In the past it has been commonly perceived that outsourcing in the games industry leads to messy processes and unpredictable asset quality. However, with the current generation of consoles pushing graphics and processing power far beyond the previous hardware iteration and the pure mass of quality assets required by a triple-A game project increasing significantly, turning to outsourcers is beginning to look appealing to developers.
In a purely economic sense, outsourcing to a specialist third-party company is a time-tested, money-saving endeavour that companies in some industries would be foolish to overlook. There would be a vast diseconomy in spreading your skills finely and approaching these processes all on your own when you can outsource from established specialists. The difference with a game studio, however, is that until now the specialisation of each of the game production cycle’s processes has been in its infancy.
Only in the past fifteen or so years has there been suitable specialisation of skills within a game studio, because previously many members of once- small teams would’ve learnt to work cross-disciplined. Over time this structure has become more sophisticated, and today it’d be impossible to complete a high quality console or PC title without specialist know-how in programming, 3D art creation and audio engineering. Recently we have started to see entirely ‘process- specialised’ studios which are geared towards only one of game development’s areas of expertise.
These specialists are responding to a demand from developers who are seeing third-party outsourcing as a more viable option, when there were once reservations about authorship and artistic pride. Developers are beginning to see the usefulness of having an entirely separate company do ports of games to other platforms, perform tedious asset creation or QA testing, which frees the developers to create.
One of the primary reasons to look to outsourcing is to make staffing more cost-effective. Using third-party contractors means that the hiring process is skipped. Money and existing staff time is not spent sourcing candidates, short-listing, interviewing and then hiring; instead it is replaced with the one-time task of finding a good outsourcing studio. There are further attached costs that can be dealt with by the outsourcer- such as staff pension schemes, bonuses and healthcare plans if they are in place. Finally, and importantly for the games industry, are overtime costs. The developer will pay the one-time fee, and given that they fulfil their end of the bargain, then they don’t have to think about the overtime crunch period the outsourcer may have to payroll staff for.
Furthermore, outsourcing avoids the attached overheads and staff resources of training new starts. The team in the external company should already all be specialist-trained; any work-specific knowledge can be passed on with ease:
“Once the ideal asset is complete (by "ideal" we mean the item every artist, internal or external, looks to emulate when similar assets are produced) then a detailed how-to tutorial is assembled to go along with it. Whereas word docs were the norm during Rise of Legends, these days detailed step-by-step videos are our tutorial documentation tool of choice. Videos of the actual software process along with artist narration provide an easy-to-follow template.”- Dave Inscore, Big Huge Games.
Despite its successes, it is important to be aware of the pitfalls of outsourcing. "Low quality delivery, and lack of due diligence and poor briefing by clients" are a few of the issues that Screen Digest suggest as problem areas. Questionable quality is hard to remedy with one swoop of the magic wand. There’s no clear solution, but one approach would be to spend a little bit more time and money initially to find a good firm. Browsing portfolios, liaising with the company heads and getting a hands-on view of how they operate will obviously help. Involving the outsourcers in pre-production to fully illustrate the vision and setting up pipeline’s early can aid the quality of assets later. The extra time and funds spent at this stage could make the rest of the process much more profitable in the long run.
“You get what you pay for in the trade-off between price and quality, but the real costs of outsourcing are often below the line. This is forcing the industry to undergo a fundamental shift towards stronger project management skills, which have been lacking in many organizations," Rick Gibson- Screen Digest.
Like Gibson suggests, sometimes the problems with the outsourcing process lie in poor preparation and management from the developer themselves. It is therefore important that the developer is clear, concise and well primed to deal with outsourcing studios. Before any work is undertaken, there needs to be clear asset requirements and the specific creation process for these should be made apparent to the outsourcer. Even apparently small details like file-types should be clarified. At GDC09’s Outsourcing Summit Rajesh Rao of Dhruva Interactive spoke in depth about some client-based problems he encountered:
“There were several disconnects between the central team and the actual game team. This had a multiplier effect on production issues by the time it reached us”
“A game with non-realistic art-style looked great…but had no art direction document.”- Rajesh Rao, Dhruva Interactive.
These are just two of his examples of poor client preparation and communication. In practice, the outsourcers are often well-prepared, and toil with poor planning from the developer. Feature creep and changing specs could be avoided with a real partnership between in-house and third-party in planning.
It’d be easy to say ‘outsourcing done the right way works’:
“Provided there are clear deliverables defined at the start, both in terms of expected quality level, quantity and time scales and the process is managed correctly then using an outsourced resource can be beneficial.”- Bert Henning, TAG Games
But you have to pinpoint where it can and can't work.Within the realm of sport-simulations for example, many projects necessitate huge art demands for similar assets that could be more cheaply and less laboriously completed by specialists elsewhere than by talented artists at the primary developer. QA and testing is another element which would work well as an outsourced process. Given that there is no language barrier and if things are managed well, this is possible with modern bug-reporting software. Whilst working with Rockstar North, I saw this hands-on; their bug system allowed other Rockstar studios in Leeds and New York to see bugs logged in Edinburgh. The potential is worldwide and definitely a favourable use of ‘out-of-house’.
Code is the only area of production I would suggest to avoid going out of house with. Even with the best version management software and a clear pipeline, programming tasks are made complex by the individual’s style and nuances. Even well annotated code can cause problems which are best discussed in person. That’s why if coding tasks are to be outsourced, then its best to work with a localised firm who can commit time to checking in on the work.
The stigma of allowing others ‘in on the act’ of their creative process is slowly being removed, but there’s a sense that industry-wide, it could take some time before the method is fully embraced. By nature creation is very much about authoring pieces of work, so many developers still have trouble letting go of the artistic process. For this reason, perhaps outsourcing is, at the moment, best suited to certain types of ‘production-line’ games.