Outsourcing is becoming increasingly common in game development, with art being the most common target. It can save money, but it's tough to get right, and requires a lot of senior bandwidth.
Sam & Max (Telltale Games, Telltale Team) "Once we settle on which contractors we're going to use, even more time goes into explaining exactly what we need. Since the Sam & Max schedule is very tight, we don't have a lot of time to account for corrections or mistakes due to inadequate contractor talent or miscommunication. For example, we felt a lot of pain when a contract studio sold us an A-team, then once the contract was signed, gave us a B-team whose work fell short of the standards we agreed to.
"Communication became even more difficult when the contractors weren't local (we had some on the other side of the planet). When the contractor's workday takes place during the middle of the night for us, what would normally be a 10-minute conversation turns into a two-day exchange."
Due diligence is incredibly important in the case of contractors, but it's tough to foresee the A/B-team problem, which incidentally was also mentioned by the Stubbs the Zombie team. Speaking of which ...
Stubbs The Zombie (Wideload Games, Alexander Seropian) "We underestimated just how much time was required to manage contractor submissions. We knew it would be time consuming, but even with that expectation, the combination of art directing and art production was more work than we had time to do.
"We were short on producers and our artists were scheduled to produce content on their own. We didn't have enough bandwidth available for reviewing submissions in a timely manner. We realized too late that our production phase requires an intense focus on the work coming in from the contractors. Focusing our internal efforts on the contractor feedback loop should have been a higher priority for our art direction team."
Aspyr/Wideload's Stubbs the Zombie
Now we get to the senior management overhead. Without a team dedicated to managing contractors, a lot of work is going to go unused. Wideload now has a section of the team devoted to this, and subsequent production has reportedly been smoother.
The devil is in the details, but when we talk about "immersion," that's often the result of that particular Beelzebub. Running out of time in the polish phase often means a game that's rough around the edges, or which doesn't fall in line with player expectation.
Titan Quest (Iron Lore, Jeff Goodsill) "We always told ourselves that six months would be the right amount of time to balance and polish the game. With more than 30 hours of gameplay at each of three difficulty levels and entirely new technology, we needed all of that scheduled time and then some. Just balancing the skill system, with all the combinations of masteries and skills, not to mention the thousands of pieces of equipment with hundreds of thousands of variants, was going to be an epic task.
"In the end, we only had three months. Luckily, we were able to whip the game into shape, but we also had pages of polish feature suggestions that we simply ran out of time to implement."
The team had to compromise, focusing on the first half of the game, and letting polish of the higher difficult levels go until near the project's end. Not necessarily the best option for player retention.
Gun (Neversoft, Scott Pease, Chad Findley) "What's worse than a game that's too short? One that's too short and too easy. Due to a tight schedule and inexperience with the genre, we took a very simplistic approach to game difficulty, putting the standard 'Easy, Normal, Hard, and Insane' selection at the front of the game. Then we sat back and depended on the players to select the appropriate challenge level for their particular tastes. What the hell were we smoking?
"In the video game market, asking players to set their skill level before they've even played your game is a freaking naive way to go about it. ... our gut reaction to the reviews was that too many people played at the wrong difficulty level -- and it was our fault."
Though the Neversoft team focus tested the difficulty levels, choosing difficulty before playing is a daunting task for many players. This is another problem that more time can fix! But how to get that time is a much deeper problem.