Love it when a plan comes together? What about when it doesn't? Outsourcing is the most cost efficient way to manage development, but it can be ruined by bad planning. We asked outsourcers to offer advice on how studios should brief suppliers and get the best out of themâ?¦

Brief Encounters

ART: Christian Bravery, Leading Light Design

It’s crucially important for any developer to carry through their whole development cycle with a high degree of diligence. Working with an outsourcing company is effectively a dev cycle within a dev cycle and should be treated as such.

Maintaining that high degree of attention will ensure that the process bears fruit in a timely manner. There are a number of measures that can be taken to ensure that this happens, it also helps to adopt a collaborative ‘we’re in this together’ attitude.

Obviously starting out with a concise initial brief is preferable, and in most cases will provide the foundation for reaching solid and timely results.

Having said that, however accurately, or loosely defined the brief is at its inception, it’s often at the revision stage that many of the crucial decisions are taken in light of deeper understanding of the relevant issues, informed and clarified by the completion and presentation of the first round of work. In many cases it’s only at this stage that a client clearly realises exactly what they want and what they don’t what.

At this point it’s important for the client to be honest in their thoughts and assessment and to do this with clear communication. Concise direction with clearly defined goals are one thing, but in the real world things can be less cut-and-dried so openness to discussion and a willingness to explore options and to experiment can often yield stronger, more robust solutions.

The revision stage is rarely a one-way street. If you want to get the best out of a client/supplier partnership clearly it’s sensible to leverage all opinions before making a call. This is a tactic that requires self assurance, but if you have taken the plunge and hired an external specialist, then use them to the full as both a provider and as consultant.

Generally, people who have the confidence and wherewithal to prosper in this area have views that are worth entertaining.

Time is money – this is true for supplier and client alike. Efforts made to understand all the issues and to improve the quality of the direction and to communicate it in accurately defined terms will be well worth it. This diligent approach is the best way to achieve fast and well focused final results and cut down on iterative rounds of adjustments, alterations and wasted work.

The additional fringe benefit gained through this approach is seated in its helping to foster the relationship of trust and respect between the involved parties. And that should pay handsome dividends during future collaborations.

QA: Andy Robson, Testology

In the testing and QA arena it is key for the supplier to understand the project and its scale first of all. The size and genre of the game is fundamental in the costing. If you have a game with a very linear path compared to an open-ended game where you’re able to play and replay scripts, jump between online and single player, and roam around huge worlds, then that adds a great deal of complexity to the testing which requires more staff to enable efficient testing coverage.

So understanding the game fully is very important. This example applies to most other disciplines. It is vital that your supplier fully understands what your project is and what you hope the end result will be. So the more information you can give them the better their work will be.

Getting a clear outline of the client’s project dates and milestones is another key part to getting a clear understanding of what’s required for the job. Finding out when the client’s milestones end and when their Pre-Alpha, Alpha, Beta and Master dates are is crucial as this dictates the timescale of how long the client is going to need the supplier for.

Most people would comment by saying that these dates aren’t set in stone and are liable to change. That’s fine and to be expected. However, bear in mind that most suppliers will be getting a steady stream of work coming in so they need to be able to plan their workload. From a supplier’s point of view time usually equals money so be realistic about your time frames and if things slip make sure you inform your supplier as soon as possible

Once you’ve chosen your supplier, basing the decision on the quality and creativity of their work, then your next question is certain to be ‘How much is it going to cost?’ Unfortunately there is no single formula for estimating the cost of services that you want to outsource.

In the case of testing and Q&A, Testology advises clients to allocate around ten per cent of the overall development budget for the cost of testing a game. Other suppliers will give you a project price or charge a day rate and then give you an idea of how many days work they think your requirements will take. In Testology’s experience, the ten per cent rule has proved to provide the best mix of a full service and value for money.

WRITING: James Leach, freelance scriptwriter

You need someone external for your project. You’ve chosen someone, written a brief and sent them a set of tasks, dates and milestones. Ideally you sit back, get the deliverables, enjoy them and pay.

But let’s face it, the game will change. Assets get altered, levels get cut, constraints imposed, ideas shoehorned in and deadlines moved. Maybe even the supplier isn’t supplying the right stuff. Whatever the reason, the chances are huge you’ll need to communicate with this far-off freelance as the project progresses.

So the following may help …
1. At all stages tell them everything they should possibly know about the project. But make sure you include and highlight the things they need to know. Provide as many documents, FMV clips, ideas, concept art, etc. as you like, but make sure the important stuff is clear, and write it in red.

2. If you’re not actually terminating the agreement, be polite. Outsourced artists, musicians and writers are cut from similar sensitive cloth as in-house ones, except they’re easier to blame. So if you have to, say ‘that didn’t do it for us. Here’s more guidance,’ rather than, ‘rubbish. Do it again’.

3. Your supplier will often be overly keen to impress, and may well provide more than is required, or sometimes offer alternatives and choices you haven’t asked for. See this as a bonus and encourage it (unless the supplier is charging you by the hour). Suppliers stand or fall by what they supply and, to a lesser extent, how they come across, so they usually try very hard. And remember that these go-it-alone types feel, rightly or wrongly, more free and unfettered in their thinking. Certainly being a step removed from a complex dev environment refreshes and focuses the mind wonderfully as anyone in game dev lucky enough to take a real holiday can testify.

4. Suppliers are different. When you engage a new outsourced resource, you’re saying you trust them. They may do things differently from your company and other external resources, but unless and until they give you genuine reason, let them do it their way. It’s not about late hours, early starts or brown-nosing the boss – it’s about what they deliver.

5. Suppliers are people. Just trying to keep good relations with them will nearly always be enough to engender Herculean efforts from them, to your benefit. But because they are people, the law states that killing them, as very occasionally you must, will almost inevitably result in a custodial sentence.

AUDIO: James Hannigan, freelance musician

The word ‘supplier’ has corporate connotations which can be off-putting to some ‘arty’ recipients. Unless looking for technical services, the less ‘Silicon Valley’ the brief the better. Games are entertainment – and we are not talking about ordering paper clips here, but engaging and recruiting entertainers of a sort.

The industry can overlook the value others add through their individuality, imagination and personal vision – often reflected in ads and briefs viewing candidates as tool-users, technologists or suppliers of assets. In this content-led age of gaming, if we expect assets to be created to a fixed brief, we ignore an individual’s take on the big picture and their potential to feed into games on a design level.

The emphasis on tools, the desire to find the ‘jack of all trades’ inexplicably persists in some quarters. It’s an impossibly tall order to find a person or organisation able to do a world-class job in every area – even if they possess or are proficient with the tools allowing them to dabble in ‘everything’.

To highlight how absurd it may be selecting on this basis, imagine John Williams getting his next film on the basis of owning Sound Forge; or Steven Spielberg getting a picture because he uses Final Cut Pro. It’s time we learnt to identify talent and look beyond technology in games. Although relevant, the use of tools ought to be a given.

It’s important to know what you are looking for, and to be aware of the specialisms in existence (e.g. the differences between sound designers, composers, engineers and so on) – which are often clumped together. The focus and clarity of a brief is important if you want the supplier to hit the nail on the head, and will help ensure the right people receive it.

Outsourcing gives you choice, but setting up a beauty contest can alienate many of the best suppliers. A track record in games will at least tell you there’s more than just chance to any success they have, and suggests they are easy to work with. This has to be better criteria than ‘cheapest and nearest’ or ‘first company listed in the back pages’.

Keeping the brief flexible allows the supplier to shape it and debate their role, allowing your work and theirs to become entwined, developing organically. The best artists not only work to the brief, but will challenge it as well – helping to determine style, when, where and how content gets used.

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