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The Studio: A Gentleman’s Guide to Outsourcing - Part 2

For the second post in the series, The Studio: A Gentleman's Guide to Outsourcing I walk you through three types of Game Art Studios.

Paul Culp, Blogger

November 1, 2011

12 Min Read

My first blog post on the series A Gentleman’s Guide to Outsourcing dealt with the proposal stage of the Outsource Manager-Art Studio/Vendor relationship. I received a lot of questions from that post, mostly about cost, but I don’t want to get into that one quite just yet. Talking openly about Art Studio costs means wading through some swampy water teaming with overseas considerations, local development hotspots, rural areas, left and right coasts, leeches and the odd gator or two. I want to make sure I tread that water with a little more sensitivity than I’m used to. Instead I’d like to focus on a question I was asked recently by a new client that, well like most things, affects cost but doesn’t entirely dictate it. The question was:

Do you work with an in-house team, or do you subcontract the work to outside artists?

This is an excellent question and something I urge all Outsourcing Managers to ask their prospective vendors. I want to make one thing clear though. There is no right or wrong answer to this. It’s purely a matter of preference, convenience, and like most things, cost.

Art Studios can be broken into three categories: Art Houses, Sub Houses, and Hybrids. They can be broken into as many categories as you like, but for the purpose of scientific classification, we’ll go with the Halswell-Stoley system developed by Fredriche Halswell and Alexander Stoley in 1896.

Okay, I totally made that up, but let’s use the classification anyway. It works for our purposes here.


The Art House

An Art House is a studio that keeps its team in one location, under the same roof. This is a pretty traditional setup, the same way you would run a software or game development company. The team acts as a team, often working together on the same projects with different Leads and Artists specializing in different disciplines such as modeling, animation, concept art, VFX, etc. There is usually a management team in place made up of Producers and Directors, just like any game development studio minus the engineers. The Producer’s job usually consists of working with clients to set up schedules, deliveries, getting client material to the team, setting up file organization and in many cases, bidding on jobs, handling invoices, etc. The Directors run the creative and production end of the job, working with the client to understand style and technical specifications and disseminating that information among the team, directing the art, maintaining quality control, etc.

There are many upsides to an Art House. Since the team is present in the studio it is easier to manage the team and maintain quality control. Feedback can happen as quickly as it takes a Director to walk across the room and awkwardly stand behind an Artist’s chair while they make changes. Being a team, they are all accustomed to working together and generally know each other’s workflow, styles, strengths, weaknesses and personality quirks. As an Outsourcing Manager it’s an added bonus to be able to visit them onsite, get to know everyone who is working on your project and develop a personal and professional relationship with them. All of these things can be pretty important, especially on large scale, creative projects as an Art House is a built-in team that can brainstorm ideas and execute them fairly efficiently. Personally I prefer this model, having worked in and run all three styles of studios, and I may be biased since SuperGenius is a traditional Art House, but there is something to be said for having a cohesive team here under the same roof. Culture develops under these conditions and it makes coming to work something to look forward to and many of the tensions that come with working in the industry are buffered by the personal relationships developed and the generally positive atmosphere. There are many things that happen in a studio that helps the team become better artists, such as lunch time Gnomon DVD watching and inter-team training sessions for tools and techniques. Positive morale makes for better work in general. This sort of atmosphere is harder to develop when your artists are all offsite.

This model also comes with its downsides. It’s not always sunshine and unicorns. Like any studio when things get tense, it can affect the team as a whole and morale can be a tricky thing to stay on top of. Costs are also an issue as in-house employees are paid either by salary if they are full time, or day rate if they are part time. It’s much harder to bring a team member in house and pay them per asset as it defeats the value of having an in-house team. In-house Artists can jump around to different projects or tasks to help the team as a whole. When you are paying by the asset, you need to make sure the Artist is focused on one asset at a time which can be both a micromanagement hassle and tends to breed disconnection between the Artist and the rest of the team. Paying by the day or by salary can make it hard to keep costs down and that cost is usually passed on to the client. So Art Houses can be more expensive in general than the other types of studios. It’s really a matter of preference and you need to decide what is most important to you as an Outsourcing Manager.

As a side note - and this could be a post unto itself - the cost of outsourcing is not just relegated to the asset or service you are paying for. There are extraneous costs to take into consideration. If the work you are receiving takes management time and if you have to fix or redo assets, it costs money. You can essentially end up paying for work you already paid for and in some cases it can be two or three times the original cost. The best vendors will do everything they can to make sure the money you pay the, goes to the work they deliver and only the work they deliver. If a vendor can produce quality work to spec, and eliminate the need for your in-house team to rework the assets, then it can actually be cheaper to pay a little extra for the experienced Art House. This is extremely important to keep in mind.

When your project requires a good, cohesive team, art direction, creativity, technically intensive work or what they call a “Soup to Nuts” solution (weirdest saying ever) where you need art from the original inception to concepts to final in-game assets, trailers, cut scenes, etc. then an Art House is usually a good choice.


The Sub House

The Sub House is usually one person, or a small group of people whose job is to build a team for every occasion. Sometimes it’s as simple as a well-connected freelance Outsourcing Manager who has built relationships with many different contract Artists and can call on those Artists when a project requires their services. Sometimes it’s a group of Project Managers who can handle multiple jobs and sometimes there may be one or multiple Art Directors in the group who can manage the teams. Often these groups are mobile, like professional nomads wandering the badlands of the game industry looking for the next mission. They take advantage of the mobile age and can manage entire projects with their phones from their homes, coffee shops, or if they’re smart, from a cantina on a lonely beach on the Baja Peninsula.

The upside to a Sub House is they can keep costs down, since overhead is minimal. They negotiate with the Artists and often have their own contract system in place. If they are good, they have their own project management system for tracking assets, communicating with the team, directing art and communicating revisions. A good Sub House will also be run by someone with a lot of experience managing offsite teams. Do your research. Know who you are working with. They will have a wide variety of talented Artists in their network that will hopefully be available when the time comes.  As an Outsourcing Manager, you generally only have to deal with one person, the Project Manager, which takes a load of responsibility and work off your plate. I don’t want to get into the merits of overseas versus state side studios at this time, but many Sub Houses also utilize overseas Artists which can also help keep costs down, if that is your primary concern.

One thing to keep in mind is a Sub House is essentially doing the Outsource Manager’s job. This is not necessarily a bad thing. If you are an Outsource Manager and your plate is full trying to contract and manage Artists on multiple projects, being able to offload one or more of those projects on a Sub House can be a huge help. I know some Outsource Managers take offense to handing their job off to someone else which is valid. As far as I’m concerned, if you need the extra help, then take it.

One of the true downsides to a Sub House is that they create one more level of separation between the Outsource Manager and the Artists, which is usually already underneath several layers of management if you count the development team, the Publisher and the IP owner . This extra layer has the potential to gum up the pipeline. The time between feedback and revisions can sometimes take too long, especially in a crunch and there is nothing more destructive to a project than communication breakdown.

Since the entire team is separated geographically you completely lose the benefits of working with a team, which is vitally important in many cases. In some cases it’s not an issue at all. It depends on the project. Since you never really know who is working on the team, security can be a huge issue as well. Again, this is something that can be solved if the Sub House is experienced and knows what they are doing.

Sub Houses can be a great partner when your development team and your budgets are small. Indy studios, one man development shops, casual games and projects that require non-technical intensive assets are all good candidates for Sub Houses.


The Hybrid House

The last group I brought up is the Hybrid House. As you can probably deduce from the name, it is a studio that runs half like an Art House and half like a Sub House. Hybrids usually have a small in-house team, usually made up of Project Managers and Art Directors and they manage teams of offsite Artists. While you don’t get the benefit of having the art team in one place, under the same roof, you do have a team there in some respects, that can pool resources, work together and get the job done. As an Outsource Manager you can visit their studio, see that they work out of an actual building and that can be reassuring. Sometimes they bring Artists in house when the project calls for it but mostly they utilize outside resources. Like Sub Houses, if they are good, they utilize their own online project management system and can take care of all the obstacles that normally come with managing offsite Artists.

The upside is that they can also be less expensive than a traditional Art House since much of their team is made up of contractors and they don’t have to pay the overhead that comes with an in-house team. Like Sub Houses they also have the option of utilizing overseas Artists if the situation calls for it, which keeps costs down.

Another upside is that because of their in-house management team, they can ramp up and take on huge amounts of work. More than any other studio type. They usually have the infrastructure in place to manage large amounts of offsite Artists so if you have enough work for 30 Artists to be working simultaneously, a good Hybrid House can probably handle it. That can be very useful.

The downside, aside from the basic issues that come with being a Sub House, is that they are not always less expensive than a traditional Art House. Hybrid Houses still have salaries to pay and the overhead that comes with working out of a physical office space. Their overhead can be almost, or just as high as a traditional Art House which sometimes defeats the purpose. I wouldn’t count on using a Hybrid House because they are cheap, because they usually aren’t, but because they can handle volume. Their value is in being able to handle massive amounts of work, and if they are good at it, will maintain the quality and technical standards of your project.

If you need massive amounts of work done, thousands of assets, dozens of characters, and you understandably, do not want to send it overseas, then a Hybrid House may be the right choice. Their capability of producing such volume makes them an attractive choice.

So there you have it. My scientific categorization of Game Art Studios.

No matter which type you decide is right for your job, the most important thing to keep in mind is trust. You have to be able to trust your vendor to do a good job, be honest with you and keep your IP secure. A good trusting relationship with the right studio can be an invaluable asset when you need it most, and help you ship a good looking game on time. It is the magic tool of the Outsourcing Manager’s trade. Without trust, it doesn’t matter how big a studio is or where they keep their teams, you are basically throwing your budget, time and reputation down the drain.


Paul Culp is the head of the Oregon-based, SuperGenius, a creative shop for art, animation, and design in video games.


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