The work-for-hire sector, particularly in the UK, has gone under a few changes in recent years as studios have had to adapt to client demands.
Though Disney has contracted the likes of Studio Gobo and Ninja Theory to work on Disney Infinity, other businesses such as Capcom have begun moving work in-house.
And the work-for-hire industry has always been a challenging one, where a contract cancellation at the last minute could mean the death of company or result in significant job losses.
Leamington Spa outfit Blitz, whose last projects included Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two, closed in September last year. Co-founder Philip Oliver said at the time many major clients have felt unable to invest in significant projects, while other clients had changed strategies.
Another studio, Eurocom, known for its James Bond titles, closed as Activision began withdrawing from the licenced games business and the studio suffered from contract delays. The closure affected some 200 staff.
Firebrand CEO Mark Greenshields says that during the last few years, as the above closures show, the market for work-for-hire has shrunk considerably, though things are looking up for the sector.
“Since 2011, however, the market has seen the largest change pretty much since it started,” he says. “The WFH marker basically vanished close to overnight for all but utter bottom dollar work. It is recovering slowly but much, much smaller than before and with a considerable amount of low-cost teams overseas bidding.
“F2P has left publishers with no idea what budget to spend so they squeeze more than before. As most budgets were created by finance based on projections from sales and marketing, and it is hard to budget when you basically have no idea what you will make.”
The traditional publisher and financier is increasingly being removed from the process.
Paul Smith, Strawdog Studios
Paul Smith, MD of Peppa Pig games developer Strawdog Studios, says the fundamental principle behind work-for-hire hasn’t changed. Clients are still seeking the best service provider to deliver the best possible product on budget and on time.
He admits, however, that the digital space has sparked some changes in the sector.
“The nature of digital product and its relative ease of development and distribution, especially in the mobile space, mean clients can have a more cautious strategy by commissioning minimum viable products which do add an element of uncertainty to the development process,” says Smith.
“We mitigate this risk by taking a more agile approach to development which means we’re now more geared to react to rapid change with a small core team which is bolstered by a group of trusted contractors. We’ve worked on several products which have been big and not made it to market, it means as a developer you must remain flexible and be prepare for changes.”
One of the ways Strawdog has remained flexible is by finding work from non-traditional routes, such as marketing and advertising agencies. One of its projects for iOS and Android, Play2Fame, is being directly financed by a professional footballer.
“The traditional publisher/financier is increasingly being removed from the process and we’re now liaising directly with IP owners,” explains Smith.
Building big business
It may sound like the work-for-hire business is struggling, but many companies are still finding avenues both old and new into the market, and much of it is down to building up a strong reputation over time.
Take Sumo Digital, for instance; known for its work on Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing, the team recently announced it was developing the Xbox 360 version of Forza Horizon 2 and has also taken the reigns on PS4 title LittleBigPlanet 3, one of Sony’s key franchises. Climax, meanwhile, is working on numerous projects, including a VR title in collaboration with Oculus for the Samsung Gear VR.
Sumo CEO Carl Cavers says a focus on creativity has been central to building its business, which has seen the company expand to over 200 staff since it was founded 11 years ago.
“A key pillar of the company is security, making sure we look after the best interests of everyone involved; providing a quality, collaborative service and product for our clients, as well the security for the staff so they can pay their mortgages at the end of the month,” he says. “That, and free pop.”
Lorna Probert, head of digital production at one of the UK’s most famous work-for-hire companies, Aardman Animations, says that to build a successful business, it is important to recognise your unique selling points and focus on those, or face a failing business further down the line.
“Obviously you have to take risks if you’re going to grow but you should do this carefully,” states Probert.
“Think about whether you will have enough work to keep new staff busy six months down the line. Choose the technologies you train people up in according to which will best service those USPs. Recognise that new business is a long hard and unpredictable slog. New relationships take time to turn into new jobs so you have to plan ahead. However busy you are you always have to be thinking of where the next job might come from and trying to juggle the pitches alongside the production.
“Your reputation is what keeps the work coming in so value it. This means looking after your clients, delivering on your promises – that means not making unrealistic promises in the first place – and creating high quality content that you can be proud of.”
Climax CEO Simon Gardner says its strategy has always been to have one large project and two smaller ones in development, with a fourth team finishing or starting the next project. He explains that this approach ensures a cancellation or failure to pass a green light won’t kill the studio.
“That in itself can be a major USP for your company and make you more attractive to a potential client. We’ve seen a lot of studios rise up and launch one title only to go bust when they finish it,” he says.
“Their whole focus is on that one project and they don’t find the time or resources to properly line up the follow-on work. Getting contracts, and funding these days, is a full-time job that involves massive time, effort and resources.”
Predicting the future
The work-for-hire space is riddled with challenges, though persistent companies who carefully monitor their business can be hugely successful, as long as they keep aware of the challenges.
However busy you are, you always have to think of where the next job might come from.
Lorna Probert, Aardman
Probert says it’s important for studios to keep an eye on the latest trends to ensure they have applicable skills for projects. She says that, in many cases, work-for-hire firms often have to predict where the future of the industry may lie so as not to get caught out.
“This means constantly learning and trying new things which can be costly and ultimately leads to a greater degree of risk on your projects,” she says.
Sumo studio director Paul Porter believes there is a constant balance to try and position a studio where you can pick and choose the opportunities that best match the skills and experience your company has available.
“Once you are working on a game, ensuring that you create a quality and competitive experience within the constraints that work-for-hire development puts upon you is not always easy,” he says. “Given the games that we have been working on recently and are continuing with, we must be doing something right.”
Gardner, meanwhile, explains that it’s important to have a good technical spread to tackle whatever opportunities arise. The Portsmouth-based company, for example, has staff that can work with engines such as Unity and Unreal Engine 4, as well as with in-house engines at companies such as Sony London Studios’ Wonderbook tech, Codemasters’ Ego Engine and MercurySteam’s Castlevania engine.
“This comes from years of experience, but has allowed us to work on many titles that might have been difficult for other studios,” he says.
Jamie Campbell, co-founder at IT company d3t, which has worked on titles including Killzone: Shadow Fall and Chimpact, says the main challenge for their business is the work itself, but experience in the field can help.
“Although we don’t develop our own IP at d3t, our experience in production and our relationships with on and offshore art outsourcing companies means we’re an ideal partner for IP reboots and full game development,” he says. “We have experience with games such as Sony Computer Entertainment’s Lemmings Touch for PS Vita, and Sega’s Warhammer 40,000: Kill Team on Steam for our friends at Nomad Games.”
Another potentially significant challenge facing developers is the number of studios looking for quality work-for-hire projects. Mike Burnham, head of Marmalade Game Studio – which has worked for the likes of Activision, Hasbro and Square Enix on Call of Duty and Lara Croft games – says rivals can come from dedicated teams in the sector to other independent studios looking for extra revenue streams to pay their bills and work on original IP.
“Mix in with this a strong supply of increasingly well-educated developers entering the fray with great tools at their fingertips and the market place is certainly challenging at the moment,” he says.
“Marmalade Game Studio stands tall in this area for all the right reasons; great talent, top class tools, and a strong heritage.”
As mentioned earlier, while some companies are outsourcing, it could be argued some publishers are moving development in-house, such as Capcom.
Our work-for-hire experts are divided on whether this has been a true issue, given Sumo’s work on some hit titles, for example. But Gardner says he feels, at least in the console space, that this has occurred due to the latest hardware transition, in which publishers traditionally tend to build up their internal teams.
Ensuring that you create a quality experience within work-for-hire constraints is not always easy.
Paul Porter, Sumo Digital
He explains that access to confidential development kits and not wanting to give independent developers a leg up in the field for them to go and work for a competitor could be the cause of a reticence to use
work-for-hire in the early days of the PS4 and Xbox One.
“The change this time around though does seem to be that the budgets have continued to climb, though not necessarily above the end of the last-gen games, but it is still a massive amount of money for triple-A development,” says Gardner.
“In general there seem to be fewer games in development and a focus on core IP. There are opportunities that arise from this though. There is also the continued and continually growing importance of the mobile sector for larger work-for-hire studios.
“It will be interesting to see if the cycle follows the historical pattern, when some of the internal teams fail to deliver and projects run late. The publishers feel helpless, as they have relatively few tools to manage delivery and hate the bad PR of redundancies. At that point, working with a third-party and paying milestones starts looking very attractive. There are differences this time around though. The console publishers that are left standing seem to be better at managing their teams and having fewer of them mainly focused on successful IP.”
Campbell adds that while it may be true that some companies are beginning to move development in-house, he has found demand for d3t’s work-for-hire services growing in recent times, and goes back to that all important reputation building that is so vital in the sector.
“We have a reputation for excellence and for delivering on promises, not only throughout the UK but also in Europe and Australasia,” he says. “Our export strength comes from our adaptability and our ability to work with different organisational and national cultures, and is an indicator of our client-focused approach.”
One of the key questions in work-for-hire is whether or not these companies can also develop their own IP. Blitz attempted combining these two business towards the end of its life, but the releases of the likes of Kumo Lumo and Paper Titans were ultimately unable to save the business.
Another example is Remode, whose founders Ella Romanos and Martin Darby previously told Develop that trying to balance their own IP with work-for-hire was a difficult proposition, leading them to eventually shut down the studio and later open Strike Gamelabs, focusing on original IP.
Strawdog’s Smith says, however, he believes it is possible, and even ideal if a studio can make it work, but believes it can be difficult to get the funds to focus on original projects.
“As a studio we haven’t yet reached the tipping point where the passive revenues from our own IP or royalty-baring contracts creates enough capital to allow us to fully focus on our own internal game projects,” says Smith.
“We find that it’s good business practice to have a blend of projects, both internal and client-based. However it’s important that work-for-hire clients are reassured that their products won’t play second fiddle to our own internal IP. We take great pride in building strong working relationships with our work-for-hire clients and it’s extremely important to have empathy for their point of view, which doesn’t mean we take a passive role during design and development but does mean we respect their final decisions.”
Despite the difficulties many are facing in the work-for-hire space, it seems a focus on the core principles and talent of the studio, as well as creativity, can help studios become a success in this highly competitive field.
And studios that can achieve this could eventually find opportunities to work on titles like LittleBigPlanet and Killzone, just like the companies mentioned here.