In these trying economic times, companies are finding ways to cut back on development costs. This often means job losses. When one or more games need to be finished and the tools are relatively stable, it's hard to sell cutting anyone on gameplay or content. The tools team often bears the brunt of layoffs, especially among the programming staff. This, of course, leads to another type of loss, a loss of expertise.
Often, tools are created and maintained by a very small group, so any loss to the tools department can cause widespread problems down the road when new features are needed or bugs are found. Often, the person responsible for a certain aspect of the tool chain is the only one who fully understands it, and the implications that may arise from making certain changes.
The problem is that (most) game companies don't make money from tools, and the ROI of keeping tools developers around is less apparent than keeping the developers actively working on game projects. There are also times when the need for tools development wanes, and maintenance is all that is required. It is tempting during those times to reallocate tools developers to game teams, but this rarely works, as the crossover knowledge between the two is minimal.
So what is the solution? The key is to know exactly how many tools developers are needed when tools development is at an ebb. That's the number required for basic maintenance and bug fixing. Additional development can be farmed out to a contract company that specializes in game development tools.
Such a company can take the weight off the shoulders of developers so they can concentrate on making games. Maintenance and full documentation (design docs, user docs and source code documentation) can even be included in the contract. Expertise is maintained, and even expanded as the tools developer gets a birds-eye view of the industry by working with multiple game companies. An influx of new ideas and problem solving techniques is injected into every new contract.
A company that specializes in tools can become an invaluable partner in achieving success for your future projects. Cultivating such a relationship becomes the contractor's motivation to deliver high quality work that exceeds the demands of the tool's end users, while your own company reaps the rewards of happier, more productive employees.
For more information on the benefits of using a tools development contractor, read my whitepaper entitled Build or Buy? Finding the Right Tools Solution for Your Game Company.