Good afternoon all. This morning’s guest lecture was given to us by Beverley Bright, a freelance art consultant who has a wide experience of the games industry. Beverley herself has worked on numerous published titles, and has worked on many platforms, starting way back on the PS One. The main topic of this week’s talk was about how outsourcing is used within the games industry and the pros and cons of using this within a production pipeline.
Firstly, a little about how outsourcing came to be commonplace within the industry. Back in the 80’s when creating video games was started to be explored, the people working on these would typically work on their own in their bedrooms and create the entirity of a game by themselves. This included the programming, any assets and all elements of design. In the early 90’s when the Playstation One was released, small studios began to develop titles and they had teams of around ten employees. The majority of work was still done within the company as the number of people who had skills in this area were very scarce. There was also a quick turnaround and low production costs. Fast forward to today where we find huge studios of up to two hundred employees working on a single title. These have very high production costs and companies need to sell at least 4-10 million copies of a game to recouperate those costs and make a profit.
During the lifecycle of a game, the amount of people required to create it can vary at any one time. During pre-production as little as five people are needed to develop concepts and design a game. Once this is signed off, then production begins and the number of staff is ramped up to close to one hundred people. Towards the end of the game when the beta is released, only around twenty people such as programmers are needed to help fix bugs.
Considering the production cost of a studio of around one hundred staff costs approximately £30,000 per month, it makes sense for companies to outsource work duing the production of the game to reduce their headcount and therefore cost.
So what would a company typically outsource? Any tasks that are complicated, difficult to brief correctly and require a lot of quality assurance are likely to be kept in-house. However, small, self-contained assets such as characters, vehicles and street furniture are often outsourced; especially in games with complex and highly populated environments such as Assassin’s Creed. When outsourcing, there are usually two main ways to go about doing this. Studios can work with individuals, and send out small chunks of work to be completed. The benefit to the studio is that they do not need to provide any equipment as it is expected that the outsourcer is responsible for equipment and licenses. However if a studio outsources to a number of individuals, this can be costly and time consuming as each person needs to be briefed individually.
A second way to outsource is to work with an outsource company, more commonly referred to as a vendor. Vendors act as the middle man and provide a main contact point for a studio. The studio passes on briefing documents and provides a representative test sample of the work they want completed, and the vendor then passes the work out to either their employees or sub-contractors.
A few downsides to this can be that there are communication issues as the studio does not deal directly with the people who are creating their assets, and also there is no guarantee that the vendor will have staff available when required.
Regardless of which method a studio chooses, it is vital to include outsource work within the initial project planning. Knowing what will be outsourced and how long it will take is also important. Time should be allocated for quality assurance and dependencies need to be considered. The cost to the studio also needs to be carefully studied, as it is not as simple as calculating a daily rate. Outsource staff may or may not have worked for a development company before, and therefore may not be aware of pipelines and techniques. Therefore it is important to allow for contingency due to training and the time required for the in-house staff to touch up any outsourced assets. It is estimated that for 100 days of in-house work, there would be 130 days for outsourced work.
Beverley’s talk was incredibly insightful and though this is not an area of games I had considered, I understand the potential career opportunities with regards to working within a studio managing outsourced work. Beverley herself has worked for large studios, and she had advice with regards to getting a foot in the door. You need to have a set idea in your mind what you want to work on, and ensure that your portfolio demonstrates this. For me, I have aspirations to become an environment artist working for a large studio and though it’s a little disheartening to hear that the majority of small assets get outsourced, this has not dampened my dream. This also opens up the possibility of looking into a freelance career modelling environment assets, which may be an avenue I look further into.