Early morning lectures are difficult at GDC. With the company parties, open bars, and hordes of old friends catching up, waking up in time for a 9 AM lecture is among the more difficult activities one can engage in. This particular lecture, however, had little problem in gathering an audience. Outsourcing has long been on the minds of software developers and looks to be an inevitable as we gear up for games with more assets than ever before. Many were looking forward to hearing of a successful relationship leading to a multi-platinum, 93% gamerankings.com-rated title.
Microsoft's Forza Motorsport outsourced parts of the production to three different studios: Washington-based Valkyrie Entertainment, Glass Egg Digital Media of Vietnam, and Dhruva Interactive from India. Lecturing on the outsourcing process that helped make Forza Motorsport what it was were Dhruva Interactive CEO Rajesh Rao, Microsoft Game Studios Art Director John Wendl, and Microsoft Business Manager Nick Dimitrov.
A combination of art requirements and a strict time schedule brought the Microsoft Game Studios management team to pursue outsourcing. Eighteen complete track environments and 230 cars, complete with LOD, damage textures, and extensive customization needed to be completed over a year-long production schedule. MGS needed a way to dramatically increase their production team size.
First came a decision on what to outsource; cars made the most sense, as they required little art direction, being licensed vehicles. From a software perspective, they were very modular components that didn't have to integrate in any particular way with other components. "Deciding what to outsource is critical," said Wendl. He also stressed that it's important to start gently by starting with assets that don't take significant risk.
|Dhruva Interactive CEO Rajesh Rao|
Microsoft went through a long, two-phase evaluation process to choose their vendors. First, there was an evaluation of 5 companies to determine who could hit their desired quality mark. During this time, there was no time limit. This reduced the field to three, which Microsoft evaluated through a second test phase: make four complete cars in four weeks. Here, Microsoft looked at how the vendors were able to deliver on time and on spec. Wendl emphasized the importance of the spec. "Even if there is a better way to do it… innovative is less important than hitting the spec."
From this process, Microsoft chose two vendors for outsourcing. Using two helped to diversify the risk to Microsoft's end while bolstering the team significantly. Dimitrov also added that on the business side of the decision, it's important to mitigate risk by choosing to outsource to vendors with diversified revenue streams.
The preparation for the beginning of outsourced production was significant. Microsoft established dedicated staff and QA for the outsourced production. They also prepared a full prototype build that led to a finalized spec to provide to the vendors. These specs need to contain lots of detail. There also should be some of the work detailed in the spec done in house; this way, it's easy for the home base to recognize that the spec does or does not work. Also, it's important to allow lead time to the vendors to allocate resources to the project.
Wendl noted that in production, it's important that the vendors work on the assets from start to finish. "Working on someone else's art is the worst thing for an artist," he said. Dhruva was outfitted with a complete art production pipeline with the same tools and development kits as Microsoft. Quality assurance was done on both Dhruva's and Microsoft's end; sync between the QA leads on both sides grew with each passing milestone.
Rao noted the fairness and respect with which Microsoft approached the project as key to the successful relationship. Problems that arose, even those that were solely on Microsoft's end, were made known quickly to everyone and changes were implemented. In contracts, creeping featurism is always a difficult and scary proposition, but Microsoft was always fair with the additions and careful to keep to the spirit of the original agreement.
Wendl noted that while the production process went smoothly, the process wasn't as efficient in regards to shutdown of the project. "We didn't really have vendors doing much bug fixing after [the content complete date] but we are looking to do it much more extensively in the future."
By the project's end, Forza was a clear success on both the time and cost front, with quality results that didn't suggest three separate groups in three countries doing the art. There were some things that went less well, including bug fixing, late changes to the spec, and inaccurate estimations of some of the parts work. These in varying degrees are inevitable, and flexibility on both sides of the relationship is important. Wendl talked about how important it was to treat the company as "an extended partner, not just a vendor." Keeping this in mind can help things go smoothly over a wide variety of problems that may arise.
All three agreed on the point of strong respect between all parties involved. Even in cases where the chemistry grows sour, "Be open," said Wendl. "Never burn bridges."