Anton Wiegert has a great article on Gamasutra about the benefit of video game art outsourcing. It makes my eyes open, even I myself is someone in this business for years.
He gathers up many meticulous facts, which we are aware of, but never pay much attention to. That this article may not only help developers to make up their mind to use contractors, but also let we contents providers know how to improve our service to stay competitive.
I think there are still a lot more about the outsourcing story, that I would like to continue the storytelling, to make the picture fuller, giving developers who want to attempt outsourcing better reference.
Like game developers, art contractor entities come in all sizes:
Freelancer: 1 people
Small company/studio: Less than 10 people;
Medium company: 11~50 people
Large company: more than 80 people
And developers tend to use the contractors of their own sizes. And using different size contractors involve different benefit to enjoy and different troubles to handle.
Benefit and woe of different sizes:
Let me find a close analogy, that using different size contractors is just like aboarding different aircrafts. The levels of stability vary:
Indie developers like to use freelance artists. While freelancers offer lowest price possible, they are also the most precarious category. For example, freelancers are always on the run of looking for new jobs, once they find a better job, part time or full time, they would make unsteady work delivery. Even worse, there are lots of tales about freelancers vanishing during commission.
On the other hand, Indie’s primary concern is budget, and their schedule is not so that tight, that they two make good fit.
Some developers state “No freelancers should apply” for the commission. One reason is stability; Another one is that if they want a workforce of 50 artists, the outsourcing dept doesn’t want to deal with 50 freelancers, instead it prefers to deal with a company who has 50 artists.
This type of companies are the most numerous in the market, competition among them is intense. And as Anton says outsourcing saves the developer troubles of handling HR, overhead, etc, those pressures are funneled down to the outsourcing companies. And those companies have to fare the wax and wane of orders, the coming and going of staffs. In a word, running such a business is tough. Companies of this type pop up quickly and die quickly.
So from the angle of developers, hiring such contractors takes in certain level of uncertainty. Not to mention the woes brought forth by bad management, miscommunication within those companies.
It seems big developers seldom outsource art assets of AAA games to small companies. Big work finds big buddies. For big contractors often have hundreds of artists, good cash flow, to take on this kind of job.
The chief challenges of working with big contractors include coping with bureaucracy, and fluctuated art quality. Here I have a tale for easy illustration. There is a big service provider in China (whose name I wouldn’t disclose, out of respect), who provides 3D assets for console games. As the console business goes down, lots of titles are canceled lately. It in turn brings disaster to the company, “we have more than 70 artists sit idle at any given time” an insider says. Lots of elite 3D artists run away for better career, whose position the company would strive hard to refill.
We know, outsourcing is the trend of our time, but it’s never straight forward. So what should the developers do? Please read on.
Always hunting for contractors:
While having 1~2 reliable service provider, no developer would think: “this link of the chain is safe, and we don’t need to find contractors any more.” Even in the honeymoon period with some contractors, the developers are always on the run of hunting more contractors. Why? For this field of business is so dynamic, or a worse word, precarious. Lots of factors dictate that a good service provider will not continue to offer as good service tomorrow, even none at all.
In many cases, if you have no backup contractors, you would jeopardize your project.
In many big development companies, they have a dedicated outsourcing manager or a whole department. They work just like the HR dept, except dealing with different set of people.
Good contractors are hard to find
From a developer’s angle, an ideal contractor should:
Deliver quality works,
always meet schedule,
offer good price,
offer good communication
Even though you can easily find thousands of contractors’ sites, with fancy portfolio, how difficult is that to find one who offers all that you expect out of a partner! And after 2~3 months of work, who can still work side by side with you?
Finding a good contractor is an eternal struggle, it seems.
My aunt works for a big pharmaceutical company in China.
“What is your business?” I ask her one day.
“Making vitamins, western companies have outsourced this work to us.”
“Vitamin making creates lots of pollution, these devils don’t want to pollute their own beautiful country.”
Just as Anton says that outsourcing brings great work-life balance on the developer’s side, and the distress has to be released some where else. I’ve seen a young 3D artist post on Linked-In groups, saying that he’s worked for a big subcontractor for 2 years, and his job is pretty tedious, making certain type of mechanical parts. As the job offers him no self improvement, he asks for career guide.
From time to time, our company is also struggling against this issue. Due to the sheer volume of certain type of 2D art work commissioned to us, many artists have to do the same, not so dull job all year long. The morale is low, and the company suffers chronicle staff retention problem.
Perhaps we should feel happy, for our distress is minor in comparison to other types of subcontractors. The staffs of Foxconn’s mainland China branch regularly commit suicide, for Apple has outsourced too much distress and pressure to them;
And there are still unhappier subcontractors, think about the ship breaking yards in India and Bangladesh, Death himself is outsourced to those hapless people.
Ok, back to our game art. I think most developers would not consider this sub topic. It seems to have little to do with them. It might be a problem of the whole of our industry.
In this article, my view of outsourcing is almost pessimistic. Why? For Anton has already covered all the sunny side of outsourcing, leaving nothing more for me to say :)
And I too believe that the advantages of outsourcing far outweigh all the disadvantages. The road is bumpy, things need to be improved. But it’s worth to overcome all the difficulties described above, that the developers could work wonders, and we service providers around the world could make business.
More of my articles about games & art production: