From my experience of external development over the last decade, I believe one of the most important questions being asked, or thought, is: “Why are we outsourcing?” Artists inside game studios are particularly interested in why.
Since outsourcing simply means to “subcontract a business process to a third party,” it’s a practice that can easily go wrong because the work being done externally must match internal standards and fit into the big picture. However, while the potential downsides are often clear - both immediate and visual (such as low-quality art assets) - the many advantages of outsourcing are less obvious. They’re less obvious in particular to developers outside the production and management field, such as internal artists, but the advantages of outsourcing far outweigh the disadvantages. This is why it has seen steady growth, why it’s here to stay, and why it will only keep expanding.
However, if you don’t work in a position that requires a broad perspective or long-term view of projects, it’s natural to overlook the enormous size, importance, and beauty of the forest because of the occasional rotten trees falling in your way.
Hence, I’ve put this article together for anyone who has ever thought about asking “why are we outsourcing” but never did - or asked without receiving a very deep or satisfying answer. Admittedly, even some outsourcing managers would say that you only outsource "to save money," but that's not completely accurate: At best that’s only one of many reasons, but I'd argue that no one really “saves” money by outsourcing because the money from “costs avoided” is regularly spent on more game content or other things within the studio (including annual raises and bonuses) rather than being kept around and not utilized, which is really what “to save money” means.
Nevertheless, it’s crucial to understand that even if outsourcing was not beneficial from a financial point of view, there is in fact a very long list of additional advantages that still make it a desirable practice, so discussions that solely revolve around money tend to be misleading. If you’re wondering what those other advantages are, then this article is for you!
While a wide variety of work is being outsourced by game developers these days, I'll focus on art assets; these assets are the most common content to be shifted externally and hence what is most familiar to the biggest audience. However, the concept and principles I address apply across other departments and other types of work. I will also avoid the typical esoteric business answers, such as “outsourcing will release capital for other investments” and how it “converts fixed costs into variable costs.” While both statements are true, such explanations are too abstract for most of us and will just lead to further questions as they leave too much to the imagination.
Obviously, the primary reason for outsourcing by Western game developers is the availability of cheaper labor in other parts of the world, such as China. Let’s get that out of the way. How big the difference in wages is depends on which regions you compare, which vendors you work with, and how well you’ve negotiated your service agreements, but, in general, cheaper labor makes for lower costs on an ongoing basis while content is created. This should not be news to anyone, so let’s move on to the less obvious benefits.
While it’s easy to see money being spent on outsourcing during a game’s production, you don’t see the money NOT being spent thanks to it, for example, when your studio no longer needs content created. Unlike internal full-time employees who must be paid all the time, regardless of whether your project is in pre-production or has just shipped. By outsourcing, the periods without the need for content production won’t cost your company the salaries of professionals who are waiting for the next project to go into production.
On the other hand, if you have a larger team internally and lay off employees between projects, you waste more resources having to bring these employees, or their replacements, back into the workforce when the next project is ready. Besides the tremendous stress this causes and the unlikelihood that the best employees are interested in or available to return, this practice is even more problematic.
Hiring new staff internally for short-term projects can be very expensive, directly and indirectly, due to the costs of onboarding and training. No one is very productive as an employee for the first 1-3 months on the job, and we often require assistance (and thus time) from our colleagues to get up to speed with new technology and pipelines, for example. Through outsourcing, this cost can be absorbed externally, which would be beneficial. First, you probably won’t notice it and can get on with your work without having to onboard anyone, and second, it’s less expensive if this period of lower productivity is being paid for in China versus California.
Time may be money, but by itself it’s also the most limited resource we have. You can rarely get more of it, so even if you have the budget and patience for time-consuming processes, you’re better off not to get involved with them internally.
If you’re a smaller developer, outsourcing can also allow you to go into production without any R&D of your own how to build assets most effectively. Granted, you cannot make cutting-edge content this way, but most studios aren’t trying to; nor do they really need to in order to ship entertaining and successful games.
Regardless of your own studio size, subcontracting allows you to assemble a large team of artists relatively quickly and thus gives you a head start, basically extending your production period in comparison to staffing up an equally large team inhouse. You could take advantage of this extra time that subcontracting provides to either make more content or get content back faster so you can polish and/or use it better in-game.
The time spent recruiting, screening, interviewing, onboarding, training, and bringing internal employees up to speed can be immense, especially if you need 25-100 extra artists. This is not just a problem about money or the production delay staffing up internally would cause, but also about the burden it would impose on support functions inside studios.
Besides avoiding the burden of hiring lots of employees really quickly and then laying them off once production is complete - only to repeat the same procedure for each project - the use of outsourcing also lowers the burden on support functions once everyone and everything is set up. Otherwise, your HR team would have to deal with many more employees, and so would your IT team. You think it’s hard getting one more monitor or another software license right now? Imagine asking for the same after doubling or tripling your team size!
The cost of buying all the software licenses and hardware (e.g., Wacom tablets, PCs, monitors, high-end graphics cards) could easily land between $5,000 and $10,000 US per additional artist. Just multiply that by 25 or 100 artists and you get an idea of what a larger team would need (not to mention the time it would take for your IT team to install and set everything up, the extra rent for a bigger office space to fit everything, and a more expensive company insurance plan to cover everything in case of theft or other cause for claim).
Since the service providers are responsible for managing their own workforce, you don’t have to deal with management or HR issues involving individual employees. This also means that the number of middle managers inhouse can be kept to a minimum, thus keeping your organization lean and less bureaucratic.
Game development has cyclical demands of developers, especially content creators, and outsourcing allows for temporarily adding more resources when they are needed and releasing them when they aren’t, without hassle or hard feelings. The truth is that temporary employees don’t always live up to expectations, and may be difficult to replace emotionally, financially, or practically. However, if you run into the same issue within an external team, your service provider, which usually works for multiple clients, is in a better position to find a more suitable project for those who cannot keep up instead of having to let them go.
Whenever you’re subcontracting work, you are dealing with service providers whose very business and livelihood is to provide services to their clients (e.g., to create art assets for game developers), so whether or not tasks are fun, interesting, or creatively challenging is not part of the equation when the work is done externally: Service providers don’t refuse to work on something because they feel the task is beneath them or would be boring; hence internal art managers can worry less about who should work on what because artists A and B don’t like to do X or Y type of work and would become grumpy, depressed, or lower morale if forced to do it.
This also means that the more mundane or repetitive tasks necessary to ship all games can easily be shifted externally so that your internal team not only works on more interesting tasks, but also works on tasks that are much more important to the game.
Thus, internal employees can be utilized more efficiently: They can be more agile and work on tasks that require quicker turnarounds, need more in-game iterations, or appear out of nowhere, such as great ideas that come up after plans and schedules are officially completed.
The same goes for tasks that are very time-consuming. It is much better to offload these tasks externally than to lock down someone internally for a very long time. Extremely large or complex art assets can be completed much more quickly, and thus can be back in the game faster, by temporarily assigning multiple artists to the same asset. In general, more assets can be produced in parallel, which could shorten the critical path - making it easier to meet deadlines and milestones. This would be very difficult to do inhouse as it requires splitting work up and distributing it among multiple artists.
It’s much better to have internal employees focus on R&D and other tasks that cannot be outsourced easily. After all, the biggest advantage an internal staff has is its proximity to the game, with instant and firsthand access to the game engine and designers etc. Internal staff members will always have the ability to make better decisions simply because they are in the loop and better informed about the project’s intentions, context, and recent developments.
It would be a shame to not take advantage of this fact and have the internal team work on tasks that could be shifted externally while work that simply must be done inhouse is overlooked, neglected, or postponed.
As outsourcing is all about utilizing extra people outside your own walls, your team size won’t be limited by the physical size of your studio or the number of managers and support staff you have.
You can in fact make very large games while still staying small. This includes being able to keep your studio so small that you actually know everyone's name, you don’t see new faces every day, and your company culture is more personal and less “corporate.”
It also makes it easier to keep within your headcount limit if your studio has one. Thus, very special or obscure positions could be filled internally (e.g., a proper economist for your MMO game) even if you normally wouldn’t expect to find those positions in a game studio. You can also choose to fill more positions that affect the gameplay directly (i.e., gameplay programmers and level designers) instead of content creators if you think that would increase your chances of creating a good game.
Periods of high employee turnover add inconsistency, uncertainty, and even fear inside game studios. Hence, the right use of outsourcing provides a level of continuity and stability to your company, as you won’t see a surge of colleagues join and leave as projects go in and out of production or as staffing needs suddenly arise or disappear due to milestones being met or priorities changing.
Keeping teams more stable is also important to maintain productivity at even levels, as the social team dynamics tend to change whenever new members join a group. Usually, every time the composition of a group changes significantly, it’s normal and human to slip back into a friendly phase of “getting to know each other,” with responsibilities being vague and conflicts intentionally avoided at the cost of productivity and progress.
Speaking of productivity… Subcontracting also enables production to continue while everyone inhouse is away on holidays and vacations, even during weekends if necessary. This occurs regularly, but for obvious reasons it’s out of sight and thus something which few internal employees are even aware of.
Companies that specialize in creating art content usually have access to a significantly larger talent pool of artists due to the nature and focus of their business. In addition, because service providers can be found all over the world, they also bridge cultural gaps and language barriers, giving developers access to amazing talents with whom they could not communicate directly. This is a huge advantage compared to trying to recruit and relocate talent locally.
Through the use of outsourcing, you can also gain access to the world’s best freelancers, who may not be interested in relocating or cannot relocate due to issues beyond their control, such as inability to obtain a work visa or because their family has jobs or attends school.
Being able to involve industry leading specialists, such as high-end freelancers - despite not having them onsite - can also reduce the time and cost needed for internal R&D because your internal team can acquire new skills and best practices quickly by seeing these experts work (albeit remotely).
Overall, outsourcing enables developers to stay more competitive in a multitude of ways, including as employers: As it enables production to continue while everyone inhouse is away, the need for overtime and crunch can be significantly reduced internally, making the work environment more attractive and allowing for greater work-life balance. It also makes it possible to offer better compensation for the staff you do hire internally because you can consider your headcount more carefully and limit hires to fewer new positions, but for the same budget, if you wish.
Outsourcing ancillary development processes gives you more time to strengthen the processes that are at the core of what you do; in the art department, for example, this means using content rather than making it (e.g., placing props, not building them). In essence, you can make the game, not the content for the game. Theoretically, this will lead to better games that are more competitive as products, as long as everyone has been hired with that goal in mind.
If specialists are creating your content, you will get better props, characters, and weapons than if one type of artist does them all. Generalists will never be able to beat specialists when it comes to speed, quality, and ingenuity (and if they seem to, then you’re not working with real specialists or you’re getting in their way somehow).
Finally, leveraging external resources allows your project to change direction drastically half-way through without jeopardizing the entire studio, for example, if there’s a significant change in art direction or even game direction. While rare, such extreme changes could otherwise be devastating - if you’ve recruited and staffed up an internal content creation team for one type of game that you’re no longer meant to produce.
I could keep going, but I think I've made my point. In game development, few things are as simple as they seem. And life is full of paradoxes; a lot in the world is in fact the opposite of what it first appears.
So, while outsourcing may seem like a threat at first glance (in particular, the risk of jobs being lost), in reality it provides the complete opposite: It actually helps secure jobs internally - across all departments - by reducing a lot of risks. Without outsourcing, games would be more expensive in the shops or they would have to be shorter, have less variety, or offer lower quality graphics. As a result, fewer games would be made, as AAA developers would have even more trouble (than many already have) staying profitable and thus remaining in business.
This is why developers outsource and why I love being responsible for it - regardless of the occasional hiccups, the common misunderstandings, and the added layer of complexity.