In his featured lecture, 'When Does It Work? Where Does It Fail?' at the GDC Focus On: Game Outsourcing Summit
in Los Angeles earlier this week, Dhruva Interactive CEO Rajesh Rao took the opportunity to address some of the major advantages and pitfalls of game outsourcing.
Rao previously spoke
before a Game Developers Conference 2006 audience earlier this year regarding his company's role as an outsourced vendor in the development of Microsoft's Forza Motorsport
. While that was a successful venture which resulted in an accomplished final product, not all of Dhruva's outsourcing relationships fare as well.
In the ten year history of the company, Rao has seen projects that have faltered and relationships that have blossomed, and in this session he talked about the top five dos and don'ts that have manifested themselves in game development outsourcing over the years.
I Say Po-ta-to, You Say Po-tah-to…
Rao started with number five on the list of things that go wrong: (In)direct communication. He related a situation where the client developer set up their own internal outsource production team, complete with a producer and various directors, who dealt with the content they receive from their vendors. In theory, this would help alleviate the growing pains of the outsourcing relationship as the core team would look to their outsource team rather than deal with the vendor directly.
However, this setup created problems as where responsibility lay in the pipeline was continuously questioned. It also made asset delivery a huge time drain as both the internal outsource team and the core development team conducted reviews in addition to the vendor's own review stage. Conclusion: A direct relationship with the vendor is simple and effective.
Communication figured again in number four on the list of don'ts: Unclear art guidance and specifications. Rao related a client's game design so compelling that people wanted to work on it; the game utilized an interested non-realistic art style that looked great in sample sequences. However, there was no specific art direction set up for the outsourcing vendor.
"They have teams who are very in sync with each other, so descriptions such as 'Movie One meets Movie Two meets Game X!' probably worked for them but did not work for us," said Rao. A poor written specification and little support to clarify these directions resulted in many disconnects between the vendor and the core team. Cultural differences and distance means that directions should be as clear as possible.
The More Things Change...
Changing guidelines took the number three spot on Rao's list. One development process he experienced saw a spec go from multiple textures to a clamp on textures to single textures. This saw the vendor having to redo all of their assets, extra work that "...we didn't get paid for, of course." Management was sensitive to the vendor's problems and needs, but they were shackled to the game's budget.
Even worse is when number two happens: the clients are not totally convinced on using outsourcing. In Rao's example, some of the client's art team were extremely unhappy that work was being outsourced. The asset review process in particular suffered; when art was delivered, the vendor would be lucky to see a few one-liners, if there was a review at all.
Even companies that are well organized to utilize outsourcing can falter; rounding out the list was the problem of an unrealistic timeline as scope changes from the pilot or test case to the actual project. Even a subtle shift of scope or a slight miscalculation can result in a huge impact on resources as the vendor struggles to stay on time and on budget. Worse still is when the management refuses to see this problem play itself out on the vendor's side of the development.
On the Bright Side
While there are many pitfalls that outsourcing ventures can succumb to, many have resulted in excellent games and long-lasting relationships; Rao pointed out many of the actions that made these ventures succeed.
Number five on the list had vendor artists visiting clients in preparation for the project. During the week, the artists were able to run through the asset pipeline and spec with the core team. "Having face time makes for cordial relations," said Rao, and using that time to build connections of empathy and honest communication is irreplaceable.
Next on the list was clear art guidelines. Here Rao referenced the recently completed Asterix and Obelix XXL 2
game developed by French developer Etranges Libellules. At the beginning of development, the core team took it upon themselves to translate all of their documentation for the vendor. They were also very responsive, adding detail to the specifications at the vendor's request. This combined with the sufficient time for development and delivery made the process easier on both sides.
An even bigger step for clients to take is setting up vendors with game builds and dev kits. While this requires extensive due diligence in security, it can have huge benefits. With VPN and the internal team's tools available to the vendor, game ready assets could be delivered very quickly with low management overhead. Being responsible for game ready assets also helps instill in the vendor an increased sense of ownership.
Timing is Everything
Sometimes the spec or scope of the project has to change; if the client is willing to adjust the timeline and budget, this becomes easy for a vendor to accept. "It really breeds a tremendous amount of trust and respect between companies," said Rao. Because of that, they would do everything to try and accommodate their requests.
Coming in at number one on Rao's list is long term vision; clients should plan for three years ahead in a relationship. He mentioned that currently two of Dhruva's clients have planned for games and their sequels on next-gen hardware. In this type of relationship the client gets the benefit of a very involved vendor and the vendor gets predictability without deviating from the basic nature of the relationship. This sort of long term thinking ultimately helps quality of development.
During the question and answer phase, Rao addressed some more general aspects of outsourcing for the audience.
On the subject of time zone differences, Rao said, "Twenty-four-seven production is a myth. It doesn't happen." This is not to say that it doesn't have benefits. With the 12 hour difference between Bangalore, India and the American west coast, delivering in the evening means the core team sees it at the start of their business day. This doesn't represent a seamless transition of production, but it does cut down on the effective review time.
To another member of the audience he noted, "No company can be a generalist." You can have three or four styles that you're very good at, but you have to recognize your company's and your people's specific core competencies. "The specialized nature of the game industry should not be underestimated."
Rao ended the session by emphasizing the importance of treating outsourcing as a relationship rather than as a black box. The key to unlocking a game's potential is "To ensure that you have good experienced people on their side, people that you can trust and respect. Then build relationships… aimed at being long-term rather than just being one-offs."
[Gamasutra also covered THQ Vice-President Shiraz Akmal's keynote from the Game Outsourcing Summit, and will conclude its coverage tomorrow.]