When outsourcing first rose to prominence it was seen as something that would inevitably threaten the livelihoods of game developers, replacing well-paid, experienced talent with cheaper alternatives abroad.
So why, with more and more outsourcing studios popping up in counties like Russia and China, are UK and US companies now looking more locally instead?
To answer this and to address some of the problems with international outsourcing I want to draw your attention to something called the PDI, the Power Distance Index.
This essentially defines how underlings – whether in business, family or other – will treat their superiors.
Countries with a low PDI, such as UK (35) and USA (40), have a strong belief in equality, those with a high PDI, such as Malaysia (104), China (80) and India (77), don’t.
Research was done a few years ago into why plane crashes were happening more frequently in certain countries.
While not being immediately obvious, a connection was made to the PDI following a researcher listening to conversations recorded between the pilot and co-pilot of one of these doomed planes.
The co-pilot was heard to politely mention the rain ahead as the plane was flying into a serious storm, something along the lines of: ‘Is it raining ahead?’
Considering how bad the storm was, this seemed like quite an understatement. But in this particular country, had the co-pilot been more assertive, it would’ve been an insult to the pilot; how could a mere co-pilot suggest that he or she hadn’t noticed the storm ahead?
If the co-pilot daren’t mention the severity of the weather, though, how likely would they be to suggest to the pilot that they take over flying if the pilot appears tired?
The connection between this and outsourcing perhaps isn’t immediately obvious – but let’s consider one of the most important questions that a studio may ask of an outsourcer – whether or not they’re on schedule for the current task.
A worker from a low PDI country, such as the UK, would likely be pretty honest. For example, ‘I need a little more time – you need to upgrade the source libraries first and reformat the server,’ wouldn’t be an unreasonable answer.
Yet, in the same situation, a worker from a high PDI country would be more likely to give an answer like ‘Yes, I don’t see a problem with that.’
Essentially, they don’t want to tell you that you need to do some additional work first – because that could be seen as insubordination for them to not assume that you already know that.
If problems can occur with simple things like schedules, though, imagine a potentially more serious problem where tasks have been specified and the question asked of whether or not they’re understood.
Again, a worker from a high PDI country is less likely to be honest and tell you that they don’t quite understand something – to do so could seem like an insult as it may mean that you didn’t explain the task well enough.
Without an understanding of these differences it’s pretty clear why problems occur when outsourcing between low and high PDI countries, and why some of these countries work together better than others.
Studios that have taken on external outsourcing like this have typically had to invest heavily in management in order to make sure that work is proceeding well and tasks have had to be split into very small chunks to ensure that it’s all tracking as expected.
Some studios have even resorted to putting those managers into the country being outsourced to so that they have a clearer view of what’s happening.
All of this, however, costs money. Outsource managers typically make over £45,000 a year.
With per-day rates in China, Russia and elsewhere on the up, along with the aforementioned overheads, question marks have been raised of late about whether or not outsourcing will continue to grow.
A new trend is occurring. One of more localised outsourcing, where the benefits of not having to increase studio headcounts – and ‘burn rates’ – is met by local specialist studios.
While the day rates for these can often appear to be higher, albeit not much, the quality and range of work offered is typically far better – and several can offer a more complete package, reducing the workload of outsource managers.
Thanks to the PDI, these studios are also more likely to complete tasks on time and to specification.