative staff hurt over the few years I worked with them.

I'm probably not the best person to carry the torch on the subject of rights and compensation because of my checkered history with breaking/bending rules around them. As people have brought up, those instances make my recent arguments look especially ill willed and I realize that. My hope is that by raising awareness of the situation as it is will help people discuss it honestly and openly.