There are a lot of benefits to art outsourcing, for many projects it's a really great option, but outsourcing isn't always the best option for every project (or even every part of every project). There are situations when hiring local talent may save you both time and money. Knowing what cases those are is a boon to product management.
The summary is below, but you can read the full article here: Five Reasons_NOT_to_Outsource
#1 No clear creative vision.
If you're not sure what you want, style-wise, then it's difficult to rely on an outsourcing company to figure that out for you. If you try, what you get back may not be what you expected.
Art isn't as expensive as starting over with a new style multiple times.
One exception is if you literally don't mind what style the game is in, as long as it looks good. E.g. you don't mind if your match three game is styled based on cupcakes, insects, or hair pieces. In that case, you can rely on the creative vision of an artist and let them surprise you.
This is basically what we did with Lowly Blocks. Assigning it to an artist, and he had fun expressin his vision based on basic guidelines. That's a rare exception, though, since most creators (even if they don't fully realize it), do have a particular vision in their mind's eye.
So, what if you are particular about your creative vision for your project?
If your vision is very similar to an existing style, and you don't mind basing the style quite exactly on another game (note: Style is not copyrighted), then you can safely reference the property in question, and a talented artist can pull off what you're after.
But if you can't find anything that's exactly what you're after, at minium you will need some mockups, and preferably a style guide.
Outsourcing companies can help you make a style guide, but it takes time, and with communication barriers and distance, that's often harder than hiring a local artist to hash out the style, and then pass it on the the outsourcing company.
A little money spent on style guide can save a lot of money on the project, and with a good style guide it's easy to bring new artists up to speed.
#2 Simple but very technical art.
Not necessarily the whole project, but some parts of projects have artistically simple, but very technically specific art. This is most common with UI, where there's a lot of feedback between programmers and designers, and while the art itself is simple, it requires a lot of revision cycles.
In the cases, the time involved in communicating at a distance can be more than the savings.
E.g. does $3 for a button or slider matter compared to $2 when you need to spend an hour discussing the requirements for the asset?
When most of the cost is in communicating the technical needs of the asset and revising them, and the assets are simple and don't take long or much technical skill to make beyond the communication, sometimes you're better off makin them in house.
#3 Great Urgency
More hands on a problem mean a faster solution, particularly with art (where it scales well), and an art outsourcing studio is a great way to do that. Art outsourcing is fast.
But getting the relationship established, communicating needs, doing tests, paying deposits, signing contracts; all of these things take time, and they take a little longer at a distance.
Over the first week, there are a lot of particulars to address before work can begin in earnest. When you need something done yesterday, and you can't wait a week to sort everything out, outsourcing may not be your best bet. With under a week to delivery, local talent is the only way to get things done on time (although more expensive).
If you've more than a couple weeks, to get past the start, then outsourcing as a solution catches up and quickly surpasses local talent in speed (and usually cost too).
#4 Project is extremely small
This is like the urgency or technical art problem. With a tiny project, the time it takes to communicate needs and establish the relationship can outpace the time it takes to actually do the art.
While outsourcing is is usually cheaper, it's not when you just need a couple hours to finish all of the art, but a couple days to explain what you need.
A local contractor will be more per hour, but when you just need a little bit of work that only takes a few hours, the savings on time can balance things out. Small projects are also easier to find free work for (artists working for free usually get tired or distracted after a couple days, but if it can be finished in a few hours there's a good chance it's possible for an indie project).
There are some exceptions, which are explained more in the full article, but boil down to tasks where very little communication is needed due to (like #1's exception) not being particular about the end result.
#5 You're only trying to save money
Fast, Good, Cheap. You can pick any two.
Mosty, outsourcing is fast, but only when you've taken care of the slow parts in-house or aren't particular about the result (#1 - #4). With a solid plan and style guide outsourcing is the fastst solution.
What about good and cheap? Well, you get what you pay for in outsourcing, as with anything.
Outsourcing is far cheaper compares to a professional freelancer ($20-$30 an hour at least). Best case, however, savings will only be around 30-40% for outsourcing. Artists weren't born yesterday, and a good artist no matter where in the world knows what he or she is worth, and will demand that salary from the company you're outsourcing too.
Don't make the mistake of choosing the cheapest company if you want to cut costs, because it's likely to cost more and take longer in the end.
A company that's too cheap has to be cutting costs somewhere, and so either has inexperienced artists and doesn't do quality control (which is a waste of time and money to redo everything) or is suffering from an unsustainable business model (you've just boarded a sinking ship). A studio going under may just partially finish the contract before they close, vanishing with your deposit as they go out of business.
When you can't afford a quality studio, it's better to not hire a studio. Just to save money, without concern for speed or quality, hire interns or local students. Lack of experience means they will be slower, you'll have to help them more, and maybe even restart a few times, but they'll usually take money on completion, and the price can't be beat.
You can even find free art sometimes, on the internet. Either assets that have been released creative commons or public domain. There are some problems with that, but ways around it: Making Free Assets Work (some tips).
For over a decade we've been in outsourcing, and it's the best choice for many projects. Often it's the only option if you want to get your game shipped on time and budget, but in our experience these are the most common reasons projects don't work as well with outsourcing. Of course there's an exception to every rule, so it's possible to make outsourcing work with anything given the will to do so, but we hope this provides some insight. We'd love to hear your thoughts if you disagree, or have anything to add.
We hope this article was helpful,
-The Mighty Vertex Team