A look at the soon indispensable role of art outsourcing will have within the development framework...

The art of the matter

Though it may seem astonishing to think it now, Leonardo da Vinci and the majority of his Renaissance contemporaries were far from revered during their time. In fact, most operated from workshops on a work-for-hire basis. Artists were, in effect, little more than today’s equivalent of decorators – albeit the kind that were asked to cover walls with something a little more intricate, a little more colourful than just a quick splash of plain magnolia emulsion.

As their fame (relatively speaking) and workload increased, it wasn’t unusual to see some of the labour distributed amongst apprentices, with the master focusing his efforts on just the key components of a commission.

The clients didn’t mind, provided the quality wasn’t compromised. Just as gamers these days don’t care whether you got your tree models done in-house or by a team in Shanghai or Sydney, provided the foliage effect is accomplished and integrates artistically with the remainder of the game assets.

Like other areas of development, art outsourcing has become an increasingly common avenue as game productions become more and more ambitious. In fact, of all the outsourcing sectors, it’s arguably the one that’s evolved the fastest.

“The industry has realised that outsourcing is not just an option to save some costs, it’s crucial for survival and for streamlining the whole development process,” says Donn M Garton, business development director at Alive Interactive Media, an art outsourcing operation based in Vietnam.

The evolution is most evident in the change of attitude from the commissioning studios and their dedication to the practice. A long running partner of Alive’s is EA, which even with the biggest in-house development resource on the planet is “beginning to take a more holistic, integrative and visionary approach to the outsourcing model,” says Garton.

Developers are also getting more organised as well, and many publishers with large development teams have now formalised their approach to outsourcing with dedicated departments or personnel. A few years ago it would be uncommon to have a commissioning developer to deliver their brief with guidelines and a style book – now its almost par for the course (almost – many of the companies Develop spoke to said there was always room for improvement when it came to dealing with an outsourcing client).

The overall change isn’t exactly surprising. As productions increase in complexity, the likelihood of every area of the work being carried out in-house decreases.

But it’s important to realise it’s no longer simply elements such as asset generation typically associated with art outsourcing that are handed over to a new team, says Tony Prosser. As MD of RealtimeUK, which specialises in X-Movies (visual bar/theme-setting sequences, rather than anything spicier), intro sequences, teaser trailers and televisual style ads, Prosser has seen a significant change in the industry.

“There has been an explosion in this sector of the business within the last two to three years as publishing and development partners have realised the need for X-Movies. With the main focus from the serious players now being 100 per cent on next-gen titles and projects, and with budgets ranging from £10 to £20 million, the publisher needs the developer to concentrate their efforts on developing the games, whilst someone like ourselves works in parallel to produce those component parts of the marketing campaign well in advance of the launch.”

The change is such, says Prosser, that it’s not uncommon for his company to now work on animation sequences months before the title is even at a stage to be shown to the trade or press, hence the logic in contracting a specialist to handle that side of the equation.

But even specialists are finding their work is diversifying in order to keep up with demand. Axis, a full-service animation studio also catering for the broadcast and commercial industries, has since 2000 formed a close association with video game clients. With recent projects such Colin McRae DIRT, Thrillville and Sega Rally, the company has a history of X-Movies and TV commercials but it has felt the effect of the arrival of latest hardware, with an increasing number of requests for the creation of next-gen assets, especially character.

“Developers are really discovering that creating high-resolution assets takes a lot of time and artistic skill and as we have been working at high resolution for over ten years with our CGI pipeline, we are already up to speed with the latest creative and technical skills,” says Axis’ executive producer Richard Scott.

At the same time, developers are now regularly using their art partners as more than just a resource – they are a sounding board and source of knowledge. “There’s definitely an element of creative input when it comes to art outsourcing – much of it tends to be technically driven, however,” explains Nick Perrett, VP of business development at facial animation company Image Metrics. “When it comes to next-gen assets the thing that matters is getting the most out of them – so lighting models and making sure everything you’ve made works and looks right during run-time, these are the key things we get asked about.”

It doesn’t stop there, though. “The other thing that is interesting is that we are being asked to contribute creative ideas on how the game could look. This doesn’t happen on every project but some clients have asked for our input on graphic look, render style and techniques,” notes Scott, as a possible further indication that attitudes to outsourcing are changing.

But so is the art outsourcing landscape itself, with a considerable influx of firms offering their services. This, however, has not meant a better availability of skillset, warns Paul Chamberlain, MD of The Project Zoo. “More and more companies need to outsource artwork for their projects as product development becomes more and more complex on each platform, but we are finding that most experienced development studios rather opt to use a more experienced outsourcing outfit rather than the cheaper alternatives as they can often lead to a much more complicated method of working.”

Interestingly, technical issues aren’t always the trickiest aspect art outsourcers face – often getting developers to understand both their working practices (see boxout 1 for a taster) and the outsourcing process clearly. “Developers often see outsourcers as purely a cheap service but don’t think through the practicalities and processes that we have to go through,” laments Chamberlain.

“The biggest problem we have is getting clear and concise guidance from our clients on every aspect of what they require us to do, this in turn means we end up reworking assets when the specifications were not clear enough in the first place which causes problems.”

Chamberlain is quick to concede some developers are perfectly au fait with the process and understand the outsourcer is effectively an addition to the team, requiring the same level of involvement and attention as an in-house team.

This understanding extends to timescales. Prosser is quick to single out overtime as the biggest headache his team faces.

“If a developer or publisher is new to outsourcing animation,” he says, “they often don’t leave enough time for us to do our job properly without serious crunch time – HD next-gen movies can require up to four months if we’re going to work with the developer to design an animation that meets all their needs.”

But, equally, there is also a responsibility on the part of the outsourcer to meet the developer halfway, argues Scott.

“I think the trickiest part of what we do is getting inside the developers’ heads and really understanding their project and its requirements quickly. Developers are always very close to their projects and could have spent years developing the ideas behind their title; they know the whole thing inside out and as a partner and collaborator you need to get on their level really quickly and then work out how to bring something extra to the table.”

Ultimately, the above issues mostly revolve around communication.

Explains Alive’s Garton: “It is one thing for us to get photo reference for a ’67 Chevy and then model it. We can do it efficiently and at the highest level of quality. But, when someone sends us a one page brief for a ‘70’s blaxploitation era pimp’, it may take us a few more feedback loops than normal to get exactly what the client is looking for. In the near future outsource companies will need to distinguish themselves by being able to handle the more creative, more subjective aspects of development.”

Of course, as studios begin to increasingly rely on art outsourcing, problems such as those mentioned above should rapidly diminish. And there is no doubt that, going forward, many if not all studios will have to consider outsourcing their graphical assets given the complexity of future projects.

“Our customers have experienced that it is getting harder and inefficient to cover the entire art production in-house,” confirms Thomas Schleischitz, MD of Rabcat, which has previously worked on MotorStorm and GTA Vice City. “Even very large studios are facing difficulties when trying to handle massive production peaks in-house. Many large development studios are already aware of this critical aspect and most of them are preparing or are ready to switch to professional art outsourcing in the near future.”

And it’s not just the big boys. “Many smaller developers are having to outsource as their publishers are expecting incredibly high graphical content in smaller and smaller timescales, which smaller developers just cannot accomplish purely from a financial perspective,” says Project Zoo’s Chamberlain, adding that obviously there’s a financial benefit for larger outfits in that the outsourcer is employed on a temporary basis, removing the pressure of quickly finding another project for that team of individuals rather than have them sat around twiddling their crayons.

“Quite a few of our publisher partners are outsourcing to the Far East, such as Korea and China. The quality and the management processes there are now sufficient enough so that spending money on outsourcing makes sense,” adds Image Metrics’ Perrett, pointing out that this itself has helped legitimise external art production, helping new and smaller independents understand that outsourcing has its benefits in encouraging collaboration with third parties.

“There definitely was a tipping point behind developer’s perceptions of art outsourcing. For us, in 2003, we only had one game with our work in it. Now, with 20-odd titles people pay attention straight away – and there is an assumption that you know games and know what is needed.”

Which leads us to how the outsourcing sector – as it’s destined to become an integrated part of the development process – is likely to establish itself, going forward.

“I am a firm believer that in some form the much talked about ‘feature film model’ will be the right way forward for development teams and outsourcers,” offers Scott. “I’d like to think that the phrase ‘outsourcer’ would actually become redundant because it would be natural for developers and publishers to call on the skills of certain partners at the right time during the production process.”

One obvious benefit Scott sees in this collaborative model is the ability for people from outside the game industry to bring with them fresh ideas and creative solutions.

It’s certainly a direction the industry appears to be heading towards – although at the same time this newfound concerted integration is unlikely to come at the cost of certain firmly established principles. It’s safe to say that studios themselves will always maintain a core team as a guiding force for a game and its creative and artistic vision.

Which effectively means outsourcers are unlikely to ever reach da Vinci-levels (posthumous or otherwise) of recognition, but perhaps the dynamic will prove at least as harmonious as that of being one of his apprentices. At the very least, it’ll be just as important.

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