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Traditional outsourcing isn't as useful to developers as it was 5 to 10 years ago and often causes more problems than it solves. If we were to survive as a US studio we needed to rethink a decade's worth of practices and create a new model. It worked.

Paul Culp, Blogger

February 25, 2014

7 Min Read

When we started SuperGenius our goal was to work with the best game developers in the world. In reality, we were a new studio no one had ever heard of with one client, and a small team of young, albeit talented animators with little experience. To top it off, outsourcing had become a dirty word in the industry and most of it had gone overseas. Game developers were used to getting mass amounts of assets for cheap, and unless you were subsidized by the government, like many outsource companies in the east, there was no hope of competing on price. The year was 2008 and no one in their right mind would go into this area of the business at this time. It was suicide. We did it anyway.

We decided who we did not want to be

This was not my first art studio. Back in 2000 I co-founded one of the first art outsourcing companies in the industry. While successful, it wreaked havoc on my life and I never felt satisfied with it. We were making it up as we went, but many of the decisions we made and the paths we went down were anathema to my own values and goals. I loved the people and the team environment, and working with artists and animators. I loved working with all these amazing developers on such a huge variety of projects. I just didn’t like the idea of taking something as unique and creative as game development and turning it into something akin to a hamburger franchise. One of the many things I learned from that experience is that if you are going to spend a huge chunk of your time doing something, it better be something you believe in. Any endeavor, no matter how profitable it is, will eat you alive if you don’t like who you are while doing it.

I didn’t want to make this mistake again. Whatever this thing would become, it had to be something I believed in 100%. This meant that while we had one singular goal, we had to identify the things we wouldn’t be while getting there.

First off, we did not want to be the cheapest studio. That is a brutal road to go down and forces you to make decisions you don’t want to make. Being the cheapest means squeezing your team like a sponge to get as much out of them as possible. It means endless crunching, which leads to high turnover, which leads to low quality. The world does not need more low quality anything. Or burnt out game developers. Plus it usually amounts to nothing – someone always comes in cheaper than you.

Secondly, we did not want to be a prop shop. Nearly every outsourcing company specializes in mass amounts of assets for cheap. Plenty of overseas companies do assets and they could do them cheaper than us. We needed to offer something unique, that wasn’t available anywhere else.

We shed the skin of outsourcing

What we did have, was an amazing team of talented and passionate folks who were learning how to work together on a wide variety of projects. We also had a few clients that helped us hone our process by being patient with us early on. They needed a lot of in-engine work and we happened to have some very savvy artists who were brilliant with game tech. We made ourselves available to help with whatever our clients needed. It was during this time that we were handling much of the work they were used to dealing with themselves and we saved them a lot of time and energy by taking care of it. We were taken back by how much they appreciated it. For them it was a totally different experience than they were used to. We felt like we were doing something new.

We focused on completion and support, not assets

It turns out we were right. By taking a more holistic approach to the art and animation, and making sure it worked properly was immensely valuable to our clients. We stopped focusing on mass asset production and instead focused on completion. This was entirely more interesting and satisfying than what we had done before. It was also badly needed.  We realized if we continued specializing in this we could become something totally new in the industry. We started seeing ourselves as more of a support studio than an outsourcing shop. Focusing on this idea started a domino effect that rolled into every single part of our studio. It became the foundation for everything we would become.

This was not a spin or a small deviation from the old model. It was a totally new way of approaching how we helped developers. Game development is hard. It’s stressful. We would gear everything we did towards making it less stressful for our clients. We began doing more and more Unity and Unreal work. We took on entire sections of our client’s pipeline, freeing them to focus on other parts of the game. We were creating entirely new characters for DLC packs, from concepts all the way to playable. We weren’t just creating concepts, models, animations, VFX, etc. in a separate capacity, but doing the whole shebang, from start to finish. We became a new development arm for them. More and more developers were coming to us for tutorials, DLC packs, in-game cut-scenes, levels, and anything else they could hand off completely. This not only increased their capacity to deliver more game, but it took a huge chunk of stress out of the whole development process.

It worked, but we still didn't know what to call it

We had become something different, but what? What do we call it and how do we explain it? Introducing something new is always a challenge and it’s hard to disassociate ourselves from what has already been established. Modular development? Game developer assist? Crack team? I've always preferred simply, Art Studio but it doesn't begin to convey the whole of what we do. I guess you could say we are still open to suggestions. In the meantime, we've adopted Game Developer Support, and we’ll use that till it sticks or something better comes along.

When we set out, we wanted to work with the best developers in the industry. We just weren’t sure exactly how that would happen. We couldn’t have predicted what that little studio would evolve into. It was an evolution that happened as a result of our incredible team and the amazing developers we work with. I feel like we all created something new together. The best part is that we all can be proud of who we were while getting here.

Paul Culp is the CEO of the Oregon-based video game Art and Animation firm, SuperGenius. www.supergenius-studio.com

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