New model army

There’s two fairly high profile games coming out soon that were developed using a different approach than what’s used for most games.

One is Bad Day LA, designed by American McGee, developed by Enlight in Hong Kong, and with concept art by the great Kozyndan. This interview with McGee goes a little into the approach used to develop it, including how the IP is handled.

It’s been much speculated that adopting a Hollywood model in games production would go towards fixing many problems in the industry. It seems you were one of the first to try it out. Did you deliberately depart from the traditional model of game production?

I think that the “traditional model” is quite broken. It is good for doing what it currently does, but if we’re ever going to truly evolve the way that games are conceived, produced, marketed, and distributed then the whole system is going to have to change. This sort of change is not generally brought on from within. It starts when smaller “David” companies hit on innovative new ways to create and sell games in a market where their competition is a “Goliath” like EA or Activision. These days, as much as focusing on innovative, provocative, or original game ideas, I’m also focusing a lot of thought on alternate ways to distribute and market games, and ways to tie all these elements together for the end consumer.

It seems that there is room for change in the size of game development companies, their structure, and their pipeline. Outsourcing is just one possibility.

Outsourcing can lead to a more organic development ecosystem. It can make everyone more efficient – in theory, it solves the ‘what is my army of content creators going to do while we’re doing pre-production or finishing up a game?’ question. They just work on another game, for another company. This was an oft-discussed issue at Kalisto, a previous employer. One idea was to use a kind of internal outsourcing system inside a big studio (Kalisto’s Bordeaux studio had 250 people working there). You would have art teams moving from game project to game project, rather than staying on for the duration of the project. It’s a logical extension of the matrix structure, in a way.

Whether it’s done internally or externally, outsourcing is challenging. You need more art direction, more technical artists, more management and coordination. You have to know what you’re doing. The extra layers and steps and distance can reduce quality; this must be countered. And it can be hard to graft onto a ‘traditional’ studio, which is why it’s adoption is relatively slow.

Another high profile game using a similar model is Wideload Games’ Stubbs the Zombie. Whenever I read interviews with Alex Seropian, like this one or this one (not to mention his blog at 1UP), I just get the feeling that this is the way to do it. Small company, lots of outsourcing, a fun and creative setting, what looks like good execution. And there’s going to be a Mac version! What’s not to like?

Comments 4

  1. Jay Woodward wrote:

    Oh great. We’ll have to call him “Chinese McGee” now. :P

    So, my sense of the “Hollywood model” is that it involves brigning together many separate specialized companies (one for set construction, another effects, another stunts, etc etc.) and that each is involved only while necessary (so none are sitting on their hands during preproduction). All of that sounds entirely reasonable.

    But aren’t mass unionization and physical centralization also crucial components of the Hollywood model? And don’t those serve as bulwarks *against* outsourcing, to Asia or wherever else?

    Politically, I’m inclined to think of outsourcing various aspects of game development across the Pacific as a great thing — a way for people to leverage their intelligence and skills, not just for their own personal gain but also to elevate their countries’ economies, with minimal initial investment.

    The part that bothers me is that it’s obvious that the reason to do it is because it’s SO very much cheaper. If I’m going to support it politically, I want to know that the people doing the work are still receiving very close to the same amount of money that a contractor in the States would receive.

    But I don’t think that’s the reality; I think the reality is that the economics work out such that outsourcing companies can be massively underpaid (relative to the American marketplace) yet still make good money (relative to their own local economy). And I can’t support that, either as someone in direct competition with foreign labor OR from a detached political standpoint.

    Posted 03 Oct 2005 at 21:19
  2. Jamie Fristrom wrote:

    Hey Jurie – I’m trying to do the LinkedIn thing – if you want to hook up, send me an e-mail or whatever.

    BTW – is your RSS feed working? Bloglines has been telling me that there’s been no posts on your site in forever, and I come here, and there’s a ton.

    Posted 08 Oct 2005 at 18:52
  3. jason manley wrote:

    As the President of what has become one of the industries primary outsourcing studios I have a number of things to add to this discussion. In two and a half years as a studio, Massive Black has contributed to 32 AAA next-gen titles for many of the top developers/publishers based here in the States. We have fully trained and working studios in San Francisco and Shanghai China. We do all aspects of art creation for the video games industry here in-house.

    1. Outsourcing will continue to grow as the publishers and developers wish to keep their own teams lean on manpower without slowing the flow of asset development. The reality of HIGH burn rates for a team of well over a hundred people per title is part of the reason outsourcing is the direction most studios are beginning to take nowadays (which is nicely touched in the above article). If there is ever any hitch in the pipeline, a large in house team can stall and begin to cost more money than any publisher is comfortable with. There is less risk there with outsourcing. Outsourcing keeps a pub or developer from having to focus so hard on staggering all development schedules on the internal team in an often ill-fated attempt to keep down time at a minimum. With such exploding costs, items, props, and other fodder assets can not be afforded if they are built here in the states. The fact that character models could be done in a day or two a few years ago now can now be scheduled between 3-6 weeks, depending on the dev/pub making the stuff and project budgets, means that costs have to be shaved somewhere. If costs for the pubs and developers are not shaved somewhere, profit margins and capital risk becomes a problem for everyone involved. The amount of people it takes to create an AAA title has nearly doubled. The costs for games has not…even with xbox/ps3 titles reportedly going up in price.

    2. The current problem with outsourcing is it’s history. Just a few years ago, I found it entirely impossible to get ANYTHING of quality when outsourcing it beyond the in-house core team. This frusteration with getting assets in from outside teams whom did not put their hearts into it, led to my decision to start Massive Black. That was my opportunity to put together the strongest team imaginable and do the job that needed to be done. After all, next-gen games require huge quality compared to a few years ago. You see, the problem is that outsourcers were historically not handling assets of the quality levels expected for the new consoles and systems. The in house teams were, however. With that often being the case, you can see how the industry would encounter issues with outsourcing right now. I believe that in less than two years, this problem will be for the most part solved industry-wide.

    I have found that the solution is two-fold, when it comes to successful outsourcing. It took my looking from outside the outsourcing industry and my own feelings regarding it to see the solutions. It took three years working as an outsourcer to prove them and find the solutions beyond just the talent level needs.

    a. Management- Both the outsourcing studio and the developer/pub doing the outsourcing need the proper management structure to handle it, obviously. Since the work is remotely created, communication is of the highest importance. We have seen pubs struggle with this problem because they would not hire a seperate manager to handle their outsourcing work (particularily large quantity projects/assets) and make sure everyone on their side was doing what needed to be done. It is expected that the outsourcing studio will have these people and most do. It is the other side of the fence that we have found some challenges to deal with. Obviously management on all sides of development must be continually improved. As a whole, the industry has a long way to go when it comes to this model for doing business.

    Outsourcing is still fairly new to many developers. Those with, experience dealing with outsourcers, have a particular internal structure set up so that the river of assets flow. I cannot comment further than that, but, there are ways that outsourcing works incredibly well. Each pub/dev we have worked with has had their own solutions. It is our job as outsourcers to remember every single one of them and keep them in the front of our minds while doing business and work. It often takes some open-mindedness for experienced developers/pubs to listen to such things from the outsourcer as groups are many times set in their ways.

    Those that are having success, however, work closely with outsourcers in regards to this matter. Outsourcers have to be unafraid to point out pitfalls in the outsourcing development process. Currently, the outsourcing studios have more experience doing it, as a whole, than all but the largest publishers have. We had 32 titles partially (we do the Art side of things) outsourced to us in two years. That is something that not many teams can say. The other outsourcers working in the industry are also further developing solutions to the outsourcing challenge. Because of the amount of this work being done now vs. even a couple years ago, it will not take long for any of the problems inexperienced studios face to be solved and incorporated into pipelines. Management on both sides is improving throughout the industry. Even from one year ago, things have gotten better from my viewpoint. As all basic outsourcing management pipelines are solved on the publisher/developer side, the industry will see a fairly quick mastery of the outsourcing challenge. All outsourcers must continue to improve production as well. Both sides have a responsibility there to learn and better the process if games costs are to stay decent and for quality to continue to move forward well.

    b. Training and Talent- Historically, outsourcing studios have been extremely sub-par in quality. The better developers were working for those studios really making great projects. Thus, the trained talent were inside the pubs/devs and in most cases, those who could barely get jobs in the industry were working on the outside (my teams sure as hell wouldn’t have hired them in-house anyway). There are some exceptions, but as a whole, the good work was almost always done in-house. Eventually, as outsourcing studios gained trust by meeting deadlines and retaining relationships, the importance of the assets being sent out of house increased. This allowed for top talent to be lured to outsourcing studios. After all, If as an artist, I wanted to work with studios like id software or on a project with Blizzard, I no longer necessarily have to be in-house at those studios. The variety of projects being worked on also is a lure for top talent. In the past, this was not the case. It is instead, the now and the future.

    In-game outsourcing started with rocks and treasure chests, print ads and box covers and eventually has led to the current state where many developers are outsourcing nearly every art asset being made and only having upper and middle management in-house. I can think of a number of top studios working this way. Most management teams of recent success find little difficulty convincing pubs to fund their projects. Finding the proven talent to do the work is where the problem often is. This is where top outsourcing studios have found a comfortable place in the industry.

    But, to get back on topic, Without top talent, the work will still get done as outsourcers have fairly decent pipelines in place. Yes companies might get the work in “on-time” but it will just be finished of a quality developers may not be satisfied with. This is why I believe EA, UBI and the others ship things overseas which do not need stellar talent to do..just an understanding of the process which, by the way, is the easiest to train. One can learn to make normals maps, after all, but the talent to do them of next-gen quality is the kind real issue most outsourcing studios face in doing biz. Developers and publishers also face this problem. The hope for many studios doing outsourcing overseas is that after a number of projects are final, the better talent will be found and the existing team can come together to do higher quality assets.

    One thing that I have seen work for Massive Black is training highly talented people one at a time. However, for good training to happen, it takes a team of educators which can “do” what it is they are talking about. They also must be able to communicate what they do and how it is done too. We have seen a number of big studios struggle overseas to build their teams because the people building them are not qualified artistically or creatively to do so. Overseas teams take teachers and educators to get them set up and moving forward with any hope of delivering AAA quality assets. This is why we have focused so much on the educational side of things. Our team, in order to continue to reach our skills to the highest possible levels, must be also able to teach. The MB/CA Artist Workshops we have run in Amsterdam, Berlin, Bucharest, Austin,San Francisco, and Prague were put together partially to reach a high level of proficience with our training program. In fact, with proper training and high talent, outsourcing teams can find the same and better levels of quality than can be found in house. I have seen it with my own eyes. Half the work Massive Black does and gets approved is the same work that the clients simply could not do there within their walls. Often times we are the third or fourth studio they work with. It has taken convincing at times that our team will and can do the work of their expectations. In nearly every case, our client expectations have been exceeded. Outsourcing studios doing the work have no choice but to handle things this way. Without this, clients will not return and the workloads will dry up. Keeping people trained and teaching the process of education is paramount to those doing the works.

    3. Outsourcing overseas will continue to grow in costs as teams are trained and value is realized. Right now, Massive Black pays very competitively in regards to the overseas teams. We have everything from employee referral/retention payouts to advancement structures in place, the office has all the amenities, and there is a full benefits program. The fact of the matter is that NO ONE employee wants to be “held down” by a parent company. We want to retain employees, not have them leave us because they are underpaid. In the past, it was possible for companies to not be as concerned there. However, the issue of high talent being heavily sought after and training costs often the most expensive part means that we must take care of our people. As someone who grew up in companies that did not have that same integrity, I was able to see how happy teams stay happy and how happy teams fall apart. Trained talent is rare in developing markets. We hold our team in a very high regard. After all, everyone deserves a way to work their way up in the industry. I would hope that the other studios doing biz overseas will do it fairly also. I don’t think they have a choice. We offer proven training, pay higher salaries than any of the other companies doing this in China and have a small, talented, loyal team. I made a point to be sure our company is fairly run. It is the only way to retain important talent. This is because talent has proven that it is as important to the industry as the brands or the management teams. I don’t expect that that most companies will see things in the same light. Creating teams of lasting value, loyalty, and integrity means that the employer must also have these qualities. If it does not, everyone knows what will happen.

    It is a great time to do outsourcing. If done properly it creates a relatively headache free and cost effective way of getting assets done without risking the dollars and long term struggle with a giant internal team. If it is not done properly, it is of the same result as if the internal team is mismanaged. Both, however, require entirely different ways of managing. Perhaps at some point I will go into that.

    Thanks to those writing these articles and conversational points for getting my brains working this late at night. The next few years will be busy ones for anyone doing outsourcing. We look forward to them and are here to help you all.

    Jason Manley
    Massive Black Inc.
    Founding Director

    Posted 09 Oct 2005 at 10:47
  4. tim wrote:

    There were a fairly large number of bumps in the road, many of which (but not all) can be rectified in future projects.

    Posted 22 Jul 2006 at 12:10