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Game Outsourcing Summit: Anatomy of an Outsourcing Deal

At the GDC Focus On: Game Outsourcing Summit in Los Angeles earlier this week, Sony Online producer Chris Lena and Art Director Joe Shoopack were on hand to discuss some of the things that made EverQuest's outsourcing deals work, in this exclusive
Sony Online Entertainment's EverQuest series has endured as one of the longest lasting video game franchises in the current video game market. With Sony's dedication to releasing a new EverQuest retail SKU every six months, it's easy to see how it makes a good candidate for outsourcing. Producer Chris Lena and Art Director Joe Shoopack were on hand at the GDC Focus On: Game Outsourcing Summit in Los Angeles earlier this week to discuss some of the things that made EverQuest's outsourcing deals work, and Gamasutra was also present to pass on some of their pearls of wisdom to readers. Beyond the Facts Lena began by reminding the audience that cost savings is not the primary reason to decide to outsource. Budget impact is secondary to benefits such as flexibility in skills, schedule, and volume. Also, one should be aware of the hidden costs inherent in outsourcing. The price of asset management and integration can be more than one expected. Moreover, a team that's uncomfortable with the idea of outsourcing can hugely impact the development process. When going into an outsourcing project, the first thing one should do is prepare a complete "how to" guide for your game's development. "An outsourcer is only going to be as successful as the tools and descriptions you provide them with," suggested Lena. There are a lot of assumptions about a development cycle that are made internally, made through word-of-mouth knowledge or sheer intuition. Communicating these pieces of knowledge is essential to getting good work out of the outsource vendors. Many companies may feel that a good spec sheet or design document should be enough; Lena, however encouraged that the audience go beyond providing lists of parameters and communicate techniques. He showed a slide detailing how they showed the vendor specifically how to use UV space to wrap a character's arm. Having all of this information at hand helps the vendor to be more at ease with the development. The process of documenting this information also allows you to examine your development team's own internal methodologies. Negotiating Cost "We are always evaluating new vendors," said Lena on the subject of arriving at vendor cost. On the EverQuest team, new bids and data constantly get updated in a Wiki-accessible spreadsheet, allowing management to see multiple vendors in multiple aspects: quality, versatility, personnel, etc. It is also important to ask details about the prices given. This is not driven by wariness of fine print trickery, but strictly by pursuit of good communication. Shoopack related how one vendor's bid seemed to regard a horse and a unicorn as substantially different assets in workload. One conversation later and the similarity of the assets was recognized and accounted for by the vendor. At the end of the development process, one should give the vendor the opportunity to use the product as advertising. In one such case, the vendor created a website that they submitted for approval to Sony. Here, both parties were satisfied; Sony was happy to see a very high quality website that advertised the game, while the vendor was happy to show that they delivered excellent work as a Sony client. Another case proved less successful; the vendor bought advertising on video game websites stating that they were helping Sony "revive an aging franchise." Sony management wasn't very happy to see their series described in such terms in so public a manner. Project Management While it rarely happens when using veteran vendors, developers should be on the watch for the bait and switch when it comes to quality. If quality drops, you have a right to name your artists, adding a key man clause to the vendor contract. While it's preferable to allow outsourcers flexibility with their personnel, this is a valid option if there are quality problems. Of course, problems can also occur on the developer's side of the relationship. To that end, one should make sure that the content pipeline is tested and proven. Also, utilizing internal artists in the outsourced content pipeline can ensure smooth development and quality. Outsource Wiki Within Sony Online Entertainment, the company set up a wiki containing information across all development teams of interactions with vendors. Nearly every product out of SOE involved some outsourcing work, and the wiki helped to reduce the redundancy that can happen when talking to vendors. Here, the Sony team can look at a list of prequalified vendors, company profiles, specialties, samples, other clients they've worked for, and their track records. Now when Sony talks to a vendor, that vendor can deliver information straight to this wiki for management to compare with others. This consolidation of information allows for more efficient management of multiple vendors across multiple teams. With permissions and restrictions in place, vendors currently working on projects can see the project information that they need to see. Similarly, internal artists and designers can see what vendors are providing for the section they are working on. Day to day management occurs in a familiar web forum/bulletin board style. With this paradigm, one can easily see the history of interaction and easily do quality comparisons across contracts. With a mapping of roughly one forum thread per asset, the review process is a clear and easily readable series of nested replies consisting of text, paint-overs, or animated gifs showing before and after. This model also allows non-artists to easily view the assets and provide feedback as well. The forum also makes an excellent archive after a project is done, allowing people to point to specific threads as part of the postmortem. Final Thoughts With the intense documentation process that was outlined in the beginning of the lecture, some in the audience wondered if the development team would have seen it as more efficient to just go and do it all. Shoopack cautioned that though it might seem faster in the beginning, it's a long term learning process that they have to go through. "The end result is to have a pool of available partners that can provide the assets that your game or studio needs… over the long term." Churning out the next milestone is a trivial event compared to developing and having access to that pool of talent you can rely on. [Gamasutra's other coverage from the Game Outsourcing Summit includes THQ Vice-President Shiraz Akmal's keynote, as well as Rajesh Rao's talk on outsourcing: 'When Does It Work? Where Does It Fail?']

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