[In the first in a new series, Gamasutra speaks to three major proponents of outsourcing at three different levels -- independent developer, major developer and publisher -- to discover the case for outsourcing and to what extent it should be applied in 2008. In the forthcoming second installment, Gamasutra will examine the issue from the perspective of the outsourcing companies.]
Whether a game developer relies on just a few assets to be created elsewhere or depends on contractors to complete the bulk of its production, outsourcing has become more the rule than the exception compared to just a few years ago.
Indeed, some developers -- like Wideload, Kuju and THQ, interviewed here -- consider outsourcing to be such an integral part of their corporate strategy that they have taken unusual steps to make their companies more than a little dependent on non-employees to help them meet deadlines.
Meanwhile, outsource companies are gladly accepting their roles as specialists who can partner with developers to save them money, increase flexibility in staffing, and create content with specialized skills that are complementary to those of their clients.
However, outsourcing is sometimes controversial in the developer community due to the perception that it might cause job losses in existing Western firms.
But the concept, as explained by proponent and Bungie co-founder Alex Seropian, is that it's the core design and execution that's maintained within the developer itself, and the lower-priority iterative work that is done elsewhere - leading to a different but still valid distributed model.
Indeed, at the Chicago-based developer Wideload Games, the importance of outsourcing rates a "10-plus," according to president Seropian, whose five-year-old company's business strategy was based on the outsourcing concept from day one.
"The fundamental part of our business model is that we have a core staff of full-time employees -- now numbering 25 -- which gets the extra manpower it needs to do all the production work from outside the company," Seropian explains.
"That means outsourcing all the art, animation, sound effects, music, voiceover, and even some of the engineering stuff. On our most recent game, Hail to the Chimp, for example, we had the help of 15, maybe 20 outside companies. Does that strategy work well for us? Phenomenally well!"
Consider the motion graphic interface in Hail To The Chimp that needed to look like a TV news program. The Wideload team believed that was a skill that didn't exist in-house and that it needed to go out and find.
Gamecock/Wideload's Hail to the Chimp
"We did a bunch of due diligence on motion graphics companies that did work for CNN and 20/20," recalls Seropian. "It just goes to show that some things are better left to outside experts."
Seropian believes that the primary benefit of outsourcing is not necessarily to save money but to best employ company resources in the most efficient manner possible.
"To me it makes no sense at all to try and hire 100 people, which takes a long time," he says. "And it's even harder if you're trying to hire the best of the best, especially here in Chicago which is a great city but isn't exactly the heart of the video games industry."
"So it's a big effort, a big risk, and at the end -- when you've completed production on the game -- you've got 100 people on the payroll and you only have work for five or 10. I'm sorry; that model is broken and it's not one we intend to use."