What is financially sound for studios isn't always great for staff, and vice versa. Owain Bennallack takes a look at new workforce organisation strategies, and suggests five ways of improving the balance between staff and studio.

Towards a more equitable, flexible workforce

Flexible game development is here. More studios are hiring staff on short-term contracts. A wide range of freelance creatives are performing clearly defined roles on projects, from pre-visualisation to plot development. The production of great chunks of art is routinely outsourced to companies in Eastern Europe and China.

These trends aren’t going to go away. The reason, as ever, is cost – although the move can also be explained in terms of making better games.

Most projects start with small teams exploring an idea. The risk is very high so it makes sense for the team to be small. As the project develops, the risk reduces as the game takes shape and the focus moves from innovation to implementation, with staff levels massively ramped up in the middle, before dropping back as it’s finished (whatever ‘finished’ means these days).

It never made sense for lots of staff to sit around idly during this process. The result was either expense, because you had to pay them to do nothing, or it led to bad business decisions, because the need to pay them meant taking on unsuitable work to occupy them. Studios still go bust because they haven’t reconciled production cycle and staffing realities.

Hence the attractiveness of flexible contracts and outsourcing. The trouble is, what’s good for a studio can be rotten for staff. Many studios have found it hard to recruit on short-term or flexible contracts, and no wonder – the ecosystem is hardly set-up to inspire confidence in would-be freelance developers.

Even the smartest bosses don’t always see this perspective: I’ve been looked at blankly when I’ve asked what’s in for the workers. You feel like Citizen Smith.

The trouble is shipping work overseas might be a short-term imperative, but it will be a pyrrhic long-term solution if it hollows out the UK talent pool. We instead need to enable UK creatives to target their skills at the higher ‘value adding’ parts of game-making, so they can play a pro-active role in the shift to flexibility, rather than it being a slow erosion of security.

Here are five things required to make this alternative to workforce operation a viable option:

1. More local clusters
Some aspects of making a game will always need bodies in a room. For that to be compatible with contractor-style staffing, people need to gravitate towards local clusters so they can move between companies without moving house.

2. Cooperation between studios
If studios could let each other know when they were scaling up and scaling down, they could better share the local talent. I’m not totally naive – any studio will put its own projects first. Nevertheless, a studio with too many staff and a big wage bill might be a 20 minute drive from one with a skills shortage. An alternative to coordination is more external companies who provide developers on fixed terms and know where their next jobs will be.

3. A more transparent talent pool
A flexible workforce is incompatible with today’s expensive-to-hire and loathe-to-lose recruitment culture. Ideally all the country’s talent would be on a big database, and project leads could cherry pick the most suitable. This is – with fewer screens and more lunches – how movies are made. Something like Dave Perry’s Game Industry Map might plug this hole.

4. Even better production processes
It’s hard to believe that a decade ago a professional approach to game development was considered an optional extra. But to bring more staff in and out on demand, projects will need to be further modularised. Any film editor can work with the output from any film shoot. Can we get there with games?

5. Better pay for short-term staff

This is key. In truly flexible creative industries, from Hollywood to TV to comic book creation, talented staff are compensated for uncertainty with better pay, which gets them through the lean periods and pays for pensions. It is unrealistic to expect to pay the same pro rata wage to a contractor as a permanent staff member. For studios to enjoy the wider benefits of a flexible workforce, they must give up some portion of the gains.

With the recession now touching games development, more developers will find themselves forced to confront flexible working. It’d be nice if it sounded like less of euphemism, and more like a second coming for the British games industry.

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