Welcome to the X Games: The rise of external development

External Development (XDev) is the most significant changing factor in how games are developed today. The shift started a long time ago, but its reach and depth has accelerated rapidly in recent years and shows no sign of stopping. We take a look at how the shift is affecting the way games are made and what impact it’s having on those working on both sides of what is an increasingly blurred line between internal and external.

At the sector’s own industry conference, XDS, earlier this year, 92 per cent of those using such services foresaw a growth in their demand, with 44 per cent of developers and publishers surveyed reporting an annual spend of $6m or more on XDev. The biggest single area for such games remains console titles and it’s not just assets and multiplayer modes but fully-integrated parts of narrative titles too. For example, did you know that the Challenge Tomb levels in Square Enix’s most recent Tomb Raider game were created practically entirely, from their own designs, by a Virtuos team in Singapore?

Putting some smaller indie studios to one side, it’s been a while since most major PC and console titles have been produced entirely in a single location, or by a single company. The outsourcing of specialist skills – such as motion capture, voice and music – were followed by the creation of so-called ‘assets farms’ for art outsourcing.

But the sector has evolved far beyond those simplistic early days says Microsoft’s Sam Carlisle, director, external partner relations: “The first step in the future of outsourcing is that it’s not outsourcing anymore. The word conjures up ‘throw it over the wall’ asset farms employed as a cost saving exercise and viewed with deep suspicion from front line developers, with the belief it marked the first step toward redundancy.”

We’ll tackle that last point later, but what’s certain is that XDev now sits at the very heart of modern games development, Carlisle continues: “Fact of the matter is that there are very few triple-A titles that don’t have XDev deeply integrated into their production pipeline. It is not possible to make games on the scale and complexity that we see today without it.”

XDev is far more than art or audio: the range of services provided externally has greatly increased, with the key growth areas being co-development. UI/UX, engineering, in-engine cinematics and trailers, plus of course live operations for GaaS titles. But it’s the way that these are integrated into the main developers’ work that is just as key to XDev’s own development.

Elijah Freeman, VP of games division at Virtuos explains the scale of the shift: “The expectations of the developers are the same as they would be for a feature team on the core development team. The days of crafting a few trees have transitioned into designing and implementing an ancient, forest-themed environment with associated gameplay objectives.”

“We want problem solvers and artists who can interpret, rather than people who just follow.”

 

Which is not to say that Virtuos isn’t providing art assets for triple-A projects, just that it now does a lot more besides, Freeman continues: “We are proud of being the world’s ‘go-to’ content provider. However, Virtuos has developed solid game development competencies that have transformed our traditional content provider relationship to co-development driven partnerships.”

It’s a point that Carlisle, as a commissioner of such services, concurs with: “There is still the need to create large volumes of art assets. However, the shift has come in what the industry is expecting of the artists. We’re looking for more ownership, to be able to deliver further down the production pipeline, in the engine, with leeway to create assets in style without the highly prescriptive asset briefs we used to employ. We’re demanding more technical knowhow, more integration into development. We want problem solvers and artists who can interpret rather than people who just follow.”

And being involved further up the development tree, so to speak, in engineering and the like, means providers can then work across numerous activities on a single project with greater understanding, says Jamie Campbell, engineering service line director at Keyword Studios.

“Keywords already has demonstrable capabilities in both large scale co-development – developing full DLC maps, running LiveOps etc – and full game development, from concept through full production to release and LiveOps support.

“As a game development platform we’re able to provide these high-value activities as entry points for our clients and allow them to make use of the full spectrum of services we provide throughout the game development lifecycle – user playtesting, concept art, engineering, art production, audio, localisation, QA, social user acquisition, analytics and post-launch player support.”

WHY DISTRIBUTED IS GOOD

That means that more games are getting made in more locations by more people. Which sounds like a logistical nightmare, but there are ups as well as downs.

External developments roots come out of taking on specialist skills and equipment – such as motion capture studios – that traditionally no studio would consider running full-time. But in recent times it’s been more closely associated with reducing spiralling development costs for ever more detailed games. 

While that’s still a driver, cost isn’t the key consideration of those commissioning such services. With an XDS survey showing that quality of assets, team skillsets and communication were the top three considerations.

The real driver though is to being able to “add depth and breadth to the talent pool, providing a competitive edge in the global market,” says Virtuos’ Freeman. And it also provides flexibility, allowing developers to call on resources as and when they need them.

And that global approach also allows a distributed team to literally make use of every hour in the day, notes Keyword’s Campbell.

“If managed properly, working across multiple time zones can work well. ‘Follow the sun’ development has been adopted by numerous developers and publishers over the years and if sufficient project management effort is put in place, the methodology can work well.”

Being able to make the best use of time when a project is in full production is a tempting proposition. But having a more distributed effort can also help nearer the beginning of a project too, Microsoft’s Carlisle explains:

“We once employed a ‘shotgun’ technique where in early look dev we sent out the same broad brief to multiple art studios worldwide and asked them to hand their ideas back with no feedback. This way we received an incredible range of imaginative interpretations. There’s value in seeing what doesn’t work as well as what does.

What external teams allow you to do is try out some of the wilder ideas.

 

“We sometimes look at iteration as something that is very immediate. A group round a table, bouncing ideas off each other. What external teams allow you to do is try out some of the wilder ideas. What the external development partner does, is bring a fresh perspective from outside the development bubble. They allow you to bring in and test ideas that you may otherwise not have the time to do.” 

But whether you’re looking for inspiration from beyond your team, or just someone to execute your precisely-drawn plan, successfully communicating with your external partners will be the key.

HOW TO THINK TO MAKE IT HAPPEN

It was only a few years ago that the communication between such partners might simply have consisted of some concept art and a spreadsheet of required assets, with the assets being sent, complete, on a disc when done.

Obviously, tools as generic as Slack or Trello, or as specific as Shotgun or HackNPlan, have helped revolutionise the way we work together, be that in an office or remotely, but there’s a lot more to it than that, according to Virtuos’ Freeman.

“The current crop of communication technology is fantastic and has dramatically improved access to information. We learn and adapt to our partners’ communication pipelines, providing a seamless transition and instilling best practices to ensure information accuracy and timeliness. It is the customised balance of technology and process that has provided us with the
best communication results.”

Of course there are downsides to the model, says Microsoft’s Carlisle: “A lack of in the room immediacy, which you get from traditional game development model, can make cooperation harder. However, it’s not an insurmountable challenge and I think we all know communication inside development studios itself can sometimes be difficult. What I’ve found is that time, distance and culture aren’t necessarily the barriers to communication.”

Once communication is good, though, that’s only just the beginning of a great collaborative effort, continues Microsoft’s Carlisle: “Collaboration is a question of approaching the relationship with the right mindset and processes. Your external partners need to feel trusted, included and able to take risks without damaging the partnership. If you look at those factors, they are no different from creating an effective, creative internal team.

“You need to find the right fit for you. This takes time. You need to foster the right production environment, that includes tools, systems and people who want to collaborate. None of these are givens,” he warns, adding that: “If not managed properly they just generate internal overheads and frustration.”

The process then takes time and requires some dedication. Which is probably why more and more developers and publishers say they are sticking with their current external partners from year to year, rather than cutting and changing to try and find a better deal. In short, a good relationship is worth paying for.

HOW FAR WILL THE CHANGE GO?

Those deepening relationships are part of why XDev has been able to spread its wings into more technically-demanding areas.

“Engineering was one of the last areas you’d go external with. Letting coders outside your studio into main branch was rightly seen as a very risky move. Once we learnt
that you don’t augment a team with coders, but instead you give a team of coders a problem to solve. We found that not only could we bring in code support, but it became the door to the biggest current trend in XDev – co-development,” says Carlisle.

“This has grown from two sides: work-for-hire development studios contributing to a part rather than developing the whole, and from service suppliers such as art studios who, thanks to the expanded integration and technical capacity we demanded, are able to deliver entire levels rather than just the props that go in them.”

With external studios taking on entire sections of games, working side-by-side with the core studio, the possibilities open right up, and the very nature of the IP-holding developer may change.

“I believe we will see the ability to develop complex titles from a small core team directing the game. In fact, I think that it’s going to be vital, when you consider the content heavy strategies of the major publishers and newcomers such as Google.”

Such a change to even greater involvement of XDev is then reinforced by the need to support titles post release, Carlisle continues: “If we want games to grow and evolve after release, then we need partners capable of taking ownership while the host development studio moves on the next IP.”

And a new generation of yet more powerful console hardware, plus the advent of cloud gaming services, will only further grow the demand for such services, says Virtuos’ Freeman:

“It is my opinion that the game industry is experiencing one of the biggest technical advancements in years, and we are about to have an exponential growth in content needs. High quality content is king. The expectation for current developers includes massive components of complexity, and a seemingly insatiable need for high-end visual fidelity. This type of development requires more content and larger teams.”

“Well managed XDev protects internal jobs rather than taking them.”

 

X-WORKING

More content and larger teams sounds like good news for developers. But XDev, as we touched on earlier, has often been looked upon with distaste by studio-based developers, who see work being outsourced to other companies in other countries.

Carlisle, though, believes that the process doesn’t have to be a negative one: “The interesting side effect of well managed XDev is that it protects internal jobs rather than taking them. External studios can flex resources with production, minimising downtime. They can also bring in those specialist services that may only be needed for short periods of time. Making games is hard, being able to adapt as the challenges rise is made easier when you can draw on a wide range of outside talent.”

Maybe then it’s better to use external resources, than have to inflict a constant cycle of hire-and-fire upon studio staff as projects scale up and down. Arguably, the rate of growth in game development has meant that few have been left behind by such outsourcing of what have, traditionally at least, been the less desirable tasks.

Another concern is that studios under pressure to deliver, and under an increasing microscope of public opinion, are simply externalising their crunch to those who are less in the spotlight.

Keyword’s Campbell says that isn’t the case there and that frankly it wouldn’t be sustainable anyway. “When development studios crunch they also provide a recovery period when their game ships, allowing teams to have some downtime. As a service provider, our teams are usually highly utilised and when one project ends there are other exciting opportunities ready and waiting in the pipeline. This means that staffing projects correctly to avoid crunching is vital for us; rather than asking people to run at 150 per cent for periods of crunch we aim for our teams to be running at 100 per cent consistently.

“The result is that we have satisfied staff, demonstrated through three UK studios winning ‘Best places to work’ awards in 2019, who don’t get burnt out, deliver consistent and predictable value for clients, and have a ball working on a wide array of amazing projects.”

Instead he points out that XDev is actually the solution for crunch, with studios at least: “Using external resources to bolster internal development teams is one thing that can provide an extra boost and relieve some pressure on the internal folk.”

On the other hand, Carlisle warns that while XDev seems to be a silver bullet for crunch, you have to utilise it carefully and plan well in advance, in order to deliver on time and to the required quality:

“Because we can grow external teams faster than internal ones, especially when we’re using multiple studios, there can be this temptation to leverage numbers to ‘brute force’ a solution. I would caution against it. Ramping up resources externally has the same challenges as internally. They need time to learn art styles, technical requirements and team culture. If you simply expand the external teams, add more partners into the mix, the likelihood is that you’re throwing fire onto fire. Your internal capacity for review and management will also struggle to cope.

He goes on to explain that the “basic the tools for tackling external crunch are the same as for the developer: planning, scope and resource allocation.” But if your planning fails then: “Step back, examine the issues from the XDev partner side. Visit them onsite if possible. Work together on the solution.”

EXTERNAL DRIVE

As games get bigger, more complex, and have longer lifespans, the rise of XDev is inevitable. The term now covers a huge range of activities, so much so that in the near future, games that are developed entirely internally, will likely be regarded as the exception.

At the same time, the best XDev teams will grow more and more influential and their services more desirable, Carlisle reckons:

“In the future, I believe we will see a lot of cross external partner cooperation and partnering. Which if approached the right way, will allow for smaller internal teams and the continued evolution of games as a service by the external teams, with little oversight from the developer. This in turn could lead to the inclusion of license or royalty deals with XDev suppliers.

“The other interesting progression is traditional outsources moving into their own IP creation. I used to see a lot of resistance to companies that had their own IP. Often driven by concerns it would deflect attention and divert their best people into the project. However, as we have demanded more technical expertise and integration, the external suppliers have found themselves with almost complete game development teams.

“They’re taking advantage of this to push into IP development. It’s something I believe is good for both the studio and the client as it gives the studio the opportunity to create new career paths for its senior employees, who may be looking for growth and new challenges. It also provides the studio with valuable insight into the development challenges their clients face. In turn they can become more proactive in solving problems independently. As a gamer I’m excited to see what these talented creatives release!”

In short, today’s best XDevs may well be tomorrow’s best devs.

About Seth Barton

Seth Barton is the editor of MCV – which covers every aspect of the industry: development, publishing, marketing and much more. Before that Seth toiled in games retail at Electronics Boutique, studied film at university, published console and PC games for the BBC, and spent many years working in tech journalism. Living in South East London, he divides his little free time between board games, video games, beer and family. You can find him tweeting @sethbarton1.

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