Category Archives: smArt Management

7 tips for dealing with contractors

Here are a few valuable things I’ve learned about dealing with contractors.

  1. If it takes more than ten words to describe it, take a picture. This applies most to me when I have lists of changes for my contractors to make. I find that if it takes more than ten words to point out the particular area to work on, or describe what exactly to do with it, it’s ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS easier to simply take a screenshot of it and paint over it. In this manner, I can boil thirty big words down to one big red arrow. 🙂 It saves time on your end, it’s easier to understand on their end, and everybody wins.

  2. Issue shorter contracts. This varies wildly from company to company, but in my experience in working with individual contractors, shorter contracts equals being paid more frequently. I always renew contracts unless I state as far in advance as possible that my needs are ending. I find it tends to motivate the contractors more if they have smaller, more easily digestible chunks of work that come in at a steady clip rather than big fat contracts that take forever to finish. They ALWAYS slow down on big contracts, so I give them short ones so the end is always within reach. It’s never failed me. 🙂

  3. If you doubt their ability, find someone else. Several times I’ve fallen into a trap where I’m not entirely sure someone can do the job I need to do, but I hire them to do it anyway. I’ve always regretted it. I’m a firm believer in giving someone ONE solid, firm, impossible to misunderstand chance to turn themselves around. If they can’t keep it together then, tell them why and cut them loose. If they were up to the task, they would have done it right the first time. If it took the threat of dismissal to make them perform, what good are they? You can’t rely on always holding them out over a fire to motivate them. Use the time you’d have spent ‘motivating’ them on finding people that function properly.

  4. Write everything down. There are many reasons for this, the simplest being you forgetting something you said that you needed to remember, and the more serious of which being contractual disputes. I ran into a nasty one of the latter recently where one of my artists was claiming I asked him to do work that I didn’t put in the contract, and naturally he wanted to be paid for it. Fortunately, I managed to set the record straight by finding an email I’d sent him asking him to do the work and telling him I’d pay him more for it, and the followup email of him agreeing to the higher pay.

  5. Never badmouth a contractor. I’ve never done this and I never intend to. No matter how bad someone may be or act, these are still real people with real lives, just like you. It never pays to burn bridges, even ones that there seems to be no risk in burning. If you run off at the mouth about someone you don’t like and affect their job, that could affect their own ability to put food in their kids’ mouths. Yes, that’s their responsibility and not yours, but why spread bad blood? It’s a bad strategy because it closes off options, no matter which way you cut it. Do unto others…

  6. Be careful about promises. I’m a man of my word and I take what I say very seriously, and I want to be a good and reliable boss to my contractors. That being said, I have to be very careful about the things I promise them because development realities are constantly changing, and that’s out of my control. Our budget could be cut tomorrow, we could change an entire feature set, the project could be canned, or we could simply reallocate our other resources to handle needs as they come up. I call it Expectation Management. If you set clear, realistic, conservative expectations, and be damned careful about the promises you make, you’ll be perceived as a better boss than if you promised them the stars and could only give them the moon.

  7. Always appreciate. Even if someone’s doing a bad job, find that cloud’s silver lining. Be positive and supportive. You won’t gain anything by tearing your people down. If you can find the good in what they do, and talk positively about ways to improve it (but being firm about your expectations) and you’ll get better results than if you rob them of their will to try.

Learning these things has helped me be a more effective manager and improved my ability to deal with people. 🙂

Anyone else have any tips? What about from a contractor’s standpoint?

On contracting animators

I just made a forum post responding to someone that was asking about basic rates for animation. I mentioned that more details needed to be provided, and I listed a few that may be helpful for if you’re considering outsourcing animation.

  • 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?
  • What’s the animation framerate? (30?)
  • What’s the style of animation? (realistic, cartoony, cartoony realism?)
  • What type of sequences are there? (Run, walk, jump, attack, pain)
  • What’s the average length of each sequence? (2 secs, 5 secs, 10 secs)
  • Is the animator creating the skeleton himself?
  • Is rigging involved?
  • How much initial direction is there? (i.e., everything is predefined animation length, ideas set in stone and clearly communicated, OR leave it up to the animator to figure out)
  • Who’s on implementation? (Are you going to handle all the game’s implementation inhouse or will he? Depending on how important accurate and perfect animation is to the game, it may be easier to set up your animator or animators with a copy of the game and the ability to export to the game and test)
  • Remote or on-site?

  • How fast do you want it?

Thanks to Scott for the last two!

Might I have left anything else out? (discounting the obvious like which animation package, or the highly variable like if it’s a biped or a quadruped, etc)

I hope this’ll be helpful to people. If so, let me know!

Learning In Progress #4: Making time… with a vengeance!

One of the biggest production bottlenecks on my project is my ability to implement art into the game. I’m essentially serving as art director (jointly with our lead designer), art manager, lead artist, and I have other producery and technical artisty responsibilities as well. There isn’t enough time in the day to do everything I need to do, and when you have a team of artists that need constant feedback on their work, it’s exceedingly difficult to make time for some things.

In this case, the production aspect that gets crunched is the implementation phase, which is difficult, complex and time-consuming. Since I can’t very well commission art that I never put in the game, I needed to start making time to put the art in the game. I’ve tried that before but I constantly get distracted by minor emergencies and end up never getting anything done.

I always wished I could have a day away from everyone to just sit down and crank away on art and get it in the game without any outside distractions. But unfortunately, I’m in a position of great responsibility and I really can’t afford to take that kind of time away from other things. I mean, lots of people depend on me, and art, as a whole, does NOT happen unless I’m doing it. I’m always just so crushed for time that I can’t divert myself even for a moment.

Or can I?

I thought about it and realized that, no matter how much time I set aside to work, be it 9 hours a day or 18 hours, I always get about the same amount of work done. Every time. I found that interesting: No matter how much time I have, I always use it all getting something done.

Naturally, at the extreme ends of the scale (2 hours a day vs 22 hours a day) I’d see significant differences in my output, but it got me to thinking that four days a week (plus the time I spend working from home) can neatly accomodate all my other responsibilities without the world ending.

So, emboldened by this realization, I decided I’m taking Wednesdays off from everyone. I call them “Fuck Everybody Wednesdays.” I shut off my IM, I shut off my email, I don’t answer my phone and I do NOTHING but start putting art in the game. I tell all my artists and coworkers in advance that, from now on, I’m having nothing to do with them on Wednesdays, and any issues can wait until Thursday, no matter what they are.

So far it’s been working out extremely well. 🙂 I’m steadily cranking out new art in the game, and the freedom from distraction has enabled me to come up with a lot of new ideas for making the process easier, and even automating it in some cases. What a difference that self-discipline and focus can make!

Never say you don’t have enough time, because you’re probably wrong. Just make time. Everything will sort itself out. 🙂

Learning In Progress #3: Numbered Bullet Points.

I’ve noticed in the past that when I send back a list of requested changes to my contractors, if there’s more than one change, sometimes they’ll forget one or two. It’s a simple mistake, because I’m often trying to transmit a lot of information, and some of it can just slip their mind.

I quickly stopped writing entire paragraphs containing several changes, and boiled them down to individual bullet points. But still, sometimes a bullet point would be forgotten, and the problem still wasn’t entirely solved. So to combat the changes falling through the cracks, I’ve discovered a useful tip that seems to work best: Numbered Bullet Points.

Bullet points themselves are a useful way of dividing large ideas into several smaller ones that are easier to communicate and understand. But bullet points alone aren’t enough. By using numbered bullet points, you assign a VALUE to each bullet point, and it reads more like a step-by-step list with concepts that can be quickly referred to by their number value.

“I see you completed changes 1 and 3, but not 2?”

More than half of my job is learning how to organize and distill information into small, easily understandable, meaningful bites that create their own context. Numbered bullet points are one of the many tools in my arsenal. You’ll notice I often even use them in my writing… 🙂

Sell people on your ideas for awesome results!

I was giving a friend of mine advice on how to really capture the imagination and interest of a contractor and (hopefully) negotiate a lower rate, and I broke it down in a way that may be helpful to selling your ideas to someone. I’ve broken my method down into a simple three-step process.

Let’s say you have a painting you want to have made, and you have a basic idea of what you want in it and where, but there are other elements you’re not so clear on. You want to bring in an artist that’s smart and effective and will leave his mark on your work and make it better. If you didn’t want to give someone room to use their skill, you’d do it yourself. 🙂 The first step is

1) Infect them with your passion.

So far the best way I’ve found to bring someone on board something and get the best results is to really sell them on the concept. Get a sense of the work they have in their portfolio and how it’s similar to what you want. Give them a basic idea of your project book story character whatever, and make it sound gripping, captivating and exciting, and show the passion you have for it.

Don’t go into meaningless detail on this or that, and avoid being clinical at all costs. You can be specific while still leaving things artfully open-ended, and tap into common and easily communicated themes and concepts that tend to get people amped up and excited. Make it sound totally unique and different from anything they ever could have worked on before.

Passion is highly contagious. Creative people are especially prone to contracting it. 🙂

Once they’re hooked, I move onto the next step, which is

2) Define what you want.

Now that they’re excited about it, explain exactly what it is you want them to do. Take what solid, concrete ideas you have, and communicate the essence of the concept as simply as you can. This should be in fairly broad strokes, so leave out the number of wrinkles in the face or the color of his clothes if it’s not vitally important.

Paint a reasonably detailed mental picture that still has blanks to be filled in. But when you explain it, make it clear that your ideas are fairly well developed and that there is a particular look that you’re going for, and that he shouldn’t stray too much.

But it’s important to leave some parts of the image deliberately fuzzy, to give them some extra room to work with. Which leads me to the final step:

3) Give them a playground.

Once you have them really psyched up about the idea and the work, and you’ve laid down the ground rules and let them know where to tread lightly, take what fuzzy and undefined parts of the concept you want created and talk them up even more. Take an example of some of their other work, or something you think (or know) they love that suits your purposes, show it to them and say something like “I REALLY like what you did in [url to image] and [url to image], and I think it’d be really cool if you could go in a direction like that with the background. I trust your judgment for cool stuff like that, so go crazy! I’m really excited to see what you come up with! :)”

The point is not to lay down so many creative constraints that they feel choked off or stifled. And, conversely, to take the areas that you KNOW are undeveloped and make them sound mysterious and exciting, and make them WANT to fill them out and infuse them with their creativity.

I find that if I don’t make the areas I haven’t got a clear idea of sound interesting, it ends up sounding boring and undefined and I’ve essentially given them no incentive to even try to make it interesting. And, naturally, their creativity finds an outlet in areas I don’t want them to get too creative on.

If I give them a very clearly defined area in which to be creative, they’ll go nuts with that and make something really fun and interesting, and deliver on the core concept I gave them.

That’s one of the more interesting lessons I’ve learned in the past few months. If you just give someone a sense of your passion and excitement about the work you’re giving them, lay down a few ground rules and then give them a little playground to play in, you can get some pretty tremendous results that you wouldn’t have gotten if you’d been too specific or too vague.

By doing it this way, I’ve had phenomenal luck negotiating lower rates and longer contracts out of some mindblowingly talented and hard-to-get artists simply because I got them to care about what they did and let them have fun doing it. 🙂

Learning In Progress #2: The Character Tree

The project I’m on is a small-scale MMORPG. As is typical in this type of game, your character is always on the hunt for newer, better pieces of armor. That requires a significant investment in creating new art assets for these armor pieces. There has to be a lot of them, they have to be varied, and they have to look cool. They also have to visually represent different levels of quality. i.e., common armor, special magic armor, and super rare awesome hard-to-find mythic armor.

The problem is — how do you keep track of that many assets? How can I show them off and make sure the visual progression makes sense and that each fits the game’s art style and color palette?

I struggled with that for awhile and one of NCsoft’s head art people worldwide showed me the character tree. It’s a giant table full of characters, each character occupying a single cell of the table. Here’s a mockup very similar to what I use:

Horizontally, the tree is divided into sections by the player’s class: Mage Armor, Ranger Armor, and Fighter Armor. Underneath that are class-specific armor types. i.e., Light Cloth and Heavy Cloth for the Mage, Light Leather and Heavy Leather for the Ranger, etc.

Vertically, it’s divided by the quality level of the armor: Normal Armor, Unique Armor and Mythic Armor. The lower you go on the list, the higher the quality the armor is.

It’s further divided up into yellow and blue cells. The yellow cells indicate an armor set that’s complete. The blue cell indicates an armor set that’s still in production and not yet complete.

When I put the characters on the tree, I place them visually where I think they belong in terms of armor quality. If one piece of armor looks dramatically better than another, then I’ll move it further down the table and leave gaps in between them. Seeing those gaps shows me visually where the progression of low quality armor to high quality of armor breaks down. That way I can know where to start concepting a new armor set to fit in and maintain that logical progression.

I have a five foot by five foot printout of this character tree on my wall. I refer to it constantly, put Post-Its all over it to give me notes, and I have a special template that I can paste new armor sets onto, print out, and cut out to paste individually into cells instead of replacing entire sheets simply because I updated one asset. 🙂

The biggest benefit of this character tree is to be able to see at a glance how many armor pieces are in the game, how many are completed, and how many are still in production. I can see how the different pieces of armor relate to each other visually, I can see what the name of that asset is, and I can rearrange it easily.

Seeing the entire series of character armor sets in the game was tremendously valuable and has helped me plan art production more effectively and keep track of things like never before. Having it ALWAYS on my wall instead of in pure digital form has been vital. It’s also helped me realize some mistakes I made in other areas.

One of the initial mistakes I made on the project was choosing exactly which armor set was what quality at the outset of production, and naming it that way. i.e.:

Human Male – Mythic Leather Armor 2

All the filenames would reflect that:

Human Male – Mythic Leather Armor 2 Helm
Human Male – Mythic Leather Armor 2 Boots
Human Male – Mythic Leather Armor 2 Body
Human Male – Mythic Leather Armor 2 Shoulders
Human Male – Mythic Leather Armor 2 Gloves

But if I place that asset on the tree, and it looks more Unique than Mythic, and I decide to move it, I have to rename it. You can’t call a Unique piece of armor Mythic! It gets confusing, and creates two names where there was previously only one. In the game it may be Human Male – Unique Leather Armor 4, but all the data still points to files that refer to Human Male – Mythic Leather Armor 2. That requires renaming the MAX file, renaming all the textures, renaming all the materials, re-exporting the model, then going through all the multiple data files and renaming everything and testing to see if it all still works. It’s HUGE pain in the ass.

I didn’t realize it was a problem until I started moving characters around on the tree and they took on drastically different roles than they were originally intended, even though they were called something else using the same terminology. So, in the interest of flexibility, I started naming the armor sets generic names like Cloth 1, Leather 2, Plate 3, etc. That way, the designation of quality (Normal, Unique, Mythic) is totally stripped from it and it can be shifted around easily. The filenames are also shorter, take less time to type in and are less confusing overall.

I never would have realized that if I didn’t have a way of visualizing all our characters and quickly rearranging them! Once you put them all together, the difference is incredible.

Other things I have added or will soon add to the character tree is a text readout of how many characters there are, how many are finished, and how many are still in production, how many color variations exist, and so on. I’ll also have small color-coded tabs on each piece to show what color variations exist for that piece of armor. There’s no reason to waste 10 cells on a single character in red, blue, green, purple, etc, when I can show the normal version and have small color swatches tell me exactly that while taking up less space. 🙂

I also have a version of the character tree for creatures, which organizes them by race (Orok, Mutant, Fade, Whisker, etc) and role (Melee, Ranged, Caster and Boss). It makes coming up with new monsters incredibly easy when you see one race missing a mage, or a giant bruiser!

I’m also going to develop the same type of visual progression for all our weapons. These constructs have been immensely valuable to me in doing my job better, and I’m still refining them.

Does anyone else work with data like this? If so, what other types of meaningful information might I include on these trees to help me direct better?

Learning In Progress #1: Sorting asset submissions

Here’s a peek into what I do day to day and the things I’m learning, from broad concepts to specific ideas. I don’t know how informative it’ll be, but I’d like to document it anyway.

I currently lead a team of 11 remote contractors, down from a peak of 14. Sorting out the data they send me is starting to get pretty tricky. The way I’ve BEEN doing it is by organizing them with a directory structure like this:

Bob Contractor
– submission01 (unique male leather armor 1)
– changes (helm modification)
– submission02 (unique male leather armor 1 fixes)
– submission03 (unique female leather armor 1)

The ‘changes’ directory is where I modify the file myself, save it, and send it to the contractor. I put it in a separate directory so I can better sort through the files I save myself, and the files the contractor sends me.

The main problem with the way I’ve set it up is that I get SO many separate directories under each contractor. I’m up to ‘submission30’ for one of my artists, and the sheer amount of files is overwhelming. Files can get mixed up sometimes and it’s hard to tell what the latest version of something is.

An idea I’m toying with right now is custom naming every file with a date prefix and dumping it all into one large directory. So it’ll look more like this:

Bob Contractor
(01-19-2007) File 1.max
(01-19-2007) File 1.tga
(01-19-2007 JJ) File 1 changes.max
(01-20-2007) File 1 fixes.max

It’ll all be in one directory, sorted alphabetically AND by date because of the filenames I gave them. Files I’ve sent back for changes have the ‘JJ’ flag, because those are the initials of my name. When I approve an asset, I already have to resave and rename the files and move them to the project directory, so giving them different filenames here prevents me from accidentally assigning textures to the model outside of the project directory (which gets ugly in the game). It fits in pretty well with my existing workflow, while also giving me a quick at-a-glance view of every contractor’s assets and the last time I received a submitted asset from them.

All I have to do to maintain it is, when I receive an asset submission, add the date onto the filename as I save the file to my hard drive (which I already do anyway, so it’s not an extra step).

I don’t know if this is the best way to do things, but it’s the best idea I have right now and I’m moving forward with it until I get a better idea. 🙂 Any thoughts or suggestions would be welcome.

[UPDATE] I talked to some more people about it and the most stupidly obvious answer eluded me — set up an FTP account, give my artists some basic file naming convention directions, and let THEM do it. No more sorting through old assets, no needing to rename everything… just let THEM take care of it. Problem solved! Can’t believe I didn’t think of it sooner, but I’m glad I asked around. 🙂 [/UPDATE]

How to ensure response to your email

I found this over on LifeHacker today and thought it was pretty sweet.

Here’s the direct article link: A Primer on Electronic Communication

Basically it’s a guide on how to guarantee responses to your emails. It’s a pretty good read and applies directly to the game industry and applying for jobs or contract work. It’s a good read.

Here’s a couple useful snippets:

Write a clear and descriptive subject line. The reason for carefully crafting the subject line is two-fold. First, you want to make sure your message is not filtered out by a program as spam. Second, you want to make sure the recipient does not delete your note manually, assuming it is unwanted junk mail.


State your reason for contact. Start out by explaining why you are contacting the person. If you have a more elaborate question, first just state the general motivation in a sentence and proceed with more details further down in the message. You want to get your point across quickly, before the recipient loses interest or thinks this is spam.

There’s a lot more in the article… go check it out!

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