Category Archives: smArt Management

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!

Outsourcing Animation Isn’t Scary: A Guide

I often run across questions people ask regarding outsourcing animation. I seem to be one of the few people that has outsourced animation successfully. I’ve written a handful of short articles on the subject, but I thought it was time I edited and assembled them all into one handy guide. :)

I won’t dwell on the philosophical question of whether to outsource animation or not. If you’re reading this guide, it’s probably because you have X animators and need X * 4 animators, but don’t have the budget to hire inhouse. Let’s move on instead to the first practical considerations.

What do you need before you find a studio? Direction, documentation and reference.

Ask yourself: How much initial direction can I give? i.e. everything is predefined in advance, the ideas and expectations are set in stone and can be clearly communicated to the contractor, OR you intend to leave it up to the animator to figure out. If the latter is the case, do not outsource. Pick a direction, define it, build consensus, set the ideas in stone, and THEN outsource.

Internal ambiguity, indecision, and aimlessness is your problem, not the contractor’s. If you’re going to make it their problem, let them know up front, then pay them more for the time you spend spinning your wheels.

You need to be prepared enough to answer every question before it can be asked! Being specific up-front is paramount. That’s why you need to create an all-encompassing Animation Outsourcing Kit to contain all the documentation and reference your contract animators will need, and then a Specific Assignment with the details on the job you want the contractor to do.

1) Assemble documentation.

The idea behind an Animation Outsourcing Kit is that to have one single ZIP file that contains everything a new contractor needs to get started on animation. Direction, documentation, reference, tools, etc. It doesn’t have any assignment-specific information; that comes separately in what I’ll arbitrarily dub the Specific Assignment.

Now, when I’m writing documentation for any kind of outsourced work, I go through the entire process myself step by step and detail everything as I go instead of recalling it from memory. Why? I always forget something or realize “hey, that’s not something they would necessarily know unless they worked with this particular toolset.”

Even if it’s blindingly obvious such as the animation package you’re using, include it somewhere. If you learned something from a previous feedback iteration that you should have included in the first draft, update the documentation to include that, and send it back to the contractors, even if you’re working with the same one. What if they swap animators and you don’t know, and they miss it again? Documentation doesn’t have to be a big ugly mess that I have to sit down for hours and do… it can be incremental. After all, why answer the same question more than once? Documentation must always evolve!

When writing the documentation, never assume assumptions. :) Even if it seems anal, every piece of information should create its own context and be totally self-encapsulated. Something obvious to the writer and studio may not be obvious to the person that’ll eventually be reading it, or the person that is ultimately working on it. Documentation like this is essentially a game of telephone, and the win condition is trying to transmit your original message with as much clarity as possible to the other end despite the number of intermediary connections (translation being one of them).

So that leads to the question — what does one put in an Animation Outsourcing Kit? The answer: everything a contractor need to be able to do his job. Naturally, that’s a big list, so I’ll give an example list of everything I put into my Animation Outsourcing Kit. First, the Documentation:

  • Technical specifications. For each asset type in my game, there is a guidelines document with detailed technical specifications. Animation framerate (30?), average sequence length (2s\60 frames, 5s\180 frames?), MAX or Maya, Skin or Physique, bone count limit, vertex influence limit, etc.
  • Overview of the animation work:
    • Style of animation. (realistic, cartoony, cartoony realism?)
    • Type of sequences. (Run, walk, jump, attack, pain, etc)
    • Is the contract animator creating the skeleton himself or is it being done inhouse first?
    • Is the contract animator handling the rigging and character setup, or is it being done inhouse first?
    • Who integrates the animation? (Are you going to handle all the game’s implementation inhouse or will the contractor? Depending on your desired level of risk, it may be easier to set up your contractors with a copy of the engine and the ability to export to the engine and test the animation.)
  • List of animations. Here I include a master list of the game’s animations divided by type: characters, creatures, animated objects, miscellaneous, etc. From that basic designation, I break each down into structured lists divided by their role in the game. For example, creatures are either Melee (hand-to-hand combat), Ranged (attack with guns or bows), and Caster (magic user). Each role has a unique animation set, so I list all the animations in each set.

    This is especially useful for when I want to create a new creature. Before I even outsource it I can say “Okay, Fat Ogre 3 is going to use the Melee and Ranged Animation Sets.” I don’t have to decide which animations it has one by one every time I want a new creature, because I already figured it out beforehand.

    Then when I send the Specific Assignment details to the animator, I can simply copy and paste those pre-made animation lists. Time savings ahoy!

  • Style guides. I include the style guides relevant to the race of creature he’ll be animating, so he can see the other members of that race, their size in relation to each other, and get a sense of their attitude.
  • Scale guide. I have a MAX file demonstrating the scale of the object in the world so the animator can get a better sense of scale and how to animate what it is I’m giving him.
  • The exporter. I include a copy of our proprietary 3DSMAX exporter plugin, along with simple installation and usage instructions.
  • The tools. I include a copy of our proprietary Model Editor, along with simple usage instructions so the animator can create usable assets for our engine. Why should I have to spend time fixing each asset myself later, when I can explain it once and pay him to do it instead?
  • FAQ. I’ve assembled a brief FAQ full of common questions I’ve been asked by my contractors. One very important note I’d like to make about the FAQ: It was a huge breakthrough to me to realize that every time I talk to one of my contractors to explain something or answer a question, I’m generating documentation. Everything I say is usable. So I just remember to write it down in one document, organize it, give it a coat of spit-shine, and my project is better documented. :)

2) Assemble reference.

The second part of the Animation Outsourcing Kit is the Reference:

  • Animation samples in the animation package. I have directories set aside that offer example animations of every sequence for each type of creature and animatable object. There’s a directory for the Melee Animation Set that has sample animations for every sequence in that set, and so on for everything else that needs an example. I *never* leave gaps in reference for things like this.
  • Animation sample AVIs. In addition to providing MAX or Maya animation reference files from your game, show an existing AVI sample (with a widely compatible codec, or include the codec in the contractor kit) of EVERY animation you expect to receive from the studio. Whether or not it’s a sample of something existing from your game, this should be a style target to hit. The crucial part here is to not only show them the reference, but also to explain what is good about each one.

Ideally, fire up Premiere or a video editing app and put captions in there. “Note that the windup here is powerful.” “This movement feels like the character has weight.” “The impact is very heavy and he really looks devastated by it.” Use plain language but be very specific. Never assume they’ll know what you like about each one.

At first, including both MAX and AVI samples of animation may seem redundant. Realistically, the animator is probably not going to look at all of these if he has the kit but no specific assignment. The reason to have all these included in the Animation Outsourcing Kit is so that when I create the Specific Assignment and assemble that information, I can pick and choose which animations to use as reference.

“For the idle animation, check out Fat_Ogre_Idle_04.max. For the attack animation, check out LOTR_Cavetroll_smash.AVI.”

That way, he’ll already have all the files he needs from the kit, instead of having to bloat up the Specific Assignment. :)

3) Assemble the Specific Assignment.

The Specific Assignment is intended to provide the information an animator needs to complete the job you’re assigning him. If the Animation Outsourcing Kit is the foundation, the Specific Assignment is the blueprint for the house.

List out the specific animations needed in the job you’re giving the contractor, and give a brief description of what happens in each animation, call out what frame it needs to happen on or by, and define the exact length. Even if you don’t have a specific length that it requires, I’d suggest making one simply so there’s a constraint there. Animation is really prickly, so limit your risks by leaving nothing up to chance.

Here are other questions that can be answered in the Specific Assignment:

  • How fast do you want it?
  • How will you be paying? (Paid per day, per hour, or per sequence?)
  • If per sequence, are revisions included in the flat rate or are they priced differently? Is there a maximum number of iterations?
  • Remote or on-site?

Since outsourcing animation can be tricky, I’d strongly suggest going with a studio that communicates very well in your native tongue (I’m assuming English) and also has a strong animation background to remove the difficulties caused by the language barrier. Running quickly through a typical animator’s glossary with them would be a good idea, to see if you speak the same language there as well. That’ll help down the road when you’re writing feedback. “What does follow-through mean?”

4) Ensure high quality with effective feedback.

I’ve been trying to come up with a simpler and easier way to structure my feedback on assets I receive that makes it easier for the contractor to focus on one aspect at a time, without being dependent on anything but plain text.

Most of my job is communicating ideas. And there are so many different ways to go about it that even the specific structure of the way you speak to someone can make the difference between doing it right and doing it wrong.

See, it’s easy to get lost in a lengthy changelist, or accidentally overlook a problem, or simply not know what I’m asking. It’s put a lot of pressure on me to learn how to communicate the most with the fewest words, and to arrange the data in such a way that certain parts of the feedback will pop out at them and really stick in their head.

In the example below, I’ve adopted a very specific, consistent structure for presenting feedback on art assets to my contractors. Right now, this is my formula:

Orok_Chieftain_Run_Animation_01 – Awesome! Great sense of weight.
– CHEST: Some vertices on his chest poke into his body. Can you fix the rig?
– FEET: His feet dip below the floor in frames 14-17 and 28-31. Can you bring them up?

In other words…

[Asset_Name] – [Brief Praise]
– [SPECIFIC LOCATION]: [Brief description of problem. Ask for specific fix?]

My reasoning is as follows:

  • [Asset_Name] – Obviously you’re going to want to specify which asset you’re commenting on.
  • [Brief Praise] – I generally try to say something nice and positive about everything I get. I never put anything negative here. If I have nothing good to say, I leave it blank. But I always start out with praise. Studio or contractor, I feel like this matters.
  • [SPECIFIC LOCATION] – This is the REALLY important part. An endless bullet list, even numbered, can be a bit much to look at. But if you can have an IMMEDIATE callout of the specific area that’s affected by the problem, it’ll be easier to go through the list of changes component by component. “Okay, chest, foot, leg.” Reference the specific filename of the screenshot \ paintover \ MAX reference with each part.

    When questioned, it’s a little easier to refer to areas specific to the asset itself instead of an arbitrary number that forces them to go back and look at the feedback list and remember what ‘3′ corresponded to. Granted, yeah, they should always have that available, but I have to look, too. :) Every bit of time savings I can squeeze out of something, I will.

  • [Brief description of problem. Ask for specific fix?] – The reason I describe it and end with a period, then ask the question, is because a question mark stands out in a sentence. They read the problem, and the proposed solution jumps out at them more readily than would a sea of periods. It also forces me to parse my thoughts very simply and clearly, which helps me. That, and I prefer coming off slightly nicer by asking a question instead of stating a list of demands. Sure, I’m paying them and I could be brusque if I want, but I personally prefer the softer touch unless I’m straightening someone out.

To provide extra information, I offer screengrabs of what’s wrong (if anything), and offer AVI or MAX file source art reference when available. Create a custom camera to highlight the problems at different frames and send them that MAX file as feedback if you need to be very precise, and detail that in the text. (“Switch to Camera 05 – Feedback Camera for frames 800 – 900 and observe vertices above the right knee…”)

Never let a single piece of feedback go unresolved in successive iterations or they’ll learn what they can get away with. This requires a lot of time and dedication by the outsourcing manager, but it ensures quality.

In doing all this, I generally had only 1 to 2 iteration passes per individual animation, which is pretty sweet. :)

I hope this guide proves helpful. Any questions, comments, criticisms or suggestions for improvements would be greatly appreciated!