GDC China: Midway's Coco Teaches Art Outsourcing Lessons

How far ahead should you plan asset outsourcing? What kind of results can you expect? Midway Games producer Kristine Coco detailed information exchanges, feedback delivery, asset management and more in her GDC China session, "From the Frontline of Outsour
Building on last year’s GDC lecture "We Learned the Hard Way So You Don't Have To: How to Outsource Art Successfully," Midway Games producer Kristine Coco gave a talk at GDC China called "From the Frontline of Outsourcing: The Lessons Never End," continuing the focus on art outsourcing. Coco advised 4 months bring-up time for a new outsourcing project, stressing that teams can't just decide on the outsourcing route and then begin a week later; it needs to be planned as part of the project well in advance. Requirements should be clear, too. "Good requirements leave no questions," Coco said, recommending the provision of lots of detail up-front, and reminding the audience that assumptions cause rework. She provided an example of a requirement package Midway used, noting it had five key areas: reference, quality target, proxy, process and technical specifications. A reference example would show an image with artist's comments and instructions; a quality target would include normal maps, screen shots and rules about permissible shortcuts, and a proxy would be a basic model demonstrating correct size and scale. For the process step, Coco recommended specifying exactly how a prop is to be built, including details on whether it's a low or a high-poly model, UVs, collision, smoothing groups and tiling textures. Finally, for tech specs, Coco advised defining other technical conditions required for the project to be considered finished -- such as filename, texture size, memory constraints and any other details pertinent to how the asset will be used in-game. If the requirements are not clear, some undesirable results can occur, Coco noted; for example, scrolling UVs, inefficient textures, missing detail in geometry, two-sided materials, incorrect tiling at seams, and wrong materials. In Coco's example, an outsourcing team had assumed specifications based on a previous Midway project because the specifications were not sufficient. The result was a redo by internal staff -- effectively, paying twice for the same assets. Since good feedback prevents re-dos, Coco recommended adding specific comments to actual props; as with a pair of shoes, instructing, "do not mirror shoelaces, set aside more texture room for crossed shoelaces" with arrow pointing to the submitted prop. Coco highlighted a convention of feedback by which "good" things are commented in green, and re-dos in red. She gave some examples of bad feedback, advising against big chunks of written narrative in English or the use of non-specific jargon such as "too snug" and "too pointy." Generalized feedback is inadvisable also, because the outsourcing team might "fix" the wrong thing, leading to multiple re-dos. Review things early and often, Coco advised; every 20 minutes on a recent level-building project, for example. Staffing is key, she added. "Good staffing provides bandwidth to set good requirements and give good feedback. Bad staffing causes mistakes, delays and miscommunication because people are rushing." Offering some metrics for staffing, Coco said one full-time artist can handle 25 requirement packages per week at Midway, at about 1.6 hours per packet -- therefore, 250 assets would require 10 man-weeks of preparation. One artist can also provide feedback on 30 assets per week (assuming a 40-our week). It can be difficult to predict how many assets need more than two iterations, Coco added, but "very few" get through on the first pass. She added that clothing assets have the shortest project duration of all Midway asset types -- one full-time artist did 110 packets per week at 22 minutes each. "The internal process can make or break you," Coco noted - Midway doesn't do it perfectly, she said, but they have found some things that work for them. The goal, she concluded, is to treat outsourcing partners as part of the team. An audience member asked Coco how Midway addressed team resistance to surrendering work to an outsource staff. "It was obvious there was no way the internal team could handle capacity, so either content needed to be cut or they needed to get flexible help," Coco recalled. "Also, the artists got curious about the quality of assets coming back, and they got a boost from increased productivity by churning so many assets in a week." How long did it take to set up Coco's internal process for managing art outsourcing? She estimates about a year from the point of internal outsourcing to the point of making it an internal management competency, including tools to support the process. "It's still in progress," she said, "we're constantly refining."

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