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Keynote: THQ's Akmal Talks Game Outsourcing

For his keynote at today's GDC Focus On: Game Outsourcing Summit in Los Angeles, THQ Vice-President Shiraz Akmal argued that the changes to E3 are symbolic of the decentralization of worldwide development, as the Outsourcing Era of game development rapidl
For his keynote at today's GDC Focus On: Game Outsourcing Summit in Los Angeles, THQ Vice-President Shiraz Akmal enjoyed a brief introduction from GDC conference Director Jamil Moledina before presenting the structure of his game development outsourcing keynote, consisting of: Starbucks, skeletons, and wasabi. The photos and clip art punctuating the presentation slides added levity to Akmal's serious message. Video game outsourcing is not just about creating bigger and better games; outsourcing is about establishing relationships to create a process that can transform and streamline the whole game development cycle. Starbucks in China Akmal, who oversees outsourcing efforts at THQ, looked back at the sudden changes to E3 announced last month; what used to be a multimedia megashow is now a much scaled down venue for small meetings between industry professionals. His point? Communications and globalization are the factors that changed the show; at one point, E3 was the epicenter of the game industry, but the industry has changed, and we can see that change in the growth of video game conferences and events in places like Germany, Korea, and China. "The fact that it's not longer necessary or efficient to have a single industry megashow in a lot of ways symbolizes why it's no longer necessary or efficient to develop games entirely in one location", Akmal suggested. While many people approach outsourcing as a new approach to game development, Akmal noted that game developers have actually been outsourcing for years. According to Screen Digest, sixty percent of video game studios today outsource in some way. Even going back a few years, outsourcing "has probably been rampant, disguised as middleware," Akmal noted. Outsourcing On The Rise? Video games are predicted to hit $42 billion in revenue by 2010, and game outsourcing will be a significant part of that. "One study actually says that game outsourcing will hit $1.1 billion dollars in terms of revenue by the end of this year, and $2.5 billion by the end of the decade," Akmal said. With communications and globalization, new entrepreneurs and growing capitalism, and technology that's making new jobs while reinventing old ones, the games industry is ready to move forward both close to home and around the world. Schools focused on game design, programming, and art are appearing everywhere in India, China, and Korea. Akmal showed photos of many of the schools' classrooms, which have some of the best technology available, with one photo showing a PlayStation 2 development kit next to each computer. Government economic incentives are also helping to foster good relationships between outsourcing vendors and core developers. This converging of market conditions and actions from within and without the video game industry ensure us of a future that's perfect for outsourcing. The best image of this future, Akmal said, was revealed to him at Tiananmen Square, where one could get a sugar-free non-fat vanilla latte that looked, tasted, and cost the same as its North American counterpart. Skeletons In The Closet While outsourcing is a powerful option for game developers, it is also extremely revelatory; "Outsourcing rattles the skeletons in the closet," Akmal said, quoting Screen Digest's Rick Gibson. While your core competencies are reinforced, if you are not ready for outsourcing, all of your infrastructure, management, and personnel weaknesses will rise to the surface. Outsourcing is not a magic bullet or cure-all. Akmal took some time at the Summit (organized by the CMP Game Group, which also runs Gamasutra.com) to demonstrate Saint's Row, a soon to be released Xbox 360 game from THQ. He highlighted some of the landmark assets that were outsourced to various parties and showed how they looked pre and post-integration. Akmal noted that in this relationship, the developer acted much as a city planner or architect, providing specifications, and the vendor acted as a construction company. With that sort of relationship, communication can make or break the development. Mustard Color Akmal related an experience he had with one outsource vendor. The internal development team had asked for a cinematic, and to this end they provided storyboards and specifications for the vendor to keep in mind. The resultant cinematic was delivered properly, but the core team was surprised to see a character pick up a mustard bottle and squirt green liquid all over the scene. Apparently the vendor wasn't entirely certain of mustard color, except for the fact that mustard drew associations with wasabi, the fiery Japanese condiment known for its bright green color as well as its pungent flavor. "Outsourcing is deceptively straightforward," Akmal said, and it's often little thing like the color of mustard that can become hang-ups in an outsourcing relationship. Outsourcing is a different workflow, Akmal suggested, and it requires a long term commitment. It shows your core competencies, but it also changes your company culture. As such, not just executives but employees and partners too should be committed to making the outsourcing initiative work. Conclusion Akmal also touched on variations of the outsourcing scenario as he's envisioning at THQ; fostering user content, crowd sourcing, and peer-to-peer production are all things on the horizon that require attention from companies interested in changing their content development workflow. Connect the dots, and one sees that outsourcing is not just the future but an important part of the game development industry here and now. However, not everyone needs or is prepared for the change that outsourcing brings to their development cycle. "The last thing you want to do is outsourcing for the sake of outsourcing", Akmal concluded, bringing the Game Outsourcing Summit keynote to an end - though Gamasutra will be publishing further write-ups from the Summit in the near future.

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