Catalyst's Ivan Davies on getting the most out of outsourcing

Outsourcing 101

As our industry’s aptitude for business matures and we seek to weather the current financial storm, both developers and publishers are looking for ways to deliver better games in as short a time as possible. The days of the super-developer may be at risk, as the commercial reality of the traditional model – that sustaining a 100-plus workforce through those months of perpetual green-lights and reviews, all the while eating away at the rainy day cash reserves – looks more and more like suicide. We all need to work smarter to get the most out of that publisher dollar.

Smart teams are using outside assistance to meet their deadlines, as game content is being outsourced and being created by an ever-growing network of talented service providers. When done correctly, this approach lets developers cost-effectively extend the size of their teams without the need to find and train the new people.

Everyone is outsourcing. Well, okay; not everyone is, but Tiga’s recent report discovered that 83 per cent of UK game developers outsource at least one business process. The reasons for outsourcing are numerous: to improve a team’s performance, to hit dates, to save money and ultimately to make better games.

Given the current financial climate, this outsourcing trend will increase. In other creative industries, outsourcing is an established strategic business tool. Ask a developer or publisher about outsourcing, however, and you’ll probably get a Marmite answer – ‘the best thing since bread came sliced’ or WYGIAPOS.

There are many accounts of outsourcing failing, but it mainly does so due to immature processes on both sides of the engagement. At Catalyst we still receive work requests from developers who would willingly begin £50,000 worth of work with less than half an A4 sheet brief. You wouldn’t give a builder £50k and expect him to build you a kitchen extension based on a few magazine photos, so don’t expect an outsourcing company to deliver quality work without a quality brief, realistic planning and prompt feedback. Outsourcing is increasing because the standards have improved – vendors deliver what their customers want. Good vendors work with their customers to ensure the tightest work brief, as the deal needs to create winners on both sides of the table.

A good contract is the foundation for outsourcing successfully. This needs to be an agreement that works for both parties and reflects the operating reality of a long-term relationship; a reality that must look past the commercial aspect of getting the work done as cheaply as possible. If the vendor is on the back foot from day one, they will have to cut corners to retrieve any profit. I want my outsourcing partner totally focused on value creation and not spending their time trying to break even.

Following a recommended test piece, you begin the delivery phase and it’s all systems go; time to sit back and let the outsourcing company get on with the job while you concentrate on the game’s in-house development. See you in six months with all assets game ready, right?

If only that was the case. Unfortunately, that’s still an approach seen even today. They believe that now the contract is signed, the work test completed successfully, everything will fall into line; that ‘magic outsourcing’ button has been pressed. Publishers certainly don’t let developers just get on with making the game, and there is a good reason for this. They monitor the progress, they check quality and they make sure they get what they are paying for. This is exactly the same for outsourcing. Regular visits, frequent communication and milestone-based quality reviews are essential to productive outsourcing and getting what you want.

You have to invest time for it to be a success, and therein lies a problem. Outsourcing is predominately seen as a way of saving time and money, so companies may be reluctant to employ another resource to manage the process. Besides, there are not enough good producers or project managers to handle this increased workload, so it’s usually left to the internal producer to handle – as if they didn’t have enough to do already. Faced with development issues in their own studio, it is no wonder that any problems or concerns at the outsourcer do not get the attention they require.

Making games is a creative process and change is inevitable, so expect it, plan for it and have the respective change control systems in place to handle it. Invest time in working with the vendor, help them to improve and pass on lessons learnt. This isn’t giving away the crown jewels; this is building a business partnership. Proactively manage both sides of the outsourcing process.

Catalyst’s focus towards outsourcing is one not just of quick fixes, but better preventive solutions along the entire lifecycle of our outsourcing process. By overseeing the whole process, Catalyst has allowed its clients the freedom to focus on more important core game components without distractions from ancillary and support functions.

Manage it, manage it, manage it – if you don’t attack the risks, the risks will certainly attack you, and a little risk management saves a lot of fan cleaning.

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