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I recently posted a much, much shorter version of this story on my Facebook page. Based on the reaction it received, I figured I better post the full behind-the-scenes story here!
I still remember what my friend and former coworker James Mielke said when I first told him about my idea to have Final Fantasy artist Yoshitaka Amano paint an exclusive, limited-edition piece for our upcoming FF10 cover on Electronic Gaming Monthly:
"Holy shit. You're going right for the balls, aren't you?"
It was my first month or so in the new position, as editor-in-chief for the magazine. I wanted to do something epic…something no one's done before. I wanted to make a big splash. And yes, I was going for the balls.
James knows Amano personally, so he reached out to see if the artist was interested. He was, but he'd need $10,000 in compensation as well as the official OK from publisher Square (since all FF art he creates technically belongs to them). Square PR in the U.S. was immediately interested (this would bring a lot of attention to their game, obviously), but they had to get Japan's backing…which eventually came. The bigger obstacle was coming up with $10,000 in EGM's budget — not an easy task considering we only have a few thousand a month in freelance bucks.
The money people at our parent company Ziff Davis Media and I took a look at the months ahead, and we skimmed a little bit off of the freelance and art/photography budgets to come up with the dough to pay Amano. Square in Japan gave their approval if we would let them use the artwork in promotional materials (which I was fine with, after a window of exclusivity on EGM first). We were ready to go.
A few days later, James let me know that while the painting was coming along nicely, Amano wasn't sure how to get it to us electronically from his studio. That was one thing we didn't foresee or plan for: It just didn't occur to us that when Amano would paint this…he'd paint it. Like, on a real canvas. He wasn't just drawing on a magazine-sized template, which we had in our heads for some reason.
Amano would eventually find a giant drum scanner, so he could FTP the painting over to us (he still has the original). Our art director, Cyril Wochock, played with the image for a while to get a few cover lines and the EGM logo on it without interrupting too much of the artwork's beauty. We would eventually put most of the copy on the polybag wrap that went around the newsstand issues — so buyers could tear that off and get a nice, clean, minimalist cover underneath. For our subscribers who didn't get the polybag, it didn't really matter — we didn't need to sell them on the inside contents of that issue anyways.
James had Amano sign a copy of the issue for me, which I had framed.
See the little Mog doodle over the UPC code?
Now, one thing no one really knows is that we actually had a much more devious strategy for rolling this issue out. Our original plan was to have Amano's art grace 25% of just the newsstand copies — no subscribers were supposed to get that cover, because we wanted them to go out and buy it! (Single-copy sales were a vital part of our revenue.)
Due to some miscommunication, we ended up having the limited-edition cover on 25% of the entire print run that month, so a quarter of our subscribers got it as well. We didn't really care — it made more fans happy this way. Plus, we ended up selling through over 55% of our newsstand copies that month, which was incredible — anything over 40% would be considered a huge success for us back in those days. (The other 75% of the covers, by the way, had official CG art of Yuna on it, as opposed to Amano's wispy interpretation of Tidus, Yuna, and a Chocobo.)
The other EGM cover that month.
This issue was a huge hit for us and our fans. Electronics Boutique clerks told me they had customers coming into the store, flipping through all the copies of EGM specifically to find the Amano cover. One copy even sold on eBay for $50. Recently, EGM superfan Matt Swain sought several of us former editors out at the 2010 E3 trade show to get us to autograph that issue for him — nine years after it first came out.
The only drawback to this whole thing? Amano himself wasn't pleased with the printed results. His original piece contained gold paint, but our matte cover stock dulled his background down to a light brown. We didn't even notice, because the art still looked great (and we're riding high on the fact that Amano was even doing this for us). But certainly and understandably the artist wasn't thrilled with the outcome.
A couple of years later, we'd ask Amano to do another cover for us, for our "Final Fantasy Everything" issue. With all the lessons we learned from last time, from the approvals to the budgeting to the colors, the end result turned out win-win for everyone involved — except for eBay auctioneers. To our knowledge, no copies went on sale for $50 this time around….
Sorry for the picture quality. This is actually an iPhone photo of a
poster of the cover that's hanging on the wall in my apartment.
Edit: Please see the comments below for more on this story from James himself.