Category Archives: smArt Management

The Six Commandments of Contracting

I’ve been dealing with contract art for nearly fifteen years, and have been a full-time professional for over ten years. I’ve worked both as an artist and as a manager in a variety of settings. As an artist I’ve freelanced from home, in-house at an art studio, and in-house at a developer. As a manager, I’ve outsourced art at an art studio with internal and external artists, outsourced and managed entire art teams in-house at a developer, and now I’m a freelance art producer managing teams all across the world. And boy are my arms tired!

Suffice it to say, I’ve been through just about every contract art management position and relationship you can imagine. I’ve come to identify several habits and character traits that make me love working with certain contractors, and on the other side of that coin, I’ve identified a few that drive me up the wall thus ensuring that I will never work with them again. I feel the term “Dos and Don’ts” is cliched, and “Commit these acts at your own peril” is too Temple of Doom, so instead I’ll present Professional vs Amateur with relevant Manager Insights many may not realize.

This also applies directly to the way I approach freelancing now. I still have much to learn and I am far from perfect. In the past, I’ve made pretty much every mistake I list below. In a way, bringing them out in the open like this is a way to hold myself more accountable. I’m writing this just as much for my own benefit as I am for contractors. Everything I list here is something that I strive for daily so I can improve myself and be a better contractor for my own clients. Welcome to my catharsis!

The First Commandment: Thou shalt know the day and the hour.

Amateur: “I’ll have it done in two hours!” Delivers it in eight hours.

Professional: “I’ll have it done in eight hours.” Delivers it in six hours.

Manager Insight: If an artist blows his time estimates consistently, it erodes my trust in his ability to deliver at all. I always notice and remember. I don’t want to have to figure out “Amateur Artist Math” and do the conversions in my head: 2h = 8h, 4h = 12h, one day = two days. I am neither nanny nor mathematician. I have dates to hit!

I’ve been in a position where I’ve been stuck with an artist that won’t correct his behavior and that I can’t replace, so I actually have to lie about when it’s due just because I know he’ll be late if I give him the real due date. And obviously I can’t tell him I do that, because he’ll be onto me and will find another way to weasel out of it, once again leaving me in the dark on delivery dates. If you make me treat you like a child, no allowance for you. Sometimes that has been the only way to get the artist to deliver it on time, and this puts me in an odd and almost parental position.

What does it say about him, his competence and his skills as an artist if he consistently fails to understand how long a task takes? Is that someone you’d work with again?

I understand that sometimes you run into problems. That’s fine. But if you’re going to be late, tell me. Trust me, I know how awkward it can be to approach someone pre-emptively and tell them something unpleasant. But I’d rather know so I can plan for it being late than simply not hear from the artist and get a late delivery. I have a boss, too. I report to my boss, and telling my boss it’ll be done on a certain day and getting it later makes me look like I can’t manage my artists or stick to a schedule. No one wants to feel that way, and that affects you directly, too!

I appreciate honesty and giving advance notice that you will be late. I do not like being surprised by a late delivery with no warning. In fact, that always irritates me. If you make me look like an idiot to my boss because I trusted you, do you think I would ever trust you or want to work with you again? Of course not. I’d cut you loose without a second thought because it is in my direct, immediate interest to replace you. No matter how cool a person you are, this is still business. Be a Professional.

The Second Commandment: Thou shalt heed the teachings of the technical guidelines tablet.

Amateur: “Here’s the delivery!” File is a mess, textures are named incorrectly, texture file associations are aimed to random files and directories on his hard drive. Bonus points for weird or profane filenames. (note: Not actual bonus points.) Obviously, the directions and technical documentation I sent were either ignored or misunderstood.

Professional: “Here’s the delivery!” Files are properly named, textures are properly assigned, technical guidelines were met and I don’t have to fix anything because he paid attention to my instructions.

Manager’s Insight: I don’t know if the Amateur just didn’t read the doc, or if he simply didn’t understand it. My three options in order from most desirable to least desirable are as follows:

  • a) Repeat myself. Tell him to reread the doc and hope he suddenly gets it. However, this could be another blown deliverable if he doesn’t. High risk, very little time spent.
  • b) Explain myself. Write up a detailed changelist and tell him exactly how to fix it. Medium risk, lots of time spent.
  • c) Do it myself. Low risk, excessive time spent.

Ideally, this will never happen. Practically speaking, it totally will.

When this sort of issue comes up, my ideal option is option A. I do NOT want option B because there is a 50/50 chance that the amount of time I’d spend re-explaining the task and what to do about it would take longer than doing it myself. That’s a slippery slope toward option C, which is the LAST thing I want. In option C, now I’m doing your work for you, and why should I have to? It’s obvious to my boss at this point that I’m wasting time and money, and that makes me look like a chump. This will ultimately affect you as well, because it’s not hard tracing the problem back to its source. (I’d like to point out that option C is a sign that I’m doing my job badly.)

Don’t make me do your job. I respect attention to detail and people that think of ways to do their job well, understand my bottom line, and try to save me time. It’s good customer service, good business and the Professional way to act. It’s the mint on the pillow.

Honestly, no one’s perfect. Sometimes I’ll have to rename a file here, tweak some verts there. That happens. If it’s just one or two issues small enough that it would be faster for me to fix them myself rather than telling you, I may just do that. It’s likely that a client may not even mention it. But if there are a lot of issues like this and it happens consistently, that’s more work for me, and it’s going to really irritate me over time. This is Amateur hour nonsense. It makes us both look bad, and will make me rethink working with you again. Your mom doesn’t work here. Clean up your own mess.

Be thorough, check your own work, pay attention to the directions I give you, and be a Professional. A manager may not mention this as being one of the reasons he continues to send you contract work, but trust me, it is a major factor.

The Third Commandment: Thou shalt heed thy client’s word to the letter.

Amateur: “Sure, I’ll incorporate that feedback!” Misses half of what I asked for and acts like nothing’s wrong. Clearly, he either didn’t read the feedback again, tried to remember all of it and failed, or just ignored half of it. All of this sucks equally.

Professional: “Sure, I’ll incorporate that feedback!” Nails every single point spot-on and (as a bonus!) verifies point-by-point what was fixed.

Manager’s Insight: This comes down to two points: 1) The Professional is showing me he pays attention to what I say, and 2) he’s focused on details and doing a good job. It’s easy for an Amateur to slack off, misread something, not double-check, or just let things slide and hope he’s not called on it because he doesn’t want to do the extra work. Maybe he doesn’t get called on it and it’s handled in-house. But just because a client may not bring it up doesn’t mean it wasn’t noticed and remembered. It absolutely should be brought up, but they may not have the time or desire to confront you.

Personally, I have no problem with confrontation, and I will be a bastard if I have to because I have a job to do. I don’t like doing that, and you don’t like being on the receiving end. Save us both the time and drama. Strive to be the Professional that makes a client think “Wow, he nailed it!” instead of the Amateur that makes the client think “Well, he completed items A, C and E but forgot B and D. Again. And now I have to either write it up or fix it myself when I have a mountain of other work to do. Splendid!”

One important point, however, that you may not realize: Sometimes — emphasis on sometimes — the sign of a job well done is the quiet, peaceful absence of problems. Everything flows smoothly, is exactly as expected, people are happy and there is no cause for complaint. Doing the job right simply may not bring open acknowledgement or kudos, but doing the job wrong is going to set off alarms that everyone notices. It took me many years to realize that, sometimes, lack of acknowledgement is something to take pride in. It’s not ideal and I try extremely hard to acknowledge and appreciate everything I can, but I have a lot to do and may not always be able to afford the time. Remembering this can keep you sane.

The Fourth Commandment: Thou shalt be mindful, for the End of Day is nigh.

Amateur: “I’ll have it ready for you by the end of the day!” Submits the deliverable at 3am, which is the end of HIS working day but is eight hours after I’ve left work and gone home.

Professional: “I’ll have it ready for you by the end of the day!” Submits the deliverable at 3pm, so I have another four hours to review it and write feedback.

Manager’s Insight: End of Day means the end of MY day, not the end of YOUR day, night owl. Plan for this. I need time to review the assets and generate feedback. If my workday ends at 7pm and I get it long after I’ve gone home, that doesn’t do me a lot of good, does it? Especially if I have an imminent deadline.

This all comes down to this timeless adage: Under-promise and over-deliver. The earlier in the day I get a delivery you’ve promised, the happier I am. But if you dramatically overestimate when I’ll get the asset and I get it uselessly late, what good is that to me? I can either stay late at work — guess how much I like that? — or put it off until tomorrow morning.

Remember: You are not the end of the pipeline. You’re an important part of the process, yes. However, other people are lined up after you take your finished product to the next stage of production and finalize it. This takes time, and issues like this pile up and affect a lot of other people down the chain. Do not be the cholesterol in the artery of my project.

The Fifth Commandment: Honor thy customer and thy reputation.

Amateur: “I’m just this guy that makes art. What’s customer service? If I make good art, that’s all that matters because that’s all they really want.”

Professional: “I’m a service provider and I take customer service seriously. I am an artist, but my success in that depends on creating art to my client’s exact specifications.”

Manager’s Insight: You are in the customer service business. A lot of artists coming from a studio environment don’t really have to worry about doing much else besides showing up and doing what’s asked of them. It’s usually hard for people to get fired for unsatisfactory performance, so a lot of annoying little habits and behaviors can get glossed over. (note: Everyone notices even if they don’t bring it up.)

It’s a lot like dating. You work out, dress well and try to get in “dating shape” so you can look as attractive as possible for potential mates. [Insert charming romantic comedy “how they met” story here, possibly starring Gerard Butler and Jennifer Lopez.] Then when you’re in a relationship, you let a few things slide because you’re safe. Contractors do this. Contractors should not do this.

This is the difference between being a contractor versus being employed full-time at a studio. As a contractor, you are ALWAYS dating. You are ALWAYS selling. You ALWAYS have to keep that standard of careful attention to detail, composure, and will to go the extra mile to make your client happy so you’ll keep working with them long-term. And even clients like flowers from time to time. (note: Please do not actually send clients flowers.)

The Sixth Commandment: Thou shalt not mock the client with feeble protestations.

Amateur: “My dog ate my stylus!”

Professional: “I dropped the ball on this, and I will do my best to correct it.”

Manager’s Insight: I’ve heard every excuse in the book. Weird technical issues that are magically resolved when I try to step in to help, you never got that email you had actually already replied to, your wife\girlfriend DEMANDED that you nap through this deadline (true story!), and the list goes on. For my part, when I make a mistake, I own up to it. It sucks, it’s awkward, and I feel bad. But making lame excuses makes me look irresponsible, sloppy, and insults my client’s intelligence.

There is definitely a difference between an excuse and a valid reason. Sometimes it can be hard to tell the difference. But if enough of those stack up, that’s a red flag. It’s easy to think to yourself “These are all perfectly valid reasons! If they’re reasonable, they’ll totally understand and forgive me.” Sure, but the more mistakes there are the less I’ll ultimately trust you, valid or not. If I hear one more “It was an Act of God!” story…

Don’t be a mistake factory. But if you make one, just fix it. I don’t always really need to know the details of why, just that a mistake was made and that you’re on top of it now. Honestly, I just want results and honesty so I can understand the situation, troubleshoot as needed, adjust the schedule and allocate resources to keep production moving.

Conclusion

Overall, these are pretty basic guidelines that may seem obvious at first glance, but so much more thought than you realize goes into dealing with issues stemming from not heeding them. I hope that this list and the Manager’s Insights prove to be useful to contractors that really care about being a Professional and want to be at the top of their game!

Artists, managers and clients: Is there anything you’d add to this list? I’d love to hear from you!

Cloud Living is the Life for Me #1 – The invincible contact list!

Introduction to the series

Here’s the first of a multi-part series on how simple and realistic it is to start transitioning into cloud-based computing. I tend to be an early adopter of new technologies, and converting to the cloud has been a focus of mine for the last year and a half. In this series, I’m going to go over a wide variety of tools, apps and websites I use to fully decentralize all my important data.

My end goal is to be so integrated with the cloud that I can access all of my information from anywhere on any device imaginable, it’s all backed up offsite, and that all my computers could burst into flames and none of my data would be lost. You’d be surprised how many of these tools, apps and websites are FREE!

This is how Wikipedia defines “cloud computing:”

Cloud computing refers to the use and access of multiple server-based computational resources via a digital network (WAN, Internet connection using the World Wide Web, etc.). Cloud users may access the server resources using a computer, netbook, pad computer, smart phone, or other device. In cloud computing, applications are provided and managed by the cloud server and data is also stored remotely in the cloud configuration. Users do not download and install applications on their own device or computer; all processing and storage is maintained by the cloud server. The on-line services may be offered from a cloud provider or by a private organization.

In short, all your data is stored online and you can access all of it at any time from virtually anywhere. And that is awesome. :)

As I stated before, I’m talking about the specific solutions I use based on my computer usage patterns. Many other solutions may exist, and in many cases some people won’t be able to copy what I do exactly (i.e. owning an iPad, using Google Music, owning the Google Chrome OS laptop, etc), but it’s a short hop and a skip to finding workarounds and substitutions. I am definitely not the end-all be-all authority on the subject… I’m just showing what’s worked so marvelously for me.

Contact lists!

Onto the content! The first part of this series goes over contact list management and how to centralize it and sync to your various devices. My weapon of choice is Google Contacts.

About a year ago, I decided to merge all my contacts into a single access point that I can sync to across all my devices. This is a simple solution to the following annoying situations:

  • I lose a phone. Contact list gone.
  • I buy a new phone. Re-enter entire contact list.
  • I get a call from a number I don’t recognize. It’s a friend whose number I have stored elsewhere, but not in my primary contact list. I don’t answer this unfamiliar number and miss the call.

As it is, my contacts were scattered across my iPhone 3GS, Gmail, Outlook, Plaxo and Facebook. Different bits of data are saved in each location. For example, Facebook has profile pictures, IM contacts, email addresses and so forth. LinkedIn, on the other hand, includes current job information and work email addresses.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have all that data in a single location? I hate fractured data! I like neat, tidy, ordered lists of aggregate data. It helps me sleep at night. Instead of sheep, I count sync points as I drift off into slumber. This is why I want to merge all that data into a single system that I can access from anywhere, and that’s set to sync to all of my various wireless devices.

Google Contacts is the Way!

Google Contacts was a clear choice for me. First off, I love Google and virtually everything they offer. For the most part, all their various apps are well-integrated and have always played nice with each other. They’re making such a bold move into the mobile space as well that Google Contacts has full, simple syncing with both iOS and Android devices, among others.

Second, I’ve been a Gmail user since the first beta in early 2004. All of my emails, contacts and other pertinent information already exist within Gmail and its default contacts list, including most-frequently-emailed contacts, profile photos, etc. I already have a solid base of contacts information, and this is perhaps its richest source. It’s going to be a lot easier importing and merging data from other services into Google Contacts than the other way around, I thought. (SPOILER: I was right. ;)

My goal is now clear: Google Contacts is the endpoint of all my contacts data, and now I need to pick which data sources I want to merge into it and whether they have value. Since I’m an unabashed social media whore, I’m on basically everything so I have a lot of options. Here’s the list of services whose data I exported and what kind of data I’ll be getting from it:

  • LinkedIn – Business information such as company affiliation, job title, work emails, work phone, etc
  • Facebook – Personal information such as profile photos, phone numbers, birthdays, email addresses, etc
  • Plaxo – More work information not provided by LinkedIn, including older \ alternate email addresses
  • Microsoft Outlook – Additional work-related information to cross-reference with other data sources

In order to accomplish this, I did some reading for what solutions there are for centralizing all contacts within Google Contacts. Originally, I was going to write the entire how-to guide myself, but to my surprise and pleasure, Drew Sikora from gamedev.net pointed me to a terrific guide that LifeHacker wrote on the same subject. I wish I’d found that first! It’s basically everything I’d already written, minus a step or two.

However, it’s very long on explanation and it’s hard to tell at a glance exactly what to do, so I’m still creating my own version. If you want a full writeup on exactly what Google Contacts is and how every site plays with every other site, definitely read LifeHacker’s guide. But if you just want a quick step-by-step that’s pared-down and streamlined, keep reading.

Step One: Exporting ALL Contacts and Information

Naturally, the first step is to export all your contacts and information from all your various services so you can import them into Google Contacts. The only reason I was even remotely comfortable with this was because Google Contacts has a *very* good Duplicate Checker that’ll merge contacts for you once you pump in all the data. Here were the steps I took to pull all my contact information from everybody everywhere:

  • Facebook!
    First, I installed the open-source Facebook Friend Exporter extension for Google Chrome. From there, go to Facebook and look for the new “Export Friends!” button next to your Home button on the top toolbar. This will walk you through exporting all your friends’ contact details (Name, Emails, Phone numbers, Screen names, Websites, Address, and Birthdays) and save it to your hard drive as a .CSV file, also known as Comma-Separated Values, which is essentially an ordered list many apps can import and easily understand. NOTE: This process will probably take a really long time.
  • Outlook, Yahoo, Hotmail and MSN!
    Google has an extremely simple, straightforward FAQ on exporting contacts data from all of these emails apps\services, and you can find those instructions here.
  • LinkedIn!
    First, I went to the Export LinkedIn contacts page, selected “Microsoft Outlook (.CSV file)” then saved the file to my hard drive.
  • Plaxo!
    Next, I went to the Export Plaxo Contacts page, selected “Microsoft Outlook (.CSV file)” then saved the file to my hard drive.

Once you’re done with that, it’s time to import and integrate all this information! Most of this will be fairly straightforward and automated, but you’ll certainly have to do some manual trimming.

Step Two: Importing Data into Google Contacts

First, go to the Google Contacts website. In the top right corner, you’ll see three text links: “Import, Export and Print”. In this case, you’re looking for “Import”. Click that, and it’ll ask you to choose a CSV file to import with the “Choose File button” Select your first saved .CSV file from above.

For the sake of being neat and orderly, I’d suggest creating a “New Group” from the dropdown menu below the “Choose File button”. If you’re importing Facebook contacts, for example, call that group “Facebook.” Likewise for LinkedIn, Plaxo, Hotmail, etc. This will keep them organized into separate groups so you can filter them more easily as you’re cleaning up, merging and removing duplicates.

When you’re done, you should have an absolutely absurd amount of contacts, many of which are duplicates. Return to the main Google Contacts page, look for the “Find Duplicates” button and click it. Google’s duplicate checker is surprisingly good, but not perfect. You’ll find yourself having to do a fair bit of manual editing, but even that is straightforward. If you click two or more contacts in the contacts list on the left, you can click the “Merge Contacts” button to tidy it up.

Something else worth mentioning that’s quite important is what “My Contacts” means. This list is automatically generated by Google based on who you contact the most, and this is the specific list that will be synced to your mobile devices. It’s very important to select who shows up in My Contacts because nothing sucks more than accidentally importing over 2000 people (in my case) into my phone’s contact list.

Most of the time, for me, My Contacts starts out by default being half full of people that got on there for no readily apparent reason. To remedy this, you can remove people from My Contacts by clicking on their contact, clicking on the “Groups” dropdown above their contact card, and “Remove them from My Contacts”.

Likewise, you can add someone to My Contacts by going to the All Contacts group on the left column, selecting a name, and clicking on the “Move to My Contacts” button next to Groups under the contact card. Conveniently enough, you can make large selections and move them to My Contacts en masse.

After some pruning, trimming and massaging, you should have a very robust and complete contacts list. Now let’s move onto the next step…

Step three: Syncing to devices!

The real value of having a single integrated contacts list is to have it automatically synced to your phone. Fortunately, Google has made this very easy, and you can do it without paying for a service like Apple’s MobileMe. Granted, yes, MobileMe does a lot more than just that, but it is one of their more convenient and notable features that had never been successfully imitated until Google Sync, which I prefer. It’s free, extremely simple to set up, and it also syncs your GMail and Google Calendar in addition to Google Contacts. Perfect!

Google Sync has a list of setup instructions here that tell you how to set up Google Sync for the iPhone \ iPad, Android devices, Blackberries, Windows, Nokia devices, and SyncML (which I admit I’ve never heard of). If you follow that link, it’ll show you how to get it set up completely, and that’s the last thing you have to do in order to sync your contacts with all your devices, all the time.

Step 4: You’re done. Gloat!

Now, all your contacts and their associated information is stored in one place, you’ll NEVER lose them again when you lose or break a phone, you can access the list from anywhere, and if you ever get a new phone you can be re-synced to your contact list in mere seconds.

Barring Google suddenly going out of business and shutting down all their services, your contact list is now effectively INVINCIBLE! It’s also instantly accessible forever, and you really don’t have to go through this process ever again now that you’ve done it once.

Ta-daa!

The next installment of the Cloud Living is the Life for Me series is coming soon…

How NOT to hire an artist

[edit] WOW! Absolutely unbelievable level of response to this. Thanks SO much everybody. BTW, I’m @jonjones on Twitter. :) [/edit]

I was browsing Reddit earlier today, as is my morning routine, and I came across an article called How to hire an artist. This article has been widely panned and criticized by artists and people with the capacity to think, and rightly so. The more I read it, the more it irks me, and I wanted to issue a point-by-point response.

Original article link.

How to find an artist:

I recommend looking through art sites such as Deviantart for an artist which suits your taste, or any other site that has a decent art community such as Newgrounds. There’s a few reasons you want to find an artist this way. First of all, they’re cheaper. These guys aren’t used to making a lot of money for their work so they will be more appreciative of the chance even if they are being payed slightly less than what professionals are payed.

That’s a bit misleading. I know many extremely high-rent, talented and quite expensive professionals that host their work on DeviantArt and these other sites. Just because they’re on this site doesn’t mean that they’re automatically cheaper. There’s going to be a wide spread of artists at all skill levels and price points.

Second, stating openly that going cheap is the top priority when looking for an artist is dumb. Art is NOT a commodity. Matching the artist to the task is important. If I’m contracting out creation of the game’s main character, I pay more for a better artist to do it because more eyes will be on that asset for longer, and it’ll be scrutinized very closely by players.

But if I’m looking for basic background props like crates and barrels, I tend to look for lower-cost volume vendors. At the end of the day, you get what you pay for, and learning how best to allocate your resources to achieve your project’s development goals is important.

Sometimes budgets are limited and you need to hire inexpensive artists. Nothing wrong with that. But in my experience, the world isn’t divided into “cheap, inexperienced artist” vs “expensive, talented artist.” Every contract is different and every artist is different. People are motivated by different things, and if your financial means are limited, you can still do a lot if you can find what it is they actually care about that you can offer them. I’ve gotten to work with extremely top-shelf artists on low budgets because:

  1. I can offer a steady volume of work over time that I can commit to contractually,
  2. We negotiate a specific number of revisions in the contract, and pay for all revisions above that number. This is SHOCKINGLY uncommon, and I’ve gotten unbelievable price breaks on this because it essentially removes the bulk of the risk to the artist. Getting stuck in infinite revisions and never being paid sucks, and showing up-front that YOU understand THEIR concern and THEIR risks and genuinely want to be fair goes a long way.
    This also forces you to assign a specific dollar cost to changing your mind on anything later, and will encourage you to get better at planning and making good decisions.
  3. I can negotiate their name in the credits. Sadly, this is also very uncommon. This isn’t a straw man, either — I genuinely do have to fight with my own company\client to negotiate for this.
  4. I can offer them an opportunity to work on a type of game or with an art style they like but never get a chance to work with. I’ve gotten some awesome results from this. A lot of successful high-end artists sometimes get stuck on projects they don’t like and long for something different and fun, and being able to let them go totally nuts on something they can be passionate about and feel ownership over is enormously compelling.

Honestly, a predatory sort of tone comes through in the article that I really don’t like. I understand what he’s intending to say, but for god’s sake, you have to learn how to talk about it carefully. I’ve fallen into this same trap before with an old article of mine. You should be more mindful.

Second of all, they’re better. The quality of art you can find through this method is pretty amazing, and the vast amount of artists guarantee you will find something that suits your tastes and needs. Unless you have a specific price you want to pay in mind, ask THEM what they are willing to charge for the project. This usually causes people to give offers that are lower than what you normally pay, and will make them happy.

I don’t know why he thinks that cheaper, apparently inexperienced artists are going to be inherently better than seasoned professionals. I do agree that you can find diamonds in the rough and great talent rather easily on sites like that around which artists congregate, however.

The last half is actually a common negotiation technique: Whoever gives the first number loses. If you intentionally seek out inexperienced artists not familiar with negotiation and lead them into that trap, then sure, you’ll probably get lower prices. That doesn’t make it any less of a dick thing to do!

If I’m working with young and inexperienced artists, I prefer to be fair, be open, and try to teach them the ropes (within reason) as we go. If I’m in a position to help educate them on the job to become better and more effective artists, that benefits both of us and, in a broader sense, the industry as a whole.

I like working with smart, experienced people, and if I can do my small part to help people learn to be more effective professionals, I’ll gladly do it. Every young artist I shepherd along is going to be a better artist for his next client, and so on. We’re all in this together… and I’m not a fan of milking the informational advantage I have over the artists just to save a few bucks.

The obvious downside of this, though, is what if that artist figures out you’re screwing him? All he has to do is talk to another artist. Losing an artist in the middle of a contract or a project sucks! If you approach the beginning of the contract with openness and mutual respect, you’re more likely to retain that artist for the long term, which benefits you and your project enormously.

Think long-term and don’t get caught in the trappings of short-term sacrificial gains… it always pays off to play it straight and honest.

How NOT to find an artist:

Do not look for either professional artists, or an artist that has done a lot of game design work in the past.

This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever read. Don’t hire experienced professionals? This guy must not value his time at ALL.

I think of it this way: I’d rather pay 20% more for a professional that’ll deliver exactly what I want the way I want it THE FIRST TIME because he knows how to make game-ready assets, than to spend VAST amounts of my time managing and tweaking an inexperienced artist’s work because he doesn’t know how to develop usable game art and I have to teach them as I go. I’ve been caught in this trap before and I hate it. This piece of advice is bad for artists AND managers.

The problem with artists who do this as their full time job is that they’re usually expensive. Compared to what you can find through art sites, these guys tend to cost an arm and a leg.

Did it occur to you that they might be expensive for a reason? (hint: It’s because they know what they’re doing and will save you time on endless revisions and novice mistakes. Everything costs.)

Artists who have done a lot of game design work are also bad for a similar reason, they know how much flash games can earn so they expect a decent percentage of the profit.

I’ve been involved in managing dozens of projects of all kinds, including Flash-based games, and I’ve never had a single artist ever ask me for percentage of the game’s profit. Nor would I ever consider offering it.

Most intelligent artists see “I’ll pay you a percentage!” as code for “I am cheap, this game will never launch and I will waste your time but act as though you are my slave because of Massive Future Profits!”

This is another side effect of working only with inexperienced artists: They’re naive enough to think that’s actually a good deal! Most smart, professional, effective artists are strictly work-for-hire because they’ve made that mistake in the past.

There are certainly exceptions to this. I’ll be the first to admit that my experience is PC and console-heavy, and less Flash-based games. But the general principle here still holds true.

Artist payment:

Make it clear to whomever you hire that they will not be payed until ALL the work is completed, unless it is completed by a predefined date, and unless it matches or exceeds expectations.

There are no hard-and-fast rules about artist payment. In general, yes, payment is received when the work is completed. Specifying a due date for the work is a given. Meeting or exceeding expectations is also, naturally, expected and specced out clearly in the contract beforehand. However, for example, what if it’s a multi-month project?

In my experience, artists going longer than three weeks without some money or payment will disappear and never speak to you again. If you’re asking an artist to do an enormous amount of work for which he’ll be paid only at the end, he’ll likely never start or be slow at it.

My favorite way to structure a contract is to divide all the work up into discrete work units that the artist can invoice for every two weeks as long as the work comes in on time and is approved. That way, it’s essentially a steady bi-weekly paycheck. I’ve experimented with all kinds of different contract lengths and payment schedules, and two weeks is the sweet spot. It keeps motivation up tremendously, and I always push hard for that payment schedule.

Finally, don’t forget that, as a manager, the artist is taking a risk by working with you if you’re a new client. Artists get screwed all the time. If you can understand that and meet them in the middle and show that you’re honest, trustworthy and understand their concerns, they’ll be easier to work with and you won’t have to worry nearly as much about artist turnover.

The assumption that an artist should be grateful to be so honored as to be paid to work in the presence of your magnificence is insulting and demeaning. I’d like artists to want to work with me on my project. I’m not special just because I have money.

We’re all people, here. Fair pay for fair labor. One of my cardinal rules is NEVER to enter a deal that isn’t equitable for both parties. If I only have $X to spend and the artist wants $X + 20%, I try to find a way to streamline, simplify or otherwise adjust the scope of the work to make the cost make sense.

If we still can’t come to an agreement, I thank them for the time, and move on to try to find another artist. Often I’ll ask for a referral from the artist to someone that may be better-suited for the work. See, I want to establish long-term positive working relationships, and entering a deal where one side has vastly more upside than another is not kosher to me.

I’m not out to get as much as I can out of somebody, I’m out for each of us to feel we’re getting a fair deal and to have a long-term, positive working relationship. This benefits everybody. Artists get stability, I get great art at the right price and on schedule, and neither of us have to deal with the drama of replacing each other. Nobody likes churn.

Paying prior to the completion of the project is a bad idea for several reasons. Only paying for the finished work encourages the artist to finish their job faster, if you pay up front the artist has no motivation to finish quickly. Similarly, if you pay up front the artist could disappear and you may never get what you payed for!

This is HYSTERICAL to me. Have you considered that you have problems with artist turnover because 1) You hire only inexperienced, naive people you disrespect and underpay, and 2) You’re a really crappy manager that they want to escape from as quickly as they can?

This is a self-created problem. I have never had problems with artist turnover because I don’t treat them like ignorant slaves. There is a lesson to be learned here!

Keep them in the dark:

This relates back to what I talked about earlier. If an artist knows how much their artwork will increase the value of the game they will then feel they deserve that amount of money. This is not how a market economy works, you hire whoever is able to do the best job for the lowest amount of money, anything else is a loss of money on your end.

This is so deeply misinformed and ignorant that I’m actually offended by it.

One of the biggest driving forces behind an artist’s passion and motivation is the amount of pride and ownership he feels in his work. I remember that, having started in games as an artist, and I try to give that to the artists I work with.

Whenever possible, I explain to them the context of how important their work is to the game. I send them screenshots and news articles. I tell them what other parts of the game it’s influenced, I tell them how much the rest of the team loves their work, and I try to give them as much of a sense of ownership as I’m able to with the parts of the game they touch.

I’ve seen artists’ work transformed from merely average to truly excellent because they finally see the results of their hard work and the context in which it will be seen by players.

I’m passionate about the projects I’m working on and I try my ASS off to sell that and show other people why I’m so into it and why they could be, too, but I have to give them legitimate reasons for feeling that way. I go out of my way to try to foster a sense of them being on a team and being an important part of the project because THEY ARE!

Contract artists do not feel entitled to share in the profits on the games they work on. It is widely understood to be a simple work-for-hire arrangement. They get paid for their work, and then they move on when their part is done. Only an inexperienced amateur would even be irked about sharing profits and trying to seek it out later. Once again, this is another self-created problem from this article’s author. This is truly dumb and painful to read.

Timelines:

Give strict dates about when you need the art done (even if you don’t) and give consequences by deduction in pay if the art is not completed by the date. Unless the person you’ve hired happens to be very punctual, you will need strong motivation to make sure they finish the art in a timely manner. Try to only hire people ages 18+ (I may sound a little hypocritical here), kids are generally less reliable and have more IRL things come up that they can’t control. I’ve had several bad experiences with this.

Setting due dates is, of course, a given. Deducting pay, however, is a completely dickbag move, and I would never consider doing that to an artist. What if it’s YOUR fault as a manager that the art is late?

No intelligent artist would willingly choose to put his earnings at risk because you’re clearly incompetent and may change your mind or create more work for him on a whim. I’d never do that myself and I’d never ask someone to do it. Just because you’re in a stronger negotiation position by being the man with the money doesn’t mean you need to be such a dick to people.

If an artist completely blows a date, use the termination clause in the contract to end the contract and pay him for the work completed up to the date of termination, and then don’t issue any further contracts. Then find a new artist.

Artists either succeed or don’t, and I’ve NEVER successfully motivated an artist to be awesome through the use of threats. Even if it worked, I wouldn’t want to.

And hell, man, if you’re concerned about giving them motivation to finish in a timely manner, see my notes above on how to encourage an artist to care about your project and make him feel involved. Not all artists are motivated solely by money, or by threats of withholding pay.

You, sir, are a terrible client and encourage everything I despise. I hope you change your ways and start treating artists better. However, now that your article has been this well-publicized, I’d be surprised if you can find a competent artist willing to work with you. And rightly so.

For shame.

The Art of Documenting Art

The difference between success and failure in outsourcing can come down to documentation. Effective and thorough documentation is absolutely the most important component of outsourcing, even more than finding good people! You can have the best artists in the world at your disposal, but if they have no guidelines, insufficient direction and bad documentation, you’ll be lucky to get good results from them.

Documentation is your first line of risk mitigation. Know your pipeline in and out, backward and forward. A prerequisite to outsourcing is knowing your own engine, your project, and can explain every step of the pipeline in detail to someone that’s never seen your project before. If you can’t do that, you are not ready to outsource. Period.

Unless you define the scope of the work so rigidly that there is minimal room for error, you will waste time and money, and your project will suffer. Every minute you spend writing good documentation now will save you ten minutes later.

I go further with this than most, so I urge you to soldier on, because there’s some real meat in here. :)

The Contractor’s Disadvantage #1: No Institutional Knowledge

The first reason for good documentation is that contractors are inherently at an enormous disadvantage compared to an inhouse game developer. Game developers in a studio environment rely on collective institutional knowledge built up over time to do their job every day.

Here are examples of “collective institutional knowledge:”

  • That thing that guy said that time about how the exporter functions
  • Using that neat 3DSMAX plugin you found for UV mapping
  • Remembering where to download that rigging tools MEL script
  • Knowing which programmer to ask about how this tool works again

My point is that you have a network of collective institutional knowledge to lean on if you don’t know what to do. There are many potential points of contact to help you solve problems you’re having. This is very easy to take for granted, especially if you’re not very close to the actual development process.

What should be obvious by now is that external artists don’t have that network! This is often forgotten because the inhouse artists you deal with every day already know all this. Contractors rely on you and you alone to provide them every snippet of information you take for granted so they can do their jobs.

The Contractor’s Disadvantage #2: Unfamiliarity with Games

The second reason for good documentation is that many artists that work at art studios have never worked at a game development studio. They typically don’t have the practical development knowledge and methodologies earned through hands-on development experience. They may not know how game-ready usable assets work. They also may have some key knowledge deficiencies that could result in getting some truly perplexing and unusable art assets back from the art studio.

Examples of “practical development knowledge and methodologies” off the top of my head include:

  • Knowing how to bake a normal map properly
  • Building character models to deform correctly
  • Effective UV mapping techniques (particularly for tiling pieces)
  • Knowing what does and doesn’t go into a diffuse\color map on a next-gen game
  • Simply knowing how to build assets efficiently and with a minimum of waste.

This type of knowledge comes primarily from the trial and error of putting an art asset into the game on your own. You make the asset, put it in the game, see the problems, then tweak it until it works. Art studios are very rarely involved in that process. Most of the time they’ll never know if there’s something they could do better, or if they’re doing it entirely wrong!

Identifying a common timesink in contracting

A problem I often see is that game developers frequently accept errors like this as “just one of those quirks with working with outsourcing” and never mention it to the art studio. What a mistake!

My philosophy is that an art studio is only as effective as you allow them to be. Letting things like this slide and spending time fixing it yourself every time is a waste of your time. It’s simple math:

  1. Spend 10 minutes of your time per asset fixing 100 assets. Result: 10 minutes * 100 = 16.67 hours = 2 days of work, OR
  2. Spend 10 minutes of your time on documentation explaining how they can fix it and sending them that document. Result: 10 minutes total.

The problem with thinking “It’ll take only a minute to fix it” is that it’s not always a one-off expenditure of time. Over time it adds up to a lot of wasted effort. Remember: Your time is also money, and the more of it you spend doing work you can delegate, the more expensive outsourcing is. It really can be self-defeating.

Identifying areas of concern like this and addressing them in the documentation before the problems happen can make the art studio much more effective and free up your time to spend elsewhere. Remember: they have no way of knowing what to do to make sure it works if you don’t tell them!

Granted, this isn’t as big a concern for simpler assets like props and environment pieces. Complex animated models like characters or interactive objects, however, are typically much trickier to develop and implement, and that is not a part of your process you want handed over to someone without a lot of preparation.

The Contractor’s Disadvantage #3: Overseas studios

The risk of this lack of practical development experience is much more likely to be the case overseas, particularly in China and India. I’m going to make some fairly broad generalizations below, so bear in mind that there are individual exceptions, but these are useful to keep in mind when shopping overseas.

I find that there are more people on this side of the pond that want to work on games and have some rudimentary knowledge of how that works. Americans and Europeans, in my experience, are more likely to create their own user-made game modifications or trying to develop their own games for fun. Practical game development knowledge can be gained from activities like this, and finding people with this experience can be a blessing.

It’s increasingly common to see game developers in the US and Europe quit their game development jobs to become full-time contract artists. It can be lucrative and the most talented, effective contractors can make a great living for themselves. The practical development experience they’ve gained in their career prior to this makes them more valuable because they can avoid mistakes in developing art that inexperienced developers wouldn’t know.

However, in countries like India and China, art studios staff up their studios by mass recruitment from art schools. Some even develop their own internal art school or training program to vet, test, train and hire new artists. That’s fine, and even admirable, but they’re limited by what may be a generalized formal education with little to no specialization in game development. There are only a handful of schools in the world that teach game development competently and competitively, and I don’t personally know of any outside of the United States or Canada that do this.

The Contractor’s Disadvantage #4: Inexperienced management

Worse still, inexperience with game development can be an issue at the management level as well as in the trenches. Management at the art studios may not know what questions to ask when bidding on a project that a seasoned developer would. This can create nasty time crunches down the road when you least expect it, because they simply didn’t visualize the process clearly enough to foresee potential problems.

Sadly, this is all a breeding ground for unfamiliarity with games at the management level and at the artist level. You could get art that looks great but is totally unusable. This requires a large amount of rework from your internal artists, or a complete do-over.

When this happens, you lose all the cost benefits of outsourcing. You’re paying salaried employees to rework assets that were already paid for! You’re paying at least double the cost per asset than you need to. This happens more often than developers care to admit. In fact, I’ll bet this is why many developers are disappointed by outsourcing. This risk can be minimized through planning and preparation with thorough, complete documentation.

How much time does this take?

Preparing everything is obviously important, but you must wonder how long it all takes. I won’t beat around the bush – it does take time. But what you may not realize is that this is essentially a one-time expenditure of effort. It happens before the contract begins, so you don’t waste any time when the art assets are in development.

You will waste immense amounts of time if you explain everything to every new artist you bring onto the project. You just want the guy to make art, not tie you up asking questions all day! You should expect them to be confused when they first begin.

The best way to buffer against these delays is to generate thorough and solid documentation before you speak to a contractor. It’s not only the best way to prepare for contingencies before the relationship begins, but it shows them that you’re professional, thorough, meticulous and well-prepared.

The well-organized manager has explicit expectations, and the people they manage take their work more seriously when the instructions they receive are not sloppy. Your contractors will know from the first moment of contact that you know what you’re doing and that you’re the boss. It’s your job to lead, so show you’re a leader in everything you do and say. If you don’t know what you’re doing or what you’re looking for, neither will they, and you won’t get acceptable results.

I have a theory about effective communication I’ll share that will help you with documentation. This is my favorite part of this article, and what you’re least likely to have seen written about anywhere else.

All information creates its own context

When writing documentation, never make assumptions. Even if it seems painfully obvious, every piece of information should create its own context and be totally self-encapsulated. Whenever possible, information should not be dependent on anything other than itself.

  • When I read Document A, I shouldn’t need documents B, C and D for document A to make sense.
  • I shouldn’t EVER wonder what “that” or “he” or “she” or “they” are referring to. This is very important and very hard to remember to do.
  • I shouldn’t have to go talk to Ted the programmer about it.
  • I shouldn’t need to remember that vertex weight influences less than 10% are stripped on export but that isn’t in the documentation for some reason.

Everything relevant should be in one place. You would not believe the amount of time this ultimately saves. If the contractor has a question about something and you’re not available, one of two things happens: Production STOPS, or he GUESSES. Both of those cost you time and money. Leave no stone unturned and leave nothing to chance.

Here are examples on how to write well:

BAD:

  • “Please take the attached model and apply the jungle texture. After it’s applied, rig it with the Large Creature skeleton and export it. See attached image.”

GOOD:

  • “Please take the Heavy Orc model (HeavyOrc_final.max) and apply the Heavy Orc Jungle texture (HeavyOrc_Jungle.tga).

    After the HeavyOrc _Jungle.tga texture is applied to the Heavy Orc model, rig the Heavy Orc model with the Large Creature skeleton (projectpath://Skeletons/LargeCreatureSkeleton_Base.max) and export it to the Heavy Orc directory (projectpath://Creatures/Large/HeavyOrc/).

    See the attached image (HeavyOrc_Example.jpg) for reference.”

These are points at which a contractor could become easily confused. In the first example, there is virtually no context to anything. Here are the points of confusion:

  1. What attached model? I didn’t get a model. OR Which model? I got two.
  2. I didn’t get a jungle texture. Is [this filename] meant to be the jungle texture? Or this one? They both look jungle-y.
  3. Where is the Large Creature skeleton located? Did I get that?
  4. What directory do I export to? Do I make something up or did you have a place that needs to go already?
  5. “See attached image.” What attached image? I didn’t get one. OR there are five attached images. OR was that included in another email? Do I have the latest image?

Note closely the way I wrote the “Good” example above: each sentence retains its meaning, even if it’s broken off by itself and removed from the context of the paragraph!

To add to the confusion, let’s say the artist’s manager only copies and pastes part of that instruction to him, and the images aren’t attached to the email he sends to the artist. The manager already knows how this works, but doesn’t realize that the artist working for him does not. Not including clear information that creates its own context wastes time here by requiring the artist to ask the manager what to do and how to do it. He could already be hard at work simply doing his job, but he’s not, because the information doesn’t create its own context and it isn’t clear what he needs to do.

I make sure that all documentation I write is structured this way, then edited to be as readable as possible. It’s a very specific and challenging discipline to constantly ask yourself as you write “Would this make sense all by itself? What information would they need added for this to make sense on its own?”

That’s all I have to say on the subject of how to write effective documentation for outsourcing art. I have other articles coming soon explaining how and why to create an Art Outsourcing Kit using this style of documentation-writing and how it can help you manage contractors more effectively, ramp them up faster and mitigate the risks of outsourcing even further.

Productivity tip #14: Lookout – hyperfast indexed search in Outlook

Here is my FAVORITE Outlook tool. It’s lightning fast indexed search that beats the pants off anything Microsoft has. Microsoft liked it so much, in fact, that they purchased the company, then killed the project completely. This paved the way for their horrible and criminally useless Desktop Search without any pesky competition to get in the way. Hooray!

Anyway, Lookout is the best email search tool ever devised. You can download Lookout here:

http://majorgeeks.com/Lookout_d4808.html

And if you’re using Outlook 2007, follow these VERY simple instructions to make it work:

http://www.belshe.com/2007/12/06/how-to-install-lookout-on-outlook-2007/

Once you have tons of email, you’ll see why this rules so much. :) The flexibility, speed and ease of use is astounding. To give you a brief comparison, I spent about an hour trying to figure out how to make Microsoft Desktop Search manually index my email. After I figured that out, it took 30 hours to index fully. Within 30 minutes of installing Lookout, everything was set up and fully indexed. Lookout’s search is also ridiculously faster and easier to use. It’s the first thing I install with any new Outlook installation. Enjoy!

Anyone have any other handy Outlook plugins? I’ve been meaning to do a post on Xobni as well…

Tip for smArtists: Making sure you get paid on time

Artists: Getting paid is important. If it’s a small studio, they simply may forget to mail off a check in a timely manner. That sucks. It’s usually not intentional. They got the art, which is all they wanted, so they’ve probably moved onto working on something else and aren’t thinking about it anymore.

One way you can counteract this is by setting an expectation as early as possible about when you’ll receive payment after submitting an invoice. If they don’t have a date in their head that you need to expect to be paid by, it’s more likely to slip their mind.

See, if you’re working with inexperienced clients, having a set of expectations you can subtly impress upon them can help give them cues on how to think and act. Here’s an example:

You: “Hey, when I submit my first invoice, what’s a reasonable timeframe to expect the check to be sent to me?”
Them: “Oh. A week or so after the invoice, probably.”

And when you submit the invoice, reiterate it:

“Okay, here’s my invoice. Based on our initial conversation about turnaround time on an invoice, you said to expect about 7 days. Is it reasonable to expect a check on or around [specific date]?”

Everybody trains everybody in their own way. :) If you make your expectations clear and are polite and respectful about it, you’ll make sure your business gets taken care of and they learn how to deal with people more effectively and respectfully.

Managers: One additional way to treat your artists well is to tell them in advance exactly when they’ll get paid after invoicing you, and remind them again when they invoice. Setting and meeting expectations is good business. :)

Speccing out contracts smArtly! aka, Automatically Building Awesome Teams

Another big post this weekend! I’ll explain how I spec out a contract, divide the work into meaningful divisions, and how I handle asset revisions. I’ll even explain a bit of the psychology behind it that helps me automatically build kickass, super-talented external art teams. :)

My typical approach to pricing something out — especially tricky and difficult-to-quantify work — works pretty much like this:

1) Provide a highly accurate initial spec, but keep cost flexible.

Explain and detail all the work in advance as much as possible. Setting initial expectations early is important for all future negotiation, for more reasons than you might think.

Always leave flexibility on cost on the table. Let the contractor know that you’ll adjust prices up or down depending on how the first batch of work goes. If it’s harder, negotiate the price upward. If it’s simpler, negotiate it downward. Being open, candid and fair in the beginning of the negotiation process pays off down the road, and by the end of this post you’ll see why. :)

Ultimately, it gives both of you an opportunity to show the other that you’re interested in offering fair value for fair value, and that you’re not going to get everything you can out of the other guy for as long as he’ll tolerate it. This emphasizes transparency and helps build trust. Being candid and fair like this strongly encourages reciprocation, and you’ll quickly weed out vendors that aren’t worth working with if you take this tack up front.

2) Divide the work into as few meaningful divisions as possible.

Typically I’ll divide this down by asset type, and then by difficulty. There’s a kind of art to it beyond that, though. I don’t like dividing or categorizing anything too much, because at a certain point it become too granular to organize efficiently. Too big, and it feels to both parties like nothing ever actually gets done. A division should only be as large as it makes sense.

If I’m outsourcing a full character, I try to keep each chunk fairly flexible. I’ll price out the individual cost of the model, the texture, and the rig and make that precise, then I’ll add those three numbers together, round up to the nearest hundred or so, and that’s the cost of one average Character. It leaves wiggle room for small variations.

For example, say it needs 100 more polygons or if it doesn’t need that 64×64 texture. No big deal, no renegotiation needed. It all averages out. I’ve gotten stuck in the trap of suddenly needing to renegotiate for a 512×256 instead of a 512×512 texture in the middle of working on a single character because I had each stage priced out differently, and that sucks. If the difference is substantial, then sure, you’ll renegotiate. But don’t sweat the small stuff, and price out the work accordingly.

Remember: Your goal is to keep the new art rolling in, not spend all your time figuring out how much to pay for each Space Marine’s toenail.

When the workload is less discrete than “one character,” I’ve had great results by dividing each chunk of work into 1 to 2 day segments on a contract that’s invoiceable every two weeks. Contractors all love accomplishing something every day or so, and having a regular bi-weekly payday. Morale stays high and they keep cranking out results consistently and without getting bored. This is my favorite sweet spot.

Which leads me into two more very important considerations: ease of amending the contract, and ease of invoicing. If you broke it down into reasonably modular chunks, it’ll be easy to add on extra work to an existing contract without mid-stream renegotiation. Example: “Okay, turns out we need 3 more Weapons and 2 more Helmets. Let’s slap that onto the contract.”

However, if you priced it out as one large block or added some type of strange and arbitrary division in the middle of a piece of work, billing and invoicing gets complicated. You don’t know how to amend the contract to add or remove more work, so you have to put on the brakes in the middle of production to figure out what the hell to do.

BUT, if you show initial goodwill and flexibility and divide the work meaningfully, this is a nonissue and production keeps moving smoothly. Essentially, you’re frontloading all the serious negotiation so you don’t waste time midway through the contract trying to figure out how to price additional work. This really saves enormous amounts of time later if the workload increases or decreases, or if the contract is split up into separate invoiceable segments.

3) Roll a preset revision number into the per-asset cost, then price out extra revisions as a separate percentage of that.

Defining an acceptable number of revisions in the beginning of a contract is crucial. I like the number three as a safe buffer built into the cost of each individual asset or chunk of work. If more than three revisions are needed, I’ll pay an agreed-upon percentage. If 50% of the asset has to be reworked, I’ll pay 50% of the cost of the original asset. If 25%, then 25%. If the asset has to be COMPLETELY redone, however, that’s a different issue. I *always* include provisions detailing when a “revision” turns into a completely new asset, and who eats the cost of that rework. I’ll explain…

Iterations are ultimately a useful metric for determining whether process improvements need to be made. If I spec things out properly, explain them well, and I pick the right contractors, I shouldn’t need to revise anything more than twice. Period. If I’ve failed to spec something out well and that creates extra revisions beyond what we’ve specified initially, I’ll revise the spec, then pay the contractor the agreed-upon amount of rework, and I eat the cost of my mistake. If I suck, why should my contractor have to pay for it? They did exactly what I asked, nothing more.

Think of it like this: Imagine your boss comes to your desk at your salaried job and tells you “Yeah, you did all that work I asked you for, but I actually don’t know what I want, and I still don’t, but I’m not going to pay you this month.” A *lot* of managers treat external artists this way and see nothing wrong with it. Don’t be that guy.

Contrariwise, if my spec is good and it’s simply the contractor that’s sucking, it’s up to them to give me what I want and eat the cost. They’re not living up to their end of the bargain, which we agreed upon before we even started work. This is exactly why I preach cost flexibility and transparency up-front: it makes people more honest, less defensive and more willing to admit that they made a mistake. If they take any pride in their work and if they value my business, they’ll make it up to me. If we can’t reach a result we both agree upon, then I cut the contract short, pay them for all the completed work up to that point, half the cost of the asset they failed me on, and then I go find a new vendor.

Speccing and negotiation is actually my favorite part of the outsourcing process, because it clears away all ambiguity, it speeds up production and every stage of it is an instant and binary vetting process! If you draw them into your framework of honesty, candor, transparency and specific predetermined expectations, any deviation from that will be immediately obvious to both parties. When that happens, the only possible responses are 1) fix it or 2) break it off. There’s no ambiguity, there’s no guesswork and there’s no drama.

That’s the beautiful thing about it: Only winners and worthwhile people will be able to continue working with you. The people that aren’t essentially disqualify themselves as time goes on. And it all happens automatically, because the conditions of working with you are so transparent, open and clear that you’re never left wondering what to do when a problem arises. The key is to maintain a healthy level of self-reflection and be willing to admit that you’re wrong if you made a mistake.

If you operate by those rules long enough, everyone that isn’t worthy gets replaced and you’ll find yourself only working with extremely talented people of high moral character… automatically. :)

Questions, comments and criticisms welcome as always!