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The Proposal: A Gentleman's Guide to Outsourcing

An Outsourcing Manager's value is in their ability to assemble the right people, team, or studio to get the job done. This requires developing relationships based on mutual trust and respect, beginning with the very first email.

Paul Culp, Blogger

August 15, 2011

13 Min Read

Outsourcing Managers are the proud owners of one of the newest, life-span-shortening jobs available today, joining the ranks of Air Traffic Controllers and Social Workers. I may be prone to exaggerating but that’s probably due to stress from so many years in the field. It’s the kind of job that makes you lose your hair, suffer early heart attacks and smoke cigarettes. Thankfully I still have a lush head of hair, the kind that feathers naturally and looks great in a convertible at 80 miles an hour, ladies, but I’m 36 and my heart often sounds like a VW Bug dragging a basketball through a dry riverbed. Occupational hazard.


As an Outsourcing Director for many years, as well as the head of a few art studios, I have experienced both sides of the outsourcing process. I would like to focus on the Outsourcing Managers side for now, seeing how it is a relatively new position in the industry, but absolutely vital to a modern game development studio. There isn’t a lot of history to turn to and the tools of the trade are still being designed. The position also varies, depending on the studio but in general the Outsourcing Manager is one part Art Director, one part HR Manager and one part Producer, which is a wide range of disciplines that comes with an even wider range of responsibilities. Scheduling, critiquing art, hunting talent, reviewing portfolios, managing contracts, juggling proposals, negotiating, and processing invoices are just some of the items on an Outsourcing Managers daily to-do list. It’s easy to become overwhelmed and without a proper set of tools, balls will be dropped and heads will roll.

On the other side of the coin are the art studios, or vendors as we are sometimes called – a term that brings to mind a plywood and duct taped hot dog stand surrounded by sweaty beachgoers on the Jersey Shore – who are the ones who deal with the stressed out, overworked Outsourcing Managers. From the vendor’s perspective, this person is the point person for all projects and it can be frustrating when communication becomes stilted and the information, materials and tools needed to get the job done are unavailable because the Outsourcing Manager is stretched too thin. The vendor is often in a similar situation juggling multiple clients on multiple projects and generally trying to keep the doors open at the studio. The relationship can become strained which only compounds the stress of making games in a stressful industry. This is through no, or equal fault on either side. There are generally no bad guys here, just hardworking professionals put in tough situations because of the nature of the beast. Everyone has the same goals. We all want to make the best game possible. Neither side wants to have a heart attack while chewing a cold slice of pizza at their desk at three in the morning. This best way to avoid this is cultivate your relationships.

Our jobs are all about relationships. As an Outsourcing Director, my value was in my ability to call on the right people to get the job done. People I trusted, who trusted me. My tool of the trade was a number of studios and contractors I could call on when the time came. When an Art Director comes to you in a pinch needing four character models in two weeks and you can pick up the phone and call Joe at Sticky Monkey Mushroom Studios, who you know can deliver quality characters quickly, you are the hero. You’ve performed the highly valuable function of your job with the speed and efficiency of Jean Reno in The Professional. You can do this because you developed a mutually beneficial, trusting relationship with Sticky Monkey Mushroom Studios, which was cultivated from the very first email ever exchanged. Most likely a request for a proposal.

I would like to propose a sort of loose set of guidelines for Outsourcing Managers to follow. You may find this useful, whatever side of the process you are on, or you may not. These guidelines were written simply in the interest of passing on information regarding a process that is still new and still getting its kinks worked out. Since this post could easily turn into a novel I’m going to focus strictly on the proposal stage of the outsourcing process. I’m starting here because this stage really sets the pace for the rest of the relationship between the client and the vendor and it’s always a good idea to start any professional relationship off on the right foot. The goal here is to add some new perspective on a stressful process that isn't going away anytime soon. I'm all for anything that helps to make our lives in this industry smoother, for everyone involved. It's too high strung for my taste and I say let’s all take it down a notch. Why not dim the lights, put on some Doobie Brothers and get comfortable? This could be the beginning of a very smooth relationship.

Give Us All Your Information

I know, when someone dims the lights, puts on Doobie Brothers, and says, "Give me all your information," I would be alarmed too. But there is a good reason for this. We are not going to use any information irresponsibly and we don't assume you would either. We're about to enter a business relationship and all intentions must be made clear, trust must be established and information must flow freely. If we put the time and energy into this up front it will save much time and energy later, when it could be better spent on making the project the best it can be. There is no useless information at this stage. We use all of it to help cater a proposal specifically to your project. We are not MacDonalds. We don't do one size fits all. We have been doing this too long to assume that one solution fits every project. I like to think I speak for most art studios when I say this. We want to do the best work possible. We want to help you make the best looking game on the market. We want to make our clients happy. We like being good at what we do.

The Proposal Document

Chances are you are asking more than one studio to submit a proposal. Having to deal with multiple studios means you have to repeat yourself constantly. This can be (mostly) avoided by creating a proposal document that contains all the information you can think of that a studio or contractor would need to accurately bid on a project. If you have an art background you have a pretty good idea what kind of information you need to put on your document. If you don’t have a background in art, talk to your team of Art Directors, Artists and Programmers. Gather as much information as you can. The energy is better spent now than later on, answering email after email from every studio bidding on the project. If you’re luck your Art Director has already written an art bible where you can get much of this information. If not, do the homework yourself. Having all that information is one document could be useful for your team as well as the vendors. Your document should contain the following information:

Technical Information

What software do you use? What engine? Proprietary or commercial? Polycounts? Normal maps? How many minutes total of animation? Without this information we have nothing to go off of. Gather as much of it as you can. Ask the Art Director what information they would want before contracting on a project. Ask a programmer what info they think every artist on the project should have. Ask an artist what information they DO have. Make the rounds. Often you find information you didn't know was relevant. Sometimes you even find information that people on the internal team didn't have before. In that case, you’ve written a pretty valuable document.

Creative Information

We are artists so we speak in creative tongue. Art reference, comparable titles, the Art Director's influences, sample assets, characters, animations - This all super helpful in determining bandwidth, who we will put on the team, etc. We may even find out at this stage if we are even the right fit for the project. We have to actually work on the project once we get it and we won't take on anything we can't do. We have referred clients to other studio in the past when we didn't think we had the right talent or tools for the job. I can't speak for all studios out there, but most of us value our quality of life and don’t want to take on projects that we’re not equipped to handle.

Sample Assets

I know I listed this previously, but I’m listing it again for emphasis. If the team has already created assets for the project, give it up. I can’t emphasize enough how useful sample assets are. Concept art is always a great thing to have too. Video capture of the game in action is even better. If you have animation, don’t worry about rendering it out, just send the files. We’ll comb through it. We have most likely signed an NDA at this point so everything should be fair game. Put it together in a zip file and send it over. It will help more than you know.


How long is the project? When does it start and when does it end? This is just as important as anything else I've listed. It will definitely affect the budget. A six month project with one person will have a much different cost than a one month project with six artists. This will also help us figure out if we have the right people at the right time. There is always the possibility that we have another project booked that would render the entire proposal void. This has happened to me more than once. Also keep in mind, our whole studio is run on client work so it helps to know if and when there will be lulls. We could be jumping on this project tomorrow or in four months. It would be nice to know which one.


Budget talk always seems to make people uncomfortable, both clients and vendors, especially for artist-types. I say let's put an end to this right now. Let's all relax when the issue of money comes up. It's just another aspect of our trade, like artists, pixels, polygons, schedules, etc. If you have a budget in mind, give it up. I know it sounds counter-intuitive to put this on the table right at the get-go, but it's a good thing, for both parties. Forget all that old school "business is like poker" BS that we were raised on. Forget the steely-eyed negotiating of Gordon Gecko. No one wants to rob their clients, and we don’t assume clients want to drive their vendors into the ground and make them work for a slave’s wage. In this economy, or any, really, we're happy to provide a fair service in exchange for a fair price. If we can undo generations of shady business tactics and unsustainable profit margins and all of us here promise to do business honestly, ethically, and sustainably from now on, we might never have to be in this economic sinkhole again. The bubble can’t burst if there was never a bubble to begin with. What were we talking about again?

That said, please tell us what your budget is, and we'll try to make it work within the number. If we can’t then we’ll let you know. We know what it costs to get something done, given we have good information, and we'll tell you what that cost is. We may have to do a little back and forth from there, but if we start at an honest spot, we'll get to the final number without too much time and energy spent.

What's Important to You

As a developer, you have a team that has a vision for the project. You know what is most important to your team when it comes to that project. If you're a new client, we have no idea what's most important to you or your team. We could assume that quality is always most important, but we could be dead wrong. I have worked with clients that put very little emphasis on quality. They wanted fast instead. Or they wanted a team that could come on site for some of it, or at least a studio in the same time zone. Or they wanted a particular animator to lead the project. We've had lots of individual requests over the years that we never could have anticipated. Let us know what the most important things are to you and we'll make sure the team is set up in a way that emphasizes those things. We'll at least do our best to accommodate it. Otherwise we could spend valuable time and energy focusing on something you care absolutely nothing about. This is not about finding out what flavor of smoke to blow up your ass, it's about numbers. If quality is most important it could mean dedicating more art direction and less artists on the project. It could also mean a longer schedule. If speed is the most important, it could mean more artists and more project management in a shorter time frame. These variables affect the end number and to us, could mean the difference between losing a project and getting a project. For the client, it could mean choosing the wrong vendor which could have disastrous consequences for the project.

Proposals take a long time to write, often a whole day, sometimes more if the project is big enough. We take proposals very seriously and often have to mock up a schedule to make sure our numbers are accurate. If you're like me, you don't want to send out any proposal you couldn't back up 100%. I'm sure most vendors concur. As a potential client requesting a proposal from a studio like ours, help us make that time and energy count. If the time is put in up front to make sure all your potential vendors have absolutely every piece of information you they need, you will save vast amounts of time fielding emails, hunting files, renegotiating, getting change orders, and potentially jeopardizing the project after it's started, not to mention the relationship. Remember that you're starting a potential partnership with one or more of the vendors bidding on the project and you’ll want to do this in earnest. It’s is where you establish the trust, mutual respect, and positive workflow that sets the pace for everything to come. It’s the gentleman’s way of doing business, which as far as I’m concerned, is the only way.

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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