Disclaimer: While most of this advice applies to any software outsourcing, games are our specialty.
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All the cool kids are outsourcing. And why not? The rewards can be magnificent! You can create something otherwise unthinkable on your budget.
But what about the risks? Well, no great trade route was ever traversed entirely without risk. But almost every large software and game company you’ve heard of has worked with outsourcing partners. Like being a traveler in foreign lands, the risks are completely manageable if you know what you’re doing, but skyrocket if you don’t.
Larger companies have entire departments dedicated to finding the right partners, since their projects may run into the millions of dollars. If you’re one of them, well, you know how to find us. If you’re not, I’d like to draw back curtain over a few articles and help reduce the uncertainty!
I’m doing this because in part because I like you -you have smarts and swagger- but mostly because it’s in my own interest. Game outsourcing is our business, our cup of tea, our infinite corner combo. And you may not know this, but there are two major victims of shady, unscrupulous or unskilled outsourcers:
The first, of course, are the trusting clients who come looking for an opportunity and leave with a tangle of broken code begging for the sweet release of death, or art that looks like someone chucked 90’s action figures into a microwave for 30 minutes.
The second kind of victim? Every legitimate outsourcing firm or studio.
So here we go! A none-exhaustive but practical list of questions to ask before deciding on outsourcing partner.
The Production Multiplier – being able to get several times the production at the same budget – is what makes outsourcing so attractive to begin with. (Yes, I know, but Labor Arbitrage is such an awkward phrase). Lower operational costs in different parts of the world- rents, salaries, utilities, everyday goods– allow studios to hire well educated and trained professionals who can enjoy a great standard of life at a fraction of the absolute costs.
But how low is too low? This varies by country, but the best way to find out is to ask for a few quotes within a certain region and do not go with the lowest one.
Within regions, the magic of the market works normally. If developer A in Belarus charges half of what developer B in Belarus does for the same work, there’s usually a reason. If one kind of development work is going for twice the rate as another, trust the market.
In my years of experience interacting with game development and art outsourcers over the world, here is a rough formula for production multipliers I’ve most commonly encountered across the world. (Note: I’m using hourly rates in the United States as a baseline)
South Asia: 5x
Eastern Europe: 2.5x
South East Asia: 3.3x
Western Europe: 2x
Latin America: 2.5x (NOTE: I have no personal experience with this region)
Africa: 5.5x (NOTE: Ditto)
If someone offers you a production multiplier of 10x from anywhere in the world, it’s worth looking into how that’s possible. If a studio claims to be based out of the UK and offers you a 5x multiplier, it’s fair to ask where their developers are actually sitting.
Notable Exception: brand new studios with lots of talent who are heavily discounting their first few projects to build up a portfolio. If you’re willing to risk it, you could get an amazing deal!
Referrals are considered the gold standard of business development across industries for a reason: reputation is the substance to marketing’s flash. Portals like Upwork have their own review systems and there are websites like Clutch.co which have their experts independently conduct long phone interviews with clients and assign ratings and long, in-depth reviews accordingly.
Twice, people who approached us even asked to speak directly to particular clients of ours. It was a great idea, and we now proactively recommend many prospective clients on the fence to do the same.
Imagine going to an architect with a vision for your dream house. You’re sitting in her wood paneled office, sunlight streaming in, her desk is messy, everything else is clean and modern. How would you want that interaction to go?
You’d probably want her to ask questions, listen attentively, really take the time to understand both your priorities and your wishlist. You’d want her to make a few suggestions without steamrolling you, or pushing you towards a vision that isn’t yours, just because it’s more convenient for her.
Ultimately, you would want her to execute your vision, guiding you as needed, and explaining her concerns if she has any along with possible solutions. In short, she you would want her to act as an expert in that field.
For most clients, that’s the perfect model to think about when approaching a studio or freelancers for your project.
The studio should demonstrate expertise. In the game industry, they should be able to talk in great detail about the genre you’re building, the core loops of the game, the “feeling” you want a player to have, similar games, why it needs the budget it needs, the technology stack options etc.
Ideally, you want the team to be able to at least keep up with you or if you’re a newcomer, educate you. You want them to present a few fleshed out options with rationale, and then give you the time and space to double check them.
Note: you obviously don’t want to work with a team that seems shaky on the nitty gritty of the tech they will use and why. But you also may want to steer clear of studios that seem to have no interest in gaming or the gaming industry outside their work.
I started writing up the pros and cons of different payment structures, but realized that had enough depth to warrant its own article. Suffice it to say, however, that all of them are designed to minimize the risk to both the client and the studio.
Also? They all work much better with a constant flow of tangible updates. Don’t get crazy – constant updates and meetings can hinder production more than they help – but weekly (or at least fortnightly) meetings over Skype are completely reasonable, along with markers of progress like videos, code pushes, assets in production etc.
And I know, I know. Who wants to make sure workflow is constantly updated in project management software? Not us. Who wants to read all of that thoroughly? Not you. It’s a total bore.
Tough. Read it. Make sure it’s all there. Everything that needs to be changed, worked on, created, with all the necessary details. Don’t accept any excuses from your contracted studio, and don’t accept any from yourself.
Masterpieces are usually a result of a million meticulous brush strokes. Not everyone can be a postmodern artist, or PSY.
Years ago, a client insisted we turn on the video on our Skype call – he wanted to see who he was working with. At the time, we awkwardly laughed about it, but we complied.
In retrospect? He was dead right (You were right, Jon). He wanted to see the managers who he’d be speaking to every week, he wanted to look around the spacious, sunlit open office we claimed to have, he wanted to see if we really employed dozens of people or if we were operating out of someone’s basement.
We went on to do some great work together.
Bonus tip: If you feel awkward making the request, blame it on me! Tell them that this isn’t something you usually do, but some chap on the internet called Zaair Hussain told you to do it.
If you’re looking into outsourcing, hopefully it’s understood that not every developer or artist will speak English like a native – they have other skills that are far more valuable to you, and you’re getting them at an amazing price.
That said! Here are three important factors to look for:
- Do your points of contact– project managers, team leads, etc – speak your language with a native or near-native fluency?
- How often will they have an update meeting with you?
- Do you have access to any team member working on your project at any time?
Red Flag: if you make multiple requests to speak to the developers or artists on your project but you keep getting excuses.
The above list is in rough order of importance.
Live versions, even test versions on Steam or other public platforms, are obviously the gold standard. Remember, though, that it’s often not 100% up to the studio. We ourselves have had launch-ready games indeterminately delayed because our client was waiting on a publishing investment, or had a live game we finished work on a year ago taken down because the client no longer wanted to keep the servers running. It hurts, of course, but it’s part of the business.
In those instances, though, there should always be demos, videos or at least images and a project plan that the studio can show you. Rule of thumb: The further down this list you have to go, the less work was likely done on it.
At first, of course, you look for exact matches. What do they have in their stable? If you’re looking for a racing game or an FPS, do they have one? So far, so obvious.
However, for all but the biggest outsourcing studios, it’s simply not possible to have experience in every single genre. So what’s the next best thing?
- If they’ve done work on components that you’ll need. Real time multiplayer, FPS character controllers, Dynamic Camera systems, RPG progression systems, clan systems etc. All of these are examples of systems can be implemented in otherwise differing games. Artwork is far easier to judge –do they have pieces similar to what you have in mind?
- If they’ve done work of the complexity you need for your project. If they’ve created a 3D educational MMORPG (*ahem*, sorry, couldn’t resist) they can provably handle relatively complex and large projects. If they’ve only ever created skins of farming games, or runners, that might be their sole specialty.
Note: this can sometimes work the other way around as well. If all you need is a flappy bird clone, you could almost certainly get it done for cheaper from a freelancer.
The more years a studio has been provably operational under a single name and kept their nose clean, the less likely it is they will disappear on you mid-project like they got mugged by David Copperfield.
This isn’t a matter of morality, but a hard-nosed calculus of long term vs short term profit. Established businesses won’t sacrifice hard earned reputation –one of the most valuable and fragile currencies they trade in – for a single payoff, unless that payoff is truly astronomical.
We were ourselves a scrappy young startup a few years ago (and are a middle aged startup, five years later). There’s nothing inherently wrong with new businesses – but the growth of a business over time is testament to its legitimacy.
Do they ever say no before the contract is signed?
Remember the episode of Mad Men in which a rich, clueless young man insists on spending millions of dollars promoting the obscure sport Jai Alai, which he firmly believed would be “bigger than baseball”? (spoiler alert – it wasn’t.) Although Sterling-Cooper is eager for his business, protagonist Don Draper tries to convince him to invest in other ideas.
If you are new to the field, it’s very likely that some of your ideas are unfeasible – a good outsourcing partner will tell you if some of your ideas just wouldn’t work very well. A great outsourcing partner will tell you what you can do instead to get a similar effect or player experience.
Remember: studios are supposed to be the experts. If you find them agreeing constantly with whatever you say without a word of advice, dissent or caution, it may be a red flag. Maybe they’re just optimistic. Maybe your project is just that straightforward. But maybe they don’t know much more about the work than you do or, worse, they do but are happy to let you sink your money as long as you’re sinking it with them.
Bonus tip: if you are an expert, try throwing them an absurd curve ball and see how they respond.
You should know this not only for financial accountability (where do your dollars go?) but to understand whether they know what they’re doing. How many man hours have they allotted to creating each character? How many questions did they ask? How many assumptions have they made? Does the estimate for art include animation? How many animations per character? Have they detailed all the tiny pieces a game has that we take for granted? The leaderboards, the tutorial, the “game settings” system, the UI for each popup and menu? Because if it doesn’t, you’ll be stuck with a ballooning budget or a game that feels incomplete.
Shameless plug: want a free game estimate? Here’s your chance!
Did you get tired reading all that? I understand. It’s a bit of legwork, hey?
But we’re talking a few hours total per shortlisted studio or freelancer. The potential rewards are tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in savings. You can create something with a scope and polish that may be utterly out of reach without the trampoline of outsourcing.
Happy sifting! And you know where we are.