handing elements of development to another company has been a controversial subject in the past.
Taking away work from a studio’s talent and also out of the local area, off to perhaps cheaper devs to get the job done quickly, was almost unthinkable for many.
Fast-forward to 2012, and outsourcing parts of development is common practice. With triple-A games now requiring as many staff as a blockbuster movie, using another firm’s services can be a necessity for finishing a title on time and on budget.
Games that have famously used outsourcing, albeit with varying degrees of success, include Square Enix’s Deus Ex: Human Revolution, which used G.R.I.P. to develop the game’s notorious boss fights, whilst Deep Silver hired Scottish animation outfit Axis Animation to create the infamous Dead Island trailer. Work on such high profile titles shows that the sector has come a long way during the last decade.
“On the creative side, five years ago outsourcing was still regarded as a threat and viewed with suspicion by some developers. But now I think it’s much more widely regarded as having more benefits than drawbacks, assuming you partner with the right company,” says Dave Cullinane of animation and cinematics provider RealtimeUK.
“As such, I think it has become regarded as a mainstay of art production and is likely to grow in line with the amount of content that the new generations of consoles will demand.”
An external solution
The practice is now believed by many to be a prominent, and in some cases, key part of the development process, and has moved on from the days when outsourced talent was harder to come by and less fully realised.
“When we first started using outsourced talent as the main part of our development team it was an unusual thing to do,” says Carl Dalton, founder of independent software developer and motorsport specialist firm Brain in a Jar.
“Now it is a normal part of the development process at one level or another for most studios, so I would have to say it has become very prominent.”
Tony Buckley, senior producer of Liverpool-based Catalyst, which works on all areas of production, says that using external workers has become more popular over the last five years, mainly due to the increased production costs associated with current generation console games.
“The need to provide higher resolution assets for their shiny new games meant that developers had to find alternative solutions to fulfil their art requirements; or face the prospect of significantly increasing their internal art team or succumb to a longer production schedule, neither of which are desirable,” he explains.
Buckley adds that time has also enabled outsourcing companies to grow, with many now featuring strong back catalogues that demonstrate their successful track records. This allows developers and publishers to make an informed decision on what an external service provider can bring to the table, alleviating the old problems of the unknown.
As well as saving time and money, specialist outsourcers can also offer expertise in particular fields that a developer may lack, whilst also bringing in an outside view of a project and its direction.
Atomhawk’s managing director Cumron Ashtiani says that hiring a single specialist to help with a particular part of development can be a tricky task for a studio, with long-term prospects not in the offing for the developer. As an outsourcer, he says it is able to keep full time employees and attach them to short-term projects.
“It is not always easy to hire an expert in to help at a critical part of a project, let alone on contract, as regardless of the salary, people want to put down roots,” explains Ashtiani.
“By using a specialist in the field, developers get an instant solution and the benefit of someone who has worked on many different platforms and project styles. The staff who would have been contractors are employed by the service company and have a full time job so they also get a better deal and greater stability.”
Despite the benefits, outsourcing remains a controversial practice. Whilst many believe that moving specific parts of development to an external source can be beneficial to a game’s quality and help local development hubs grow and flourish, some suggest that off-shore outsourcing for simple cost effectiveness is damaging for the industry.
“I hate it,” says Mark Estdale, CEO of voice recording experts OMUK. “I grew up in the North with the misery of what happened with coal and steel and this looks no different.”
“I think it is a dangerous trend that could decimate development in the UK. Studios are closing because of it. It may make short-term pragmatic financial sense as we have to be competitive on a global stage but it is UK jobs, talent and the future that are being sacrificed.”
Dalton agrees that outsourcing overseas can be very bad for some sectors of the industry, particularly the UK. He says that five years ago, whilst freelancers working in 3D modeling were hard to come by, outsourcing companies were easy to find. These days however, he says things have taken a turn for the worse in the UK.
“Today there are many more individual freelancers available, but UK-based outsource companies have all but died away in line with the increase in Eastern European, Indian and Chinese providers,” he says.
A modern world
Dalton admits however that the primary purpose for outsourcing any area of a project should be to find and fit talent with the knowledge and ability to complete a job and to do it up to standard. Whilst developers and publishers looking off-shore for purely cost saving measures are “outsourcing for the wrong reasons”, he believes that a rise in quality and communications can make it a viable option.
“Instant communication methods and very fast, high bandwidth data transfer means that off-shore outsourcing has fewer disadvantages than it did a few years ago,” explains Dalton.
“Many of the companies that have grown up in ‘low cost’ regions approach their work with exactly the same enthusiasm and dedication as any team in an ‘established’ region, they are game developers after all and we all love what we do.”
Catalyst’s Buckley says that his company assesses which of its partners are best for a particular job, and not on where they are based, stating that the view of off-shore companies providing low quality services no longer resonates in such a global industry.
“The perception that off-shore outsourcing results in low quality assets is definitely an out-dated perception.
There are good and bad levels of quality with any service; that is why Catalyst only use tier one recommended partners wherever they may be based,” he explains.
Dan Higgot, executive producer of London based design and animation studio Spov, backs up Buckley’s opinions, believing that as long as a studio delivers results, then where the company is situated does not come in to it, nor how much they cost if they can meet requirements and produce quality.
“For a client, it doesn’t matter where you are based, as long as you can deliver the results needed,” asserts Higgott.
“We are an off-shore supplier for our US-based clients. For them, our offer is not price lead, but based on quality and innovation. We don’t try to be the cheapest, because if we did we couldn’t do the type of work and offer the level of service we do. It is a well-used cliché, but nonetheless true that it is important to remember the difference between price and value.”
With such a disparity in opinion still rife in over the ethics of outsourcing off-shore, the sector is perhaps at times tarnished as a whole for any bad results that come form an external company’s work, with the positives of what service providers bring sometimes ignored.
Source of the problem
Some of the blame for any poor quality results over the years could lay at the developer’s own doorstep as well. The communication pipelines between developer and outsourcer are critical to a successful partnership, and studio’s have in the past been guilty of lacking extensive guidelines and leaving the service provider to it.
Ashtiani says that occasionally Atomhawk will receive a brief from a developer made up of bullet points, and expects to “then magically get a finished image back that is exactly how they wanted it”. He also says that getting enough feedback from a client can also be a difficult process, and this can potentially affect the quality of the product.
“The issue that most frequently causes problems for both parties is feedback time. For example a studio books us for four weeks but doesn’t have the capacity to feedback on the work we are doing fast enough,” he explains.
“So each time we submit there is a two to three day delay and over four weeks, that can easily push a project out by 20-to-25 per cent. This delay then means the client doesn’t get the project finished when they wanted it, and we end up with staff ‘on the bench’ for 25 per cent of the time while we await the necessary feedback.”
Estdale says that OMUK “frequently” faces the same problem for its voice recording services, but believes that whilst developers need to be more clear and descriptive on their goals, outsourcers also need to fill in any missing gaps.
“Enlightening developers as to what is needed to achieve the goal is a key part of the outsourcer’s role,” he states.
“You hire an expert to bring the full weight of their expertise. It is an executable outsourcer if they fail to educate the developer, and a dumb developer who doesn’t listen.”
Spov’s Higgot agrees, and believes it is a two-way street, with both sides of the industry needing to work together to simplify and improve the process.
“It is the client’s responsibility to issue a brief, the agency’s job to interrogate and question the brief, and the process should continue from there. We should strive for openness, honesty and integrity in our working lives. It’s nothing clever, but it makes the job easier for us all.”
Despite the problems with communication and the remaining ethical concerns of off-shore outsourcing, the use of external service providers looks set to continue to grow as it becomes an integral part of the development process.
With the costs of making games set to rise as the industry moves to the next-generation, and as the competition on triple-A development heats up, the need for quality outsourcing partners has never been stronger.