Outsourcing Art: Ten Steps to Success

Here’s an article I wrote last year that was extremely well-received but not very widely spread. Thought you professional developers that read me would like to read it.

Outsourcing is sending out work to an outside provider or manufacturer in order to cut costs. This happens in many industries, and it’s becoming widely used in the game industry, particularly for art. Outsourcing art has become an attractive option for game developers seeking to finish on time and on budget. As games get bigger, development costs rise and timelines increase. The sheer mass of art assets required for modern games can be overwhelming for a single team to handle. Hiring an external art studio can be a cost-effective solution.

However, outsourcing art can also have its share of problems. Of the hundreds of studios all over the world, some are large, elaborate operations that are run competently, and others are literally run out of a garage with little finesse. Garage shops seem the rule rather than the exception, sadly. Quality art and service is hard to find. If you know what to look for, however, you can minimize the difficulties and enjoy a terrific business relationship with an art studio.

I’ve been a contract artist for years, both solo and working through an art studio. I also spent eighteen months working for Liquid Development, widely regarded as the industry leading art studio. I was an artist, an account manager and a marketing director during that time. While I was there, I developed an intimate knowledge of how a successful studio is run on many levels, from sales to marketing to operations to production.

This article presents a set of guidelines to ensure a smooth working relationship with an external art studio. Part of this is setting realistic expectations, but there are facets of communication and management that come into play as well.

Step One: Planning

Before you look for an art studio, develop a clear idea of what you want. Art studios are frequently a low-cost, faster solution than creating assets in-house, but they are not miracle workers. It’s unrealistic to expect more of them than your own internal staff. They offer cost savings first and foremost, and quality comes only after that. They need material to work with, and giving that to them is your job.

The most important parts of preparation are solidifying the budget and building a complete bill of materials for the art studio. Quantify everything and leave nothing unaccounted for, and nail down the specifications as precisely as you can. This will ensure a quick turnaround for a price quote from an art studio. Changing the budget or an asset list in the middle of a contract can be catastrophic to your project.

Once you get everything down on paper, solidified, finalized and the budget in place, you will have the materials you need to look for art studios.

Step Two: Looking for art studios

The best place to find an art studio is the GamaSutra contractor listing. Take a look through all of them. Pore over their portfolios and decide if the quality of their work appeals to you. Check to see if they’ve worked in styles and genres similar to your project.

There are several very good studios out there, but expect to pay more for their services. Depending on what studio you choose, you could end up paying between 10% and 80% of what it costs to develop assets in-house. Cost savings are inevitable, and the determining factors after that are quality of art and quality of communication.

No matter what studio you choose, it’s going to be a gamble. Many art studios are garage shops or one-man bands with little track record or business experience. Overseas studios introduce time zone mismatches, language barriers, and potential cultural mismatches. As a popular anecdote goes, Fox outsourced animation and coloring work on The Simpsons to an overseas company. When Fox received the completed work, all the pizzas were colored purple. The people at the overseas studio had never seen or understood what a pizza was, and had no point of reference to begin to understand it. That may seem silly, but factors like that could be the tip of the iceberg.

Step Three: Selecting an art studio

After narrowing down your search to a handful of candidates, contact and grill them. Get them under NDA. Ask them about their history, experience, availability, rough rates, work process, and anything else you can think of. Pay close attention to their answers—their answers and even their manner of reply are good indicators of experience and professionalism.

Any studios left standing should do a test asset for you. This is imperative, since it demonstrates their ability to satisfy YOUR needs. It’s all too easy to trust a good sales pitch and compelling portfolio, but in the end it’s your money and you have to be confident that the team will deliver what you expect.

Once you find which studios you’re comfortable with, you need to give them the materials they need to create a test asset. Regardless of your timeline, do a test asset. Don’t trust them with ANYTHING without getting a satisfactory test asset completed first. Delivery of the test asset lets you see not just the quality of the company’s work, but the company’s development, delivery, and approval processes as well, which are just as important

In preparing to give them the test asset, you should proceed as if full production begins as soon as the test asset is approved. You need to give them all the specifications they’d need to begin the project to minimize the time between test asset and full production and to maintain momentum. Follow the next few steps BEFORE engaging in a test asset.

Step Four: Provide sample assets

Before you begin the test asset, determine the project’s scope in detail and then negotiate the terms of the full contract. Proceed as if the entire project will begin at the end of the test asset’s development.

Get the studios you’re giving a test asset to under an NDA. Once that’s in place, begin the scope assessment process by providing them with all the specifications documents they need. They can’t read your minds. Provide them with at least one actual game asset of each asset type they’re expected to deliver. This will set an expectation of quality standards and cuts down on back-and-forth and guesswork that occur without a pre-approved and usable asset to pore over.

Step Five: Manage expectations

Let’s be realistic about expectations. As I stated previously, an art studio is not a magic pill. Be reasonable and estimate at least two weeks to a month of ramp-up time at the beginning of a relationship, depending on the length of the project and the scope. The time spent developing each asset decreases as the project goes on. Also don’t expect the studio to perform miracles that your internal staff, who is already ramped-up and familiar with the project, couldn’t do themselves.

Step Six: Minimize risk and variability

The next thing to consider is to limit the extent to which external asset development can go wrong. Decide how much of the process to allow them to perform. Some studios are happy simply to outsource modeling only. Others may only require texture work or rework, or simply rigging and animation. Others still outsource ALL character work, from concept to in-game implementation. The more you trust them with, the more there is to screw up.

When I say trust, it really IS a matter of trust. For every task that isn’t a core discipline like modeling, texturing, rigging or animation, expect to add ramp-up time and account for errors while the studio acclimates itself to the specifics of your project. If you don’t think they’re capable of handling all the work you want to give them in the timeframe you require, don’t. If you want it fast, keep it VERY simple. If you want to develop a long-term working relationship with a studio, test them out with a small workload, then expand the scope as you feel more comfortable with them. Nearly every long-term contract relationship I’ve been involved in started out with a very narrow initial scope that kept expanding over time as the art studio proved its reliability.

Step Seven: Negotiate terms

At this point, the studio has a clear idea of what your project is about and the type of work that’s expected of them. Now you can begin the actual contract negotiation. If you pre-planned properly, you will know every single asset you need to outsource for the entire project, and you’ll be able to give them the total number of assets. Stick to that number. Pay for the assets on a per-asset basis, never hourly or in bulk, if you can help it. This way, they’re motivated to get the assets done as quickly as possible and you’ll be able to rapidly expand the project’s scope accurately and predictably if you need. Plan out the rates for each individual asset type and break it into different categories where it’s realistic.

For example, many projects have two types of characters of varying complexity: Player characters and non-player characters. Since they’re different and you anticipate cost savings on the less complex non-player characters, make them a separate asset type. Generally, the criteria for price are polygon count, texture resolution, and texture count. Note any differences between the asset types and negotiate an appropriate price.

Another way to save money and decrease development time is to think hard about which assets are similar and could be reused or modified to create additional assets. A good example of this would be if you had ten characters that are knights in shining armor. If the only difference is their heads, create a “Character Variation” asset type and request that you reuse the bodies and merely create new unique heads. Not only do the models remain consistent, but they take less time to do and you save even more on cost.

Depending on how nice you are, you may or may not want to include provisions for paying extra for significant revisions to an asset. This won’t happen if you accurately spec out the project’s scope beforehand. However, if the situation changes, major design revisions happen internally and you keep going back to the art studio with further changes to an asset, you’ll force the project to fall behind schedule by constantly rejecting submitted art assets that would have easily been approved before the changes.

This happens for one of two reasons: either something was not accurately specified in the initial scope meeting with the art studio, or you’re subjecting the art studio to feature creep and design changes on your side. Understand that feature creep is your problem, not theirs. You’re paying them for individual art assets, not their time. Every minute your design changes make their artists sit idle is another delay you add to the project because they’re forced to reassign artists to other projects unless they’d rather burn money.

Art studios are used to dealing with this to some extent, but if you keep allowing it and it affects the schedule, the art studio may be forced to raise its rates dramatically or abandon the project. This is why it’svitally important for you to plan for and solidify everything before you even speak with an art studio. If you anticipate dramatic design changes, simply add provisions for design changes to the contract before you start the project. Ultimately, planning for this in advance could save you money versus increasing the cost per asset.

Step Eight: Scheduling milestones and payment

The ideal way to set up milestones and payments in my experience is this: There’s a milestone every two weeks. The assets must be delivers on the day of the milestone. Every other milestone, you receive an invoice for payment on a NET30 term, which means that you’re required to pay them within 30 days of receiving their invoice. When the project starts, there’s a starting payment. Each payment is derived from the project’s total cost divided into equal amounts over every other milestone. The test asset period is payable once the assets are delivered and approved.

For example, let’s say it’s an eight-week project for $100,000. The project starts on August 1. You have milestones August 15, September 1, September 15, and October 1. You’re billed on August 1, September 1 and October 1. The first payment is $33,000, the next payment is $33,000, and the final payment is $34,000.

Earlier milestones should have fewer deliverables than later milestones due to ramp-up time. In the example project I stated above, let’s say the project is to create 100 characters. The August 15 milestone has 10 characters, then each successive milestone has 30 characters delivered for a total of 100. Always start out light.

I’d suggest setting up the project milestones so they deliver the assets at least two weeks to a month before you actually need them to achieve your internal goals. You don’t want to be held up by the studio if they’re late delivering assets, so schedule accordingly.

Step Nine: Assigning the test asset

Now that you have the entire project planned out, select at least one test asset of each type to assign the studio. For example, if you’re outsourcing environment objects, player characters and lower detail non-player characters, test them on each asset type. Never believe that just because they can do one asset type well that they can do others equally well. Each studio has its own distinct strengths and weaknesses. Many artists that work for art studios have very little professional experience and only work there until they have a strong enough resume and portfolio to get hired at a full game development company. Others simply aren’t good enough to get a job anywhere else. Artist turnover at an art studio can be very high and happen during projects. This isn’t something you can control, and it’s nearly always transparent to you, but it happens.

Once you receive the completed test assets, check them vigorously for quality. If they fail in any respect, immediately consider whether you gave them enough information. It’s easy for some specifications to fall into the cracks, so be reasonable. Ask yourself if the assets they delivered are usable assets as-is, and if any internal rework will be required. It’s very important to understand that if your internal artists have to do ANY rework at all of the assets you’ve outsourced, the art studio has failed. It’s reasonable to expect a bumpy start, but if your internal artists are habitually redoing the art studio’s assets, you’re paying almost double for that asset and the problem should be solved immediately or the relationship terminated at the next milestone.

After you approve the test assets and are ready to move into a contracting relationship, I’d recommend making a personal visit to their offices if it’s geographically convenient. A face-to-face meeting always helps and is a great way to start a long-term business relationship. In my experience, it’s dramatically faster to generate new business. Two months of work over email and a phone can be handled in half an hour of face-to-face discussion.

And that brings me to the final step…

Step Ten: Understand the importance of communication

The key to success in outsourcing is communication and feedback. Some art studios are poor at this, and simply take the assets you give them, work on them for the allotted time, then email them back to you when they’re done. You’re left wondering what you’ll get when you open the file and hoping desperately that you can use them. They may send work-in-progress images in mid-milestone so you can know they’re doing the work, but the ideal solution is an interactive forum so you can see each asset being developed.

However, a system like that doesn’t work unless everyone actually uses it to communicate. The simple existence of a system doesn’t guarantee success; the adherence to and use of the system does. It’s important to remember is that outsourcing art is not a magic pill. It requires a time commitment on your part the same as one of your in-house artists. In short, BE AVAILABLE for questions, comments and critiques and monitor their progress at least daily if possible.

Since communication is so important, when you talk to an art studio, assess how well they understand the importance of communication and what they do to solve it. Perhaps your assets aren’t important enough to require day-to-day managing, but at least find out if you could if you wanted.

Once, an art studio’s client had a very interesting idea that fostered a tremendously successful working relationship. The client hired a new in-house employee whose sole responsibility was to monitor the art studio’s progress all day, every day. There was always someone payingattention, communicating, and approving or rejecting assets practically as soon as they were created. It worked out extremely well and the project went smoothly because of that employee and the high level of communication that was developed at the outset of the project.

You don’t necessarily need to have such an intense level of involvement, but it’s foolish to assume you can throw work at an art studio and expect it to get done with no communication. Quality communication is the difference between success and failure. Always have at least one person who’s assigned to monitor the art studio’s progress and communicate directly with the art studio’s internal art manager. Having a person on your end do this is a necessity, and they must understand that this is a part of the core content development process instead of something they should do at the end of the day, IF they have time. The sooner you accept outsourcing as a function of game development rather than a shiny new toy, the sooner you’ll have an unstoppable content development team that works like a well-oiled machine.

I place a high value on communication because a lot of contracting relationships have gone sour because the game developer didn’t understand the necessity of communication, and all deficiencies in the resulting assets were blamed on the art studio’s supposed incompetence.

So there you have it. Outsourcing can be a terrific resource if you plan ahead, select a good studio, provide ample specifications andmaintain a high level of communication and management throughout the project.

If you have any comments or questions about outsourcing art, hiring contractors or asset development in general, feel free to send me an email at jonjones@gmail.com.

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